29 October 2016

We don't have to take claims seriously when they aren't clearly defined in the first place

I'm a big advocate of theological non-cognitivism, sometimes known as ignosticism. It's the view that we don't really need to take theism all that seriously because the very concept of a god is ambiguously defined in the first place. Sometimes the problem cuts to the very meaning of works used to describe a god, like "mind", "cause", or even "exist"; that is, we have clear conceptualizations of these terms derived a posteriori, from our empirical experience. There are certain constraints on the coherency of these concepts, and it's often unclear what the terms mean when applied to a deity that is not composed of parts, does not exist within space and time, and possesses only agency — not other parts of the mind consistent with our empirical experience, like a cognitive subconscious and neural structure.

The problem with an ill-defined concept is that those arguing against it are constantly shooting at a moving target. Sean Carroll pointed this out in his debate with William Lane Craig, who had claimed that God is a sort of "cosmic artist" in response to Carroll pointing out that really, the universe does not appear particularly "fine-tuned" for life (it might as well be "fine tuned" for dead stars, inhospitable planets, or vast emptiness):
If we would presume to contemplate theism from an intellectually honest perspective, we would try to decide what kind of universe we would expect to live in if theism were true; then we would do the same for naturalism; and finally we would compare those expectations to the real world. But when we do that we find theistic expectations failing to match reality over and over again. Now, I know perfectly well (from experience as well as from cogitation) that you can never make headway with theists by claiming “If God existed, He would do X, and He doesn’t” (where X is “prevent needless suffering,” “make His existence obvious,” “reveal useful non-trivial information to us,” “spread religious messages uniformly over the world,” etc.) Because they have always thought through these, and can come up with an explanation why God would never have done that.
But these apologetic moves come at a price: they imply a notion of theism so flexible that it becomes completely ill-defined. That’s the real problem. Craig’s way of putting it is to suggest that God is “like the cosmic artist who wants to splash his canvas with extravagance of design.” That’s precisely why naturalism has pulled so far ahead of theism in the intellectual race to best model our world: because it plays by rules and provides real explanations for why the world is this way rather than that way. 
Recently, Randal Rauser made the following claim about angels, in response to a Tweet by Jeffery Jay Lowder that the existence of humans can't be predicted from theism:
My final response is “God did create more impressive creatures [than humans].” They are called angelic beings, and apart from the fact that they are far more intelligent and powerful than human beings, we know little else about them. (Of course naturalists don’t accept that angels exist. But so what? Insofar as they’re trying to provide a defeater to theists, they need to deal with what theists believe exists. Of course, they could try to provide defeaters to the existence of angels, but until they succeed in doing that the point stands.)
Let's begin by asking what, exactly, an "angel" is in the first place. Sure, we all picture some celestial being floating in the clouds, probably wearing a white robe, with white wings and a halo floating above its head. But irrespective of the speculative accuracy of artistic renditions of such beings, do we need to treat seriously the claim that they exist in the first place?

No, we don't. To see why, we can start asking some straight-forward questions about what, exactly, an angel is supposed to be in the first place:

  • What are angels made of?
  • What laws, if any, govern the interaction of angels with their own world?
  • What laws, if any, govern and constrain their interaction with our universe?
  • What are their minds like? Do they have brains? Do they have a cognitive subconscious?
  • If we can interact with angels, how would we distinguish the interaction with an angel from that of some other being (say, a ghost or an ancestral spirit)?
I could go on (and on, and on) but the point should be clear: Contrary to Rauser's assertion, ambiguously defined concepts like angels are not claims for which skeptics need to provide defeaters. Rather, the onus is on those making the claim to clearly define the concept in the first place. Otherwise, we can't talk about evidence for or against the existence of angels because it's not even clear what angels are. Randal, apparently not even having a clear concept of what angels are in the first place, nonetheless claims they are "far more intelligent and powerful than human beings". How could he possibly know this? 

This is, incidentally, no different than ghosts or ancestral spirits. For example, ghosts are usually depicted as being able to move through walls. But what prevents them from falling through the Earth? How are they able to pass through some objects, but not others? If they are non-physical beings, how do they "see"? Do they interact with particles of light, as we do? If so, how? 

