18 April 2016

You can't make this stuff up, part who-the-heck-knows

Found on the internet today:
Angels know man and lower beings not according to the mode of the lower beings, but according to the mode of the angelic intellect. God, however, transcends even this and doesn't just know but utterly surrounds and impenetrates all lower being (both "tensed" and "tenseless") with apprehension so as to know them all in an utterly more complete manner, according to the mode of the transcendent, timeless God.
Source (in the comments)

17 April 2016

Bravo, SNL. Bravo.

In one skit, SNL lampoons the Christian persecution complex, their caricature of atheists and 'liberals' in films like God's Not Dead 2: The Undeadening [actual title may vary], and their habit of transparently masking Jim Crow type denial of service laws under the guise of religious freedom. Well done!

14 April 2016

Plato's folk theory of universals

Over the years I've encountered a diverse array of philosophical views across the internet. While my original interest was a/theism, I don't think that nearly ten years ago I could have anticipated just how many related rabbit holes there are and how deep they can go.

One of those is the concept of universals. It's the idea that there's another world 'out there', some metaphysical plane of existence, in which categories-of-things-in-themselves literally exist.

For example, we agree that chairs exists. But what defines a chair? Is a bean bag a chair? What about an ergonomic kneeling chair? What about a tire suspended from a tree branch? Plato would have said that there is an inherent property of chairness that permeates all things that fit within the category chair. Aristotle might have called it the essence of that thing — that which makes a chair a chair.

Color is another commonly cited example of a universal. Grass is green, and so are leaves. According to Platonic thought, grass and leaves are particulars. They are individual objects that are not repeatable — that is, they are discrete. Examples of particulars are generally material objects, but some philosophers take 'immaterial' objects to be particulars as well — sensory data, God, etc. A universal is a property that exists independently of these particulars, but inhabits them. If I burn a patch of grass away, the essence or property of greenness still apparently exists in many other things — and so, Platonic thought teaches, it must be metaphysically real. How, precisely, these universals exist and interact with particulars is a mystery yet to be solved, yet even today philosophers write lengthy books arguing that universals must indeed exist.

For the purposes of this post I'm not going to get into nominalism, realism, and conceptualism — all attempts to account for universals. Are they really 'out there'? Or are they illusory, just part of the mind? Are they just artifacts of language?

If Plato were a psychologist...

My background in studying these kinds of questions is psychology — cognitive psychology in particular. You generally don't hear cognitive psychologists talking about universals or debating nominalism versus conceptualism. That's because cogntive psychologists have been able to study, and answer, the question of whether categories-of-things-in-themselves exist independently of human brains. The answer is no. 

Let's return to the chair. We all agree that chairs exist. But "chair" is a fluid, and even disputed, concept. From kneeling chairs to tires-on-trees to conventional wooden chairs, what we understand a chair to be is dependent on our experience. 
Is this a chair? Is it art? 
This reveals a fundamental problem in the idea that there exists, independently of human minds, a category or essence of chairness. We have a very difficult time defining exactly what it is, what the parameters are that would allow us to uniquely identify the category.

Worse for universals is the fact that categories are often radial. We can, for example, think of a general type of car. We can also think of more specific categories, like particular types of cars. We can do the same for boats, planes, and trains. But we don't have a general categorical image of "vehicle", even though it subsumes all those other categories. Similarly, while we can think of a general concept of a chair, categories of specific types of chairs, as well as other categories of furniture, we can't conceive a representation of the general category of 'furniture'.

The simple answer that cognitive psychology gives us is that while the objects we know as chairs indeed exist outside of our minds (we're not endorsing relativism here), the category of chairs does not. Rather, the category itself is imposed upon the physical world and is inherently a fluid, social construct.

The idea of greenness faces a similar problem. We know from physics that particles of light do not have color. Color cannot be a surface property of objects because some things that are said to have color, like the sky, do not have a surface at all. We know still that a study of the human eye has revealed that we can see only a narrow range of the electromagnetic spectrum, which we call "visible light" — not because it's inherently visible, but simply because it's visible to us. What we call green cannot then be an inherent property of a thing, but rather is a multiplace interactional property that crucially depends on our biology — the interaction of our eyes and visual cortex with the environment. We say that "green" is "real" because we experience it as real, and because others appear to share that experience. But there's no basis to establish the existence of the category of greenness outside of the human experience.

Folk theories versus scientific theories

What's often overlooked in these discussions — particularly since they're steeped in literally centuries of philosophical tradition being pitted against a relatively nascent field of cognitive neuroscience — is that Plato's theory, like Aristotle's theory of essences, is not a scientific theory but a folk theory. Aristotle believed, for example, that the continuity of the self was sustained by an essence that persisted even as our bodies and minds changed. But we now know that the continuity of the self is a product of biology and social construction, and that it can be radically disrupted — as in the case of physical injury to brain that radically alters a person's memory and/or disposition. 

Plato may have thought that his theory was scientific, at least in the sense that it proposed hypotheses that could reliably explain the world around us and our relationship to it. But Plato didn't have access to the structure of his own process of reasoning. He couldn't have possibly known about scientific discoveries in cognition like primary metaphors or overlapping conceptual hierarchies, because those things required empirical study of the mind and brain. The "solutions" of nominalism, realism, and conceptualism are fundamentally solutions to a problem that arose precisely because the concept of universals is a folk theory steeped in metaphorical conceptual systems, and not a scientific theory. 

Unfortunately, ideas like essences and universals persist to this day despite the advances in cognitive psychology that severely undermine them. My guess is that it's going to take some time for centuries (millennia, actually) old ideas still deeply studied in academic institutions to succumb to a competing field. But the reality is that despite all those centuries of debate, philosophers are no closer to resolving these questions than Plato himself was. Instead, we've needed a radical paradigm shift in how we frame and investigate the questions in the first place, and that's why a study of cognitive psychology is critical to empirically responsible metaphysics. 

