Devout Christians: Not So Easy To Caricature
April 21, 2011

Jamelle Bouie brings us the surprising news that a not insignificant plurality of Americans believe that capitalism and Christianity are in conflict. Here’s the graph:

What’s even more surprising is that the number goes up, not down, when you narrow the sample size to Christians only.

I can’t comment on how well the view of Christianity as an anti-capitalist philosophy tracks with the textual evidence in the Gospels, but I will say that numbers like this complicate the argument that popular religion is little more than a form of ideological control used to the benefit of the ruling party. It turns out majority religious views in the United States are not so easily caricatured.

So why do so many atheists waste so much breathe dueling with strawmen? When it comes to the New Atheists, I don’t think we can entirely rule out an economic incentive: the more inflammatory the claims, the more press attention they get. But commerce is surely only a very small part of it. I think atheists are also internalizing what the right has known for awhile: martyrdom is seductive. As much as it makes us rend our garments, it just feels good to be one of the few sane people defending capital-T Truth from the violent horde. Hell, martyrdom is what helped popularize early Christianity in the first place — though, in that instance, Christians were literally being martyred.

I don’t mean to be glib. I understand this intuition that nonbelievers are under attack from all sides, I really do. Certainly there are vast swaths of America where it’s prudent to conceal your lack of faith — and that includes virtually every level of elected federal office. It’s also true that many of the more vehement atheists I know lost their faith while growing up in regions and families where non-belief was simply not an option. It’s natural to feel besieged under those conditions, but calling people of faith either con artists or dumb rubes is no less unfair than suggesting that atheists are morally deficient.

And besides, as I’ve said before, name calling gets boring real fast compared to the sort of debates we could be having. For a good example of the latter, check out Matt Yglesias here. Even if you think the metaethical grounding for Christian values is complete fantasy, scrutinizing it helps us finds new ways to think about our own moral foundations. And it can have some surprising or counterintuitive implications, like the poll results at the top of this post.

Which, as I’ve said before, are fascinating for all kinds of reasons. This is just an aside, but I can’t help but wonder now if American soil isn’t ripe for some kind of Red Tory or Christian socialist movement (albeit by another name in the latter case).

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Thanks for your response to my last question. Did Kant's a priori have any influence on how Christians perceive their God? For instance, everyone (to my knowledge) in the old testament perceives God through one of the five senses, however I doubt all Christians still claim to experience their God that way. I would ask a Christian this, but I live in Vermont so no one I know is religious.
October 8, 2010

Well, I’m really the wrong person to ask if you’re looking for the opinion of a Christian. But most of the accounts I’ve heard and read from other Christians tend to rely on some sort of a posteriori evidence, be it an external event they’re convinced was caused by God, or just the sensation of His presence (I’m calling this a posteriori because these folks have the phenomenological experience of some external force acting upon them, regardless of whether or not that is actually what’s going on).

On the other hand, maybe claims like, “I was lost until I found God” could be taken to be a priori, because it could mean that these particular individuals found within themselves, entirely through self-reflection, that lack which could only be mitigated by a divine presence. But then again, saying that you’re unfulfilled without God doesn’t imply the existence of God—it could just as easily mean that you’re doomed to be permanently unfulfilled. There’s another step somewhere in there.

So I don’t really know. The only truly a priori argument I can think of for the existence of God—in the Kantian sense, unless I’m mistaken, though this predates Kant—is Descarte’s proof. But Descarte’s proof is a total mess, and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to emulate it.

I guess I’ll open this up to the believers in my readership. Not just the Christians, but anyone who places faith in the divine. Are you basing that faith off of external evidence, personal reflection, or some combination of the two?

Nietzsche Blogging: Epilogue
October 5, 2010

Walter Kaufmann - The Portable Nietzsche
Image by lungstruck via Flickr

Looks like we sort of trickled off at the end there, sadly. But I thought this whole project deserved some sort of formal conclusion anyway.

So anyway, I’m done. 686 pages of Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufmann, and late last night I passed the finish line. Some of it was quite the slog, particularly near the end, and part of my reason for not writing about it was that I simply didn’t want to inflict the dying Nietzsche’s madness on you. It’s not hard to see where it overtakes him—the past 100 pages or so of The Portable Nietzsche are extended rants and eviscerations of targets that seem unworthy of such bile. The Antichrist has its moments of brilliance, but mostly it’s a long, repetitive stream of anti-Christian bile. Nietzsche Contra Wagner becomes a little bit more than what it sounds like in the last few pages. And the last five pages or so of the collection are Nietzsche’s nearly incoherent ravings to his friends and loved ones.