Skeptics often reply to claims like Randal's with a line something like the famous "that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence". That's a good rule of methodological inquiry, but it's important to recognize when conceptual ambiguity prevents evidence from even entering the discussion in the first place. This is why naturalism continues to supplant supernaturalism: naturalistic concepts can be clearly defined and yield independently verifiable predictions; supernatural concepts like angels are consistently amorphous and ambiguous, allowing them to be used only as ad hoc explanations. 

23 October 2016

Revisiting my apostasy

My life is very full these days. My wife and I don't have kids yet (until we do, we call our dogs our 'kids'), but she's working more-than-full-time, and I'm essentially working two jobs — one as a personal trainer, and the day-to-day responsibilities of operating our gym as well as managing marketing, media, and social networking. Which means that I don't have much time to blog these days, and sometimes when I do have the time I find myself with a brainstorming overload. I've never had as many unfinished drafts as I do now!

This week my wife's been out of town, and I decided a couple of weeks ago to 'retire' from personal training on weekends. So this weekend has been a much-need indulgence in pure, unadulterated laziness. I've been playing the new Deus Ex and Civilization games, and stretching my legs with a little house cleaning so my wife doesn't return home to a full-on bachelor pad.

This morning I was thinking about the types of discussions I've had over the years; lots of them are esoteric trudges through the mires of obscure philosophy that inevitably end in impasse, but it wasn't always that way. Originally, my blog was a way for me to reflect on my own personal journey away from religious faith.

Recently, my wife and I were talking about having kids. The cost and time demanded by a small business has a way of putting a damper on such things, but we took a moment to reflect on how, even though our lives aren't perfect, they're pretty damn awesome. These are the halcyon days. I'm a big believer that it's a mistake to live one's life chasing happiness; happiness is something you have to create in the present. I bring this up because my wife and I are both non-believers, and as a young Christian I'd have found it simply inconceivable that I could live a happy, fulfilling life without my faith. But, like so many other apostates, my loss of faith was liberating. So today, I'd like to revisit that journey.

The early days

I was raised Christian, but in my youngest days my parents weren't particularly observant. I'm originally from Milwaukee, and my parents dutifully took me to church every Sunday. But in 1985, when we moved to Tulsa, they never found a church they wanted to call home. Life and careers got in the way, and after bouncing between a few churches they just kind of gave up. We still went to church on Christmas and Easter, but that's about it. Aside from a trite prayer at dinner that went, "Come, Lord Jesus / Be our guest / Let this food to us be blessed", religion wasn't a significant part of my life.

That changed in the early 90s when we moved to another part of town, just up the street from a large Presbyterian church. My parents started attending regularly, and toted my brother and I along as well. But even here, religion was pretty abstract to me — sort of a nod to our shared desire to be good people and see each other in the afterlife. When my parents insisted I attend confirmation class, I rebelled in appropriate defiant-teenager fashion. I attended once, and hated it. I didn't like anyone there, and it just seemed completely pointless. My parents' insistence that it was a cherished tradition didn't stand a chance against my general social awkwardness, and this led to a huge fight with my father that left me grounded for two weeks.

During this time, my brother had befriended a guy who worked at a local music store, who happened to be music director for the youth outreach at a local evangelical church (in case you're wondering, the parent church was Higher Dimensions, which dissolved after Carlton Pearson, its head pastor, embraced Universalism). Sunday nights hosted an event called the "Power House" at a small building around the corner where Christian rock bands played and young people could play pool, arcade games, and eat burgers. I had attended plenty of times, but only as a positive social outlet — not because I was particularly devout.

When I was grounded, my brother asked me if I wanted to attend "Hellfighters" with him on a Saturday night, at the same building as the Power House. This was a group that had started as a small Bible study before growing into a fairly large sized evangelical youth service. Because it was a church function, my parents approved. And because I wanted to get the hell out of the house, I enthusiastically agreed.

The evening started with a small-group Bible study. Afterwards, everyone congregated in the main event room for "worship", and this was my introduction to evangelicism. After a fiery sermon from a guy wearing jeans and a t-shirt, music started and shit got real. People 'speaking in tongues', waving their hands in the air, falling on their faces (which my brother explained as being 'slain in the Spirit'), etc. And that's where I ended up — on the floor, in this bizarre state of prayer-worship. I loved it.

