The Ignorant Atheist

Richard Dawkins, never one to be pleasant, made some remarks that hold some truth value and also showcased his inability to research his historical claims. He is criticizing certain Muslim claims about the relationship of their faith to science. 

“Islamic science deserves enormous respect.” There are two versions of this second claim, ranging from the pathetic desperation of “the Qu’ran anticipated modern science” (the embryo develops from a blob, mountains have roots that hold the earth in place, salt and fresh water don’t mix) to what is arguably quite a good historical point: “Muslim scholars kept the flame of Greek learning alight while Christendom wallowed in the Dark Ages.”

Dawkins mentions the Dark Ages as a period in which Christendom wallowed in stupidity, all the while the consensus among medievalists is that the “Dark Ages” were non-existent. Also, Dawkins is probably wrong about the golden age.  In 1929 the Encyclopedia Britannica we read:

[T]he contrast, once so fashionable, between the ages of darkness and the ages of light have no more truth in it than have the idealistic fancies which underlie attempts at mediaeval revivalism.

Or from Rodney Stark:

For the past two or three centuries, every educated person has known that from the fall of Rome until about the fifteenth century that Europe was submerged in the “Dark Ages” -centuries of ignorance, superstition, and misery-from which it was suddenly, almost miraculously rescues, first by the Renaissance and then by the Enlightenment. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, during the so-called Dark Ages, European technology and science overtook and surpassed the rest of the world! –Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason, 35

Stark goes on to document the use of the waterwheel an other sources of non-human power because of the Christian belief that slavery was the result of the fall and therefore that it was virtuous to end it. The Greeks and Romans saw it as the necessary condition of lesser humans.  

Just because somebody is a scientist (and Dawkins is one that happens to be fairly smart) does not mean they know what they are talking about. Never forget, E.O. Wilson claims that good scientists don’t even need to understand mathematics, and therefore requiring hard math of science students “has created a hemorrhage of brain power we need to stanch.” In other words, “Requiring scientists to think hard has made more people want to quit science.”

Anyhow, Dawkins, like Wilson has trouble with things beyond cataloging bats (or ants). One is bad at math, the other is bad at reading history.

The Goober Atheist: Ineffectual Nerd Edition

Years ago Richard Carrier attempted to destroy the foundation of the Christian faith by publishing his magnum opus proving definitively that Jesus never existed. And like all virgin-nerds, his work was ignored by the world of chad New Testament scholars, which lead him to resentfully hate them all. As an aside, I don’t mind atheists, but I don’t understand why you would devote several years of your life writing a book about something you believe to be pointless. In those years, Carrier could have hit the gym, learned to play an instrument, or developed a network of friends. Larry Hurtado recently received one of Carrier’s limp-wristed rhetorical punches and responded:

If you want to read a blogger going ape-shit, troll through Richard Carrier’s recent belligerent, intemperate response (here) to my posting in which I showed that his three claims that supposedly corroborate his “mythical Jesus” view are all incorrect.  It’s really quite amusing, or maybe sad.

In this long, long rant, Carrier’s repeated mantra is that his book calling into question the commonly shared scholarly judgement that Jesus of Nazareth was a first-century Galilean Jew has been largely ignored by scholars.  He seems to want scholars to go through the 700 pages of that tome and engage closely every one of his claims and assertions.  He repeatedly states that he spent six years on the book on what he calls a “post-doctoral” award (which was really a fund put together by his “fans,” to use his own term).  It must be frustrating.  But Carrier doesn’t seem to handle frustration well.

I mean, geeze. I couldn’t help but remember Carrier’s other sheepish attempt at self-assertion several years back when he posted this brilliant romantic overture to…well anybody who will please listen:

So, this is experimental. I’d like to go on a date in May. And for the first time, I’m going to try a bat signal: putting a call out on my blog. I don’t know anyone else who has tried doing that, so I have no precedent to work from as to etiquette or even arguments for or against doing it. So I’m just going to do it and see what happens and document and assess. If you know anyone who might have an interest in dating me, let them know. If you might have an interest, read on.

