Sunday, August 28, 2011

"On Truth and Lie in the Study of Christian Morality"

In the realm of the more empirical sciences, the last few centuries have seen Christianity in full-scale retreat. A whole host of what used to be fundamental claims have had to be thrown overboard by Christians themselves in order to keep their religion from being discredited completely- it has the feel of the work of Civil War era “sawbones” frantically lopping off entire limbs in order to avoid infection spreading to the core of the body.

Evolutionary biology, physics and cosmology have utterly destroyed the original biblical account of creation, forcing all but the most irrational believers (ahem...Ken Ham...) to recast the cosmological claims of the bible as metaphor. History and archeology have gradually undermined the claims of the Hebrew kingdom periods and have left the accounts of Jesus's life and supposed miracles in almost total doubt. Indeed, even the “mythicist” case arguing that there was no historical Jesus at all has been gaining ground in the last decade on the strength of re-analysis of historical evidence, going from an affectation of atheist cranks to a fairly strongly argued hypothesis (though I'm still not sold!).

The tools of sophisticated theology?

In those areas, then, where facts are continually accumulating and theories thus have at least some pressure towards improvement due to contact with those facts, we find the old “models” drawn from the Bible are losing out quickly and decisively. The claims in the bible simply don't match what we find when we examine the world around us.

However, this isn't nearly as much the case in the more abstract arenas of philosophy and ethical inquiry, at least until recently. Perhaps this is due to the fact that it's much easier to play games of language and rhetoric in these less empirically-bounded disciplines, combined with the fact that the insights of psychology and cognitive science (two currents that might help to keep the philosophical reveries from drifting into confusion) are both fairly new and extremely contentious.

Whatever the cause may be, the fact that William Lane Craig, an apologist for genocide and divine-command ethics, can stand in front of any audience and claim that only God can provide an “objective” moral standard without being laughed from the stage illustrates the point perfectly. I recommend reading the links in that previous sentence, and then comparing him with his argument that starts around 7:11 in this clip:

Simply unbelievable: an intelligent philosopher can argue that slaughtering defenseless women and children and taking young girls as rape-slaves is moral when God commands it in the OT, and then turn around and in front of a packed auditorium claim that there would be no way to know that rape was “really wrong” without God's injunction against it. I haven't seen as convincing a portrayal of split-personality disorder since Fight Club.

The entire debate with Austin Dacey is worth a watch. Craig fires his usual volley, presenting his “5 reasons” as if they made an interlocking case while trying to hide the many assumptions he slips in to paper over the gaps. Though Dacey can be a bit sleep-inducing, he makes some excellent points in his opening- points that Craig's rebuttal can barely touch. Of course, as usual, Craig's flow and clarity (as well as cute little tricks like not-quite-honest summaries of his opponent's positions!) makes him seem like the clear winner, especially to a casual viewer. No wonder Luke Muehlhauser over at Commonsenseatheism called Craig a “jedi master” debater (though one commenter mentioned that he's more of a Sith Lord!).

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Monty Mole Apologetics

Below is a short exchange I had with a Christian last week online- edited to remove identifying info for "Chris" the Christian, etc. It's a nice example of the back and forth hopping that happens when you confront most believers about their claims- as you can see Chris enters very strongly on faith but when the absolute silliness of pure subjectivism is pointed out tries to pivot to evidence. By the end there is essentially an admission that the evidence doesn't matter after all, anyway- it's back to subjective feelings as a backup.

I've been in much longer discussions with believers where they make this back and forth between faith and evidence many, many times as you refute them on particulars. Ever play that old arcade game Whack-A-Mole?

Chris: My thoughts: One knows that "God is truth" through the veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) experience of the Holy Spirit. Such a person does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and know with confidence that he or she is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God; that such an experience does not function in this case as a premise in any argument from religious experience to God, but rather is the immediate experiencing of God Himself; that in certain contexts the experience of the Holy Spirit will imply the apprehension of certain truths such as "God exists;" that such an experience provides one not only with a subjective assurance of truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth; and that arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for him or her who attends fully to it.