The soldier for Christ

That was in February of 1994. In the months that followed, I became an enthusiastic and devout Christian. I carried two Bibles with me to school, and started a lunch time Bible study with friends. I wore Christian t-shirts. I (regrettably) trashed some of my 'secular' CDs. At one point, I was attending church functions five nights a week. My schedule looked something like this:

Monday: Small-group discipleship
Wednesday: Higher Dimensions youth service
Thursday: Large-group discipleship
Saturday: Hellfighters
Sunday: Church with family in the morning, and/or Guts service in the evening. 

It consumed me. I frequently spent my evenings in those prayer-worship sessions, sometimes lasting an hour or more. One of our music directors made a cassette (they still had those) called, not ironically, In the Closet, which was soothing new-agey music meant for (obviously, guys) your prayer closet. 

But despite being deeply absorbed in the community, my Christianity had a shallowness to it that, over time, began to tug at me more and more. This hit me hardest the most one night when we were out 'witnessing' at a local mall. A child fell. My friends tried to intervene, saying they could could pray and and God would 'heal' her. The woman was justifiably not amused. A security guard walked us out and insisted that while he was himself a devout Christian, there's a time and place for that and we'd crossed a line. My friends were indignant, but I sympathized with the woman. I like sharing my faith, but I didn't want to shove it down people's throats. I thought about the leaders in the church I most admired, and they were the ones who had gone to seminary and spent their time educating others. Hey, I thought, Maybe I could be a youth pastor someday!

This spurred a more serious inquiry into my faith. If I was going to be a leader in the church, I needed a deeper understanding. It wasn't enough for me to just regurgitate the platitudes of others; I wanted to have a clear understanding of the theology of my religion — to know precisely why we practiced Christianity the way we did, why we were convinced that we had the most honest and real understanding of the Bible — something those people going through the motions in stuffy pews would never understand.

In my late teens I went through a prolonged bout with depression and anxiety. I withdrew from social events, including the church. During this time I turned to self-study, reading books by C.S. Lewis, R.C. Sproul, and several others in addition to my usual devotionals and study guides. I read the Bible intently. But, in a digression from the evangelical ethos which insisted that I restrict my reading to Christian sources (since the Devil was always trying to undermine my relationship with God), I also read up on comparative religion, Eastern and Greek philosophy, and read several books by famed rabbi Harold Kushner. 

I remember being a bit surprised by how many parallels there were between other faiths and my own. It was hard to me to fathom how, if these people were really so separated from God, they could by living by principles that aligned so closely with those I aspired to. Weren't these heathens? Heretics? Lost souls? 

Why are there so many religions?

During this time, one question pulled at me more than any other: Why are there so many religions? At first blush, this may seem like an innocuous question. Certainly I was very familiar with apologetic arguments for the exclusivity of Christianity and various justifications for the manner in which God had apparently chosen to reveal himself. But those arguments didn't do much to explain why there were so many religions in the first place.

I knew that humanity had been around for a very long time — many many thousands of years before civilization (it's actually at least 100,000 years). I knew we'd started in Africa and spread slowly across the globe. So why didn't God reveal himself when everyone was still in Africa? Or why didn't God appear in more than one place? What was so special about the people of Israel? 

I noticed the peculiarly obvious fact that it was never other cultures that proclaimed the people of Israel as "God's chosen". It was, not surprisingly, the people of Israel themselves. Other cultures begged to differ. And indeed, in studying comparative religion, I found that it wasn't all that uncommon for cultures to think that they were uniquely on the right side of the divine in a lost world. 

But perhaps most damning was that even if God didn't reveal himself to everyone, nobody else seemed to agree with the Jewish people about what humanity's problem was in the first place. The very concepts of sin and atonement, while they certainly have parallels in many religions, were certainly not ubiquitous. Scientists on opposite sides of the planet can, without any contact with one another, make the identical discovery about the world. The objectivity of scientific truth means that it is, at least in principle, available to all. Religious truth, however, seemed to be more a matter of cultural circumstance. 

