Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Blessed are the Cake Makers?

A judge in Northern Ireland ruled yesterday that Ashers Baking Company was guilty of discriminating against a customer by refusing his order for a cake bearing the words: "support gay marriage." The ruling has upset a number of Christians, including David Robertson, who has compared it to suing a Muslim baker who is unwilling to bake a cake depicting the prophet Muhammad. Although we in the West live in societies that prize free speech, the pursuit of happiness, and consumerism, cases like this one highlight the complex intersection of these issues and ideals that sometimes emerges to challenge our values.

Certainly it is problematic to legally force a person to violate his or her conscience. I would even go so far as to say it's unethical. On the other hand, there is also something that feels wrong with allowing businesses to discriminate however they please. It seems like those same values of freedom of expression and the pursuit of happiness that are often used to defend businesses should likewise come to the aid of consumers. Despite the confident assertions of its devoted emissaries, the free market will not right all wrongs and restore peace and tranquility to the universe.

That said, I want to set aside the topic of law and law enforcement for now and turn to a question that is of more interest to me in this "gay cake" debacle. Is it consistent with Christian beliefs for a Christian to refuse to bake a cake like the one ordered from Ashers Baking Company? Is this perhaps exaggeration in a similar way to how many American Christians feel persecuted when they are not permitted to go freely proselytizing wherever and however they like?

First off, I should make one thing clear. I am not a Christian myself, if the title of this blog hasn't yet given it away. I understand this is a touchy subject, then, with a non-believer talking about how Christians live up to what they profess. So let me say that I don't intend this to be an accusation of hypocrisy; more like a thought experiment of sorts. As I see it, there are some interesting nuances involved in this case that pose some questions - hopefully fruitful questions - about what it means to live in the way that a Christian claims to live. 

Why do I care, you might ask. I care partly because I think we aspire to some of the same things: to love others, do justice, and live humbly. And truth be told, I admire many things about the Christian message. I think grace, forgiveness, and charity are very worthwhile pursuits, and I think they play a large role in giving purpose to our lives. Yet I also care because I try to take notice of when those pursuits become empty symbols rather than meaningful and motivating forces. As someone who values love, justice, humility, grace, forgiveness, and charity, I want to pay attention to where disconnections occur, in order to be more aware of my own susceptibility.

When Christians tell me of the wonderful things their faith has done for them - how it's made them more compassionate, more patient, more hopeful, more peaceful, more caring, more blessed - I sit up and listen. When they say how it's transformed their lives and made them a new person, I can't help but smile, and some bit of me even wants to cheer them on.

But there is no love when I look at how a good number of Christians are reacting to this ruling on the Ashers bakery. There is no grace extended, no charitable will in serving another, no appreciation of forgiveness that might instill humility. There is no real cry for justice, only for a one-sided defense of discrimination.  Self-entitlement, rather than self-sacrifice, seems to be the order of the day. I don't see transformation or rejuvenation, nor do I see Christ-like behavior, I see all the hallmarks of the "fallen" and "sinful" past they say was left behind when their savior redeemed them. Anger, selfishness, bitterness, resentment, fear, arrogance. I see shining examples of what I don't want in my own life.

The Bible doesn't actually endorse anything like freedom of speech or freedom of conscience. Many of the Old Testament commands prescribed death by stoning for those who might have a different way of doing things. For worshiping other gods (Deut. 13:5-10), for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16), for adultery (Deut. 22:23-24), for disobeying your parents (Deut. 21:18-21), and for breaking the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-56), you were to be killed. In the New Testament, Jesus warns his followers, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword," and predicts that his message will divide families against each other (Matt. 10:34-36). Those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit, he says in Luke 12:10, will never be forgiven. Intolerance is biblical, you could say.

So what real justification is there for a Christian refusing to bake a cake supporting gay marriage? Note what the cake was not saying. It was not saying, "The maker of this cake supports gay marriage." It was not saying, "Gay marriage is biblical."  It was not saying, "God loves gay marriage." In that respect it is nothing like Robertson's poorly thought out analogy to a Muhammad cake, since the actual equivalent would be a cake blaspheming Jesus - not even close to what was really requested. The ordered cake would've said simply, "Support gay marriage," in the same way we see campaign flyers everywhere urging us to support one or another candidate for public office. It was perhaps a suggestion to others, but most of all it was to be a statement of the beliefs of those who ordered it. In our capitalistic Western society, especially in this age of mass production, there is a general understanding that what craftsmen and employees make isn't necessarily something they wholeheartedly endorse, or even like at all (if you've ever worked at a food place you'd never eat at, you know exactly what I'm talking about!). To suppose that making the cake in question would have been any sort of reflection on the Ashers bakery is practically ludicrous.

Well, except for one thing. It would have said the bakery cares most about meeting its customers needs. It would have said they act out of diligence and service rather than personal interest. It would have said they know the impact a kind gesture can have, especially on those who know you feel differently. It seems to me it could have been a great opportunity to show that selfless love of Christ that I've heard so much about from Christians in my life. Instead, the decision to refuse the order only communicated that, "my beliefs are more important to me than you are."

"There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy," reads James 4:12. "So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?" Paul cautions his audience in Romans 2:1: "you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things." Similarly, Jesus says in Matthew 7:1-2: "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get."

Is it passing judgment on someone to refuse to bake a cake for them? The reasoning behind the refusal is, as one Christian has told me, to keep a clear conscience by abstaining from participation in an event 'celebrating' gay marriage. We've already disputed some of these concerns, but the bigger point is that such a basis for refusal is still an instance of judging your neighbor. You think gay marriage is wrong. You feel you have the right to protest why you think it's wrong. You feel you have the right to specifically protest it to the person who orders the cake from your store. Somewhere along the line there, from step 2 to 3, a personal belief turns into a judgment cast on another person. In essence, what the Ashers bakery was saying was, "What you are asking me to do is wrong, so I'm not going to do it."

Of course, the real kicker is that the Bible certainly has not a thing to say about the ethics of baking a cake with some words about gay marriage on it. The wrongfulness is about more than the cake, it's allegedly about what it represents, and therein lies the catch. The Ashers Baking Company felt obligated to not just refuse to bake a cake, but to protest a sexual orientation and "non-traditional" form of marriage to someone who believes in it and is perhaps living it. That is judging your neighbor, plain and simple.

Some may try and argue that judging others isn't actually wrong for Christians. After all, there are passages in the New Testament that basically address how to judge and deal with the behavior of members of the church. Yet these passages are quite a bit removed from the situation with the Ashers bakery. Internal ecclesiastical maintenance is a different beast from serving customers as a business. It's also unconvincing to suppose that making a cake with a pro-gay message is anything like guilt by association, and it's a far cry from being in a homosexual relationship yourself. So while the Bible itself may denounce homosexuality, that fact alone can't be of terribly much help in as complicated a situation as this "gay cake" ruling, and the Bible likewise denounces judging others, as we've seen.

Can a Christian consistently show the love of Christ in serving others and still maintain their conscience by declining to do something supportive of a cause which they believe to be sinful? In theory, yes, of course. But conscience is a tricky and convoluted field of emotions and thoughts and reasons, and sometimes it is used as an excuse to prevent further introspection into one's beliefs. This is particularly odd in the case of Christianity, a religion that teaches that our human faculties, including our conscience, have been corrupted by sin. It's not uncommon to hear opponents of gay marriage argue against resting an opinion on the subject on what one conscientiously feels, but in this case conscience is interestingly brought front and center. Might it be that this is an instance where conscience can be deceiving for some of us?

