Tuesday, October 22, 2013

In Defense of Atheist Churches

On a recent episode of the Reasonable Doubts podcast, ex-minister Jerry Dewitt shared his intentions and ambitions for the Community Mission Chapel, a secular church where he preaches a message of humanism. You won't find god there, but you will find lessons and teachings on love, hope, purpose, truth, and other familiar concepts. Dewitt's ideas seem to be part of a growing push among secularists aspiring to develop a greater sense of community. Earlier this year, the Sunday Assembly in London attracted large numbers of attendants curious to see what a so-called atheist church looks like. Atheist speakers like Alain de Botton have encouraged non-believers to embrace and learn from certain aspects of religion, particularly the social components found in ecclesiastical environments.

Predictably, the response to these new initiatives has been mixed on both sides. Christian apologist William Lane Craig has criticized the efforts of Dewitt and others, suggesting that their messages have no real substance without a transcendent deity behind them. The atheist blogosphere has no shortage of voices decrying any attempts at organizing that could be construed into an argument for atheism being a religion. But at the other end of things, there are also those who see the value in having a network of support like most congregations provide. Even simply having a weekly place of respite from our predominantly religious world, where one can gather with like-minded people, can be its own reward.

I used to count myself among those who contend that anything resembling religion should be anathema to atheism. No sacred texts, no liturgies, no icons, no prophets, no evangelists, and definitely no churches. All such things are permeated by corruption and serve to foster blind obeisance. Undoubtedly, they can and do often suffer from those problems, and history is rife with prime and perturbing examples. Yet we have to be cautious that we don't toss the baby out with the bathwater. Nietzsche saw the world as infused with innumerable crumbling theistic assumptions, but even he didn't conclude that there would be nothing worth salvaging from the ashes of religion. Whether or not there are any gods, angels, demons, or spirits, religion is a human enterprise. Perhaps, like us, it has its good as well as its bad traits.

I'm regularly disappointed by how few atheists seriously consider what evolution and social psychology tell us about religious belief. It's not something that can be knocked down in one shot with a silver bullet argument. It's not going to fade away and be replaced by widespread reliance on reason and evidence. Religion hasn't only survived through bloodshed and oppression, even if they've played a significant role in its history (like they have for much of human history in general). Religion persists for other reasons. They're not the cosmic sort of reasons, nor are they necessarily the memetic sort. Put simply, there are things about religion which are apparently appealing enough that we have sustained it since before recorded history.

However, I would disagree with some theists like Dinesh D'Souza, who assert that the survival of religion says something about the goodness or truth of its claims. I'm most sympathetic to the view of Pascal Boyer espoused in his seminal work Religion Explained. What exactly religion fulfills in us is a matter of no small debate, but there is some basis for thinking that it appeals to needs and desires that go deeper than the belief in a transcendent or personal creator of the universe. I believe this is well indicated by the grand variety of opinions on what god is, how many gods exist, what their roles and attributes are, etc. This part of religion seems quite amorphous in contrast to more inflexible parts of it, such as morality and community. As far back as our records go, we find community participation and moral codes to be fairly consistent aspects of religion. Even today in individualistic societies like the US and Great Britain, where religion is believed to be a more private matter, there are many strong communities of faith.

I can see atheist churches meeting the needs of religion without the god stuff, because I believe that's practically what religion itself already does for many. What should be so different about an atheist church and a college lecture hall? What about a local community center? A school of philosophy? Likely due to cultural influence, we seem to attach a different mood to the label of "church". A college lecture hall is for college students, and sometimes consists of dry and boring content, as can a school of philosophy. Local community centers are usually event-driven, but also have the connotation of being made up of 'good citizens'. Churches, on the other hand, are intended to be welcoming and inviting, whatever your background. Much more than a lecture hall, community center, or school of philosophy, they appeal to our needs and desires as social creatures.

To be frank, I worry that we risk sacrificing too much if we concern ourselves more with how our views and actions appear to other people than with the values we claim to have. Atheism should not mean every man for himself, or every woman for herself. We shouldn't create an atmosphere of isolation solely in the service of making it easier for us to fend off theistic criticisms. Dogmatic believers will mislabel atheism a religion as long as it suits their agenda; it's truly not contingent on anything we do. There is more that can be had from atheist churches than from conventions, meet-up groups, and whatnot. Of course, no atheist is obligated to attend an atheist church, but for those who want the fellowship - which I remind you is not a concept on which the religious have any exclusive claim - it won't hurt anything if those opportunities are available.

Dewitt and Jeremy Beahan make many great points, one of which is that we don't just benefit from moral instruction, but from moral conversation as well. Activating concepts in our minds is part of what helps to make us better people, and imagine what will be contributed to critical thinking in an environment where questions are actually expected and cultivated instead of discouraged! Perhaps there could even be lessons learned from William Lane Craig's bizarre and careless dismissal of subjective meaning and purpose, as if some absolute cosmic brand is the only kind that should matter to us.

I have to admit, I would probably not regularly attend an atheist church myself. My reason, though, would be mostly due to my past as a religious believer, and not any personal aversion to it. I'm quite content having my weekends free and not hearing cheesy godless hymns or corny parodies of invocations. But I also recognize that many who feel lost after walking away from their faith, who have never had a church experience, or those who just like being around fellow non-believers, may find enjoyment in it. In addition, I happen to know many religious people who have never cracked an atheist book, or sought out an atheist to ask an honest question. If they were suddenly invited to an atheist church by a friend, maybe they would go and possibly hear some answers to the questions they've been afraid to ask.

So yes, atheist churches could split, they could have to ask their congregations to help with funding, they might have to face corruption and any other problems many churches face, and they likely wouldn't help to make us look less religious to the diehard anti-atheists out there... but do those costs really outweigh the benefits? If organizing is what it takes to get our voices heard politically, to dialogue with other communities in a more meaningful and productive way, to bring us together to affect greater change in social justice issues and other causes, and to better fulfill some of our personal and social needs and desires, then I can't be opposed to the idea of an atheist church.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Delusional Thinking About Generation Y

A recent article at The Huffington Post titled Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy has been stirring up controversy lately. In the article, the claim is made that Millennials are displeased with their lot in life not because they've been dealt a bad hand economically or personally, but because they are convinced they're special, they're overly ambitious, and they're delusional. If you think this summation of the article is even slightly inaccurate, read it for yourself. There have already been some great responses, but there are a few additional points I'd like to make.

I was born in 1985, so by most estimates I am among Generation Y, but just on the cusp of it to where I was also once included among Generation X. In the Huff-Po article, they define Generation Y as those born from the late 70s to the mid 90s, which overlaps ambiguously with other definitions of Generation X as extending to the early 80s, as well as other definitions of Generation Y which claim a starting range as late as 1983. There are problems with lumping all different types of people, from different environments, into such vague categories to begin with, but this is one major reason I hate generational labels. The lie to such labels is that they imply that practically all men of the Greatest Generation were honorable men, or that practically every one of the Baby Boomers experimented with drugs and had lots and lots of unprotected sex. We class things by labels because of trends and stereotypes, but when we begin to use those labels to further said stereotypes, we venture past the domains of history and anthropology and into the domain of prejudice.

I could provide anecdotes about myself and my experiences with the work force, but I see them as being irrelevant to the gist of what is objectionable about this article. It's not saying that there aren't some hard-working, happy people among Generation Y. It's not even saying that there aren't some Generation Yers who get the unlucky end of the stick through no fault of their own. But what it is strongly suggesting is that there is a general problem of entitlement among this current generation of youngsters. I'll be the first to admit that I've worked alongside plenty of guys and girls in my age group who are incredibly lazy, incredibly hostile to others, and incredibly selfish. Then again, I think we've all also worked with people like that who belong to older generations. Anecdotes will only get us so far.

It's interesting, though, that the author of the Huff-Po article doesn't even bother with anecdotes or any kind of evidence for that matter. Many of his claims simply go unsourced and unchallenged. The crux of his article is simply an assertion. He specifies a subgroup (?) of Generation Y to which he gives the acronym GYPSY, for Generation Y Protagonists and Special Yuppies. Sounds convoluted, sure, but the intent is obviously not descriptive as much as it is derogatory. GYPSYs, he argues, think they're super special, they're overly ambitious, and they're pretty darn delusional. Now, as the question mark implies, exactly how much of Gen. Y do these GYPSYs occupy? The author says "a large portion". Well, what is a large portion? 90%? 70%? 51%? Unsurprisingly, no evidence is produced for the GYPSY delineation. Also, unsurprising is that there is no substantiation for how, why, or if in fact GYPSYs do consider themselves more special or are more ambitious than older folks. The most the author provides is a study by Paul Harvey.

