Saturday, January 31, 2009
If you're an atheist: In what ways, if any, would you change your moral behavior if it were proved that God exists?
If you're a theist: In what ways, if any, would you change your moral behavior if it were proved that God does not exist?
Give me all the filthy details :)
I don’t disagree with this argument, but while considering what to write as a comment to the post, I realized that my own thoughts were distinct enough to merit their own post. Where Scriptulicious’s concern was the accuracy of the statement, I would question why Zacharias would make such a statement to begin with.
As to Christians having a hope an afterlife, Scriptulicious makes the very valid criticism to this belief by saying “the Bible does not give a uniform voice about life beyond the grave”. But what of the accuracy of Zacharias’s claim that atheists have no hope beyond the grave? Well... duh! This is almost a tautology; if any atheist did believe in life after death, I would question if she were truly atheist.
So, why does Zacharias even bother pointing it out? Does he think atheists don’t realize this? Of course, Zacharias knows fully well that atheists don’t hope for a life beyond the grave; so, it seems unlikely that he is writing to convert atheists. I suspect that he is preaching to the choir who already hangs their collective hats on the belief that this life’s meaning is derived from a hope of an afterlife.
Bearing in mind that, for Zacharias’s intended readers, life’s meaning is derived from the afterlife, consider the claim that atheists have no reason for being (and I would equate this to the claim that atheists have no meaning to life, unless someone can show me how the two ideas are anything more than semantically different). On the one hand, we could question the accuracy of the statement. I feel, as an atheist, that with only one life to live, I appreciate life a little more and try to make this one life of mine count for something. But, again, I am more interested in why Zacharias claims that atheists have no reason for being.
Zacharias, who had attempted suicide at age 17, must have felt what it’s like to live a purposeless life (though it should be noted that he was Hindu at the time, not atheist). Shortly after the suicide attempt, he converted to Christianity. Could it be that Zacharias is so filled with love of his fellow man, a love instilled in him by the God of the Bible (of all things!), that he wants to save us from the purposelessness that he himself felt and then share with us the uplifting meaning he gleans from the Bible?
Good on him, if that’s his motive. But, as I mentioned before, it doesn’t seem like atheists are his intended audience. The criticisms I’ve read of Zacharias’s book (such as the reader reviews on Amazon.com) indicate that he doesn’t so much as try to understand or accurately reflect the atheistic viewpoint, even going so far as to distort it. I’ve even found similar criticisms of him by other religions.
So, if these criticisms are true, and Zacharias deliberately distorts atheistic viewpoints (dare I say, lies about them?), we should now consider his last remaining point: that atheists espouse no morality. Once again, the accuracy of this statement could be questioned when we see how secular values (human rights, for example) have been adopted (sometimes begrudgingly) by Christian sects, or even completely ignored (as seems often the case with Islam). So, why would Zacharias say this?
Call me cynical, but when I hear a theist say that “if there were no God, then men would have license to commit whatever heinous atrocities he desired”, what I interpret that to mean is “if there were no God, the theist himself would feel he had license to commit whatever heinous atrocities he desired.” In other words, the only thing holding Zacharias back from rape, pillage, and murder is his belief in God.
Never mind that Zacharias’s viewpoints are an appeal to emotion, and don’t actually prove that God exists; never mind that doing the right thing only upon fear of punishment is not exactly what we’d call moral behavior; never mind that Zacharias might, in actuality, be moral, even if his God didn't exist (which, by the way, He doesn't). Consider only this: if the people who read and listen to evangelists and apologists like Zacharias -- a people who, if not for a belief in the reward of an afterlife, would find no meaning in this life -- if those people actually believe that atheists espouse no morality, what a monstrous gang of demons we must seem to them.
Apologist is a bit of a misnomer because the word connotes that Zacharias is defending his faith. Quite the inverse of the NFL, where the best offense is a good defense, apologetic rhetoric like his appears to me to be a rallying cry: A) to instill an “us vs. them” mentality among the faithful, B) to instill a fear of the demonic “them” in the faithful, and C) to exhort the fearful faithful into taking the offensive. Now, being a peaceful man I wonder: what is the objective of this offensive?
