27 August 2015

Mr. Congeniality

It's my position that the entire enterprise of theology has contributed absolutely nothing whatsoever of value to humanity in its entire history. Not only has it not provided an iota of useful or necessary knowledge in any human endeavor, but it hasn't even come any closer to answering any of the questions it asks in the first place. Are theologians any closer to demonstrating unequivocally which religion is the correct one? Which sect of that religion is the correct one? Has theology ever cured or treated any disease, fed the poor, raised the standard of living for human beings, or led to peaceful co-existence?
"But Mike," I can already hear them saying, "that's not the job of theology; just because it doesn't give us scientific knowledge doesn't mean it's worthless. Theology brings people closer to God, helps them find meaning in their lives, gives them comfort, and helps them navigate difficult issues of faith." Or something along those lines. 

Except, it doesn't even do anything like that, either. That's because theology can only bring you closer to what you already believe; it cannot help you bridge the gap between, say, Buddhism and Islam. It can only bring the meaning that people bring to it themselves. And as Pascal Boyer so pointedly observed, religion only gives us comfort to the extent that it provides relief from its own pathology — Christianity tells you that you're sinful and corrupt, facing an unimaginably awful eternity after you die, then 'comforts' you with salvation. Religion, in my view, is mostly divisive and unnecessary at best, and fanatically self-righteous at worst. This is to say nothing of religious people, mind you, many of whom are wonderful, charitable, kind people. I think those people would likely still be charitable and kind without religion. But even not withstanding the fact that religious people do good (regardless of which religion, incidentally), theology is another animal. It's the pursuit of fitting a square peg into a round hole — trying to reconcile the fact that the world around us does not look much at all like we ought to expect if some sort of God existed, and especially if one particular religion — among the incalculable thousands spanning human history — is the one correct one.

I realize of course that what I'm saying here is controversial, especially among people who study theology. The weight of evidence is not enough to convince them, and surely one ranty blog post will not be, either. But I say it to drive home the important point that when discussing these matters, congeniality is overrated. Not that I endorse being overtly insulting but in the rarest and most clearly warranted cases of self-aggrandizing haughtiness or sheer contemptible inhumanity, but there's no reason to treat a fruitless intellectual pursuit, inexplicably sheltered by a hollow shell of academic prestige, as anything but the pure, unadulterated nonsense that it is.

I'm certainly not the first to say that theology is the study of made-up stuff. But If I wrote a blog post writing about how I think science is a bunch of made-up stuff, I'd be swiftly rebuked by anyone smart enough to note the obvious fact that computers on which blog posts are written would not exist without quantum mechanics, or that the GPS in my phone would not work without General Relativity, that the clothes I'm wearing are made of materials cultivated from genetically engineered crops, or that I'm very likely alive today in part because of a host of antibiotics and vaccinations.

Yet if theology were summarily erased from history, I have a hard time seeing how our world would be any worse off. Religion, if it existed, would be free from the innumerable schisms which result from theology's complete inability to identify and eliminate erroneous claims and assumptions. We'd probably face death and tragedy as they actually are, rather than conjuring up complex theodicies that try to rationalize the motives of an invisible, undetectable entity whose actions are apparently indistinguishable from pure, blind randomness. And we'd probably spend lots more time on the internet doing important stuff, like looking at cat videos, than arguing about religion. 

Theologians, of course, really don't like it when you tell them that everything they do is a sham. They retort with what PZ Myers (remember when everyone liked him?) insightfully coined "The Courtier's Reply": essentially, to puff and posture with righteous indignation at the slight, claiming that the field is deep and nuanced and sophisticated, rich in philosophical and existential insights. You know, anything but actually saying what theology actually does, or what it's actually accomplished. Because facing that truth marks a bitter moment for someone who's wasted years of their life pursing what is, at best, intellectual masturbation. A great paraphrase from American Pie comes to mind: hitting a tennis ball against a wall is fun, but it's not really a game.

17 August 2015

John Oliver eviscerates the evangelical church

I give huge kudos to John Oliver for this scathing expose on the harmful fraud perpetuated by many televangelists, faith healers, and 'prosperity gospel' preachers.