I've only read the abstract and some discussions of Harvey's study, because it's unfortunately not available for free online, despite my best efforts to obtain it. However, the abstract and title say nothing at all about Gen. Y or about younger participants. What the study investigated, according to its own authors, was "two behavioral outcomes of entitlement — political behavior and co-worker abuse — and the mediating role of job-related frustration." It sounds like claims about Gen. Y are merely based on a statistical correlation, and this is confirmed in another article about the study, claiming that Harvey's data shows Gen. Y participants scoring 25% higher on measures of entitlement than those aged 40-60, and being twice as likely to rank in the top 20% of entitlement as those 40-60.

The real question is what the entitlement measures are that Harvey and others are using, and what factors might lie behind these figures that are often nakedly thrown around. There is research, like that by Paula McDonald, showing that younger workers are unfairly dismissed more often than older workers. McDonald has some intriguing things to say about the perception of Gen. Y held by many employers:
These young people don't match the Generation Y stereotype of savvy career-builders. They are perceived as being disloyal job-hoppers, but that is an unfair accusation because young workers often have to cope with insecure work environments, low wages and anti-social working hours.
Some employers exploit the vulnerability of young employees and capitalise on their inexperience, limited representation and relative difficulty in seeking legal advice. Some also treat young workers as disposable, especially in this sample who are generally low skilled and who work in precarious, casual positions. These workers are often treated more unfairly because they are more easily replaced, compared to highly skilled workers who are more difficult to replace.
Sadly, I can relate to much of what Ms. McDonald mentions. I have gone through a number of brief stints at jobs for various reasons. Some were admittedly my own fault, or my own decision to quit, but others were not. I worked for a company that regularly over-hires when they open new stores, and being unaware of that at the time, I took their offer and then had the frustrating experience of rapidly losing hours after we opened the store. I have been harassed by co-workers before, cheated out of money, and dismissed over taking two legitimate sick days in a 6 month period. I'm smart enough not to include all these stints on my resume because I imagine how they would look to an employer in this age when employers treat your application purely as a document that should benefit them, rather than putting a face with the document and seeing its origins in an actual person. But I don't expect everyone in my age group does this.

Research like Ms. McDonald's raises the question of what direction the correlation goes. Are younger people more likely to feel entitled than their peers because they have terribly high self-esteem, or does employment treat them in ways that force a sort of bolstering of their self-esteem, which takes on a sense of entitlement? Psychologists have seen the same effect in other circumstances - challenging someone's religious beliefs, or political beliefs, will often result in what are called dissonance reducing strategies. Rather than letting ourselves be beat down or curtail to the first criticisms we receive, we want to defend ourselves and reaffirm our beliefs about ourselves, and this is not always a bad thing. If there is this popular perception of Generation Yers as being over-zealous, arrogant hotshots, and this perception influences how employers treat younger employees, it would make sense that many young people react in ways aimed at reducing the dissonance of being treated so unfairly. Of course, to others, this may appear to only confirm their stereotypes.

What about the older generations, why wouldn't they react as strongly? Certainly some of them do, but I think some of the stereotypes here can also be true. There is more a sense of collectivism among older generations, and an increasing sense of individualism among younger people, even in countries like China. It's not a stretch to imagine that a greater focus on team-playing means one is less likely to be discriminated against by employers than those of a more individualistic bent, and one may even shake off such discrimination more, in the interests of solidarity. There are upsides of both perspectives, I would argue, but also downsides. Employers do need employees that get along well with others, but in our increasingly technological and specialized world, it's become ever more important to recognize the unique abilities of individuals. Towing the line for its own sake is no longer an acceptable policy, and if Gen. Yers are reacting negatively to this sort of foolish standard in the work force, who can blame them?

One other major problem I have with the Huff-Po article, and with Harvey's study, is that they don't consider the role of economic factors. Let's ignore the wealth of data on the enormous increases in college tuition, rental rates and housing, and medical expenses in the US, as well as lagging wages, unemployment, and unforgiving hours in contrast to the rest of the world. Perhaps Generation Y is unhappy not because we think we're special, or because we have unrealistic expectations, but because the very same people who once told us we are special and encouraged us to follow our dreams are now telling us to stop whining and learn to be content with the mess we've been left. We're paying more for education that is less likely to land us steady jobs than it was for our parents, we're enduring rental and medical costs that are higher than they were for our parents, and the work force is not only unable to keep up with these rising expenses, but even discriminates against us at times and takes advantage of the less knowledgeable among us.

Fortunately, we are living in the information age, where these problems are broadcast all over television and the internet. We are painfully aware of the bigger picture because it is constantly repeated by the media, since fear sells. It isn't that any one of us has drawn the short stick, it's that things are not generally going well. Yes, there are young people like Mark Zuckerberg who have been lucky enough to strike it rich at the end of all their hard work, but it's just as unfair to judge our generation by them as it would be to judge older generations by figures like John Rockefeller, Howard Hughes, or Bill Gates. Perhaps Generation Y is unhappy because we are more aware of our situation than previous generations have been, thanks to the prevalence of information now. It's easy to hope for the future when you're unaware of what future projections show. But when those projections are confronting you 24 hours a day on every major media outlet, it can be difficult to find that glimmer of hope on the horizon.

At the end of the article on Huff-Po, the author gives three bits of advice, including the following gem:
Stop thinking that you're special. The fact is, right now, you're not special. You're another completely inexperienced young person who doesn't have all that much to offer yet. You can become special by working really hard for a long time.
Entitlement is necessary to action. If the Allied forces had not felt entitled to live in a world free of the genocidal tyranny of Nazism, we would not know that generation as the Greatest Generation. If civil rights activists had not felt entitled to live in a society where all people are treated as equals, we would not know their generation as the generation that ended segregation. Complacency is the antithesis of action. It's not arrogant or unrealistic to feel entitled to earn more for less work, to get more time off and more benefits. Did the industrialists denounce similar concerns voiced by the early unions about working conditions? Upton Sinclair certainly stirred the hornets nest with The Jungle, yet who today would call his concerns arrogant or unrealistic? True, the danger and corruption found in the work force now is a different breed, for the most part, but it is still undoubtedly there.

The irony of the quote above is the last sentence. What is it about working "really hard for a long time" that confers specialness on someone? Isn't the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results? It seems like a fine line between being special and being insane, then. Maybe we ought to survey older folks and ask them if they feel like their years of back-breaking toil have made them any more special than getting married did, or having children, or helping others, or finding those little things in life that give it a unique kind of meaning, like discovering a joy for art, music, literature, science, etc. The con is that throwing oneself into a job for years of your life does not make you special. Rather, it's what you set your mind to that matters, and if wanting a better way of living makes Generation Y seem delusional, then I will happily count myself a member.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Does William Lane Craig Actually Believe in Evil?

If it's right for someone to permit some event, then his action is just right... On my view, the wrongness of an action is determined by its being forbidden by God. An action is morally permissible if it is not forbidden by God. Now obviously God didn't forbid permitting the Haitian earthquake, so it has the right-making property of being permitted by God.
-William Lane Craig
The above quote is from a debate between Michael Tooley and William Lane Craig. In the debate, Professor Tooley focuses largely on the evidential problem of evil, which forms the context of this quote. Craig disputes Tooley's ideas on balancing right-making and wrong-making properties to determine the overall morality of an action, instead declaring that whatever god allows is what's right. There are no exceptions, he wants to emphasize, which he indicates by his bold remark about the 2010 Haitian earthquake being right simply because god permitted it to occur.

Let's consider the implications of these statements. According to Craig, anything that has happened has been right for god to allow, since rightness is, by definition, whatever god allows. This doesn't just mean the Haitian earthquake, but also includes the centuries of bloodshed known as the Crusades, the horrible tortures during the Inquisition, the terrible suffering of the Black Death, the slaughter of Native Americans, the ruthless regimes of Stalin and Pol Pot, the mass rapes committed during the Bosnian War, Hitler's extermination of millions of Jews, the child abuse epidemic within the Catholic Church, and much, much more. It will not do to credit any of these to human will because, as Craig explains, whatever god permits is right. There is no wiggle room. To entertain that allowing these atrocities was anything but right for god would be to suggest that there are moral ambiguities or moral evils which god could commit, and Craig can't have that.

