Category Archives: Christianity

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The Vatican Giveth and the Vatican Taketh Away

There has been lots of attention — and plenty of confusion — in the atheist blogosphere surrounding the Pope’s statement that atheists were redeemed by Jesus dieing on the cross. Plenty of atheists interpreted that statement as indicating that non-believers are not doomed to Hell. If true, the Pope would be espousing a view known as universalism or universal salvation; i.e. that salvation is universally available regardless of belief. Historically, both Protestants and Catholics have considered this to be a fallacy; for protestants, salvation comes solely by faith (a doctrine known as “sola fide”) whereas for Catholics, salvation comes by a combination of works (or good actions) and faith (where faith is usually taken to be prerequisite for works-based salvation). Was the pope being heretical? And what can be said about the response given by a Vatican official, that non-Catholics who are aware of the Church but still reject her are doomed to hell? Are these statements in conflict? And, if they are, what does that say about the Pope’s supposed infallibility?

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Atheism Christianity Environmentalism science and religion

Why are some evangelicals hostile to environmentalism?

Belief matters. Convincing people of that statement is often difficult. After one becomes convinced of that statement (as I am), one wonders why it is not obvious to more people. Beliefs determine our actions; our chances of interacting appropriately with the world correlate pretty highly with how consistently accurate our model of the world is. If I do not have correct beliefs about the meanings of street signs or about what automobiles can do to people, I might think it proper to march out into rush hour traffic.

Or I might cause global warming, while denying that it even exists.

The word “environmentalism” indicates a certain kind of concern with the negative impact that human beings can have on the natural world. Since one’s religious views will often determine how one understands the relationship between humankind and nature, whether or not environmentalism is even seen as legitimate will largely depend on the religious views that one has accepted. If one is motivated by the dominant religion in one’s culture, then even as a non-adherent, one may have an attitude which ultimately originates in religious beliefs.

It has been claimed that Evangelical Christianity is particularly hostile to environmentalism. In fact, early empirical research on the subject identified that, of all of the indices of religiosity that were measured, “only religious fundamentalism consistently predicted environmental attitude and actions” (Emerson, et al). But others disagree. Many other indices of religiosity — church attendance, frequency of prayer, etc — were not found to be strongly correlated with environmental attitudes. Nor was it found that environmental attitudes were significantly different between American Christians or American non-Christians.

Why might there be a relationship between anti-environmentalist attitudes and Evangelical Christianity? The Lynn White Hypothesis (proposed by Lynn White in his The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis) states that this is due to a particular kind of theological view about the relationship between humankind and nature. White argued that the Judeo-Christian creation story provides a view in which humans have mastery and dominion over nature. Importantly, that Genesis 1:28 historically motivated an anti-environmental stance (at least in certain parts of Christianity). Furthermore, at least some Evangelical Christians apparently believe that this world is unimportant because it is about to be destroyed. For at least some Christians, the imminent apocalypse makes concerns about the environment moot.

However, there are other Evangelical Christians who respond to environmental concerns with a much more nuanced reading of Genesis 1:28. They believe that, as human beings, being stewards over the Earth is a responsibility. As faithful believers, they believe that they are expected and charged with caring for the Creation which God made. And, thus, we have the concept of “Christian Stewardship”.

The Evangelicals who take the view that they should be “stewards” of the Earth have the right idea, but for the wrong reason. Importantly, the only reason that they do the right thing is by sheer accident.

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Emerson, M., Mirola, W., & Monahan, S. (2010). Religion matters: What sociology teaches us about religion in our world. Pearson.

Alvin Plantinga Atheism beleifs Christianity Daniel Dennett evolution Existence of God intelligent design New Atheism science and religion theist arguments

Review of Plantinga & Dennett’s “Science & Religion: Are They Compatible?”

When I found out that Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett co-authored a book, I was shocked. I could not think of two more diametrically opposed philosophers. It turned out that the book, entitled “Science and Religion”, resulted from a debate between the two famed philosophers at the American Philosophical Division Meeting in Chicago for 2009. The book consists of alternating short readings from each philosopher. The book contains a transcript of the original debate along with two more essays from each philosopher. Having now read the book, I think that Plantinga largely missed the point of Dennett’s arguments and that Dennett was probably more terse than he should have been.

The debate organisers had asked the two philosophers to discuss whether science and religion were compatible. However, the debate topic promptly changed when both philosophers agreed that there was no logical inconsistency between theism and science.

I’ll start by describing the arguments given by the respective parties and then offer commentary on some aspects of Plantinga’s argument I found problematic. Then I will briefly describe the response that I think Plantinga should have given to Dennett, followed by the response that I think Dennett would have given.

Plantinga argues:

1. Theism — in particular, Christian theism (Plantinga calls this “classical theism”) — is compatible with modern evolutionary theory. According to Plantinga, evolutionary theory is consistent with the idea that God guided the evolutionary process. One might object that evolution is random (and is therefore unguided). However, no part of evolutionary theory states that evolutionary events do not have causes; in fact, there are (often) causes cited for mutations. One such cause could be divine intervention.

2. The reliability of our beliefs is inconsistent with the conjunct of evolution and naturalism (where naturalism is *defined* as strong atheism — i.e. as the belief that are is no God or god-like beings). Plantinga argues that evolution cares only about adaptivity, not about truth tracking.

Dennett:

3. In response to (1): True, at least some forms of theism are consistent with evolution. But many things are logically consistent with evolution and that they are consistent is not evidence that theism is the case. Consider Supermanism — the thesis that Superman (son of Jor-El and an alien from the planet Krypton) caused the Cambrian explosion.