Today's question: How would the discovery of intelligent extra terrestrials affect traditional religions?
Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein (Jeremiah 6:16).
It is September, 2003. "This is really interesting," I think out loud, "I can't wait to tell Dad." The thought of sharing with Dad while reclined on the back porch in the warmth of a late summer evening sunset lingers for a moment. Suddenly my mental pathway comes to an abrupt end. I remember that Dad died a week ago.
Thoughts of this nature were common in the months following my Father's death. An idea or a thought salient to Dad or to our relationship would rush into my awareness. I would emotively embrace the thought with the warmly comforting image of having a moment to share it with him. Then, I would suddenly recall that Dad was dead, and the stark reality that I would not be able to share another moment with him would coldly overtake me. Though this was a common occurrence in the immediate aftermath of Dad's death. I found that my well-worn mental pathways were slowly being replaced. Months later the pathways, still present and well-worn, was replaced by similar, more mentally satisfying routes, pathways with destinations. Five years later I have all but replaced these pathways; however, I have experienced the loss of two additional pathways.
Mom died January 15, 2009. I am not surprised this time around; I expected my mind to default to its seasoned pathways. This time around I have less dead-ended pathways, but they occur every day. I thought on Tuesday evening this week that I should call Mom to visit with her. The mental pathway came to a dead end. Sometimes my mind lingers on the old path despite the dead end, and I find these thoughts peaceful; however, life goes on and so must I.
I was raised in a Christian household with close connections to my family's church community. For much of my life I was surrounded by people of faith. The models in my life exhibited faith behaviors which were reinforced either by the community or by the internal satisfaction of the performer. These pathways were blazed early for me, and when I decided to wholly "commit my life to Christ" just after 7th grade, I widened and branched the pathways into all areas of my mental life—intellectual and emotional. Few areas of my thinking were not traversed by a God-faith pathway. God and faith became my identity as I broached adolescence, and I became a compulsive God-faith addict.
Leaving belief in God was not an overnight decision for me. The last five years have been formative for my atheism; it was a gradual process. Through my ongoing critical studies of the Bible, biblical languages, science, and comparative religions, I became increasingly aware of how fragile my faith system was. I won't detail the path of my discoveries here at the moment, but I gradually found the foundations of faith crumbling. On occasion I would admit to myself that I was a closet atheist, but I would maintain outward faith. Episodes of disbelief would often be met with episodes of even stronger commitment to irrational beliefs—with ongoing and increasing emphasis on the virtue of belief in the irrational. This process of learning how to not believe was critical for me. Without it, I would not have been able to openly acknowledge my disbelief.
Disbelief is like the loss of a parent for me; it is not easy. My mental pathways default to the reassurance of providence or to the efficacy of prayer as I sometimes find myself conducting an internal God dialogue with myself. My God-faith pathways are still present, and as far as I understand brain physiology, neurotransmitters that fall into disuse eventually loose myelin and become less functional. As mentioned, the process of recognizing the absence of God (or the nonexistence of God) was gradual, and so it made the process easier, but it is not easy.
One may ask, "If disbelief is difficult, then why not just believe?" Before I answer this question let me explain that the difficulty of disbelief is not intellectual, it is purely emotive. I do not intellectually pretend that I am convinced there is no God. Second, I choose to disbelieve because it is hard. Yes, I disbelieve because it is the more difficult option for my emotive pathways; it is the option that challenges me and propels my mind into higher levels of understanding, awareness, and transcendence. In fact, I find the implied answer to this question to be an unjustified plea for ignorance. It is akin to the student asking her teacher, "This stuff is hard, why do I have to learn it?" I learn because it is hard. I press forward because the alternative is ignorance and superstition. I am done with the old, dead-end paths.