Yamazaru: Chris, I appreciate the clear way you laid out the argument but I think there are problems with it you might not see. Mormons think they subjectively feel God confirming the specific truth of Mormonism, Buddhists feel the same, as do adherents of almost every conflicting religious tradition. To say that subjective feelings can objectively confirm the truth of some fact about the way the world is opens a lot of really bad possibilities- I'm sure many SS officers felt a clear and powerful confirmation that Aryans were the flower of humanity and lesser peoples needed to be exterminated. If you think subjective feelings are ALL that is needed to confirm objective truth there's really no way you can argue against them!!

Chris: Hi Yamazaru. But, unlike Nazis and SS officers, I can show that my belief is true by presenting good arguments for its central

Yamazaru: Chris, the whole point of your longer post was that you don't need good arguments for the truth other than the subjective experiencing of the Holy Spirit. You said "such a person does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and know with confidence" and "such an experience provides one not only with a subjective assurance of truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth; and that arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for him or her who attends fully to it."

This could be said, more or less verbatim, by a Hindu fundamentalist in order to justify his killing of Muslims (to take one of infinite examples). So now you say you need extra evidence or arguments over and above this subjective feeling?? I agree, but that wasn't your earlier position.

Chris: Whoops, hit "send too soon". I meant to write that, by presenting good arguments, I can show my belief to be true; I don't need a subjective experience. While I do not think a person of faith needs to justify their faith to anybody--believer or not--I do think a person of faith ought to be able to explain and defend their belief. There are a number of philosophical arguments for the existence of God (Ontological, Moral, Leibnizian Cosmological, Kalam Cosmological, teleological), as well as scientific arguments such as the Standard Model (the "Big Bang") and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. My point in all this is that, were you to "confront" me, I would hardly cower and cry "faith".

Chris: Although arguments and evidence may be used to support the believer's faith, they are never properly the basis of that faith. For the believer, God is not the conclusion of a syllogism; he is the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob dwelling within him/her. How then does the believer know that his/her belief is true? Because of the self-authenticating witness of God's Spirit who lives within him. But how does one show this to be true? That's where, I think, supplemental arguments and evidence come in. I understand your point about people of other faiths, and if you want to talk specifics, you can email me. Anyway, great convo! Take care and good night.

Yamazaru: Chris, the idea that you could know truth only due to your subjective feeling of the “self-authenticating witness of God's Spirit” and evidence is only a useful tool to “show others” is problematic. You specifically said that “arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for him or her who attends fully to it”- so what good can any outside evidence ever do? How can anyone ever come to agreement to prove anything to anyone if one's subjective feeling can “overwhelm” all incompatible evidence? Again, that way lies nightmares- there's no way you could ever argue against any horrible violation of human rights since those committing the acts can simply cite their own “overwhelming” subjective experience that tells them that they're correct.

Of course, two posts back it seemed you were ready to drop this untenable argument, talking about all the outside evidence for your beliefs. If that were really the case, I think you'd have to confront the fact that the cosmological argument, design arguments, etc have all been very effectively refuted by philosophers and scientists. I would start with this simple video on the Kalaam argument (certainly the most “sophisticated” version of cosmological argument).

Unfortunately the Big Bang and thermodynamics don't provide any evidence at all that a supernatural being exists- check the work of Victor Stenger and/or Richard Carrier among countless others. More importantly, NONE of these very abstract philosophical arguments can prove any of the specifics of Christianity or any other religious tradition; at the very best, if they worked (which they do not) they would prove some completely unknowable “creator” who need not be sentient or even still exist. There's no way to get from here to there, so to speak. If that makes you think that perhaps the specific religious texts of the Bible can help here, the situation is just as bad- see the recent work of Bart Ehrman or Hector Avalos on how contradictory, unreliable and mistaken the Bible has been shown to be as a historical document.

So either evidence is needed to get to objective truth, or it's not. If not, welcome to complete relativism and nihilism. If it is needed, then every religion so far fails this "outsider test for faith."

