27 April 2014

For theists, God is still in the gaps

We've heard the refrain a thousand times: that one can be a believer and still fully accept science. Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller are devout Christians who accept evolution; John Polkinghorne is a former physicist and a now a priest, famous for his conciliatory works like The Faith of a Physicist; and there is the mathematician and philosopher of science John Lennox, who critiqued Stephen Hawking's atheism in his book God and Stephen Hawking but who was careful not to reject the science out of hand.

Examples like this abound, but the accommodationism hides an ugly truth: even for these presumably sophisticated thinkers, their rationale for belief still exists in one of the oldest fallacies of all: God of the gaps.

Not pictured: God
I was reminded of this tonight with a facepalm-inducing article from Time, called "Why Science Does Not Disprove God". This type of statement is rewarded with an immediate facepalm because it does not clearly express what is meant by "God". If you mean the god who purportedly controlled volcanoes, or the weather, or earthquakes, or guided evolution – then yes, actually, God has been disproved as a viable explanation for those things.

Worse, it's trivially true that science cannot disprove God. Hey, maybe God still does guide evolution, albeit in some completely undetectable way! Y'know, like how William Lane Craig claims that God provides a reference for absolute time, even though we can't possibly sync our clocks to it. But hey, you can't disprove it, right? Checkmate, atheists!

Of course, there are an infinite number of things we cannot disprove, and there is a vast gulf between being able to disprove a proposition and being rationally compelled to take it seriously. We cannot disprove that we are in The Matrix, that we are brains in a vat, that external reality is an illusion, or that we will ride on magic potatoes through rainbow-colored clouds when we die. And yet, these are not propositions that too many people, aside from certifiable nutbars, take seriously. So, made aware of this triviality, theists inevitably retreat to the God of the Gaps:
  • Why does the universe exist?
  • Why does the universe seem finely-tuned for life?
  • What caused the Big Bang?
  • Where do we get our morals?
  • How did life originate?
  • What's our purpose in life?
Sometimes, the query is simply formulated poorly. There's no reason think the universe needs an explanation for its mere existence (a distinct question from its origin); the universe may simply BE. Nor is there any reason to believe that we have some objective purpose to our existence, that there is any meaning to our lives beyond what we make for ourselves. And simply in asking why the universe is finely-tuned for life, one is begging the question – the fact that life exists does not imply the universe was "tuned" for the purpose of harboring life. Such questions are not scientific, but that doesn't make them provocative questions.

But other questions clearly appeal to gaps in science, whether real or (mis)perceived. We don't know what caused the Big Bang, or if it's even sensible to use to word "cause" in that regard; nor do we know exactly how life originated, but we've made great strides in that regard. And science has actually done a pretty damn fine job in explaining where our morals come from.

A better question is this: why should we take any particular conceptualization of God seriously? Theists struggle to even provide a consistent and logically coherent definition of what God is, much less our epistemological relation to this deity. As an explanatory hypothesis, things that are ambiguously defined and untestable tend not to be particularly useful. It's precisely that fact which continually pushes God back into smaller and smaller gaps, and into greater and greater irrelevance.

24 April 2014

Is the Christian God amoral?

I was thinking about various omni-paradoxes this morning, spurred by a relevant post over at Deity Shmiety, and something related crossed my mind. One of the constraints generally placed on God's omnipotence is that he is incapable of evil – he is the embodiment of moral goodness. This does of course place Christians in the awkward position of saying that all sorts of deplorable violence, slavery (and the beating of slaves), the subjugation of women, and eternal torment are morally good – at least in a certain context – so that God, say, hardening the Pharaoh's heart and then punishing his stubbornness by murdering Egypt's firstborn sons (thankfully, just a myth) is totally morally good.

But the idea that God couldn't choose to do evil not only renders him conditionally omnipotent (which seems to be a pretty idiosyncratic use of the word that only theologians believe to be valid), it seems to make God totally amoral. Not immoral, but simply lacking any moral character at all. God is essentially an automaton who can always only do the most moral possible action. But it seems to me that a key component of calling ourselves moral beings rests on the fact that we are, in fact, capable of choosing between kindness and cruelty, between "good" and "evil". If God is incapable of wrongdoing, I fail to see how he can be considered a moral being at all. He's not choosing to do good; his nature compels him to always to the "most good" thing, and he is wholly incapable of choosing otherwise.

