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.


-----------
Sources:
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.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Echo Chamber: Loftus, Lindsay, Coyne & Boghossian on Philosophy of Religion

I knew it would only be a matter of time before John Loftus had to respond to my latest interview with Graham Oppy on the philosophy of religion. If nothing else, the man is tenacious. After declaring himself Boghossian's bulldog, he seems to have felt compelled by his new title to jump all over any criticisms of Boghossian, including my little post criticizing Peter for a couple of his tweets, using similarly loaded and reactionary vocabulary. John and I exchanged what I thought were polite disagreements, but it eventually devolved into personal attacks, from both sides, admittedly. I won't go into the details because they're unimportant to the subject of this post. However, it's interesting to note how John made a rapid transition (4 days, to be exact) from agreeing on my original post that, "it was unfortunate and disheartening to see Boghossian's two twitter tweets", to declaring it "genius" on par with other famous historical satires. A week later, he pronounced the philosophy of religion dead on the basis of an opinion piece written by Jerry Coyne - a biologist, not a philosopher - analyzing a philosophy of religion paper. Well, I shouldn't say analyzing as much as dismissing it out of personal distaste for its jargon (which every discipline has to those not involved with it). Jeff Lowder has more than adequately addressed Coyne's piece, so I will refrain from covering it here.

In my interview with Dr. Oppy, my aim was not to press him at every turn to offer the best possible justification for philosophy of religion. James Lindsay (a physicist, not a philosopher) offered the astonishing comment on John's blog that if the interview is really "the best defense available to the field" then philosophy of religion truly is dead. Of course, no pretense is ever made to that, but more amusing is the fact that Lindsay doesn't appear to realize that perhaps Dr. Oppy's newly published book on the subject is the kind of defense he should be engaging with. Perhaps he should be engaging with the various textbooks on the discipline, or even with the essays at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The purpose of my interview was to talk with Graham about his new book, touch on some general questions about the field, and get his opinion on some of the criticisms leveled against it. If Lindsay thinks it was a "softball" interview, I guess the most I can say is that he doesn't grasp the point or limitations of a podcast. His attempt to construe it as the best defense of the discipline is nothing short of a strawman, and his take-aways from it are, one could argue, indicative of a 'softball' understanding.

At least John Loftus tries to make some actual arguments, to his credit, instead of proffering bald assertions about the field and the status of the god debate, or speculating on why non-theists would bother with such a thing. Predictably, I disagree with most of John's conclusions, but it's more than I've seen from the others on his side. John asks, "What if philosophy spawned a discipline that, after a few centuries or decades, science has shown us it doesn't deserve to be a separate discipline?" There's a lot packed into this question. The answer to it depends at least on what assumptions one holds about the purpose and limitations of science, what properly defines a field of inquiry and distinguishes it from other fields, and what it means to say a discipline doesn't deserve to exist on its own - all of which are philosophical in nature. Science by itself won't settle the question John asks, it will have to be science premised on certain philosophical assumptions, and this is exactly the matter I don't see Loftus, Lindsay, Coyne, or Boghossian even bothering to address. Why grant these assumptions and why, if we do grant them, should we accept that they do away with philosophy of religion?

The answer to that last question is part of one's philosophy of religion. Dr. Oppy pointed this out on the show, Jeff Lowder has noted it in a recent post, and I expressed it myself over a month ago in a Facebook status. Interestingly, in his post praising the satirical "genius" of Boghossian's tweet (linked to above), John agreed with this assessment, yet in his latest response to my interview he seems to no longer agree. This view, he claims, is misguided because by the same token, "someone who rejects legitimate science by doing pseudoscience is doing science, or someone who does science badly is doing science, and so forth." I don't feel that this analogy is fitting, though. There is an obvious and relevant difference between science and philosophy, for starters. Science operates under a methodology that has been constructed and is still being developed (think of Karl Popper or Thomas Kuhn as contributing to historically recent debates on the subject) through philosophical effort. To say that doing pseudoscience is doing science is senseless because scientific claims, in the standard use of the term, have a certain methodology by which they are judged. Calling something pseudoscience is to say that it pretends at being scientific, and the implication is that it is not actually so - typically for the very reason that it does not meet methodological standards. While philosophers have their various ideas of what philosophy should be and should look like, there is no general standardized methodology for doing philosophy in the same way there is for doing science. Philosophy, to be overly simple, is the study of aspects of our existence and experience, or as per the ancient Greeks, it's the study of wisdom.

