Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Search for the Soul

This article was originally published on on May 20, 2009, and is being reposted here for archiving purposes.

The concept of the soul is at the heart of many schools of philosophy and many religions. It is believed to be the immaterial part of an individual, where personality and thoughts originate. According to Christianity, Islam, and a few other faiths, the soul will survive the body after death, and will face either an eternity of bliss or an eternity of agonizing torture, depending on what the person believed while they were alive on Earth. A 2008 poll conducted among 2,126 American adults found that 68% believe the soul continues to exist after death.1 What makes us so sure that we have souls, and how are they really all that different from our physical selves?

I. Evidence of the Soul?
In 1907, the American physician Duncan McDougall weighed six patients who were in the process of dying from tuberculosis, and noted that each patient lost 3/4 of an ounce after the event of their death. Next, McDougall weighed 15 dogs and observed that no weight was lost when the animals died. The physician's conclusion was that the loss in weight of the human patients was a result of their souls leaving their bodies. Had Dr. McDougall actually weighed the human soul and discovered evidence for its existence? Not quite.

The sample size in the experiment was far too small, the methodology used was not consistent or precise, and as McDougall's contemporary Augustus P. Clarke pointed out, the study failed to consider the sudden rise in body temperature which occurs at death when blood is no longer air-cooled from circulation through the lungs. Clarke also noted that the rise in body temperature would cause sweat and moisture evaporation in human beings, explaining why they might lose weight while the dogs would not (dogs do not sweat, instead they pant). Even if McDougall's test had been more reliable, a loss in weight at the time of death in no way implies the existence or departure of a soul.

As ludicrous as the experiment may sound now, many people today believe that there is still other evidence of the soul that is found in near-death experiences (NDEs). A NDE occurs when an individual loses consciousness or momentarily dies and has a religious or spiritual experience of the afterlife, an encounter with an angel, or some other kind of metaphysical phenomenon. The interesting thing about NDEs is that all of them seem to be triggered by some immediate trauma. Pilots undergoing flight training in g-force test chambers have blacked out and had their own NDEs. Dr. Rick Strassman has suggested that during or following traumatic events, the brain may release massive quantities of Dimethyltryptamine, which will induce hallucinations.

NDEs are taken very seriously by those who experience them. I have no doubt that their experiences impacted them in deeply emotional ways. Having an "out of body" incident is understandably compelling evidence to a person that they have a soul. Yet it is always important to remember how easily our minds can be deceived. Lucid dreams may also seem incredibly real to us, but we know they are not accurate portrayals of events, persons, or reality. There is no good reason for believing that the soul (if it does exist) will manifest itself in our physical world, and in fact, that view is a minority view among those who tend to believe.

II. Closing the Gaps
Most religious believers will probably agree that since the soul is immaterial, it is not something which can be found by rational, verifiable, or scientific means. It is of a spiritual nature, not a physical one, they say. Just as many people define god to fill in the gaps of our understanding that science has not yet filled, the soul is proposed as the source of our intimate identity, the part of us that science cannot fully account for. Being that the soul is apparently such an elusive thing, it does seem fruitless to search for it by any testable or scientific method. However, as we are learning more about the function of our brains, the definition of the soul is sinking more and more into obscurity.

Neuroscientists have been able to observe and predict thought patterns as electrical brain signals flash across MRI screens, and some have even been able to induce religious experiences in patients.2 Thoughts may not be tangible things, but there seems to be good evidence that they are connected to our physical brains and do not reside exclusively in an immaterial 'soul'. Decades of study in fields of anthropology, psychology, and sociology have all told us that our personalities are shaped by external factors like family, friends, environment, and so forth. Individuals who suffer some trauma to the brain will often lose aspects of their personality or memory, and it may impact the way they think as well.

One of the last great mysteries of biology and neurology is consciousness, and this is where much of the debate on mind, body, and soul focuses today. Science is far from having all the answers on consciousness, but several assumptions are made when one suggests that it is an attribute of the soul. There is no reliable evidence of a spiritual realm, and simply stating that something is non-physical does not automatically confer a spiritual nature to it. Even saying that something like consciousness is non-physical implies that it can exist without a brain to operate from. This seems like claiming that a computer program can operate without the hardware it runs on.

Consciousness, personality, and thought are all phenomena that show signs of natural evolution. Brain trauma can affect all of these in a person, and scientists have probed the brain in interesting ways to stimulate thoughts, feelings, memories, emotions, and other responses. There is good reason for concluding that these things are part of our physical reality and are inextricably tied to our brains. There are also lesser forms of each phenomena found in different animals, like chimpanzees, dolphins, and elephants. Every evolutionary development toward a heightened sense of consciousness or thought will produce a greater ability in rational thinking and problem solving, allow more interaction with other creatures, and would thereby increase the odds of survival. What reason is there to suspect that any of these phenomena are non-physical indicators of a soul?

Your soul is showing, but it's not the ambiguous New Age metaphysical thing you might think it is. From all current estimations, the soul is merely a conglomeration of traits, characteristics, and processes which can be reasonably considered all natural and physical. Yet we already have words and understanding of these concepts, so why add an extraneous label like 'soul' to them? Until a new, clear definition is given or until it is demonstrated that science cannot possibly explain certain elements in natural terms, assuming that the soul exists is exclusively an exercise of blind faith.

III. When the Soul Becomes Dangerous
As we have seen, the concept of the soul is extremely nebulous and subjective. The phenomena proposed as evidence of the soul also appear to be fairly grounded in our physical reality, leaving little reason to assume that areas we don't yet understand must be outside of science and nature. The persistence of so many people to try and find some proof of our souls does seem to indicate that a lot of us possess a willingness, or even desperation, to believe in the soul. Why is there such a strong desire to confirm the existence of the soul? The soul isn't just significant for a belief in an afterlife, it can be a pretty subversive element in the thinking of some individuals too.

Even though science tells us a good deal about the constitution of a fetus throughout its development - such that pinpointing an exact moment where life begins is difficult, if not arbitrary - some Christians still insist that 'life begins at conception.' When they have no solid or verifiable evidence on their side, they fall back on the idea of the soul. One Christian website explains the concern of many believers:

The fact of an unborn child's soul is always in question. The reason for that is because God defines the criteria for salvation to be faith in His Son as the Savior. All Scriptural references relating to this matter speak about born children and adults. The Bible, however, is silent on the fact of an unborn child's soul.3
To put it simply, Christians don't know what happens to the soul of an aborted fetus. When they believe life begins at conception, and they believe in original sin, that everyone must repent and accept Christ as savior to make it into Heaven, worries arise. Theological incoherences may be a big reason for why many Christians espouse anti-choice sentiments. Women are deprived of their right to their own body because of religious doctrines and dogmas that are grossly lacking in any evidence or empirical support.

Another harmful soul-based assumption is also made regarding animals. Since Christians read in the bible that god only breathed a soul into Adam and Eve, they consider animals to be soulless automata, put here on the earth by god, for mankind's enjoyment. For centuries, Genesis 1:27-28 has been used to justify the maltreatment, senseless slaughter, and extinction of various species. If humans have souls and animals do not, it is tempting to think of ourselves as superior and thereby lose sight of the importance of conserving and respecting 'inferior' forms.

Documents recently leaked from the US Department of Defense intelligence briefings for the Iraq war in 2003 feature multiple inspirational bible verses,4 indicating that the war certainly held some religious significance to more than a few government officials. Other news tells us how American soldiers were encouraged to evangelize to Afghanistan residents,5 fearing for their unsaved souls. The concept of the soul is not only philosophical and mysterious, it's downright dangerous when it influences the thinking of many individuals.

IV. An Unnecessary Idea?
The soul may be useful as a poetic idea, but taken as anything more, it can be a source of confusion, irrational faith, and sometimes even oppression and intolerance. We don't need it to explain our thoughts, consciousness, experiences, or anything of the sort. Perhaps like the idea of god, it was something not fully understood or defined from the very beginning, and as time progresses, it only seems to become more and more vague. The search for the soul will probably never yield any results, because what we are searching for is a shadow of things we already know to exist, and the available evidence gives no strong suspicion that anything other than natural processes are at work.

1. Anonymous. (2008) More Americans Believe in the Devil, Hell and Angels.... HarrisInteractive. Retrieved May 19, 2009.
2. Hitt, J. (1999) This Is Your Brain on God. Retrieved May 19, 2009.
3. Fleischmann, R. Unborn Child's Soul from Abortion or Miscarriage. Christian Life Resources. Retrieved May 19, 2009.
4. Draper, R. (2009) And He Shall Be Judged. GQ. Retrieved May 19, 2009.
5. Grim, R. (2009) Soldiers In Afghanistan Given Bibles, Told To "Hunt People For Jesus". Retrieved May 19, 2009.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Devaluing of Higher Education in American Society

I have been a college student now for several years, and I've finally got just one more year to go for a B.A. It's been a difficult journey to get me here, and it seems to only be getting harder and harder with each semester. This isn't because of tougher classes, although I've had my share of those. It's because of a persistent problem that every student and every professor seems to recognize. It's talked about among friends, among family, on the news, in entertainment, in politics, by social scientists, by employers, by corporations, by unions, and it's virtually everywhere in the United States. Yet the general reaction often continues to be one of reluctant surrender. Let's have a moment of silence for our poor students.

Poor indeed. But this kind of poverty isn't all it's frequently imagined to be. It's not the sort of scrape-by-on-the-skin-of-your-teeth poverty that challenges you while it builds character. It's not voluntary poverty for the sake of some greater good. It's not even simple financial poverty. Many students face something much deeper - a poverty of needs, values, aspirations, opportunities, and experiences.

Before you dismiss my use of the P-word as ridiculous exaggeration, allow me to make a point that should be, but rarely ever is, obvious. A lot of students live below the poverty line. Using data collected between 2009 and 2011, the Census Bureau reports that 63.3% of college students live at home with their parents or relatives. The same paper notes that although 15.2% of the U.S. lives in poverty, a staggering 51.8% of college students who live off-campus without parents or relatives are below the poverty line. Another recent study found that low-income students graduate at lower rates, with 51% of Pell Grant recipients graduating nationwide, compared to 65% of those who didn't receive the grants. Along these lines, high schools with higher poverty rates have been shown to be strong predictors of poor college performance.