This "conditional omnipotence" stuff also carries with it the implication that, as a moral being who can choose to do right or wrong, I am more powerful than God. But I sort of knew that anyway, since God, y'know, doesn't actually exist.

21 April 2014

Arguing with brick walls

Please, dear readers, hold me to this: I'm done with Randal Rauser. I deleted the link to his blog from my bookmarks and I'm going to try my best to resist the temptation to engage with him.

I was originally introduced to Rauser by some readers who suggested that he might be a worthy interlocutor given his knowledge of philosophy and his generally liberal brand of Christianity. But y'know, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me seven or fifty times, and... well, I dunno.

Remember when I did a partial review of his book on Heaven? I had asked four questions about the logical coherency of Heaven on his blog, and he claimed that his book answered them. So, kindly, I blew $9 on a book that's about on the level of literary and scholarly prestige as The Poop That Took a Pee and, not surprisingly but still kind of disappointingly, his book didn't actually answer any of those questions – at least one wasn't even discussed at all.

I wrote a fairly lengthy review of this, elucidating my four questions and explaining in painstaking detail why I thought Randal's arguments fell short. Randal actually replied:

...which he finished with, "I look forward to engaging your review at more length in my blog in a few days."

Hmm, seems like we're off to a good start. That didn't last long though, as Randal was butthurt at my alleged lack of charity because I used the phrase "making shit up" with regard to some of his "theories" about Heaven. I used the phrase because, as I explained in detail in the post, I literally could find no justification at all for him to be making the claims he did, or specifically why they couldn't be substituted with a variety of other arbitrary claims. He could have addressed the substance of that objection, but no... he just continued to whine about my uncharitable tone. Soon enough he'd dedicated a whole blog post to calling me "ignorant", which he deleted and replaced with a totally disingenuous "new direction" in which he promised, in so many words, to quit being such a damn dickhead. He never got around to "engaging [my] review at length", and my four questions about Heaven remain unanswered.


That should have been all the indication I needed to stay away from his inane blog but, like a tawdry ex-girlfriend, it's sometimes difficult to stay away. Today Randal and I got into it after I left a mildly snarky comment on one of his more sincere-sounding posts. Basically, I pointed out that many liberal Christians have accepted that most of the Old Testament is not historical. The Creation, the Fall, the Flood, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babylon, the Exodus, the patriarchs, the genocide of Canaan, etc. These passages are interpreted non-propositionally – that is, they don't represent factual historical accounts, but allegorical frameworks that illustrate man's attempts to understand God within a contemporaneous context. So, I reasoned, if such a view of the Old Testament is acceptable, why not the New Testament? Why can't Jesus' resurrection be viewed as such?

Randal himself endorses such a non-propositional view with regard to at least parts of the OT. He rejects inerrancy and literalism, which means he must take a non-propositional view of pretty much all of Genesis. And he's spent several posts discussing his view of the slaughter of Canaan, for which he takes a similar view.

So, this seemed like a reasonable line of questioning with regard to the consistency of his own views. I wanted to know why Randal would or would not think that a non-propositional view of the New Testament was problematic when he endorses such an approach with at least some major parts of the Old Testament. In other words, what's the criteria for determining the appropriate hermeneutic to apply?

Did I get a straight answer? 


Randal objected to my claims that a large number of liberal Christians and/or a consensus of historians view the OT in this way. But of course, he had to throw in a little condescension:

When I replied that this is a "deflection without substance", he accused me of insulting him:

In Randal's bizarre world, it's not an insult at all to tell someone that they lack an ability to interact with their interlocutors, that they're exhibiting "striking" ignorance. But boy golly, don't go telling someone their argument was a vacuous red herring. That's a personal insult! And I can't help but wonder why he thought the red herrings he interjected with were "substantial concerns". One is a flagrant distortion of what I said, another is an uncharitable semantic dig, and the third... well, Randal and I must do teh maths differently, because I count only two objections. But I digress...