I think there is a better analogy to be drawn out of Loftus' analogy. Pseudoscience proponents may not be doing science, but they do have a philosophy of science. That is, they have certain ideas about what science should be, how it should be done, or to tie it back in with philosophy in general they have ideas about what science can and should study of our existence and experience. It's not legitimizing their views to hold this position, either, as there can undoubtedly be bad philosophy of science. Many postmodernist philosophies of science are bad philosophies of science, I would say. When we debate with pseudoscience proponents like homeopaths, the debate often involves the question of what science is and what it can and cannot explain. To the extent that it is a methodological debate, it is also a philosophical one. To be an anti-realist about scientific concepts is to hold a particular philosophy of science. But maybe this much doesn't even need to be said, as it could be that when we refer to "doing science", there is just an underlying assumption made that we are doing a particular kind of thing, science according to a particular philosophy. A successful and practical philosophy, but a philosophy nonetheless, and I think this shows why it's the philosophy part of philosophy of religion that matters, and why even rejecting the discipline on the grounds that Loftus and others reject it is itself a philosophy of religion.

John attempts to draw out something surprising from one of Oppy's other remarks:
 
Oppy tells us: "Philosophy of religion as a discipline, I would think, probably doesn't date much earlier than the second World War." This historical lesson is significant, I think, for we did without it for centuries and we can do without it again.

Of course, if this is reason enough to ditch philosophy of religion, it is reason enough to ditch science too, since we did without the discipline of science (I'm speaking here of the enterprise and not the generic inquiry into nature) for centuries before the Scientific Revolution began.

John has many times made reference to Keith Parsons leaving the discipline in 2010, as he does in his latest post:

The discipline is so bad that Dr. Keith Parsons decided to quit teaching it because he could not take it seriously any longer. If he decided to quit teaching it then he agrees it should end as a discipline of learning...

I have actually talked with Dr. Parsons on just this issue, however, and he explains that he left the field over frustration with the "case for theism", and does not see the philosophy of religion as dead. On the contrary, he mentioned John Hick's An Interpretation of Religion as one of the things he sees as fostering worthwhile study.

The other primary point of focus in John's post seems to be the issue of what I'll term religious diversity. Why should we have a discipline in any secular university, he asks, "where theism, or Christian theism, Christian theology or Christian apologetics is privileged and considered to the exclusion of all other religions or apologetics?" Note that this is a point on which there is little disagreement. I think even a good number of Christian philosophers would agree that there needs to be more diversity in the field. What this is not, however, is an argument for a wholesale demolition of the discipline. John seems to feel it is, though, when he claims the only reasonable response is to call for the discipline's end. I continue to see this hopeless picture of things painted by those who want to bring down philosophy of religion, yet I keep finding no substantive justifications for why exactly demolition is in order rather than reform. Imagine abolishing an entire country as a political presence because one party came to hold majority power!

To the secular part of his question, there are many possible responses. Despite how many Christians and apologists are in philosophy of religion, that doesn't mean it is or has to be merely a boot camp for theism. Not all Christian philosophers argue for Christian theism in the courses they teach. By contrast, I've been listening to a lecture series where Shelly Kagan argues directly against the soul, an afterlife, etc. He explains to his students at the very beginning what his class will be like, and they have the option of staying in or moving to another class. Hell, I live in Texas and my Philosophy of Religion professor was openly atheist. Universities are not high schools, and as a university student myself I feel very strongly that we benefit from exposure to other views. It's one of the reasons I engage with people I disagree with. In this age of the internet, there are plenty of resources for students to hear competing views, so offering courses at secular universities that *might* feature arguments for the existence of god, delivered by a professing Christian or by an unsympathetic atheist, hardly seems like a sign of the end times.

In any case, if the philosophy of religion was reinvented as Oppy suggests, then what we would end up with is a Religious Studies discipline and classes focusing on comparative religion, or the varieties of religious experience, where religio[n]s are compared/contrasted/considered and the secular counter-part is offered as a critique of them all.