16 August 2015

Ignoring his own behavior, Randal Rauser implores Christians and atheists to be nicer to each other

If there's anything that grinds my gears, it's sanctimonious hypocrisy. I didn't like it when thrice-divorced conservatives complained that legalizing gay marriage would ruin 'traditional marriage'. I don't like it when Christians lecture us on the evils of sex before (and outside of) marriage when the statistic show they indulge as much as anyone else. Sanctimony is obnoxious, and so is the almost inevitable hypocrisy that follows. So when Randal Rauser writes an article for Slate which calls the diplomatic relationship between atheists and Christians "a total disaster", bemoans the "general deterioration in the public square of civil discourse", and tells us that "my call is to invite atheists into real conversation, to make space for their ideas, to try to understand the world as they do, and to be shaped by the resulting exchange", one might get the impression that Randal is one of the people who is actually working in his own interactions with non-believers to create such irenic dialogue. That impression would be wrong.

So when he tells me that I "regularly engage in precisely the kind of marginalizing rhetoric that I decry in this article," I have to pause for a moment just to let the foamy tide of hypocrisy soak in. Randal's written a fair bit of stuff I agree with, and I've had plenty of cordial discussions with him. But press Randal hard in a discussion , and he can quickly reveal himself as sanctimonious, evasive, condescending, and patronizing. Now to his credit, he generally avoids the kind of sweeping declarative statements that he's talking about in his article. He doesn't say things like, "atheists are fools!". But then again, I don't go around saying "Christians are lunks!" or some such thing either. Most of us don't. There's a wide gulf between a wholly intolerant windbag and a charitable opponent, and that's where Randal fails to practice what he preaches.

But don't take it from me. Are these the kind of statements befitting charitable, irenic dialogue?
This took about five minutes of scrolling through old Disqus comments. It's the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes, his condescension is forthright, like in the first comment; other times it's thinly-veiled, as in the the highlighted comment. But for someone quick to chastise others for their lack of charity, he sure knows how to drag the conversation down. I think that's why Randal has caricatured me as 'hostile' and 'combative': I'm not afraid to call him out on his hypocrisy, evasiveness, or rudeness. It is, as Hitch would say, calling a spade a spade.
Now, look: I'm not going to sit here and pretend I don't ever lose my patience in protracted internet debates. It happens. My point is not that Randal is unusual in this regard, and I don't think I'm better than him — we all fall short of our ideals from time to time. Scroll through almost anyone's Disqus history and you'll find similar snide quips from time to time. I find Steven Jake of The Christian Agnostic to be a super nice guy and an enjoyable interlocutor, but we've lost our patience with each other a few times, too. We're all passionate about this stuff, and it happens. It's not a big deal as long as we can accept our human faults, shake hands and march onward. I'm certainly not saying that Randal is a bad person or that it's impossible to have a substantive, cordial and enjoyable discussion with him — as I said earlier, I've had many. But Randal nonetheless has a penchant for speaking patronizingly and condescendingly toward his atheist interlocutors while simultaneously posturing himself as a measured and patient opponent, and he's now very publicly imploring atheists and Christians alike to try harder to understand one another. With his pattern of rude behavior, there's an old saying that's apropos: Physician, heal thyself.

14 August 2015

Sorry, Alvin Plantinga — testimony is not 'properly basic'

Hang around in Christian apologetic circles enough, and you're likely to hear something like this:
"My belief in God is rationally justified on testimony that I hold as properly basic; that is, I do not need any additional evidence to rationally assent to Christian belief".
This was formalized and popularized in modern theological circles by Alvin Plantinga in his book Warranted Christian Belief. An excerpt:
Suppose a Reformed epistemologist believes the great things of the gospel on the basis of the sensus divinitatis and IIHS; suppose he notes, further, that his belief and that of many others is accepted in the basic way (where, of course, accepting p on the basis of testimony is one way to believe p in the basic way). Suppose he further comes to see or believe that God intends his children to know about him and to know the great things of the gospel, but also that it isn’t possible for enough of us to know enough about him by way of inference from other beliefs; he therefore concludes (correctly) that God has instituted cognitive processes by virtue of which we human beings can form these true beliefs in the basic way. He concludes still further that the cognitive processes or mechanisms by way of which we form these beliefs are functioning properly when it delivers them, and are also functioning in an epistemically congenial environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth: that is, he concludes that Christian belief, taken in this basic way, has warrant. He thus concludes that these beliefs are properly basic with respect to warrant, drawing this conclusion from beliefs that themselves have warrant; but forming a belief in that way itself meets the conditions for warrant; hence, his view that theistic belief is properly basic with respect to warrant is itself warranted.

Plantinga's barrage of terminology can easily overwhelm: "beliefs are... functioning in an epistemologically congenial environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth"; it can be tricky to cut through the fat and identify the problems with his arguments, but there are many.

