How should one respond to the Argument from Contingency?

Consider the Argument from Contingency:

1. All contingent facts, including the existence of our universe (i.e. the continuous space-time region that we inhabit), have an explanation.
2. The conjunct of all of the contingent facts is itself a contingent fact.

3. Therefore, there is an explanation of the conjunct of all of the contingent facts.

4. The explanation of the conjunct of all of the contingent facts cannot itself be contingent.

5. Therefore, the explanation of the conjunct of all of the contingent facts must be a necessary fact.

6. Therefore, there exists a necessary entity that explains all of the contingent facts, including the existence of our universe.

We are supposed to conclude from this that God exists. This is presumably because God, as a necessarily existent being, is the only possible necessarily existent entity that could explain the existence of our universe. As I will explain in this post, I reject arguments of the form 1-6. (I should also note that the Argument from Contingency — or Leibniz’s Cosmological Argument, as it is sometimes called — is often expressed differently.)
My friend Z recently approached me on Facebook to ask about the Argument from Contingency. Richard Howe, from Southern Evangelical Seminary, is visiting Z’s campus and Z wanted to have a better understanding of some objections to ask Howe for his opinion on. I should note that I have not read Howe’s work (nor do I know if 1-6 is precisely what he has in mind) so I am not aware of whether or not he has considered the objections I offer in this post. Nonetheless, I thought that this would be a good time to reflect on a few of my responses to popular versions of the Argument from Contingency.

One of the first things to notice about the Argument from Contingency is that it does not support the existence of God. It supports the existence of a Necessarily Existent Something or Other that created the universe. The atheist is free to simply concede this argument entirely.

But let’s suppose that this was sufficient to show that the God of classical theism (a god with the four omni properties) existed. There are significant problems for a theology that involves a necessarily existent being. Here are a few of them.

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Thus Spake Matt Sheedy: Analytic Philosophy, Critical Theory, and the Atheism/Theism Discourse

The arguments presented in the film God’s Not Dead – and the sort of Christian apologetics with which it is associated (especially actor Kevin Sorbo’s public comments on Trunews) – are intellectually impotent. It is not difficult to find negative reviews from Christian apologists, who see their own cause undermined by such dreck (Randall Rauser, for example, states that he was “outraged” and that the film is “reprehensible”). I can think of only one reason for engaging with the film or Kevin Sorbo from an intellectual perspective: both Kevin Sorbo and the film express ideas popular among a particular demographic of evangelical Christians.

That set of ideas – that atheists secretly know God exists, that secular moral realism is an impossibility, that life without God is meaningless, and that atheists are angry, irrational dogmatists – boasts a lengthy history (longer than the history of professed atheism) and serves an important role in understanding the intellectual and cultural history of our society (even though such ideas are almost certainly – and trivially – false). For that reason, far more interesting questions can be posed concerning the God’s Not Dead milieu from a cultural studies perspective than by analyzing the associated arguments disjoint from their cultural context. The only reason I can see for doing the latter would be as a pedagogical exercise in which one instructs the public how not to make bad arguments concerning religion.

Matt Sheedy recently wrote an article for Religion Bulletin. In that article, Sheedy addresses Kevin Sorbo’s recent statement that atheists are absurd because they are angry with a god they claim not to believe in. Sorbo had gone on to claim that atheists secretly believe in God. Salon.com columnist  Sarah Gray had dismissed Sorbo’s comments as absurd and Sheedy was taking Gray to task for ignoring the relevant social context of Sorbo’s assertion:

The pithy length of Gray’s reply, clocking in at 240 words, highlights the ease with which she feels that she can dismiss Sorbo’s arguments, relying mostly on his own words to point out the absurdity of this position. While she no doubt has a point that his statement is “logically” absurd, her method, commonly associated with the analytic tradition in “Anglo-American” philosophy, is to respond from the elevated plain of rational thought, where every problem, every contradiction, can be resolved by simply pointing out where logic has gone off the rails.