Would Jesus bake a cake he disagreed with? If the question seems silly, perhaps the objections to it are silly, too.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

5 Things People Think the Bible Doesn't Say (But It Does)

An author at Cracked has recently written up a nice list of 5 Stories Everyone Assumes Are In The Bible (But Aren't). There are quite a few such lists circulating on the web, but part of what I like about this Cracked article is that it features more prominent and believable myths about the Bible, whereas other articles may tend to focus on sayings or colloquialisms that, in my experience, few people actually do confidently take to be found in scripture. In addition, some of the material that makes it onto certain lists is only missing from the Bible verbatim, though it is expressed in other ways. For example, a CNN blog post by John Blake claims that "God works in mysterious ways" is a phrase not found in the Bible, but comes from a 19th century hymn. While this is technically true, it's not hard to see how a passage like Romans 11:33 can be the inspiration behind such a phrase, where it says of god, "How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" (NRSV) Inscrutable ways sounds pretty darn close enough to mysterious ways, I would say.

I think the real point in explaining what misconceptions we have about the Bible (or about anything, for that matter) should be in giving us pause for thought and causing us to re-examine our beliefs. This probably won't be accomplished by calling attention to things that are indirectly, and not explicitly, mentioned in scripture. Perhaps more importantly, we don't want to mislead others in what we say, no matter where we fall in accepting or rejecting claims to biblical authority. So, with that in mind, I've decided to present a list of my own, one with the opposite focus of the Cracked article, on some of the things people say are not in the Bible, but which actually are. For each of these, I will try to source the initial statement (what's allegedly not in the Bible) and justify why it is.

5. The Bible Doesn't Say Divorce is Wrong

Divorce is often an unpleasant outcome of unpleasant circumstances in a relationship, and on top of this is the further exasperating question confronting many Bible-believing Christians: is divorce a sin? They may hear it affirmed by their fellow church-goers, by friends, and even by family. On the other hand, there are also those who insist that divorce is not a sin, like Lorraine Day, author of an article, What Does Jesus Say About Divorce and Remarriage? Why is divorce not sinful? "The best example is that of God Himself," writes Day. "God admits that He is a divorcee" (see Jeremiah 3:8). If it was not sinful for god to divorce Israel, how can divorce be sinful for us?

Curiously absent from Day's article is any reference to Malachi 2:16, where god says unequivocally, "I hate divorce." In addition to hating fags, figs, shellfish, and a lot of other things, god apparently also hates divorce. But if he hates it so much, why did he divorce Israel? Some explanation can be found in the surrounding context. Verse 14 reveals that god was witness to Israel's unfaithfulness. Jeremiah 3:8 makes this same suggestion, noting that even after god divorced Israel, Judah was not afraid, but still went and "played the whore." Thus, marital infidelity seems to have been god's reason for leaving Israel - a metaphorical way of saying that the Israelites strayed from Yahweh and worshiped other gods.

In Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus makes one exception for divorce. "I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." Here we find a possible distinguishing factor that explains why god's divorce of Israel was not sinful. Israel was knockin' boots with other nation's gods. Yet in Mark 10:2-9 divorce seems to be ruled out altogether:

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."

Jesus claims that because god created husband and wife to be joined as one, they are not to be separated. Previous provisions for divorce were only given because of the people's insistence (which is kind of a funny capitulation for the creator of the universe, if you think about it; whiny children getting their way from old dad). How does this fit with Matthew 5:31-32, cited above? One answer may be that even while Jesus says that divorcing someone for unchastity is not adultery, the real point is not that divorce is acceptable in that instance, but that such an unchaste person is already guilty of adultery! This is perhaps made more plausible by the fact that the passage comes on the heels of the teaching on adultery in Matthew 5:27-30.

"Well, Bob, you see, if your wife is already a-whorin', then you don't cause her to commit adultery. She was a ho befo'!"

Of course, this still faces the problem of contextualizing god's divorce. But the situation may be different for god for a couple reasons. First of all, god can drown hundreds of people in a flood, firebomb Sodom and Gomorrah, and yet we're commanded not to murder. What's right for god isn't necessarily right for us, the argument could go (or else there'd be a lot more discarded foreskins in the world). Second, it seems pretty clear we're not talking about divorce in the same sense for both cases. One involves two people supposedly preordained to be together, while the other involves god's covenant with a nation. It might be sensible to say that we shouldn't destroy what god has brought about, but I'm doubtful most Christians would say that god is eternally obligated to honor a covenant even when others are unfaithful. Doesn't being the creator of a contract entitle one to a bit of leeway? The difference is that, according to scripture, god creates the contracts for married couples in advance, so if he says they stick together, then that's that.

Nonetheless, god does say he hates divorce, and Jeremiah 3:8 makes it seem like he wasn't especially happy about divorcing Israel. Passages like Malachi 2:16 and Mark 10:2-9 strongly suggest that divorce is against god's wishes, and that it should not be seen as a "conditional contract" as Day describes it in her article. Even though 1 Corinthians 7 is often referenced as supporting divorce in some circumstances, it also says in verses 10-11 that "the wife should not separate from her husband" and "the husband should not divorce his wife." It's difficult to imagine how something which god hates, and Jesus teaches against, could be interpreted as 'not really wrong' on any worldview that prides itself on taking the Bible as authoritative.

Then again, there are a lot of ministers who don't seem to have read the warning against offending little ones in Matthew 18:6.

4. The Bible Doesn't Say to Obey the Government

In an article provocatively titled, Should Christians Obey Criminal Government?, David J. Stewart attempts to defend civil disobedience from a biblical perspective. Amidst a sea of paranoid conspiratorial remarks about the New World Order and Communism, Stewart states that "when a government is run amuck with crime, tyranny and injustice, we are not Biblically obligated to submit anymore." Railing against abortion, pornography, alcohol, fornication, and gambling, he subtly affirms that American Christians are not prohibited by their beliefs from rising up against the US government.

However, the passage quoted at the beginning of Stewart's rant poses a significant problem for his position. Romans 13:1 says (in the KJV here, since Stewart is a KJV fetishist), "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God." Note the last sentence. There is no power but of god, and the powers that be are ordained by god. It won't do to act like this only applied in Paul's time when Stewart treats all scripture as applicable to modern times. Even so, David tries to weasel out of things by referring to verse 3 of the chapter: "For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil." This, he argues, means that Christians only need to obey good governments. And, of course, good governments just so happen to include only those governments that receive the David Stewart Seal of Holy Hysterical Approval.

Consider what the government of Paul's time was like when he wrote Romans 13. The Epistle to the Romans has been dated to the late 50s, when Nero was emperor of Rome. Though there are reports of Nero torturing and executing Christians during his reign, these seem to come later, after the Great Fire of Rome around 64 CE. Still, there is reason to believe Paul was aware of the corruption of the Roman government when he wrote Romans 13. The Acts of the Apostles tells of a number of objectionable aspects of Rome in the eyes of early Christians, including Herod Agrippa I's claim to divinity (12:21-23), Drusilla ditching her husband for Antonius Felix (24:24-26), and it hints at Agrippa II's rumored incestuous affair with Berenice (25:13,23). Many of the things in Stewart's moral tirade against the US were going on in ancient Rome too, yet Paul was able to advise his fellow Christians to submit to the Roman authorities. It doesn't look as if Paul considered them too evil to be obeyed.

"Rome, who some Christians called Babylon? The guys who later killed a bunch of us? Naaah, they're alright. I mean, look at me. Am I bothered?"