Plantinga thinks that there are several types of "basic beliefs", testimony being one of them. But, as the above excerpt shows, testimony doesn't exist in a vacuum. Whether one can rationally assent to a belief based on testimony alone is contingent on a variety of factors, which he illuminates in the section that follows:

It doesn’t follow, of course, that the voodoo epistemologist is also warranted in claiming that voodoo belief is properly basic with respect to warrant. For suppose voodoo belief is in fact false, and suppose further that it arose originally in some kind of mistake or confusion, or out of a fearful reaction to natural phenomena of one sort or another, or in the mind of some group hoping to gain or perpetuate personal political power. If so, then those original voodoo beliefs did not possess warrant. Suppose still further that these voodoo beliefs were passed on to subsequent generations by way of testimony and teaching. Now if a testifier testifies to some belief p that has no warrant for her, then p will also have no warrant for anyone believing it on just the basis of her testimony.
That Plantinga cannot see how he undermines his own thesis boggles my mind. One can easily substitute "Christian" for "voodoo" in the above passage to see that the issue at hand is whether one can know, on testimony alone, that the belief in question was warranted in the first place — that is, even if you assent to belief based on what you believe to be properly basic testimony, you have no way of knowing from testimony alone whether the beliefs were acquired in a properly basic way to begin with. If testimony is properly basic, then it is rational to assent to a belief based on testimony alone; it should not matter where or from whom the testimony comes, and testimony alone ought to provide us with knowledge of the truth of the claim. But then Plantinga says that if the belief was not originally acquired in a properly basic way that one is not rationally justified in assenting based on testimony alone. 

And that, of course, is the whole issue: how does the Christian who assents to belief based on testimony know that the belief was originally acquired in a properly basic way? Put simply, they don't. Put more accurately, they can't. The Christian has no way of knowing from testimony alone if their beliefs were, like Plantinga's hypothetical voodoo epistemologist, originally the result of some kind of mistake or confusion. So if you can't ascertain the truth or falsity of a claim from testimony alone, how can testimony be properly basic?

It gets worse

The problem here stems from Plantinga's misunderstanding about how we humans ascertain beliefs, and it doesn't help that he describes something like sensory perception as a "belief" — he says, "[Chrisitian beliefs] can have warrant that they don’t get by way of warrant transfer from other beliefs. In this respect, they are like memory beliefs, perceptual beliefs, some a priori beliefs, and so on." While some may see this as a semantic issue, I tend to think of "beliefs" as things we can have or not have — things we can doubt, deny, or discard should we be compelled by evidence or argument to do so. That's not really the case with something like my own existence or the general reliability of my sensory perception — things Descartes would call a priori truths. I cannot rationally doubt my own existences ("I doubt my own existence" assumes an I that exists!), nor can I rationally doubt the general reliability of my sensory perception without adopting a self-defeating radical skepticism. So instead of calling these things "beliefs", I think it's more precise to call them "necessary assumptions".

A semantic issue perhaps, but I think it's worth calling attention to because Plantinga is claiming that testimony is in some key ways the same type of belief as belief in one's own existence or the reliability of one's sensory experience. But that can't be true, because we never assent to testimony independently of background evidence. This is the key concept that Plantinga overlooks. He tries hard to emphasize that beliefs held in a properly basic way can still be undermined by evidence, but it's my view that this just confuses what a "basic belief" is. He gives the following examples:
You tell me that you went to the Grand Tetons this summer; I acquire the belief that you did so and hold it in the basic way. But then your wife tells me that the fact is you went to the Wind Rivers, which, she says, you always confuse with the Tetons. Furthermore, the next time I see you, you go on at great length about the glories of Gannett Peak (which is in the Wind Rivers). Then I will no longer believe you went to the Tetons, despite the fact that I originally formed that belief in the basic way. Another example: I see what looks like a sheep in the field across the road, and I form in the basic way the belief that there is a sheep there; you, the owner of the field, tell me that there aren’t any sheep in it, although there is a dog in the neighborhood that looks just like a sheep from this distance. Then I will no longer believe that I see a sheep, despite the fact that the belief is accepted in the basic way. Still another example: Gottlob Frege formed in the basic way the belief that for every property or condition, there exists the set of just those things that have the property or satisfy the condition; he learned to his sorrow that this is not so (Bertrand Russell pointed out that it leads to paradox), and this despite the fact that the original belief had been basic.
You can believe that this is a picture of Alvin Plantinga by accepting my testimony as properly basic.
The problem is that there is a great deal of background evidence that necessarily informs his probability of assent to my claim that I went to the Grand Tetons. The most obvious is whether he thinks I am a generally trustworthy person; or, if I'm a stranger, if he believes that people, in general, are trustworthy — that this just isn't the kind of thing that people usually lie about. Such beliefs themselves are rooted in a wealth of evidential experience, often accumulated over a lifetime. And there are other factors, like whether he knows of the Grand Tetons or finds it to be a plausible existant — i.e., even if I'm a reliable and honest guy, he probably wouldn't believe me if I told him I vacationed at the Four Seasons Moon Resort. 