Of course, as I mentioned, I was familiar with justifications for this inconvenient truth. God had his reasons, so we're told, and apologists are keen to speculate upon them — even if they frequently attached qualifiers about divine hiddenness (no one, after all, really knows the mind of God). The problem is that these justifications only work if you already assent to the claims of Christianity. I imagined myself as an outsider, as someone from one of those other cultures completely isolated from Christianity, asking those same questions. Answers were not forthcoming then, and nearly twenty years later they are still absent. Divine hiddenness, indeed. I simply could not reconcile the idea that a God who is maximally loving, who desired all of humanity to come to him and be saved, would choose to reveal the One True Faith to a single tribal culture in the Bronze Age. 

This led me to consider another possibility, one that was rather discomforting: that there wasn't anything special about Judeo-Christian faith. The reason it looked like a product of cultural circumstance, just like every other religion on Earth, is because it is. Certainly that's not the answer I wanted to believe, but even my cursory understanding of Occam's Razor made it clear that this was the answer that made the fewest assumptions. Theologians and apologists had not been able to provide the answer I was looking for, and despite my best efforts I couldn't make sense of it myself. I turned to the last place I thought answers might lie: the Bible.

Want to rattle your faith? Read the Bible.

Perhaps I should have been prepared for the fact that answers to my many-religions questions were not forthcoming in the Bible. It was, to say the least, disheartening. Instead, I turned to the theology of the faith itself, particularly the book of Hebrews. Hebrews explains how the death of Christ is wed to the Old Testament covenants that involved ritual animal sacrifice. The Jewish people sacrificed animals to appease the wrath of God brought upon them by their sins; Christ was a perfect sacrifice that allowed the old covenant to be discarded and a new one, based on faith, was forged. 

Except, none of this made any sense to me at all. Why did God want ritual animal sacrifice in the first place? What does that have to do with forgiveness? Perhaps, I thought, God wanted people to make a sacrifice — farm animals, in those days, were precious resources. But that explanation evaporates with Christ, since he took the sacrifice upon himself. What was so special about the "blood of Christ"? What did that have to do with God's willingness to forgive people? And why did God spend centuries on ineffectual covenants in the first place? How does an omnipotent deity "sacrifice" anything at all — Jesus could have, conceivably, poofed himself right back into existence or simply refused to die in the first place. Generally when we mortals talk about "sacrifice", it means something quite different. We don't get to come back a few days later and float into the clouds.

My brother and I being mature people in our "Hellfighter" days

Worse, Christianity holds that Christ is God. How can God sacrifice himself to himself to fulfill his own covenant? A covenant whose terms were, as far as I could tell, completely arbitrary! Adding insult to injury is the fact that modern Christianity (generally) holds that humans are "fallen", and born into sin. Even those few who reject Original Sin still accept the Biblical decree that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God". In other words, the system is rigged. You're a sinner, and there's nothing you can do to change that. But God can save you, as long as you assent to the belief that he created a convoluted system of arbitrary covenants and "sacrificed" himself to himself to appease himself of the terms he created so he could forgive you for being what you had no choice to be — a flawed human being. I should point out that it's utterly irrelevant whether someone believes it's all literal, as in the "penal substitution theory of atonement", or they believe it's either all or in part metaphorical. Either way, it doesn't make an iota of sense. 

Confused and frustrated, I sought out some church leaders to discuss these matters. One chaplain, in particular, was particularly patient with me as I probed for answers about the blood of Christ, ritual sacrifice, and atonement. But he couldn't offer anything more than trite platitudes about having faith, that there are some thing we just don't understand. Maybe that was good enough for him, but I couldn't assent to beliefs that were, on their face, ridiculous. Frankly, I didn't think it was too much to ask that a logically coherent explanation of basic Christian theology was forthcoming. These aren't tertiary issues of theology, after all — they're the fundamentals of what Christianity is in the first place. 