This raises the question, then, about what evil actually means on Dr. Craig's worldview. He says that wrong action is whatever is forbidden by god, but if god exists, he has historically allowed rape, murder, torture, child molestation, slavery, racism, sexism, cannibalism, genocide, injustice, and a litany of other ills. Is there anything that god could not or would not allow? It seems hard to imagine what he could be withholding from our world, so perhaps it's not any of the acts themselves that he would forbid, but just a certain severity of them. God only allows the amount of evil that's necessary for us to be free agents. Craig has claimed this in several debates.

However, it's difficult to make a persuasive case for this when looking at some of the atrocities of history, particularly the ones I've already elaborated on. It also implies that god has some puzzling priorities. Is free will that worth it to god that he would allow six million Jews to die in Nazi Germany? Add to that the deaths from the other mentioned atrocities, as well as additional unmentioned ones, and the death toll climbs staggeringly high. There are over 774,000 words in the Bible. In order for god to give us free will, more than ten times that number of human beings have had to suffer and die in agonizingly cruel and reprehensible ways. Craig encourages us to trust our intuitions about the existence of objective moral values, yet we're supposed to suppress them when they tell us that there is too much pain and evil in this world for a perfectly good god to be running things.

It could be argued that prioritizing free will over the prevention of suffering and evil is itself an evil. In fact, we recognize something like this when we prevent our children from doing things that would be otherwise harmful to themselves or to others. We stop them from exercising their free will, while we simultaneously teach them why what they want to do is wrong, so that some day when they mature, they will hopefully make better decisions. We don't just talk the talk, we make them walk the walk, too, if we are responsible parents. Until they mature, they won't appreciate the wide array of complex issues in the moral sphere. Now, if god exists, and if his grasp on morality is far more perfect than ours, why would he not be like the understanding parent who guides her children in more than just words, knowing that they don't see what she sees?

When responding to the problem of evil in his debates, Dr. Craig very often raises the possibility of unknown reasons god might have for allowing the existence of some evils. The atheist, he challenges, must prove that god can have no such reasons in order to claim that there are unnecessary evils, and of course Craig doesn't think this can be done, since we are all limited in our capacity for knowledge. It could very well be that there is nothing god would not allow, and that therefore there is no such thing as evil for god. In a sense, this looks like what Craig believes. He might say god could not contradict his own nature, but if his nature already allows for acts of rape, murder, torture, child abuse, etc., what reason is there to think that anything could contradict god's nature?

William Lane Craig is a Divine Command Theorist. He believes, as he's explained in numerous debates, that god's nature is good, and that his commands flow from his nature. But, like I just stated, things like rape, murder, torture, child abuse, and so forth, are apparently consistent with god's nature. After all, if god permits something, it must be right for god. To say these things are inconsistent with the divine nature would be to say that they would not be allowed by god. However, they certainly have happened in our history and continue to happen. So now the troubling question. If god's nature is consistent with these heinous acts - if he has permitted them to take place - why would we think he might not command us to commit any of them? If Dr. Craig is right about god only allowing the minimal amount of evil for free will to exist, and having hidden reasons for allowing apparently unnecessary evils, and historically having permitted only that which is right for him to permit, then what stands in the way of god commanding us to commit acts of rape, murder, or child abuse, if they will fulfill some godly purpose?

Craig is known for sometimes quoting Dostoevsky - "without god, everything is permitted" (this quote is not exactly accurate, though). But here we start to see that it's actually Dr. Craig's worldview that seems to permit everything. In fact, even the apostle Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians 10:23 - "All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable" (NAS). Paul encouraged the believers of his day to eat meat sacrificed to idols, because they knew idols were just wood and stone. But if eating the meat might cause a fellow believer to stumble, Paul said, you should not do it. In other words, if your conscience is clear before god, everything is permitted... just don't lead others into temptation. Paul's opinion on circumcision is very similar; fine for some, bad for others.

Another quote Craig is well known for presenting in debates is from Michael Ruse. Without god, "ethics is illusory," Bill cries emphatically to his opponents. On the contrary, though, it would seem that with all the unbelievably hurtful and immoral acts god has permitted down the course of history, ethics is inescapably illusory on Dr. Craig's worldview. God's nature is consistent with allowing every conceivable evil, and his commands, flowing from that nature, come with no guarantee of being any different. If we're to believe the traditional account of the fall of Lucifer, god even allowed the emergence and continued existence of Satan, the embodiment of pure evil. With so ambiguous a nature, there is literally no reason to think god would never command any act that we would normally regard as evil. 

This is why William Lane Craig's excuses fail when he attempts to distinguish between what theists believe about god's nature being good and how Divine Command Theory is often understood as positing that good is whatever god commands. On either account, goodness has no normative force, no distinctive essence. God will be just as good to allow someone to feed the starving emaciated children of Haiti as he will be to allow the Duvaliers and others to exterminate them in the cruelest ways. God will be just as good to command the feeding of five thousand as he will be to command the genocide of entire peoples (Deut. 2:34, Joshua 6:21, 1 Samuel 15:2-3). On Craig's view, there is to be no real distinction between these extremes that the overwhelming majority of us would recognize in clear terms of right and wrong. So long as god has prescribed or permitted them, none of it should be called evil. 

Only what god forbids is wrong. But when he forbids the same acts he has otherwise allowed, we see the uselessness of such a framework. Morality is reduced to a matter of "do as I say, not as I do". As previously stated, even if we suppose god has hidden reasons for commanding what he does, the fact that his nature is consistent with allowing every conceivable evil makes it fairly dubious that all those reasons are justifying reasons. Particularly in the case of animal suffering, there seems to be an evil that is without justification. Apologists often assert that god allows human suffering to bring us closer to him, but animals do not participate in relationships with god, according to Christian doctrine. Their suffering, then, would seem to be unnecessary.

There is something that appears insufficient to me about this distinction between what god allows and forbids, too. Philosophers and ethicists test the strength of their moral theories by holding them up to our moral experience and moral intuitions. I don't think any of us can argue that we perceive certain actions as being right and certain actions as being wrong. There are grey areas, to be sure, but we can also distinguish between many different acts and form judgments accordingly. In other words, good moral theories have some capability to predict or elaborate what actions will be right or wrong in hypothetical scenarios. Dr. Craig's Divine Command Theory lacks this capability, in my opinion. It cannot judge an action even when all of its consequences and causes are taken into account. The only time it will be able to make a judgment is when that additional information exists: does god will the action or does he forbid it? Scripture can be no help, since god has willed and forbidden murder at various times, for example, and - to bring things back around to where we started - history also records the terrible things god has permitted.

In conclusion, I'm not convinced that William Lane Craig actually believes in evil, despite his insistence that he does. At best, it must be a pale vestige of what he demands of the atheist - a bizarre sort of wrongness that rests on the nature of a morally ambiguous being that has historically contradicted our most basic moral intuitions. What can it mean to call rape evil under Craig's view of morality? It can't mean that god's nature is inconsistent with rape, because he has allowed it for centuries, and god cannot permit what is wrong. It can't mean that god disapproves of rape, because it is consistent with his nature. The most it can apparently mean is "god says no to rape in this instance". Why this instance? Why say no at all? Perhaps he has some hidden reason. Or perhaps the hidden truth is that ethics is illusory on Dr. Craig's worldview.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

King David's Palace Found? - Two Different Reports

This morning I read an article posted to Yahoo News by Live Science journalist Megan Gannon, reporting how Israeli archaeologists believe they have found "two royal buildings from Israel's biblical past, including a palace suspected to have belonged to King David." The findings come from a site called Khirbet Qeiyafa, where archaeologists Yossi Garfinkel of Hebrew University and Saar Ganor of the Israeli Antiquities Authority have been excavating. According to the article, radiocarbon analysis at the site has placed it around the time of 1020-980 BCE, "before being violently destroyed, likely in a battle against the Philistines." As someone who has read compelling arguments challenging the biblical narrative around King David, this made me sit up and take notice.

Biblical minimalism is a paradigm in archaeology that posits a low chronology for many biblical events, and also proposes mythicism or heavy redaction to biblical stories in a number of cases. Minimalists would include archaeologists like Philip Davies, Thomas L. Thompson, and Niels Peter Lemche. On the other end, there are so-called biblical maximalists like William Dever, Kenneth Kitchen, and Amihai Mazar. The major area of disagreement between maximalists and minimalists seems to revolve around the united monarchy, or the kingdom of Israel during the reigns of Saul and David, as told in the Bible. Minimalists go so far as to deny that there is any evidence of the united monarchy, while maximalists more or less hold to the portrait of it presented in scripture. 