Moreover, my claim about where I went on vacation is a relatively banal claim. It's not particularly important whether anyone else believes it; it's not a critical ontological claim about reality or an important historical event. Accordingly, we rightly are more skeptical and critical of grand claims about historical and ontological truth claims than we are about mundane claims like where I vacationed last summer or the yellow car I say I saw on the freeway this afternoon. It's disingenuous to treat a claim like "I went to the Grand Tetons this summer" the same as we treat a claim like "Jesus Christ died for your sins, and if you confess your sin and believe in your heart he rose from the dead, you will be saved and spend eternity in paradise".
It's also worth pointing out that even if Plantinga thinks (based either on his experience with me or with people in general) that I'm a generally reliable and trustworthy person, a certain level of skepticism — even if trivially small — is warranted about my claim. That's because we know, again from evidence, that people can and do make mistakes, that our memories are highly fallible and we often recall them erroneously. The correction Plantinga hears from my (in this case, fictional) wife should not be completely unexpected — he need not assent to my claim with any sort of scientific or philosophical certainty. He'd have been perfectly rational to think that, even if the probability were small, I might be mistaken about where I vacationed.

Given that a measure of healthy skepticism is warranted even in such banal circumstances, it is certainly all the more warranted with regard to extraordinary claims about supernatural interventions, divine spirits, and a god who ritualistically sacrifices himself (to himself, apparently) in a blood ritual to save our doomed eternal souls. Moreover, we aren't isolated in small indigenous tribes or even in relatively large but isolated cultures of antiquity such as Rome. We have a wealth of knowledge easily accessible to us, and the existence of gods and claims about how they intervene in the natural world are very much the subject of controversy. In order to hold testimony as properly basic, Plantinga resorts to special pleading regarding the veracity of Christian claims. But if testimony is properly basic unto itself, we're just as rational to assent to the voodoo epistemologist's claims as we are the Christian's.

But it's all so... boring!

But perhaps the worst part of Plantinga's argument is just how little it actually tells us. Since we can't know whether a belief was originally acquired in a properly basic way merely from testimony alone, we can't know if we're justified in accepting testimony as properly basic. This means that claiming that I am rational to hold a belief because of testimony cannot tell anyone anything at all about whether my beliefs are actually true. It's simply a statement that I believe I am not irrational to hold these beliefs. But of course, lots of people with incompatible beliefs hold such a view. It's like saying, "People generally think they are right about their beliefs". Shoot a canon and throw a parade for that profundity.

This all stems from Plantinga's misguided view of rationality. Rationality is not a position — it's a process, one in which knowledge is inherently provisional. And since testimony, independently of evidence, cannot tell us anything about the truth or falsity of a belief, it's irrational to assent to a belief on testimony alone. We have to consider all of the human thought to which we have access, which necessitates that we approach all such ontological claims with a measure of skepticism. Plantinga's argument is a convoluted attempted to excuse himself from skepticism of his own beliefs, and it does nothing but show just how irrational his justification for belief really is.

08 August 2015

A blast from my uber-Christian past

I don't remember what sparked it, if anything, but for whatever reason I was thinking about the 90s Christian pop band DC Talk. I was a teenage evangelical when they made the transition from totally goofball hip-hop to fairly respectable alternative rock. As a teen who was pretty obsessed with early-era Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and other such alt-rock megabands but who — like many evangelical teens, I imagine — wrestled with the guilt of listening to secular music, I dug "Jesus Freak". But honestly, I was more of a Jars of Clay fan, and I never really gave up listening to secular rock. The side of guilt was just the cost of listening to music I liked, I guess. 

Then last night I was on Facebook and spied some of my religious friends talking about some event going on at Church on the Move, a pretty good-sized contemporary evangelical church here in Tulsa. Just for shits and giggles, I watched one of the sermons (well... some of it). It was pretty standard evangelical boilerplate: pop psychology straight out of the 90s self-help section of Borders interspersed with a few Biblical analogies.
A scene from a 'revival' at Tulsa's Church on the Move.
I'll be honest, though: a small part of me missed it. Yeah, it's trite and mostly disposable 'advice'. It's a plethora of pithy platitudes propagated as profundity. And worse of all, it's just bullshit. The worst part about the Bible is that it's not, you know, true. But in all honestly, in the evangelical church where doctrine is sacrificed on the alter of inclusiveness, whether a monotheistic deity sacrificed himself to himself in a blood ritual to fulfill his own covenant in which he paid his own price for redeeming humanity from a curse he placed upon us is all rather beside the point. What matters is that people feel good. They feel connected as a community, connected by their love of God and goodness. 