Some people would like to chalk up some of these statistics to work ethic. I won't pretend there aren't students who try and take the lazy way. I've been in classes with plenty of them. What I will say is that these types of excuses for inaction never take into account other factors that should be relevant, like what all is going on in a student's life. Loved ones die, family members get sick and need care, cars break down, people get evicted, people struggle with physical and psychological disorders, and during the several years for which students attend college, there just are numerous issues that can arise. Good professors try to talk to students to find out these sorts of details, and they work with them when there are genuine difficulties involved, but the general public usually doesn't do this at all when explaining away calls for reform.

What's really tough to dismiss here are the alarming facts about suicide on college campuses. A 2014 study documented that about 31% of students have contemplated suicide, a figure that has risen by 6% in the span of only five years. According to Emory University, more than 1,000 suicides occur on campuses every year. While the factors contributing to this problem are numerous and complex, there are similar and recurring concerns voiced by the 48.7% of American college students who attend counseling for mental health concerns. Anxiety, depression, and stress top their worries.

I belong to the one-third of students in college living off-campus without family. I am also in the drastically rising minority of students with a full-time job. Of course, I am grateful to have what I have, but working a full-time job presents another layer of challenges to receiving an education. It means I have to work an alternate schedule, which can vary dramatically depending on the time-frames of the classes I need. Building operation restrictions further impact the hours I can work. Many full-time employers make allowances for educational leave, but a 2014 publication by The Council of Economic Advisers notes that there are "large disparities" in access to paid leave, as well as an overall need for more of both paid and unpaid leave.

Let's do a little math. You're taking 4 classes for three days a week, each 50 minutes long. That comes to around 10 hours per week that is spent sitting in class. Now add in the amount of time it takes to study for your classes. Conventionally, it's recommended that you spend at least two hours studying for each hour in class. So add 20 hours of study time (this is not far off the norm, according to a recent study). But your campus is a 30 minute drive, plus parking takes time, and depending where you park, you may have to plan on catching the bus as well. Then each day is an hour long trip both ways, and perhaps another hour both ways for parking and walking, or riding the bus. This conservative calculation already brings the total time devoted to attending school to 36 hours a week.

Now imagine your employer gives you four maximum hours of educational leave. Per week. The HR handbook lists up to 8, but they figure that an hour per class is reasonable. Taking other kinds of leave to use for school is frowned upon. You can't reduce your work hours to accommodate school, either, since you're in a salaried position. Basically, you have to pull 36 hours a week at work and another 36 in that same week handling school stuff. Subtract 72 hours out of a 120-hour 5 day week and that leaves you with 48 hours, or 9.6 hours a day for sleep. Of course, that's if you do absolutely nothing but attend college, work, and sleep. It doesn't include trying for a social life, visiting family, or, you know, having fun.

Then picture all that interrupted by any of the struggles I noted above. Death in the family? Loved one sick and needing your care? Personal medical condition? You lose sleep. And the more sleep you lose, the rougher everything becomes. Stress and anxiety heighten, more sleep is lost. You probably ought to go see a counselor, maybe even a doctor, or at least take some time off. But where will you find the time or the money to do that? You have rent and bills to pay. Not to forget about tuition.

It's no secret that college tuition has risen substantially over the last few decades, and in a manner that goes well beyond merely adjusting for inflation and increases in income. With fees and everything accounted for, tuition costs nearly $5,000 a semester to attend the university I attend. Even with my annual untaxed income at approximately five times this figure, I can't afford college without grants. The only problem is that since I'm sufficiently above the poverty level, I no longer receive much financial aid. For two years now, I've done all I can to avoid loans, including using payment plans, but it appears unavoidable at this point that I will have to start relying on student loans, even while just one year away from a B.A. The scenario I gave above is not fiction, it's a story I've been living, and that I know some of my fellow students are living, too.

One of the most popular arguments against making college free is that it "devalues" the education you'd be getting. Yet when we look at countries like Norway, Sweden, and Finland, where tax payers absorb the burden of tuition, college completion rates differ very little from the United States. Germany and Denmark are exceptions, but the U.S. still leads in the percentage of unemployed college graduates. These other nations also excel against the U.S. in college students who have graduated in the fields of Science, Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics, according to research from 2011. To be clear, though, I am not advocating for free tuition in this post. Even if it is true that free education loses its worth, that is no argument for the exorbitant tuition rates we see at many American universities.

I believe there is devaluing of higher education already going on in our nation from a diverse assortment of sources. Many of us are aware of the pervasive anti-intellectualism that has been growing throughout the country, covered thoroughly by the likes of Chris Mooney and Susan Jacoby. Donald Trump's presidential campaign is merely the latest incarnation of this distinctly homegrown 'patriotic' flavor of brash ignorance. In the eyes of some Americans, it's as if the First Amendment guarantees their right to resist even the slightest semblance of critical thought regarding their own beliefs. But are these folks the culprits or the consequences of the decline in education?

It's all too easy to attach blame to the loudest and most belligerent of voices, which provide a useful distraction from the systemic problems that are not as visible. What does it say about us as a nation when we define the value of an education by expense alone? Sure, it's a very capitalist thing to do, but it's pretty questionable if this is the best way to assess an education, particularly when, as noted, the U.S. finds itself with many unemployed graduates. What good is an expensive education if you're not seeing a return on your investment? There is research showing that a measly 27% of graduates are working a job in their major, and, even worse, the majority of graduates work jobs that don't require a degree at all. This may be one reason why college enrollment has been declining over the last several years.

So why not save your money and opt out of college? Well, college graduates still earn more than non-graduates even in jobs that are outside their field. With the cost of living being what it is, this is a strong motivation to obtain a degree. And if you want that degree, you'll likely find yourself in a situation like I am now in, being forced into debt. I've applied for and received various grants, even won a scholarship, but at best these solutions cover just a fraction of tuition. "Change your major, then," I hear some people say, "and go where the money is." But this brings us back again to the big question. Is monetary value really the most important thing about higher education?

Part of why I haven't consistently attended college up until the past two years or so is that I used to place such an emphasis on income. When I began school, I was fortunate enough to have parents who paid for it and let me live at home. But I still had to find money for car repairs, for gas to get to school, for food when I would go out, and for really any social activities. I worked part-time jobs to make that happen, though these jobs were often surprisingly demanding of their employees. The food service industry is well known for having a very high turnover, and retailers are trying to compensate for a rising crisis of their own. Turnover isn't necessarily high because these people are finding better jobs, but even in cases like mine, a better paying job can also severely limit one's options for college participation. I told myself that education was for finding a well-paying career, so I switched majors a few times, searching for that one lucrative employment field that wouldn't feel miserable.

The nasty reality is that many high-paying positions carry with them a high amount of stress, and consequently a high amount of unhappiness. Some disturbing facts that aren't always talked about in conversations on career planning are the high suicide rates of physicians and lawyers, the massive debt incurred by dentists, and the astronomical work hours of investment bankers. We imagine a great salary will relieve us of the problems in our lives - many of them financial - but it's still true, if not terribly cliche, that more money can produce more problems.

The price tag on college and the focus on schooling as a means to a certain standard of living are devaluing higher education in the United States. They are a burden not only on students, but on parents and families, and they affect our communities and culture as a whole. I've already mentioned some of the ways this happens, but let me mention one more. Debt has become practically synonymous with the American dream. Several of the big things we recognize as important to living the American lifestyle are almost unattainable now without loans. Cars, homes, and college are the most familiar. These purchases often involve credit checks, too, and credit is itself a form of enforced debt meant to show personal "responsibility." Credit cards have replaced cash in many transactions. It's true that there are other options to some of these things, like used cars and renting a room in a house, but there are drawbacks in certain cases, and these are generally treated as temporary options. That our economy is increasingly pushing us towards a greater reliance on debt is just about indisputable, though.

It's not hard to see why, either, since debt enables people and businesses to make easy money without the need to produce some actual, tangible product that can deteriorate or change hands. A lot of people do not read the fine print, don't understand tricky interest rates, and may otherwise lack the necessary education for making an informed decision. Debt is great for business, and it preys especially on the disadvantaged, as was quite evident during the mortgage crisis that began in 2007. Considering that 8 in 10 Americans are in debt, and that mortgage is the most common kind of debt, dismissing all this as an instance of "buyer beware" seems both hypocritical and naive.

We live in a country that many believe is founded on Christian values. Were this true, it seems like there would be more believers upset at how we conduct business in the U.S. In the gospels, Jesus makes numerous references to debt, and specifically to debt forgiveness.

Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
Matthew 18:32-34

But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.

Luke 6:35

Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both.
Luke 7:41-42

Perhaps most famously, the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6:9-12 has the line asking God to "forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors."

But these passages are speaking of spiritual debt, right? Actually, that's not as clear as some would like it to be. The Greek word for "debts" in Matthew 6:12, for example, is used in other ancient Greek texts in basically the literal sense of financial obligation. Another passage, Mark 12:17, where Jesus delivers his renowned "render unto Caesar" line, is regarded by plenty of scholars as a statement on taxation, which suggests that Jesus likely was putting forward some teachings with political and financial ramifications. Even if we go with the spiritual debt interpretation, it's odd to view this idea in a way that excludes extending that spirit of forgiveness to material matters as well as immaterial ones.

A lot of Christians do recognize debt as a problem for the debtor, and this should provide all the more reason to denounce economic practices that force people into debt. However, our "Christian nation" seems much less bothered by this institutionalization of sin than it is by, say, the alleged sanctity of marriage.

Debt is something we have grown accustomed to in America. I'm not interested in arguing that all debt is equally bad, or that no debt should exist, but isn't there something kind of specially insidious about tremendously burdensome debt that's required for an education - to have the tools to get by in the workplace, in society, and in a culture of debt? I think so. I think it creates tension in families, produces stress in many students, I think it drives a lot of people away from college, and I think it highlights just how deep the for-profit plague goes in the United States.