The important work of Israel Finkelstein - particularly in The Bible Unearthed, with Neil Asher Silberman - has helped to establish somewhat of a middle ground between the two perspectives. Finkelstein assents to the historicity of David (on the basis of such evidence as the Mesha Stele and the Tel Dan inscription), but argues that the biblical portrait exaggerates the extent and influence of his kingdom. David was more like a chieftain than a king, as there is no evidence of a united monarchy in the region at the time. Although there have been some critics of Finkelstein's work, it has been largely praised within the archaeological and scholarly community.

So, what to say about the news article on Garfinkel's discovery? First of all, make note of the fact that Garfinkel is a maximalist - and a stalwart one at that - indicated by his publication of "The Birth and Death of Biblical Minimalism" in the May/June 2011 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, as well as his subsequent heated exchanges with Philip Davies. One of the evidences Garfinkel proposes to signal the demise of minimalism is, of course, his findings at Khirbet Qeiyafa. Gannon quotes Garfinkel as saying, "This is unequivocal evidence of a kingdom's existence, which knew to establish administrative centers at strategic points". Unequivocal evidence? I can't help but wonder if perhaps the professor has an ideological axe of his own to grind.

However, what really struck me was the difference between the Live Science report and another report written up by Associated Press journalist Max J. Rosenthal. Rosenthal also quotes Garfinkel as suggesting that his findings constitute "unequivocal evidence", and yet we are actually given examples, such as "cultic objects typically used by Judeans" and the absence of pig remains. A sort of disclaimer then promptly follows:
Critics said the site could have belonged to other kingdoms of the area. The consensus among most scholars is that no definitive physical proof of the existence of King David has been found.

Biblical archaeology itself is contentious. Israelis often use archaeological findings to back up their historic claims to sites that are also claimed by the Palestinians, like the Old City of Jerusalem. Despite extensive archaeological evidence, for example, Palestinians deny that the biblical Jewish Temples dominated the hilltop where the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third-holiest site, stands today.

In general, researchers are divided over whether biblical stories can be validated by physical remains.

The current excavators are not the first to claim they found a King David palace. In 2005, Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar said she found the remains of King David's palace in Jerusalem dating to the 10th century B.C., when King David would have ruled. Her claim also attracted skepticism, including from Garfinkel himself.
This is a prime example of good journalism. Rosenthal even manages to get commentary from Dr. Finkelstein as a skeptical take on Garfinkel's findings. Ms. Gannon includes no such counter-points in her article. In fact, she features no dissenting opinion at all, only what seems like credulous acceptance of Garfinkel's claims. Anyone reading her news report and not taking the time to read others might get the mistaken impression that this "discovery" is really more established than it is. 
This is why it pays to do additional research, whether you're a journalist or just a reader. I have no ideological bias driving me to deny Garfinkel's findings, but I do want to see a multiplicity of interpretations, because there always is more than one. If further excavation turns up more compelling evidence that this is indeed the site of David's palace, I won't have any qualms about accepting that. The historicity of a united monarchy would not validate the supernatural claims of scripture. Ironically, in a particularly terrible reader review of The Bible Unearthed at the Tekton apologetics site, the author speculates that Finkelstein and Silberman not only deny the existence of David (quite the opposite, if you actually read the book) to deny the divinity of Christ, but that the authors "prefer" it because they "hate Him" so much they want to "destroy faith in Jesus". I don't know whether to mock the author or mock the site's admin, J.P. Holding, for publishing such unscholarly shlock.

Really, how would it work, that denying David would deny the divinity of Christ? Because if there is no line of David from which the messiah comes, there must be no messiah? I'm sure clever Christians would find a way to reinterpret those passages, just like modern apologists reinterpret the genealogy passages in light of their belief that Joseph wasn't Jesus' biological father. Through whom do those genealogies trace Jesus' history? Why, if it wasn't Joseph, it must have been Mary, despite the instruction in Numbers 1:18 that ancestry was to be recorded "by their fathers' households" (NAS; once again, the NIV has omitted words from the text that are present in the original, for a seemingly apologetic reason - the Hebrew word avotam means "of their fathers", and is translated as such in all other 83 occurrences as noted in Englishman's Concordance).

More importantly, though, there are much better reasons to reject the divinity of Christ than to suppose that a historical David never existed. But, as thrice stated now, Finkelstein and Silberman do not deny that David existed ("...the house of David was known throughout the region; this clearly validates the biblical description of a figure named David becoming the founder of the dynasty of Judahite kings in Jerusalem", Bible Unearthed, p. 129). All this author's speculation shows, all that Ms. Gannon's sloppy journalism shows, and all that Dr. Garfinkel's insistence on his conclusion shows, is that the longstanding and long-engrained paradigm of biblical maximalism dies hard indeed, despite lack of evidence for its claims, and despite evidence against its claims.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

How Not to Defend the Moral Argument for God (Part 2)

In my previous post, I discussed a few problems I see in the second premise of the moral argument for god's existence, as popularly formulated by William Lane Craig. I'll rehash the argument here again, for the sake of clarity:
1. If god does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
2. Objective moral values do exist.
3. Therefore, god exists.
I chose to begin my critique with the second premise because I wished to point out that even if one does believe in objective moral values, Craig and Koukl fail to adequately justify 2. Of course, if one accepts the second premise, as I do, it doesn't matter much how it is justified by apologists. In a debate, however, it is incumbent upon the speaker to support their premises. Were I engaged in a formal debate on this subject, I would grant the second premise while drawing attention to its poor justification, if only to show that the non-theist can better account for the reality of objective moral values. Thus, in this second part, I will focus on the first premise. In my opinion, this is the best way to deal with the moral argument for god.

Let's say, hypothetically, that we are ethical intuitionists, like Dr. Craig. Remember that the moral argument deals with moral ontology, not moral epistemology. In our hypothetical scenario, we believe that we can apprehend moral truths, and we believe that these truths are intrinsic in nature. The atrocities of Nazism are intrinsically wrong, we would claim, and by definition, intrinsic values are objective, not being reliant on any relations to other things. They would be wrong even if the Nazis had won the war and brainwashed or killed everyone. This is practically the spitting image of the kind of morality Craig professes to have when he talks of the Holocaust being wrong "even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them." [1]

What objections could be raised against this stance? Craig could argue that objective values have to be grounded in something external to human beings - god, in his view. Yet this response would seem to ignore the meaning of intrinsic value. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines intrinsic as
belonging to the essential nature or constitution of a thing. [2]
If we say that human life is an intrinsic good, normally we mean that human life is good in and of itself. It is good independently of any opinion or belief to the contrary. Dr. Craig asserts that human beings do have intrinsic value, [3] but also claims that moral values are grounded in the character of god. [4] This appears to be a contradiction in terms, because if values come from god, then they cannot, by definition, be intrinsic, since they are determined by something outside of the thing itself. Rape is wrong not in-and-of itself, but because it is not in accordance with god's character. In a response to Luke Muehlhauser, Craig explains that he sees intrinsic value in a bit of a different way:
...persons have intrinsic value in that they are not merely means to be used for some end but are to be treated as ends in themselves. So we might well ask, "But why are human persons intrinsically valuable?" and the answer will be because God is personal. [5]
Craig's understanding of intrinsic value is arguably weaker in contrast to my own, supported by dictionaries and countless philosophers and ethicists. It is particularly weaker in how it addresses the view of objective values as ensuring that "something is right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be so." [6] In that "anybody", Dr. Craig makes an unstated exception for his personal god, and what guarantee do we have that god would never change his mind about moral issues? According to most strains of Christian theology, god's moral prescriptions on unclean foods and circumcision were altered - overturned in every practical sense of the word - by the time of Jesus. As a divine command theorist, Craig believes that god's moral commands flow from his character. But what does it mean to suggest that the circumcision and food laws were effectively neutered once Jesus came around? If god's commands loosened up, does that mean his character changed too?

The Euthyphro dilemma asks, 'is something good because god commands it, or does god command something because it is good?' Apologists frequently retort that the answer is neither; something is good when it is in keeping with god's character or nature. However, we can rephrase the dilemma as follows: 'does god inform his character, or does his character inform him?' If the former is true, we fall back into the original dilemma, because by informing his character, god determines what is moral. If the latter is true, then there is something over which god has no authority, and this challenges the omnipotence and sovereignty of god. In addition, it simply will not suffice to define goodness as consistent with god's character, because we don't know god's character. Even if goodness is an essential property of his character, we still have no actual information about that property.