13 April 2016

Thoughts on fidelity

The last relationship I was in prior to meeting my wife was with a married woman; the affair (or half-affair) lasted a little over a year. Being the 'other man' gave me some unique insights into marriages and how affairs happen. And as I'm now in the second year of my own marriage, I still think about those things and the steps I can take to keep my marriage healthy, happy, and strong.

I'd imagine that exceedingly few people enter into a marriage thinking that they're going to have an affair. To most newlyweds, the very thought is almost incomprehensible — I'd never do that. Not me. Not us. The truth is that it can happen to anyone; you are capable of cheating on your significant other, and I think acknowledging that is valuable in protecting your relationship. But affairs also require a sort of perfect storm of circumstances, and I think being mindful of those circumstances and understanding how to prevent or minimize them is an important strategy.

I'm a personal trainer and a gym owner. Over the years I've gotten to know many of my clients personally, many of them attractive females close to my age. And I work in an environment in which I regularly interact with very fit, tightly-clothed beautiful women. So maybe it's that, coupled with my year-long relationship with a married woman, that makes me especially conscientious about sexual attraction, emotional attraction, and the circumstances that can lead to infidelity.

1. Small things

The first circumstance is an erosion of marital intimacy. This doesn't necessarily happen as it's depicted in the movies, where there's a series of huge conflicts or fights in which hurtful things were said. Instead, it's the small things: not making quality time a priority, and spending it on friends, work, or hobbies instead; going for extended periods without physical intimacy — and I don't mean just sex, but kissing, gentle touching, holding hands, cuddling, etc.; and neglecting compliments and verbal expressions of love, like "thinking of you", or "you are incredibly sexy".

This erosion of intimacy comes as stress, jobs, and other obligations spur complacency with those physical and verbal expressions of affection. Simply being around your partner regularly and becoming accustomed to them is sometimes enough start taking them for granted, but the disconnect between partners is one that happens slowly, in small steps.

2. Physical attraction

The second circumstance is physical attraction between two people. Sorry, it's not enough to just think "that person's hawt!" We're human beings, and it'd be naive to think that marriage somehow inoculates us against finding other people sexually attractive. I grew up in an evangelical Christian community that preached Jesus' words: "Any man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart". Well, fuck that thought-crime nonsense. I've looked at tons of women "lustfully" and I don't feel an inkling of guilt about it. I fully expect my wife to cast her eye toward other men she finds physically attractive as well. It's just biology, folks. And frankly I would conjecture that, as is often the case in the religious community, repression and guilt simply magnifies those desires. If you can accept that you're a human being with a healthy sex drive and that you will find yourself occasionally admiring other humans, you can skip the guilt and go about your day. 

Mutual physical attraction certainly propels relationships forward and can contribute to affairs, but I think it's the weakest factor of the bunch. For me, the fact that I occasionally find myself physically attracted to other women can't come close to outweighing the fact that not only am I very physically attracted to my wife, but our relationship is built on much, much more than that. The real risk with physical attraction comes when it's combined with emotional attraction.

3. Emotional attraction

In the time since I met my wife, I've met plenty of other attractive women; to some degree, as I mentioned above, it comes with my line of work. But in order to propel physical attraction into an affair, you need an emotional connection. And to some extent, I can confidently say that I've met a few other women who, were I single, I'd be interested in. 

That was the case with my previous relationship. There was a physical attraction, sure, but what really drove the relationship was an emotional connection. We related to each other. We had similar interests and views, a similar sense of humor, and enjoyed getting to know one another. At no point were either of us (to my knowledge) pursuing an affair. Our relationship grew organically with the time we spent together. I was single and, after a nasty breakup, was resistant to jumping into a committed relationship; she was in circumstance [1] in her own marriage, and our mutual attraction grew with the time we spent together. And that is the fourth and last circumstance:

4. Time

The above circumstances alone aren't enough to spur an affair; like any relationship, the relationship that will become the affair has to grow and be nurtured. Physical attraction lays the groundwork for emotional attraction to grow. And if you're dissatisfied with your partner and choosing to spend time elsewhere instead of working to rekindle your intimacy, the excitement of a new relationship can be enticing. You start looking for excuses to spend time with the other person instead of your partner, and in time the small escalations can culminate in an affair. All along the way, you may think, "Not me; I'd never cheat on my partner! I just really like spending time with this person. My partner is always busy with this and that..." and so forth. 

I remember that my relationship with a married woman certainly didn't materialize overnight. We'd hang out with mutual friends, and talk after they left. We'd spend time with each other when her husband was busying himself with friends and hobbies. I felt a connection and an attraction, but I was in complete denial — She'd never do that. No way. They're both my friends. 

Even after she kissed me softly on the cheek and held my hand, I chalked it up to an unlikely set of circumstances. A few weeks later, a passionate kiss. I still figured it wouldn't escalate, that she'd snap out of it even though by then I was falling for her. It wasn't until we slept together that I knew we were in deep. We managed to keep the relationship going for a bit over a year, until she became so consumed by guilt that she had to leave. I haven't spoken to her in years.

Caring for what you have

Looking at her own marriage — though of course I only knew what she told me — I knew that it wasn't harsh conflict that drove them apart. It was steady neglect. She felt that she wasn't important to him, that he'd rather spend time with his buddies than her. She told me once that she asked him to look her in the eyes and tell her he loved her; he couldn't. 

I remember that while I was involved in that relationship, I read an interview in GQ with the woman with whom the politician John Edwards had an affair. She said something that rang very true:
... infidelity doesn't happen in healthy marriages. The break in the marriage happens before the infidelity.

I'm truly, madly, deeply in love with my wife. She's my best friend, my partner, my team-mate. I can't imagine my life without her. Our marriage is young, but I don't want to fool myself into thinking that we couldn't end up just like my (quasi) ex's marriage. With the divorce rate as it is, I honestly don't know if my wife and I will make it; I don't think anyone does. But I have to believe that if I can be diligent in nurturing our marriage and be mindful of the kinds of scenarios that make infidelity more likely, I can tilt the odds in our favor.