My apostasy

I never chose to abandon my Christian faith. It just sort of left me. I remember one day I was reading the Bible, searching for answers and only feeling like each passage added to the mire. My apostasy was an epiphany: I don't believe this anymore. I had tried my best to make sense of it. I had read books by theologians, consulted with church leaders, and scoured the comparatively sparse 90s internet for answers. Above all, I had spent countless hours reading the Bible itself. But despite the pastoral calls that we follow the book of Proverbs and lean not on our own understanding, it felt dishonest of me to try and pretend like this stuff didn't matter, to just try to forget about it and believe anyway. 

It was then that I fell upon an empowering revelation: I didn't owe Christianity anything. It was not my duty to writhe and squirm under the weight of unanswerable questions. If it didn't make sense to me, I was under no obligation to believe it. I didn't need to earn my way to Christian understanding; Christian claims had to earn my assent. After all, it's not like I was being unreasonable; I wasn't asking God to appear before me and give me a divine Bible study. I just wanted coherent, sensible answers to some of the most simple, obvious questions any Christian can ask. I could not will myself to "just believe". 

At this point, my earlier studies on comparative religion cemented themselves more deeply. It was clear now that the reason Christianity appears not to make any sense is because it doesn't. The reason Christianity (and Judaism, by extension) appears to be the product of and a reflection of the time and culture in which it emerged is because it is

I left Christianity behind. As I was heading off to college, I felt like I could start anew. I was going to make new friends and didn't have to surround myself with Christians or attend church services. And sure enough, I found it remarkable how many new friends I made who shared my skepticism of religion. While I had been worried that I was going to have a hard time finding my place without religion, nothing could have been further from the truth. 

I remained an agnostic theist for almost ten years after my initial deconversion, mainly because I believed that some kind of god — even if only a deistic one — was necessary to explain the existence of the universe, morality, and the complexity of life. It wasn't until I started studying science more deeply that I realized that the answers provided by a "god" were no answers at all, only raising more problems than they resolved. Around 2008, I began to feel comfortable calling myself an atheist. 

Life without religion

As a believer, I couldn't conceive of life without faith. God got me through my toughest times. But in the aftermath of my apostasy, I realized that it wasn't a deity — it was my own strength of will, along with my friends and family. Today I live a wonderful, fulfilling, happy life completely free of religion. Far from being depressing, I've found that I'm much happier not having to perform the constant mental gymnastics required to ease the cognitive dissonance I felt as a believer. I have a deeper appreciation of my life, knowing that it's the only one I have — not some preparation for an eternity I probably wouldn't want anyway

The funny thing is, life without religion is otherwise the same as life without it. I still love music, but I don't go into guilt trips if I want to listen to blasphemous metal. I go to operas and symphonies, watch movies and TV, play guitar, spend time with my wife, go to the park with our dogs, play video games, cook, read fiction, work out (a lot), tend to our gym and its members, and hang out with friends. Many believers love to caricature non-believers as miserable nihilists, but the truth is that I, and all the other non-believers I know, are just as happy and fulfilled as anyone else. About the only time when religion even comes up is when some self-righteous politician says or does something atrocious and tries to justify it with appeals to their religion. My personal interest in religion and philosophy is pretty well confined to the internet and rarely bleeds into my day to day life. 

There's a reasonable caveat in all this, in the spirit of intellectual honesty: maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I just didn't talk to the right theologian or read the right books. Maybe I didn't think about my questions the right way. Maybe there is some evidence or argument that I've yet to familiarize myself with. But the reality is that there are only so many hours in the day. I'm not going to re-convert, ever, because at this point I really just don't care. I gave it a sincere try. I did everything I could to hang on to my faith in the face of crippling doubt, and I don't regret trusting my own capacity to think for myself. In the years since, I've found subsequent engagements with believers to be similarly frustrating — the shifting goalposts, the evasions, the equivocations. If there's anything that has a snowball's chance in hell of happening, it's getting a theologian to provide a straight answer to a simple, direct question. But if upon my demise I'm whisked to judgment and find out I was wrong, then I hope God would see my sincerity and empathize with my frustration. If not, then I would happily cannonball into the lake of fire and roast with all the other heathens, because I surely wouldn't kneel before a petty tyrant anyway. 