It's also worth noting that Paul is not the only New Testament author to encourage obedience. In 1 Peter 2:13-17, we read the following:

For the Lord's sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Scholars typically place 1 Peter around the end of the 1st century, during the reign of Domitian, who was regarded as a tyrant by ancient historians like Tacitus and Suetonius, and was alleged to have persecuted both Christians and Jews. So how could the writer of 1 Peter urge his readers to "Honor the emperor"? The logic of this follows from the example of Christ, according to verses 21-23:

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.

Did the Roman government do wrong in executing Jesus, an innocent man? Part of what makes Jesus' silence before his accusers so admirable is that he was not guilty. We wouldn't find it particularly commendable for a guilty man to refuse to speak, especially if his word might incriminate him. 1 Peter 2 drives this point home, that despite the intentions of Rome, Jesus trusted god and did not resist. Paul says something like this in another way, observing that since all things are from, through, and for god (Romans 11:36), the logical consequence of this is that all governing authorities are instituted by god. This would have to include corrupt and evil governments. Otherwise, the implication is that god either had no ability to stop their rise to power, or he had no desire to do so, in which case it's hard to see how god was not willfully allowing a corrupt/evil government into a place of authority. And come on, god just let Canada exist even though they gave us Celine Dion. He is not a good god.

Stewart says in his article that to teach that Christians cannot rebel against any government is to "condemn America's founding father's [sic], who if they hadn't revolted, there would be no America today." In fact, this raises an important point, because even the biblical passages that appear to sanction civil disobedience only do so under very specific circumstances. Moses led the exodus after receiving a direct order from god. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow to an idol and were sent to a furnace where an angel delivered them. Herod asked the three magi to tell him where the infant Jesus was, and they did not do so. Two of these involve peaceful protest and at least one involves a face-to-face divine revelation. It's questionable how comparable these are to any situations today or 300 years ago, but note that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not said to resist being led to the furnace. There is nothing in scripture that is even remotely analogous to an armed rebellion against England on the grounds of unfair taxation, quartering of soldiers, and so forth. Fortunately for us in America, some of our most active founders, like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, were not Christians, and even held a well-known disdain for Christianity in their day (see Paine's The Age of Reason and the Jefferson Bible).

So why do some passages seem to make it okay for Christians to disobey their rulers? One explanation is that these passages come from different people living at different times who held different views on the issue. It's still true that Paul and the author of 1 Peter both instruct obedience to governing authorities, even if other texts do not. The question at this point becomes about what gets more weight in the Bible, which is too massive a subject to cover here. Another explanation might have to do with the nature of the different documents. Romans and 1 Peter are clearly written with the intent of advising other Christians on how to live. The stories in Exodus, Daniel, and the birth narrative of Matthew, however, are not written as instructional, their focus is on events and persons and places. Sometimes there may be moral lessons in the stories, but not every passage has them and the ones that do can involve careful exegesis. In the cases mentioned, there is no suggestion that these should serve as across-the-board examples of how everyone everywhere should behave. If these stories are not meant to give guidance on how to interact with government rulers, then they have been misinterpreted.

In sum, it may be true that the Bible as a whole doesn't say to just give up, give in, and accept whatever asshole is in charge, being grateful, like Hobbes, that you're no longer burdened by all that awful freedom you used to have before tyranny came to town. There are instances in scripture of people asserting their right to their faith in spite of government prohibitions. On the other hand, Romans 13:1 offers a tough problem on all this. If god is all-powerful and all-knowing, and he has set some sort of plan in motion, why doesn't this include the worldly powers that come to be? And if it does, then isn't it fighting against god's plan to disobey the rulers he has chosen?

3. The Bible Doesn't Support Redistribution of Wealth

This one is a favorite point of argument between politically liberal and conservative Christians. Many argue that the concern for social justice that is found in much of the Bible should be taken as support for governmental policies intended to help the poor and disadvantaged. Others, like Baptist seminary professor Craig Mitchell, claim that free markets are "far more compatible with biblical Christianity," whereas the redistribution of wealth is theft born out of the sin of covetousness.

"Help others? God wants you to help yourselves by helping me help myself to your money!"

As seen above, though, the Bible contains commands to honor and obey governing authorities, and it's not at all clear that such commands are meant to be 'suspended' whenever one's political opposition comes into power with a different take on economics. There is indeed a lot of teaching on social justice in the Bible, too, which seems like it should be regarded as more than just an optional, personal decision for Christians. The author of the Epistle of James writes:

Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? (James 2:5-7)

Ask a good number of conservative American Christians about the poor and you're likely to get an answer more in line with 2 Thessalonians 3:10: "Anyone unwilling to work should not eat." Contrary to James, the poor are not "chosen" by god, but are where they are in life because of their own bad decisions. However, the 2 Thessalonians passage is referring to the treatment of church members who had become "busybodies" in the author's day, being idle rather than working for the good of the community. In fact, rather than conflicting with the admonition in James 2, this seems to fit well with what the writer of that letter says elsewhere, that "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." (James 1:27) Those in the church who are more interested in looking out for number one than in caring for others and living the faith they've been taught have a "worthless" religion, says James.

The real kicker comes in Acts 4, where we learn about how the early Christian community saw wealth and possessions. "Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul," reads verse 32, "and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common." You can see this going over well with Americans who fear Obama taking their guns. Of course, when a church is stockpiling guns, you tend to call it a cult. "There was not a needy person among them," verse 34 continues, "for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need."

Wait just a minute. The early Christians had a communal fund where goods were given to each according to their need??! That kind of thinking is straight out of Marx! Yet Art Lindsley, vice president of theological initiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, claims that Acts 4 describes a communal giving that was entirely voluntary. "These early believers contributed their goods freely, without coercion, voluntarily," he says. Weeeeeell, there's just one problem with that.

Immediately following the verses in Acts 4 already mentioned, we get the cheery tale of Ananias and Sapphira. The couple sells some of their property, but "kept back some of the proceeds," only giving the disciples a portion of what they made. Do the disciples, being good free market capitalists, just stand for this? Do they wag the finger at Ananias and Sapphira, but otherwise let them be? Not quite.

"Ananias," Peter asked, "why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!" Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. (Acts 5:3-5)

Ouch. Shortly after this, Sapphira is brought in, also lies about what the two contributed, and falls down dead just like her husband. Somehow this is all voluntary, according to Lindsley, probably in the same way that accepting Jesus at the threat of eternal damnation is a "voluntary" decision.

Now, there's something to be said for the passages thus far cited only having to do with Christians and Christian communities. There isn't any direct encouragement that these ideas be adopted into government policies. But part of the problem with using this detail to dismiss any pro-redistribution argument based on scripture is that a large number of these same conservative American Christians believe the United States was founded on Christian principles. While I disagree with this view, it still implies that there's nothing really wrong with establishing a nation on biblical teachings, which in turn would mean that there's hardly a good reason to see Acts 4-5 as inappropriate for national policy. Modern American Christians may have a tough time swallowing this because they've grown up accustomed to capitalism, but other American Christians of the past were not so sold, including Francis Bellamy, author of the Pledge of Allegiance, and a well known Christian Socialist.

"One nation, under God, who will smite us on the spot if we don't give all our money to the community..."

A lot of Christians like to point out that the Bible never says money is the root of all evil, it only says "the love of money" is (1 Timothy 6:10). Though this is true, it kinda misses the point. Earning money may not be an evil in itself, but there is something fundamentally askew about professing a firm belief in a religious figure who said the way to eternal life is to sell all you have and give to the poor (Luke 18:18-25), and insisting that social programs are wrong in asking that we give some of what we have to help others. It seems very much like there is a whole lot of money-loving going on there, one might even call it coveting.