Not only does moral epistemology look troubling on the theistic side, but moral ontology seems unjustifiable, too. Even if we set aside the incoherency of claiming that good flows from god's character, useless as it is in defining actual goodness, there remains the problem of scripture and reason that argues against an unchanging character. As well, if intrinsic value exists, in the fullest, most objective definition, it will be accessible apart from the existence of any god, since it only has to do with the things in themselves, and not any relations to other things. 

Craig could also possibly object to the reliability of our intuitions, if there is no god. How can we trust our faculties, he might ask. This is just as much a problem for theists as for non-theists, though. See my previous blog entry on the problem of induction. There is no reason to assume that the existence of a god would make it any more likely that we would have uninhibited access to our sensory apparatuses, and there are good reasons to suspect that, at the very least, natural selection would favor reliable sense organs over unreliable ones that might lead to our deaths.

Even so, I must admit I do not subscribe either to intuitionism or to intrinsic value. These views are capable of countering the moral argument, though, I believe, and they are close enough to Craig's own standpoint that they would not be easily rebutted.

Alonzo Fyfe's theory of desire utilitarianism is the most persuasive, realistic, and meaningful moral theory I have yet run across. Moral statements describe behaviors as well as relationships, typically relationships between certain desires. When we think about why we act or behave in some way, desire is always the reason. You want to keep your job, so you choose to act appropriately at work. You want someone to like you, so you choose to behave positively around them. You want to be in the favor of the god you worship, so you choose to adhere to its will. According to desire utilitarianism, a behavior is "good" if it fulfills certain desires, and "bad" if it thwarts certain desires. Note, the focus is not on maximizing desire fulfillment, but on seeing that certain desires are met. I say certain desires because there are some desires that would be wrong to fulfill. These wrong desires are ones that, if carried into action, would thwart the desires of others for selfish reasons. To say that murder is wrong in desire utilitarianism means that it is wrong because it thwarts the desires of the victim, the victim’s family, and the larger society that wishes to live without the threat of murder.

Moral evaluations focus on malleable desires, those that can be changed by social forces like praise and condemnation. In the example above, the murderer commits the first thwarting of desire, for the purpose of fulfilling his own selfish interests. We can judge that the murderer's desire is harmful to others rather than fulfilling their desires, and so we can determine that it is morally good to condemn murder and appropriate for law enforcement to prevent murderers from killing. The desires of the murderer are thwarted because he has (or will) "cast the first stone", and because more, greater desires will be fulfilled by thwarting his.

Although desire utilitarianism rejects moral absolutism, it does provide for moral realism and moral universalism. The question of whether or not a desire will fulfill other desires has an objective answer, and these relationships between desires are part of the real world. Different persons may hold different desires, but this does not affect the objectivity of desire utilitarianism, since it takes these differences into account. We can say that a claim is universally moral when, after considering all desires involved, we see that it fulfills more, greater desires than would be thwarted. For example, a humanitarian desire can be called universally moral because it tends to fulfill more, greater desires than it thwarts.

Does this theory meet Craig's criterion for objective moral values as meaning that "something is right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be so"? I would argue that it does. A desire is either fulfilled or thwarted, and that will remain true in spite of any beliefs to the contrary. But what about Craig's scenario - would the Holocaust be wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and successfully brainwashed and/or killed all dissidents? Desire utilitarianism can look at the mountains of good desires thwarted by Nazism, as well as the oceans of bad desires it fulfilled and would continue to fulfill to reach such a hypothetical point, and can offer a resounding "yes". 

Contrast this moral approach, based on the intentions and actions of the Nazis, with the approach advocated by proponents of the moral argument, who believe the Holocaust was wrong essentially because it was inconsistent with the vague, undefined nature of god. A god with a history of genocide (Joshua 6:21, 1 Samuel 15:2-3), slavery (Exodus 21:20-21, Leviticus 25:44-46, Colossians 3:22), and the promise of eternal, unimaginable torment for those who don't see things his way (Matthew 3:12, 13:41-42, Mark 9:47-48).

The moral argument for god fails to justify its ontological claims, and actually seems to strengthen the case for secular morality with the messy and inadequate defense that typically accompanies it. Unless one is already predisposed to the views associated with the argument, it is unlikely to be appealing.

[For more on desire utilitarianism:
Alonzo Fyfe, What is Desire Utilitarianism?
Luke Muehlhauser, The Ultimate Desirism F.A.Q.
Luke Muehlhauser, CPBD 005: Alonzo Fyfe - Desire Utilitarianism]

1. W.L. Craig, The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality (1997).
2. Merriam-Webster, entry for intrinsic.
3. W.L. Craig, Q&A #61: Abortion and Presidential Politics.
4. W.L. Craig, Q&A #208: Sam Harris on Objective Moral Values and Duties.
5. Luke Muehlhauser, Craig on Intrinsic Value, Common Sense Atheism (2009).
6. See source #1.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

How Not to Defend the Moral Argument for God (Part 1)

The moral argument for the existence of god has been around for quite some time, and has faced plenty of criticism since its inception. However, the form of it commonly used in debate by William Lane Craig and other apologists is often met with unfortunately weak responses, despite significantly lacking in support of its premises. The argument is usually stated as follows:
1. If god does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
2. Objective moral values do exist.
3. Therefore, god exists.
This argument carries a hefty burden of proof because of the second premise. If objective moral values don't exist, then the moral argument fails. Yet it isn't up to the atheist or skeptic to prove that these objective values are not real, it's up to the apologist to justify his second premise. Unless reason is given to think that 2 is correct, the opponent of the moral argument is well within rights to object that there is no grounds for assuming the existence of objective values. The only way 2 could be justified is if it is (i) such an observed fact of the natural world that it can be considered a given, or if (ii) the apologist endeavors to demonstrate it through another argument.

An example of a premise that could be accepted on (i) would be something like "Socrates was a man", from the famous Socrates syllogism (1. All men are mortal, 2. Socrates was a man, 3. Therefore, Socrates was mortal). Enough people are familiar with the story of Socrates, and there is enough evidence from history describing the figure as male, or human, that this premise can be accepted as a given. There is no need for the argument's proponent to demonstrate it, since its truth is readily discernible to anyone who might wish to check. Another example of (i) could be the premise "All men are mortal", as it has many centuries of observation, death records, and the like in support of it. One could say that premises of the type (i) variety might be called obvious.

Many non-theist opponents have objected to the moral argument on the basis of conflicting opinions on morality. Theodore Drange made this move in his debate with Craig, as did a caller named Bill on a recent Unbelievable podcast episode addressing questions to apologist Greg Koukl. In my view, this is a weak response for exactly the reason theists give: differences of perspective on moral matters do not rule out the possibility of objective values. As Koukl notes, we may each see different colors on an object, but it doesn't mean there is no color there. More importantly, though, the moral argument does not deal with moral epistemology, or how we know what moral values are, but only deals with moral ontology, or the perceived reality of moral values. It will not refute the argument to raise examples of immoral acts in scripture or in history, because the argument centers around the existence of objective values, not the content of them.

Still, the second premise of the moral argument is anything but obvious. All that we generally consider as obvious - the shape of the earth, human mortality, gravity, the identity of Socrates - has a wealth of evidence behind it. It isn't simply that we feel the earth is round, or we strongly suspect that humans die, or we have no reason to think that gravity isn't real. It's that time after time, we've observed these phenomena around us, going back a long, long, long while ago in history. It's that experiments have been conducted to help verify the truth of these ideas, and we have held them up against the backdrop of prior knowledge and existing theories to see what best fits the picture as we've ascertained it thus far. Can any of us honestly say that objective moral values are obvious in this sense? What observations have we made about them, what experiments have we done, how have they fared against additional information?

Funny enough, the obviousness of objective moral values can also be challenged by sort of reversing the moral opinions objection. A majority does not make an obvious truth. It could be contended that even if every man, woman, and child on Earth were to think morality is objective, this would do little on its own, apart from the kind of evidence just mentioned. After all, Dr. Craig makes a very similar point in practically all of his debates on the existence of god; he wants morality capable of saying that anti-Semitism is wrong "even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them." [1] While he may rest this on theistic assumptions, the principle behind it should still hold true, that the prevalence of an opinion does not tell us anything about whether or not the opinion is true. For that we need other means of evaluation.