I’ll start by making sure anyone considering this is up to speed. I am polyamorous. I currently have many girlfriends. All I consider my friends. Some are just occasional lovers. Some I am more involved with. They are also polyamorous, or near enough (not all of them identify that way, but all of them enjoy open relationships). And I will always have relationships with them, as long as they’ll have me in their life.

Many different things can be meant by the following terms, but just for the present purpose, if by a primary relationship is meant someone you live with or just about as good as live with, a secondary as someone you date regularly, and a tertiary as someone you date occasionally, all my relationships are tertiary, but only because of geography. I live just below Sacramento, California, where the rents are cheap, which means, where no one wants to live. And I’m unlikely to move anytime soon. So relationships with me, at best, are likely to be tertiary—long distance chatting with occasional being together throughout the year. Even so, I always take such friendships seriously.

Hurtado did not need to use such rhetoric to dismiss Carrier. He simply had to quote the man.

 

On the Importance of Philosophical Reasoning for Biblical Exegesis: Edward Feser and Romans 1:18-23

Introduction
In my mind, the ability to engage in philosophical reasoning in order to tease out the implications of particular interpretations of the Bible and other truths is indispensable for reading the Bible and teaching it to others.

Example

Edward Feser, in a post titled, “Repressed Knowledge of God?” comments that the common interpretation of Romans 1:18-23 is mistaken. Here is the passage in question from the ESV, I would translate it differently, but this translation reflects the most common interpretation:

Romans 1:18-23 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (19) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (20) For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (21) For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (22) Claiming to be wise, they became fools, (23) and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

The common interpretation is that the atheist is the person to whom these verses refer. This can be seen in the writings of many schools of Christian apologetics. The idea is that atheism is always a matter of intellectual dishonesty because the Bible teaches that knowledge of the God of the Bible is so obvious that it can only be suppressed by sheer force of will. I think that some people are atheists because they accept bad arguments just like some people believe in God for silly reasons.

Without thinking about Christian theology, the psychology of all atheists, and broader philosophical conclusions, the text of Romans 1:18-23 itself militates against seeing atheists in this passage. The passage is not about people who believe in no gods, but rather those who have good reason to worship the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, but choose to worship idols.(See the footnote of this post about the passage in question for an alternative interpretation). The passage gives good insight into the results of idolatry, which is related to atheism, but it is not about atheism at all.

Feser, without attempting to exegete the Bible passage in question, refutes the view that God’s existence is so obvious as to only be denied on purpose rather handily. Here is the relevant portion of his argument:

Do we have a natural tendency to believe in God? Yes, but in something like the way in which someone might have a natural aptitude for music or for art. You might be inclined to play some instrument or to draw pictures, but you’re not going to do either very well without education and sustained practice.  And without cultivating your interest in music or art, your output might remain at a very crude level, and your ability might even atrophy altogether.

Or consider moral virtue.  It is natural to us, but only in the sense that we have a natural capacity for it.  Actually to acquire the virtues still requires considerable effort.  As Aquinas writes: “[V]irtue is natural to man inchoatively…both intellectual and moral virtues are in us by way of a natural aptitude, inchoatively, but not perfectly…(Summa Theologiae I-II.63.1, emphasis added), and “man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training” (Summa Theologiae I-II.95.1).

Now, knowledge of God is like this. We are indeed naturally inclined to infer from the natural order of things to the existence of some cause beyond it.  But the tendency is not a psychologically overwhelming one like our inclination to eat or to breathe is. It can be dulled.  Furthermore, the inclination is not by itself sufficient to generate a very clear conception of God.  As Aquinas writes:

To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude… This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching… (Summa Theologiae I.2.1, emphasis added)

In other words, from a philosophical point of view, to claim that God’s existence is only and ever obvious, is simply untrue. And if it is a false claim, then a passage about a merely tangentially related topic in order to proof-text it obscures the Bible and contradicts sound philosophy simultaneously.

Conclusion
While pastors do not need to be arm-chair philosophers. I think it is important for those engaged in the pastoral task to skilled in logic and to be aware of the best arguments concerning philosophies most important topics. One of those would obviously be whether or not God exists.

