On Godless Theology
November 26, 2011

Guys, I dunno about this:

It’s important to understand that atheists scare religious people not because we’re different, in other words, but because our beliefs do literally threaten their own. We don’t simply present ourselves as another religious group whose beliefs can be kept to ourselves. We openly and unabashedly argue that religion is toxic and we’d like to see it end, just as we believe sexism and racism are toxic and should end.

My first thought on reading something like the above is that I must be pretty shitty at being an atheist. For one thing, I’m terrible at scaring religious people, even when I wear my black turtleneck and talk about how heaven is a lie and death is the end of existence. (It does not help that I am not a very intimidating dude.)

But then, maybe I’m not trying hard enough. I certainly don’t “openly and unabashedly” call for the death of religion, like good atheists are supposed to. That’s probably because I openly and unabashedly don’t care whether or not people believe in God.

Really, the whole New Atheist “death to religion” push seems like a case of misdirected priorities to me. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the history of Communism and watching The Big Lebowski, it’s that people don’t need religion as an excuse to do shitty things to each other. Religious people don’t even have a monopoly on banning abortion!

But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is that religious claims are false, and people shouldn’t be teaching their children lies as a means of controlling them. To that, I again say: “Eh.” It really depends on the character of the religious claim being made. People shouldn’t have to grow to adulthood thinking that the world is 6,000 years old and dinosaurs died because they got left off the ark (the world is actually 8,000 years old, and dinosaurs died because they were too awesome for this fallen world). But most religious claims — indeed, the most popular and important ones — are metaphysical in nature. They don’t concern facts in this world, but the other world. You know, that one.

You can call claims about that world “lies,” but I prefer to think of them as “fictions.” A lie is a verifiably false claim — false in the sense that it contradicts a fact. But what is the nature of a “fact” that takes place outside of the physical world? On what grounds do you call a claim about that world “false?”

The standard atheist response here is that such a world doesn’t exist. “There is something beyond the material world” is a false claim, and any subsequent claim that takes that one as a premise is also false. Which, sure, okay. The only problem with that argument is that most of the people making it don’t seem to really believe it.


The Gospel Of O’Reilly
February 7, 2011

I was originally going to write a long post refuting Bill O’Reilly’s claim that it requires more faith to be an atheist than not, but I decided not to. I’ve made that argument so many time that the thought of doing it again gives me the same feeling as the thought of doing my taxes. And whereas I’m required to do my taxes by law, I’m allowed to pass on knocking down dumb repetitions of ancient fallacies.

I will say this, though: I don’t get the attitude that compels people like O’Reilly to insist over and over again that they have less faith than the average atheist. Isn’t faith supposed to be an awesome, transformative thing? I’m not one of the faithful myself, but I still appreciate the concept. Obedience to the tenets of the Bible without it — or with a cheapened, diluted version of it — sounds like kind of a hollow experience to me.

But of course, true faith is difficult. The people I know who have true faith and are honest with themselves about it haven’t defeated doubt: they’ve committed themselves to an endless struggle with it. I suppose that’s where grace comes from. If that were O’Reilly’s position — if he wrestled with his belief and approached the subject with thoughtfulness and humility — I would admire him. But evidently he’s decided that faith is too hard and uncertainty too scary to look straight in the eyes. Better to just be ignorant.

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The Fallacies Of Atheism
December 22, 2010

Moral Enlightenment
Image by jurvetson via Flickr

Playing off of my last post, I think one of the worst intellectual traps the atheist can fall into is the shallow argument. Pretty much everyone has a natural bias to arguments featuring conclusions they happen to agree with, whether or not those arguments are totally sound. And when you take an uncharitable view to people who challenge those arguments, it can be hard to effectively judge their point against your own. So you end up with two fairly common fallacies among ardent atheists:

1.) Failure to distinguish between different religious claims. This one is the less common one. After all, these things should be pretty obvious: Not everyone who calls herself a Christian thinks the Bible is the literal word of God. Not everyone reaching for eternal reward thinks that faith in his deity is the only way to get there. Hell, some religious don’t don’t even think that God is omniscient, or interacts with the physical world in any observable way. I imagine if I were one of those people, I would be pretty weary of being conflated with Creationists.

2.) Overreliance on the argument from empiricism. Let’s talk about this guy:

I love this man. He’s a comic genius, and it’s great that he’s also public about his atheism in a thoughtful, articulate, non-dickish manner. But in his recent column on why he’s an atheist — the one all of my atheist tweeps keep linking around — he makes the appeal for atheism from science. It’s a popular argument, but it’s also a bad one.

The problem with the argument is that it takes multiple arguments and collapses them into one, in a manner not unlike the first fallacy. It confuses empirical claims with metaphysical claims. Science, of course, is only interested in the former.

The difference between an empirical claim and a metaphysical claim is the difference between saying, “Egypt suffered a plague of locusts,” and, “Egypt suffered a plague of locusts because a divine intelligence was displeased with the pharaoh for keeping the tribe of Israel enslaved.” The first one is definitively true or false, and you can look at evidence in the real world to make a judgment one way or the other. That’s where science comes in. But as far as divine intelligences go, science has absolutely nothing to say. You can’t measure or quantify a mind. You might be able to track physical phenomenon that are correlated with what one might want to call a mind, but science can’t help us make that determination.

(Aside: This cuts both ways, of course. You might witness something you want to call a miracle, because you see no logical explanation for it. But the fact that there is no explanation that science can currently afford us does not mean you can make any definitive metaphysical claim about the event. As the analytic philosopher of logic A.J. Ayer would point out, the solitary fact that the Red Sea miraculously parted does not mean that God did it — not unless your definition of God is solely, “that which parted the Red Sea.”)