Anyway, thanks for a civil and fun discussion, as you can see I love chatting about these things!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Answers in Peter Gabriel

A “hip” new video has been released by the fine creationist folks over at Answers in Genesis. It's a pretty lame piece, using breakneck pacing and repetition to try and hammer a few simple untruths into the viewer. The usual set of timeworn objections to evolution are trotted out, reworded so as to seem fresh: there is no known, observable process that adds new information to an organism's genetic code, and life has never been seen to arise from non-life. AiG thinks these claims are deadly attack dogs that will leave evolution in tatters, but they're closer to being a pair of toothless old chihuahuas barely able to drag themselves across the linoleum - PZ Myers euthanizes them here. But one thing that I think is important to note is the tightly bound, almost positivist model of science that AiG slips into the video. Check out the 00:35-00:47 mark:

Here they say evolution is “quite honestly in great opposition to science, that is, observational science, the kind of science we can test and repeat and use our five sense to understand.” It seems they've spilled quite a bit of internet ink trying to show that “operational” science and “origin” science are two different types of practice entirely. If something is not a finding of a repeatable, controlled experiment then it isn't operational science but rather this new animal, “origins” science, in which it's kosher (!) to cite a book of myths in lieu actual evidence. “Origins” science is, of course, not any science worthy of the name, and they only make breathing room for it by confining “operational” (which they also call "normal”) science to physics-style experimentation.

This comes down to yet another attempt by Christians to narrow science's definition (“experimental verification only!”), trying to securely fence it in so it can't escape to threaten Biblical truths which have already been presupposed to be true. This is a ridiculous notion that would exclude astronomy, paleontology, geology, history and the social sciences from being scientific. This same overly-narrow view of science is a problem with some positivist defenders of science, too. But it's important to realize that it's been a longtime aim of the religious to make sure that we don't take a realist view of science, one that sees it as the broad and flexible practice of using reason and evidence to investigate external reality.

After all, if we admit that, then the claim that a man came back to life after being executed in first century Palestine becomes open for empirical investigation, in other words open for a scientific historical investigation...and we can guess how badly that would turn out for Christianity!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Rick Perry's Circus

Recently watched a segment on this week's Rachel Maddow Show that was jam-packed with clips from the various evangelical ministers that are slated to speak at Texas governor Rick Perry's upcoming day of prayer and fasting. The guv's holy orgasmatron will be held at the Reliant Stadium, which will be just finishing up the July run of Ringling Bros. Circus. Perry better take care not to ruin his expensive ostrich-upper cowboy boots by stepping in leftover elephant shit. But enough about the fickle governor, who has in the last year moved from subtly supporting Texas secession to hoping to nab the Republican presidential nomination- the real spectacle at the event will be the all-star lineup of evangelical firebrands that Perry hopes will pray away America's problems.

Some choice clips are here in the Maddow piece, including C. Peter Wagner explaining that Japan has suffered recent disasters because the Japanese emperor has been having naughty nightime encounters with the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami. (Oops, sorry, remember that she's not really a goddess- she's a demonic creature of Satan, despite what the Japanese themselves might say about the matter. Gotta remember to reject other religion’s claims while defending one’s own indefensible notions!)

It’ll be very interesting to see what the national response to Perry’s event will be. Might be a good barometer of the extent to which the US evangelical community has been drawn even further to the right and how much more brazen they might become in publicly making their groundless theological declarations.

Unfortunately Maddow’s piece doesn’t deal much with my personal favorite member of Perry’s crew, the rotund and authoritarian John Hagee. Hagee, a staunch supporter of extreme right-wing politics in both the US and Israel, was a fixture of my life a few years ago- I would come home from work, pop on Trinity Broadcast Network just as his show was beginning, and alternate between laughing and crying as I listened to him while cooking dinner. Hagee authors a constant stream of End Times-related media intended to whip na├»ve heartland Christians into a reactionary frenzy with titles like “Financial Armageddon” and “Can America Survive? Ten prophetic signs that we are the terminal generation.”(These in addition to endless financial self-help and, humorously, diet books).

Lately, he’s glommed on to the fashionable myth of America’s "debt crisis” and has been including it as a new addition to his usual End Times death-instinct fantasies. The idea that we must “slash spending” or something bad might happen to the US is easily exposed as a longtime and very thinly disguised tactic to destroy social democratic(ish) programs like Social Security and Medicare. So, it looks like the fiscally “conservative” (read: rapacious) business class has found a new way to dupe the socially “conservative” (read: Christian) working class into serving their interests: tie the lies about the national debt crisis to End Times apocalypticism.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


A fellow sociologist (and friend!) reading my last two entries has suggested that I’m wrong to assume religion is a single monolithic phenomenon. He thinks that any given religious group’s material interests (say, the Church’s need to maintain power in the Middle Ages) are what we really need to analyze, and therefore it's material interests and not beliefs that make a religion “bad or good.” It’s a line of reasoning I’ve heard quite a few times before- and it shows an admirable flexibility of mind and willingness to take apart social objects and categories and see them as more complex than they look on the surface. Still, that dog won’t hunt. He won’t even come when called or refrain from wiping his butt on the carpet. Religion’s bad and good behavior stem from the same source, and that's what I’m really after here. Religion has a bad mechanism: the need to protect evidence-less beliefs and the social aims that follow from those unsupportable beliefs.