I don't think this is what Professor Oppy advocates. Wanting more variety is not the same thing as wanting to line up every single opinion in a classroom and present it by the numbers and challenge each view by the numbers. Surveying different religious beliefs doesn't strike me as any more inappropriate to a secular institution than it is to survey countries outside your own in a History class. If the complaint really boils down to, 'we already have other disciplines for that', then I'm tempted to ask, 'so what?' There is already lots of overlap between different disciplines taught at universities, and the question of where one ends and another begins is, as already noted, a philosophical question. If it comes down to the harm caused by religions, I'll say: 1) treating all religions as harmful presupposes a singular definition of religion; 2) the same claim could equally be used to argue that we should not study countries with violent tendencies in our History classes. I also have to admit to being perplexed by John's objection to his misconstrual of Oppy's view, since he advocates that teachers "seek to disabuse their students of the view that faith is a virtue". Is that all that different from offering naturalism as a critique of religion?

It looks, then, as if what John and the echo chamber want is not so much the abolition of philosophy of religion as it is for their particular brand of it to reign supreme in secular universities. Is this better than having a religiously sectarian discipline taught in schools? Part of me sympathizes with thinking outside the box of faith, but another part recognizes that goal as a dangerously authoritarian one. The purpose of institutions of learning should not be to indoctrinate, as our formerly religious universities used to do. This is why I'm just as hesitant to endorse Hector Avalos' project of redefining biblical studies to eliminate the influence of the Bible in modernity. Whatever happened to allowing people to think for themselves? Isn't that what the term 'freethinker' is supposed to mean? How you can claim that label for yourself and simultaneously call for the institutionally-supported indoctrination of others into your own view is beyond me. A freethinker with the need to make everyone think as they do seems undeserving of the name. In fact, isn't that one major characteristic of religious fundamentalists that freethinkers have historically seemed to be so dead-set against?

At the risk of further infuriating some of my critics, I'll end with something I've been wondering for a while - which I genuinely do not intend to be mean-spirited. John Loftus is obviously very proud of his three master's degrees in philosophy of religion. He has brought them up in several posts, in discussions on Facebook, and elsewhere, often to imply that he is qualified to discuss philosophy of religion, while those of us poor young students who haven't earned our degrees yet are not. Normally, I don't bother with petty quibbles over credentials unless there is actually a legitimate appeal to authority to be made. The problem here is that John Loftus quite clearly thinks the field from which he earned his degrees is an illegitimate field. To be frank, he got his three master's, from two Christian universities, in a discipline that his friend Jerry Coyne has referred to as "garbage". So, in all sincerity, I'm left wondering why John Loftus doesn't seem to accept that his degrees are in nonsense. I don't believe that they are, but if philosophy of religion is truly dead, and we should all stop "god-bothering", as James Lindsay calls it, why continue to run a blog like Debunking Christianity, or write books like Christianity is Not Great? You might argue that you're doing your part to bring others into that realization, but why not lead by example?

What I would like to see end is the viciously uncharitable attitude some of my fellow atheists have to anything and everything remotely related to religion, including those who can be construed in the loosest ways as "legitimizing" it. Sometimes I have to wonder what planet certain people live on, where they seem to feel they are in danger of imminent attack from the religious. We should know better. How often do we bring up confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, ingroup and outgroup psychology, and other factors that can play a role in the religious mindset? We are not insusceptible to these, either, no matter how rational we tell ourselves we are. If we really want to make any difference in the way other people think and act, to make a difference in the world at large, we have to start with the ways we think and act, and that has to be an ongoing process. Accepting that god doesn't exist does not change who and what we are as human beings, it doesn't make us more rational, nor does it make us better people. As we ask for theists to find more existential and epistemic humility, we ought to strive toward that end, too. A scorched-earth policy benefits no one, no matter how right we believe ourselves to be.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Kai Nielsen on Natural Law and Divine Command Theory

It's common to hear theists make the claim that there cannot be a moral law without a moral law-giver. C.S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, and several other prominent defenders of the Christian faith have given voice to this position in their writings and lectures. The association of religion with morality goes back a long ways in history, at least as far as Plato, but the most notable articulator of it in Christian thought is perhaps Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century friar and theologian. Aquinas' view that morality must be grounded in god has been influential in both Catholic and Protestant circles and is reflected in two traditions known as natural law theory and divine command theory.