Sheedy’s comments have themselves already “gone off the rails” here if he thinks that all analytic (or Anglo-American) philosophy is capable of is recognizing failures to be logically consistent. More charitably, Gray’s comments should be taken as bringing into question whether or not Sorbo has any evidence for his assertion that atheists secretly believe in God (he has no such evidence). Nonetheless, we can be charitable to Sheedy and reinterpret his comments as the claim that there is more than the arguments themselves at play. The arguments might legitimize particular cultural stances and signal particular allegiances (and systematically delegitimize the stances of those atheists who criticize or question Christian hegemony). Sorbo can use “bad” arguments precisely because the content of the arguments is largely irrelevant. What is far more relevant than the logic or justifications in Sorbo’s arguments are the social processes that the arguments play a role in.

Sheedy seems to go on to say that he largely agrees with me: what is intellectually stimulating about the God’s Not Dead milieu is best understood in cultural and not logical terms.

I have to confess that I have a hard time identifying what the ultimate point of Sheedy’s article is supposed to be, but, in so far as the article aims to be an argument in opposition to analytic (or Anglo-American) philosophy, much of the article seems to be straightforwardly self-undermining. Sheedy claims that we should go beyond the approach to dialectic encouraged by analytic  philosophy because such an approach is overly reductionistic (it ignores social context). Yet Sheedy’s article itself presents an overly reductionistic view of analytic philosophy for a different reason.

In any given discourse, there will be opposing sides arguing for contrary views. In the first-order debate between atheists and theists, there are two sides which each present arguments for or against the existence of God. Kevin Sorbo is certainly not an academically respectable representative of that first-order debate, but it is not difficult to find those who are (Plantinga, Swinburne, van Inwagen, Kierkegaard, Aquinas, etc, for the theists and Rowe, Draper, Russell, Hume, etc, for the atheists).

Sheedy takes issue with the first-order discourse and sees himself as above it or outside it (atheists are “data” for religion studies scholars, the theist/atheist dichotomy is not necessary to maintain, etc). The implication of this is that Sheedy is engaged in a second-order discourse: a discourse about the first-order atheist/theist debate. In that second-order discourse, the assumptions of the first-order discourse can be brought into question (what sort of distinction should be maintained between atheism and theism?), the social context of the actors in the first-order discourse can be examined (what social pressures is Kevin Sorbo and his ilk responding to?), and the first-order discourse can be contextualized into a historical framework (Sheedy’s appeal to Hume and Preus, for example).

Analytic philosophy is perfectly capable of identifying these two kinds of discourse and presenting arguments in the two categories. It is also capable of recognizing that the first-order discourse can be undermined by the second-order discourse: an argument for the conclusion that the e.g. social context of the actors in the first-order debate undermines arguments made in the first-order debate is what analytic philosophers call an “evolutionary debunking” argument. Nonetheless, analytic philosophers routinely do something which might be anathema to critical theorists: engage in first-order debates with the assumption that evolutionary debunking arguments are not crippling.


Aamer Rahman describes what reverse racism would actually look like


Depression and David Hume

According to David Hume, previous thinkers had misunderstood the relationship between action and emotion (or what he called ‘passion’). While previous thinkers declared that logic and rationality alone can compel action (we can act rationally), Hume argued that only the passions were intrinsically motivating (so that, as he famously declared, reason is the slave of the passions). You can recognize the truth of any proposition whatsoever, but it will never compel you to action. Hume would tell us that Vulcans — people without any emotions whatsoever — would never actually be compelled to action. There would be no motivation to learn more, to be more logical, to suppress one’s emotions, to help others, to explore, to discover new things, or to do anything at all because an individual void of emotion is void of motivation. They would sit in one place staring blankly into the void.

But that’s what depression feels like. I can recognize all the reasons why it adversely affects me to not be responsible. I can recognize that I will continue being unhappy with my apartment if I don’t clean it. I can recognize that I will not accomplish my goals if I don’t do certain small things each day to get there. Yet unless I actually am moved to action somehow — Hume would say that a passion is stirred within me — I don’t do it.