But just wait for the next edition of the NIV, where translators will suddenly remember that what Jesus actually said was, "sell some of what you have and give to the poor, but don't forget that you earned that money yourself and you're damn well entitled to it!" They can call it the Bootstraps Edition.

2. The Bible Doesn't Condemn Homosexuality

Frankly, this opinion is one that surprises me by the ground it keeps gaining these days. As already seen, we know that the god of the Bible hates a lot of things, including competition (Exodus 20:3), divorce, and withholding money from his communal fund. We also know that this guy isn't exactly tolerant of certain groups, such as wizards (Leviticus 19:31 - God hates Gandalf!), cross-dressers (Deuteronomy 22:5), or even people of other religious views (Deuteronomy 13:6-8). Christians today tend to be a bit more accepting, by and large, and it's widely recognized that although the Bible has much to say about the inferiority of women (1 Corinthians 11:3-9, 14:34-35, Ephesians 5:22-24, 1 Peter 3:1, etc.), we have since moved on in our views about sex and gender. It would make plenty of sense that the Bible also has an antiquated outlook on homosexuality, yet some liberal Christians, like John Shore of the Not All Like That project, maintain that there is no scriptural condemnation for it. "Reconciling the Bible with unqualified acceptance and equality for LGBT people," writes Shore, "does not necessitate discounting, recasting, deconstructing or reinterpreting the Bible."

This reconciliation may prove somewhat challenging, though, when the Bible includes such loving teachings as Leviticus 20:13:

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

Or how about Romans 1:26-28:

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.

In verse 32, Paul affirms the Old Testament instruction in Leviticus, saying "They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them." This makes it a bit hard to picture Paul as one of those "I have gay friends" types of homophobes.

To be fair, there's a lot that can be said about these two passages. Neither specifically commands Christians to hate or marginalize gay people anymore than passages denouncing adultery command Christians to hate or marginalize adulterers. In fact, just three verses before the verse on homosexuality in Leviticus, the Bible orders that adulterers be put to death. Yet for some reason (maybe having to do with the fear of difference) there is far more attention given to how the church and society should treat homosexuals than there is with respect to the treatment of those engaged in adultery. Of course, adultery is still a harsh contrast. Remember that this god guy also isn't a fan of wizards, cross-dressers, or pretty much anyone who doesn't accept his narrow standards of behavior. It's kind of like worrying over pleasing the dictatorial principal at your high school. No kissing in the halls!

On the other hand, it seems fairly obvious that if the Bible calls something "an abomination," and declares that those who participate in it are worthy of death, then it's kinda, sorta, maybe, actually condemning it. We aren't talking about the fun abominations here, either, like cleverly swapping out a president's last name for the first five letters of the word, we're talking about the kind that apparently anger the biblical god. And if you've ever read about the biblical god, you know he's no one you want to piss off. Get him all riled up and he's bound to delight in some pretty nasty ways of exacting his vengeance, like dashing your infant children against rocks (Psalm 137:9).

Because anyone willing to exterminate men, women and children must be a moral authority worth following!

Some argue over what the Bible means by its depiction of same-sex relations, claiming that it only forbids non-consensual gay sex or something like the pederasty of the ancient Greeks. Others draw attention to the fact that Jesus never really says a word on homosexuality in any book of the New Testament. However, even if technically true, these constitute arguments from silence rather than serving to vindicate a biblical position that's positive towards homosexuality. For example, it's a tricky matter to suggest that because many biblical passages imply an antiquated view of women as property, we can dispense with all the verses on female inferiority; for if the authors had only had our view of women, they never would have said what they said. The problem is that the ancient writers didn't have our view of women, and we are not really in any good position to estimate what they would have believed under (radically) different circumstances.

Hard as it may be to swallow (hey now, get your mind out of the gutter), the Bible is quite rabidly homophobic. Christians who oppose gay marriage may insist that it's not, but calling same-sex tomfoolery abominable is about as homophobic as it is when you see those friendly people waving their oddly colorful signs preaching bigoted intolerance. In Romans 1:26-32, Paul not only says that gay attraction is a "degrading" passion, but he proceeds to associate homosexuals with every conceivable sort of evil from envy and folly to murder and hatred of god. Ironically, chapter 2 turns around to warn: "in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things" (v. 1). And, of course, this eventually leads to the words in Romans 3:23, that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

So even while the Bible is pretty explicitly against homosexuality, it is also pretty explicitly against the kind of self-righteousness that leads sinful people to pass judgment on the sins of others (see Matthew 7:1-5 especially). And as already noted, the Bible seems to regard almost anything and everything as a sin. There's probably even something in there that can be taken to show how awful a sin it is to engage in the witchery of reading script off lit diodes. We all fall short indeed of the glory of god's holographic Heads Up Display. Perhaps the lesson in all this is to have a little humility, an appreciation for historical context, and a recognition that the times they are a-changin'.

1. The Bible is Not Pro-Slavery

It seems like a religion which teaches that we are all children of god, and tells us that god's son came down to earth and paid the ultimate sacrifice to free us from sin, should be rather unambiguous in its opposition to inequality. Shouldn't it? It seems like a religion that places a lot of value on caring for the poor and downtrodden should be blameless in its denunciation of oppression. It seems like a religion that has the exodus from Egypt as one of its most famous stories should be leading the march to end the subjugation and ownership of others. And this is how many Christians see the Bible when it comes to the uncomfortable issue of slavery. "The Bible condemns race-based slavery," says an article at, "in that it teaches that all men are created by God and made in His image."

Nonetheless, this bit of doctrine didn't prevent the authors of the Torah from making several provisions for the buying and selling of slaves. Leviticus 25:44-46 encouraged the ancient Israelites to purchase slaves from other nations, or from among the foreigners in their own land, and to treat them as property that could even be part of the family inheritance. However, Israelites could also still be enslaved, though they were to be released after seven years (Exodus 21:1). Well, the males could be released. Females weren't so lucky. Exodus 21:7-11 stipulates:

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.

Why such strict rules about when female slaves are freed? Surely, it has nothing to do with sex, right? We've all been assured that the Bible is the word of god, uncorrupted by those sorts of worldly interests. We make its stories into children's books because we find them morally praiseworthy. And yet here we find it talking about how important it is that a slave pleases her master, how a daughter can be rightly sold into slavery by her own father (family values!). It seems like someone in the Holy Editing Room really should have caught that part.

"That son of mine! He's so busted - thinking he'd get away with sneaking the Bible into this adult novel!"

But don't worry! It's all okay, because you see, slavery in biblical times wasn't like slavery in the 19th century American South. "The key issue," explains the GotQuestions article linked to above, "is that the slavery the Bible allowed for in no way resembled the racial slavery that plagued our world in the past few centuries." This, of course, means it was A-OK for ancient Israelite dads to sell their daughters into slavery, where they would have had to toil and serve as the property of some other man for an inestimable amount of time. Because the worst thing about slavery is not the violation of human rights that comes in possessing another human being, it's just the racial aspect to it that happens to have existed for a fraction of the time slavery has existed throughout the world.

The aforementioned article goes on to claim that a Christian acting like a Christian just will be against slavery, because they'll recognize, like Paul, that even a slave is "a brother in the Lord." Of course, in his letter to Philemon, Paul never instructs that Philemon's slave Onesimus be set free. This is critical for interpreting what Paul means in a passage like Galatians 3:28, where it is said that, "there is no longer slave or free... for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." The focus is not on abolition, it's on the idea that social status has nothing to do with how Christlike a person is. The New Testament also contains instruction for slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-25, 1 Timothy 6:1-2), even "those who are harsh" (1 Peter 2:18-21), which causes no small amount of problems for the notion that someone who is truly saved will be against slavery. Were the authors of these New Testament passages not saved? They certainly didn't seem to see any conflict between professing faith in Jesus and accepting slavery.