Friday, January 30, 2009
What: DDC -- Darwin Day Celebration
Where: Residence of Scriptulicious (email me for details)
Prominent Evangelical apologist Ravi Zacharias recently posited:
Having killed God, the atheist is left with no reason for being, no morality to espouse, no meaning to life, and no hope beyond the grave (p. 98).
I unfortunately did not receive this memo from the grand atheist conspiracy council. Is it possible that Zacharias is mistaken?
By making this statement, Zacharias is making the implicit claim that he, as a biblical theist, has a reason for being, a morality to espouse, a meaning for life, and hope beyond the grave. Despite the dogmatism of his claims, the Bible does not present a unified voice on the reason for human existence, ethics, and life beyond the grave.
The Bible presents neither exhaustive nor explicative ethics—it is not an ethical workbook. Whatever ethics are packaged in the Bible are buried in arcane case law, outmoded social conditions, and innumerable translational and exegetical obstacles. The reader must construct ethical meaning from the Bible. That is, she must interface with the biblical texts, a process that is fraught with human subjectivity, in order to translate the arcane to the present.
The ethical worldview of Zacharias, or any Bible believer, is merely a selective and fragile psycho-social application of the Bible. I doubt, for example, that his Christian ethical construct allows room for slavery, selling off of daughters, charging usury selectively to non-Jews, the application of theocratic sabbatical and jubilee conventions, the donning of head coverings by women, or the disapproval of women teaching men. All of these milestones are ethical exemplars in the Bible, but his psycho-social interpretive matrices gloss over their relevance to his ethical construct. He is little different than the atheist in his culturally-contingent meaning construction despite his claims to a Bible-God grounding.
Morality does not require a God or a scripture. Morality is the result of natural selection operating in social organisms. Behaviors such as reciprocity, altruism, and contingency are exhibited in social primates. They do not arise from the instruction of a god—they are the result of evolutionarily selective pressures on the phenotypic (or memetic) behaviors of social organisms. Zacharias makes a foolish straw man to posit that humanity requires the instruction of God in order to exhibit ethics.
The Bible does not give a uniform voice about life beyond the grave. There are multiple passages that deny any life or consciousness beyond the grave. There are others that present humans as departed spirits, detached from the body. How Zacharias determines which personal eschatology in the Bible to espouse is purely a result the stream of cultural evolution to which he is attached. In the future I hope to develop some of the biblical exegetical exemplars of the divergent post-mortem paradigms in the Bible. However, for now, let me note, that the Bible believer is no more solidly grounded on a divine revelation to deny conscious existence after death than to accept the idea of disembodied spirit existence.
Zacharias, R. (2004) The real face of atheism. Grand Rapids: Baker House
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Today's question: "Should the Auschwitz death camp be preserved or allowed to crumble and decay? Why do you think so?"
This past weekend, pope Benedict XVI rescinded the excommunication of four bishops who had broken away from mainstream Catholicism some 20 years ago (BBC article). No sooner does he do this than one of the bishops, Richard Williamson, outs himself as a holocaust-denier on Swedish TV saying: "I believe there were no gas chambers. I think that two to three hundred thousand Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps but none of them by gas chambers." This has led the superior of Williamson’s order, Bishop Bernard Fellay, to prohibit Williamson from expressing views on history and politics publicly (National Catholic Reporter)."Catholics and Protestants were subject to oppression under the Nazis, but aside from some notable voices of opposition from each church, they generally went along with the regime."