But what came before—as you can see from paging through the archives of this blog—was awesome stuff. Nietzsche’s prose at its best is both wry and epic, his philosophy both deeply felt and rigorously reasoned. And yet his positive philosophy isn’t what affected me the most, but his counterarguments; I think Nietzsche’s greatest contribution to the philosophical tradition is how he takes a sledgehammer to anything he sees resembling a preconceived notion. The man was many things, but first and foremost I think he was the enemy of conviction.

That is a deeply important project, and one worthy of an intellectual giant. And while I can’t bring myself to sign on with much of Nietzsche’s metaphysics or ethics, I will grant him this, which is that he has left me with one strong, overwhelming conviction: that neither I, nor anyone else, will ever have a conviction that does not deserve being assaulted with as much burning ferocity and cold reason as we can muster. This comes not from contempt for belief, but respect—because a good, strong belief should be able to withstand any siege. And we do ourselves a disservice by not constantly pursuing the best beliefs.

Coming soon: Now that Nietzsche Blogging is over, get ready for Wittgenstein Blogging! This time I’ll have a collaborator: my dear friend Peter and I are going to be combing through all seven propositions of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus together, one at a time. Our first posts should be up later this week.

How could a Deity display its omnipotence?
October 4, 2010

Wow, that is … a very difficult question.

I think this question might actually be a good example of why the concept of an omnipotent being is logically incoherent. It’s sort of a variation on the old, “Could God make a boulder so heavy he couldn’t move it?” question. Presumably, an omnipotent being would have some way of conclusively demonstrating His omnipotence, but the manner in which He would do so eludes me.

Certainly, none of the miracles in the Bible could, in isolation, be taken as proof of omnipotence. As the Oxford logic professor Alfred Ayer points out in Language, Truth and Logic, verifiable phenomena demonstrate only themselves, and not any metaphysical properties you might want to associate with them. So, for example, if we had definitive proof that the Biblical parting of the Red Sea did, in fact, occur, and that there was no other readily available naturalistic explanation for that phenomenon, you might be tempted to say that it was a miracle and proved the existence of God. But all that it really proves is that there exists something we don’t yet understand which caused something else to happen. If the word “God” is exhausted by the definition “that which parted the Red Sea,” then yes, its existence is undeniable. But it doesn’t follow that this entity is omnipotent, or even sentient.

So perhaps the only way to directly experience the existence of an omnipotent God is to be that God.

The Art of the Religious Narrative
September 24, 2010

Via Alyssa, here’s a trailer for “the Christian Movie Event of the Year,” whose chief selling point seems to be how it effortlessly fuses self-righteous didacticism with the wooden, dull-eyed imitation of life we normally associate with the walking dead:

This is really the latest offering in a whole cottage industry of truly artless, half-assed religious propaganda. Of course these heavy-handed conversion narratives are nothing new—nor are they limited to Christianity, or even religion—but this specific subset of evangelical porn truly is a trend unto itself. A trend starting, I think, with the Left Behind series, and branching out into Twilight (which, to be fair, is a good deal more subtle about it) and less well-known works like Fireproof.

There’s a lot you can blame for the general suckitude of this subgenre—semi-comatose actors, cheap production values and so on—but I think the fatal flaw here is that the whole enterprise is misguided. You simply can’t craft a compelling narrative based around a central philosophical question—Should we let Jesus Christ into our hearts?—when you’re already so thoroughly persuaded of the answer that you can’t even come up with any reasonable objections.

Take the above trailer as an example. The protagonist seems to have no dilemma whatsoever: everyone around him confirms that God exists and is awesome, and the big guy Himself conspires to align everything so that conversion to Christianity is the best possible choice. No cost, all reward. That’s propaganda, not art.

It’s a bummer, because we know for a fact that deeply religious narrative art can be done well. Example A: Dostoevsky, arguably history’s greatest practitioner of the philosophical novel. Crime and Punishment ends with Raskolnikov finding spiritual salvation, but the road he takes to get there goes through some dark, unabashedly nihilistic territory. And Dostoevsky takes that nihilism seriously. Raskolnikov’s initial worldview is twisted, to be sure, but it’s also coherent and strangely compelling.

(Another good example, also courtesy of Alyssa: In Paradise Lost, Satan is pretty much the most interesting and sympathetic character in the whole damn poem. Milton’s no Satanist, but he cares enough to show us why the Lord of Darkness might feel like he has a legitimate beef with the Lord.)

