Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Stop Pretending Your Standard is God's Standard

It always amuses me when Christians try to defend their beliefs by essentially belittling their own powers of reason and observation. 'I don't know if I trust myself enough to think I can figure it all out on my own.' 'I think it takes tremendous faith to believe you know better than god.' While statements like these largely straw-man the atheist position, they also reveal one major assumption behind most forms of theism that actually played a pretty big role in my own loss of faith. 

Most recently, I heard David Robertson give voice to this assumption in his second debate with Matt Dillahunty on the UK Christian radio show Unbelievable. David said he doesn't judge Jesus by his standards, he judges Jesus by Jesus' standards. When Matt rightly called this out as circular, noting that even Satan would look right by Satan's own standards, David disagreed and denied that he's in a position to judge, being that he can't trust himself absolutely. Fortunately, he has god's standard to rely on instead - or so David thinks.

The problem is that such a position is entirely untenable. Whatever one believes about divine revelation, it cannot be the case that revelation is ever given in a completely uninterpreted, unfiltered, and direct way. The process of revelation, whether denoting anything true or not, always involves a sender and receiver; divine beings (god, angels, etc.) send revelations, which we human beings receive. To suppose otherwise is not just to move beyond revelation, but to suppose that there is no real distinction between humans and the divine, that we are synonymous with god in some sense. Perhaps, like Bishop George Berkeley thought, we are only ideas in the mind of god. Of course, such a radical view has plenty of its own problems, not least of which would be asking which divine mind we do inhabit.

If revelation has to be transmitted to us, by its nature, then what guarantee is there that it's transmitted accurately? More to the point, even if it is transmitted accurately, what guarantee is there that we've received it accurately? We know of many cases of transmitted information getting 'lost in translation' - radio signals, written texts, cultural norms, computer codes, even genetic material. Where there are senders and receivers, there are often errors occurring at several points along the way. Mr. Robertson likely finds it plausible that believers in other faiths might have malfunctioning receptors, could have been sent a corrupted message, or perhaps received their beliefs from a dubious source. What makes him think, against these alternatives, that he has truly received god's standard through divine revelation?

As I'd bet, there are only two responses someone like David would give. His revelation is trustworthy because god has protected its transmission, or his revelation is trustworthy because it has the sort of evidence and reasons it would need to be trustworthy. If the latter is the case, David must either admit there is, in fact, some personal standard he's using to make judgments about revelation, or he must continue to deny this and, in effect, retreat to the former response. However, the former response is nothing but an assumption - an article of faith - until support is given for it. When that support is provided, it will either be based on god, as ascertained by revelation, or it will have to be based on something independent of god. So round and round it will go till Robertson arbitrarily decides to stop questioning and rely on faith, or till he decides to join the rest of us who recognize the inescapable nature of perception, and finally starts talking standards of belief in a manner we can actually understand and assess.

I want to be clear, though, that I am not insinuating that we should fully trust our own senses to guide us to the truth. The problems I've noted as arising from methods of transmission arise in more areas than just religious revelation. There are many conceivable situations where it's not a good idea to depend on our intuitions and common sense, and psychology tells us there is much about the way our minds work that can cast doubt on the accuracy of such easy means of decision-making. Yet if we take these situations to indicate a general unreliability about ourselves, the conclusion that necessarily follows is not Christian theism, but solipsism. If we can't trust ourselves to reason about matters involving god, we certainly can't trust ourselves to reason about divine revelation. Nonetheless, a great many theists do, including David Robertson. The irony is that even his statement about not being in a position to judge Jesus by his own standard is itself a judgment call, as it is to judge that the sentence 'Jesus is good' comes from a divine source.

What I find particularly appalling about all of this is not the flawed reasoning, or even the hypocrisy behind it, but the way Christians like David use it as a platform on which to exalt themselves in false humility. The obvious implication is that someone who follows the perfect standard of an all-knowing, all-good god is in a better epistemic position than someone who doesn't. Though I can't deny this in principle, I can deny the naive substitution of one's own standard with 'god's standard', as Robertson attempts to get away with. If one wants to claim that the rule they live by is divine, let them state their case and support it with reason and evidence. If one wants to make the less fantastical claim that they try to make their own standard comport with a divine rule of law, this, too, at least is fertile ground for discussion.

But, please, stop pretending that your standard is god's standard rather than your own.

1 comment:

  1. DR didn't "get" that he didn't "get" Matt here & in most aspects of gone debate. His deluded belief that he won is there for all to see and laugh at (or weep, if you are of a more sensitive disposition) on his Weeflea blog. Note particularly his comment in gone 2nd debate about being pleased that Matt was such a "worthy" opponent. He then goes away and writes about how Matt's performance was embarrassing & he felt sorry for him.
    The man is dishonest as well as stupid.