So, the discussion clumsily progressed and Randal wanted me to prove my claims about historians and the non-historical nature of most of the Old Testament. Pardon me as I post the whole comment...

Randal puts on a facade of dispassionate critical rigor, but he's pulling a cheap apologetic trick. 

Firstly, he can always reject my findings simply by claiming that the "specific guild" of historians I've referenced provide an incomplete or irrelevant picture of the field. I was, of course, talking about secular historians.

Secondly, he assigns an arbitrary number to the term "consensus" and challenges me to show that that specific percentage of historians support my view.

Problem is, as Randal full well knows, polling data of historians on these issues is practically non-existent. I'd love a PhilPapers-style survey about Biblical historicity, but that does not exist.

What does exist is a general consensus among scholars that can be discerned from reading the works of notable scholars in the field. I provided a couple of references: I hand-typed a quote from a book of mine (Biblical History and Israel's Past), and mentioned The Bible Unearthed. Both are highly regarded scholarly works that are themselves painstakingly researched to provide an accurate picture of the current consensus on Biblical historicity. While perhaps not quantifiable in the way Randal rather arbitrarily demands, it nontheless provides powerful evidence in support of my argument.

Randal responded with wholesale dismissal, peppered with his usual petty condescension (which of course is totally not insulting at all, because that would be uncivil):


Throughout this conversation (such as it was), I reiterated my topical question several times, saying (for example):
I'm sincerely asking you why you could not apply a similar hermeneutic to the New Testament that you do to the book of Joshua, and as I'm guessing you most likely do for all of Genesis and (hopefully) Exodus.
Of course, Randal never engaged the question, not even remotely. Instead he maintains a facade of faux civility while peppering his posts with condescension (I've gone so far as to document some of his incessant dickery), deriding me as ignorant for having even raised the issue at all.

So, I had an epiphany. Why am I bothering with this asshole? He's clearly obsessed only with "winning" an argument, and has zero interest in constructively engaging his interlocutors in relevant critical discourse (his conversations with others on that post quickly fell by the wayside as his critics laid into him). His actual arguments are incredibly juvenile, only making it to his blog because he was weaned in the circle-jerk of academic theology, and he's regularly embarrassed by the many intelligent atheists who frequent his blog. For some reason he chases after me in a relentless assault of patronizing digs and red herrings. Maybe I get under his skin, or maybe I just egg him on; suffice to say that if he truly thought my challenges to him were worthless, he'd just ignore me altogether.

Now, I respect that Randal is an expert in theology, despite the fact that I think that's like being an expert in homeopathy or acupuncture. I respect that there are certain terms and concepts he understands better than I do being that he's an expert in that particular discipline. But, that's why I engaged him. Because presumably someone who is an expert in their field will have concise, thoughtful answers to curious critical thinkers. Clearly I'm holding him to a standard he cannot meet, though I've never thought it to be a particularly high one.

So, I'm done. Randal is a bullshitter in the true Frankfurtian sense of the term, a venerable master of the Courtier's Reply. He debates with others only to gain a rhetorical advantage, with no regard to whether his arguments are consistent or whether he's even engaging the relevant topic at hand. In short, he's exactly like damn near every other self-important apologist I've run across. He fancies himself an expert in academic philosophy despite having no published work in academic philosophical journals. He chastises others for speaking out of turn with regard to theology or philosophy, but regularly demonstrates ignorance as he confidently opines on cosmology, evolution, sociobiology, and cognitive sciences. Like William Lane Craig – another great charlatan – Randal's field is theology, and his own brand of it is so confused that he can't answer the simplest of questions without drowning himself in antagonism and hubris. Such a proud fool is not worth engaging, and I regret only that I didn't come to this realization sooner and save myself the agitation.

Anyway, I feel better after a good old fashioned rant. Back to regular bloggery...

20 April 2014

I could use your help

I haven't mentioned it in a while, but I'm still working (intermittently) on a "best of" compilation, a book that contains the best work of this blog organized topically and edited slightly for flow.