For a more contemporary example of how to do this stuff correctly, look at the TV show Kings, a prematurely cancelled revisionist take on King David’s rise to power. In the show, God is inscrutable, demanding, and seemingly morally ambiguous. Though of course we know that He’s going to be revealed as right in the end—He’s God, after all—we also understand why King Silas, long His faithful servant, struggles with the urge to fight back against His divine will. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Silas ends up being a far more compelling character than David, the show’s ostensible protagonist. (Though that could also have a lot to do with the fact that Silas is played by Ian fucking McShane.)

The irony is that where Left Behind and its spawn fail—and Dostoevsky and Kings succeed—the Bible succeeds as well. Jesus has his moment of doubt on the cross. Abraham is told to murder his own son, and later actually negotiates with God in an attempt to prevent the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah. Jacob—the founder of the tribe of the Israelites—is named Yis’rael, or He Who Wrestles With God.

What makes these stories compelling isn’t that they involved square-jawed men doing the will of an infallible being. It’s that the heroes, before they carry out God’s will, must first struggle with epic spiritual questions that A) do not have easy answers and B) have unimaginably high stakes. As an admitted outsider, I have way more respect for the long, hard, seemingly endless road to spiritual peace than the quick and easy medicine with a spoonful of sugar. It’s more honest, it’s more nuanced and interesting, and, most of all, it makes for a way better story.

A Panopoly of Wonder
September 7, 2010

This post from All Things Shining ends on a fascinating note:

The book is predicated in part on the idea that the death of God is the death of this sense of the unity of all wonders.  Not that certain individuals can’t feel it, but that it is no longer a background assumption of the culture.  As Heidegger says in “The Question Concerning Technology,” this is the most extreme danger.  For it initiates the possibility that we will no longer experience ourselves as receptive beings at all.  (Long story about why.)  But if we get in the right relation to this danger, experience it as a danger, then it becomes a saving possibility as well.  For it reveals a genuine plurality of wonders that is even better than the plurality Homer’s Greeks experienced; a “new beginning” that is not the same as their “first beginning”.  For the Greeks the plurality of wonders came with a felt temptation to unity, a temptation they were eventually unable to resist.  But that temptation is now closed off with the death of God, so our saving possibility, if we take it up, will put us in a genuinely different place than the Greeks.  Anyhow, that’s the idea.  But the worry is that it’s based on a distinction that is too clever by half.  That’s as far as I’ve gotten so far…

I haven’t read “The Question Concerning Technology,” but I believe Dylan Matthews has. He can probably evaluated what’s going on in this passage better than I can.

In the meantime, I’m intrigued by Professor Kelly’s use of the “death of God” concept here. The contours of my argument were different, but I have previously argued that modern society has a very real “God is dead” problem.

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How Not to Read Nietzsche
August 29, 2010

Cover of "The Portable Nietzsche"
Cover of The Portable Nietzsche

As I’ve mentioned before, I purchased my copy of The Portable Nietzsche at Niantic, CT’s wonderful used bookstore The Book Barn. The book’s prior owner—S. Pritchard, according to a note on the title page—took a lot of notes in the margins, notes which I was hoping would provide insightful commentary on some of the more difficult passages. No such luck. S. Pritchard’s notes are easily the most frustrating thing about my reading experience so far, and only useful insofar as they are an excellent primer in how not to read philosophy.

From S. Pritchard’s notes I gather that he is a committed Christian, which means that there’s much in Nietzsche for him to disagree with. If S. Pritchard were interested in a challenge to his beliefs, then his problems with Nietzsche’s philosophy would make for far more interesting notes, not less. After all, Walter Kaufmann, in his excellent introduction, advises the reader to allow Nietzsche to challenge him. While the philosopher’s arguments often challenge some of my most deeply held convictions, I can’t imagine how much more frequent the challenges would be were I a person of faith.

In a way, it makes me envious of the devout Christian who dips into Nietzsche for the first time. The philosophers you disagree with the most often yield the greatest rewards, but only if you’re willing to give their position the most charitable reading you possibly can. When it comes to your own philosophical development, the harder an argument you disagree with is to refute, the greater its riches.

S. Pritchard squanders those riches by being extraordinarily uncharitable. In his notes on the title page he accuses Nietzsche of “emotional perversity” and “philosophic nihilism.” The first charge is a bad faith ad hominem attack, and the second should appear obviously untrue to anyone who’s even skimmed the book, let alone taken notes on it. Nietzsche describes himself as having “a more severe morality than anybody,” which, if not strictly true, is at least closer to the truth than the accusation of nihilism. Just because his moral intuitions do not align with ours does not mean he had none.