In fact, this is exactly what is echoed in the pro-slavery arguments of many 19th century American Christians. In his 1857 writing, Cannibals All!, George Fitzhugh defended American slavery by emphasizing the general need for slavery, even a form not based on race: "if white slavery be morally wrong, be a violation of natural rights, the Bible cannot be true." If the authors of scripture saw no disconnect between owning slaves and believing in Yahweh, then why should Christians a couple centuries ago, or even today, feel any differently?

The Last Word?

Perhaps the problem lies in the kind of authority that's often attributed to the Bible. Just the fact that articles like these exist tells us that we attach a lot of importance to what the Bible says, more so than with most ancient texts. Yet even the biggest literalists fail to observe some of what's been covered in this article. And sure, there are usually excuses, like the new covenant somehow removing the need to follow Old Testament laws, but the point is that there is always a willful act of interpretation going on. The Bible is not self-interpreting, as practically any biblical scholar or theologian will agree, regardless of how in tune with the Holy Spirit someone thinks they are. We have turned away from a lot of what the Bible says, and with good reason, I would argue. Our time is not the time of ancient Israel, or of the early Christian community. Does it really mean someone is not a good Christian if they acknowledge this and allow it to factor into their view of scripture?

The truth of the matter seems to be that, whether or not we pretend to accept the Bible as the last word, it's long beyond the ability of any of us to actually do so. History moves on, and it takes us with it; some are brought kicking and screaming, but they're brought along nonetheless. It isn't only that we stop seeing divorce as sin, or that we start seeing homosexuals as people instead of monsters, it's that we forget even what the original words and concepts mean, and so we bluster our way to acting as if all is well. We are displaced, lost in the wilderness, so to speak, but deathly afraid of opening our eyes. The Bible can no longer be the last word for any of us, despite how desperately some may want it to be. At this stage, it's rather our word on the Bible that will be the last for each of us.

Maybe, then, we ought to stop worrying so much about what it says and start to be more aware of what our own minds have to say.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Has Peter Boghossian Disqualified Himself from the Adult Table?

Richard Carrier has written a brilliant article addressing yet another astoundingly ignorant statement made by Peter Boghossian, this time on the issue of gay pride. Last year on Twitter, Boghossian expressed his inability to understand how one can be proud of "something one didn’t work for." As if this weren't evidence enough of the man's right-wing politics, he followed up in response to a wave of criticism directed at his tweet by saying: "Questioning that one can be proud to be gay is a leftist blasphemy."

Boghossian is quite fond of telling others how to think and feel, and denouncing them as not even worthy of being taken seriously when they don't meet his standards. He says in two other recent tweets:

Feminists will be taken seriously when they spend at least as much time criticizing abuses of women in the 3rd world as they do in the 1st. 7/30/14

As long as philosophers like Derrida and Zizek are taken seriously, the discipline of philosophy won't be taken seriously. 3/10/15

Carrier points out in his post that Boghossian has a bad habit of not listening to his critics. As the examples above indicate, he speaks in radically divisive tones, and then either goes silent in the face of objections, or reiterates his views with yet more party-line rhetoric. This is quite unbecoming for a philosopher, especially one who emphasizes critical thinking and doxastic openness, as Carrier seems to agree:

Good naturalism, good philosophy, and thus in fact good atheism, means finding out how reality works first, before declaring notions that reinforce the attitudes and ignorance that perpetuate social injustices like homophobia and anti-gay bigotry. Which means if this kind of failure on Boghossian’s part is typical, then it means professor Boghossian is a really bad philosopher.

This appears to suggest that Boghossian does a lot of opening his mouth before he thinks. He tends to draw the lines and point the finger prior to the actual conversation, certainly before things have been anywhere near as resolved as he takes them to be. Let's look at three other prominent examples of this:

1) In his Manual for Creating Atheists, Boghossian recommends that we, "Stigmatize faith-based claims like racist claims," and, "Treat faith as a public health crisis." He suggests a line of children's comics and TV shows starring Epistemology Knights and Faith Monsters. Notably, his book is devoid of any talk of actual philosophical epistemology, so his advocacy of demonizing religious belief at the outset is problematic for its close resemblance to sheer, uncritical propaganda.

2) In his debate on Unbelievable with Tim McGrew (a distinguished Christian philosopher), Boghossian upheld his definition of faith as "pretending to know what you don't know," against the understanding of Christians familiar with the literature, like McGrew, and against an overwhelming consensus poll taken by the show. Of course, Unbelievable is a Christian podcast, but the poll included atheists as well, and more bothersome is that Boghossian really didn't try to defend his definition at all on the show, aside from broad sweeping generalizations about its use - which the poll quickly put to rest. Interestingly, Peter also shied away from endorsing on the podcast his own characterization of faith as "an unclassified cognitive illness disguised as a moral virtue."

3) Last year, Boghossian came under fire for tweeting the following: "Being published in the philosophy of religion should disqualify one from sitting at the adult table." The fallout from this was fairly significant, as multiple voices (including my own) spoke up to disagree with Peter, who almost entirely neglected to respond to criticisms, save for sharing his general thoughts with his pal and self-professed 'bulldog' John Loftus (one may wonder how eager Loftus will be to defend his friend on these recent remarks).

It's been over a year now since I wrote my review of Boghossian's book, and I've had plenty of time to mull over its aims and arguments. I feel that many of the reservations I had while reading through it have been not only confirmed by Boghossian's subsequent behavior, but have been trumpeted loudly in a manner I wouldn't really have anticipated. The whole project frankly seems to be that of a person who is not interested in dialogue, who cares nothing for critical thinking except where it will bolster his own side, and who clings to his own doxastic closure with pride (which he did not work for) as a means of ridiculing and manipulating others into agreeing with him. Don't get me wrong, Boghossian will say he favors the objective route, but his actions and comments increasingly seem to conflict with his verbal assurances.

This is not the sort of model we should be encouraging in the atheist community. Just as there can be "wolves in sheep's clothing" among the religious - people who talk the talk without walking the walk - there can also be those among the non-religious who speak in a way that sounds appealing to us, yet behave in inconsistent ways that may reveal a lot about a person's character. I do not intend to imply that Boghossian is willfully dishonest or anything of the like, but there is a danger in embracing people as role models based primarily on how they sound to us, the familiar language they use, and so on, especially when atheists are already not the most beloved figures among society. Again, that's not to say we should be striving to win some popularity contest, but there is truth to what Boghossian, Dawkins, and others have said about the need to speak up against problematic voices within one's own community.

John Loftus once said to me, in discussion of Boghossian's controversial tweet over philosophy of religion, that he hates to see division among atheists. In fact, I do too. I hate to see atheists attacking each other for political differences. I hate to see atheists not utilizing the tool sets they've developed in thinking about religion to also think about other things, like sex and gender, race and sexual orientation, culture and history, and much more. I wish we could talk about the variety of diverging ideas among us with civility and respect. But Boghossian is not just polarizing the religious and the non-religious, he is divisive to atheists, and his rhetoric often dispenses with civility and respect. Who is he helping with all his language about "the adult table" and being taken seriously? It certainly isn't causing many believers to take him seriously, and even many atheists are finding it hard to do so.