To some small, tiny degree, I miss that.Then I snap out of it and remember that the whole thing is a farce, anyway. One of the preachers said that he had this three-minute testimony in which he described his life before and after Christian salvation that is meant to persuade curmudgeonly heretics (not his exact words, needless to say). But statistically, it's just a lie. There's precious little evidence that being a Christian makes you happier, more law-abiding, healthier, or — in any of the ways we commonly understand the term — more moral.

For example, Christians are about as likely to divorce as atheists [1]. They're apparently more likely to watch pornography [2]. They're no less likely to go to jail, to have sex outside of marriage, or to oppose torture [3], nor do they appear to be any more charitable [3, 4, 5, 6]. Religion, unto itself at least, doesn't even make you happier [7]:
Diener and Seligman found that statistically controlling for social relationships eliminates the association between religiosity and well-being. In other words, religious people report having more social ties and if you take this into account statistically, religion by itself does not predict happiness.
.... and this doesn't even mention the myriad problems with self-reported happiness.

So religion doesn't appear to actually make you a better, happier person. What's the draw, then? That you'll go to The Good Place when you die? Well, what if the whole idea of Heaven is chock full of gaping holes in logic? Maybe mortality isn't so bad, and we ought to just suck it up and accept it. Besides, somehow I think that if evangelicals cut out the sermons about the good life and just preached about death and judgement, the auditoriums would be a fair bit emptier.

There are times, like last night, when I see friends who are still deeply entrenched in the type of religious community of which I was once a part, and there are certainly aspects of it that are easy to like. But now that I've pulled the curtain back and realized that it's just a man(-made institution), I'm glad to embrace my non-religious life — which, I'm happy to self-report, is quite charmed.

07 August 2015

America's gun culture is beyond ridiculous

This past week there have been three stories about shootings that I've happened upon. The first is a police officer who shot an unarmed teen (a white teen, in a rare change of news) to death. The teen was allegedly in possession of marijuana, and the officer claimed he shot the unarmed teen in self-defense; the autopsy, however, showed that the fatal entry wound entered from the back.

Then we have just-released video tape of a police officer being charged with manslaughter after he shot an unarmed black man... ready for this... eight times... while the man was on the ground. The officer fired 12 times, and hit the victim ten times. Eight of those were after the victim had fallen to the ground. It's a small miracle that the officer is being charged at all, and while it seems like a clear-cut case of murder, an attorney buddy of mine informed me that a manslaughter conviction is much more likely to stick:

Then there was yet another a movie theater shooting, the second in as many weeks.

America is an outlier in the industrialized world. No one comes close to the the amount of gun violence we have, and that's just homicides. Cops shoot and kill an extraordinary number of people every year. The Ferguson riots brought to the fore just how recklessly we are militarizing the police.

All of this is preventable. But in a massive heap of irony, conservatives — as is often the case — think the answer is more guns. Just arm everyone! Except, research shows that people without proper training do a very poor job in life-or-death situations. Anecdotal incidents show that open-carry laws are for white people. And can you imagine being a police officer arriving at the scene of a reported shooting and encountering multiple gunmen?

It reminds me of, well, just about any other stance conservatives take on social issues. Let's take abortion, for example. Research overwhelmingly shows that access to contraception and comprehensive sex education are highly effective in reducing unwanted pregnancy. Reduce unwanted pregnancy, you reduce abortion. And yet conservatives try their best to derail health insurance mandates for birth control, defund Planned Parenthood, and advocate abstinence-only sex ed despite research showing that it's totally ineffective. They believe that good Christian morality should overcome sexual temptation. So despite the mountain of evidence against their position, they continue to insist that what people need is just more Christian morality.

Despite the fact that America is the only industrialized world in which mass shootings happen on a semi-regular basis, and despite the fact that we lead other industrialized nations, by far, in violent gun deaths, conservatives still think the answer is to do the complete opposite of what the rest of the world does. They think that if we just have more guns, we'll just shoot all the bad people and they'll go away.

The reality is that gun culture in the US is a boys-with-toys culture that pervades civilians, police officers, and even the military. And until we embrace tighter gun control legislation, we'll continue to lead the world in preventable firearm deaths.