So we have good reason to think that (i) cannot be used to justify the second premise of the moral argument. What about (ii)? In the Unbelievable episode referenced above, Greg Koukl asserts his belief that our agreement on certain moral issues is evidence that we share a moral sense or a moral intuition about right and wrong. Our deeply felt general repulsion to the idea of torturing young children is, in his view, reason to think that it isn't just wrong for us, but wrong for everyone at any time, any place, and in any circumstance. Justin Brierly, the host, explains that he can't imagine a situation in which it would be right for someone to torture a young child, insinuating that it therefore must never be right. Craig has echoed these sentiments in debates like the one he had with Professor John Shook. During the Q&A segment, Craig defended the moral argument by saying:
The moral argument is an appeal to our moral experience, and so it's not just a matter of liking the conclusion or not... I think that in our moral experience we do apprehend moral oughts, we ought to do this or we ought not to do that, we apprehend a distinction between good and evil... we ought to pay attention to our moral experience and take it seriously, and if we do, then I think we'll see that the moralist is wrong when he says that moral values are just relative to individuals, societies, or whatever... [2]
I don't know that any relativist would deny that most human beings form moral judgments. What non-objectivists seem to dispute is whether those moral judgments correspond to anything substantial or not. Thus, moral experience exists even to the relativist - it's only a question of what significance it should be given.

Craig agrees that the Nazis believed themselves to be on the side of right and goodness, [3] but he thinks that their moral experience misled them. He ventures into the territory of moral epistemology in his debates to emphasize the strength of objective as opposed to subjective values, but his moral argument can't tell us anything about what god would condemn or praise. What reason does Craig have for preferring the moral experience of modern Christians to that of the German Christians who participated in the Holocaust? What of the medieval Christians like Martin Luther, who wrote the infamous propaganda piece On the Jews and Their Lies, encouraging the demolition of Jewish businesses, synagogues, houses, and schools, as well as forbidding the Jews from preaching and having access to their religious texts?

Craig, Koukl, and Brierly all seem to belong to the ethical intuitionist camp. Ethical intuitionism is the view that moral truths can be known by intuition, without resort to inference. Presumably one's own intuitive sense is the one that matters most - we generally don't have access to others' intuitions - posing a problem of consideration for others. What exactly resolves conflicts between different intuitions under the ethical intuitionist view? It isn't altogether clear. The irony is that this looks an awful lot like subjectivism in denial of itself. We each have our own intuitions... but if yours conflict with mine, well you're just wrong. Why? Because I intuit it! This may be closer to the truth than you think, considering how Craig responded to Sam Harris during the Q&A segment of their debate, in the following exchange:
Harris: This is the kind of morality that you get out of divine command theory that, again, offers no retort to the Jihadist other than, "Sorry buster, you happen to have the wrong god."
Craig: But that’s exactly your retort, Sam, that God has not issued such a command, and therefore, you’re not morally obligated to do it.
Note that Craig doesn't correct Harris' description of his view or even offer any defense at all. He simply tries to turn the question back on Harris. 

Ethical intuitionism might also commit the is-ought fallacy. David Hume articulated the fallacy as a response to early intuitionists like Samuel Clarke, who thought that feelings, not reason, guide us to moral truths. Hume distinguished between the passions and reason, and argued that deriving an "ought" from an "is" must be accompanied by a line of argument connecting the two. In other words, it is fallacious to use a fact of the world to insist on how something should be, unless a rational explanation draws the two together. To Hume, Clarke's feelings were a fact of his experience that he adopted as moral truths without any legitimate reason.

Predictably, intuitionists think they avoid this problem. Brian Zamulinski, an evolutionary intuitionist (yes, you read that right), defends his beliefs in the excerpt below.
Inference is an intellectual movement from proposition to proposition. Apprehension is the acquisition of a belief in response to a state of affairs. Our ability to apprehend states of affairs is not fundamentally an ability to make inferences, no matter what sorts of inferences. It is an ability to see that such and such is the case. With evolutionary intuitionism, we intuitively apprehend the fact, say, that torture is wrong. We do not infer the belief that torture is wrong from other propositions. Since inference is not involved, the impossibility of inferring an "ought" from an "is" is not relevant. [4]
We draw an inference any time we form a conclusion based on what we know or what we assume to be true. To look at the fact that all men are mortal, that Socrates is a man, and then conclude that Socrates is mortal, is to draw an inference from existing knowledge and experience. Zamulinski's idea that we apprehend states of affairs without resorting to inferences is a bold and unsubstantiated claim. We make use of inference for knowledge acquisition in many other areas of life, so why assume that morality is an exception? Even if it seems like we apprehend moral truths with no consideration of known facts or existing beliefs, the long-term influences on our thinking from culture and other venues make it extremely unlikely that this impression is accurate. It all looks rather convenient, really. Intuition is just 'seeing things as they are', like Alvin Plantinga's faith is so properly basic that it needs no justification.

Methinks this is why Koukl and company argue so strongly about grounding moral values, because their intuitions are in need of grounding. If we intuitively apprehend moral truths, how are we able to do this aside from inference and reason? Where do these moral truths come from, if not from the natural world around us? The only way for these theists to convince themselves that their intuitions aren't just subjective is to attach them to a god who affirms what they feel. However, as we'll see in the next part, the first premise of the moral argument runs into plenty of problems of its own.

1. W.L. Craig, The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality (1997).
2. John Shook v. William Lane Craig Debate: "Does God Exist?" YouTube.com.
3. See source 1.
4. B. Zamulinski, Evolutionary Intuitionism (2007), p. 112.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

What's the Probability of Resurrection?

Once a week I tune in to the UK Christian radio podcast Unbelievable to hear debates and discussions between believers and non-believers (sometimes between two or more believers). Generally speaking, it has quite a fair format and covers current trends in religion and atheism, from the release of popular new books to the publication of scholarly materials to subjects brought up in the news. The latest episode features Calum Miller and Chris Hallquist in dialogue on an issue that's particularly interesting to me: the probability of the resurrection.

Christian philosopher and apologist Richard Swinburne has attached a 97% probability to the resurrection. How did he arrive at such a high number? Though I have not read Swinburne's book where he makes this claim, the guests and host on Unbelievable dive into some discussion of it. Swinburne uses a mathematical formula from probability theory known as Bayes' theorem. The theorem is a way of calculating the likelihood of something given certain prior conditions. To use an example from a Scientific American article, suppose that 99% of sick people who take a medical test will test positive, and 99% of healthy people who take it will test negative. The doctor has informed you that only 1% of people in the country are sick. You take the test and receive a positive result, and you want to know what the chances are that you are actually sick. Bayes' theorem will give you the answer.

For the sake of space, I won't work out the problem here, but the important thing to understand is that Bayes' theorem depends on knowing certain prior conditions or probabilities. It's simple to ascertain and easy to verify the chances of getting a specific test result, finding out whether someone is sick or healthy, and determining how much of the population is afflicted with an illness. In many cases, these sorts of statistics and data are kept on record by physicians and health organizations, for example. If one miscalculates the odds of being sick after testing positive, it's not that difficult to weed out the mistake from the information provided. But what about when we're trying to determine the probability of something that isn't well known or documented, like a miracle?

One of the most frequent criticisms leveled at Swinburne is that he plays fast and loose with the prior probability of the resurrection. If there is a god, he argues, it's reasonable to assume that it would become incarnate to pass on its teachings to humanity. To validate the incarnation's authority, he continues, god would use a "super-miracle". [link] Someone like Jesus, Swinburne believes, is a prime candidate for god's stamp of approval in the form of resurrection.

On the podcast, Hallquist raises an excellent point that Miller never does address, to my recollection. The mere existence of a god should not lend much credibility to any miracle story, because in addition to competing miracle claims - like the miracles of Mormonism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. - which many Christians reject, there are Deists and many other stripes of believers who do not think their god works in the world to perform miracles. Even if a god exists, why think it acts in nature? Why single out the resurrection as being particularly likely out of all the miracles it could conceivably perform? With all the unnecessary suffering and evil in the world, perhaps the god that exists is an evil god and would have no motivation to raise Jesus from the dead. Why not take the theology of Muslims and Jews into account, who consider doctrines like the trinity and the incarnation to be blasphemous? There's a good argument to be made that, in many ways, Jesus does not resemble the Jewish messiah described in the Tanakh. If the Hebrew god exists, perhaps it sees the Jesus of the gospels as a false prophet rather than its son, and would be against resurrecting him. 