As Carrier says at the conclusion of his article, "Ending religion will do us no good whatever, if all we do is replace it with an atheism that’s just as bad." Our goal shouldn't be to win at any cost. In retrospect, perhaps the title and intent of Boghossian's book should have given it away that this is his aim. He wants to convert the irrational and make them rational. We have a serious problem, though, when the "irrational" are simply defined as those who Boghossian says are not to be taken seriously. As it turns out, that group includes a lot of people, and is growing more and more to look like it consists merely of all those who disagree with Peter about things that are important to him. A Manual for Creating Atheists is starting to look a lot like A Manual for Creating Egotists.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Craig, Koons, and Divine Command Theory

In a recent episode of the Reasonable Faith podcast, William Lane Craig offers his thoughts on a 2012 paper by Jeremy Koons, Can God's Goodness Save the Divine Command Theory from Euthyphro? Koons' paper is another in a growing number of critiques aimed at the divine command meta-ethics advocated by figures like Craig, Robert Adams, and William Alston. Though a simple sort of divine command theory (DCT) received a devastating blow centuries ago from the famous Euthyphro dilemma put forward in Plato, modern defenders have adapted the DCT to resist the challenge presented by the dilemma. If good actions are merely those in accordance with god's commands, then goodness is arbitrary, since god could command anything and it would be good. However, Alston and others who adopt a modified DCT argue against this arbitrariness on the basis of the perfectly good nature of god. God could no more command infanticide, they say, than he could make a rock too heavy for himself to lift, because it would be in contradiction to his nature as god.

Does this move work? Craig believes it exposes the Euthyphro as a false dilemma, presenting a third option that is not identical to the other two options. Yet adding a third possibility to a dilemma does not necessarily mean the challenge underlying it is broken. It could rather indicate that we actually face a trilemma, which could be just as problematic as the original dilemma. This, I think, is where Professor Koon's paper is of real value. The question behind it is whether or not this move of DCT works any better than the two options typically posed by the Euthyphro. Craig firmly contends that it is better, but his arguments don't seem to warrant such conviction.

One of Craig's main criticisms is that Koons sets up a new dilemma that is just as flawed as the original. He says:

What he will ask now is: are these properties like loving-kindness, impartiality, generosity good because God possesses them or does God possess them because they are good? He imagines this as a dilemma. It seems to me there is no dilemma there at all. The divine command theorist, and Alston in particular, is very clear. These properties are good because God possesses them.

No doubt, this is what theological non-voluntarists like Craig, Adams, and Alston want to assert. But in his paper, Koons provides a puzzling quote from Alston that almost seems to suggest the opposite:

Note that on this view we are not debarred from saying what is supremely good about God. God is not good, qua bare particular or undifferentiated thisness. God is good by virtue of being loving, just, merciful and so on.

Craig seems to interpret the attention Koons gives to this quote as an accusation of contradiction. I don't think is what Koons is getting at, though, especially since he clarifies shortly thereafter that "Alston’s particularism requires that God’s goodness be logically prior to the goodness of the moral virtues. And we will see that this view is incoherent". It looks more like Koons is spelling out where he intends to direct his critique, and he directs it precisely where it should be directed, according to Craig.

All the same, Craig tries to resolve the apparent conflict by reference to the distinction Koons draws between explanations-why and explanations-what. Koons uses the contra-factual example of how even if the electron's negative charge were a brute fact that could not be further explained, it would still be possible to explain what a negative charge is. Thus, explanations-why may run out, but it need not mean there can be no explanation-what. Coming off of this distinction, Craig attempts to argue that this is exactly what divine command theorists like Alston are saying:

When you get to God you've reached the metaphysical and moral ultimate, the explanatory stopping point. But that doesn't mean you can't explain what goodness is or wherein the goodness of God consists. As Alston says, you can still explain to people that God is loving, kind, merciful, generous, and so forth.

You can keep asking why the good is good, but eventually a stopping point must be reached, for theists and atheists alike. But, says Bill, you can continue to talk about what the good is in relation to the characteristics of god. However, this is where Professor Koons really has a bone to pick with DCT.

Koons observes that when the divine command theorist poses this explanation-what - that god is, per Alston, "good by virtue of being loving, just, merciful and so on" - this reverses the order of explanation employed by defenders of DCT that gets them to knowledge of the goodness of god. Usually, one thinks of god's characteristics to derive the conclusion that he is the supreme good. It's because god is loving, just, merciful, and so on that he is perfectly good. Proponents of DCT argue the opposite, that we start by intuiting that god just is all-good, and then derive the goodness of his characteristics from there. The problem with this is that it leaves astoundingly little content to the goodness of god. How do we conclude that god is good before knowing anything about who he is?

Craig proceeds to call for a necessary distinction between moral semantics and moral ontology. DCT, he says, is not a semantic theory or a theory of the meaning of ethical sentences, but is rather about the ontological grounding of moral values. Koons has made a category mistake, Bill asserts, because insisting on the meaninglessness or unintelligibility of the good is not a successful way to refute a theory concerned with moral ontology.

It's well known that Robert Adams once took DCT to be a theory of meaning, but the sharp divide Craig often wishes to draw between moral semantics and moral ontology is something to which not all ethicists commit. Particularly when it comes to theistic meta-ethics, it seems that semantics and ontology are more bound up than modern defenders of DCT will admit. In his 2004 paper, A Semantic Attack on Divine-Command Metaethics, Stephen Maitzen objects strongly to this sharp distinction on both religious tradition and logical grounds:

According to a tradition whose philosophical expression dates at least to Anselm, God exists of metaphysical necessity, i.e., in all possible worlds, and he possesses his intrinsic properties not accidentally but essentially. Moreover, even atheists have acknowledged the good rea­sons for thinking that if God exists then he exists (and possesses the same intrinsic properties) in all possible worlds; indeed, some atheists, such as J.N. Findlay, base their alleged disproofs of God's existence on the plausible assumption that God exists necessarily if he exists at all. If these Ansel­mian assumptions are correct, then all of the following sentences have the same truth-conditions:

(S1) 'God exists.'
(S2) 'God is omniscient.'
(S3) 'God is omnipotent.'
(S4) 'God is morally good. '

Since S4 is an ethical sentence, an attribution of a moral property to an ob ject, it belongs to the domain of sentences DCM [Divine Command Metaethics] needs to explain. If DCM gives only the truth-conditions, and not also the meaning, of S4, then it tells us nothing about S4 that is not just as true of the other three, presumably non-ethical, sentences. What is worse, if DCM gives only the truth-condi­tions of S4, then some entirely non-metaethical theory - a theory, say, giving the truth-conditions for attributions of omniscience - would tell us all that DCM tells us about that ethical sentence, in which case it is hard to see what would make DCM a metaethical theory, at least with respect to the moral attributes of God. So DCM had better concern not just the truth-conditions of ethical sentences but also their meaning.

Here we see more of the vacuousness of god's goodness under DCT. As Koons seems to be driving at, Maitzen argues that divine command meta-ethics can only be trivial in what it accomplishes. If we begin by intuiting the goodness of god, establishing the goodness of any other characteristics of god from that basis looks bleak indeed. The goodness of god would not necessarily mean all god's attributes are good-making. Is immateriality good because god has it? What about timelessness? Omniscience? These attributes seem non-moral, yet it doesn't appear that one has any means for distinguishing between them and the allegedly good-making attributes of god. On DCT, we just are not able to talk sensibly of the good-making properties of god, or of how those properties ground moral values.

To an extent, Craig wants to bite the bullet here. Goodness, he explains in the podcast, "is one of these primitives that really ultimately can't be defined." This is addressed by Koons in his paper, though, when he notes that this view, which comes from G.E. Moore, "merely meant that one could not analytically reduce the Good to other non-normative or non-moral concepts." The good is not absolutely inexplicable, but it cannot be neatly reduced in terms of definition to a non-moral proposition. So, the question remains of how effectively Craig, Alston, and Adams have accounted for the goodness of god in their theory, and whether their account is better than any of the competing accounts.