For those who do not suffer from depression, it is easy to think that I am just being lazy. Hell, it is easy for me to think that I am just being lazy. It is also easy for those who do not suffer from depression to think of depression as sadness. But sadness I can do something about. Sadness I know how to change. Sadness is motivating.
What I do not know how to deal with are those periods when I stop caring.


Guest Post: “Memes and Cultural Evolution” by Simon Frankel Pratt

This post originally appeared on Simon Said.

Many people are familiar with the concept of the ‘meme’: units of cultural material that are transmitted throughout populations and evolve in a manner somewhat analogous to genes. Richard Dawkins coined the term and the general idea [1], prompting some measure of scientific activity, including a journal [2], devoted to the study of memetics. However, memes and memetics never gained much traction amongst social scientists and philosophers, and ‘meme theory’ currently enjoys essentially no credibility as a scientific theory.

In this post, I will explain why that is, and I will point to some alternative, sounder approaches to thinking about and studying the way knowledge and practice diffuse and evolve throughout societies .

Evolutionary epistemology and social science seem to go well together. Theories spread, transform, grow, live and die – ‘are selected for’ – not just in science but in society as a whole. Nor is this pattern of diffusion, evolution, and selection restricted to substantive or propositional content (i.e. to claims about the world); music, language, food and fashion, technology all seem to fit this model throughout periods of history. If we want to understand why that is, we must answer two questions:

  1. What is the thing that is being transmitted/diffused, selected-for, and transformed? That is, what is the ‘genetic unit’ of cultural evolution?
  2. What mechanism(s) are responsible for cultural evolution? That is, what kinds of recurring processes lead to the units of cultural evolution spreading and changing?

Meme theorists seem to offer these answers:

  1. Memes are independent units of cultural information, such as ideas, behaviours, or theories, that move between human hosts and influence what those hosts do, thereby causing changes in their environment.
  2. Memes ‘leap from brain to brain’ [3] by somehow generating imitation.

These answers, as I will explain, are not very good.

The notion of independent, self-replicating units of cultural data is both conceptually and empirically problematic. Conceptually, it appears to rest on dubious ontological foundations; that is, it seems to be a very strange kind of thing. Memes are not cognitive phenomena, according to Dennett, although they clearly can produce something cognitive (beliefs). They are contained within human beings, and so they are not social structures or systems, unless we conceive of structures and systems in highly reductionist terms. So what are they? Perhaps they are just a convenient shorthand for a bunch of other stuff, and are not meant to refer to something real? But if that’s the case, then (i) they are not analogous to genes, which we probably think are real and (ii) we only have reason to use the concept of a meme at all if it provides considerable empirical value.

It doesn’t, though. Provide empirical value, that is. As any anthropologist or sociologist will attest, culture isn’t made up of little, discrete bits of behaviour or knowledge. It is this big, inter-subjective, inter-related mess of interacting and continually changing practices, tastes, dispositions, and interpretations oriented around social life. It exists in holistic ways, with one particular bit of culture only making any sense when placed within the context of the larger whole. It’s not just that culture could be a ‘memeplex’ [4], but that culture is a web of symbols and meanings [5] surrounding us and making us who we are even as we continually recreate it through our actions [6]. Hence dividing it into independent units deprives us of our ability to appreciate culture as something emergent, and completely ignores the way that culture is not only something that seems to dwell within us but also constitutes the actual social environment in which we live and act [7]. Whatever empirical value we get from keeping the concept of the meme must be counter-posed to the enormous empirical value we lose by adopting a concept that is unsuited for appreciating vast and relevant parts of culture and social life.