My point isn’t that these questions have no definitive answer. My point is that this reliance on science to explain everything is cheap and intellectually lazy. Any argument over the existence of God has to take metaphysics into account as a discipline entirely separate from empirical observation.

That means taking the other philosophical problems of a godless universe seriously as well. For example: If there is no God, do we have any reason to believe that there are actions or consequences that are good and bad independent of our feelings about them? What is good? Do we have any reasons to be good? What’s the point of doing anything, really?

These questions don’t have scientific answers, either.* And all we accomplish by pretending that the answers are easy or obvious is to make ourselves willing accomplices in our own ignorance. Instead, I find it more helpful to see these questions as a gift to atheists: the universe is far more ambiguous without a God to tell us right from wrong, but it’s also full of so much more mystery and wonder. We squander that gift when we dismiss challenges to our premises out of hand. Better to find out what clues believers can bring to the hunt.

*Of course, some prominent atheists, most notably Sam Harris (pictured), disagree. Sam Harris is wrong.

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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?

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.

Nietzsche Blogging: Thus Spoke Thus Spoke Zarathustra
September 20, 2010

I’m not sure I have much to say about the fourth and final part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as much of it seemed to be a restatement and summary of what came before. It was certainly the funniest of the four parts by far, and there’s a reason for that: as Zarathustra comes to accept the eternal recurrence and inches closer to ultimate enlightenment, he begins to truly live his philosophy of laughing at and making a mockery of the world. He is willing, finally, to laugh at himself.

Indeed, the latter half of Part Four unfolds as a drunken celebration in his cave along with the higher men who all represent steps towards the Overman. Notably, a priest is in the group, and Zarathustra goes so far as to explicitly endorse spiritual ritual and observance for therapeutic and social reasons.

Only about 250 pages left to go in The Portable Nietzsche.

False Promises
September 19, 2010

Image via Wikipedia

While this intriguing profile of Rhonda Byrne, the woman behind The Secretconnects it to the so-called New Thought movement of the 19th century, Byrne herself is apparently fond of tracing her creation back to far more venerable roots.

“The Secret” was released around the same time as the film version of “The Da Vinci Code,” and it was cleverly packaged as a historical mystery. There are lingering shots of faded cursive script on parchment paper, often accompanied by pounding drums or wordless choirs, and Byrne talks about “tracing the Secret back through history,” revealing all the great thinkers who have harnessed its power. (According to one title card, “The Secret was suppressed,” though we never learn how, or by whom.)

Squint and tilt your head, you might find some skewed semblance of truth in the advertising. The Secret isn’t the product of some secret, ancient truth; but it is the latest incarnation of a very old, very human fallacy.

Almost all forms of mysticism and superstition are rooted in the idea that your thoughts and perceptions have a sort of heft and magnetism whose influence extends far beyond your physical body. The universe orients itself around your thoughts. Capital-T Truth is an easy, unambiguous thing, and if you don’t have immediate access to it, you at least know exactly which road you need to walk down to get there. Make no mistake, it is a definite destination—and once you arrive, there is no limit to your ability to satisfy your own needs.

(Aside: You can even see this sort of reasoning in non-mystical conspiracy theories, in which every piece of evidence points to one grand, horrible, blessedly unambiguous Truth. Those who know this Truth are the noble, virtuous ones who, by way of their secret knowledge, have found an anointed cause: to get the truth out and eliminate the source of a large share of the world’s evil.)

In other words, this school of thought—which we might call a meta-school of thought, since it encompasses the greater part of all human philosophical, spiritual, and even political traditions—gives a promise. It promises the end of pain and confusion. And what makes The Secret so fascinating is that it’s a mish-mash of all of these prior traditions rendered down to its base components. It’s the same racket that’s been on the market for millennia, but so stripped-down that it’s compatible with all prior models.

You can’t blame anyone for wanting to retreat into this kind of thinking. We’re neurologically hardwired for it. But I’m afraid that pursuing illusory promises of the end of pain and confusion will only cause it to metastasize. Better to recognize these things as ineradicable pillars of the human experience, and allow ourselves to feel love for that experience. Better to embrace, contain, and utilize.

(Aside: For another example of a powerful contemporary movement in the United States which fulfills much the same role as The Secret but with a militant political bent, please see a recent column of mine on the subject of Glenn Beck-ism.)

On Terry Jones and Burn a Quran Day
September 10, 2010

I have a new Salon column up about the maybe-canceled-maybe-not Burn a Quran Day:


Pastor Terry Jones might not be an expert in theology, politics or basic human decency, but he more than compensates with media savvy. He can wring every last drop of press attention out of even a retreat, as he demonstrated last night when he announced the cancellation of Burn a Quran Day and then, not four hours later, issued a semi-retraction, claiming that he’d been misled (those sneaky Muslims!) and suggesting he might still burn some Qurans after all.

As I write this, the fate of Burn a Quran Day is still up in the air, but my guess is it probably won’t happen. Instead, Jones will soak up another news cycle or so of sweet, sweet infamy, before publicly declaring that he’s holding off “out of respect for the troops,” whom his actions could endanger. The career Muslim-haters who previously called him out for going just a teensy bit too far will thank him profusely, leaving open the door to future friendship, interviews and well-paying speaking engagements.

But even if my prediction turns out to be completely wrong, the leaders of the right-wing’s anti-Muslim brigade nonetheless owe this man a fruit basket. He may not have sparked the recent explosion of Islamophobia, but he’s done as much as just about anyone to drag it into the mainstream.


The rest is here.

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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