It's interesting to note how tempting it seems to be for theists to explain the goodness of god in light of god's particular characteristics. Near the end of the podcast, Craig identifies why he thinks god is a plausible explanatory ultimate for a moral theory. God, he says, is "worthy of worship." But why is this anymore indicative of god's perfect goodness than is his immaterial nature, his omnipresence, etc? It would not be far-fetched for one to make the case that worship has a moral component to it, let alone what it means to be worthy of worship. So is it perhaps that Craig and Alston are intuiting the goodness of god from his good-making properties, their denials notwithstanding? It certainly looks like a more sensible way of conceiving of the goodness of god than what modern DCT advocates claim to be doing. The alternative essentially seems to rest entirely on the mere assertion of belief that god is good. Who would fault anyone for needing more than that to devote as intimate an act as worship to another being?

Craig, The Euthyphro Dilemma Once Again, (Jan 4, 2015).
Koons, Can God's Goodness Save the Divine Command Theory from Euthyphro? European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 4/1 (Spring 2012), pp. 177-195.
Maitzen, A Semantic Attack on Divine-Command Metaethics, Sophia Vol. 43, No. 2 (Oct 2004).

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Belief is Not a Dirty Word

On a recent episode of the Unbelievable podcast, an atheist science teacher going under the pseudonym Elliot George explained why he advocates abandoning belief - not specifically belief in god, but belief of any sort, presumably even the belief that it's wrong to hold beliefs. In substitution for belief, George prefers us to say that we 'think' a certain way, or that a certain claim is 'indicated by the evidence.' At some point, he thinks, science supersedes belief. After all, we don't say we believe in gravity, do we?

Not so fast. A belief, as it is commonly used, is simply a disposition we have towards a given proposition. Put another way, my belief that pressing the keys on my keyboard will produce letters on my screen that can be assembled and organized into this blog post just means I hold it to be true that I can write this post by utilizing my keyboard. Beliefs may be informed or uninformed, supported or unsupported, justified or unjustified. No evidence interprets itself, and even science operates on the basis of certain beliefs (thoroughly examined and tested) about how data can be collected, evaluated, and formulated into conclusions that may tell us more about the world in which we live.

A strong case can be made that none of us are capable of avoiding the formation of beliefs, regardless of what we call them or how cognizant we are of them. Sincere Kirabo touches on this in a recent blog entry:

Kant’s postulation of noumenon (“das Ding an sich”, or “the thing in itself”) holds that “what is” (noumenon) is separate from phenomenon, the thing as it appears to an observer. Kant’s insight, while not without its own flaws, does rightfully allude to subjectivity contra objectivity. This demarcates the difference between how one views the world – our perceptions based upon upbringing, inculcated core beliefs, limited personal experience, culture, biology, environmental influences, prevalent developments and notions of our time period – and objective reality, the world wholly unadulterated by human cognitive biases, fallacious thinking and skewed perspectives. This applies to everyone – me, whoever’s reading this, whoever isn’t reading this, the president of Montenegro, and so on.

The notion that we perceive an objective, unfiltered reality in any capacity has long been regarded as dead within both the fields of philosophy and psychology. Thanks in large part to all the numerous avenues for self-deception that we continually discover, a persistent and nagging question remains as to how accurately our ideas of things model the things in themselves. On its own, this seems to practically demand the recognition of something like beliefs - our attitudes about the world around us, distinct from, but hopefully informed by, the actual world around us. To return to the example of gravity, the more justification a belief receives, the more reason we have to regard it as true, and following the standard description of knowledge as justified true belief, we come to accept gravity as known rather than merely believed, yet knowledge remains itself a subset of belief.

Should we value any beliefs, though? It would seem next to impossible to avoid acting on any beliefs, but even beyond this there are many things we apparently wish to esteem, like companionship, intellectual pursuits, and artistic endeavors. All of these stem from beliefs which are motivating to more than a few of us. It's hard to imagine anyone doing anything without some underlying belief to instigate it. And as mentioned already, the very thought that beliefs should be eschewed rests upon at least one belief. To the extent that 'thinking' on evidence resembles belief, it looks trivial indeed to play semantic games.

It's easy to understand why some non-theists like George are not fond of belief. Innumerable religions have deemed those belonging to other views to be "unbelievers" or "disbelievers." Even if strictly accurate, the terms carry with them somewhat of a negative connotation, to the degree that many atheists are routinely treated as if they believe nothing at all. However, attempting to turn belief into a dirty word is unlikely to accomplish much on that front, and a fair amount of the intent seems directed at marginalizing religion and religious associations no matter what the cost, when there has been nothing especially 'religious' about belief for hundreds of years, as Dan Linford notes in addressing John Loftus on this same issue. What we ought to want to avoid above all is sacrificing in the vicious cause of eradicating religion those things that help us to understand ourselves and our world.

Beliefs can be ugly, naive, and irrational, but they can also be beautiful, intricate, and sensible. Somewhere along the way, it seems that for certain people the lack of belief in gods has progressed to desiring the lack of all beliefs. While this might appear a useful argumentative tactic in staving off being put on the defense, it just is not tenable and will end up causing more problems in the long run. I think it's very worthwhile to have conversations about things like belief and faith, if for no other reason than to achieve even the smallest disassociation between tough questions about meaning and language and markedly religious concepts. It's one thing to leave open the possibility that we need to believe in something beyond ourselves, and it's quite another thing to dispute that we need to believe in a personal, omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect creative mind. Perhaps by obliterating any such distinction, these 'anti-beliefers' are actually doing more damage than good, merely offering another excuse for both sides to circle the wagons.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who's the Most Rational of Us All?

I began having serious doubts about my Christian faith eight years ago, and eventually came to renounce it shortly thereafter. A brief period followed during which I called myself an agnostic in the colloquial sense, feeling more like a fish that had just found its way out into the bigger sea than like someone who was prepared to reject theism altogether. All I knew was that I could no longer believe as I once believed, and I had to head out into the deeper waters to see what else might be waiting.

I've always felt like it took me a very short time to become an atheist. It wasn't overnight, it wasn't part of any emotional tragedy, nor was it the result of reading any particular 'god-hating' unbeliever. It did come on the heels of a lot of inner reflection, however. The doubts that crept in were not about how god had failed me, but were rather focused on failures in my own thinking, reasoning, and process of belief-formation. Looking back now, it's not so surprising that things happened this way, considering the increasing interest I had in skepticism of the paranormal at the time.

Nonetheless, to this day there remains a part of me that sees that agnostic period of my life as almost embarrassingly cursory. Sure, I spent time reading on other religions, talking to people with different views, and I still interacted with my Christian friends and family on a regular basis, but there was no 'spiritual journey' to get in touch with the divine, no visitations to various places of meditation and worship, nor did I even crack open another religious text to pour over its teachings. It was a quite limited standpoint from which I became an atheist.

Of course, there are plenty of people who are born into their religion having never had the chance to consult alternatives prior to their decision (if it's appropriate to call it that). There are also plenty of people who change their beliefs without embarking on some grand path to enlightenment. I've always had a tendency towards the epic and the elaborate in some sense, admittedly, but reminding myself of these things usually doesn't put my mind at ease in the way I'd like. After all, a fool in good company is still a fool, isn't he? Even so, we seem to possess some recognition that one doesn't need to explore every avenue available, or even jump through a majority of the hoops, to be reasonable in settling upon a certain belief.