Not only that, but the mechanisms of evolution proposed by meme theorists seem either trivial or absurd. Nothing simply leaps from brain to brain; people imitate other people due to processes of socialisation and influence. These can be such things as direct peer pressure, in-group solidarity, coercion, persuasion, observation, or adaption. To name a few possible candidates. These mechanisms range from the level of individual psychology to society-level structural influences, and thus do not appear to correspond to anything remotely similar to the ways in which genes engineer the machinary of their own reproduction; again, we must appreciate cultural or social evolution by taking into account emergent structures and systemic wholes, as well as their component parts. The reductionist approach of memetics just won’t do the conceptual and empirical job.

Of course, if we were left with no alternatives, we might decide that memetics is good enough. Luckily, though, we have alternatives. Better alternatives. So many alternatives, actually, that there is a robust debate among actual social scientists over where and when one alternative is better than another for a given problem or area of social life. For example, one of the most popular approaches is to conceive of culture as made up of symbols. Associated with hermeneutic theorists [8] such as Wilhelm Dilthey, Max Weber, Clifford Geertz, and Paul Ricoeur, and semiotic theorists [9] such as Ferdinand de Sasseure and Roland Barthes, this approach offers a much more helpful way of thinking about what culture is, ontologically or cognitively. Nevertheless, this approach makes it difficult to understand how culture spreads and changes. To address this, theorists such as Anthony Giddens, Pierre Bourdieu, Margaret Archer, Jeffrey Alexander, and Charles Tilly have treated the symbolic structures of culture as existing in a mutually-constituting relationship with the individual actions and practices of people as they go about interacting with one-another and living their lives. Practices concatenate or chain together in various ways to produce emergent changes at the structural or system level, which circle back to the level of individuals as their environment changes accordingly, in a dialectic process stretching back into history.

Drawing more explicitly from evolutionary theory, evolutionary epistemologists such as Karl Popper or Donald Davidson have suggested that theories spread and are selected-for in a way somewhat analogous to Darwinian evolution, where more empirically successful (and perhaps more accurate) theories win out over less successful ones. And pragmatist philosophers such as Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey have used evolutionary metaphors to produce highly influential metaphysical theories [10] and theories of mind and action [11], which have formed the basis for more recent attempts to theorise change and innovation based on something like spontaneous mutation or novel synthesis, such as by Hans Joas [12].

It may seem daunting to look at this long list of names and theoretical traditions in thinking about what culture is and how it changes, but are you really going to stick with memes out of laziness? This is all material that can be covered in an introductory course in sociology or anthropology with enough detail to make it possible to talk about culture or society without resorting to unhelpful or incoherent Darwinian metaphors. And if taking such a course is not feasible, buying and reading a textbook surely is. I’ll even take questions by email.

Tl;dr almost everything conveyed by the term ‘meme’ can be conveyed by the term ‘practice’, ‘approach’, or ‘tradition’, and what cannot be conveyed with those terms can be conveyed with other slightly more complex vocabulary associated with an actually credible theory in the social sciences.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme#cite_note-cream-1

[2] http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/issues.html

[3] http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/9912/

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memeplex

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clifford_Geertz#Main_ideas_and_contributions

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structuration_theory

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Bourdieu#Field_and_Habitus

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermeneutics

[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiotics

[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synechism

[11] https://www.brocku.ca/MeadProject/Dewey/Dewey_1922/Dewey1922_15.html

[12] http://www.amazon.ca/The-Creativity-Action-Hans-Joas/dp/0226400441


Why 100 Students Were Right About Sue Blackmore

Sue Blackmore’s article about her recent mishap in Oxford, where a large number of students walked out of a lecture she was giving, is rather ironic because she wrote another article — in 2010 — where she came close to seeing why her present view is not only false but offensive. Let me explain.

For those who don’t know, Blackmore recently explained to a group of teenagers at the Oxford Royale Academy that religions are “viruses of the mind” and that they have (apparently) uniformly negative consequences. A large number of teenagers (who she claims were mostly Muslims) walked out. I don’t blame them. See her article here.