I've known some adults who love to remind young people that "education is its own reward." What they appear to mean by this isn't so much that we should all see education as a good in itself as it is that we should quit whining and work hard no matter the situation. I do tend to think education is its own reward, but that's also why I'm opposed to excessive tuition and excessive student debt. And it's why I feel like another contributing influence to the devaluation of higher education is the workforce.

Now, don't get me wrong: a lot of employers offer benefits that do help aspiring students. But not all employers do, and their benefits often come with strings attached. 54% of employers offer undergraduate tuition assistance, according to a 2014 study. Yet some of those 54% want you to attend school at online universities whom they have partnered up with. Some won't pay for a class until after you've completed it, and some will only pay the full amount if you make a certain grade. Many employers specify an acceptable area of study and will not provide assistance to other majors. Then there is the issue of employers expecting strenuous hours from students. Research has shown that a 10-15 hour work week is ideal for student engagement, but there are few businesses willing to employ staff for those hours, let alone at any kind of reasonable wage.

Even worse, there is a significant divergence between how well grad students think college has prepared them for the world and how well-prepared employers think they are. Whether one sides with the students or with the businesses here, this calls attention to a potential problem of prejudice in how some major companies perceive college and the college-educated. Interestingly, a national poll has found similar dissatisfaction among the public with college preparation for the workforce. There seems to be a distrust of higher education that leads some employers to adopt strict limitations to the benefits they give students, while other employers simply offer no benefits.

I was once told by a former supervisor that my primary commitment had to be to the job, not to college. This didn't come from any unprofessional behavior on my part, but just from attempting to negotiate more cooperation with my employer about working hours. What astounds me about it is that some businesses don't seem to have an inkling of how the stresses of a full-time job and full-time schooling affect job performance when little provision is made with a person's health in mind. Getting the hours and the work out of you is always the priority. Apparently a lot of companies give HR benefits mainly for PR reasons.

Universities do not exist to pump more bodies into the job market. The goal of higher education should be to produce educated and upstanding citizens. It can be debated if modern colleges serve this goal, but the expectation and insistence that education's most important purpose is to solve unemployment is another way in which education is being devalued in our society. Why is it not obvious to people that employers have a vested interest in implicating virtually everyone but themselves in the cause of unemployment? Let's not talk about the minimum wage, the obsolete 40-hour work week in the Information Age, the absurd Facebook-scouring anti-privacy practices of certain employers, the shoddy health benefits provided by many companies, or any number of the long list of problems that point to the real bottom-line priorities of countless businesses. Let's point the finger elsewhere, please. Of course, no amount of diligent preparation will help much if the fault is actually on the employer's end.

There is definitely a suspicion of institutions of higher learning, though. Americans have long had a distrust of elitism, even when it's more perceived than real. A 2015 Gallup poll shows that our nation places greater confidence in the military, in small business, in the police, in organized religion, in the presidency, and even in the Supreme Court than it places in public schools. This does include K-12 schools, but the report still exposes the overall distrust in public education, which has grown about threefold since the early 1970s. Another study that is specifically centered on higher education notes that while most Americans do have hope for college, the vast majority think universities should change to meet today's needs.

Anti-intellectualism is not necessarily incompatible with some of these attitudes towards college, either. Bringing education "down to earth," to something practical like finding a good job, may be somewhat of an anti-intellectual approach depending on the context. Certain majors have evoked disdain and ridicule as if they are degrees detached from reality, guilty of head-in-the-clouds thinking. I know this from personal experience as a Philosophy student, and I've heard majors in Psychology, Music, Sociology, and many other fields receive similar criticism. Some people act as if there's no point in learning anything that won't put food on the table or money in your bank account. But this is a value, an ideal, and there's a strong case to be made that part of the purpose of education should be to examine and challenge the values we are raised with.

Politicians play into the distrust of higher education, too. Scott Walker proposed a $300 million budget cut for the University of Wisconsin System last year, and Governor Matt Bevin trimmed 4.5% of the budget for Kentucky's public universities, promising to go as high as 9% in the following two years. Louisiana is in such bad shape that many colleges there are being forced to consider privatization in order to keep their accreditation. The cuts frequently affect Liberal Arts programs and involve reasoning precisely like that just described, claiming to be removing funding in the name of serving economic needs.

To be fair, there are legitimate criticisms of higher education. There remains widespread inequality of access among minority groups, some professors indoctrinate rather than educate, and retention rates are not often impressive. I don't have any simple solution to any of the problems mentioned in this article. These are complicated issues and I know that there are smart and well-intentioned people working on them at this very moment. I do think there are wrong ideas about higher education, however, and I've tried to explain and support my thoughts on this. They may not be convincing to everyone, and someone will likely accuse me of having a "liberal bias" merely for not taking every available opportunity to trash their personal definition of liberalism, but this is at least one frustrated (but hardworking) student's observations.

I value my education. I value it more than the cost of tuition, or the salary it might one day provide me. I value the help I've received from my parents, from the rest of my family, from the schools I've attended, from the grants and scholarships I've received, and from the jobs I've worked. I believe the more we turn education into an instrumental value in this country - a means to some other end - the more it loses lasting value, its power to inspire is diminished, and the worse the state it will be in. This is not some ideological prediction, it's something we're witnessing now and have been watching unfold over the last few decades. Because of all this, I think the rant is worth making.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Minimal Facts for the Resurrection: Why a Skeptic Doesn't Believe

The following is an excerpt from my critical review of Rick Broocks' Man, Myth, Messiah: Answering History's Greatest Question. Rice Broocks is a Christian apologist and the man who has inspired the God's Not Dead films. Man, Myth, Messiah is his 'companion' book to God's Not Dead 2.

Since 1975, Gary Habermas has been cataloging scholarly sources on the resurrection of Christ to establish certain trends, or ‘minimal facts’, accepted by most historians. In Man, Myth, Messiah, the number of these sources is given as “more than 2,200,” pulled from the 2007 book The Case for the Real Jesus. Just two years earlier, in a paper published in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Professor Habermas numbered his sources at “more than 1400”.1 In the three decades Habermas took compiling those initial 1400, he averaged a survey of around 47 publications a year. Yet afterwards, in a mere two years, he managed to survey a whopping 800 additional sources for his list. Of course, some may point out the qualified use of “more than” in both of the total figures, but this ambiguity actually exposes a general problem with Habermas’ research. As Richard Carrier has noted, Habermas has not released his data – which is already quite selective in its reliance on only English, German, and French written sources – and so the trends he extrapolates from it are greatly presumptive.2

On this flawed backdrop, we come to the alleged facts in chapter two that “even skeptics believe.” These facts are built on solid historical criteria, according to Broocks, like multiple and independent attestation, a close proximity to the events in question, and the presence of details too embarrassing to have been invented. With the exception of the last criterion, I find this standard reasonable. Embarrassment is a sticky issue in many ways, particularly because of how it rests on judgments about the sorts of things that would’ve been contrary to the purposes of an author living in the very distant past. Perhaps in some cases where we have a good deal of information on the norms in a given society, it can be plausible to make an argument from embarrassment as a supplementary defense of historicity, but even then there are challenging questions about individual attitudes and ‘hierarchies’ of tolerable to intolerable embarrassments.

Before laying out his first minimal fact, our author sets his sights on Jesus mythicism. Denying the historical existence of Jesus is a “pop culture”, “blogosphere” thing, a “tabloid” level absurdity, says Rice, while suggesting a visit to Jerusalem would sway most rational minds. “And you don’t need a scholar or historian. Any tour guide can set you straight.” Although I am not a mythicist, I have to admit I find ridiculing mythicism to be unproductive as well as uncharitable. Broocks aspires to always be prepared to give an answer for his faith with gentleness and respect, per 1 Peter 3:15-16, but on more than one occasion he opts instead for resorting to strawmen and ad hominem attacks on his opponents. “The real motivation for skeptics to deny that Jesus really lived is not a lack of evidence,” he claims. “They often desire to attack Christianity in any way possible because of the evil perpetrated by self-proclaimed Christians.” (p. 28) Claims like these, whether or not they’re true of some mythicists, seem spectacularly inadequate at dealing with mythicists like New Testament scholar Robert Price, Dominican priest Thomas L. Brodie, or historian Richard Carrier.

Fact #1: He Was Crucified

Historical sources are even part of the supporting case for the first minimal fact, making it especially unnecessary to wage such a verbal war on mythicism. Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, and the Talmud are cited as evidence for the crucifixion of Jesus, and all have been used to endorse historicity, too. While there are issues with each of these sources that leave them open to objections, I think at least the first two are fairly reliable, for the same reasons I gave in my review of God’s Not Dead. It’s worth stating that this first fact, crucifixion, is really not an argument for the resurrection in itself, but more of a stipulation to it. Naturally, it could be that Christ was crucified and remained dead after; the crucifixion is more a part of the minimal facts case to deter the objection that Jesus appeared alive later because he had never actually died. Since I don’t make that objection, I will not offer a critique of the first fact.

Fact #2: His Tomb Was Found Empty

The second minimal fact is the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb by a group of his women followers. Saying that all four gospels depict women as the first to arrive at the tomb, Broocks notes that the testimony of women was “usually dismissed in ancient trials. So no first-century author would have ever made the story up.” (p. 31) Here is an example of the embarrassment criterion in action. The unstated assumption is that women were so distrusted in those days that the presence of them in the resurrection narrative, when they could’ve been omitted or replaced, makes the story more likely to be true. However, even the historian Josephus hung his entire accounts of the incidents at Gamala and Masada on the testimony of women.3 The fact that Rice is careful to say that “usually” the testimony of women was dismissed is also important. If there were instances in which women were treated as reliable sources – including by one of the most prominent historians of the era – then why should we think women in the resurrection story were too embarrassing a detail for the empty tomb to have been made up?