08 April 2016

Well-manicured humility

Through various Facebook contacts and my readership of several blogs that frequently discuss the evangelical community (Friendly Atheist, Godless in Dixie, etc.), I occasionally come across some of the evangelical culture feels both distant and very near. It's been 17 years since I deconverted, but I remember very well what the evangelical culture was like and what it was like to see my faith and my community as a deeply rooted part of my own personal identity.

My perspective now is very different. I see it as mostly a facade. And I was reminded of that today when, via an acquaintance on Facebook, I came across a young evangelical preacher named Clayton Jennings.

Now, I don't know this guy personally. And I'm in no position to accuse him of being dishonest, disingenuous, or anything of the sort. If anything, he just seems like a product of modern evangelical culture, and someone who's found success not because of supernatural magic, but because of a carefully cultivated image.

He sells clothes that say "Jesus Jesus Jesus" (which, incidentally, is exactly what I say when I lose a game of X-Com), with his personal brand name strategically attached to the garments. His Facebook page is littered with pictures of him praying with people or just, you know man, like being overwhelmed by the power of God, bro. Like this:

And this is what I find fascinating about all this. Here's a guy with an immaculately groomed image. He's wearing tailored clothes and expensive-looking watches. Neatly groomed hair. Athletic. He wants to convey that he's powerful, successful, and ambitious. But his message is always "Jesus Jesus Jesus, you fucking aliens!" Wait... that's X-Com again. I meant just the Jesus part. He wants to convey that his success is because of his faith. In his sermons, he credits his success to "God just [using] broken people". And I'm fully willing to entertain the notion that he sincerely believes that.

I think the more likely scenario is that his success is built on looking the part and telling people what they want to hear. He sells a narrative that life without Jesus is a downward spiral of despair, self-interest, and self-loathing. It's that old boilerplate we've all heard: No Jesus, no peace; know Jesus, know peace.

Here's the problem, though. It's a farce. Over the years since my deconversion I've searched far and wide for any kind of evidence that being more devout makes you better off in any meaningful way. If Clayton's message is true, we atheists should really be at the bottom of the sneering, self-loathing pit — you know, how we're portrayed in Christian movies

But by any objective measure, there's not a lick of evidence that any of this triple-Jesus blathering actually helps people. Are 'saved' people better off financially? Are they less likely to suffer from depression and other mental ailments? Are their marriages more stable? Are they less likely to watch porn? Assault someone? Across the board, no.

That's the rub. It's all very well staged. Clayton came to Jesus Jesus Jesus, bro, and so can you. Find that real purpose in your life. Say some prayers, wave your arms in the air while some people strum acoustic guitars. And then go about your life, finding that it's pretty much exactly the same as people who don't Jesus Jesus Jesus. Fucking aliens. 

05 April 2016

Should I hope that God exists?

In my recent review of Is the Atheist My Neighbor? by Randal Rauser, I mentioned that I wanted to take a separate post to touch on a slightly tangential topic discussed between Randal and Jeffery Jay Lowder (of The Secular Outpost): should we atheists hope that God exists? I think this is a fascinating topic, particularly because opinions from atheists are all over the map — as Randal details in the book. Christopher Hitchens famously described God as tantamount to a "celestial dictatorship"; Jeff, in the book, takes the opposite stance and offers a few reasons why he hopes God does exist.

Randal devotes a chapter to this subject in the book; here are a few key excerpts to which I'd like to offer a reply, first on the topic of anti-theism reflecting a hostility toward God:
To begin with, an atheist could be hostile toward God in virtue of hoping God doesn’t exist. The first thing to recognize here is that believing and hoping are different things and they are not tethered together. Thus, what I believe could be quite different from what I hope.
[When] atheists hope God doesn’t exist, that hope can be reasonably taken, at least in some cases, to indicate at least some degree of hostility toward God. Put more precisely, it would be hostility directed at the concept or idea of God, a hostility that would be transferred to God himself should the atheist come to believe he does exist.

We also shouldn’t miss the implication that if it is possible for atheists to be hostile toward God, it follows that this hostility could potentially distort their reasoning about God in the same way that a theist’s affinity for God could do so. For example, just as the theist may exercise a confirmation bias in favor of evidence for God’s existence so the hostile atheist could exercise a bias in favor of evidence against God’s existence.
As in so many questions of theism, the obvious sticking point is What do you mean by 'God'? Hitch was taking into consideration the theistic god of Western monotheism: a God that reigns like a celestial King with unquestionable authority; one who judges humans for their actions, their character, and — if certain Biblical scriptures are taken into account (Matt. 5:28, 1 John 3:15) — their very thoughts. Hitch believed steadfastly that humans ought to be accountable to one another for their own actions, and that 'thought crime' was inherently unjust and oppressive. He was unpersuaded by 'sophisticated' descriptions of the Western monotheistic deity, which he more or less found to be elaborate rationalizations for fundamentally perverse, authoritarian ethics.

Randal mentions Thomas Nagel, who balked at the idea of 'bowing' to God even if he were convinced of His existence; I suspect (speculatively) that his sentiment is much the same as Hitchens' — that authoritarian rule is fundamentally unjust, and the idea that we should 'bow' to some unquestionable divine dictator is to become a willful slave to oppression.

With these anti-theists, I find myself in wholehearted agreement. I absolutely have no desire to 'bow' to any such 'celestial dictator' as has often been defined in Western monotheism. I'm offended by the notion that my mere thoughts could make me guilty of a crime against even my fellow humankind, much less some unseen deity. And I'm repulsed by the notion that my crimes against my fellow humans (and animals, for that matter) would not be criminal enough simply by virtue of offense to our inherent human solidarity, to the crucial gregarious bond we share as a necessarily interdependent social hierarchy.