The notion that religions are viruses is an accurate metaphor in a very restricted sense, but it is more often misunderstood than not. From what I have read of the incident, I do not believe that Blackmore presented an accurate understanding of the metaphor or how it relates more generally to the anthropology or sociology of religion literature.

It has long been known that mathematical models of viruses and of cultural diffusion have much in common. Both involve some attribute (that an individual may be infected or the holder of an idea, for example) that can be spread upon contact with others and which will adapt features to ensure its own propagation (or it will disappear). That’s a purely neutral feature of cultural diffusion. It is true of popular stories, for example, so that a story might be more likely to spread if it is more entertaining or more useful or whatever and successful stories tend to inspire their hosts to provide repeated tellings, often with modification. The fact that viruses are themselves typically harmful to their hosts is an irrelevant distraction. The relevant feature is the way in which some bit of culture spreads throughout a population and the fact that the mathematical and explanatory tools used by biologists can be used (with some modifications) by social scientists to explain cultural evolution.

When Richard Dawkins introduced the notion of a “meme” (in his The Selfish Gene) — a bit of culture that self-replicates, such as genes do for biological systems — he compared it to several different bits of culture, including music. Daniel Dennett expanded on the notion and applied it to religion in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, in which he leaves it as an open research question whether or not individual religions (or doctrines) tend to be neutral, malignant, or beneficial to their hosts. Meanwhile, a large number of atheists — who failed to read Dennett carefully — gleefully declared religion to be a virus (of the malignant sort) and have have ignored all of the obvious problems with framing the issue in this way. Not to mention that the simple ignorance of such atheists as to the plethora of anthropological data or the careful arguments against the view articulated by, for example, Pascal Boyer (in his Religion Explained).

In Blackmore’s 2010 article, after being presented data that religion does not have uniformly negative consequences for its host, she articulates one of the major problems with this uncareful view: “So it seems I was wrong and the idea of religions as ‘viruses of the mind’ may have had its day. Religions still provide a superb example of memeplexes at work, with different religions using their horrible threats, promises and tricks to out-compete other religions, and popular versions of religions outperforming the more subtle teachings of the mystical traditions. But unless we twist the concept of a ‘virus’ to include something helpful and adaptive to its host as well as something harmful, it simply does not apply. Bacteria can be helpful as well as harmful; they can be symbiotic as well as parasitic, but somehow the phrase ‘bacterium of the mind’ or ‘symbiont of the mind’ doesn’t have quite the same ring.” Here she has apparently ignored the fact that Dennett says the same thing in his book and is careful to couch his arguments in neutral terms. Several of the posters in the comments section hammered the nail on its head. For example, Jimothy81 wrote: “I haven’t read the Dawkins book you’re on about but my limited knowledge of viruses is that they aren’t evil or good. Their simple purpose is to multiply.” What’s true for viruses is likewise true for religion: descriptive claims should not be taken prescriptively. Edit: Indeed, viruses are not even uniformly negative in their consequences for their hosts. Some are beneficial.

As evidenced in her 2010 article, Blackmore, for reasons mysterious to me, had somehow misinterpreted the previous literature on religions-as-memes to be unanimous in its conclusion that religion is dangerous, bad, or (perhaps) evil. The only explanation that I can see for her conclusion is her own prejudice. While I am happy to see that she did change her mind in 2010, to see her declaring her older view to teenagers at Oxford is disheartening, to say the least.


No, Greg Brahe, I do not want to discuss chivalry with you

I recently posted on my wall that chivalry is sexist and paternalistic and that men should not act chivalrous. In saying this, I do not mean that men should never hold open doors for women or that heterosexual men should never pay for their date’s meal. Instead, what I mean is that chivalry — the idea that there are particular actions and roles which men and women should fulfill in virtue of their gender — is sexist and that, often, this involves illegitimate expectations being placed on women (for example, that women are somehow obligated to sexual activity because their meal was previously paid for).

