Thursday, July 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Kai Nielsen on Natural Law and Divine Command Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 6, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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