Hitchens, for his part, also rejects what he calls the "Disneyland of the mind and spirit, some Nirvana of utter null completeness." This speaks to a legitimate logical conundrum about what, exactly, Heaven is supposed to be — one I spoke about in my partial critique of Randal's book on Heaven, and an issue that I personally do not find to be satisfactorily resolved by theists.  I think Randal does, however, do justice to Hitchens' position:
And why is Hitchens in such forceful opposition to the existence of a divine being? Because, as he seems to think, God’s existence is a noxious idea that would reduce the noble human being to the role of a mere serf on the land of a powerful divine overlord. In other words, if we embrace God then we abdicate true human freedom and autonomy. And that’s not a trade that Hitchens is willing to make.
Given how the God-concept (and it's related concept of Heaven) has been traditionally and widely presented in Western monotheism, I'd have to concur with Hitch.

Rethinking the God-concept

Randal takes a slightly different approach in this book though, calling into question the authoritarian dictator-god promulgated by Hitchens and Nagel. Instead, he puts forth the 'Anselmian' definition of God, as follows:
According to [the terms of classical theism], God is a necessary agent who is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and perfectly good (or omnibenevolent).”This definition can be distilled further to the descriptor famously proposed by Anselm, according to which God is that being than which none greater can be conceived.
He continues,
Hitchens claims to be rejecting the same God that Christians would embrace, that being than which none greater can be conceived. But then he describes life with God as equivalent to a form of mental and physical serfdom in which we endure “cruel laws” and are “subjected to frantic violence.” However, if God really is the being than which none greater can be conceived then life in restored relationship with him wouldn’t be cruel and violent; rather, it would be indescribably wonderful.
Randal's argument is packed with a few unstated assumptions. First, and most controversial, is that our conceptualization of "great", and our personal interests, would align with God's. Over at The Christian Agnostic, Steven Jake (who subscribes to 'Thomism') has argued that whatever God's 'goodness' is, it can't really be understood as a direct parallel to what we understand as good. Jeff Kesterson echoes my sentiment on his own blog, describing the problem thus (emphasis mine):
Presumably, God’s existence would be maximally good from an omniscient, all-cosmic-things-considered vantage point. 
However, that certainly is not our vantage point. Our epistemic limitations require that in order for us to properly hope that God exists, one of the following two conditions must be met: 
1) We have proper reason to suppose that God’s purposes–should God exist–align significantly with the flourishing of conscious beings such as ourselves. 
2) Failing that (condition 1, that is), we can specifically identify the ostensibly greater purposes that God has, should those purposes appear to conflict significantly with the flourishing of conscious creatures. 
For us to hope that God exists entails that we align ourselves with God’s perceived purposes, should God exist. If neither condition is met, then God’s ostensible purposes are opaque to us to such a degree that we cannot orient our own purposes.

 And it's here we come to the problem of evil, which Randal touches on briefly:
Let’s start with the offense that everyone recognizes, namely the brutal murder of the child. Atheist and theist alike are aghast at this heinous crime. However, the greater goods theodicist seeks to make sense of it by claiming that God foreknew this murder would occur and so he allowed it to occur in order to achieve some “greater good.” When the atheist is presented with that claim he hears not a satisfactory account of the murder, but rather a crime that is added to the murder.
This sentiment is reflected in the quote that is in various permutations often passed around atheist circles (I've had some difficulty finding the original credit): If I knew someone was going to rape my child, I'd do everything in my power to stop it. That is the difference between me and your God. If God's divine purposes are so obscure as 1) to be inexorably fixed beyond our epistemic horizon, and 2) to be indistinguishable from a non-existent God (i.e., a universe in which suffering is dispensed in apparently random and arbitrary fashion), then it's not at all clear either what God's 'maximal greatness' actually is, or how it aligns with our individual and collective self-interest.

Frustratingly, Randal avoids further discussion on the topic, instead simply expressing his empathy with the atheists' frustration. He seems fully prepared to tell us that we should hope for a "maximally great" God, but reticent about offering an explanation that could reconcile the apparently indiscriminate reality of human suffering, the ambiguity inherent to the concept of divine goodness, and the problem of divine hiddenness. It's as though he's saying, "I know I can't offer an explanation atheists will find satisfactory, but they should hope that a being exists that would provide a satisfactory explanation" — which just brings us full circle to the original question again.


All this, and I haven't even gotten to the second unstated assumption in Randal's point of view: the afterlife.

Randal seems to assume that the existence of a 'maximally great' God entails the existence of an afterlife and, I would presume, the dispensation of some kind of 'perfect justice', but I don't see why this is the case.

If God's purposes, and their justifications, are beyond our epistemic horizon on this mortal coil (which even the most sophisticated theologian appears to concede is the case), then it follows that the concept of 'perfect justice' as we might imagine it does not necessarily comport with God's conceptualization thereof — just as Steven Jake argued regarding our conceptualization of 'good'. I don't see what in the word salad of 'maximal greatness' should imply that we need ever be aware of what God's purposes actually are. Perhaps, for all we know, the world as it is dispenses 'perfect justice'. How would we know, since we seem unable to ascertain any coherent definition of the term in the first place — much less discern a divine understanding thereof?

It's entirely possible that God exists, but there is no afterlife. Hilter doesn't go to hell, mothers aren't reunited with their children whose lives were tragically cut short. The numerous logical problems in the conceptualization of an eternal afterlife — I'd again refer readers to my partial critique of Randal's book — only compound the problem.

It's at this point that I'm reminded of my sympathies toward theological noncognitivism. Every step of the way, we've seen that the concept of God (and the corresponding concept of Heaven) has been mired in ambiguity. The inability of theologians to clearly define the very terms of engagement means it's difficult for atheists to formulate objections because we're shooting at a moving target. So I find myself taking a slightly different stance than outright "hoping that God doesn't exist": the god-concept and heaven-concept are both so equivocal that it's not really clear to me what exactly I'm supposed to be hoping for in the first place.