Thoughts on Faith

In Christian thought, faith often has three distinct meanings:

  1. Belief that something is true (see James 2).
  2. Complete loyalty and trust in/to a person, idea, or group (see Galatians and the gospels).
  3. ‘the faith’ means the body of Christian beliefs and practices handed down by tradition.

“The faith” in meaning three, is a tradition and body of teaching. It doesn’t properly connect people to God because it is, by nature, a field of study and not a person or relationship between persons. But, “the faith” contains that ideas of the Christian gospel.

Faith in the second sense, is usually considered to be what connects the Christian to God, apart from any meritorious work or virtue on the part of the Christian. But such faith certainly leads to good works and meritorious works.

But, belief that something is true (the first definition above), has often been considered a virtue. I’ve always pondered how this could be so. Everybody changes their mind based on evidence and then sticks with the facts. But as I learned statistics, economics, and observed ideas change based on cultural fads, I realized that faith could mean accepting what the logic shows you despite what you think should be true. C.S. Lewis wrote about this in Mere Christianity. He called faith, “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. (Mere Christianity, 123)”

He illustrates this in a way that should be familiar to nerds everywhere. I’ll summarize and embellish. Imagine that there exists a person who starts acting like they have a crush on you. All your friends say, “This person is a cad…beware.” Hilariously, you already knew this to be so! But all your hormones cause you to help this person study, edit their papers, and listen to their problems. Then, when you pour out your feelings for this person to him/her, it turns out that you are treated just like your prior knowledge predicted. The virtue of faith, as belief that something is true, would have required that you stick to your initial perception until evidence (not moods) led you away from them.

Interestingly, in a great deal of atheist literature, I’ve found that the rhetoric often sounds like this:

We atheists believe the cold hard realities of the godless, meaningless world, despite our temptations to seek comfort in gods, afterlife, and fairies. You religious folk simply have faith, but we have the strength to believe the truth. (made up summary of ideas from several books I read in like 2009 when atheism started becoming cool again)

But this is no different from the Christian notion of faith as a virtue. If a Christian finds evidence that Christianity is completely false, then he should sit down and consider whether or not the evidence is valid and rethink his life. But, if the Christian really wants to look at internet pornography or commit murder and suddenly has an epiphany that Christianity is false based on vague impressions, then the virtue of faith would serve him well.

Similarly, if the atheist starts reconsidering atheism because of sudden superstition, then he should power forward with his commitment to a meaningless universe. But if the atheist suddenly has a vision that lucidly predicts a future with reference to a religion being true, then it occurs, then the atheist should consider this evidence carefully.

Anyway, there is obviously much more to say about faith, but I had these thoughts on my way to work this morning.

Atheism and Definitions

An atheist is one who denies the existence of a personal, transcendent creator of the universe, rather than one who simply lives life without reference to such a being. Atheist is one who asserts the existence of such a creator. Any discussionof atheism, then, is necessarily a discussion of theism. –

Le Poidevin, Robin. Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Routledge, 2003, xvii
When I was a coffee shop worker and a seminary student and found myself hanging around drinking the black brew I often found myself talking with intellectual types (we were all faux intellectuals). When atheism would come up it was often defined thus, “An atheist is not somebody who believes there is no God, an atheist is somebody who lacks a belief about God.” This to me was intolerably stupid for two reasons:
  1. One would be an afideist (a person not having belief), but etymology and dictionaries are often ignored in such discussions.
  2. The rhetoric behind this definitional change was clearly a ruse. Whenever these discussions came up, it was usually when I was memorizing vocabulary for some dead language or reading a giant tome about rhetoric in Romans or ancient patronage practices and minding my own business. Then somebody would ask what I was studying, and suddenly imply that I mustn’t understand science. Because you know, random coffee shop folks do so much science. If I did get science, I would know there was not a God. But as soon as I started pointing out various arguments for God’s existence….BOOM: “Whoa man, I’m an atheist. I don’t believe there isn’t a God. I simply lack belief in a God, don’t try to convince me. [mike drop]”

Anyway, Le Poidevin’s book about atheism and why one should be one and what one is might clear things up.