Even if we accept Swinburne's prior condition of  a god existing - for the sake of argument - there are many problems that seem to stop his argument dead in its tracks before ever getting to the resurrection. Remember, all of this must be taken into account to constitute a fair treatment of the prior probability of resurrection. Along with assessing what might count in favor of resurrection, we have to consider all that would count against it, and this is where things become mired in speculation, in my opinion. How do you derive statistical probabilities from things like religious doctrines and facts of the universe that have varying interpretations? If the prior probability of resurrection rests on theistic assumptions, then the entire argument seems to be an exercise in self-justification for Christians, and will be persuasive to no one else.

Like many believers, Calum Miller says he finds naturalistic explanations of the resurrection to be more incredible and outlandish than the idea that god raised Jesus from the dead. Yet some of these are attested in the historical record, like the accusation against the disciples of stealing the body of Jesus. It may be widely dismissed by biblical scholars today because of the guards at the tomb mentioned in one measly gospel, or because the theory doesn't explain the postmortem appearances (whoever decided there had to be one neat, over-arching thematic explanation for everything?), but there are objections to the resurrection hypothesis, too, of a far more devastating nature, in my view.

Several times throughout the podcast, Brierly and Miller bring up what apologists often call a 'naturalistic bias'. They ask Hallquist if he is ruling out miracles altogether from the git-go, on some atheistic commitment to the impossibility of divine intervention. What amuses me about this is how much the Christian explanation is emptied of what little thrust it might have when the assumption of a god is removed. Miller claims that, in his mind, the case for resurrection is strong enough to stand apart from assuming the existence of god, but I have to ask what in particular would compel one to conclude that Jesus was raised from the dead.

The postmortem appearances? Despite Paul mentioning 500 witnesses, we have testimony from exactly none of them, nor do we have their names or any way of verifying their integrity and their story. The gospels mention Jesus appearing to all of his disciples at various times after his death (John 20:26-28, Luke 24:13-16, Matthew 28:16-17), but again we have no written testimony from any of these figures. The only individual to personally report witnessing Jesus after his death is the apostle Paul, though his experience is depicted as a vision (Acts 9:1-9), not quite what the gospels depict for figures like Peter, John, and Mary. Hallucinations are not uncommon among human beings, and with the Book of Acts portraying Peter and Paul as being visited by Jesus upon falling into a trance (10:9-16, 22:17-21), there are alternate explanations to the extraordinary one of actually seeing a man risen from the dead.

The empty tomb narrative? According to the Two-Source Hypothesis, there may actually be just one empty tomb story, in the Gospel of Mark, which was used as source material by the authors of Matthew and Luke. However, the last few verses of Mark are widely recognized by biblical scholars as a late interpolation. [link] The original text of the gospel seems to end at 16:8, when the women flee from the tomb after being told that Jesus has risen, and they "said nothing to anyone." Mark's gospel has been dated to ~70 CE, approximately 37-40 years after the alleged death of Jesus. An empty tomb would also beg of many natural explanations, generally, such as relocation of the body, theft, or even a misidentification of the tomb - all arguably more plausible than resurrection, since history has no short supply of such experiences.

What about the disciples' willingness to die for their faith? Hallquist rightly remarks that the stories of martyrdom are on even shakier ground than the gospel accounts, and brings up Candida Moss' book The Myth of Persecution. The biggest counter-point to this argument all too often goes unstated, though. In short, there is no reason for the skeptic to presume that the disciples knew what they were dying for was false. Many devout religious believers have gone to the gallows for their faith before, including a lot of non-Christians. It could have been, for example, that Jesus' body was relocated or stolen by someone who didn't die a martyr's death, and perhaps wasn't even a disciple. The early martyrs (assuming they were in fact martyred at all) could have remained blissfully unaware of the trickery, going to their deaths no less sincere.

The probability of the resurrection, a priori or a posteriori, is quite low when one seriously considers all the objections to be made. But that's a generous way of putting it. I'm not about to be so bold as to attach any specific number to how unlikely it is, though, partly because I wouldn't know where to begin. There are certainly ways the evidence could be more convincing, like more independent corroboration, dates closer to the purported event, personal written/reported testimonies, a surviving empty tomb with a long history of veneration, and so on. Yet this isn't what we have, nor would it do much to offset the force of the naturalistic explanations, which still far outweigh resurrection in terms of real world experience.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Religion in BioShock Infinite

Last month, a concerned Christian received a refund for his purchase of the recently released game BioShock Infinite, after complaining that a particular scene involving a 'forced' baptism offended his religious views. [1] Prior to Infinite's release, one of the game's own artists had even come close to resigning over its depiction of religion. [2] On the other, polar opposite end of the spectrum, one blogger has gone so far as to describe Infinite as "the most deeply Christian game" he's played in recent memory. [3]

Few video games tackle the subject of religion, and when they do, it's often through imitation, such as the fictional religion found in Skyrim, or the Church of Unitology in the Dead Space sequels. Commentaries on religion are frequently limited in scope and kept somewhat vague, specifically to avoid singling out any one group. In BioShock Infinite, however, the floating city of Columbia is enraptured by the beliefs of the Prophet Zachary Comstock, a devout Christian of the late-19th century American fundamentalist brand.

Religion is far from the only subject addressed in Infinite, but it is arguably one of the most continually emphasized subjects. The game also discusses politics, bigotry and inequality, quantum mechanics, time travel, and alternate realities, among other topics. From practically the very beginning of the game, though, all the way through the very end, religion is front and center. It does not shy away from challenging questions, either, whether they are about the debate between religion and science, or about the intersection of faith and morality. In my opinion, this is a large part of what makes Infinite so unique and so interesting; while it has plenty of action, it is definitely a game that makes you think and feel - a breath of fresh air amidst popular game franchises like Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, and Halo.

Warning: spoilers ahead. You may not want to continue if you have not yet beaten the game.

I am a huge fan of Ken Levine's work, including the first BioShock, and especially including (my personal favorite) System Shock 2. It's important to realize that Infinite is not the first time he's made reference to the religious debate. At the entrance to Rapture, below the haunting face of Andrew Ryan, hangs the iconic banner that reads, "No Gods or Kings. Only Man." The underwater utopia envisioned by Ryan is based heavily on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who was an outspoken atheist. Rand advocated ethical egoism, elevated man to a heroic status, held a disdain for collectivism and altruism, and believed strongly in free will and laissez-faire economics. In interviews, Levine has stated that Rand was the major influence he drew upon in creating the environment of Rapture and the figure of Andrew Ryan, and he found this to be particularly intriguing and challenging because, in some ways, he is sympathetic to certain views held by Rand and Ryan.

Levine has also explained that one of his interests for BioShock Infinite was to create an antagonist notably different from Ryan, perhaps even someone at the other extreme. The contrast of the city in the clouds with the city underwater is just one of many inversions we can find between BioShock 1 and BioShock Infinite. Columbia's philosophy is nearly the reverse of the banner above Rapture: men are little more than instruments for a greater good, that envisioned by the "king" - Prophet Comstock, actually - who claims to receive his authority from no less than God himself. While Ryan places individualism as one of the highest priorities, going so far as to claim that a man chooses, while a slave obeys, Comstock fosters an atmosphere of racism and social inequality, and premises many of his beliefs on an alleged gift of foresight to a predestined future.

Brigham Young
Zachary Comstock
Despite invoking popular Christian language about "the Lamb", about Eden and Sodom, about the Exodus, and even about forgiveness, Comstock's religion is no Mere Christianity. In fact, it rings a bit familiar to Mormonism in the prominence of "The Prophet", not to mention the image of the Prophet, which bears some resemblance to Brigham Young, the second President of the Church of Latter Day Saints. In 1847, on the heels of persecution, Young - who became known as the "American Moses" - led the Mormon pioneers out beyond the Western boundaries of the United States, into their 'promised land' of Salt Lake City. Young's treatment of Native Americans has been a subject for controversy, and he was also responsible for revoking the priesthood and certain Mormon rites from black members of the Church. In a line that would fit well in the mouth of Comstock, Young said on the matter:

Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so. [4]

There are many other similarities with Mormonism in BioShock Infinite, like the temple at the beginning of the game, with all its members dressed in white robes, and the abundance of large religious statues throughout Columbia. Oh, and did I mention the City of Enoch, which Mormons believe was taken up into heaven by God, and will return for the Second Coming of Christ?

Of course, there is more to Comstock's religion than a simple imitation of Mormonism. There is the strong sense of American exceptionalism, held with such fervor that the Founding Fathers have been deified within the religion of Columbia. In the game, there is a particular painting of George Washington holding up the liberty bell, with the Ten Commandments in his other hand. Four corners of the painting are marked by symbols of a cross, a dove, arrows, and wheat, with the words "Faith", "Purity", "Defense", and "Prosperity". What's interesting about this piece of artwork is how it conveys a similar message to a real painting done by Jon McNaughton, shown below.