In response to (2): Dennett provides two replies:

4. Human brains evolved to track truth; that they do so is a sign that they are functioning properly. Just as the proper functioning of our hearts is to pump blood, the proper functioning of our neurophysiology is to produce correct beliefs about the world. Importantly, Dennett argues that the various parts of our bodies have functions to which they were tuned by evolution. Our hearts pump blood efficiently because that is the function they evolved to have. Brains track truth because that is what brains were evolved to do. So, evolution *is* truth tracking after all.

5. While it is true that our beliefs are, at least in part, the product of our neurophysiological states, they are also the product of our collective cultural evolution, discourse, and deliberation. So, while there might be poor beliefs that are produced by evolution, cultural evolution tends to expunge the bad and leave us with the good (this is why scientific — or, more generally, intellectual — progress is possible at all).

Plantinga:

6. In response to (3) (in particular, to Supermanism): Plantinga characterises the Superman thought experiment as trying to show that theism is absurd (or just as absurd as supermanism). Plantinga argues that Dennett, and the other New Atheists, may think that theism is absurd (or as absurd as Supermanism), but they have not provided an argument to show this point (or so Plantinga asserts). Plantinga argues that since there are a tremendous number of religious people in the world, and they do not appear to be irrational, it’s not clear that theistic belief is irrational. Thus, it would be incumbent on the New Atheists to argue for the irrationality of theism, something which Plantinga charges they have not done.

7. In response to (4): Plantinga does not think that organisms need to have accurate belief states in order to survive. Rather, organisms only require unconscious indicators that result in “correct” actions when provided with a given stimulus.

8. Plantinga does not provide a response to (5).

Analysis

I think that there are a number of problems with Plantinga’s strategy. One particularly vexing problem concerns (6). Plantinga mischaracterises Dennett’s argument. Arguing that theism is absurd (or as absurd as Supermanism) would be a rather poor rhettorical strategy; after all, Tertullian* notwithstanding, presumably no one holds beliefs which they think are absurd (again, in the Supermanism sense). However, that’s not what Dennett appears to be arguing.

The argument which Dennett presents concerns the burden of proof.

When Plantinga argues that theism is compatible with modern evolutionary theory, Dennett is right to respond with agreement. There are many things which are logically consistent with our best scientific theories, but the more interesting question is which of those things is the case. Supermanism is one idea which is logically consistent with our best scientific theories, but we do not think Supermanism is something that anyone should believe. Thus, Dennett presses Plantinga to do more than just argue for the logical consistency of theism with evolution. Dennett asks, can Plantinga provide us with a positive argument for theism? Dennett’s argument was categorically not to assert that theism is an absurd claim (though, no doubt, Dennett does think that).

In this book, Plantinga does not provide us with a positive argument for theism; instead, all he can offer is an argument against what he calls naturalism (really, a strong form of atheism). However, to be consistent with the rest of his work, there is a response that Plantinga should have given to Dennett instead of the one that he gave.

Plantinga should have responded that he does not need to give a positive argument for classical theism. Plantinga thinks that there is an additional sense — the sensis devinitatis — which provides human beings with non-propositional information concerning the existence of God. On Plantinga’s account of religious justification, theists are justified in their beliefs because belief in God is properly basic in virtue of having been caused by the sensus divinitatis. On Plantinga’s account, theists are people who have the proper sort of sensory experience to justify god-beliefs. Just as we do not ask people to justify that they are having the experience of the color purple when they see a purple object, Plantinga thinks people do not have to justify their having theistic beliefs.

In turn, Dennett could have responded with at least two arguments:

–that the best explanation of religious belief is not that it is caused by the sensus divinitatis. Rather, the best explanation would be in terms of standard evolutionary psychology, cultural evolution, sociology, anthrology, etc (that is, the sort of thing Dennett details in “Breaking the Spell”). Naturalistic (though not in Plantinga’s sense!) explanations of religious belief and  experiences are capable of explaining much more than classical theism (for example, they can give good explanations of the global diversity of religion. They can also explain why we see the sort of religions that we do and not others, etc).

–even if the best explanation of religious belief was the sensus divinitatis, if non-theists are truthful about their belief states, then they apparently lack the sensus divinitatis (or atheists have an inactive sensus divinitatis, etc). If theists would like to convince non-theists then it is incumbent on them to provide other lines of argument/evidence than to appeal to non-propositional sensory experiences which are closed off to the rest of us (or so they would claim). Theists certainly do not have to convince non-theists, but one would think that the point of debate is to convince those who disagree with oneself. Thus, while some theists might claim that they do not want to convince others, they should refrain from asserting arguments for their position. Furthermore, given Plantinga’s account of religious beliefs, theists might think that convincing an atheist that God exists would be rather like trying to convince a blind person that you are experiencing purple. Since such an endeavour would be utterly futile, debate would be pointless. However, Plantinga both participated in a debate with Dennett and writes books arguing for theism. Thus, Plantinga presumably thinks that there is a point to the debate.

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*Tertullian famously stated: “Credo quia absurdum” — “I believe because it is absurd.”

Alister McGrath C.S. Lewis Christianity Karl Popper philosophy science and religion

Christianity Explains Too Much

This week I’m speaking in my Philosophy of Science seminar on Karl Popper’s Falsificationism. Reading over the assigned reading, I’ve been reminded of a statement made by C.S. Lewis and I think it raises some questions about the peculiar sort of justifications given by Christians for their beliefs. Stated briefly, I think Christianity explains too much.

Karl Popper was concerned with answering the question S: “What is science and what distinguishes it from pseudoscience?” In his “Science: Conjectures and Refutations”, Popper states the problem as: “Is there a criterion for the scientific character or status of a theory?” More generally, one can ask what is sui generis (or special) about science or its methodology. He was not concerned with whether or not a scientific theory was true or false; rather, he was concerned with what properties made a given theory properly scientific. False scientific theories are still scientific. Answering S is known as the Demarcation Problem. While most present philosophers would agree that Popper’s answer is naive, I think it does capture some good intuitions.