If you've been reading this blog for any significant length of time and there are any posts that were memorable to you that you think are deserving of being in the top few, please let me know.

I'm of course pulling posts that I am partial to, but I'm interested in hearing readers' perspectives as well.

Easter fun time Bible facts

Easter's almost over, and it's been a busy day! But I have a few minutes to mention some important facts about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

  • The gospels are not eyewitness accounts. Or at least, there is absolutely zero evidence that they are eyewitness accounts. They do not claim to be, and several scriptures (the temptation in the desert, for example) describe Jesus' actions and prayers even though he's purportedly alone.
  • Eyewitness accounts tend to fairly unreliable anyway, even in the short term. Considering the gospels weren't written down for many decades (at least 50 years), there was clearly a lot of time for details to become omitted, altered, or added.
  • There's no evidence that the gospels were passed on through any sort of oral tradition, at least not in the rigid sense of the oral Torah, an obviously Rabbinic tradition. The gospels don't claim to be the product of any such oral tradition and there's zero independent evidence that they were. It's just something Christians made up.
  • The original manuscripts are long lost, which if you think about it seems like kind of a big deal. If the Lord and Creator of the universe had visited Earth and conducted the most important mission of all time, wouldn't the early church have a vested interest in preserving the early manuscripts?
  • The gospel manuscripts we do have are riddled with uncorroborated historical claims and contradict each other.
  • Some Christians like to pass contradictions off as simple omissions: for example, the contradiction of who was at the tomb. Since the different gospel say different things, Christians claim they create an aggregate account rather than being a contradiction. But, at least in that example, it's a pretty silly claim. One of the gospels claims an angel was present; the others don't even mention it. Wouldn't that be kind of a big deal? Y'know, the sort of thing you don't forget to write down? Face it: it's a bona fide contradiction.
  • While many secular historians accept the idea an apocalyptic rabbi fitting Jesus' description did exist, there's absolutely no evidence that the Jesus of the Bible actually existed or that the gospels provide a reliable account of historical events. 

Most importantly though, there is absolutely zero evidence, nor any rational reason to believe, that the Bible was "divinely inspired" or that there is anything contained therein which could not have easily been written by the contemporaneous humans. There's absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe that the story of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection actually happened.

Hope you had a wonderful Easter, which of course is one of many holidays that Christians adapted from pagans.

19 April 2014

American history, revised and updated

Last night Vanessa and I watched Jesus Camp, which I'm sure many of you have seen. It brought back some memories of my brief stint in Pentecostal-style evangelical churches. But something caught my ear, and that's a refrain I've often heard from conservatives: a quip about the moral decline of America. They've kicked God out of schools! You can't say "one nation under God!" The gays are marrying! Dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!

Later in the evening, I came across a provocative article on the Huffington Post which, courtesy of famed photographer Ansel Adams, documented the lives of Japanese-Americans living in an internment camp during World War II.  Here were ordinary American citizens detained in direct violation of their Constitutional rights. It struck me as odd, though increasingly less surprising, that I never learned about that in my many US history classes in grade school.

An unrelated article I read later discussed the global economic and political policies of the US and Britain that provoked the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I'm not enough of a history expert to ascertain the accuracy of the article, but its thesis seems sound and well-researched enough that it seems reasonable to conclude that the attack on Pearl Harbor wasn't just an act of Those Evil Japs, but a move that resulted from a complex global economic and political scenario. As the saying goes, history is told from the top, and in my younger years I was never given any perspective on why the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor aside from, "They were imperialists".

We were all taught about Christopher Columbus, heralded as some sort of adventurous hero; we weren't taught about his use of torture and mutilation to govern Hispanolia. We're often told about early colonies of the Spanish empire, but we're rarely told about Encomienda – the systematic slavery and forced conversions to Christianity. We're often told about Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery – with some religious conservatives preaching revisionist history that the US was somehow an innovator in abolishing slavery – but we're rarely told about Jefferson Thomas' Biblical justification of slavery, or just how divisive the fight over slavery really was. We're told about the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, but are rarely shown the lynchings or rioters being beaten and hosed by white policemen which illustrate just how bloody and difficult the struggle for racial equality was at the time.