18 October 2016

The Counter-Apologist on William Lane Craig's moral argument... again

This is long and wordy, but I think it's fantastic. I especially love the observation that "you can't say that god's nature includes love — because it is better than hate — without already having a concept of moral value that is external to god's nature", as well as, "there is no logically necessary reason for god to have one set of properties over another in all possible worlds".

12 October 2016

It's not a caricature of Christianity if it's true

I've often found myself perplexed at how, in my nearly ten years of blogging (starting with The Apostasy, which became this blog in '09), Christians are chomping at the bit to engage in esoteric semantic dissections of philosophical arguments, and yet when I challenge the basic logical coherency of fundamental Christian doctrines... crickets. I can write a post about the Kalam Cosmological Argument and wrack up nearly 100 comments. I write a post saying that Christian doctrine is absurd, and I get nine comments — all from people who agree with me. A similar but less polemical post garnered nothing but an echo chamber.

I could spend the afternoon digging through Disqus and my blog archive to find more examples, but this is a regular pattern. Christian keyboard warriors have (apparently) spent a lot of time reading the esoteric apologetic philosophies of William Lane Craig or Ed Feser, but they seem either unprepared or unwilling to offer a similarly rigorous defense of the tenets of their own faith.

Now, in fairness, comments on my blog hardly represent a scientific sample. Maybe my experience is in part due to the microcosm of the internet in which I've placed myself through my writings. However, this avoidance is not a new experience for me — it was actually instrumental in my deconversion. Following my reading of Hebrews (which I discuss in both linked posts), my faith was deeply shaken. I simply could not make sense of what I'd read. I sought books, had several conversations with a couple of pastors, and scoured the internet (this was in the 90s, so web resources were a bit more limited). For the life of me, I could not find direct, concise answers to my questions. So, I did what I think anyone in my shoes would have done: I trusted my own judgment. I had read as broadly and as critically as I knew how, and the most uncomfortable answer was also the most prescient: if Christian theology looks nonsensical and incoherent, it's because it is nonsensical and incoherent.

The result of all this is that I have developed a fairly cynical view of Christian theology. So I see quotes like this famous one from Richard Carrier, and I'm sympathetic:

Christians might object that this is a "caricature" that overlooks some illuminating theological nuances. But in all my years of engaging with Christians — from laypersons to pastors to academics — I've yet to hear anything remotely approaching a rebuke. I hear a lot of bluster about a lack of charity and whatnot, but it seems to me that Carrier's quote is a perfectly accurate summary of what Christians actually believe. Sure, Christians don't like to phrase it that way, because it sounds ridiculous. They prefer the romance of "Christ died for our sins". But what does that even mean? How does an omnipotent being die? How does Christ's "blood" being shed on a Roman torture device "atone" for "sin"? If Jesus and God are the same being, isn't he literally sacrificing himself to himself to fulfill the terms of his own covenant? And why does God care whether people assent to the historicity of the Bible for his "sacrifice" to work?

If this is a caricature, I'm dying to know why. Really. Please. Enlighten me. Because as far as I can tell, this is literally what Christian theology entails, and in nearly 20 years of searching and dialogue I have never been offered a concise, straightforward answer to what to me seems like pretty fundamental questions about Christianity. 

Instead, I get dodges like these:
  • "You don't have to understand it to believe in it". Actually, I do. Sorry. I can't assent to beliefs that seem to me prima facie incoherent and ridiculous.
  • "You clearly aren't versed in the relevant theology." Clearly! But throw me a bone, will you? After nearly two decades of this stuff I'm not going to keep chasing rabbit trails if those versed in 'sophisticated theology' can't at least offer a coherent overview of the position they're advocating before telling me to spend my hard-earned money on yet another book.  
I'm more than willing to hear someone attempt to explain Christian doctrine to me, to illuminate how I lost my way, to offer some guidance in properly understanding Hebrews. I doubt anything like that is going to happen, because I don't think Christians understand their own doctrine. The "divine mystery" is, indeed, part of the faith. That's just not good enough for me. I think the basic tenets of Christian doctrine — sin, atonement, covenantal salvation, the Trinity, etc. — are completely ridiculous. And at this stage of the game I'm willing to believe that if it sounds ridiculous and it's like pulling teeth to get a straightforward, coherent explanation of it, it's because it is ridiculous