I can, however, offer a few reasons why I think we ought to hope that the universe, and this mortal coil we inhabit within, is all that exists:
  • There's no one to blame
    • The apparent injustices of 'natural evil' are not injustices at all. Nature is not cruel, but indifferent. If a child dies of cancer, it's not because God sit complacently while his incomprehensible divine plan unfolds. It's just the world we live in. We evolved as imperfect biological machines, and sometimes things go wrong. Really wrong. It's no one's fault. This allows those of us who've experienced tragedy to simply grieve, without falling into existential despair over whom is to blame. 
  • We must value what we have
    • Richard Dawkins described us who are alive as the lucky ones. Millions are never born at all; millions more die in the womb, or in childhood. We may not understand why we're here; indeed, there may be no such "why" at all. But the frailty and brevity of our existence gives us impetus to make the most of it in a way the eternal serenity never could. 
  • Morality is grounded in human solidarity rather than divine duty
    • It's never made sense to me that a divine ruler should need to dictate rules for us to live by. If such rules are truly in our best interest, should we not be able to reason to them ourselves? The primatologist Frans De Waal said that any zoologist would describe our species as "obligatorily gregarious". We lack moral autonomy because we necessarily live in a cooperative, interdependent social hierarchy. Our impetus to treat others kindly stems from this interdependency. And this is enough. What could divine decrees possibly add, even assuming we could understand them in a way that was uncontroversial?
There are more, but those are just a few off the top of my head. I might add that once we accept our mortal existence as likely being the only one we'll ever have, we can quit fussing over equivocal concepts like a "a being than which non greater can be conceived" and get back to living and enjoying the lives we have.

03 April 2016

Neil Carter: Christianity only works if you hate yourself

In light of this excerpt from my previous post:

Consider the basic Christian doctrine of original sin: that you are born a sinner, through no fault of your own, and will inevitably transgress and fall short of worthiness to commune with your benevolent Creator. This inevitability will lead you to certain doom, when your immortal soul is expunged to some unfathomably dark place upon your death. Worse, there is nothing you can do about it — no act of kindness or goodwill can save you. It is only through the grace of the Creator that you can be saved from what you are. Christianity can offer 'salvation' only if one accepts the doctrine of depravity that is required to coerce you into acquiescence. And while on the mortal coil, even if you've repented and accepted God's grace, you must constantly be on the lookout for dark forces attempting to pull you away from the light — your own carnal desires, devils and demons attempting to obstruct you, or even perhaps God's own 'tests' of your faith and fortitude.
... it seems fitting that Neil Carter just wrote an excellent post about the peculiar Christian idea on which its entire theology is founded: you're broken, and you need to be saved.

30 March 2016

Randal Rauser's "Is the Atheist My Neighbor?" — a review

I remember several years ago when I was debating a Christian acquaintance of mine on Facebook — who, incidentally, has since deconverted — and he inquired about the real reason for my atheism. We'd been exchanging ideas about epistemology, extra-Biblical evidence, and evolution, but he asked me if I'd had a bad experience in the church, or if there was some "sin" I was determined to act out. He was having a hard time accepting that I'd deconverted only after tremendous reflection on my beliefs — a process that stretched out over nearly ten years; that my atheism was, and is, a sincerely-held intellectual position and not an emotional rebellion against a divine creator that deep down I still knew existed.

My acquaintance's view is not an anomaly; it's a common refrain directed at us non-believers. In my personal experience, it most commonly takes the form of, "If you don't believe in God, why do you talk about Him all the time?" This was satirized in brilliant fashion six years ago (has it really been that long?) by YouTube artist NonStampCollector:

We've seen this perspective reach peak pop culture exposure with the film God's Not Dead (sequel on the way!), in which Kevin Sorbo plays a curmudgeonly atheist college professor whose deep-seated anger at God is calmly yet incisively exposed by a studious Christian pupil — before the professor is hit by a car, recants his atheism moments before dying, and all the Christians appear to celebrate his death at a big rock concert.

This, in a nutshell, is the Rebellion Thesis: the idea that atheists don't really exist. Rather, people like yours truly who say they are atheists are really just angry at God and/or desire to live a hedonistic lifestyle without facing accountability to God's divine commandments. Atheism, no matter how rigorously we might argue for it intellectually, is really just a front. Deep down we know that the evidence for God's existence is overwhelming and obvious. And it's this thesis that is at the center of Randal Rauser's latest book, Is the Atheist My Neighbor?.

At under 100 pages in the Kindle edition (including footnotes), Randal's book is as brisk as it is erudite, humorous, and thought-provoking. In this review of the book, there are two major topics I want to touch upon: the first is Randal's central thesis that the Rebellion Thesis lies at the heart of Christians' dismissive and condescending attitudes toward atheists; the second is his reflection on the nature of discourse, and the responsibility we have to ourselves and our interlocutors to, as Randal aptly describes it, "empty our cup" — to work to rid ourselves of prior assumptions and prejudices that hinder our ability to understand and, possibly, persuade one another. Lastly, there's a third minor topic I want to address, and that's a specific theological idea Randal discusses in the book, but I'll save that for a separate post.

The Rebellion Thesis

Randal does an admirable job making the case that the Rebellion Thesis is a prevalent attitude in Christiandom, and has been for hundreds of years. He looks at historical writings that portray atheists as weak-willed cowards, the words of popular figures in modern Christian apologetics, and yes — he talks about God's Not Dead. Randal's treatment of the subject is rigorous, and my fellow atheists could be forgiven for thinking this section of the book was written by an atheist, and not by an academic theologian. Randal is uncompromising in his criticism of Christian culture, and he contends that the Rebellion Thesis only caricatures atheists and hinders productive dialogue. Sure, some atheists out there may be acerbic and may even harbor resentment toward religion or religious people. But that doesn't mean that atheism is itself not a sincerely held and often deeply nuanced intellectual position.

He takes the time in chapter 3 to examine the scriptural basis for the Rebellion Thesis (we're all familiar with Psalm 14:1 - The fool has said in his heart, "there is no God") and constructs a robust argument against it. I personally found my attention waning in this chapter, because it's clearly directed at Christians. As an atheist, I already know the Rebellion Thesis isn't true, and I don't particularly care what the Bible says about it because I don't believe there's much in the way of truth to be found in the Bible, either. Yet I found something to like quite a bit here, which is Randal's discussion of Christian doubts. Surely if the evidence for God is so overwhelming and obvious, Christians shouldn't themselves wrestle with serious doubts. And yet they do, and that goes for laypersons, saints, and lauded theologians alike

And in chapter 4, Randal gives what I found to be a surprising amount of space to Jeffrey Jay Lowder, who comments both on the Rebellion Thesis and lays out his case against theism. To his credit, Randal refrains from indulging himself in a debate with Lowder, and instead uses Lowder's detailed arguments as an example of someone who is an atheist for nuanced, deeply contemplated reasons. 