I'm by no means trying to demonize my country, but it's worth pointing out that American history is fraught with cruelty and injustice. In just the last decade it was found that we were torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and America's global policies continue to be controversial. Religious conservatives have a penchant for portraying American history in a skewed, idealistic light; the 1950s were like Leave it to Beaver – nevermind the inequality of women, the McCarthy hearings, and the segregation of minorities and the violence and injustices perpetrated upon them. World War II is often viewed as a "just war", and in many ways it certainly was; but Ameri

I suppose that in contrast to my cynical conservative counterparts, I see my country as flawed as any other. But I also see progress. I see growing equality and a growing awareness of injustices. I see growing opposition to frivolous and unjust war. I see a growing awareness to economic inequality and the struggles of the working poor. I even see a growing awareness of the cruelty we've inflicted on animals in industrialized husbandry, and increasing pressure for the industry to treat them humanely and for consumers to find alternatives to animal products.


I feel a bit of frustration at just how filtered my history education was. I'm sure over my lifetime I'll learn much more about the bloody injustices perpetuated by my country. But I'm also optimistic that the more these cruelties come to light and the more honest we are about our mistakes, the less likely we'll be to repeat them. 

16 April 2014

Our moral evolution must transcend religion

Today my fiance Vanessa and I wrapped up the last session of our premarital counseling, which we had been doing under the guidance of the head pastor of my parents' church. Secular premarital counseling is hard to find in Oklahoma, and he agreed to respect our wishes for the counseling to be non-religious. But, as a pastor might be reasonably expected to be, he was curious about our perspectives on religion. We both briefly shared the stories of our deconversions – Vanessa having been raised Catholic and never feeling connected with religion, as well as being frustrated by the evasiveness of the church elders on matters of doctrine; and myself, being raised in a Christian home but ultimately leaving the church after a rigorous study of theology, apologetics, and comparative religion.

We both made it clear that we're "live and let live" non-believers; we both think that if someone feels what Alvin Plantinga would call a sensus divinitus that leads them to faith, then more power to them. We simply feel no such thing, and are fully happy and content without it; there is no God-shaped hole in our hearts or lives.

The pastor was appreciative of both our attitudes and our willingness to share, and it was clearly a topic we could all sit around discussing for days on end. But I had to bite my tongue a bit with what came next. He described his generation being raised with "modernism", which he said was the idea that "science has all the answers". And what we (Vanessa's and my) generation are facing is postmodernism, in which "everything is true". Something can be true for you, but not true for me. He went on to say that this causes him much concern with the issue of morality, as what is good simply becomes subjective; and with such pliable moral standards, virtually anything can be deemed permissible.

It was essentially a restatement of the old canard, "Without God, anything is permissible" – the idea that those without God can have no objective moral standards, and thus morality devolves into something subjective, arbitrary, and likely destructive.


I'm not going to attempt, in this post at least, to answer the question of where we should look to guide or moral evolution (I do however highly recommend the second half of A.C. Grayling's book The God Argument, titled "For Humanism"). But whatever it is that shapes our shared moral values, it cannot be religion. This isn't because I don't like religion, or because I disagree with any given religious dogma. Religion is fundamentally incapable of guiding us toward moral enlightenment, and the reason why should be obvious.

Religion is perpetually – and I would argue, terminally – plagued by schisms and division. If one Christian looks to the Bible and extracts from it a given moral principle, another Christian need only say, "I think those passages are intended to be interpreted differently" to derive from them a completely antithetical moral principle. Christianity alone is home to some 33,000 denominations and innumerable schisms in its 2,000 year history. Far from growing toward a consensus of proper Biblical interpretation, Christianity has become so increasingly divided that it almost seems improper to call it a singular religion, as opposed to a broad umbrella encompassing a staggering array of often sharply conflicting ideologies. And of course this is but one of the world's countless religions.