But S. Pritchard’s agenda—making himself feel more secure in his own belief by denouncing contradictory views—overwhelms his capacity to understand Nietzsche’s arguments, and even his capacity to mount coherent responses. Instead he contents himself with scribbling dismissive notes such as, “idolatry of reason.” Most egregiously, he writes “CONTRADICTORY” next to every single line in which Nietzsche refers to something or someone as “God,” even though he is obviously using it as a metaphor.

The irony of all of this is that S. Pritchard’s notes serve as evidence for a lot of what he is so quick to dismiss. Nietzsche, though probably not a humble man himself, strove to teach us intellectual humility by exposing how easy it is for our own arrogance to lead us astray.

Or, as he put it: “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”

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July 5, 2010

Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard. Based on a sketch...
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been meaning to write about Kierkegaard on this blog for awhile, both because he’s a direct predecessor to a lot of the people I’ve mentioned here—Sartre, Beauvoir, Heidegger and Camus, to name a few—and because I find the structure of his existentialist philosophy really prescient, if not necessarily all of the content (more on that later).

Kierkegaard believed that to be a conscious person is to be in despair. This despair comes from the inability to reconcile two opposing forces in your consciousness; he would say, in The Sickness Unto Death, that there exists an irreconcilable tension between necessity and finitude on one side, and possibility and infinitude on the other. Or, to put it another way: you are torn between your inescapable corporeal, biological nature, and your desperate hunger to ascend to a higher spiritual plane and unite with God.

Long-time readers can probably anticipate where I would take issue with some of the theological elements of that philosophy. But the concept of a dialectical struggle within each and every one of us appeals to me, and it’s an obvious antecedent to some more palatable (i.e. secular) existentialist concepts like Heidegger’s anxiety and Sartre’s views on facticity and nothingness.

But what interests me most about Kierkegaard’s despair is how he suggests with deal with it: through direct confrontation. By scrutinizing, confronting, and coming to understand our despair, he says, we ascend through higher levels of it. These heightened states of despair may be more painful, but they are also a higher level of existence, as someone in the upper echelons of despair is that much closer to achieving some kind of synthesis between the opposing forces with him him, and (according to Kierkegaard, anyway) establishing a personal relationship with God.

What interests me here is the idea that we must directly confront the things about ourselves and the questions about the universe that trouble us the most, even if doing so might be excruciating. Kierkegaard’s observations on how to try to avoid doing just that are even more astute—I’ll get to those soon.

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Evangelical Polytheism
May 20, 2010

Yesterday I noticed that Matt Duss of Wonk Room had tweeted approvingly a link to an argument you sometimes hear from opponents of right-wing evangelicalism.

Hussein Rashid writes:

As was pointed out at that time by multiple religious thinkers, by arguing that there were at least two Gods, Christian and Muslim, Christianists were following a belief system that was not monotheistic and was not in accord with the Gospels. Now the chairman of the Tea Party Express, Mark Williams, seems to have forgotten this basic point, writing that the Muslim God is a “monkey-god” and that Muslims are “animals of allah,” reports Zachary Roth at TPMMuckraker.

It seems that Christianists and Islamists share a bad theology in this regard. I want to extend Reza Aslan’s suggestion in How to Win a Cosmic War that what these groups share is the belief that all issues are inherently theological. To me, the logical conclusion is if their side is not winning, it’s because their God is being challenged by another God. If their God was truly all-powerful, their enemies should have fallen by now. The only rational recourse, then, is to break with the idea of monotheism and allow for other gods.

It’s no secret that the Judeo-Christian-Islamo cosmology can be traced back to its influences in various polytheistic and henotheistic faiths (notably Zoroastrianism and late-empire Roman mythology), but I don’t think what we see here is genuine henotheism. It’s more of a rhetorical stance, an attempt to get a rise out of Muslims through racially-charged mockery of their most basic beliefs. If pressed, Williams would likely argue that Allah isn’t really a god, but instead one of the countless masks that Satan wears.

Of course, the evangelical conception of Satan is suspiciously omnipresent, to the extent that I’d call the question of whether or not he’s a god a semantic distinction; he’s at least as powerful, if not more so, than many of Olympians. But within the internal logic of evangelical Christianity, it’s a distinction that matters enough for the right-wing evangelical to be unphased by the argument.

This is why I tend to be pretty skeptical of attempts to refute the claims of the more hateful strains of Christian fundamentalism by playing their rhetorical games. It’s not specific smears on other faiths like this that are the real problem; it’s the first principles of the people making them. That’s what we should be going after.

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