There were two reactions which this post received. My female friends were very close to consensus in agreement and the only disagreement was over some (relatively) more minor points. Many of my male friends have communicated agreement to me as well, either on the thread or in private conversations.

A few men — but Greg Brahe in particular — objected to the statement that chivalry is sexist. Recently, he has issued a challenge to debate and/or discuss this topic with me on his podcast. I have refused for two reasons:

1. I will not speak in place of a woman. This issue primarily affects how women are treated and I do not think it is appropriate for me to speak when it would be very easy for Greg to invite women onto his program to explain their experiences with chivalry and why they do not like it. The vast majority of posts in this Facebook conversation were written by female friends of mine and not by myself. While I did offer some posts, I do not see myself as a primary contributor to the conversation. One of the ways in which Greg’s behaviour was critiqued was that he was perceived as primarily responding to men and had to encouraged, multiple times, to respond to women. The fact that he levelled this challenge at me — and not at any of the women who participated in the thread — speaks volumes.

2. I do not want to enable a public platform where a group of men discuss issues that primarily affect women. Last time I checked, I am a cis person with a penis. I have not had a lifetime of experiences dealing with chivalry (and neither has Greg). Therefore, I would much rather listen to what my female friends and colleagues have to say on this topic than to voice my own opinions on it.

If there are women who are reading this post who would like to respond to Greg’s request for a debate and/or discussion, I encourage them to do so and wish them luck.


A Priest, a Physiologist, and a Baron… and, no, it’s not a joke

My talk at the 2014 Secular Student Alliance East Coast meeting has been placed online. You can watch my talk below:


“Evidence, Theism and Naturalism” roundtable discussion


What Can We Atheists Learn From Our Christian Neighbor?

“I now know enough about all religions to know that I would always be an infidel at all times and in all places, but my particular atheism is a Protestant atheism.” — Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great, chapter 1

Three years ago, I attended a large worship service on my campus. The adult leader of that organisation talked with me afterwards and our discussion became heated. I didn’t particularly want it to become heated, but I had yet to learn how to talk to people who did not share my view of the world (this remains a struggle, but I am better at it now than I was then).

Our quarrel was over our respective interpretations of the Bible. Looking back on it now, it seems so odd to me that we fought over something so relatively trivial. Even though there are many details of the Bible which I find grossly immoral — God ordering the mass deaths of nearly everyone, including children, in the Great Flood or two bears slaughtering 42 children that merely mocked a prophet because he was bald — the man I was speaking to does not condone genocide or the killing of children. It may be a cost of living inside a particular community that he assent to particular beliefs which are sometimes difficult to maintain. It may be true that he identifies with, and interprets his life through, the framework provided to him by that community. It may also be true that he holds as sacrosanct propositions concerning gender and sexuality that I would find abhorrent. Yet I had not stopped to understand why he accepted the cost of assenting to beliefs that many would find difficult to maintain. I had not taken the time to understand the experiences which he interpreted through his framework. Our debate did not center on those of his views which I might find harmful nor did it center on those views and experiences we shared as humans. There would have been plenty of reasons for righteous indignation, but they were only tangentially related to what we were discussing.

The irony is that our discussion was predicated on shared assumptions owed to the common origins of our respective cultural outlooks. In the West, the history of Christianity and atheism are intimately tied to each other. One cannot understand the history of Western atheism without understanding the history of Western Christianity.

The protestant reformation represented a move towards a more individualized and privatized religion and away from a public, institutionalized religion. While atheists may use their private, individual reason to answer the question of whether or not God exists, protestants tend to emphasize their private, individual experiences as “proof” of God. Some Christians may accuse atheists of putting their own reason before God, but Catholics could easily accuse contemporary evangelicals of putting their personal experience before God’s authority. Evangelicals may say that they experience the Holy Spirit when they are Born Again, but other Christians will see that as the individual and subjective usurping the Ultimate and the Absolute.