Restrictive and punitive sexual laws and standards, persecution and execution of agnostics/atheists/freethinkers, incitements to and justifications for wars and oppression, and stuffing science into the occasional straitjacket- even the most sympathetic person would grant that that the ol’ good time worship has played some role in these things. However, even when there's talk about the bad social policy that comes about as a result of a religion, it’s pretty rare for religion itself to ever be indicted for these painful wrong turns and obstacles to progress.

Many academics see religion as such a broad and differentiated thing that fundamentalist and liberal religions, or European and Asian religions, or past and current religions aren’t really thought to be the same type of entity at all. Now perhaps this is an understandable reaction to 19th century secularists who, in attacking Christian woo-woo, tended to equate Christian woo with all the world’s woo. But it’s just as silly as wanting to ditch the term “society” because patterns of human social interaction have turned out to be much more variable than most 19th century scholars assumed. There is an underlying commonality across all religions, whether we’re talking the “Fetch the stakes and kindling!” or “Jesus-supported-modern-human-rights!” varieties. All posit some set of entities not backed up by evidence- God, or Jesus and angels, or tree-living spirits, magical energy that can make one area “cursed” and another “holy,” or a fanciful story of creation. These beliefs are the core of the religion and, being so vulnerable to rational inquiry, have to be protected from critical examination. This is the source of all the sweet ecstatic praise of “faith.”

As a result of the kind of argument suggested by my colleague, social scientists have a recurring habit of divorcing a religion's practices from the cosmic myths that are put forward as justification for those practices. Yes, the practices of any religion might very well have become widespread and institutionalized because they were useful for powerholders in society- any look at the discriminatory treatment of women supports that. But when the Waldensians pushed for the end of the Holy Roman tradition of the single village priest as sole interpreter and leader of village religious life, they were advocating a difference in social policy for spiritual reasons. For both parties the social structural change was the assumed aftereffect of getting the correct religious doctrine, and that is the field in which conscious debate took place- wrangling over interpretations of scripture, advancing reasons why God's nature is one way as opposed to another.

Neither the heretical sects themselves nor the Church argued at all on the grounds of what kind of social, material results would occur under one policy versus another. After all, that would be debating using potentially real and checkable facts, versus the simulated facts of religious argumentation. And that's why I speculated that these sorts of debates tend to degenerate from open debate to violence: if both parties are opposed to each other on the grounds of equally unsupportable beliefs there's no way to adjudicate between them within the debate itself.

For religious groups, protecting their material interests is bound up directly with protecting their core ontological claims. There’s countless examples of religious individuals and groups choosing to save the latter over the former (martyrdom), but any religion that completely goes in the reverse direction and gives up all of its unsupportable claims is no longer a religion at all.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Ex-lesbians and broken watches

Lisa Miller:
Hating vaginas, loving God/kidnapping

Quite a few fair-minded cosmopolitans want religious groups (and religious individuals) to be able to “come to the table” when society decides what laws to enact and live by. Fair enough, perhaps, but many bristle at the idea that those participating should have to give reasons for recommending the policies they put forth, and evidence for those reasons. No joke, sadly. I’ve seen people recommend that religious groups be able to recommend a policy on the authority of their sacred text alone.

Let’s take the recent example of this AP press story, detailing how religious supporters have helped “ex-lesbian” Lisa Miller stay on the run with her kidnapped daughter. Lisa, turning evangelical (and then Mennonite!), escaped the clutches of Sappho's ghost and tore her daughter out of her previous life and away from the girl’s other mother. Of course

Mennonite pastors and other faith-based supporters may have helped hide the two in Nicaragua and are now coming to the aid of one who the FBI says helped Miller.

What’s more, pathetic justifications of Miller’s kidnapping are being pushed by these groups. They maintain that Miller’s crime is an example of “civil disobedience” in honor of God’s law.