Instead of chasing this thread and trying to learn more about what reasonable belief means, when I became an atheist I took the tactic that a number of young atheists have taken: I insisted that we have all the evidence on our side, so not being on our side is just being irrational. Unfortunately, this position is strongly alluring in a way similar to when certain Christians cling to the badge of faith as if it's a get-out-of-jail-free card. If you don't have faith, the world is cold, lonely, and unpredictable; if you don't have evidence, you run the risk of believing lies and hurting others by endorsing lies. For some such atheists, the immediacy of their experience digging into the problems behind creationism, biblical inerrancy, and religious moral authority just appears to make their conclusion inevitable, like some such Christians may find their own conclusion inevitable based on the immediacy of the joy and personal fulfillment they experience from their faith.

Despite the conviction I voiced as a young atheist about the irrationality of all religious belief, I was still very aware of how I used to see things when I was a Christian, particularly when my conversations with theists touched on common themes. I noticed how often arguments came down to questions of how to interpret evidence rather than questions of what to admit as evidence. I saw just how much our interpretations vary depending on our worldview. On rare occasions, I might even realize that there seemed to currently be no advantage held by either side. Yet still I contended that the preponderance of evidence pointed only to atheism being the rational conclusion, while my theistic opponents persisted in contending that only theism was the rational conclusion.

As I started learning more about rationality, it started to dawn on me that things were not as simple as I had assumed they were. Declaring something rational is not to say it's true, nor is it simply to say that the preponderance of evidence is in support of it. Rationality has as much to do with beliefs as it has to do with arguments and evidence. For Bob to be rationally justified in believing that Ed caught a 200 lb marlin is just to say that Bob has reason to believe that it's true Ed caught a 200 lb marlin, whether or not Ed actually did haul in such an impressive catch. What makes it a reasonable belief for Bob may be that he knows Ed is a skilled fisherman, he knows that Ed owns some quality fishing equipment, and he knows that Ed likes to go fishing where there is a large population of marlin. However, Joe could reasonably believe that Ed did not catch a 200 lb marlin if he knows that Ed's boat has a broken motor, yet if Bob is unaware of this fact, Bob would also continue to be reasonable in believing in Ed's catch.

The example of Bob, Ed, and Joe is a simple one, but it illustrates the point that rationality can be a sticky subject because it involves considerations about what a person knows, what they believe, and what evidence is accessible to them, among other things. Naturally, the answers will vary in many situations, and so when asking if something is rational, it may be useful to ask rational for whom? This seems to be a major oversight in many arguments had over what the rational choice is from certain political, social, religious, or historical standpoints. Even when the implication is that some decision is the rational choice for all persons, there is a hefty burden of proof to be met to show that this is the case, especially if said decision is taken to be the only rational choice.

Graham Oppy reminds us that not only is there a large and growing body of psychological research showing that none of us are perfectly rational agents, but "even if we were perfectly rational, and had accessed the same full body of evidence, it might still be possible for us to disagree provided that we accessed the evidence in differing orders (and provided that our finite capacities ensured that we could not 'store' - or access - the full body of evidence all at once)." [1] There is no reason to think that such disagreements must necessarily imply irrationality on one side or the other. Neither does it seem objectionable to suggest that two of us viewing the same piece of evidence could come to opposite conclusions and nevertheless both be rational in our beliefs.

Sadly, many voices continue making blanket generalizations about the rationality and irrationality of theism, atheism, of all theists, and all atheists. Biologist Jerry Coyne has declared "theism is irrational because it isn't true," [2] whereas Dinesh D'Souza, Ken Ham, and many other Christian apologists have made similar charges against atheism. Of course, Coyne's comment would commit him to the difficult claim that it was unreasonable for the ancients to believe in geocentrism before the Copernican revolution, but all such accusations of irrationality seem hasty for the reasons already mentioned above.

I have always had my reservations about discerning what another person ought to know, what they ought to conclude based on what they believe, and what evidence should be accessible to them. Frankly, we do so poor a job of this with ourselves sometimes that it can appear pretty arrogant to tell someone else what they're doing wrong. When someone voluntarily engages with us, making arguments and proposals, though, that is a different story. When someone tells me what they believe and why, I respond in really the only way that I can: I tell them what I believe and why, and I may do it by showing them where I disagree with their thoughts on the matter. It may be that they have drawn some irrational conclusions, but finding this in one theist, or in a thousand, is no grounds for hastily declaring all theists to be irrational.

Obviously, this need not mean we adopt a relativistic approach to the issue of god's existence. Keith Parsons writes,

It seems quite possible for an atheist to regard theism as entirely unfounded (i.e. groundless), yet to concede freely that theism is a rational belief for many people. In other words, atheists can admit without hesitation that religious experience is coherent, persistent, and, for many, compelling. Persons who believe in God on the basis of such experiences can therefore be regarded by atheists as perfectly rational. (Of course, the atheist would deny that the occurrence of such experiences shows theism to be true.) [3]

Is there not a sense of freedom in this? I spent years of my Christian life feeling shackled by doctrines like hell, original sin, and 'born again' theology. Try as one might to escape it, there is a very potent division of the world into believers and unbelievers, saved and unsaved, in Christianity. It affects the way you see the people around you (not always in a bad way, to be fair), and perpetuates an 'us and them' mentality. Likewise, atheists who divide the world into rational and irrational beliefs and associate them very broadly with those of religious and non-religious persuasions also color the people around them and perpetuate the 'us and them' way of thinking. There are the redeemed and the damned, the delusional and the sane.

It may be common to hear atheists and theists alike say they don't think holding a particular view makes anyone smarter, but this is cold comfort. The problem with throwing around labels like 'rational' and 'irrational' isn't just one of negative connotations regarding intelligence. As Parsons also observes, the charge of irrationality is a charge of moral failure as well: "It is a way of saying that someone has formed a belief irresponsibly or dishonestly - through self-deception, say, or perhaps by ignoring easily available contrary evidence. To call someone irrational is to say that he has settled for a belief that he knows, deep down inside, not to be the most reasonable one." [4]

This is quite the bold claim to make of someone else, especially someone you may not know personally. However, with all that we've seen on how rationality takes into account one's own beliefs, their access to evidence, and so forth, it does seem that to charge someone of being irrational is to charge them of violating their own beliefs, disregarding evidence they know to exist, and being generally disingenuous in their own personal collection of data and process of belief-formation. Unless one accepts libertarian free will, there seems to be a further question of to what extent a person even could 'gerrymander' their own beliefs in this fashion.

I no longer find it intellectually or morally responsible to hold the view that theism or all theists are irrational, and, as I said, I feel this is a freeing recognition. It does not mean that I will not try to persuade others to my views, nor does it mean that I think all theists are rational in what they believe. Rather, I see it as undoing the vestiges of prejudice lingering in an unhelpful and unreasonable brand of rhetoric. I don't need to worry that the world is going to hell anymore, either literally or figuratively, and I no longer need to reach for the favored psychological "explanations" for why intelligent people persist in religious belief.

Now, when someone asks me why I'm not a Christian, I will simply say I've found reason to doubt that it's true. But it doesn't mean you're irrational for believing it, or that I'm rational for disbelieving, or that we can't have an engaging conversation about our separate views.

1. Graham Oppy, Arguing About Gods (2006), p. 7.
2. Jerry Coyne, Remarkably stupid remarks by sophisticated theologian. (2011) Retrieved Aug. 24, 2014.
3. Keith Parsons, God and the Burden of Proof (1989), p. 36.
4. Ibid, p. 32.