While some protestants have (and still do) provided arguments for god’s existence, it was the Roman Catholics who first declared the doctrine of preambulae fidei: before one can have faith, one must prove by reason that God exists. Early modern atheists accepted this doctrine, but rejected the Catholics’s arguments for God’s existence.

Even the term ‘Freethinker’ originates in a protestant theological context.

At times, this has allowed for religious communities and Freethinkers to learn from each other. At other times, it has laid the foundations for brutal conflict and political disagreement. I fear that today we live more in the latter than in the former. Although our contemporary cultural situation is far more complex than other periods of Western history — and we desperately need for our cultural discourse on religion to be inclusive of Muslims, Jews, wiccans, Shintoists, Buddhists, Native American spiritualities, etc — I would like to call for a re-evaluation and a deconstruction of our present situation.

I have already seen some, from both sides, who I think are more than capable of moving this situation forward. Christopher McHugh and his followers, at New Apologetics, are Catholics who are leading a new kind of church life: they are working hard to both understand and respectfully respond to atheists. Pastor-turned-nonbeliever Ryan Bell (who blogs at Year Without God) often sounds as though he wishes for a belief space to be created that rejects the theism/atheism binary. James Croft is eager to create religious spaces for atheists, but in a way that I find serious and rigorous. The Reasonable Doubts podcast is prides itself on the high level of knowledge of its hosts and the professionalism with which they carry themselves.

Too often we essentialize, demonize, and ignore our common history. Seldom do we stop to think: what is the broader story that has brought us to this impasse? What are the social and cultural forces which produced both of us and set us at odds? Are we really engaged in a debate over God’s existence, or are we actually debating how to make society? I’m not saying that we should stop condemning religious institutions, beliefs, or practices when they cause harm  (unequivocally, we should condemn such things). Nor am I saying that we should stop having a public dialogue over the truth or falsehood of Christianity or its doctrinal claims. What I am saying is that we need a discourse that is predicated on an understanding of the social scientific and historical study of religion. We need original thought and creative new strategies. And we should watch ourselves in what we do to ensure that we do not exasperate an already difficult situation.

I will end this post with an Easter-appropriate metaphor that I believe we can take from our Christian neighbors. Traditionally, Christians have believed in Original Sin: that since the moment Eve disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit, Sin has been in the world. We are born into a fundamentally broken world. For Christians, the brokenness of that world is the reason we require the salvation of Jesus Christ, whose blood sacrifice took on the sins of the world. There are many reasons I find fault with this idea, but I also see within it the potential for a powerful metaphor for social justice.

We are born into a broken world. Not because one of our ancestors disobeyed God, but because all of our ancestors, collectively, arranged society to be fundamentally unfair. Neil DeGraase Tyson recently summarized the issue when asked about why there were so few women in science:

I’ve never been female, but I’ve been black all my life and so let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective. I got to see how the world around me reacted to my expressions of these ambitions. All I can say that is the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist was, hands-down, the path of most resistance through the forces of society. … Now here I am, I think, one of the most visible scientists in the land. And I look behind me and I say, ‘Where are the others who might have been this?’ And they’re not there. And I wonder: Where is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not simply because of the forces of society that prevent it at every turn?

We are born into a world that has been fractured and broken by the Sins of racism, homophobia, cis-sexism, transphobia, and the list goes on. Like the invisible metaphysical force Christians believe to have been released from the moment Eve bit into that piece of fruit, these structures overhang and organize society.

None of us made these social structures, nor are most of us aware of their existence, but we all participate in them. Many of us (including myself) alternatively benefit and are hurt by them. Unlike Christians, I do not believe that our salvation comes from blood sacrifice. I do believe that empowerment, consciousness raising, and dialogue are salvific. Unlike the imperialistic attitude that certain versions of this metaphor might suggest — such as an outside force appearing to “liberate” a group from their oppression — I believe that salvation arises from within communities and that allies may help by recognizing the social structures they participate in.

Let us re-make our world.