Another argument made in favor of this alleged fact is that the Roman and Jewish authorities could easily have squashed the Christian movement by producing the body of Jesus. Since they did no such thing, it must have been because the body was missing. Again, though, this is quite an assumption. The New Testament itself claims that the disciples did not begin preaching the risen Christ until about seven weeks after the ascension (see Acts 2), at which point the corpse was likely decayed beyond recognition. Add to that the small size of the early Christian sect, as well as the fact that the earliest Christian writings come 20-25 years after the death of Jesus, and it just doesn’t seem the Romans or Jews would have had the motive to hound Christians over what they were not exactly forthcoming with in the first place.

Skeptics of the empty tomb have often claimed it is unlikely that Jesus would have received a proper burial. In what may be one of his stronger counter-arguments in the chapter, Broocks responds to this objection by contending that leaving the body on the cross would have violated Roman laws urging respect for occupied peoples. “Jewish law expressly commanded bodies of the condemned be buried so that the land would not be defiled,” he states on page 32. Supporting these claims are two sources: Josephus and the Digesta Iustiniani

As Leonard Rutgers explains, Josephus mentions certain religious freedoms the Romans did extend to the Jews, such as to “gather freely in thiasoi, observe the Sabbath and the Jewish festivals, send money to the Temple in Jerusalem, and enjoy autonomy in their communal affairs,” as well as being “absolved from compulsory enrollment in the Roman military.”4 But to call the Romans tolerant of Jewish customs would seem to be a step too far. Rutgers goes on to say that, “Roman laws of the first century C.E. that relate to Jews give the impression that tolerance or intolerance was nothing but a by-product in the formulation of a given policy. Conscious efforts to be tolerant or intolerant do not seem to have been frequently made.” Indication of this even comes from Josephus, who notes in book 2, chapter 9 of The Jewish War how Pilate spent money from the sacred treasury to build an aqueduct, and then sent undercover soldiers to disrupt the mob of protest that ensued.

In book 48, title 24 of the Digesta Iustiniani (Digest of Justinian), we read: “The bodies of persons who have been punished should be given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial.” Broocks cites New Testament scholar Craig Evans saying that burial would have been expected in the time of Jesus. In a paper commenting on the Digesta, Evans notes that most of the text is drawn from Roman jurist Ulpian, who lived from about 170-223 C.E. “Ulpian,” writes Evans, “goes on to say that ‘the bodies of those who have been punished are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted’. A statement in the lex Puteolana (at II.13) gives the impression that Romans, as did Jews in Israel, had burial pits reserved for criminals and others buried without honor.”5 Evans refers to a book by J.G. Cook that discusses the lex Puteolana. “Some of the corpses were denied burial,” Cook remarks, “apparently at the discretion of the magistrate,” and common burial pits “‘were in use already in the second century BC.'”6 Cook and Evans both mention a particular passage in the Digest that specifically states that permission for burial is not always given, “especially where persons have been convicted of high treason.” (48.24.1). Evans argues in his essay that the mention of treason does not apply to Jesus, but the passage appears to give treason as an extreme example rather than the only exception.

Bart Ehrman names a number of historical sources describing how crucifixion victims were often left to rot on the cross:

The Roman author Horace says in one of his letters that a slave was claiming to have done nothing wrong, to which his master replied, “You shall not therefore feed the carrion crows on the cross” (Epistle 1.16.46-48)… Artemidorus, writes that it is auspicious for a poor man in particular to have a dream about being crucified, since “a crucified man is raised high and his substance is sufficient to keep many birds” (Dream Book 2.53)… there is a bit of gallows humor in the Satyricon of Petronius, a one-time advisor to the emperor Nero, about a crucified victim being left for days on the cross (chaps. 11-12).7

There are a few important things to take from all this. First, there is reasonable doubt that Roman officials in the first century respected Jewish practices and beliefs as a matter of habit. We have seen both scholarly argument and a historical example for this, and it is perhaps further instructive to consider the Jewish-Roman war that arose just a little over three decades after the purported death of Jesus. Second, while it seems that some crucifixion victims were allowed to be buried in special cases, others were denied burial. Although it’s not entirely clear what all the circumstances were that could lead to a denial, the “stereotyped picture that the crucified victim served as food for wild beasts and birds of prey,” as conservative Christian Martin Hengel once remarked,8 suggests that being left on the cross was not a punishment reserved for only the worst of traitors. As a third point, there is a lack of clarity in this material about what kind of burial was allowed in which cases. It’s fair to assume that since giving the body to “relatives” is mentioned by Ulpian, the relatives would likely bury their beloved in a family tomb or something of the sort. Yet when the body is that of a troublemaker or perceived criminal who supposedly had a lot of enemies among the Jewish leaders, the law in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 could have been respected and the Sabbath could have been honored simply by burial in a common grave. Since Pastor Broocks’ main objection to improper burial is Roman respect for Jewish law, this possibility, conceded by both Evans and Cook, poses a significant problem.

Surprisingly, the “unanimous” early church tradition on the site of Christ’s grave is another supporting argument made in defense of the empty tomb. “Custom required Jesus to be buried outside the walls,” Mr. Broocks states, “so the tradition for the site’s location had to go back to within ten years of the resurrection.” (p. 32) The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the earliest known site to be identified with the tomb of Jesus. Eusebius reports in his Life of Constantine that the tomb had a pagan temple built over it by the Romans to “obscure the truth.” Under Constantine, the temple was then demolished and replaced by a church. Constantine’s own mother allegedly found the “true cross,” which proved its power by restoring a corpse to life. Curiously, though, there is no evidence prior to the 4th century that links the location to the resurrection story. In her book, Christians and the Holy Places: The Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins, historian Joan E. Taylor argues that Constantine chose the site as part of his campaign to Christianize paganism, and the temple he built over was never constructed with the purpose of concealing the tomb of Christ. The absence of early veneration for any alleged site of Jesus’ grave, especially from Paul’s trip to Jerusalem, is a strong argument against the empty tomb legend.

It’s worth noting that Gary Habermas does not include the empty tomb among his minimal facts because 1/4 of the scholars he surveyed are skeptical of it, which Rice notes as well. Our author tries to dismiss the divergence here: “This drop is likely due to the profound implication of an empty tomb. If Jesus were buried after His death, then the empty tomb would be a decisive additional piece of evidence for the disciples encountering a physical Jesus.” (p. 31) However, we have just seen numerous reasons why the empty tomb is a questionable ‘fact,’ reasons all based in historical evidence. In addition, if the empty tomb is so critical to the Christian faith, then it seems the very same reasoning could be used against Broocks and other believers to suggest that bias is why they favor an empty tomb.

Fact #3: His Disciples Believed He Appeared to Them

As certain as Christ’s crucifixion, Broocks says, is the fact that his followers had experiences of him after his death. We find these appearances mostly in Paul and John, but Acts is also included with the caveat that the historical reliability of the text is disputed. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, often regarded as an early Christian creed by scholars, reads:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

Rice calls this a “credible list” of witnesses, and makes special mention of how Paul and James were skeptics before their conversions. What exactly about this list is credible? The appearances to the five hundred are frequently talked about by apologists as if we have five hundred eyewitness accounts, when all we really have is this one account saying that five hundred people saw the risen Jesus. No gospel or other early Christian document tells of these unnamed, mysterious five hundred. Most of the individuals identified in this list have left us no first-hand account of their experiences. Notice also that there is nothing said about women being the first to find the tomb – in fact, a tomb isn’t even mentioned at all.

There is an unexplained dissimilarity between the experiences of Paul and James. The story of Paul’s conversion is that he was a Jew persecuting Christians up until his vision on the road to Damascus. Thus, Paul was a skeptic converted by an appearance. James, on the other hand, is considered a skeptic merely because of biblical references to divisions in Jesus’ family (i.e. Mark 3:21, John 7:5), and we are given no information for when James became a believer, whether it was before or after the alleged appearance discussed in 1 Corinthians 15. Christian scholar James F. McGrath shares this view, explaining that “even if there were antagonism or otherwise soured relations between Jesus and James, this does not in any way lead to the conclusion that the estrangement lasted until Jesus’ death.”9 This matters because, as apologists like Broocks assert, the conversion of a skeptic due to a post-resurrection appearance is a more surprising deal than the report of a devout believer that they witnessed a miracle.

So what about Paul? The vision described in Acts stands out in some ways from the other appearances. Paul hears a voice and sees a light so blinding that he falls to the ground and loses his sight. In Acts 9, his companions hear a voice, but see nothing; in Acts 22, they see the light, but don’t hear a voice. What’s odd about labeling this a postmortem appearance is that Paul had never met Jesus while Jesus was alive, and in his vision Paul doesn’t see Jesus – only a bright light – he just knows (or assumes) it’s Jesus based on the voice. This experience is quite similar sounding to a hallucination, and what’s stranger still is that it is not distinguished in any way from the other supposed appearances spoken of in the early creed.

Could multiple people have hallucinated the same thing, or something quite like it? Broocks declares the Christian message “is not based on some corporate self-delusion triggered by the disciples’ grief over having lost their beloved leader; such a scenario would have required a much longer period of time to develop.” (p. 38) But why think this? 

On the hallucination theory, philosopher Keith Parsons writes:

In fact, the article “Hallucinations” in the second edition of the Encyclopedia of Psychology, says that 1/8 to 2/3 of the normal population experiences waking hallucinations… Causes of hallucinations in normal persons include social isolation, rejection, and severe reactive depression. The disciples were very likely to be experiencing a strong sense of rejection, isolation, and depression after the execution of Jesus. Further, it is very common for the bereaved to experience visual or auditory hallucinations of their deceased loved ones.10

Not all hallucinations require a good length of time, either, as Matthew McCormick explains.

When people lose someone they love, it is quite common for them to have hallucinations of the person (or even a pet) shortly after the loss. The phenomenon is now well documented and is known as a bereavement hallucination. In one study, a remarkable 80 percent of elderly widows reported having hallucinations – either visual or auditory – up to one month after the spouse had died… And these are not just fleeting glimpses or vague feelings that these widows and widowers are experiencing. They report seeing or hearing the lost person in some familiar environment, being visited in their dreams, or having complete conversations with them while being wide awake.11

We’ve already seen that not all experiences of the risen Jesus are equal. Paul’s vision in Acts is very different from the appearances in John 20. Other appearances, to the five hundred, to James, or to unspecified apostles, are so devoid of any description that it would be sheer speculation to imagine what those experiences might have been like. Worse yet, since Paul is thought to have relayed an early creed pertaining to appearances to some of the same people we find in the gospels, this creed raises doubts about whether the sources we have are truly independent. Perhaps John and Acts relied on the same material Paul relied on. Noting this problem of ambiguity, there just doesn’t seem to be any reasonable grounds for claiming that the postmortem appearances were shared by so many people that hallucination is out of the question. To make that argument, we would need more and better evidence for the array of alleged experiences.