~"Report Details Catholic Role in Nazi Abuses" Reuters April 9, 2008
Meanwhile, the pope’s YouTube channel (yes, the pope has a YouTube channel) has uploaded several videos in which Benedict XVI (a former Hitler Youth, though allegedly not by choice) in which he speaks out against the horrors of the holocaust. Nothing so bold as an actual apology for the church’s complicity with the Third Reich but, hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
A common objection that I expect Protestants might proffer to Christianity’s unseemly connections with Nazism, is that the Catholic Church is hardly a representative of authentic Christian beliefs. I don’t think that’s true, but this sort of “no true Scotsman” argumentation might actually have held some water if it weren’t for the embarrassing fact that, far from leading the cause against fascism, Protestant churches in Germany initially embraced the rise of German nationalism and anti-Semitic rhetoric (see a detailed history at the Claremont McKenna College website). What’s more, many of Hitler’s own twisted beliefs were inspired by his understanding of Christianity as well as the writings of Martin Luther. (http://nobeliefs.com/hitler.htm)
I am in no way trying to suggest that religion is solely responsible for the rise of the Axis powers. That would be naive (or deceitful)... about as naive (or deceitful) as people like Ben Stein and David Berlinski whose fatuous remarks have led their respective fans to think that we have belief in evolution and secularism to thank for the rise of the Axis powers. I’m referring to Stein’s movie Expelled and Berlinski’s book The Devil’s Delusion. In reality, a great many people, both religious and secular, shared the culpability in setting the stage for one of history’s most heinous eras.
What I am trying to say is that the question of what’s good and what’s evil is not reducible to the question of what’s religious and what’s secular.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Today's question: What is a book you have read recently that challenged your preconceptions? (It does not have to be about religion, it can be about politics, history, sports, or anything; just let us know how it challenged your preconceptions).
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
There are significant sources of religious resistance to religious pluralism. The most prominent examples on the American religious scene are Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. Granted Fundamentalists express a more extreme measure of anti-pluralism, Evangelicals generally inhere to the denial of authentic spirituality outside of a personally actualized Christiology. That is, unless one has "accepted Christ" as a personal savior, it is deemed impossible to actually know God. Hence, Evangelicals and Fundamentalists consider Jews and Muslims (their religious near-of-kin) to be as Hell-bound as any other for their non-acceptance of Christ.
How does atheism fit into religious pluralism? Is not atheism more akin to fundamentalism for its intolerance of heterogeneous ideas about metaphysical realities? Can atheism fit into the fabric of religious pluralism? Should it even desire to do so? I do not have the definitive answers to these questions, but I would like to propose some.
I consider God a metaphor, a symbol. I consider God a symbol, albeit one of several of humanity's search for meaning. God has been one venue through which people have sought to ascribe meaning to their lives and to humanity's existence. However, other such ascriptions exist including Zeus, Odin, or El. All of these today are understood to be mythological and non-historical. However mythological they may have been, their personas influenced the lives and directions of people under their spell--both negatively and positively. Today we can see them as a metaphor for the personality that people often ascribed to the machinations of apparent fate and the functions of nature.
Atheism is not an utter and total cap on human spirituality. Several authors have explored approaches to human spirituality and spiritual actualization in a post-deity existence. Some of my favorites include Thomas Berry and Comte-Sponville. For them, spirituality is not a matter of worshiping other beings or communing with numens, rather it relates to interconnectedness, meaningfulness, and transcendence. It is understanding the immensity of the cosmos and the negligible existence of Earth as a sacred and safe harbor for life. It is likewise understanding that humanity is a product of the cosmos, made from from star dust--the heavy elements produced by stars like our own sun.
Sam Harris in his work The End of Faith posits a spiritual pathway for atheists as well. This pathway relates to meditation on the limitations and boundaries of human perception and knowledge. Some have criticized Harris for developing a sort of New-Age spirituality for atheists; however, it is worth noting that he has put forth the effort.
Though atheism does militate against the literal existences of deities, it does not necessarily obviate against some forms of human spirituality. Though the atheist may view the pneumatic experiences of those embedded in theistic religious traditions differently, the atheist need not deny that the believer has an authentic experience or benefit in her religious tradition. Though the atheist might understand the believer's experience to be the result of purely psycho-chemical phenomenon, the deity-as-metaphor paradigm would allow her to embrace the believer in her faith. If the matter were only this simple, I would assert, then, that the atheist could contribute to and participate in religious pluralism.
There are pernicious forms of religion that do more damage to science, cultures, the environment, politics, and to human rights than are worth countenancing. Fortunately, these religious paradigms are the same that are adverse to religious pluralism. They are, to use the description of Dennet, "sugar religions." I will leave the reader to reflect on the above and tear it apart as I am sure that I need some constructive feedback.