The Canadian philosopher Kai Nielsen critiques both traditions in an essay featured in his book Atheism & Philosophy. On natural law theory - the view that we come to an understanding of the good through reason, in accordance with the "eternal law" of god - Professor Nielsen raises four main objections.

1. Natural law suffers from the same problems of justification as other moral theories. Nielsen writes:

For such a certain knowledge of good and evil, we require moral principles that can be seen to be self-evident to us or natural moral laws of whose truths we can be certain. But since natural moral laws are only self-evident in themselves (assuming we know what that means) and since it is God's reason and not man's that is the source of the moral law, we poor mortals can have no rational certitude that the precepts claimed to be natural laws are really natural laws. [p. 201]

2. Natural law begs the question with regard to what human beings are made for, or what they are in their essential nature - that is, creations of a god. Nielsen notes that this is a background assumption for which science has offered no support. Even if some day we discover that there are, in fact, certain characteristics held in common by all human beings, it does not follow that these must be in place for us to be properly called humans.

3. Proponents of natural law theory contend that conflicts and confusions on what things are good stem from a corruption of our natural inclinations due to sin or to 'dark habits'. As Nielsen points out, though, we can rightly wonder what criteria are used to determine when a habit is dark or sinful. "What actually happens," he observes, "is that those moral beliefs that are incompatible with Catholic doctrine, and as a result are called corrupt and sinful, are simply arbitrarily labeled as 'unnatural' and 'abnormal.'" This shifts the focus from natural law conceptions to some other criteria allegedly rejected by natural law theorists, such as our own personal assessments of human nature or a statistical judgment of what is humanly 'natural', bringing us again to the question of what makes any of our natural inclinations right versus corrupt.

4. Natural law fallaciously attempts to derive an 'ought' from an 'is.' Again, from Nielsen:

To discover what our natural inclinations are is simply to discover a fact about ourselves; to discover what purposes we have is simply to discover another fact about ourselves, but that we ought to have these inclinations or purposes or that it is desirable that we have them does not follow from statements asserting that people have such and such inclinations or purposes. These statements can very well be true but no moral or normative conclusions follow from them.

Natural law is often invoked in defense of Catholic doctrines, particularly when it comes to the Church's positions on homosexuality and birth control. But what of the Protestant alternative? Unsurprisingly, Nielsen doesn't think divine command theory - the view that good is what god commands, as god is himself the highest good - fares any better.

...a radically Reformationist ethic, divorcing itself from natural moral law conceptions, breaks down because something's being commanded cannot eo ipso make something good. Jews and Christians think it can because they take God to be good and to be a being who always wills what is good. 'God is good' no doubt has the status of a tautology in Christian thought, but if so 'God is good' still is not a statement of identity and we must first understand what 'good' means (including what criteria it has) before we can properly use 'God is good' and 'God is Perfectly Good.'

To treat the statement 'god is good' as an expression of identity would be to commit what G.E. Moore labeled the naturalistic fallacy. While this fallacy is often tossed about in criticisms of naturalistic ethics, there seems to be disappointingly little attention paid to the chapter on "Metaphysical Ethics" in the Principia Ethica, where Moore explains how it also applies to ethics founded on metaphysical truths, i.e. the existence of a god. Some theistic thinkers have taken this problem into account and argue that though good and god are not technically synonymous, there is nonetheless some relation between the two.

As Nielsen points out, however, this still leaves us without an understanding of what 'good' means. Even in tautological statements like 'Wives are women' and 'Triangles are three-sided', we know what women are and we know what it means to be three-sided. If 'god is good' is not an expression of identity, if it is not guilty of the naturalistic fallacy, then how are we to understand, much less believe, what is being asserted when we don't understand what 'good' means? Nielsen puts it forcefully: "Morality does not presuppose religion; religion presupposes morality."

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Bart Ehrman on What We Can and Cannot Know About the Resurrection

In his newest book, How Jesus Became God, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman spends two chapters discussing what he thinks we can and cannot know about the resurrection. What we can know is familiar territory to most who have studied the emergence of Christianity:

(1) some of Jesus's followers believed that he had been raised from the dead; (2) they believed this because some of them had visions of him after his crucifixion; and (3) this belief led them to reevaluate who Jesus was, so that the Jewish apocalyptic preacher from rural Galilee came to be considered, in some sense, God. [p. 174]

These are relatively mundane points. They appear in the earliest Christian sources, require no commitment to an actual resurrection or actual postmortem appearances, and there is something to be said for their role in Christianity's historical survival.

More interesting are the two things Dr. Ehrman says he has changed his mind on regarding what we cannot know about the resurrection. Like his colleague John Dominic Crossan, Professor Ehrman now believes that the tradition of an honorable burial of Jesus is doubtful. He makes note of the suspicious backstory of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the same Jewish council that condemned Jesus to death, absent from the early Christian creeds, and a figure who is progressively portrayed across the four gospels as more and more of a sympathizer to the Christian cause. Citing a handful of ancient examples, he observes that Roman crucifixion victims were not usually given proper burials because humiliation was an important part of the practice, intending to deter potential criminals from committing acts of rebellion against Rome. Those who were crucified were often laid in common graves or left to decay and be eaten by scavenging animals.

It is sometimes remarked that Jesus was buried by Joseph in accordance with Jewish law, since the Sabbath was close at hand. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 gives instruction in this vein, but as Dr. Ehrman points out, it's an open question of whether or not the Romans, particularly Pilate, would have respected such a rule. Though the Pharisees and the Jewish Sanhedrin had accused Jesus of blasphemy, the charges brought against him in front of Pilate were more political - inciting crowds, forbidding payment of taxes to Caesar, and claiming to be king (Luke 23:1-3). If Jesus was executed as an insurgent, under certain circumstances perhaps he would have been left unburied. If, however, he was executed in accordance with Jewish law, it's not so obvious where he was buried. In a chapter of the anthology The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave,  Peter Kirby writes that there is some evidence for a dishonorable burial tradition in passages like Mark 12:8 and Acts 13:27-29, which allude to Jesus being buried by his enemies rather than by his followers. [1]

The second thing Professor Ehrman has come to change his mind about is the empty tomb tradition. Like many before him, he draws attention to the fact that no empty tomb is mentioned in the earliest New Testament sources, the writings of Paul. Christian apologists often claim that a burial followed by a raising from the dead a la 1 Corinthians 15:4 implies an empty tomb. Yet Ehrman elsewhere argues that Paul interpreted the resurrection in a spiritual and not a physical sense, which would make an unoccupied tomb unnecessary. Dr. Ehrman also counters another apologetic claim that the discovery of the tomb by women lends credibility, since no one at that time would have made up such a story, as distrusted as women were. One can rightly question why we ought to think the gospel authors intended the resurrection narratives to hold up as any sort of legal or quasi-legal testimonials. The gospels come from oral traditions, they're not court documents. Additionally, women may have been so featured in the resurrection narratives because they were the ones tasked with preparing the bodies of the dead, or because, as some sources note, the Christian sect was especially popular with women. As the author says, this objection seems to rest on nothing but a lack of imagination.

Bart doesn't offer much comment on the empty tomb, but after some reflection this doesn't quite seem as disappointing as it might initially seem. The case for the empty tomb is razor thin when you think about it, relying pretty exclusively on texts which scholars have known for a good while to be dependent on one another. [2] Earlier texts outside of this literary dependence, like the Pauline epistles, do not mention an empty tomb, or any of the familiar details of the empty tomb tradition. Furthermore, there is the strange fact that there is no indication from any ancient sources of veneration of Jesus' tomb - a point I'd like to have seen Ehrman make - which is baffling especially with characters like Paul, who never was able to meet Jesus before his crucifixion, who preached the extreme importance of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:17), and presumably would have wanted to see his lord and savior's tomb, if it had existed in his time.

Consider how damaging these two areas of doubt are to the case for the resurrection, even against the three areas of confidence Dr. Ehrman notes. The disciples may have believed that Jesus rose from the dead, that he appeared to them after his death, and that he was god in some sense, but why should any of this compel us to believe as they did? People believe things for all sorts of reasons. People can be mistaken, people can hallucinate, as Professor Ehrman discusses in chapter five. When most of us hear of a body missing from a grave site, we don't think resurrection, we think grave robbers, we think the body has been moved, or that we came to the wrong site. Ironically, even the gospels have the followers of Jesus entertaining some of these explanations first, finding the resurrection just too unbelievable (John 20:2, Luke 24:11).

If it's doubtful Jesus was buried, and doubtful there was ever an empty tomb, then what we're left with sounds an awful lot like what Dan Dennett has described as "belief in belief". Whatever the disciples actually experienced, whatever was or was not actually going on, one chooses to believe in the disciples' belief that god raised Jesus from the dead. Of course, this is what I have seen the picture to be for a good while now, and the same assessment has been made by many other atheists, many biblical scholars, many philosophers, and many non-Christians in general. I'm pleased to see Bart Ehrman planting himself more firmly in this camp.

However, the question remains: if belief in belief is all that's required, why not belief in Mormonism, in Islam, in Buddhism, in Hinduism, or in the traditions of any other religion? Despite what William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, and other apologists may call things like the belief in an empty tomb or the belief in postmortem visions, they are not facts. The reality of it has always been belief in belief, particularly belief in the reliability of uncorroborated beliefs. But without facts, without empirical data, without some independent means of assessment, Christian belief in the resurrection has nothing substantial distinguishing it from similar belief in the uncorroborated traditions of other religions. Building on his extant work questioning the reliability of the New Testament, Dr. Ehrman's latest book offers quite a bit of food for thought.


------------
Sources:
1. Peter Kirby, in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005, Prometheus), p. 246-247.
2. Stephen C. Carlson, Synoptic Problem FAQ (2004).

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Peter Boghossian and Philosophy of Religion - Take 2

Apparently my last post on Peter Boghossian, though winning me some positive feedback and some new friends, has also earned me a lot of enemies all of a sudden. With this follow-up post, I'd like to make some clarifications, particularly after seeing some of the response on Ed Brayton's post (which I am very grateful for).

Does Mr. B rely on pseudo-science and superstition in his arguments? No? Then why Deepak Chopra?

As I explain in the post, Chopra "spouts wisdom that's eaten up by his followers, yet is less wisdom than it is gibberish." Boghossian may not rely on pseudo-science and superstition as Chopra does, but that was not the point of comparison I was making. I could have perhaps compared Boghossian to political pundits for a more accurate contrast, but alas. Part of my decision to compare him to Chopra was to be provocative in a way that Dr. Boghossian very clearly likes to provoke others, and the outraged reaction of most of his supporters is interesting indeed. I continue to notice a prominent double-standard in that camp.

Is Carr aware of precisely how much utter nonsense has been written on an academic level?

I am, which is why my post did not offer a sweeping defense of all philosophers of religion. I listed a handful off the top of my head who I consider credible and intelligent. Boghossian's tweet maligned all who publish in philosophy of religion, and to challenge that I don't need to adopt the view that all academics are sensible adults, I only need to show that some are.

John Loftus has also written a response to remarks made by Jeff Lowder, Justin Schieber, and myself. John claims to be giving the charitable view, notes that he's gotten explanation from Boghossian, and elaborates that what Peter was actually saying was that "if no one accepted anything based on insufficient evidence this discipline [philosophy of religion] wouldn't even exist." However, Loftus goes on to say something notably different (italics are mine):

So people who do bad philosophy of religion without sufficient evidence should be disqualified to sit at the proverbial adult table, and if this were to take place then the discipline might not even exist. After all, if there was no bad philosophy then good philosophy wouldn't have to exist [...] What we would have instead is neurology, physics, astronomy, psychology, etc.

Now the problem with philosophy of religion is not a general one, but a distinction between good and bad philosophy of religion. I don't doubt that there is such a distinction, but the extent John takes this to strikes me as a bit hasty. What constitutes sufficient evidence for the claims made in philosophy of religion? There are such a wide range of them, spanning from ethics and causality to language and history, not to mention that different thinkers make different claims in each of these sub-fields. Loftus mentions that "scientifically uninformed philosophy" is what he and Boghossian are targeting, but even Daniel Dennett has agreed that there is no such thing as "philosophy-free science". Philosophy that goes against established science is problematic without a doubt, but science itself rests on certain philosophical assumptions. Loftus and Boghossian have an anti-metaphysical stance, which I can sympathize with, but that stance is not founded on philosophy-free science.

I have heard no other argument endeavoring to show that philosophy of religion would or could collapse into other fields of study, like in a game of Jenga, if only some magic piece were to be removed from it. As I pointed out to John in one of our exchanges, the nature of religious language seems like a part of religion that is best dealt with in the philosophy of religion. Anti-metaphysicalists claim that such language is senseless because it cannot be scientifically verified, but this is imposed to reform language rather than to explain it as it naturally exists. And as so many atheists like to say, what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence. Thus, while I am somewhat sympathetic to the project of anti-metaphysicalists, I am also very hesitant.

What I truly don't understand is why the cry is for the demise of philosophy of religion rather than its reform. Even if it collapses into other disciplines, there will still be the philosophy of religion, albeit in a less organized and unstructured form. Questions of religious ethics will still arise, so will questions of religious psychology, religious history, religious language, etc. What will be the victory in tearing down the label of philosophy of religion and dispersing its contents that are not dismissed as meaningless? From this perspective, it really does seem that Boghossian, Loftus, and others want to set up an a priori win for atheism. I honestly find that hard to stomach. Like the ontological argument tries to define god into existence, we're just going to define atheism into victory?

There is still a big difference between saying the philosophy of religion is superfluous and saying that anyone who publishes in the field should not deserve to be at the "adult table". So I'd like to end with something I said to Loftus on his blog before he took pot shots at me being a college student without his degrees and eventually blocked me...

Before I wrote my review of Boghossian's book, I read up on him a lot. I listened to interviews with him, and I even did email him, albeit on a separate issue. I do consider him a bright guy, even if we disagree. Because I want to be charitable to him and take him seriously, I operate on the assumption that he means what he says, and if he makes a mistake or is misunderstood, he will clarify himself. But why everyone should be expected to privately email him regarding what he put out publicly and did not amend publicly with any corrections is beyond me. That is a very specific idea of what is charitable, yet I think it lays the responsibility entirely on the opposite side of where it should be.

This is not about being disrespectful to anyone, it is about being respectful enough not to sugarcoat someone's uncorrected statement or make excuses for them because I like them as a person. This is never an all-or-nothing game. The instant it becomes that it seems to me that we lose some of the credibility we claim for ourselves in trying to be objective and rational. However one feels about Boghossian, about the philosophy of religion, or about the unity of the atheist movement, I think that is far too high a price to pay.

[Edit: The Saga Continues]

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Peter Boghossian: The Deepak Chopra of Atheism?

Peter Boghossian is an interesting figure. Back in January I wrote a review of his new book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, which intends to teach non-believers how to lead the faithful out of their faith. I found myself torn between appreciating the ambitious motivations behind it and wanting to ridicule it mercilessly as a piece of pretentious choir-preaching. The methodology is well-researched, but the substance underlying it leaves much to be desired. Portraying faith as "pretending to know what you don't know" is not likely to help in deconverting most theists, but even worse are tactics like spreading unbelief through comic books and TV shows starring "Epistemology Knights" and "Faith Monsters".

I feel like I achieved a nice compromise in my review by being generally charitable, yet directing criticisms where necessary. After all, Boghossian's wilder remarks are not the overall tone of the book, and perhaps playing into the propaganda game is what will be the most effective against the actual disinformation campaigns, like those commandeered by Ray Comfort and Eric Hovind. I was prepared to give Dr. Boghossian the benefit of a doubt - that is, until I came across his Twitter feed.

Agnosticism is arrogant. It asserts there's enough evidence to conclude that god's existence is possible.

This comment is something I wouldn't be surprised to hear from Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Krauss, or anyone who isn't well versed in philosophy. Peter is a philosophy professor, though, which obviously means philosophy is, you know, his job. In A Manual for Creating Atheists, he specifically draws attention to the philosophical field of epistemology, or the study of knowledge, as an important part of understanding religious beliefs and leading people out of them. It seems like Dr. Boghossian should be quite aware that the evidentialism he endorses throughout his work is just one epistemological theory among several. It seems like he should also be aware of the difference between belief and knowledge, how that plays into probability and possibility, and how those all relate to the distinction between atheism and agnosticism.

For a long time now, philosophers have commonly understood knowledge as justified true belief. In the 20th century, this definition was called into question by famous experiments establishing what has become known as the Gettier problem. Some have attempted to move forward by switching focus from justification to warrant, but the main point here is that knowledge is seen as a subset of belief. To know something is to have a certain belief that is true and justified, or true and warranted. On evidentialism, the more and better evidence one has for a belief, the more justified they are in holding that belief. However, if someone has no evidence for a belief, it does not mean what they believe is impossible, it merely means they are unjustified in holding that belief.

Agnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, for knowledge, and the prefix a-, meaning without. An agnostic is someone who doesn't claim to know something. This is different from an atheist in that an atheist is someone without theism, where theism is belief in god. Thus, while an agnostic says she doesn't 'know' whether or not god exists, an theist says she doesn't 'believe' god exists. One view is about knowledge, the other is about belief, and so while they are separate in meaning, they aren't mutually exclusive. I often call myself an agnostic atheist because I don't claim to be certain that there is no god, but I think the probabilities swing far enough that I am justified in doubting the existence of god.

Evidence does not establish possibility or impossibility, especially not when we're talking about logical possibility. Scientific studies even do not rule out sheer possibilities, they either support or don't support a hypothesis. Likewise, the reasons one may have for being an agnostic may not have to do with the quantity or quality of the evidence at all. You might see the god concept as so confused and incoherent that you simply can't pronounce to have knowledge on it either way. If, like me, you accept that evidence can't ever give us absolute certainty, or such strong claims about possibilities and impossibilities, you might be an agnostic because you think there are other considerations we don't or can't have access to.

It seems like a professional philosopher should know better than to make such an incendiary and naive remark. However, just the other day, Dr. Boghossian again posted something at least as absurd to his Twitter feed:

Being published in the philosophy of religion should disqualify one from sitting at the adult table.

Many of the most devastating critiques of religion have come from philosophers of religion. The field may have a majority of religious believers in it, but there have been quite a few notable atheists published in philosophy of religion journals, too, such as J.L. Mackie, Paul Draper, Ted Drange, Graham Oppy, Erik Wielenberg, Stephen Maitzen, and William Rowe. Theistic philosophers have also done their share of worthwhile criticism of theistic arguments, among which would be Tim and Lydia McGrew for their attack on fine-tuning, as well as Wes Morriston for his work against the cosmological argument.

These philosophers who Boghossian would exclude from "the adult table" are far more deserving of those seats than Peter and (many of) his New Atheist buds. I say this not just because of Boghossian's childish behavior, but also because each of them writes on an academic level that just is miles above the others. Many of the arguments against god proliferated in atheist circles today are owed to these philosophers of religion. Dr. Boghossian frankly doesn't know what he's talking about, and his principal objection seems to stem solely from the fact that "religion" is part of the philosophy of religion name.

I've seen a few comments on Facebook calling Boghossian "our version" of young earth creationists, saying that he almost seems like a viral marketing gimmick for the God's Not Dead film. To this I'll add that he's like the Deepak Chopra of atheism. Chopra is a new age 'guru' who spouts wisdom that's eaten up by his followers, yet is less wisdom than it is gibberish. In similar fashion, Boghossian plays to an audience that he knows, one that disdains anything and everything remotely connected to religion. These "cultured despisers" of religion, as Schleiermacher once called them, are quite happy to agree with whatever fits the us vs. them narrative they've constructed, along with its clear emphasis on the inherent and unavoidable evils of religion, while little things like arguments, facts, and honest dialogue take a backseat.

The annoying thing is that men like Boghossian thrive off of the criticisms sent their way. In their minds, it validates what they have to say, it exposes 'anger' in their critics (a frequent theme in Peter's Twitter feed), and it serves as an opportunity to circle the wagons yet again. As they say, bad press is better than no press, and Mr. Atheist Manual is doing all he can to elicit controversy and stir the pot. One can only imagine where he will go next. Maybe he'll found his own atheist scholarly journal where only his favorite kinds of atheists will be allowed to publish, then sweepingly declare anyone not publishing there must sit at the kids' table.

Just as we denounce Chopra for his juvenile nonsense, we should denounce even fellow atheists for theirs. In the past, non-theists have done well in taking Alain de Botton, S.E. Cupp, and others to task for some of their overly-generous statements regarding religion. We should be equally willing to critically examine statements that are so poisonous in their characterization of belief and faith. I don't think Boghossian is helping anyone but himself in his simplistic treatments of complex philosophical issues.

[Edit: read the follow-up and the latest fiasco in the ongoing 'debate'.]