This isn't an issue of liberalism versus conservatism, either. The issue is simply this: if you are a religious person, there is someone out there who is just as passionate as you are, who holds their beliefs with every ounce of conviction you do, and who is just as confident that God is in their corner as you are – but whose beliefs are opposite to yours. Even if you're right – and let's face it, only others in your "doxastic community"* do, and that's not very many people – the world will never unite under a single banner of religious faith. If even one religion cannot help but become fraught with schisms, how can any religion possibly guide us toward a shared moral enlightenment?


It's worse than that, though. Because of the steadfast conviction with which religious individuals hold their beliefs, religion by its nature stifles dialogue, and hence progress, on our moral responsibilities. From each corner, believers shout antithetical proclamations asserted with equally unwavering certitude, and the discussion inevitably shifts from how we should live to whose holy book we should believe – and whose interpretation, of a staggering myriad, is the correct one. Religion's endless inter-group pliability, coupled with its insidious intra-group rigidity, reveals the opposite of the famous canard to be the truth: "With God, anything is permissible."

Clearly, our moral evolution must transcend religion; it must instead be guided by a common humanism – a recognition of our interdependence and solidarity. Any study of comparative religion reveals commonality not in doctrines and dogma, but in the valuation of friendship, trust, love, and the simple beauties and pleasures of life. Indeed, it seems as though it's only when doctrine and dogma rear their rigid heads that those values become muddled or lost. We can do better. And as the grip of religion continues its steady erosion from the industrialized world and we're able to discuss contentious moral dilemmas without the oppressive confines of dogmatism, I'm confident we will.

*"Doxastic community" is little more than a euphamism for the scientific term "in-group".

04 April 2014

The meaning of suffering

I've been having a conversation with some regulars on Randal Rauser's blog about the problem of natural suffering. Frankly, I see it as being utterly devastating to theism. All theodicies attempt to resolve the problem of suffering by suggesting that God has morally justified reasons for allowing (causing?) suffering, in that it is ultimately a step toward a greater good. My take is that it's logically impossible for theodicies to be valid, because an omnipotent God – by definition of his omnipotence – could always achieve his aims without natural suffering. If a theist claims that natural suffering is in any way necessary for God's plan, they've tacitly conceded that God is not all-powerful.

In my comments, I referred to an eight-year-old girl I encountered while working as a physical therapy tech during my college years. She was afflicted with terminal brain cancer, and had lost most of her physical and cognitive functions. I remember thinking that there was another problem with theodicies: that the end does not justify the means – which, when you think about it, is precisely what theodicies are arguing. But there was no reward that could possibly await me in the hereafter that would, for me, justify that child's suffering (not to mention that of her parents, watching their child slowly wither away).

Tracie Harris of The Atheist Experience once rebuked a caller by saying, "If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would. That's the difference between your God and me". While the problem of evil is important, the problem of (natural) suffering is even more so, because there can be no argument that it was an act of malice or cruelty, or that the victim was receiving some just punishment. If I could stop a child from suffering and dying of a terrible ailment, I would.

Coincidentally, this story popped up tonight on Huffpo, and it's a heart-wrencher. A four-year-old child named Eliza diagnosed with an incredibly rare terminal illness that will kill her slowly and painfully: she'll lose the ability to speak, to walk, develop seizures, and eventually die.

At the risk of being crass, while her story is tragic, it's also just one millions; children suffer and die every day – of famine, disease, exposure, natural disasters, and many other things that are of no fault of their own. If we could all stand before the god of Western monotheism, would we not declare that this kind of collateral damage was not worth whatever logically problematic eternal bliss awaited us? And would we not wonder why, if God was really all-powerful, he couldn't have gotten us there without all that collateral damage in the first place.

My deconversion was accelerated by a shift in perspective – what if, I asked myself, the reason I can't make sense of this is not because there's some ineffable answer or that I need more faith, but because it's not true? Looking at suffering through the lens of naturalism is liberating: the reason natural suffering looks random and meaningless is because it is random and meaningless. No one is being punished, and it's not anyone's fault. This child, who will die far too soon, did nothing to deserve her ailment and there is no god for whom we must make excuses and rationalizations.

If you wish to donate to help Eliza, click here.