Francis Collins, former eminent head of the Human Genome Project and devout Christian is an advocate of the theory of evolution. In defense of evolution in his book Language of God, he asks the following question: "What is the likelihood of finding a similar DNA sequence in the genome of other organisms, starting with a human DNA sequence?" (p. 127). The chart that follows answers this question:
Protein-Coding Gene Sequence
Random DNA Segment Between Genes
DNA that codes for protein is functional--it has a measurable and observable function in an organism. If one were to randomly sample a protein-coding gene from a human, it can be compared to protein-coding genes from non-human animals. When this is done, the results are as indicated in column A. The three mammals sampled have a very close protein-coding genetic relationship. A random chicken is 75% likely to have a random human protein-coding gene. The number falls to 35% with the invertebrate roundworm. It is no accident that the percentage of protein-coding gene sharing decreases the further one moves away from humans in evolutionary relationship.
The creationist might try to posit that the reason for the common protein-coding genes is the Creator's desire to place a fingerprint stamp or seal of identity on creation. In so doing a Creator would be placing a stamp indicating "common Creatorship" rather than the evolutionary idea of "common ancestry." Aside from the fact that this argument is infertile--it cannot be tested or produce further research--it is also short sighted in light of column B.
Column B lists the chances of finding a random human non-protein coding gene in any of the given organisms. Non-protein coding genes are sometimes referred to as "junk DNA." These are genes that likely had a function at one time but lost functionality through new genetic structures and disuse. For example, the DNA coding for the human tail is now "junk DNA" though rare throw-back "avatars" will demonstrate the phenotype. Column B illustrates that chimpanzees have a 98% percent rate of "junk DNA" sharing with humans. The rate of "junk DNA" sharing drops quickly to 52% in dogs and lower as one samples from more distant evolutionary relationships.
This information is a liability for creationists who assert that humanity is a unique creation of God to the exclusion of the idea that humans do not have non-human ancestry. Evolutionary theory predicted such relationships in Columns A and B years before gene theory developed. Creationism's only rejoinder is, "God did it." The creationist response might work in Sunday school, but it is devoid of real-world salience and application. Where common genetic ancestry is a fertile field for further scientific and medical research, creationism would have the thinker stop thinking with the thought blockade, "God did it."
Sunday, January 25, 2009
To that end, I offer the following thought experiment, which I call the Mass Amnesia Event.
When the hypothetical Mass Amnesia Event (let’s call it MAE) occurs, you and I, and every single human being on the planet will forget absolutely everything. We forget our names, who are relatives are, how to communicate. We can’t read books, we can’t use computers. We don’t even know that we’ve forgotten anything. The effect of the MAE is permanent and irremediable. The slate of civilization has been wiped clean.
Such an event, I’m sure, would lead to death and chaos just as soon as the post-MAE humans figured out how to beat one another with sticks and stones. So, let’s make a couple of assumptions. First, some humans will survive the chaos; their natural desire for basic needs will lead them to eat and survive and multiply. Let’s also assume that, eventually, some humans will pool their resources; they’ll re-invent language, cooperate to increase their chances of survival, and rebuild societies.
Now here’s a question. In the post-MAE societies, which stands a better chance of being reconstructed to exactly its former (pre-MAE) status: faith or reason?
I would think that both faith and reason would make a comeback. I think it’s likely that we would see syllogistic reasoning appear; in turn, I think mathematics and geometry would be re-discovered; maybe even scientific method would develop again and usher in a new age of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. At some point, it seems quite possible that the logic, mathematics, and science after the MAE would be indistinguishable from (or, at least, very similar to) its counterparts before the MAE.
But the religions that emerge after the MAE would be very different. Perhaps some of the properties of religion would be the same: blood sacrifices, the need for atonement, the imposition of impossible rules (e.g. “Thou shalt not covet”). However, what will be entirely different is the content of religion, the stuff one actually has faith in: the gods, the prophets, the scriptures, the messiahs, etc.