Randal works hard to show that the Rebellion Thesis is both prevalent in modern Christian culture and drives atheists further from Christianity by misrepresenting their beliefs. He makes a well-researched theological argument against it, argues that it is by its falsity antithetical to Christian values, and concludes by imploring Christians to eschew their biases and engage atheists in thoughtful, charitable discourse.

All of this is compelling, and true. And yet, I can't get fully behind Randal's thesis here. Not because I disagree that the Rebellion Thesis is both false and destructive to discourse, but because I think there's a chicken-and-egg issue here. Randal is (as one might expect) approaching the problem like a theologian, addressing the problem among his fellow believers by appealing to what he presumably hopes will be their respect for well-argued Biblical exegesis. In my estimation, though, the Rebellion Thesis is symptomatic of deeper pathologies within the church, some of which speak to our most primitive tribal tendencies. Personally, my perspective on the issue wouldn't be theological, but anthropological. I'd be more interested in why doctrines like the Rebellion Thesis emerge from within Christian culture in the first place. In my estimation the problem is not the doctrine per se, but the in-group culture that gives birth to it.

It's here that I turn back to one of the most influential books I've read: Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer, Henry Luce professor of Individual and Collective Memory at Washington University in St. Louis. In the book, Boyer examines religion from the perspectives of cognitive science, evolution, and anthropology; he discusses how religions emerge, why certain religious ideas are successful, the utilitarian value of religion, and much more. 

Notably, he discusses in chapter 8 of the book the tendency of religion to cement in-group bonds, with a corresponding weakening of out-group bonds:
Worshiping the same gods creates a community and by implication gives that extra edge to the feeling that people with different gods or spirits really are potential enemies. Indeed, people who become deeply involved in religion, for whom it is a matter of vital importance that their doctrine is the only source of truth, will not hesitate to massacre the ones who seem not to acknowledge this obvious fact or whose commitment is too lukewarm. The most heinous crimes will be a celebration of the True Faith. This is how gods and spirits lead to group cohesion, which leads to xenophobia, which leads to fanatical hatred. [p265]
It seems to go without saying that holding the same concepts and norms as other Christians, for instance, does make people members of a group, with the expectation of a degree of solidarity with other group members and a general distrust toward nonmembers. People describe themselves as "members" of this or that religious group, with important and often tragic consequences for their interaction with other groups.[p285]
It bears emphasizing here that Boyer's book is not remotely a polemic; it's an academic inquiry into religion bridging several scientific disciplines. Nothing he writes is intended to belittle religion or religious people; and indeed it's difficult to give an accurate impression of his complex thesis through a few select quotes. But he's touching on an important topic: that religion, in fostering in-group solidarity among its members, creates a corresponding distrust of those beyond its walls.

Religious thought is the only human intellectual endeavor I'm aware of that has, historically, done such a fine job of insulating itself from skeptical inquiry that it even has a word for those who dare to question established church doctrine: heretic. Of course, a heretic need not be an atheist; any dissent from a given doctrine can be viewed as such. But what greater heresy could there be than atheism? At least those who express dissenting doctrinal views in the Christian church almost certainly accept the basic tenets of classical theism. Even those misguided cultures elsewhere in the world worshiping false gods and spirits are at least correct in yearning for the divine and in their acknowledgement of a higher power. An atheist, though, doesn't give an inch: to them, the entire facade of religion is a farce. Its most basic doctrines are false. And if it allays anxieties or 'saves' us from anything, it is only from its own pathologies, as Boyer argues elsewhere in Religion Explained:
[Religious] concepts, if they are solutions to particular emotional needs, are not doing a very good job. A religious world is often every bit as terrifying as a world without supernatural presence, and [20] many religions create not so much reassurance as a thick pall of gloom. The Christian philosopher Kierkegaard wrote books with titles like The Concept of Anguish and Fear and Trembling, which for him described the true psychological tenor of the Christian revelation. Also, consider the widespread beliefs about witches, ghouls, ghosts and evil spirits allegedly responsible for illness and misfortune. For the Fang people with whom I worked in Cameroon the world is full of witches, that is, nasty individuals whose mysterious powers allow them to "eat" other people, which in most cases means depriving them of health or good fortune. [...] If religion allays anxiety, it cures only a small part of the disease it creates. [p20]
Consider the basic Christian doctrine of original sin: that you are born a sinner, through no fault of your own, and will inevitably transgress and fall short of worthiness to commune with your benevolent Creator. This inevitability will lead you to certain doom, when your immortal soul is expunged to some unfathomably dark place upon your death. Worse, there is nothing you can do about it — no act of kindness or goodwill can save you. It is only through the grace of the Creator that you can be saved from what you are. Christianity can offer 'salvation' only if one accepts the doctrine of depravity that is required to coerce you into acquiescence. And while on the mortal coil, even if you've repented and accepted God's grace, you must constantly be on the lookout for dark forces attempting to pull you away from the light — your own carnal desires, devils and demons attempting to obstruct you, or even perhaps God's own 'tests' of your faith and fortitude.