"When Isabella was about 18 months old, Lisa Miller realized the emptiness of her lesbian lifestyle, and her mother's instinct alerted her to the danger that lifestyle posed for her young daughter. She chose to leave that lifestyle, repented of her immoral ways, and began a new life."

Of course, whether you’ll agree that this justification really is pathetic will depend on whether or not you agree that there was a “danger” posed by being raised with a gay parent. And what, pray tell, could make you agree with that? All claims that being gay or being around gays or being raised by “teh gaiz” is dangerous have been shown to be lies or distortions (except, of course, the danger to LGBT kids and LGBT families posed by irrational discrimination!). So what evidence remains? God’s eternal word, by golly!

Of course, most well-mannered commentators will see this as an indictment of the kind of religion that discriminates against gays, and not religion itself. As the liberal Christians and faith-loving atheists might put it, “Lisa Miller has the wrong idea about Christianity/religion/spirituality!” Of course, how it is that they were able to determine that the correct interpretation just happens to coincide with our current standards of secular human rights remains a mystery. Certainly it’s not from examining the Bible- dancing happily through that text and declaring all the nasty, discriminatory bits metaphorical while maintaining that all the passages about love, unity and coming-back-from-the-dead are true is a common but clearly ridiculous practice.

It amounts to this: if we could push a button and all varieties of religion would suddenly have the “correct” non-discriminatory position towards the LGBT community, this would not solve our problem. Even a religion whose morality exactly matches our hard-won, modern ideas about human rights isn’t worth a damn as an ethical/moral guide because of the process it uses to arrive at those moral conclusions. Not discriminating against someone on the basis of who they have sex with just because God told you so and not discriminating because there is no reason to do so are two very different positions that might, for a time, appear the same on the surface. The religious position, however, has no reliable way to update those beliefs. Fifty years from now, when entirely new social questions come up, there’s no guarantee at all that the modern, rights-respecting religion of today will not be hopelessly out of date and thus support some groundless harmful position. Remember, many of the most progressive thinkers of the 19th century often believed all sorts of untenable, damaging bullshit from today’s viewpoint.

You look down at your watch and realize its hands stopped moving hours ago. Should you just adjust the hands to match the current time, or should you change the battery?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Heretics! Heretics!

Massacre of Waldensian children in
La Torre, 1655

Currently reading a great little book on minority groups in the Middle Ages: Sex, Dissidence and Damnation by Jeffrey Richards. Focusing on all the fun aspects of the Middle Ages; you know- lepers, heretics, homosexuals, jews, witches and sexual adventurers of all stripes. Basically all the groups that had trouble with giving mother Church what it wanted- total control over their minds and genitals.

The middle and late Middle Ages saw newly minted Christian sects popping up all around Europe, especially in south and east of France. The still hegemonic Catholic church was not amused. The major heresies of the period provide another nice example of how religious epistemologies are, at their core, fundamentally dependent on coercion and control of information in order to maintain their existence. Time and again the Church followed the same pattern when “dealing” with these heresies: first an attempt at open(ish) debate and “competition of ideas” followed by recourse to banning/killing/terrorizing their opponents when the debates didn't go their way or proved irresolvable.

It didn't matter that these competitors shared few attributes: some were stringent interpretations of the faith such as the Waldensians, who took the apocalyptic asceticism of the New testament seriously and denounced the bejeweled peacocks of the wealthy Church. After a short period of indulgence, the Church resorted to repression and execution of Waldensians and villagers that supported them, kicking off a few centuries of massacres. Others pushed the theological envelop until it was barely recognizable as Christianity. The Cathars, importing dualist and Gnostic ideas from Eastern Europe, held that the material world was the creation of the evil deity Rex Mundi (“King of the World”). The same pattern of attempted incorporation and persuasion transforming into slaughter followed. While the Waldensians survived clandestinely until the present, the Cathars were completely annihilated.

In each case, it looks like the really crucial point was that there was no way to decide the truth or falsity of the claims of any of the combatants. Of course the Church couldn’t battle and win against either of these sects in the realm of debate- how could anyone say one of these doctrines was true and the other false, when they’re all equally bereft of any evidence? Remember that unlike science, unlike any form of evidence-based rational investigation, religious claims are proud to proclaim that faith in the absence of evidence is one of the supreme virtues.