This work is titled, "One Nation Under God", after words that were added to the United States Pledge of Allegiance as late as 1955. It depicts Jesus Christ holding the US Constitution, with the American Founders standing close by in the background, hands over their hearts, as if Jesus were delivering the Constitution from heaven to them, on the condition that they pledge themselves one nation under god. McNaughton's paintings are not tongue-in-cheek, as is made clear by various statements on his website, and his comments in interviews. "One Nation Under God" has become his most popular work, not because of its sheer ludicrousness, but because there are those who support its message.

Before Infinite was released, there was much speculation that it would feature somewhat of a parody of the Tea Party movement. The voices that, for better or worse, spoke up loudest in defense of Tea Party principles, were religious conservatives like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Rand Paul. It's easy to see some connection between the themes of Infinite and the themes emphasized by these figures, but I don't see Infinite as being all that focused on the Tea Party. Fortunately, it targets deeper issues and deeper questions, albeit ones that are very much about the intersection of faith and politics. There are people out there like David Barton [who claims BioShock Infinite is teaching kids to hate conservatives and Christians], who seek to establish a revisionist history for America, tying it in to their fundamentalist religious beliefs just like Jon McNaughton and Zachary Comstock. Levine's depiction of the unique religious beliefs of Columbia in BioShock Infinite is no more of a caricature than was his depiction of Ayn Rand's philosophy in the first BioShock game.

On the other hand, not everything the game says about religion is so obvious. At the end of the game, you come to find out that Booker, unable to forgive himself for his participation in the massacre at Wounded Knee, sought to make things right by being baptized. However, he didn't go through with it and opted out at the last minute. Except, in another reality, going through with it changes him into Comstock. The baptism, it seems, only turns him into more of a monster than before. The god he finds is a vengeful one that crushes its followers into repentance. Perhaps this is the penance Comstock forces on himself for Wounded Knee. Or perhaps his conversion merely reinforces the prejudices he already had within him, now believing he is justified by God Almighty. Whatever the case, Booker's redemption only comes through Elizabeth, not from baptism or from acceptance of any religious belief or identity.

To cast things in another light, though, the means by which Booker finds redemption through Elizabeth is in sacrifice. The sole hope for breaking the circle of failed attempts at saving Elizabeth, and thereby saving yourself, is to essentially lose yourself, to sacrifice your life in return for hers. There is also a strong theme of the "sins of the father" in Levine's two BioShock games. By the end of BioShock 1, you discover you are the illegitimate son of Andrew Ryan, and you have been conditioned to kill upon hearing a certain phrase, one which results in you, the son, murdering your father. By the end of Infinite, you discover you are the father of Elizabeth, who has the ability to bend space and time (which is restricted by the Songbird, who is controlled by a certain melody), and Elizabeth's ability eventually results in your own death at her hands and the hands of her alternate forms. The corruption of humanity is definitely familiar to Christianity, as Jordan Ekeroth notes in the third link above, as is the notion that only a loving sacrifice will end the cycle of destruction and bring about salvation.

What baptism symbolizes is forgiveness, the cleansing of sins, and the renewal of the spirit, through the grace of god that comes through faith in Jesus Christ and his sacrifice on the cross. Breen Malmberg, the Christian who got a refund for the game over the baptism scene at the beginning, professes this much in why he wanted to get his money back. But there is supposed to be another dimension to Christian faith, at least as I've learned of it. It's one thing to speak the right words, even to know what they mean, but it's quite a different thing to truly believe them and live them. The Apostle Paul had a lot to say about this distinction:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing... For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
-1 Corinthians 13:1-3,12-13

A common complaint against Infinite is that we don't really get to see any of Booker's transition to becoming Comstock. But in my opinion this has been left up to the imagination of the gamer for good reason. Is Comstock aware he's a  fraud or does he actually hold to all the beliefs he espouses? It doesn't matter either way. He talks with a silver tongue, he speaks in prophecy, and he has a faith that boasts of great conviction, but he is missing that crucial thing that could make it all count for something true. Comstock is so devoid of love that he murders his wife, he murders the two people that made his dream of Columbia possible, and he confines and tortures his own daughter, all for the goal that his legacy of fire and brimstone will live on through Elizabeth. And waiting to usurp his place is none other than Daisy Fitzroy, who claims to speak for the poor and oppressed, who gives her body to fight for the people, but is so lacking in love that she nearly kills a child in her quest for liberation.

In the end, we witness the demise of the utopian visions, and the lives, of Ryan, Comstock, and Fitzroy. This is, I believe, the critical point that Levine is attempting to make with his BioShock games; to quote Robert Burns, "the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry." It isn't until Booker learns to put someone else above himself, to make that loving sacrifice for his daughter, that he finds peace and redemption. To call this an anti-Christian message would be to greatly miss the point of the gospels. Recall John 15:13: "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends."

So is Infinite a "deeply Christian game", as Ekeroth believes?

Booker and Elizabeth, BioShock Infinite's protagonists
The game begins with the voice of Elizabeth asking Booker, "Are you afraid of God?" "No," he responds, "but I'm afraid of you." Why would he fear Elizabeth, but not god? To be blunt, it's because god is not there. The city of Columbia, despite all its religious language and devotion, is godless. Comstock's prophetic visions and the miraculous floating of the city are really due to the scientific technology of the Luteces. The future shown to Comstock is just one of many possibilities, which is overcome by Elizabeth's manipulation of space-time. God is conspicuously absent when Booker hands over his daughter, when Comstock rises to power, when Elizabeth is captured and tortured, when she destroys New York City in 1983, and when Booker is finally drowned. If you've noticed, the person present for all those events, often turning the tide in her favor through her own effort, is Elizabeth. Booker fears her because of what she represents - not just in her power, but in his past, and perhaps even in his future.

Though it has religious overtones, Infinite is not a game about religion, it's a game about people. Ken Levine has stressed this multiple times, that the focus of the story is on the relationship between Elizabeth and Booker. In that regard, it is a somewhat significant departure from the first BioShock. There is plenty of complex subject matter in the setting where that relationship takes place, but a good deal of it (maybe even all of it) points back again to Elizabeth and Booker. Like the best comedians use humor and laughter to drive home hard, sometimes controversial life lessons, the best writers use the aspects of the human experience with which we are all familiar to drive home hard, controversial lessons of their own.

Some players may not like the fact that there is no positive Christian alternative to Comstock, but for me this only reaffirms that the game's focus is not actually on religion. What's more intriguing to me is that the first game, as popular as it was, did not seem to garner an extreme visceral reaction from Ayn Rand followers. Nothing in BioShock 1 really offers a counter-point or positive note to end on regarding the philosophy of people like Ms. Rand. Infinite does have a light at the end of the tunnel, though, and yet there continue to be outraged responses from conservatives and Christians alike. In an ironic sort of way, Levine's game has possibly revealed some things about the kinds of people who subscribe to such religious and political beliefs, without even really saying much itself, but in simply allowing individuals like Barton and Malmberg to make fools of themselves. Of course, we didn't need BioShock Infinite to show us that.

In conclusion, then, while religion features prominently in the world of Infinite, there is really no message to be gained from it other than a warning against placing ideology on a pedestal above the things that truly make us human and truly make life worth living. This was the message delivered in BioShock 1, where Andrew Ryan had sacrificed basic regard for human life to his preferred ideology - an ideology that paradoxically claimed to value man above all else. I see Levine as doing something similar and still different in Infinite, showing Comstock sacrificing the human need for love to his ideology - an ideology that claims love as the greatest thing of all, even greater than faith. In a fascinating twist, it is Booker, the unbaptized, seemingly irreligious predecessor of Comstock who is finally able to sacrifice the only thing he should have the right to sacrifice, giving his life out of love for his child.

Many born again Christians look back on their previous lives of "sin", before they accepted Christ, with groaning and despair. How lost they were. Comstock certainly treats Booker this way throughout the game. But what if things are not so simple? What if the choices we make now shape the way we view our past? It isn't just our past that affects who we are today, nor is it just that our decisions affect who we become in the future. At times it may indeed seem like there are infinite worlds of possibility, infinite ways of carrying on with this journey of life. That a video game can capture some of this experience may seem like a miraculous feat in itself.

4. Journal of Discourses, vol. 10, p. 110