Note: I am not an atheist, I’m just saying that if anybody wishes to be one, let it be done accurately.

Update: An old friend (not his age, I see him as a young guy like Data from the Goonies), noted that “lack of belief” has become an accepted definition of the term. While I accept that, I still hypothesize that this usage, which was in circulation amongst certain academic atheists even prior to 2003, was not typical until it became rhetorically useful. For instance, Richard Dawkins, in the mid 2000s wrote the God delusion which included his infamous Boeing gambit argument for God’s non-existence, not an argument for lack of belief one way or another. But I’ll accept the facts if the usage has been so transformed. Also, I don’t hang out in coffee shops any more, so the point is practically moot.

Melting Asphalt and God as a cipher

An atheist writer over at Melting Asphalt wrote this:

In light of this view of religion (as a tribal strategy), I’d like to share a little hack I sometimes use to make sense of religious practices. Whenever I hear someone say “God,” I try substituting “society” in its place. E.g.:

  • God is great becomes society is great.
  • When someone says, praying before a meal, “We give thanks to God for this food,” I hear praise of society, of civilization
  • When a Muslim says that Islam is all about submission to Allah, I understand this as submission to society.

Though that’s a neat little mind hack, he’s missing some things. Many religious people often, after they come to believe in a deity, find themselves living lifestyles that are in stark contrast to society and thus in conflict with its mores and its most powerful members. To adhere to a religion in a serious fashion often puts an individual at odds with society. So though it is a nice hack for an atheist trying to play nice with religious doofuses (make no mistake the irenic author calls religious beliefs crazy, in a sense that either means obviously untrue, therefore being held delusionally or perhaps in the sense of outrageously unintelligent to hold), it does not work as a descriptor of actual religious belief. A central piece, for instance, of the New Testament message is that:

If anyone thinks that he is religious and does not bridle his tongue, but instead deceives himself, his religion is worthless.  (27)  A religion that is pure and stainless according to God the Father is this: to take care of orphans and widows who are suffering, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:26-27)

It is precisely that there is a society that makes widows and orphans into a group of undesirables that makes the message of Jesus necessary. Incidentally, God, in the book of James is precisely not anthropomorphic (a claim the aforementioned blog makes several times). God is rather, unchanging. God sustains the universe, free agents therein do evil.

Every generous act of giving and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father who made the heavenly lights, in whom there is no inconsistency or shifting shadow. (James 1:17)

Many theistic religions would claim that, for whatever reason (some have explanations and accounts of how/why this is and some do not) there is evil in the world, but ultimately God is goodness as such. Thus, God is for the well being of the cosmos and of discrete creatures but not discrete creatures at the cost of the whole cosmos. This is a vast oversimplification, but God is not a substitute for society. When a society is evil, God, being goodness as such, is then manifestly opposed to that society’s actions and ideologies.

For people who have trouble with the concept that God is goodness, I recommend reading the posts here at Ed Feser’s blog. God’s existence is a matter of metaphysical demonstration, not a matter of symbolically replacing society with a super-person. Religious people claim either to be trying to live good lives because it is morally appropriate in light of God’s existence or they are a part of a community which claims to have revelation from God (or a combination of the two). That can lead to beliefs that seem crazy but that remains to be demonstrated based on the logic of the claims that the best representatives of the group make, not based on “obviousness.” It’s obvious that humans are internally symmetrical based on their exterior until you dissect one.

When a journalist writes about a scientific theory he/she accepts, its explication will usually not touch its technical nuances and difficulties. The same with religious folk. A Thomas Aquinas or Samuel Clarke would be considered better representatives than a pious shop-keeper just like a laboratory researcher is a better representative than a science-y journalist.

By and large I do find the asphalt article to be thoughtful. But there’s a massive misunderstanding of what makes people religious. Pointing out that religious beliefs are clearly false, therefore religious people must subconsciously mean something else by them isn’t going to cut it for most people who sincerely practice there faith (a Buddhist will not agree that nirvana is a cipher for society).

I may have totally misunderstood this fellow’s post, but those are my thoughts. It is interesting stuff to read. Have a look.