Popper’s answer to S is that scientific hypotheses (or statements) need to be
falsifiable. He reaches that conclusion by comparing Adlerian and Freudian psychological theories on the one hand and General Relativity on the other.

He wrote:

I found that those of my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory power. These theories appeared to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirming instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refused to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still ‘un-analysed’ and crying aloud for treatment.

The problem with Marx, Adler, and Freud (according to Popper) is that these theories do not provide conditions under which we would conclude that they are false. They are consistent with all possible situations. More importantly, Adlerian and Freudian psychoanalysis provide distinct (and sometimes contradictory) explanations for human behaviour. They cannot both be true, but they cannot be distinguished on the basis of experiment.

Furthermore, Popper writes:

I could not think of any human behavior which could not be interpreted in terms of either theory… It began to dawn on me that this apparent strength was in fact their weakness.

That these theories could not be shown to be wrong was actually reason to reject them, according to Popper. If the theory cannot be falsified (even in principle) this is a reason to think that whatever explanatory power it has is vacuous.

Now compare Popper’s idea with a famous quote from C.S. Lewis (from his “Is Theology Poetry?” and often quoted by theologian Alister McGrath):

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

The quote seems to reflect exactly the same idea which Popper expresses. Except that for Lewis this kind of explanatory power is seen as justificatory. I think this gives an interesting insight into a sort of peculiarity about the justifications commonly given by Christians.

Amongst contemporary Christians, Christianity (or their “relationship with Jesus”) is often understood as a transformative lens through which one views the world and by which one decides how to act (Popper: “The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated”). All experience is interpreted through that lens; extraordinary and noumenus experiences are explained in terms of the Divine instead of in terms of psychology.

One can also consider the sort of theodicies that are often given in response to the Problem of Evil to see that such a view directly contradicts what Popper thought were good scientific virtues. To many theists, there is simply no such thing as a disproof of their beliefs (Popper: “Whatever happened always confirmed it”).

I remember sitting in a Philosophy of Religion class and having the following sort of conversation (these quotes are fictional, but they accurately capture my memory of what was expressed):

Person 1: I think religion helps people live better lives. If you look at religious people, you see people who are better off than non-religious people.

Me
: Actually, studies show that the Scandinavian countries rank the highest on all of the indices of personal prosperity — life expectancy, health, happiness, educational attainment, etc. The Scandinavian countries are also the least religious countries in the world. By contrast, the most religious countries in the world rank the lowest on these indices.

Person 1: I think that actually supports what I’m saying. People turn to religion when they are living in horrible conditions because they have nothing else to turn to.

Interestingly, this might also help to explain the large number of theists who claim that atheists secretly believe in God or really just hate God (Popper: “unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth”). Because theistic belief forms such a strong paradigm under which such believers operate, one might think that it becomes almost inconceivable for the believer that there exist those who have radically different ideas about the nature of reality. It can also explain the difficulty that some believers (who I have met) have in understanding what it’s like to be a non-theist. How many times are we asked so you really don’t believe in God? Or but how can you do/think about x, y, or z?

Catholicism Christianity NOMA science and religion scientism

How to Respond to an Arrogant Catholic Newspaper

Francis Philips recently wrote an article called “How to respond to a young friend who has come under Dawkins’s spell” for the Catholic Herald. In the article, Philips presents the following sort of argument (where I’m probably being more charitable than I should be):

1. Scientism, the view that science is the only legitimate source of knowledge, is false.
2. If (1) then science cannot tell us about whether God exists.
3. Therefore, science cannot tell us about whether God exists.

In support of premise (1), Philips only offers the story of a neuroscientist who recently made a visit to Lourdes and remarked that they had not ruled out the possibility for people to have immaterial spiritual experiences of some kind (whatever that is supposed to mean).

In response, I will first discuss scientism and it’s relation to theology. Then, I will discuss religious experience and whether such experiences give us good reasons to conclude that God is likely to exist. I will forego discussing whether or not Philips accurately represents the view she attributes to Dawkins*.

Scientism is likely false, but not for the reasons given by Philips. Scientism is the statement that science is the only legitimate source of knowledge, but is not itself a scientific thesis. It is therefore self defeating.

But whether or not scientism is false has nothing to do with whether or not there is a god. Whether or not there is a god is a proposition which one has to argue for independently of arguing for the falseness of scientism. Even though scientism is likely false, it could still be true that science could tell us whether or not God, under a particular conception, actually exists. That would just be to say that although there are interesting and legitimate non-scientific questions, God’s existence is not one of them.

In order to support the idea that science cannot answer questions about God’s existence, theists have to actually argue either that:

4. The evidence raised by science that is supposed to show that God does not exist does not actually support a thesis of that kind, or;

5. Not only is scientism true, but any statement about God whatsoever will be independent of science.

Notice that even if one could show (4) and (5), one would only justifiably end up with a weak form of agnosticism (and here I mean “agnosticism” in the sense of Huxley). All it would show is that science doesn’t answer the question of whether God exists. And, despite the protestations of some theists, one can happily be an agnostic without ever wanting to jump ship; for some people, agnosticism really is the final conclusion on the matter. To support theism, one would need to show that:

6. It is likely that God exists based on such-and-such an argument.


One cannot simply state that scientism is false and then justifiably jump to (6); (6) requires it’s own degree of evidence and/or argumentation. And even if one could show (6) to be the case, one should not jump to:


7. It is likely that Catholicism is true.

The burden of proof is still on the theist. The theist might want to assert that science cannot answer theological questions. But without actually arguing for any of the relevant points (4)-(7), all the theist has is empty assertion.

As for the claim that some experience of some kind tells us anything about whether there is a God, one can simply argue that the best explanation of the available facts is that such experiences have non-divine origins. Note that**:

8. The particular kind of religious experience that one has is aligned with one’s culture (Amazonian tribes who are isolated from Western society do not spontaneously start having dreams about Jesus);

9. Psychological and/or anthropological explanations of religious belief are capable of explaining the global diversity of such beliefs in great detail and even capable of predicting what sort of beliefs are likely to appear in various cultural contexts (Boyer, 2001). Theistic belief systems are typically unable to explain such diversity and are incapable of predicting what sort of beliefs one would find where (or why it is that the beliefs found in different cultures are mutually logically incompatible);

10. Explaining such experiences in terms of theism introduces additional objects (namely, supernatural beings) into our ontology that we could have done without.

(8)-(10) are enough to support the thesis that the best explanation of religious experience is naturalistic (namely, that the experiences reflect something about the kinds of animals human beings are, rather than something supernatural). (8) and (9) state facts which are difficult to explain on theism, while (10) is supposed to introduce an intuition about parsimony (i.e. if we can explain all of the relevant facts without positing a god then god should not figure into our best understanding of the world).

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* Dawkins does not appear to have ever claimed that religion disproved the existence of God.
** This is similar to an argument presented by David Hume in his “Natural History of Religion”.
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Pascal, B. (2001). Religion explained. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Philips, F. (2012, November 30). How to respond to a young friend who has come under dawkins’s spell. Retrieved from http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2012/11/30/how-to-respond-to-a-young-friend-who-has-come-under-dawkinss-spell/

Alister McGrath Atheism Christianity Dawkins Draper-White Thesis New Atheism NOMA science and religion scientism

What’s the Relationship between Science and Religion?

There’s a debate currently going on at the Huffington Post, with user feedback, on the relationship between Science and Religion. Instead of providing commentary directly on that debate, I thought that I would take some time to outline the four basic views that philosophers and historians have had on the science/religion interaction. This is not meant as an argument for one view over any other, but as an educational outline of the way philosophers have treated this distinction. The four basic views are:

1. Conflict (the Draper-White Thesis)
2. Dialogue
3. Independence (NOMA)
4. Complexity


(1) is the idea that science and religion have always been in conflict, have never had even temporary allegiances between each other, and (often) that religion holds back scientific progress. It was most famously proposed by Draper and White in the 19th century. View (1) is an idea that plenty of people would have in mind. Unfortunately, most historians feel that view (1) is simply false.  Most historians would simply point out that the relationship between science and theism are more complex than Draper and White would have us believe. For example, medieval scholastic philosophy — the only area in which anything like science occured during the middle ages — was a distinctly Catholic phenomenon. And some of the most famous cases of theists supposedly suppressing scientists for their heretical views might (arguably) be better seen as political disputes between religious believers. Galileo was certainly not an atheist and his science was not altogether decoupled from his religion (in fact, Galileo’s theology had about as much to do with his science as his science had to do with his theology.) The view that science and religion have any kind of professional barrier would have been an utterly foreign concept during the Scientific Revolution. The idea that there is a professional class of citizens, distinct from a professional class of religious thinkers, is a much later development.

Nonetheless, there are a few things which (1) does not say. Even if (1) is false, as most historians believe, that does not imply that science and religion have never been in conflict or that they are not presently in conflict. Nor would the falsehood of (1) imply that scientific reasoning and faith are compatible or consistent. The Draper-White Thesis is a descriptive, historical view, not a view about the fundamental natures of science and religion.

View (2) the idea that the best way to treat the relationship between science and religion is as a continuing dialogue. Religions might integrate scientific developments into new theological positions, or one think that science does nothing more than reveal a better view of God’s creation. Certainly, this view is ecumenical and is favoured by many theologians and religious people (people talk about “interfaith dialogue”; this appears to be a similar concept.) Talk about reconciling religion and science implicitly assumes that something like (2) must be true. In a 1996 message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul II echoed view (2) when he stated:

To those whom he enjoyed calling the Scientific Senate of the Church, he asked simply this: that they serve the truth. That is the same invitation which I renew today, with the certainty that we can all draw profit from “the fruitfulness of frank dialogue between the Church and science.” (Discourse to the Academy of Sciences, October 28, 1986, #1)

2. I am delighted with the first theme which you have chosen: the origin of life and evolution—an essential theme of lively interest to the Church, since Revelation contains some of its own teachings concerning the nature and origins of man. How should the conclusions reached by the diverse scientific disciplines be brought together with those contained in the message of Revelation? And if at first glance these views seem to clash with each other, where should we look for a solution? We know that the truth cannot contradict the truth. (Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus) However, in order better to understand historical reality, your research into the relationships between the Church and the scientific community between the 16th and 18th centuries will have a great deal of importance.

View (3) is also one that tends to be favoured by religious people (although most famously proposed by a non-believer.) It is the view that religion and science constitute two independent domains, or, as Stephen J Gould would have put, two independent magisteria. Unlike views (1) and (2), view (3) is a prescriptive view. It attempts to inform us about what the proper relationship between science and religion should be, not what it has historically been. Some theologians have responded to New Atheist literature by citing (3); certainly, this is Alister McGrath’s primary indictment of Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Nonetheless, in its traditional formulation, it suffers from a variety of problems. For instance:

-Gould seemed to claim that religion covers exclusively value-laden issues, like moral quandaries and how to live a good life, but not any kind of claims about the existence of various kinds of things in the world. In other words, Gould thought that all religious language was normative while all scientific language was existential. But if that’s true, then utterances like “God exists” are not claims about the existence of any sort of entity. That would seem to be rather strange to me; I’ve never met a religious person who told me something as perplexing as, “Oh, well, you see, when I say ‘God exists’, I’m not really referring to anything! Instead, I’m informing you about morality.” I don’t think that’s what theists do when they pray, go to church, listen to sermons, and so on. I think Christians would be very surprised to learn that they don’t believe in the existence of Jesus, Heaven, Hell, God, and so on.

-If religion uniquely covers moral quandaries, what in the world do we do with philosophy or literature? Aren’t there non-religious ways of dealing with such issues? And how would Gould, himself a non-believer, deal with these kinds of issues?

-It’s simply not true that all religious statements are out of the reach of science, even if some are. For example, if we proposed a non-deceitful deity who wanted the entire world to be purple and therefore made it that way, we could rule out such a being based on the observation of non-purple objects. Responding to arguments along these lines, philosophers have noted the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation; in analogy with that doctrine, a deity could make the essence of objects purple without changing their outward appearances. Still, that’s altering the original hypothesis. Given enough clauses, we can surely generate a god hypothesis that can be ruled out. For instance, a non-deceitful deity who made the outward appearances of all objects purple and ensured that we humans would see them as purple. An example which Dawkins uses to address this point in his God Delusion is the Templeton Foundation funded study of intercessory prayer, which found that such prayer is ineffective (in fact, patients who know they are being prayed for were slightly worse off than those who did not.) Dawkins’ claim would then follow that at least certain kinds of prayer, and in certain circumstances (like when being monitored by a double blind study), are ineffective.

Thus, neither most scientists nor most lay religious believers would really want something like (3) to be true, at least as formulated by Gould. Religious language really does appear to be making claims about the world in a way that does not create a stead-fast barrier between science and religion. This has led several theologians and several atheists to collectively reject (3). Certainly, most Intelligent Design advocates and creationists reject (3); this is plainly obvious because their view is that science can show that God exists.

View (4) is the mainstream view of historians of science. The view would simply be that the relationship between science and religion has been historically extremely varied and complex. At times, scientists and theologians have been in conflict, while at others, they have had truces or even been advanced one by the other. Note that this view is not prescriptive, nor does it inform us about whether or not the methodologies of science and theism (e.g., faith) are, at their core, compatible. There might still be a very broad inconsistency between demanding the use of Reason in addressing some questions, but not in those pertaining to gods. If this is true, then the latter would simply appear to be a case of special pleading. Nor does it tell us whether or not science and religion are presently in conflict, or how to resolve such conflicts if they are (or even if such conflicts should be resolved. For instance, some would suggest getting rid of religion altogether.)

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Resources:

The Huffington Post Debate

Pope John Paul II’s letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution
Non-Overlapping Magisteria by Stephen J Gould

The Questions Science Cannot Answer by Alister McGrath

My Critics are Wrong to Call Me Dogmatic by Richard Dawkins (responding to McGrath)

Does Science Discredit Religion? by John Worrall

1 Peter 3:15 Atheism beleifs Carnap Christianity Heidegger New Atheism postmodernism Vodoun

Interest in the Beliefs of Others

I have written before about personal offence and whether one should ever criticise the beliefs of others. However, I have seen discussion lately — mainly on Reddit — about whether or not atheists should care about what theists believe. One can generally ask — why should anyone ever care about the beliefs of others?

There are a variety of reasons that people should care about the beliefs of others.

First, a generic statement that must be put at the beginning of any such discussion. Atheism is the explicit lack of belief in a god. Whether this is to the denial of the existence of one (as in strong atheism) or the mere suspension of belief until positive evidence is provided (weak atheism), atheism is a reaction to a pre-existing belief system. It’s true that the word can be used in its most inclusive form to include people who haven’t even heard of the concept of a god, but usually people who present atheism-as-opposed-to-theism do so as a reaction to some set of beliefs or doctrines. This isn’t necessarily a reason to disparage either atheism taken broadly or the New Atheist movement.

Theologian Denys Turner has termed Richard Dawkins’ style of atheism an “inversion” of theism, and, regardless of whether this is fair, one wonders whether that is actually a criticism at all. It is probably a trivialisation of Dawkins’ view, but a view being identical to the inversion of some other view isn’t the same as its being false. One still has to take the additional step of showing that the inversion is false. In fairness, this isn’t to say that Dawkins is all that knowledgeable on theological or philosophical nuances, a criticism that is often levelled at him (and perhaps justifiably so.)

That the New Atheist movement (or Secular Humanism) is a reaction against traditional religious or theological positions is not necessarily to the discredit of New Atheism (or Secular Humanism.) Consider postmodernism as a reaction to modernism. Or Rudolf Carnap’s work on the meaninglessness of metaphysical language as a reaction to the work of scholars like Martin Heidegger. Or Albert Einstein’s formulation of Special Relativity as an alternative to the then prevailing aether theory of electromagnetic radiation. Academic movements based on a reaction to a preceding idea or movement are not only not unheard of, but have occasionally had a tremendous amount of success.

What this does tell us is that any discussion in this movement will probably prominently feature arguments against theistic views. Just as Carnap needed to begin his essay “Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language” with a discussion of Heidegger’s view, New Atheist literature necessarily discusses prominent organised religions. In the United States, where approximately 82% of people are Christians, this means, at minimum, a discussion of Christianity.

There is simply little else that the movement consists of. Atheists may hold several different positions (or mixtures thereof):

-New Atheism
-Skepticism
-Secular Humanism
-Unitarian Universalism
-Secular Buddhism
-Secular Judaism

But no atheist is obligated to believe any of those things, and all that any atheist is guaranteed to share with any other atheist is lack of belief in any gods. It’s not a cohesive position to be held on its own accord, but rather the rejection of certain kinds of beliefs for a wide variety of reasons.

There is simply no belief qua atheism, but there can be beliefs held by people who are also atheists.

I will next argue why Christians should care what other people believe. I start here because most often I see Christians asking why atheists care about the beliefs of others. Why, for example, is atheist literature so full of comments being critical of Christian doctrines? To contrast this, I will first talk about why Christians should be critical of the religious or philosophical views of others (which they sometimes are not, possibly due to modernising and/or liberalising influences from beyond the purview of their particular doctrines.)

This argument is more or less applicable to any number of religions or philosophies. I raise a few doctrinal points specific to Christian proselytisation, but there are similar points that can be made from the perspective of any number of different religions.

Most Christians feel that non-Christians are doomed to hell because they have not been saved. If one is not going to try to convert me, then one is essentially saying that one doesn’t care if I spend an eternity of time being tortured simply because I don’t believe the same things as they do. That’s immoral — one has the obligation to try to save the people that one meets from imminent danger if one recognises it and they do not; ergo, Christians should care.

A good analogy can be made with a burning house:

1. If Cindy doesn’t alert Bob to the fact that Bob’s house is on fire then Bob will die.

2. If (1) then Cindy should alert Bob to his house being on fire.

3. Therefore, Cindy should alert Bob to his house being on fire.

Implicit in (1) is the assumption that Cindy knows that Bob’s house is on fire. If she did not, then she would not be morally obligated to tell Bob. But given both the ability to tell Bob this life-saving information, the ramifications of not doing so, and the knowledge that Cindy has but Bob lacks, Cindy is morally obligated to tell Bob about his house being on fire.

A fortiori, if Cindy is morally obligated to tell Bob about his house’s fire, Christians are morally obligated to tell non-Christians about their beliefs. Why? Because being tortured for eternity is infinitely worse than dying in a fire.

But it doesn’t end there. There are also scriptural reasons for at least defending one’s own beliefs when they have been questioned. 1 Peter 3:15 states (in the NIV translation):

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

Thus, Christians should defend their position when asked about it. They are both morally and doctrinally obligated to do so. Of course, they are also told to “do this with gentleness and respect”, so that there is a tension here between the moral obligations arising from their convictions and their doctrinal duties.

I can think of two additional reasons why Christians should care:

–Believing false things is potentially dangerous, because people form their actions in conjunction with their beliefs. If one believes something that is false, then they could act in a way that is harmful either to themselves or to others. Note that this is true of everyone, religious or otherwise.

–For scientific reasons or out of curiosity. If one thinks that position x is true, then one needs to ask why position y is so prevalent. For instance, what were the social/cultural/etc factors that led to the successful propagation of other religious movements? Why do some people reject the idea that there is a god? How do we give an account of these sorts of things that is consistent with the available empirical data?

For an atheist, like myself, there are also several reasons why one would care about the beliefs of others. Some of these overlap with the reasons given above, but there are some additional reasons as well. Some of the reasons that I care about the beliefs of others are:

– The beliefs of people drive their actions. If they believe things that are probably false, their actions might have a negative effect either for themselves or for others. As one person said, because religious people vote.

– I’m interested in people and what they believe. That’s true no matter who they are, but Christianity is a large part of my culture and the history thereof. I want to understand it because it’s interesting.

– I’m interested in philosophy, especially philosophical debates. Theology (and arguments against theology) presents an interesting area for me to flex those muscles. Actually, some of the most famous breakthroughs in philosophy — the development of modal logic for example — were developed for theological reasons. Even if I don’t agree with these thinkers, I still enjoy reading them.

– I’m interested in anthropology. Religion is one of the most fascinating activities which human beings do. I like to observe religious ceremonies and to talk to believers to find out how their cultures work, what their traditions are, and so on. If one doesn’t believe that any religion is true, there are a plethora of really interesting social scientific questions to be had here — what is the actual origin of religious experience? Why/how do people speak in tongues or seem to have seizures in certain Pentecostal rituals? Why do vodouisants in West Africa and in the Carribean seem to become possessed by the Loa? Or, for that matter, the apparent production of Zombis in Haitian Vodou? How did the Bible, one of the most famous books on Earth today, come to be? Or the Koran? In cultures that only have oral traditions, how do they maintain such a broad volume of religious knowledge (such as the Australian aborigines and their highly nuanced Dreamtime mythology)? How is that people can be inspired by cultural or religious ideas without even believing in the ontologies they embody, as actor Hugh Jackman was in his experience with Australian Aborigines? Why did the supernatural have such a strong hold in the minds of early people? What was the mechanism by which these sorts of beliefs resonated so strongly with people? If one thinks about all of the religions on Earth that one doesn’t believe in, one must realise that there is a startling scientific question posed by all of these varied beliefs.

– How did religious beliefs come to be and why are they so prevalent? Whatever one’s religion might be, I’m interested in it for similar reasons. Of course, certain religions — like western monotheisms — have a larger effect on the culture in which I live than others do. For this reason, it’s often more important to understand those traditions. But one should also study the diversity of religious beliefs in the world so that one can understand how one’s own culture biases oneself. As an example, people living in the West often assume that the words “religion” and “faith” are synonymous. However, not all religions have a conception of the word “faith”. Nor do all religions have a conception that their religion exists as a body of knowledge in competition with those of others, something that often frustrates Christian missionaries entering groups of indigenous peoples (for instance, such peoples often do not understand the idea of replacing their beliefs with Christianity; they will often include Christianity in addition to their local traditions. One example was the reaction of the Pueblo tribe to Spanish missionaries in the early 17th century, as excellently presented in PBS documentary God in America.)

One of the things that might not have occurred to religious people is that a lot of atheists are actually really interested in religion. For many of us, it was examining religions (and the questions that religions raise) that caused us, more so than anything else, to become atheists. It is sometimes said that the best way to convince someone of becoming an atheist is to study the Bible.

a fortiori arguments Atheism bible Christianity Judaism midrash philosophy talmud

Arguing for God?

At one of the Freethinkers meetings last year, we spent the meeting discussing the arguments presented for Christianity on an apologetics website. After having carefully refuted much of the website, a Christian, who happened to be present, agreed with the rest of us that the site did not provide very good arguments for believing in his religion. He went on to say that he felt the best arguments for his religion were contained in the Bible.

Almost immediately, I responded that, independent of whether or not the Bible is true or factual, it does not contain any arguments for Christianity (or for any other position for that matter.) As I pointed out, the Hellenistic tradition of codified argumentation was developed after the appearance of much of the Old Testament and, at any rate, did not make any serious contact with the Christian tradition until the Medieval Period (most notably within Catholic scholastic circles.) It stands to reason that this piece of intellectual technology would not have made an appearance in the Bible because the Biblical authors were not yet aware of such things. If the events in the Bible are true as presented, then the book would simply be a recounting of various historical events alongside some flowery poetic language (as in Proverbs or Psalms). Still, not an argument or a set of arguments.


Recently, I began wondering whether or not this was the case. Is there any kind of attempted justification for any position presented in the Bible and, if so, did people feel the need to justify their belief in Yahweh?

It turns out that the answer to the former question is yes (they did present arguments) and the answer to the latter question is almost no, they did not feel that they needed to justify belief in a deity (or any other supernatural claims.) First, I will explore what kind of arguments that they did present in the Bible and then I will present the single argument for God’s existence I was able to explicitely identify in the Biblical text. Unfortunately for most Christians and Jews, it’s in an extra-canonical book whose divine origins are contested by most churches.

Before doing anything else, I want to make brief mention of the origins of the idea of faith. To some modern religious readers, it might seem silly that one should have to provide justification for the existence of a deity. After all, didn’t the Biblical writers simply have faith and wasn’t this the reason they didn’t think they needed justification?

It turns out that the word “faith”, in the English language, appears rather late in the game, originally appearing sometime in the mid-13th century  and originally referring to the “duty of fulfilling one’s trust”. It was from the Old French word feid, which referred to something like confidence or trust.

Originally, the word “belief” referred to trust specifically in God and “faith” was reserved for a certain kind of promissory relationship between two people. It wasn’t until the 14th century CE that faith took on religious implications, and it was still further, in the 16th century, that the word “belief” came to have its modern secular meaning.

Regardless, the idea of faith as non-rationally justified belief in God or some other divine presence seems to have only originated in the high middle ages, when there was competition between rationalist epistemic systems and those based in divine revelation. Since faith, as a concept in its most modern sense, is a relative late comer to the game, I find it inappropriate to use that concept as a basis to understand why people in the first millennium BCE (as in the Tanakh and the Talmud) and people in the first century CE (as in the New Testament) essentially chose not to provide arguments for their various supernatural beliefs.

Edit: While the concept of faith was articulated in Tertullian in the second century CE, and a word that is often translated as “faith” appears in the New Testament, I stick by the statement that what we call faith today, the concept in its modern incarnation, is a later invention. But even if it really did first appear with Tertullian (in his essay on Athens and Jerusalem) most of this article concerns the Hebrew Bible. Those arguments would still stand.

I would next like to discuss the existence of rhetoric, more generally, in Jewish and Christian scripture. In several places in the Hebrew Bible, there are arguments which are presented for various positions. Being largely culturally independent from the Hellenistic logic tradition originally codified by Aristotle, the arguments have a distinctly different flavor from those found in ancient Greek philosophical texts. David Frank (Frank, 2004) states that:

“…unlike the arguments in many Western texts [i.e. those in the Classical tradition], those in the Hebrew Bible are often indeterminate, confused, and can yield a host of reasonable but incompatible interpretations.”

He goes on to state that:

“Auerbach argues that Greek reasoning is characterized by hypotactic logic (in which the elements of an argument are subordinated under a major or controlling premise) while Hebraic reasoning is characterized by paratactic rationality (in which the elements of an argument are juxtaposed rather than subordinated). Classical argument has a definitive end, a conclusion that captures the truth through apodictic reasoning, designed to end disagreement and speech.”

What were the ancient Jews arguing about? Largely, they were arguing about law or justice (Frank, 2004 and Goltzberg, 2010). The Hebrew concept of commitment to justice, what is known as Tsedek (Frank, 2004), was first and foremost in many of these arguments. Frank details how, in the Tanakh, these arguments are often between Yahweh and people and how, at times, Yahweh changes his mind due to the arguments provided by persons set before Him in some divine court (Frank, 2004). Often, these arguments involve people asking God to be consistent with his own dedication to justice and good will (Frank, 2004).

In Frank’s paper, he provides three examples of arguments between men and the deity. The first involving Abraham (found in the book of Genesis), the next involving Moses (from Exodus), and the last involving Job (from the Book of Job.) Theologically, that mere men can argue with Yahweh is something which does not survive into the Christian tradition and often the relevant passages are altered upon translation to remove this theological quandary (Frank, 2004). Nonetheless, that such things are present in the original Hebrew is not something which is debated by Jewish scholars (Frank, 2004).

There is a Judaic rhetorical tradition which is made use of in many of these circumstances and which is used more broadly in the Talmud. The species of rhetorical argument known as argumentum a fortiori was apparently used heavily by Jewish scholars in antiquity, especially in legal situations (Goltzberg, 2010).

In Hebrew, a fortiori arguments are termed val chomer arguments (Goltzberg, 2010). Part of Orthodox Jewish tradition states that they appear explicitly at particular points in the Torah and these are enumerated in the Talmud (in the midrash Bereshit Rabbah 92:7) as Genesis 44:8, Exodus 6:12, Numbers 12:14, Deuteronomy 31:27, I Samuel 23:3, Jeremiah 12:5 (actually, 2 arguments), Ezekiel 15:5, Proverbs 11:31, and in Esther 9:12.

What precisely is an a fortiori argument? Suppose that I’m a parent and I decide that if my child gets a B-, I’m not going to give the child a candy bar. The child comes to me with her grades and I see that the child has earned a C. I therefore do not give the child a candy bar. Formally, the argument proceeds as follows:

If the child earns a B-, they do not get a candy bar. If they earn below a B-, even more so they do not get a candy bar.

What’s important here, is that a situation is presented which is less extreme than another situation. If some condition applies in the former situation, it applies even more so in the latter situation.

In the Talmud, there are laid down precise rules for the use of this argument and in what legal contexts it may be employed (Goltzberg, 2010). There is a principle introduced — called Dayyo — which states that in the more extreme situation the same verdict needs to be applied as in the less extreme situation (i.e. for any grade below a B-, the child does not receive a candy bar and I do not give out additional punishment over and above not giving out the candy bar.) Additionally, it is stated that court verdicts cannot be decided on the basis of val chomer arguments alone (Golztberg, 2010). In Jewish law, some additional kind of argument needs to be introduced in order to find a suspect guilty.

In the New Testament, there are several argumentative works. For instance, in Galatians and in Romans, Paul argues vehemently about the application of Jewish law to Gentile churches. These letters often appear rather harsh in tone (especially Galatians) and represent what was probably a difficult political situation.

In several places, the Biblical writers attempt to establish that Jesus is the messiah and is the fulfillment of the prophecies found in the Septuagint (the form of the Hebrew Bible that would have been available to New Testament authors.) In Hebrews, the entire book is devoted to trying to assert this claim, but it does not actually try to justify the claim using deductive-style argumentation. Perhaps the best examples (though these are by no means convincing to modern scholars) of attempted justifications for the divinity of Jesus would be two-fold: (1) the miracles that Jesus is purported to have performed (particularly in the central doctrine of the resurrection) and (2) in the details of Jesus’ purported heredity (i.e. that his blood line meant he could be tied to the house of David as prophesied.) However, neither of these two claims has any independent evidence (historical or otherwise) in their favor and neither are forms of deductive argumentation (which is the present topic of this piece.)

Thus, while the ancient Jews felt it necessary to develop some kind of codifications of legal argumentation and the ancient Christians felt it necessary to provide some sort of justification for identifying Jesus as the messiah, they did not see it necessary to provide arguments for the existence of a Deity.

That is, for the most part. There are a few scattered references to arguments for the existence of a God. The best that exists is buried in a non-canonical book used by the Roman-Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Slavonic churches. This argument is in the pseudepigraphical Wisdom of Solomon, and I will refer to it as the Argument from Beauty.

Before getting to the Argument from Beauty, I want to mention that there is an assertion in Romans 1:18-23, that first God can be known from considering nature (some early form of the Cosmological Argument) and that all people know God to exist whether they want to admit it or not (thus, there are no true atheists). The Cosmological Argument alluded to in Romans 1:20 is probably the only other example of a Biblical argument for a Deity. Thus, perhaps the Biblical writers did not argue for God because they thought it to be knowledge known by all people (i.e. of course God exists; only the morally bankrupt think otherwise, as Psalm 14 seems to indicate.) I will not state here why this point can be dismissed (perhaps I will embark on that in a future post). Nonetheless, suffice it to say, that, as an atheist, I do not find it to be convincing to be told that I do not exist!

As for the Argument from Beauty, the relevant passage is Wisdom of Solomon verse 13:5:

“For from the greatness and beauty of created things
comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.”

Casting this into syllogistic logic, we have:

1. Nature is beautiful.
2. If (1) then God exists.
3. Therefore, God exists (by modus ponens from (1) and (2)).

This is the interpretation of Wisdom 13:5 favoured by the Harper-Collins Study Bible.

I won’t bother refuting this argument since the main focus here is to answer what arguments, if any, for God’s existence are in the Bible. This is the only one I can identify, albeit from an extra-canonical text that, unlike most other Biblical texts, was very heavily influenced by Greco-Roman philosophy.

I will end by noting that, for these ancient writers, Christianity and Judaism were likely still closely tied to folk religion. In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennet provides an explanation as to why members of folk religions might not be so concerned about proving that their god or gods actually exist (Dennet, 2007):

“…those who practice a folk religion don’t think of themselves as practicing a religion at all. Their ‘religious’ practices are a seamless part of their practical lives, alongside their hunting and gathering or tilling and harvesting. And one way to tell that they really believe in the deities to which they make their sacrifices is that they aren’t forever talking about how much they believe in their deities — any more than you and I go around assuring each other that we believe in germs and atoms. Where there is no ambient doubt to speak of, there is no need to speak of faith.”

It speaks volumes that, in ancient Hebrew, there was no word for religion.

References

Dennet, Daniel. (2007). Breaking the spell: religion as a natural phenomenon. London, England: Penguin Books.

Frank, D. (2004). Arguing with god, Talmudic discourse, and the Jewish countermodel: implications for the study of argumentation. Argumentation and Advocacy, 41, 71-86.

Goltzberg, S. (2010). The a fortiori argument in the Talmud. In A. Schumann (Ed.), Judaic logic (pp. 177-188). Gorgias Press.

Books:

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural PhenomenonScience & Religion Books)

Judaic logic: A formal analysis of Biblical, Talmudic and rabbinic logic

Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle AgesMedieval History Books)

Logic: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)Philosophical Logic & Language Books)

HarperCollins Study Bible – Student Edition: Fully Revised & UpdatedNew Revised Standard Bibles)