Is it any wonder, then, that atheists are seen as such a threat to the tribal mindset of Christianity? To many of them, atheists are not just misguided, but they've given in to their most heathen tendencies and will readily pull pious Christians away from their salvation in Christ. Consider, for example, William Lane Craig's stern reprimand of a young Christian whose doubts and curiosity led him to arguments by well-known atheists:
I find myself utterly baffled by the cavalier way in which many ill-equipped Christians expose themselves to material which is potentially destructive to them. It’s like someone who doesn’t know how to swim deciding to take the plunge in the heavy surf. Wouldn’t it be the sensible thing to do to first prepare yourself before venturing into dangerous waters?
Craig doesn't hesitate to frame atheistic ideas not merely as wrong, but as dangerous. Exposure to them could have eternal repercussions, as he goes on to explain:
I remember vividly that when I first became a Christian I was very careful about what I read because I knew that there was material out there which could be destructive to my newfound faith and that I had a lot, lot more to learn before I was ready to deal with it. Do we forget that there is an enemy of our souls who hates us intensely, is bent on our destruction, and will use anything he can to undermine our faith or render us ineffective in God’s hands? Are we so naïve?
In this way, Craig has framed the discussion between atheists and theists (Christians, in particular) not as an irenic exchange of ideas but as a battle for hearts, minds, and souls. He brashly derides secular material as "garbage" and implores this young Christian to distance himself from it and instead immerse himself in Christian apologetics:
What would prompt you to feed on the garbage you’re reading and watching, thereby polluting your mind, rather than diligently studying the work of, say, Alvin Plantinga? We are called to be disciples, which in the Greek means “learners.” Is what you’re doing your idea of what Christian discipleship looks like? Is this the path to transformation by “the renewal of the mind” (Romans 12.1-2)? 
Certainly, someone does need to read and interact with secular material, but that person is not (yet) you. You first need to prepare yourself.

We can see the congruity with Boyer's thesis above: to Craig — certainly a highly regarded academic theologian and apologist — those outside of the walls of Christianity are a threat. In my estimation, the Rebellion Thesis arises and propagates within the community of Christianity because it appeals to that most basic tribal tendency: it's us versus them. "We" are intelligent, enlightened, seekers of truth and doers of good; those outside our group are wicked, deceitful, and will lead us astray if we let them.

I don't think, then, that the prevalence of the Rebellion Thesis is due to misguided exegesis. I think that, as is usually the case in my estimation, biases and prejudices themselves create the exegesis — not the other way around. Randal is in a unique circumstance because he's befriended some atheists that he's found to be cordial, thoughtful individuals (Jeffrey Jay Lowder is an obvious example). It seems that Craig, by contrast, is only exposed to atheists in the adversarial arenas of his carefully choreographed academic debates. While Randal has found good cause in his friends to shed hostile and reactionary biases, Craig seems much more deeply entrenched in the in-group mentality. It should be no surprise, then, that Craig himself appears to tacitly endorse the Rebellion Thesis:
If you're sincerely seeking God, God will make His existence evident to you.
Because I see the Rebellion Thesis primarily as an anthropological artifact and not an exegetical one, I don't think that attempts to win Christians with progressive interpretations of scripture will be particularly effective. At the same time, Randal himself stands as an example of someone who is a devout Christian yet rejects the Rebellion Thesis, so I can't be so hasty as to proclaim this as a problem that is necessarily endemic to religion. In-group tribal mentality can pervade political and ethnic groups, sports teams, nations, neighborhoods, and much more — including atheist communities. The problem here is bigger than any one idea; it's a fundamental human trait that helped us survive in small tribes, but is divisive and destructive in today's modern super-tribes (to take a cue from Desmond Morris). Eroding the Rebellion Thesis from within the walls of Christianity will require a shift away from treating certain ideas as sacrosanct, and welcoming contrary ideas as part of a mutual search for truth. On this, Randal offers a number of suggestions for Christians, which I think many atheists — myself included — would be wise to heed. It's to this search for irenic discourse that I'll now turn.

Building Bridges

Randal mentions in the book a view that I share, which is that traditional 'debates' only serve to cement the adversarial attitudes between believers and non-believers. I think the same is often true of online debates, which almost inevitably trudge toward impasse and only further entrench us in our positions. Surely my own disagreements with Randal escalated beyond either of our better judgments.

This isn't idle speculation on my part, either; there's been some good research into how we change others' minds, and we tend to be very bad at it — not the least of which is because of the adversarial manner in which we tend to frame our arguments. How many of us have heard, or ourselves used, statements like:

  • "I showed your argument to be false"
  • "As I've already demonstrated..."
  • "You clearly don't understand..."
  • "You don't know what you're talking about"
We have a tendency to lay the blame for any impasse at the feet of our interlocutors. We spend a lot of time thinking through our positions and typing them out as clearly as we can, and just when we think we've created an air-tight argument we find a spate of objections. Indignantly, we insist that our opponent has failed to see what has been clearly laid out before them. They're wrong, we're right, and their failure to realize that is their fault alone. If they were more educated, more thoughtful, or would just read more carefully before springing into a rebuttal, they'd see the error of their ways.

Now, I suppose there are times when this is actually the case. But we tend not to make very good judgments about our performances, especially in the immediacy of a discussion. I've found that it's best to divorce myself from those attitudes as much as possible. If you want to change someone's mind, you have to do something radical: you have to show that you are willing to change your mind. 

I certainly haven't mastered this. I'm a work in progress. And I was pleased to see that Randal views himself as being in the same boat:

[Too] often I find myself failing to achieve a detached and generous demeanor when interacting with others. Indeed, I suspect we’re all tempted from time to time to write off those with whom we disagree as ridiculous fanatics. So rather than point an accusing fingers [...], we should all reflect on the extent to which we are prone to treat others uncharitably.
Of course, this is easier said than done; self-criticism isn't easy, especially when we feel really strongly that we're right. As much as possible, criticisms need to be framed as questions, and we must invite others to offer their ideas for consideration. This doesn't mean debate cannot be spirited, but that a degree of humility and understanding must always underscore the discussion; after all, we're likely talking with people who have very different biases and assumptions underscoring their arguments. As soon as discussions become some kind of point-scoring contest, it's best to just walk away.

Randal mentions an interesting strategy he had proposed to what he only describes as an "atheist group": debate your opponents' position. My father was on the forensics team in high school and college, and he's recounted stories in which this was a valuable part of the debate process. They'd spend weeks researching a position and carefully articulating arguments and anticipating counter-arguments. Then they'd be told, without warning, to switch sides. It's a novel idea, but the purpose of it is to keep us dispassionate about ideas and approach discussions in an inquisitive mindset.