To put it another way, some of the contents of science and reason, as they stand today, have arisen from their social and historical antecedents. Still other discoveries were quite accidental, such as: Teflon, penicillin, radioactivity. But might some of these discoveries have yet arisen in different historical contexts? There are many instances of discoveries that were converged upon independently by people of different social and historical backgrounds. For example, both the Mayans and the Hindus discovered the number zero, both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz invented calculus.
On the other hand, the contents of religion are entirely dependent on social and historical antecedents. Arabia and Persia did not independently discover the “truth” of Islam. Muhammad said that the Qu’ran was revealed (conveniently enough) to him and him alone by Allah. Most of you reading this probably think that Muhammad just made the Qu’ran up as he went along. So, if there was no Muhammad, there’d be no Islam, and no one else would have independently discovered its truths (save by divine intervention).
Yesterday I posted a poll asking readers to erase one of the following great works from history: Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni, or Gustave Eiffel’s Eiffel Tower.* By now it should be obvious that the only one that can be safely consigned to oblivion is Newton’s Principia, because it is the only one whose contents would have been rediscovered by someone else (and without divine intervention).
So, I judge religious beliefs based on what I know about reason and science. If I seem to make a false idol of them, it's because of their relative consistency compared to religions, and not because of any act of faith my part.
* I ripped this question from the pages of Daniel Dennett’s book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995, Simon & Schuster). He, in turn, had borrowed it from an article by British psychologist Nicholas Humphrey (1987, “Scientific Shakespeare.” Guardian, August 26).
If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable (I Corinthians 15:19).
As many readers may already know, I lost my mother to cancer ten days ago. I was present with her when she took her last breath. It was a meaningful moment for me, and one that she would have been happy with had she observed it for herself. Her son and daughter, her last living family, were both present as she was escorted into final unconsciousness.
My mother was a woman of faith, and she was esteemed as an example of the Christian life by her peers. It was hard for her to keep her mouth shut about Jesus. Everywhere she went, she told neighbors, her doctors, nurses, friends, and foes about what Jesus meant to her. Her bluntness about matters of faith is one of the attributes for which she will be remembered. However sincere she may have been, her evangelical zeal was one of the most this-world reinforced behaviors by her community. She often received spotlight attention in Bible study groups or church services for her “no-holds-barred” approach to “taking back territory from Satan.” She won the respect and positive attention of many for this aspect of her faith.
Paul in I Corinthians asserts that if the “hope of Christ” applies only to this life, then “we are of all men most miserable.” I disagree with Paul’s statement. My mother lived a full life in her short fifty-eight years. Most of those years were spent in “service to Christ” and so involved in church and para-church communities. Despite the fictive foundations to her faith, she was happy. She reaped the material and psychological benefit of “hope in Christ” in the here and now. I don’t know why Paul felt such a need to polarize the life conditions of the present with the presumed life to come.
How am I dealing with my mother’s passing? I have now lost both my mother and my father. If there is any one unconscious, psychological impetus behind my atheism, it is the loss of both of my parents. They both were the first of their peer groups to die of natural causes. With my father’s death in 2003, I made the attempt to invest his passing with faith meaning. I even preached a fire-and-brimstone eulogy at his memorial service. Since that time, I have found my belief system and the Bible to be human through and through. I found that there is no YHWH in Zion, no numen EL in Bethel, and no ascended Jesus on the crystal sea of a fictive firmament.
The nails in God’s coffin were gradual. I was devout, and I knew my Bible. Like my mother, my faith communities lauded me for my evangelical and charismatic zeal. I reaped the psycho-social benefits of faith, and even when these benefits waned and terminated, I remained a believer. The nails in God’s coffin were the findings of my inquisitive mind: Bible contradictions, Bible inaccuracies, Bible-science incongruence, etc. But, it is unlikely that any of my intellectual findings had as much a contribution as the death of my father. With his passing I realized that all is vulnerable—nothing hides for the sun will “rise on the evil and on the good” and the rain will fall “on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).