Fact #4: Proclaimed Early

For the fourth fact, Broocks provides the earliness of the preaching of the resurrection. Because “creeds require time to become standardized, the original teaching had to have originated years earlier” (p. 37). Habermas is cited as claiming that such teaching must go back to within fewer than five years of the death of Jesus. This is said to be a consensus view of even critical scholars, but we have previously seen the flaws in the survey approach used in Habermas’ resurrection research. Nonetheless, if we assume that the resurrection was preached so early after the crucifixion – which I am actually willing to grant – is this a fact supporting the historical reality of Christ’s resurrection?

This is where the trouble with assessing miracles through historical method becomes especially apparent. The reports of Joseph Smith’s vision of the angel Moroni are very close to the time he supposedly had his vision. Likewise, as Matt McCormick argues, there is substantial evidence surrounding the Salem witch trials:

…hundreds of people were involved in concluding that some of the accused were witches. Eyewitnesses testified in courts, signed sworn affidavits, and demonstrated their utter conviction that those on trial were witches. Furthermore, the accusers came from diverse backgrounds and social strata, including magistrates, judges, the governor of Massachusetts, respected members of the community, husbands of the accused, and so on.

…The trials were part of a thorough, careful, and exhaustive investigation. The investigators deliberately gathered evidence and made a substantial attempt to view it objectively and separate truths from falsehoods, mistakes, and lies. In the court trials, they took great care to discern the facts. The accusers must have become convinced by their evidence…

The witch trials were historically recent, so we have hundreds of the actual documents that were part of the evidence. We have the signed, sworn testimonies of the eyewitnesses claiming to have seen the magic performed – not as it was repeated and relayed for decades to others, but immediately after it occurred. We have whole volumes written by witnesses to the trials, such as those by Cotton Mather and John Hale.12

Should we then believe Joseph Smith really was a prophet, or that those convicted in the witch trials really were witches? I should say not. The reason why involves a lot of what has already been covered. What we know (or don’t know) of those reporting the event, of the time and place in which they lived, and of the subsequent developments and advances in our general knowledge has to play a significant role in our approach, beyond a basic consideration of criteria like multiple and independent attestation, closeness in time, or embarrassment.

Further Facts

Additional facts are presented in the chapter that have already been touched on at this point, in one way or another. These involve Paul, James, the growth of the early church, and the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. To say brief words on the latter two, however, I find the absence of any figures or statistics on the growth of the church makes such a ‘fact’ indefensible, and the purportedly embarrassing nature of Jesus’ baptism hangs on an incredibly thin supposition that it “could” be seen as implying the superiority of John. I mention a study by Keith Hopkins in my review of God’s Not Dead which argues that Christians composed only 10% of the Roman population by the year 300. If the early church exploded in the miraculous way many Christian apologists claim it did, these are the kinds of studies that need to be produced to substantiate their claim. As for John and Jesus, Mark 1:7 effectively eviscerates any notion of embarrassment: “And this was [John’s] message: ‘After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.'”

As a conclusion to my (very long) review of this chapter, I want to make one last argument regarding these minimal facts – one which I believe greatly reduces their persuasiveness on top of all that’s been said so far. Throughout the chapter, Pastor Broocks makes frequent note of how “all four gospels” mention the crucifixion, the women at the tomb, Joseph of Arimathea requesting the body, John baptizing Jesus, and “supernatural confirmations of Jesus’ ministry” (p. 30, 31, 41). These remarks are misleading in that they give the impression that such details are independently and multiply attested by more sources than is likely accurate. The Two-Source Hypothesis in New Testament scholarship, which is the consensus view among even most conservative scholars, has it that Mark was a primary source for both Matthew and Luke. This is even addressed somewhat in the very next chapter of the book, and it’s a little suspicious why something so obviously pertaining to the historical criteria is put after the minimal facts case. The importance of this is that something which appears in all four gospels may only really be independently and multiply attested in two gospels once we take parallel passages into account.

Let’s take the women at the tomb as our example. After stating that this is found in all four gospels, Rice says, “This fact is significant because the testimony of women was usually dismissed in ancient trials.” The significance the author sees here is not just the reporting of women at the tomb, but clearly also the reporting of women at the tomb in four sources. Yet when we look at Mark 16:1-8, Matthew 28:1-8, and Luke 24:1-12, we find a number of similarities and parallelisms, from the two Marys to the fear of the women to the presence of men/angels (one in Mark) in white clothing and more. We even find some plausible spots where the authors of Matthew and Luke changed the text from Mark, such as Matthew 28:8, which adds that the women were not just afraid, but “filled with joy,” and so ran to tell the disciples what they’d found – quite an improvement over Mark’s original ending, where the women “said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” None of these details occur in John’s gospel. This illustrates how Matthew and Luke relied on Mark, and it changes the scope of attestation for the women at the tomb from four to two sources. If Helmut Koester is right, though, about Mark and John sharing a passion narrative source that is also represented in the Gospel of Peter, then the evidence for women at the tomb comes down to a lonely single attestation.13

When we move outside the realm of guesswork based on a questionable survey, and go into dealing with the problems and arguments that historians deal with, the picture becomes far more complicated with respect to which sources are reliable and for what reasons. The minimal facts case not only faces objections from a methodological perspective, for inferring a supernatural explanation out of historical data, but also from an evidential perspective.

1. Gary R. Habermas, Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present, (2005). Retrieved April 12, 2016.
2. Richard Carrier, Innumeracy: A Fault to Fix, Freethought Blogs (Nov. 26, 2013). Retrieved April 12, 2016.
3. Josephus, Jewish War 4.81, 7.399.
4. Leonard Rutgers, "Roman Policy towards the Jews: Expulsions from the City of Rome during the First Century C.E.," Classical Antiquity, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Apr. 1994), p. 57.
5. Craig Evans, "Roman Law and the Burial of Jesus," Matthew and Mark Across Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2016), ed. Kristian Bendoraitis and Nijay Gupta, p. 57.
6. John G. Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World (Mohr Siebeck, 2014), p. 385-386.
7. Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God (Harper-Collins, 2014), p. 158.
8. Ibid, p. 158.
9. James F. McGrath, Early Converted Skeptics?, Exploring Our Matrix (Aug. 7, 2009). Retrieved April 14, 2016.
10. Keith Parsons, in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (Prometheus, 2005), ed. Jeffery Jay Lowder and Robert M. Price, p. 441.
11. Matthew S. McCormick, Atheism and the Case Against Christ (Prometheus, 2012), p. 84-85.
12. Ibid, p. 58-59.
13. Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels (Trinity Press, 1990), p. 253-255. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Walter Kaufmann on Courtroom-Style Religious Apologetics

If the smash hit success of the Making a Murderer series on Netflix is a testament to anything, it might be that everyone loves a good courtroom drama. Over the course of almost any criminal trial, there is suspense, intrigue, and excitement as each side builds its case and new evidence is presented, eventually leading up to a verdict. Depending on the circumstances involved, many such trials can also be deeply emotional, eliciting anger, disgust, sadness, or sometimes joy even in people not in any way affiliated with the case. So-called "trials of the century," like those of Charlie Manson or O.J. Simpson, have garnered massive public attention in modern times thanks largely to press coverage. Skilled attorneys, unexpected discoveries, and undecided jurors help to make some trials into gripping roller coaster rides of anticipation

Christian apologists have published a number of best-selling books modeled on this format, most notably Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict (1972) and Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ (1998). More recent is Cold Case Christianity (2013), written by homicide detective J. Warner Wallace, as well as the upcoming film God's Not Dead 2, which teases a "court case" showdown that threatens to "expel God from the classroom". The idea of defending the faith in a legal setting even goes back to Jesus himself, who defends his ministry before the Jewish and Roman authorities in John 18.

But how fruitful really is this approach in attempting to justify the truth of Christianity? Part of its appeal is likely that it tries to reduce bias by working on a more neutral ground of debate - a secular ground, arguably. Another part of the appeal is that it seems to allow for an evaluative contrast: the case is made so strongly that we ought to believe it tells the truth. This is what Lee Strobel implies by noting in the ending chapter of his book, "I had seen defendants carted off to the death chamber on much less convincing proof!"[1] If Christ comes out favorably by even the high standards of the same justice system to which we trust countless human lives, then shouldn't we trust Christ?

Years before the publication of the aforementioned texts, philosopher Walter Kaufmann offered an insightful critique of this particular apologetic style:

An attitude often encountered among religious people and exemplified professionally by a great many preachers and theologians is that of the counsel for the defense. Here is an attitude toward truth quite different from the scientist's or the historian's, but no less methodical and disciplined and moral. Only it is governed by a different morality.

In many countries the counsel for the defense is expected to use all his ingenuity as well as passionate appeals to the emotions to gain credence for a predetermined conclusion - namely, that his client is innocent. He may ignore some of the evidence if he can get away with it, and he is under no obligation to carry out investigations which are likely to discredit his conclusion. If, after all that, he cannot convince the jury of the truth of his position, he will saddle his opponent with the burden of disproof; and if necessary he will rest content with a reasonable doubt that his position might be true.

Common though this attitude is toward religion, it is indefensible outside the courtroom, and it does not indicate a second type of truth.

In the first place, some unusual conditions obtain in the courts where this attitude is legitimate. The very fact of the indictment creates some presumption, psychologically, that the accused is guilty. Then, the prosecutor is an official of the government and aided by its vast resources, ranging all the way from its prestige to its police. Against such formidable odds the defense requires a handicap; and that is one reason why it is conceded the liberties that have been mentioned. In the case of religion, the situation is more nearly the opposite. Its advocates are aided by the government's prestige and by voluble testimony from officeholders and would-be officeholders; and the case for all kinds of religious propositions is proclaimed not only from the pulpits but in our most popular magazines, too, and in the press, and over radio and television, while the case against these propositions never gets a comparable hearing. If the courtroom analogy could be extended to the case of religion, the prerogatives mentioned should be granted to its critics to redress the balance.

Secondly, a jury is not asked to come up with the most likely story or even the most likely culprit. The jury is confronted with a single suspect, and truth is not the highest consideration. Better let two guilty men go free than punish one who is innocent.

Suppose that the major philosophic positions were haled into court, one at a time, each defended by a brilliant advocate. Surely, these attorneys - it could even be the same lawyer every time - would succeed time and again in raising a reasonable doubt in the mind of the jury that the position might be true. The attorney might not even have to try very hard if the prosecution were under pressure to pull its punches, as it is in the case of religion. Position after position would be acquitted. But such acquittal of a philosophy or a religion creates no presumption whatsoever that the position is probably true. In the end, those who care for a considered choice would still have the whole field to choose from.

We have here two different attitudes toward truth, but not two different types of truth. The second attitude, unlike the first, subordinates questions of truth to other questions of a moral kind. In fact, it might be argued that the verdict of the jury, "We find the accused not guilty," is not so much a determination of fact as it is a deceptively phrased recommendation for action. In line with this, the records show that when juries know that a finding of "guilty" makes the death penalty mandatory they will find the accused guilty much less often.

There is no need here to distinguish legal truth from other kinds of truth: such a distinction only prompts confusion. Consider a case that happens occasionally: some of the evidence against the accused has been obtained illegally or was not legally admissible in court, and the judge therefore directs the jury to find the accused not guilty. There is no point whatsoever here in introducing any conflict between types of truth. Clearly, the truth is in this case subordinated to respect for civil rights. And the situation can be explained perfectly in terms of the one and only kind of truth we have encountered so far.

"Guilty" and "not guilty" are, in the mouth of a jury, elliptical expressions which are only apparently identical with these phrases in other contexts. In a verdict they mean "proved guilty (or not proved guilty) in accordance with the special rules of evidence and argument that govern court procedure." Thus the accused may well be guilty in the ordinary sense but not guilty in this more restricted sense.

A jury operates under unusual conditions and is not expected to decide more than the special question whether the accused has been proved guilty in accordance with a certain set of rules. Neither the jury's attitude nor that of the counsel for the defense is at all appropriate when we are asked if a religious proposition is true or not true.[2]

Could the gospels or the resurrection hold up in a court of law, as apologists like McDowell, Strobel, and Wallace have claimed? One is tempted to respond: so what if they could? Our legal system does not establish truth. Moreover, it's not even clear what the charges might be that could reasonably be leveled against a faith like Christianity, nor is it clear why subjecting the beliefs of that faith to  standards developed and intended for judging human social behavior at this specific time and place in history should be appropriate, let alone impressive in the event that everything stacks up well.

1. Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (1998, Zondervan), p. 264.
2. Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy (1990, Princeton), p. 105-107.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Absurdity of Life With or Without God: A Reply to William Lane Craig

The Human Need for Meaning

We live in meaning like a fish lives in water. To step out of meaning is to die.  
- Dorothy Rowe

The annals of humanity tell a familiar story. Were sentient extraterrestrial beings to read our histories, they would surely take note of our persistent labor to find our place in this world. Questions litter the pages of human history, pondering our identity, our reason for being, and our future. The struggle for survival seems to have birthed the struggle for meaning, for something more to the life we fight for than the mere hope of continued existence. Awakened into greater awareness with the development of human cognition, we find ourselves repeatedly asking, "Why?" - a characteristic which has been regarded by many as unique to our species.

Innumerable men and women have sought answers to these questions, and some claim to have found them, in religion. What we are is children of God. Our reason for being is that we were created by God, and, for some believers, our future is determined by the relationship we have with our creator. Life has meaning because God has given it meaning. We have a purpose because God, who created us, created us with purpose.

Yet the postmodernist wants to live without God, and without faith, as we hear from many a pulpit today. The man of the world and the woman of the world think they have moved beyond the need for God, beyond reliance on antiquated religious doctrines and dogmas. But without God, life ends at the grave, and if all concludes in death, what point is there to any of it? Dostoevsky is often cited for saying, "Without God, everything is permitted."

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig paints a vivid picture of this harrowing outlook in his essay, The Absurdity of Life Without God. Setting aside the issue of whether or not Christianity is true, Craig attempts to show that the alternative - which he considers to be atheism, or naturalism - is untenable, unlivable, and awful. Life without God is absurd, he says, too absurd to be a rational decision about how one should live. "It seems to me positively irrational," writes Craig, "to prefer death, futility, and destruction to life, meaningfulness, and happiness."

Indeed, if this tremendous sense of decay and despair is actually what is entailed by living without God, perhaps we ought to rethink our doubts. One way in which Craig tries to underscore that a consistently godless life is absurd is by reference to atheists such as Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus. The message is that these non-believers recognized the meaninglessness of their own worldview, and therefore serve as something like 'eyewitness testimony' in support of Craig's thesis.

However, the absurdity that Professor Craig shoulders atheism with in his essay is absurd primarily because it eschews certain theological notions of meaning, purpose, and value. Although part of the hopelessness is allegedly that life ends at death, even immortality would not count for anything unless it was God-given immortality. Thus, it all rests on God in Craig's argument, and life without God is absurd because, essentially, it's life without God. God is the only thing able to make life meaningful.

This is quite a contention, requiring more than just the supposed lack of objective value and cosmic purpose on a naturalistic worldview. Can meaning just be created into life, and the absurd vanquished, by the hand of a deity? In this article, I will contend that Craig under-appreciates the weight of absurdity - namely that he neglects a full treatment of the subject as it has been articulated in Camus, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. I suggest that his criteria for absurdity are weighty only insofar as they reflect this fuller understanding of the absurd. I will likewise argue that absurdity of this sort does not undermine atheism, but recommends it, in that it reveals the absurdity of even life with God.

My aim here will not be a comprehensive defense of Camus; specifically, I will not be diving far into the deeper aspects of his philosophy, such as his ethics. All I intend to show is that absurdity, it might be said, is a two-way street concerning theism and atheism. References here will be without page numbers, due to my purchase of a cheap text printed with no actual page numbers, and for that I apologize. Most of this material can be easily looked up online, however. I begin with a summation of Craig's central claims, followed by a discussion of Camus' conception of absurdity, as well as the absurd in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. From there, I proceed to a critique of Craig's position, and then some final comment on living the absurd life.

Godless to Absurdity

If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.

For Craig, absurdity arises out of the absence of ultimate meaning, purpose, and value. Call these latter the Big Three. Throughout his essay, Craig has two main points to drive home: first, that life needs the Big Three to avoid being absurd, and second, that life can only have the Big Three with reference to God. A life that terminates in us passing out of existence, with no immortality and no God, is an absurd life.

The first point is a common intuition for many people. We like to think our lives have importance because of how they affect others, or because some of what we do can change history, but in the grand scheme of things, it appears to make no real difference. Craig is willing to grant that we partake in such "relative significance," while still emphasizing that none of it amounts to much. A lot of little meanings may satiate us for a time, but they are no substitute for Meaning with a capital M.

The threat of non-being looms large over every pleasure, every day, and every relationship. Science tells us the universe itself will one day become cold and lifeless, and so the fate of every creature is the same. What difference would it make if we had never existed, or if the universe had never existed? "This is the horror of modern man," Craig declares, "because he ends in nothing, he is nothing."

It would be a mistake to believe, however, that extending life indefinitely could suddenly make it mean something. If the short span of a lifetime is already without meaning, it is not clear how adding infinity to it would give it meaning. What is needed is a source of life's meaning, one capable of giving it a truly lasting significance. Nothing in this life seems able to fit that extraordinary bill. Most of us desire love and compassion in our lives, yet these come and go, and they end with death as well. If our fate is the same regardless of how we act, then why be loving or compassionate, anyway?

An uncreated universe, even if eternal, is a purposeless universe, according to Craig - a mere "cosmic accident," an absurdity. I said in the previous section that this view of absurdity is labeled as absurd primarily because it eschews theological notions about meaning, purpose, and value. Here we see this made most plain. Whatever meaning, value, and purpose might exist in this life, none of it can be of cosmic or ultimate significance if the universe is just the product of unintelligent, purposeless chance. Thus, Craig writes:

...if God exists, then there is hope for man. But if God does not exist, then all we are left with is despair. Do you understand why the question of God's existence is so vital to man? As one writer has aptly put it, "If God is dead, then man is dead, too."

God alone can make life meaningful in the sense demanded by apologists like William Lane Craig. To say life is absurd is not to say it lacks any meaning, purpose, and value whatsoever, but that it lacks the right kind of meaning, purpose, and value that could elevate it above absurdity. As noted already, it is a common intuition that some greater, larger picture of significance must exist in order for all the little treasures underneath to have import. This intuition is frequently defended as one defends the most cherished of desires, with passion and conviction and an overwhelming sense of need. It is certainly defended this way by Craig, who stresses the "gravity" of the alternatives in so desperate a statement that if God is dead, "man is dead, too."

Yet ambiguity remains. What exactly constitutes the right kind, or right recipe, of the Big Three is not as easily reasoned as it may be intuited. Particularly when we are talking about what may be a consistent and livable existential attitude - for any of us individually, or for humanity generally - it seems like there will be far too much speculation involved behind any black-and-white, one-size-fits-all answer. Though we all do share in something called the human condition, we also exist in relatively different and unique circumstances, and we are each accustomed to various modes of being in the world, which can change over a lifetime. To propose that there is one perfect cocktail of meaning, purpose, and value that suits all of us, in all the diversity of our positions, may in fact require the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good creator to orchestrate such a fantastic miracle!

If nothing else, though, we can surely say that Craig's favored recipe for meaning depends on his understanding of the absurd. For Craig, absurdity is more of a mindset than a reality. It is a problem to be cured. The life of the atheist is absurd only in that she does not acknowledge God, and so has no claim to ultimate significance, purpose, and value. Absurdity on this view is practically a placeholder for irrationality. Craig says of the godless perspective that it is "utterly without reason." The absurd life is living with the irrational belief that we inhabit a godless universe.

Divorced From Life

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus describes the absurd feeling as being divorced from one's life. We encounter a tragic divide between our desires for reality and reality as it really is, perhaps most of all in those humbling conscious moments of suffering and trauma. The desires we have for unity, purpose, and order clash with our experiences of a world that seems not to care about us, our dreams, or our plans. The absurdist finds herself a stranger adrift in a foreign world with no lights or illusions, unable to remember where she has come from and unaware of where she is heading. If she denies the absurd, she lives an inauthentic life, as if the world is so little different from her desires that the incongruities presented to her are not really incongruities at all.

For Camus, the absurd is fundamental to who we are. Our consciousness is what separates us from the world, what gives rise to absurdity.

If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning, or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world. I should be this world to which I am now opposed by my whole consciousness and my whole insistence upon familiarity. This ridiculous reason is what sets me in opposition to all creation.

The human condition is uniquely human in that we are consciously separated from the world in which we live. The same cognition that allows us to reason also isolates us from the rest of the universe. To be conscious is not just to think, it is to remember, to imagine, to desire, and, at certain times, to be aware of these things. We wish for much more than that our biological needs be met. We not only have a concept of the world, but we have the concept of what we need from the world, and what we need for our very existence to be meaningful.

Yet the world is silent to our pleas for this ultimate meaning, and no higher reality or perfect being can spare us from this fact. "What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me?" Camus asks. "I understand only in human terms. What I touch, what resists me – that is what I understand." Even if a god exists, and has endowed the universe with its purposes, there remains doubt that these purposes would matter to us. Thomas Nagel, in his own essay on "The Absurd," interprets Camus as saying that "the world might satisfy [our] demands if it were different." In opposition to this, Nagel claims absurdity derives "not from a collision between our expectations and the world, but from a collision within ourselves." However, Camus' point is not just that the world has no seemingly in-built meaning to it, but that we, as the conscious and reasoning creatures we are, do not even belong to this world.

For the world to meet our demands, we would have to be the world. Likewise, we would have to be God in order for God to rescue us from absurdity. Such radical alternatives seem almost unthinkable, though, in that they would undermine the human condition itself. Instead, we know and experience the world as alien - we find ourselves afloat in a universe that shows no concern for our ontological needs, desires, or hopes. But oh, how we still need, and desire, and hope! We long for ultimate meaning, that we might be reunited with God, the world, and the totality of it all. However, this is not the existence we have, and if some day it should be, it will mean the end of the self. At the depths of our being, we feel the weight of the absurd

Many people have collapsed under the burden of absurdity. Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus to address the question of suicide, which is commonly seen as the end result of life losing its value and meaning. One way of responding to the absurd dilemma is to deny one of its components. It may seem as if those who commit suicide have done the only reasonable thing in light of meaninglessness (this, in fact, looks to be an undercurrent in Craig's essay). But suicide does not actually stem logically from nihilism, Camus points out, when the decision to end one's life is to make a value judgment that life is not worth living. Rather, suicide is a denial of the absurd in that it removes the self from the world, and so eliminates half of the dilemma.

The absurd can also be denied through what Camus calls philosophical suicide. This is when we trade in the real world for comforting illusions. Religion tells us our desires for purpose, order, and unity can be met by God, or by a world beyond this one. Certain belief systems even have it that such desires are instilled by God to show us our need for him and bring us closer to him. Camus sees existentialism as another philosophical suicide, since it deifies the absurd, and so merely mystifies capital-M Meaning. On both views, the world is not silent to us, but has just what it is we are looking for, whether we know it or not.

Camus finds significance only in accepting life on its own terms, which has everything to do with acknowledging its absurdity. This is best exemplified in Sisyphus, that figure of Greek myth condemned to roll a rock uphill for eternity. Despite laboring under an aimless fate, Sisyphus carries on and takes his actions and his labor into his consciousness. In doing so, he silences all the idols and his fate becomes his own. "In the universe suddenly restored to its silence," Camus writes, "the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up." The fragility of existence becomes clear to those who see life as it is and not as they wish for it to be. Sisyphus knows the whole extent of his condition, and yet that lucidity which threatens him also "crowns his victory."

Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd discovery. It also happens as well that the feeling of the absurd springs from happiness. "I conclude that all is well," says Oedipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile sufferings. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.

Our condition is absurd whether God exists or not. Happiness, taken in an important sense of well-being, knows this. The Greek word often translated as happiness, eudaimonia, comes from two separate words meaning "good" and "spirit." While this can mean having virtuous character, it also suggests a wellness of being, or put in a more familiar phrasing: it is well with my soul. Human nature is fundamental to Aristotle's conception of eudaimonia, and there is recognition of the need for modesty, to acknowledge our situation and our limitations. Seeing our condition as it is, seeing the absurdity of life, is not antithetical to happiness, it is, for Camus, paramount to happiness.

Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and the Absurd

Nearly a century before Camus, Kierkegaard wrote on the absurd. Of it, he says in the Journals:

What is the Absurd? It is, as may quite easily be seen, that I, a rational being, must act in a case where my reason, my powers of reflection, tell me: you can just as well do the one thing as the other, that is to say where my reason and reflection say: you cannot act and yet here is where I have to act…. The Absurd, or to act by virtue of the absurd, is to act upon faith … I must act, but reflection has closed the road so I take one of the possibilities and say: This is what I do, I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection.

This is one way of viewing the distance between the human being and the world. At some times, our mind pushes us towards what the world will not allow. We find reason retreats from decision, but we are unable to abstain from acting, and so we leap. We encounter the absurd in that interaction between our will and unyielding reality.

For Kierkegaard, the absurd demands faith. Truth, he writes in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, is "the daring venture of choosing the objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite." If one can apprehend God objectively, one does not have faith. It is because one cannot do this that one must have faith. To maintain faith is to remain committed to objective uncertainty, according to Kierkegaard. Here, faith seems to be of first importance, not merely in a manner that keeps the absurd alive, but as a triumph of the believer. Faith brings hope. Thus, Camus says that by his "frantic adherence," Kierkegaard "is led to blind himself to the absurd which hitherto enlightened him and to deify the only certainty he henceforth possesses, the irrational." In short, "Kierkegaard wants to be cured."

Interestingly, Craig makes no mention of Kierkegaard in his essay, although he has elsewhere described him as "a bona fide fideist" who believed there is "ultimately no warrant for Christian belief." Of further intrigue is that Craig characterizes Kierkegaard's view as motivating the leap of faith by "showing how life lived apart from God ultimately degenerates into despair, boringness, and languishing in absurdity." As just pointed out, however, Kierkegaard's concept of the absurd actually seems closer to Camus' than Craig's. Camus may have criticized Kierkegaard for allegedly wanting a cure for this absurdity, but it appears clear that absurdity is not merely a life apart from God on Kierkegaard's account. This is even supported by Craig's own observation that the Danish philosopher thought Christianity itself absurd because of the incarnation. Why such Christian absurdity is not addressed or referenced at all in an article covering the absurd life and its relation to God is difficult to understand.

Craig does at least reference other absurdists in his essay, such as Nietzsche and Camus. In a few paragraphs, he draws on Nietzsche's famous tale of the madman who proclaims the death of God, and in another line he mentions the philosopher's break with Wagner over anti-Semitism. This is all the attention Nietzsche receives.

What does the death of God mean? Various commentators have contributed various thoughts on the declaration, but among them there has also been a good deal of general agreement. For Nietzsche, God's death meant the end of the systems of meaning and value that had sustained much of the world for centuries. When the madman says that, "We have killed [God] - you and I," the message is that our old ways of living and being in the world are now gone, and we are responsible for their destruction. Nietzsche does not say that their demise came about because people stopped believing in God. On the contrary, the madman realizes he has come too early; humanity is not yet ready to give up its obsolete evaluative traditions.

It should surprise no one that Nietzsche, author of The Antichrist, did not think the death of God could be solved by returning to the old faith and the old God. The madman's cry is not for the prodigal children to come home, for there is no going back. The 19th century saw advances in science, education, history, politics, religious criticism, and more, which helped escort humanity into a new age. With each new age and the changes it brings, we are forced to reconsider our place in this world, including where we stand in relation to our former structures of meaning. Like all traditions, Christianity continually turns to ask what its fundamental teachings mean today, in the modern world.

Nietzsche did not speak of the absurd as openly as Kierkegaard and Camus, but his works bear traces of it. Camus wrote of the absurd divorce between man and his world, and we see this divorce come from reason itself in Nietzsche. In the article, "Camus and Nihilism," Ashley Woodward explains as follows:

...for Nietzsche and Heidegger, the unity and existential meaningfulness of life depends upon continuity with an irrational background, a horizon of interconnected meanings and significances that orients our projects. For such thinkers it is precisely the turning of the light of analytic reason on every aspect of this background that has cut us off from it, diminished its significance, and set us adrift.

It is not hard to take from this why an intellectual turn back towards God cannot resolve the absurdity Nietzsche finds in the death of God. He states in Twilight of the Idols, "One must reach out and try to grasp this astonishing finesse, that the value of life cannot be estimated. Not by a living man, because he is a party to the dispute, indeed its object, and not the judge of it; not by a dead one, for another reason." What of God? If God partakes of life, or if he is life - additionally, if he is being, as Tillich thought - then he is just as much party to the dispute, and object of it, as we are. On the other hand, if God is beyond life, or outside of it, then we are confronted again by Camus' question. What can meaning outside our condition mean to us?

God and the Absurdity of Life

We have now seen that, according to three of the major thinkers on meaninglessness, absurdity is about more than the existence of God. The absurd is not a mindset, nor is it simply that the world itself is without a priori meaning. Life's absurdity comes from the relation of the mind to the world. Like all else, Camus says, "the absurd ends with death." As noted before, even if God has created the world with ultimate purpose, value, and significance, it cannot matter to us, since we are separated from the world by our condition, by our consciousness. Absurdity remains.

Camus insists that in attempting a solution, we remain faithful to the absurd, and do not simply negate one of its terms in our response. He, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard agree on where absurdity arises, and all seemingly also agree, in their own way, that the absurd requires revolt. What interests me at this point is their shared conception of absurdity - coming from two atheists and a Christian - and how it contrasts with Craig's concept of absurdity. Craig agrees that the world itself is not absurd, but he does not agree that the absurd is in us and the world taken together. He believes, perhaps unlike even Kierkegaard, that God is a definite cure for the absurd, indicated by the entire argument of his essay.

As mentioned, Craig has it that absurdity arises from living with the irrational belief that we inhabit a godless universe. The atheist's life is absurd in either being consistent with their beliefs and thus living mired in despair, or in living inconsistently. "If one lives consistently, he will not be happy," Craig writes, "if one lives happily, it is only because he is not consistent." Additionally, this implies that it is not just the existence or non-existence of God that matters, but whether or not one believes in God. An atheist living without God in a universe where God exists would still be living an absurd life, according to Craig. This is much like Nagel's take, referenced above, that were the world different (having God in it), the absurd would not arise.

Note where the tension lies on this view. The atheist thinks she can live meaningfully without appeal to God. The fact of it is, though, that the meaning she needs can only come from God. She is unable to obtain Meaning on her own for all the standard theological reasons: she is imperfect, she is separated from God by sin, she lacks the requisite power or the goodness needed to make an adequately meaningful life for herself. This is her condition, and it is the human condition. Romans 3:23 says that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," as Jeremiah 17:9 declares the heart is "deceitful above all things, and desperately sick." 1 John 1:8 warns that, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."

How are those who live meaningful lives with God able to do so? "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves," states Ephesians 2:8-9. "[I]t is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast." All these passages appear to suggest that we possess a fallen nature that cannot be overcome by any effort on our part. Grace is what ultimately saves the day, grace that can come from God alone. The apostle Paul speaks in the New Testament of two alternatives: being a slave to sin or a slave to Christ. We are left with no third option of making our own way. Our will collides with an unyielding reality, for even our desires to be saved, to enter into eternal life, and to live morally cannot be achieved except by divine will.

I do not want to over-stretch the comparison here. The Christian view does seem to say our desires for significance can be met. Even so, something of a paradox exists in that while nothing we do really grants us salvation, somehow salvation is given, and not indiscriminately, but to those who 'call on the Lord.' Another way of emphasizing what Kierkegaard and Camus have said of the absurd is by observing that we are incomplete, we are not whole. The point of most spiritual or self transformation is to be at home again, to no longer feel separated from reality, the world, or God. Craig believes it is possible for that to happen, but what he calls the absurdity of life without God belies a deeper problem, one where we are all incomplete and sinful. In our earthly, fleshly, human condition, we bear witness to this separation.

The problem is that this is where we are now. We are not yet in eternity or united with God in celestial bodies. We exist in and struggle with a world that does not answer to our demands for unity, purpose, and order. We may believe the world shows these things in itself, or that God has bestowed meaning on life, but these are inferences, suppositions, and hopes. Absurdity comes to us not as belief, but as conscious experience, the lucid feeling of disconnection. Blake spoke of psychic disintegration, Marx of alienation, and Christian theology talks of a God-shaped void. Though these ideas have their differences, to be sure, they communicate a common, powerful sense of the awareness of our divorce from life. The very core of Craig's essay, arguing our need for God, tells of something important we are missing.

It might be tempting to ask, 'What if God made us differently, in a way that we would not be divorced from life?' This question is already a step towards illusion, as are all the imaginative ideas that come with it. It is to surmise that the human condition might be other than it is. Of course, one can worry that this is too quick, and begs the question against other positions. Still, we seem aware of our separation from the world, especially when we struggle and contemplate our existence. Craig himself cites the familiar observation in his essay that man is the only creature who asks, "Why?" The same impulse that moves us to count ourselves as a special creation calls attention to the loneliness, the isolation, of humanity in the universe.

If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. -John 15:19

The author of John expresses why Craig's account of absurdity is inadequate. In saying that God and immortality give us meaning, Craig places the cure for absurdity firmly outside this world, this life, and our condition. As such, it is presently unattainable. Explaining the "success" of biblical Christianity near the end of his essay, Craig remarks that on his view, "man's life does not end at the grave," and, "[i]n the resurrection body man may enjoy eternal life and fellowship with God." These are the conditions that make life meaningful for Craig. We are destined for another world, and yet we find ourselves in one where we do not belong, one which allegedly only has meaning in leaving it behind. Can that other world really matter much to where we are now?

No, say Nietzsche and Camus. If this life were to have meaning, it would be meaning that affirms this life, rather than meaning that negates it by turning existence itself into a means to some other end.

Living With the Absurd

Is it truly impossible to live consistently and happily with absurdity, as Craig has claimed? We have already seen the beginnings of one answer in Camus. Where happiness involves something like well-being, and an awareness of one's condition is implied in that, it is not so challenging to envision how recognition of the absurd can contribute to happiness. As Avi Sagi notes in Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd, Camus' call to picture Sisyphus as happy is "a notion close to the Aristotelian model, which approaches happiness as a by-product of self-realization. The individual who lives the absurd realizes human existence to the full, and is therefore happy."

Craig's reason for denying one can live happily and consistently with the absurd appears to revolve exclusively around an analogy from Francis Schaeffer.

Modern man, says Schaeffer, resides in a two-story universe. In the lower story is the finite world without God; here life is absurd, as we have seen. In the upper story are meaning, value, and purpose. Now modern man lives in the lower story because he believes there is no God. But he cannot live happily in such an absurd world; therefore, he continually makes leaps of faith into the upper story to affirm meaning, value, and purpose, even though he has no right to, since he does not believe in God.

First, note the presumption behind where meaning, value, and purpose are located in this universe. Schaeffer locates them in only one story, conveniently the same story where God is located. More than this, though, there is no differentiation between different kinds of meaning, value, and purpose. In this respect, the analogy begs the question. Craig acknowledges that a world without God can still have "culturally and personally relative, subjective judgments" about meaning, value, and purpose. I have previously noted the common intuition that people have about the necessity of capital-M Meaning for grounding all the little meanings, and I have also noted the very daunting challenge this intuition invites for justifying any one 'perfect cocktail' of meaning above all others. It seems to me that placing meaning, value, and purpose solely on the upper story is an unwarranted assumption.

Second, Schaeffer's assertion that modern man "continually makes leaps of faith into the upper story," though he has no right to, is supported in Craig's essay by nothing else than accusations of inconsistency in the statements and behavior of select atheists, like Sartre and Camus. However, these allegations do not prove the stronger claim in Schaeffer's analogy. Even if some atheists have tried to have their cake and eat it too, it does not follow that this is the case across the board. Granted, Schaeffer's analogy is exactly that - an analogy - but since it is all Craig really brings against the possibility of living happily and consistently with absurdity, it deserves the scrutiny. It is also certainly debatable whether any of the examples Craig uses actually shows inconsistency.

To take one such example, Craig alleges that "Camus has been rightly criticized for inconsistently holding both to the absurdity of life and the ethics of human love and brotherhood." If life is meaningless, how can you have values like love and brotherhood? Again, there may be a bit of a bait and switch going on, for it sounds as if Craig is dismissing those subjective judgments he elsewhere concedes to a godless world. If we take him as consistent in not dismissing them, then we might find reason to question his claim about Camus.

We must find a way to live with the terms of the human condition, rather than abandoning absurdity through denial, by philosophical or physical suicide. Camus saw that to live in the face of the absurd is to adopt a stance of metaphysical rebellion. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, a value also emerges from it. The absurd, he observes in The Rebel, "is contradictory in its content because, in wanting to uphold life, it excludes all value judgments, when to live is, in itself, a value judgment. To breathe is to judge". In Cartesian fashion, Camus takes the absurd as primary, as his starting point, since his project is to see if one can live "without appeal." Yet the value that emerges from his exclusion of value judgments is a value that comes from experience, from facing the absurd, and not from presupposition.

"The point is," Craig explains, "that if there is no God, then objective right and wrong cannot exist. As Dostoyevsky said, 'All things are permitted.'" Camus' valuation of life is personal rather than an eternal value. At the same time, it is tied to the core of his being, for not wanting to deny the absurd through suicide, he must continue to be, and continuing to be is to find value in living. If all things are permitted, why not this? But Camus objects to this reading of Dostoevsky:

The absurd does not liberate; it binds. It does not authorize all actions. "Everything is permitted" does not mean nothing is forbidden. The absurd merely confers an equivalence on the consequences of those actions. It does not recommend crime, for this would be childish, but it restores to remorse its futility. Likewise, if all experiences are indifferent, that of duty is as legitimate as any other. One can be virtuous through a whim.

If one is worried about the license that meaninglessness and absurdity may give, then, as Camus further states, "The certainty of a God giving a meaning to life far surpasses in attractiveness the ability to behave badly with impunity."

Within that sense of divinely-ordained purpose, many throughout history have found ample justification for the most heinous bad behavior. It's all too easy for the stalwart believer to dismiss this point by saying justification was going in the wrong direction for those wolves of the faith, that they only sought sanction for the sin that was always in them. This can be agreed without sacrificing much. The absurdist knows we deeply desire meaning in our lives, to which the world is unreceptive, and the ways that we find, invent, and preserve our place in this world are frequently problematic, even destructive. This is why she turns inward, towards the absurd life and the lucidity it brings. It restores the universe to its silence, restores to her her joy, and causes her to say "yes" to life.


Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O'Brien
Albert Camus, The Rebel, p. 9.
Ashley Woodward, "Camus and Nihilism," Sophia (2011) 50:543–559.
Avi Sagi, Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd (Value Inquiry Books, 2012), p. 2.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (Penguin, 1968), p. 40.
Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript
Soren Kierkegaard, The Journals 
Thomas Nagel, "The Absurd," The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 68, No. 20.
William Lane Craig, The Absurdity of Life Without God,