Closing thoughts

Initially, I was dismissive of Randal's book. After all, I'm an atheist. It's not exactly news to me that Christians have a tendency to caricature us. But we atheists do the same from time to time as well, and we should seek to follow Randal's example here. He critiqued his community from the inside, implicated his own failings as contributions to the problem, invited someone with contrary ideas to explain their point of view, and sought out ideas to foster mutual understanding going forward. Is the Atheist My Neighbor? is a brisk read injected with some well-timed dad humor and thought-provoking discussion. While I don't fully agree with Randal's thesis, and I could probably nitpick his thoughts on Christopher Hitchens and a few other things, I think he's done an admirable job in arguing that hasty generalizations and uninformed prejudices do nothing but widen the chasm between believers and non-believers, and he offers up worthwhile considerations that may help us build bridges, and who knows — maybe change each others' minds.

In the next few days, I'll follow up with a post on the specific topic of "Should we want God to exist?" and discuss my disagreements with some of Randal's arguments. In the meantime, you can of course read the book yourself.

29 March 2016

Quick update on "Is the Atheist My Neighbor?"

A couple of weeks ago I said I'd write a review for Randal Rauser's latest book, Is the Atheist My Neighbor?. I've got a post drafted; it may be into the weekend before it's done, but I'm just going to give a quick impression.

Randal's writing in Is the Atheist My Neighbor? is erudite, humorous, and provocative. He's uncompromising in his criticism of attitudes toward atheists — and atheism itself — in Western Christian culture. The culprit, he argues, is widespread belief in the Rebellion Thesis — the notion that atheists secretly know that God exists, but harbor a deep-seated resentment toward Him and/or seek to engage in hedonistic or otherwise immoral behavior without acknowledging their culpability to God's divine commandments. Any pretenses of an intellectually grounded rejection of God is just a cover — the evidence for God is, after all, overwhelming and without rational dispute.

We atheists have known this to be nonsense from the first time we heard it, but it's exceedingly rare for a book authored by a Christian academic theologian to direct such fierce criticism at the Christian community itself, both for its acerbic treatment of atheists and for its embrace of a false doctrine. Ironically, this was the reason for my own prior disinterest in the book: "Tell me something I don't know!"

It was a hasty judgment. Randal's done a fine job here supporting his thesis with good data and better argumentation, and his discussion in chapter 4 with Jeffery Jay Lowder of The Secular Outpost is definitely a highlight. I have to confess my interest waned a bit in chapter 3, in which Randal uses Biblical exegesis to argue against the Rebellion Thesis; as an atheist, I'm not particularly concerned with intra-religious interpretive discordance. Yet, particularly toward the end of the chapter in which Randal highlights doubts expressed by Christians themselves, his thesis remains engaging.

I'll have more to say in my review about the thesis of the book, which I can't get behind 100%. But I can for now say that while the book does skew toward a Christian audience, it's a worthwhile read for us non-believers and, at less than 100 pages in the Kindle edition, a brisk read as well.

09 March 2016

Why I'm for Bernie — and why I can't abide the GOP

I lean left on most political issues, and I'm a registered democrat. But I consider myself a moderate, and I would seriously consider a moderate republican candidate who wanted sensible spending limitations, fair taxation, and a balanced budget while letting people's private lives stay private.

That candidate does not exist. There may not be any such politician in the current republican party at all.

Republicans are, right now, concerned with two things: first, the demonization of minorities. Trump has convinced his voters that keeping the Mexicans and the Muslims out of the country will solve our economic problems, a demagoguery that has been not-so-subtly voiced by Fox News over the years. The poor, similarly, are vilified by the right as lazy do-nothings who just want government hand outs, draining economic prosperity from middle-class Americans.

Secondly, republicans are concerned with a regulation of the private lives of citizens. This includes persistent attacks on women's access to safe, affordable family planning services, attempts to erode the teaching of science in public schools, and blurring the line between church and state. Here in Oklahoma, our government has badly mismanaged funds and, in giving huge tax breaks to the oil industry and the wealthy, has left critical services woefully underfunded. Schools are cutting bus routes, killing extra-curricular activities, increasing class sizes, and in some cases may not even be able to finish the school year due to a lack of funds; meanwhile, our legislature is debating the removal of the Ten Commandments monument in the Capitol.

These are not just misguided policies — they're a complete and total failure of leadership, indicative of a total inability to constructively address the shared economic and social concerns of the American public.

Bernie Sanders: framing public policies as moral imperatives

Bernie says that it's ridiculous that the United States, despite being the wealthiest nation in the world, is the only advanced country without mandatory paid family and medical leave. That hurts working American families, and it's morally wrong.

He says that for too long, wealthy corporations have been dodging paying their fair share of taxes with offshore tax havens, generous tax loopholes, and superfluous government subsidies. At a time when we're in desperate need of a balanced budget, these corporate payoffs are not just bad policies — the represent a deeper social injustice.

Similarly, he points out that while the median wage for middle class Americans has been falling, the wealthiest 1% has seen their fortunes absolutely skyrocket. The richest 20 Americans have as much wealth as the poorest 150,000,000 Americans combined [source]. That disparity resonates in Washington, where the marginal tax rate for the ultra-rich continues to shrink from its post-war high of 91% to today's number of under 40%, which the wealthy are often able to avoid with generous deductions and loopholes. Bernie recognizes that providing living wages for the working class, eliminating the aforementioned loopholes, and a more progressive tax on the richest of the rich are all not just smart policies, but the morally right thing to do. 

Above all, Bernie recognizes that America's problems are those of public morality, not private morality. Americans don't need restrictions on access to contraception, or court battles over religious monuments, or fights over the private lives of gay people. We need policies that address the issues of economic morality that threaten the prosperity of millions of working Americans. And that, in a nutshell, is why I #feeltheBern.

By the by, this was very concisely summarized by Robert Reich in a recent video: