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Atheist blogger Pharyngula shared a taxonomy of several different kinds of atheists:

(h/t Dan Fincke)

I found this all really interesting, because when I blog about religion and atheism, I often struggle to find a word to describe the movement. The movement seems to include people who are against organized religions as much as people who believe God doesn't exist for philosophical or scientific reasons, so the label atheist always struck me as a bit inappropriate. There are also the people who didn't want to believe anything without good evidence and just thought we couldn't be sure whether God exists (which I always thought of as agnostics), and of course the people who simply didn't think or care that much about God (secular humanists or the areligious more generally). Pharyngula's post does a good job at getting across the diversity of this movement.

To summarize Pharyngula... )

Reading this made me want to develop my own taxonomy of religious people, in particular of Christians. Read more... )

What's the point of all this? Three things.

First, I think Christians (and religions in general) often have their influence propped up. Lots of people claiming to be a Christian don't understand a lot of what Christianity is about. This should come as no great surprise to people who read their Bible; Jesus himself taught that "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven." (Mt 7:21) So just because someone calls himself a Christian, that doesn't mean his actions.

Of course when someone uses your name and you don't agree with what they're saying the onus is on you to correct them. But it's always easier to get people to read the headline item than the retraction. So if you think Christians do the craziest thing, it's worth figuring out whether it's actually genuine Christians contributing to the craziness. Atheists have less cultural atheists and atheists from convenience, I think, and so it's only fair to compare apples to apples.

Oh, and one other thing on that note? Influence goes both ways. Anders Breivik's Christianity only counts if people affected in the same degree by other philosophies (like Josef Stalin's atheism) count against those influences.

Second, I think all this makes religions seem more important than they really are. I never thought philosophies should be judged by how popular they are, but if we're doing that, again, it's only fair to compare apples to apples. If you want to look at what philosophies are doing well by how many followers they attract, look at the people who have actually thought about said philosophies. And if you want to use what percentage of those followers can actually give a good explanation for why they're a Christian or an atheist or whatever, again, you've got to look at people who are actually engaging with Christianity and atheism on the same level.

Finally, I think a lot of atheists would find they have a lot more in common with certain types of Christians than they think. If your point is that certain Christians' stances on homosexuality (or sex generally, or women's rights, or Obamacare, or…) is wrong, you might find natural allies in Christians like me who are a bit dismayed at what some people are doing in the name of our religion.

And when it comes to Christian pastors encouraging their flock to beat their effeminate sons, or Muslim girls being kicked out of schools, or ultra-orthodox Jews calling young girls sluts because their elbows aren't covered? I'm every bit as angry about that as any other human being, and just as eager to fight against it with anyone willing to pitch in.

What do you think of this way of splitting up Christianity? Did I miss anything? Where do you fall? (It may be more than one group; I consider myself both a psychological and philosophical Christian, personally.)

(Originally posted to LJ.)
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A few days ago Dan Fincke and I sat down for a debate as part of his blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance. It was the first time I'd done anything of the kind, and I'm trying to look at it in terms of what I can do better, both in terms of setting up the interview (I'm not nearly the night-owl I thought I was, for one thing) and of explaining my thoughts better on the fly. All of which are good, even if I wish I had been better able to explain myself in the actual debate.

You can read the debate here. Basically, we talked about four things: why I support the SSA; why I think Christianity shouldn't condemn homosexuality; what as a Christian I made of the Biblical story where my supposedly all-good, all-knowing God ordered the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites; and what it would take for me to give up what Dan called the "God Hypothesis."

deep philosophical thoughts behind the cut )

It was an interesting debate, even though as I said I hope I'll do better next time. (Among other things, it's made me realize that I'm really more interested in constructive dialogue rather than debates between rivals.) Still, I was glad to do my part for the SSA. Do read Dan and my debate, and the many other interviews he did – there's some really thought-provoking stuff here.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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Yesterday I posted some graphics I had created to go along with my SSA interview for tonight. [profile] mrowe kindly took the "Hamlet" quote and turned it into a real work of art:

Read more... )

The original image is an illustration of Smaug, by Tolkien illustrator John Howe.

On top of using it for the interview, I am using it as my new computer wallpaper. Thanks, Nath!

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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My friend Dan Fincke is doing a blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance. This is a cause near and dear to my heart. There are lots of reasons for this - partly I think religion (and humanity generally) is better off when the smartest people in all groups think long and hard about our institutions and core beliefs. Iron sharpens iron, as they say. Even more than that, I can only imagine how cut-off secular humanist students are in many communities. If your life is organized around youth group and church friends (mine was at that age), then coming out as atheist means losing all that or at least having it strained. I'm all for giving kids the social support they need to deal with that constructively.

Many American high schools (mine included) have lots of clubs. These are student-led groups with a faculty member mentor that meet before or after class at the school. They're not part of the official curriculum or anything but they are sanctioned by the school; quite often you can't put up signs advertising them if they're not an official group, and you can't meet on school grounds. The SSA provides administrative support to these groups, including legal advice when necessary (in lots of places there simply isn't a club for atheists, and there's resistance toward setting one up), and they also organize conferences for student leaders, giving them a chance to network with the larger atheist community.

Dan's blogathon is part of a fundraising drive for the SSA. He's posting twenty-four original posts in twenty-four hours (*eep*) and as part of that he's interviewing lots of people. Interviewing is really the wrong word; it's more a conversation between equals rather than him asking questions and us doing all the talking. But I do say us because he's asked me to be one of the people whose conversations he features. This is the first time I've done anything of the kind, and I'm excited both because it's for a cause I support and also because it's great to get my thoughts out there. It's also a nice ego-boost that he asked.

(You can read more about Dan's blogathon here, including an invitation for people who might be interested in talking with him. As he says: if YOU are a big time atheist, or a scholar with a unique vantage point on religion, atheism, or philosophy, or somebody with a book to sell, or a believer who would like to mix it up with me, or are just another academic philosopher or long lost personal friend of mine, and you would like to join me in conversation for three hours sometime on Thursday June 14, 2012 or especially if you are available for the hard lonely hours late in the blogathon—from Friday June 15, 2012 midnight EST to 7am EST—then, then PLEASE don’t be shy!)

That's it for the announcement, but I do want to say a bit about Dan's bio of me. He writes: Marta Layton, a Fordham graduate student in philosophy and progressive Christian who writes many thoughtful retorts to Camels With Hammers posts will finally get some answers from me to all her objections. It's the "progressive Christian" label that caught my attention. If Dan had called me a liberal Christian I probably wouldn't have been too happy about it, but progressive strikes me as just right.

See, I hate hate hate that label of "liberal Christian." Part of it is that I don't feel like a died-in-the-wool liberal. (I know, I sound like one but that's mainly because modern day Republicans + Tea Partiers have gone so far into reality-denying idiocy these last few years. Also because many positions advocated by the right aren't really that conservative.) It's truly odd to think of myself as a liberal sometimes. Don't get me wrong; I think that liberty requires equality we don't have in many regards, and that welfare and other social programs are crucial, so I am a liberalism in other regards. But especially when it comes to my faith, I don't see myself as being particularly liberal.

More to the point, though, the name suggests that what we call liberal Christianity isn't "true" Christianity - that the homophobic and misogynistic "preachers" who get on the news are the real deal. They're not, historically. I'm not saying that Christians have always been big on rights for women and other minorities (they aren't that either), but what I'm really objecting to is the idea that Christianity = do whatever the Bible appears to teach on its surface. This is a tradition starting in the Bible (look at Jesus's reinterpretation of the law) but continuing on past it. The idea is that revelation is supposed to be dynamic so we learn things in different settings throughout history.

When I think about religious tradition I find myself reminded of that other tradition Americans participate in, the rule of law, and in particular a quote that comes up all the time on Law and Order: that the law must be stable but never stand still. Religion should be the same way. My religious tradition emphasizes love, for instance, but what does love mean? With Cain and Abel we learned it meant not being so jealous of those who had something you wanted; with Joseph (as in Jacob's son) it meant protecting your brothers even after they'd wrong you. Ruth and Boaz show us that love is due to other tribes if they will join with us (that filial responsibility is not inherited), and with Jonah and the people of Nineveh we learn they don't even have to become like us for us to have to love them. And then with Jesus, there's the granddaddy of all expansions: love your enemies. If one of those hated Roman soldiers should demand you carry his pack for a mile, go a mile beyond even that. Don't build yourself up over others but instead attend to your own sins. And on throughout later history - the debates over slavery, over sexuality, over so many other issues.

The point behind all of this is not that the Bible's teaching on love is perfect, or even good (though obviously I think it is). It's that it's growing as humanity grows. This is why I love Dan's description of me as a progressive Christian so much, because it gets at the issue much more clearly than the liberal label does. I do view Christianity as something that progresses throughout history, though obviously certain guiding principles will always be in play. The faith, to paraphrase, must be stable but must never stand still.

I'm still not crazy about the need for "progressive." To my mind, I'm just a Methodist. That means I hold to the Wesley quadrilateral, meaning that my reading of scripture is informed by both the trajectory of history and the light of reason. That doesn't mean every belief needs proof (we're not full out logical verificationists or anything) but it does mean that your beliefs can't contradict reality - and if they seem in tension, the solution isn't to ignore one or the other, but to try to understand both revelation and what the sciences/philosophy tells us about reality at a deeper level. Truth does not contradict truth. To my mind this is a core Christian doctrine that's been emphasized by most types of Christians historically, and it's a sad statement that we even need the qualification today. A part of me wonders whether we're not giving fundamentalists too much power in defining what "Christian" means when we say that. (I get a similar reaction to the way the label "Christian" is used in books and music - like Left Behind is a Christian movie but Moonrise Kingdom isn't?)

Anyway, none of that is Dan's fault. The "progressive Christian" label is at least a major step up from "liberal Christian." I'm looking forward to discussing these and other issues with him on Thursday.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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The other day at FB, Dan Fincke posted a quote that has stuck with me. Specifically:

"Dear liberal, enlightened Christian: I'm not lumping you in with fundies – you are. Get a new name and new holy book to selectively cite." (Matt Dillahaunty)

This is actually a topic I've thought about a lot myself, and I hinted at it in my post on gender last night. While I definitely consider myself a Christian, I get the sense a lot of times that I don't practice Christianity the way a lot of people do around here. "Here" to my mind is the United States, particularly the various places I've lived as an adult (rural NC, in a mid-sized NC city, in Cleveland, OH, and now in NYC). I guess we should also include the various the various online outlets where I discuss religion, most notably Sojourners, Christianity Today, and Fred Clarke's blog over at Patheos. (I also read and for years Brad Hirschfield was a big influence as well, but as those are Jewish groups and I'm talking about Christianity here, I suppose that's not all that relevant.)

Anyway, the Christianity of my experience really can be broken down into two groups. First, there are the fundamentalists. Certainty and even simplicity here is the key; the whole movement started with revivals urging people to get back to basics, IIRC. I'm not a big fan of fundamentalism, so much so that I have a hard time giving a sympathetic description of them. I know that I associate them with the "God said it, that settles it" approach to theology. More distinctive are the social and ethical positions like the idea that women and men should fulfill different roles in society, that all extramarital sex (and by extension, homosexuality, contraception, and sex education) is deeply immoral, and that life begins at conception. There are also distinctive political positions, like the idea that America should be distinctly Christian and that Israel must be supported.

As I said, I'm sure someone could give a more sympathetic description here. I don't mean to beat up on fundamentalists. But if you follow this blog or know me at all, it should probably be fairly obvious why I'm not one.

When people don't just identify Christian as fundamentalist (which doesn't happen often enough), they may have in mind what Matt calls "liberal enlightened Christians." Sojourners is a great example of one such group. Politically, the focus is more on environmental issues, social justice, and immigration reform. And the approach tends to differ as well. Liberal Christians are usually more focused on relationships and grassroots work than passing big laws. Those interested in LGBT activism are probably the big exception. Some of them hold similar views to fundamental Christians (like with abortion – many are very anti-abortion, but prefer to work to avoid pregnancy through contraception and to make adoption a feasibly option, rather than focusing on making abortion illegal.

I'm mostly on board with their social/political project. The theology, on the other hand, always rubs me the wrong way. Matt's quote is right on that much; many liberal Christians will keep their Bible interpretations vague, along the lines of "God is love so how can God be against two adults loving each other?" Now, as it happens I believe the Bible doesn't condemn what we moderns consider homosexuality. It does teach against specific temple practices that are more akin to sexual slavery than anything, But this isn't something good theology should just brush over by ignoring passages fundies point to to explain why homosexuality is an abomination. Similarly for other issues, like global warming and immigration reform; the connection to the Bible is often tenuous and general at best.

I'm not a conservative in the sense used in the sense American political pundits mean – a Republican or a Tea Partier or whatever. But I am enough of a traditionalist that I don't just want to throw out the history and writings and culture of a certain religious tradition. I think living with those things and making sense of them is a good thing (and I know everyone here won't agree with me on that point). It's like Aristotle's aporiai, the puzzles between intuitions and experiences that seem to contradict each other. Religion, done right, forces people to confront the mystery. Both fundamentalism and liberal Christianity fail here because just ignore those factoids that lead us to the puzzle rather than exalting in it.

In light of that I find myself wondering, should I call myself a Christian? Why would I want to, when I reject so strongly most of the associations people have when they hear the word "Christian"? Because I'm definitely not a fundamentalist, but neither am ever going to match what people expect from a liberal Christian. Because, you know, I'm not that either.

But back to Matt's basic point. He suggests that liberal Christians (or those who reject fundamentalism even if they don't embrace liberal Christianity) have only ourselves to blame for being lumped in with fundamentalism, because we insist on calling ourselves names. That's not really fair, though, because it lets fundamentlaism define Christianity. Say I was Irish-American and was frustrated by the way my millennia-old culture got boiled down to leprechauns and Guinness – would you say I was wrong to insist that "Irish" meant more than that? Just because something is the most obvious association a lot of people have, that doesn't mean it's the right one.

I had a similar reaction after Anne Rice "quit" Christianity two years ago. She famously said:

"In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen."

At the time, I found myself agreeing with everything she said, right up until that last sentence. I'd add one more thing, though: I refuse to let the fundamentalist define Christianity as being any of those things. Christianity is not anti-feminist at heart; anti-feminists twist it and use it to support it. And on down the list. Explaining why would take a post – probably multiple posts – on each point. But here's the thing: if you say Christianity is these things, then you're giving away the game before that conversation has ever happened.

That's reason #1 why I won't ever stop calling myself a Christian. Because, contrary to what you hear in the news, the bishops protesting birth control mandates and the Baptists saying we should round up all the gays and put them behind electric fences aren't all Christianity has to offer.

And while we're at it: simply because I say the world wasn't created in seven days or that the Leviticus verse calling "a man lying with a man" an abomination doesn't mean what fundamentalists say it means doesn't make mean I'm reading selectively. I'm not ignoring those passages; I'm simply using a different hermeneutic. Simply because my reading of the Bible is more consistent with liberalism and secularism than the fundamentalist's reading, that doesn't mean my position is watered down or inauthentic. The "real" Christianity isn't necessarily the one that contrasts best with secular humanism, as nice as that might be.

Reason #2 why I insist on calling myself a Christian is related to what I said a few days ago on my post looking at why atheists should want smart theists. I think it's in everyone's best interests to have an intellectually sophisticated faith. And not just intellectually sophisticated; nuanced full stop. Claiming, as Anne Rice did, that Christianity is (say) anti-science offers people a stark choice: your God or your microscopes.

That's a false choice, but even if it wasn't, I'm not sure we'll like the results of forcing it onto people. It's simple psychology: people are reluctant to give up something they have and they like, even for something you tell them is better, because that other thing simply doesn't seem "real" yet.

If you want to get them to "evolve already" (as I heard lots of non-religious people say in response to Obama's statements that his views on gay marriage were evolving), you get them to ask the question: can I be for LGBT equality and still hold on to my other beliefs that I'm committed to? You don't ask them to change all those beliefs at once, because it's too scary for them, and even more important, sincere moral change is a process of evolution. You can't change all your beliefs at once, or quickly, if you want the person to have thought through and really accepted those beliefs.

If Christianity = fundamentalism then the conversation stops there. But if Christianity can be something more nuanced, then you have a much better chance to get your average pew-sitter to do some (if I can be excused the religious phrase) serious soul-searching that leads to real character growth.

So with all respect to Mr. Dillahaunty, he's wrong here. Fundamentalists don't get to unilaterally decide what it means to be a Christian, nor do any other group. It's an open question that's been going on since at least the days of Peter and Paul – and I highly suspect it will continue on until Christ returns or the sun burns out, whichever ultimate ending you prefer.

That's not a bad thing, btw. 

(Originally written at LJ; please comment there.)
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Recently I read an article about Miley Cyrus and how she wasn't acting like she was twelve anymore. Miley says some really interesting things about what it means to find yourself when you're a child-star, and also talks about sex and the double-standard women face in Hollywood. Now, say I posted a link to that article here with a comment along the lines of how nice it would be if she turned out to be a Christian.

Something like that happened recently on a friend's FB page, only there my friend posted a link and a third party commented saying he hoped Miley was an atheist. That comment really got me thinking, because if I had said something similar coming at it from a Christian perspective, I'd expect some raised eyebrows around here. At a minimum. Such a comment would imply one of two things: either I thought Miley's comments couldn't be good unless they came from a Christian, or else I wanted all good things to be associated with Christianity. Either way, I can see how you guys might get a bit offended, or at least be confused why I should be concerned. A claim like that, if I heard someone else make it, would strike me as oddly provincial. And also selfish; whatever's good, I'd want to make it available to the most people possible. And since people tend to listen to their own groups more than they do "outsiders," that means I'd want wise people and thought-provoking comments coming from all corners of society – not just mine.

Read more... )

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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 My friend Dan Fincke has an interesting post up about "covert" atheists and theists. He starts by describing two types of atheists:

There are at least two broad kinds of avowed atheists who take two distinct kinds of stances on the status of their belief. One is the atheist in the widest possible sense-one who claims to passively lack any belief in any gods by simply refraining from believing in them rather than outright making a metaphysical claim that "gods do not exist." The other broad kind of avowed atheist also lacks belief in all gods but is willing to say she either disbelieves in gods or believes (or even knows) based on the preponderance of evidence that there are no gods.

Dan then goes on to develop what you might call a functional test for these kinds of atheism. Essentially, if you act like these groups, so that there is no practical difference between you and them, it may make sense to call you an atheist. Or conversely, if an atheist acts like a theist even while claiming not to believe in a god, that person can perhaps be classified as an atheist. This is the heart of Dan's post, actually, and he leaves it open-ended: should we classify someone as X if their actions make them indistinguishable from other X-ers, even if the person swears up and down that she's a not-X?

Dan gives two examples to help us think about this. First, there's the problem of grief. Dan asks, "To what extent do [the theists'] normal fears of death and deep mourning of lost ones they ostensibly believe in heaven betray functional disbelief in heaven?" Basically, as I understand him, Dan's saying that if you believe in an afterlife of some kind you shouldn't be sorry that a loved one has gone on to it, or be afraid of dying yourself. The fact that the theist does feel these things proves that she isn't really convinced there's an afterlife after all, Dan suggests. (He also offers a similar analysis of covert theists, that is, people who claim to be atheists but when in distress wonder whether they should pray.

Now, I have some problems with this account. First of all, I don't agree with Dan's point that it's inconsistent to believe in an afterlife and still grieve the death of a loved one or fear your own death. Essentially I think that bodily life is a good thing cut short by an early death, and that you don't gain anything by going on to any kind of an afterlife sooner rather than later. So whether or not it's wrong to believe in heaven and hell or their various analogs in any other religion, there's not really anything inconsistent in those two beliefs. I also have my doubts about functional definitions because you can get the same result with two very different beliefs (for example, someone who thinks she should turn in a found wallet to the police and acts on that belief, versus someone who thinks she should keep the wallet but lacks the strength of character to act on that belief).

But those points aside, there's a really interesting issue in the distinction Dan draws between these two types of atheists. As I understand it - and keep in mind, this is the pre-coffee Marta, which shall be purchased and consumed on my way to campus in a bit - Dan is talking about people in both cases who have a specific concept of a god and we don't think anyone meets that definition. One type ­rejects the idea that any of the usual (or unusual, for that matter) candidate is in fact a god; the other makes the positive claim that "no gods exist." But in both cases, you have an idea of what would constitute a god, and you're taking a position that nothing actually meets that definition.

The trouble is, as soon as you have an idea in mind, I'd say you're already letting God exist in a sense. This is Anselm's basic point: to even talk about something (including God) meaningfully, you have to know what it is you're talking about, but to do that you have to have an object of thought. At a minimum a god "exists" inside your mind even if it doesn't exist anywhere else. The thought is that it's wrong at that point to say "There is no God" unless you're very careful to talk about the concepts as what other people mean by them rather than ideas you've internalized.

Anselm explains the distinction here through the painter analogy:

For, it is one thing for an object to be in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists. When a painter first conceives of what he will afterwards perform, he has it in his understanding, but he does not yet understand it to be, because he has not yet performed it. But after he has made the painting, he both has it in his understanding, and he understands that it exists, because he has made it.

Anselm has just said that whenever we hear or say a word – if proper communication is occurring – we must know what we're talking about, implying that we have the idea in mind. We can disagree about whether there's anything in the world beyond our mind, sure, just like the painter can wonder whether the idea he has in his mind actually corresponds with an idea he has in mind or whether it's just an object of thought at that point; but it's an object of thought, whatever else it might be.

The way around this is that if you're going to say the concept of God is ill-formed. Basically, if you think it's a concept that involves a contradiction, so it's theoretically impossible that anything meets the definition (as opposed to it being possible but as it works out no one actually meets the definition), then you aren't communicating in the normal way. When you say "God" it doesn't describe a concept you have in your mind. Rather, you're using it in a way my adviser calls parasitically: you're taking on someone else's concept and using it on their terms, but you're not really saying it makes sense to you. So if you think (e.g.) God can't create a rock so big He couldn't lift it so nothing could be omnipotent, you're likely to say that any conception of a god who has the characteristic of omnipotence isn't even possible. Meaning you can't have Him as an object of thought, though you could still talk about other people's (faulty) conceptions of Him.

I personally think this distinction is helpful toward making sense of language. Consider the statements (a) "Legolas is the Prince of Ithilien" and (b) "William is the prince of England." (b) is objectively true since there's an individual named William and, yes, he does hold that title. (a) turns out to be false but for entirely different reasons. There is a fictional character called Legolas, and he is a prince, but he's not the prince of Ithilien. However, none of this depends on the objective reality; it's just a set of fictions developed by an author and known by fans of the book. The statement is false because if you denied any of the claims I listed above you wouldn't be describing the situation depicted in the book. But it's not like we can consult the official records of Ithilien and fail to find Legolas listed among them. There's a different standard of truth; indeed, a different concept of what it means to be true is at work. Similarly, a statement that works with a contradictory concept wouldn't be true or false in the same way either of these are; if in fact you could say true or false apply at all.

None of this is intended as a criticism of Dan's position, btw. As I said this is Marta pre-coffee (soon to be rectified), and it's possible I've misunderstood what Dan was getting at with his post. But even if I am misreading him, I do think it's useful to distinguish between the atheist who simply doesn't believe anything in the world satisfies the definition of God, versus someone who says the concept itself is nonsense. The kind of evidence we'd expect in the two cases would be completely different.

Now off to get my java-fix. Feel free to tell me what you think of all this in the comments.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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A few days ago, I posted about the topic of God and goodness. Dan Fincke replied with lots of good points that need to be addressed (and I hope to get around to a few of them as time permits – unfortunately it's tight these days), but one in particular jumped out. Dan said he didn't see much about what I thought re: God's moral goodness. So I want to address that first.

I don't believe in a God that is morally good. In my previous post I drew a distinction between what I called moral goodness and ontological goodness, and I do think God is ontologically good but not morally good. So perhaps some definitions are in order. I defined moral goodness as the kind of thing we should praise. Having thought about it some more, I think I prefer a formulation more along the lines of Jaime in Dan's dialogue: effectiveness relationships in the natural world, with the proviso that they are effective toward achieving the kind of things humans ought to do (that lead us to become good humans, that complement and enable our human nature, etc.) Ontological goodness, on the other hand has to do with perfection and completeness. A car with a dent in the bumper is less ontologically good than a car without a dented bumper, for example.

I'm sure this will be controversial. So maybe I should explain more carefully what I mean. In my original post I said that I hadn't thought a lot about the story of the massacre of the Canaanites, which Dan had described as "intellectually responsible." I'd put it more in terms of being psychologically realistic. I have thought a great deal about the problem of pain (or theodicy) but not about the problem of how God could have done bad things in the past. There are issues there, technical philosophical issues that I don't think I can really address, and so I was trying to acknowledge that.

But the reason I haven't thought them through is simply because I don't think we have to turn to the past to find situations that everyone should agree were morally repugnant if they were done by a human. Once you see a dying child who has a cancer not because of something he's done to contract it but just because, you don't need to go much further for evidence that God can't be morally good. And then there's the larger scale. Droughts that take out entire regions. A human psyche that allows for things like "corrective rape" and extreme "disciplining" that leads to children's deaths. These things shock me, so much that I cannot think of anyone who would allow them as morally good.

But I have philosophical reasons as well. Probably the biggest one comes from the definition of "good" Dan proposed in his dialogue. Dan had Jaime define goodness as effectiveness relationships in the natural world. It is good to give to charity because this is a good way of eliminating suffering, something that is essential not just for our comfort but also if we're to become the best humans we can. (As the Jewish proverb goes, where there is no bread, there is no Torah.) I understand those effectiveness-relationships to be important because we need them. If we were entirely self-sufficient and perfectly good there would be no need to be in any kind of relationship with anything else that was an effective way to reach any goal.

It's also worth pointing out that even if there was some goal that God needed an effective way to reach, it wouldn't be the kind of good that a human needs to reach. I take this to mean that the ends that are good for humans would not be good for God, and so God would not be any less good for not acting in a way that would be good for humans to do. (I don't think this boils down to a kind of relativism or subjectivism, by the way. It is still an objective feature of the world that human flourishing is best-served through community and the social obligations that carries along with it (including the obligation to give to charity). Our brains are hard-wired to do well under those circumstances. But it is an objective fact about the world that is not actually effective to helping God be the best God He can be. First of all, because that implies some kind of change is necessary (or even possible); and second, because if such a need did exist, it would be a very different kind of need than our own needs as humans.

There's also the fact that I'm all too aware of the problem of language when describing God. Think of what we mean when we say, for example, "blue." The two most common accounts are that language is innate (in which case it's something we grasp in our minds even before we see the first blue thing), or else it's something we learn through the process of abstraction. Basically, you see several blue things, hear people make that sound of blue, and you look for a similarity between the objects to connect that sound to. Then in the future when you see an object with that same trait you can label it as blue. The problem is that most people who believe in God would say He isn't made of components the things we used to get our concepts from are made from, so any quality our words pick out aren't the kind of thing you'd expect to find in God. Now, God's not blue because He doesn't have a material body. But He's also not powerful, in the same way an A-Bomb or an earthquake is. Because the concept we derive from those experiences simply isn't the kind of thing that applies to God. It's a category mistake to ask whether God is good or evil.

That does leave some pretty big questions, I know. For one, it doesn't really match up with the claims the Gospel presents of a loving God, no need to fear for tomorrow, etc. And even if God has no obligation to be good, we certainly are entitled to say "this action You did is wrong," meaning it gets in the way rather than promoting those effectiveness relationships Jaime was talking about. The only way this is a problem, though, is if you suggest God has a special duty to promote human well-being as opposed to astral well-being or oak tree well-being or whatever. Expecting that seems to put some serious limitations on what God can and cannot do, which conflicts the standard picture of God. All of which makes me think that a world where God directly obeyed human standards of morality wouldn't be a God at all.

It's a grim picture, I'll admit, but it's honestly the only way I can see for the kind of God Christians claim they believe in to exist. I actually do think there's room for a healthy kind of love on this picture, the kind that doesn't ask me to destrioy who I am for your sake or for the sake of the relationship. If it is truly impossible for God to follow human morality without ceasing to be God, then I don't see a problem in saying a loving God would not change reality for our point but would support us as we have to live through it.

This is a topic that can't be answered fully in a blog post, I don't think. (It's a topic we've been struggling with since Epicurus.) I'll keep pegging at it as time allows since it is important, and I may well change my position as I continue to think about things. But, as for right now, those are my thoughts on God and moral goodness.

As an aside, the title comes from Epicurus's famous statement of the problem of evil (as laid out by Hume): Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
fidesquaerens: (Default)
Over at his blog, my friend Dan Fincke posted a dialogue looking at the connection between goodness and God. He's created two fictional characters, a Christian named Robin and an atheist named Jaime, who start out by discussing whether it makes sense to call the God described in the Bible good. They later move to the topic of whether it makes sense to think of goodness at all, if God did not exist to create it. Jaime eventually works his* way around to an argument that the Yahweh described in the Bible can't be the God Christians claim to believe in.

I want to explain why Jaime's argument (at least some of it) doesn't really hold up for me. But first I want to go on Plato safari, because a lot of the arguments Jaime uses are eerily familiar to the Euthyphro dilemma about Divine Command Theory. I don't think I've ever explained that philosophical concept before, so I'll take the opportunity to do that now. That's section I. Then there are some important distinctions I think Jaime needs to take into account, which I'll explain in part II. Finally, I'll try to bring all these concepts together to critique Jaime's position in part III. If you know the basic gist of the Euthyphro dilemma you can probably skip down.

But first, a quick comment on Dan's dialogue. Dan usually takes great pains to use gender-neutral names in these dialogues, but these particular names sorted themselves into he's and she's rather quickly. That's because to my mind Jaime that name is pronounced HIE meh, a distinctly masculine name. As for Robin, I had a good female friend with that name so I thought of her immediately. Since gender-neutral pronouns typically drive me crazy, I'm going to go with "he" for Jaime and "she" for Robin, out of convenience. I don't mean anything else by assigning gender roles, and I hope Dan won't mind too much.


Part I: The Euthyphro Dilemma )
Part II: There's Good, and Then There's Good )
Part III: Critiquing Jaime )

I'd be interested in other peoples' thoughts. Do you think it makes sense to describe God as good, in either sense? (Assuming you believe God exists, obviously.) How do you make sense of things like the genocide of the Canaanites? And I'd welcome opinions from theists and atheists on any other point I raised, or that Dan raised and you want to talk about. Have at it!


Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.
fidesquaerens: (Default)
Over at his blog, my friend Dan Fincke posted a link to an editorial by the inimitable Ta-Nehisi Coates. I agree with Dan: the whole editorial is a must-read for people wo like thinking about these things.

Short version of the Coates piece: many people discussing the Civil War consider the war itself a tragedy because of the loss of life; Mr. Coates wonders whether we shouldn't be celebrating it along the same lines of the Revolutionary War or World War II: a lot of suffering that was necessary for some greater good. As Dan frames it in the title of his post, "Should We Celebrate The Civil War With Hot Dogs and Fireworks?"

I feel quite strongly that we shouldn't. Of course, I've always felt pretty strongly that we shouldn't be celebrating any war (and, as Dan's commenter James Sweet rightly points out, we celebrate the Declaration of Independence rather than the Revolutionary War). But I think there's a deeper point to be made here, too. Even if the Civil War was necessary for a greater good, we should still not be celebratory. The thought of thousands dying beneath Antietam's sun should invoke a kind of horror.

Over the holidays I saw a Law and Order: SVU episode, "Harm," for the first time. The reviews online are pretty low, and I'll grant that it has almost nothing to do with sex and at times came off as being propagandish. But the plot did make me think. In it, there's this medical doctor who was engaged as a scientist to devise "torture light" - pressure poses, psychological tactics, and other things that would make people easier to break during interrogation. An ex-detainee had been murdered by a military contractor gone rogue, but said contractor had fled the jurisdiction. The doctor he worked with was left behind, and they wanted to try the doctor for setting in motion the torture that led to a detainee's death.

The doctor was more than a bit mystified by how what she had done could be considered murder, or even immoral. She was saving lives, she wasn't torturing them or even aiding anything as extreme as what the Taliban was probably doing to Americans. And she wasn't the detainees' doctor, she was a consulting scientist. But she was using her knowledge of the human body - gained so she could alleviate suffering - to cause pain and bodily harm. She knew just how much stress a person could go through in a certain position so they wouldn't be able to choose what to say any more, and she taught men with guns how to do it.

By the end of the episode, I was a bit horrified at the good doctor. Not because of what she had done but because she had no remorse. I'm thinking about something David Hume wrote - that reasons guide our emotions but that our emotions are what actually drives us to act or not to act in a certain way. We should be horrified when we have to kill someone or harm them in other ways. Even if that harm ends up being for the greater good. Because without the revulsion we won't think things through and we'll do evil too easily. War should be hard.

I have no problem with people celebrating the Declaration of Independence, or for that matter the emancipation of slavery. But there's something repugnant about thinking someone would want to celebrate Antietam. When that kind of thing happens, I think we've really started lose perspective.


Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.
fidesquaerens: (religion)
 A few days back I posted about a conversation Dan Fincke and I have been having. This was inspired by some comments Justice Scalia made, using Christian teaching to explain why he (or possibly just Americans generally) didn't seem so bothered by the death penalty. That quickly sprung off into a debate about the proper use of Christian metaphysics or theology in situations like this. I argued that this incident proved we needed a better theology; Dan said this showed why people shouldn't be religious at all.

That post I made on Friday was basically about utility: the fact that the quickest, easiest, and surest way to change someone's beliefs was to use their more-established beliefs to criticize newer ones. Of course that's not always possible, and that's when you should turn to a more thorough critique. But in the course of his follow-up reply (which, again, I thank him for), Dan argued that we shouldn't do anything to increase peoples' reliance on theology. In fact, he compared theology to an idea from Plato's Republic: the "noble lie."

Dan gives a thorough summary of this concept, and I really encourage you to read this if you haven't already. I'll just stick to the high notes. In the Republic, Plato describes what he considers to be a perfectly-just city (in many ways an allegory for human nature), in which the philosopher-kings are in charge of governing. This is similar to a meritocracy, but not quite. There aren't any privileged positions that go to the best qualified. Rather, each individual goes to the role they are best suited for, and thy are happiest (and most fulfilled) wherever they are.

Humans are naturally jealous of what they don't have. The philosopher-king, being wise, won't envy the farmer (not because his current position is better but because he knows it's most appropriate to him). But how can we convince the farmer of this? To convince him of the truth rationally, you would have to turn him into a philosopher, which he's not well-suited for. But Plato also isn't too keen to let the farmer make his own decisions without having wisdom. He needs a way to make the farmer content in his station without forcing him to become something he's not. For this, Plato uses the idea of a noble lie.

Plato suggests the philosopher-kings tell the masses along these lines: when the gods created man they gave some men golden souls, others silver ones, and others bronze ones. These different qualities in effect create three different sub-species, all of which excel at different things. This does not set up a genetic caste (sons of farmers could have gold souls, and would be identified and trained as philosophers; or vice versa), nor is it a judgmental claim (golden souls are not better than bronze ones, just different). This story is a lie since the philosopher-kings know souls aren't made out of metal. But it is a lie with a truth at its core. It's a simple way for the non-philosophers to understand they are uniquely suited for their work (which is true), without them having to learn philosophical concepts like telos and essential nature.

Dan argues we shouldn't tell lies, even noble ones, for several reasons. Because this post is going to be long as it is, I'm going to focus on just one of those reasons. I may come back and discuss the other sin separate posts, time allowing, because Dan really did give me a lot to chew on. The specific criticism of noble-lying I want to discuss is this:

It intrinsically damages the flourishing of the average person to actively thwart her abilities to think for herself as much as possible and to be autonomous as possible and the truly wisest who truly loved the good would value the potential autonomy and wisdom of even ordinary people, even at the risk of arrogance and incorrigibility among other ordinary people. ("A Critique of Noble Lies," §2)

Now, autonomy has a long history in German philosophy, which is I believe Dan's specialty. It's certainly far from mine (I am much more of an Aristotelian and a medievalist). That means there's a real possibility I will have misunderstood what he means here, but as I understand it, autonomy is basically freedom of choice. What Dan is saying is that the ability to choose well is a big part of what it means to be a fully flourishing human being, and so if someone is a good ruler trying to promote human flourishing, he will naturally want people to have that choice, as much as possible. So this ruler will "risk [the] arrogance and incorrigibility among the ordinary people," in an attempt to encourage them to become more reflective.

I'm sympathetic to Dan's view. As a teacher I encounter some students who Plato would probably describe as bronze- and silver-souled. I have some gold-souled ones, too, but also people who would not study philosophy even if they thought it would get them a job on graduating. And I feel driven to push them to become as reflecting and as philosophical as they can, even in light of their lack of interest. I don't feel justified to lie to them, to cheat them of the chance to make choices. But I also recognize two cases where people can't be autonomous - where we rightly restrict peoples' choice. I think the noble lie is appropriate in at least the second of these choices.

First, there's the people who have made a choice in the past that limits their future choices. Sometimes those choices are good, sometimes not. For example, you may have heard of Rose Marie Belforti, the town clerk in Cayuga Co., NY, who has refused to register same-sex couples since New York passed its gay marriage law. Most people (rightly IMO) think she is being derelict in her duty to carry out the law, and that she can't choose which laws to enforce. She made a choice to be town clerk, and now she can sacrifice the position or do the job, but she can't have it both ways. This isn't a limiting of autonomy, though. It's honoring it, since when we require someone to accept the consequences of their choices we treat them like someone capable of a true choice. (Incidentally, that's why Kant thought there were some crimes where people had to be executed; anything less would be an insult to their autonomy.)

The other case is trickier. Children are routinely denied their autonomy, nor are people new to some situation. My students are not able to decide whether or not philosophy is good for them until they have tried it. Similarly for calculus. That is why their core curriculum is set for them. Similarly a young child cannot set his bedtime or choose not to eat his sprouts because he doesn't het know what's really good for him; his parents do. The freshman's and the child's lack of maturity isn't there fault, it doesn't flow from some past choice.

By Dan's argument, we should be trying to help these people grow into their autonomy. Yet every year around this time, parents the world over tell one of the most common noble lies. (Parents, avert your children's eyes.) I'm talking about Santa Claus. Just like the philosopher-kings know our souls aren't made of metal, adults know there's no jolly fat man living at the North Pole. And just like the first noble lie had a true moral – that people had different natures and were suited to different kinds of work – the same is again true with Santa. It teaches kids that Christmas is a time for overcoming our selfish natures and being generous toward people they don't know. Kids being kids, they learn this lesson better through a model (true or false) than they would if their parents just told it to them directly. And I know that when I learned there was no Santa Claus, it softened the blow to learn there had been a grain of truth under it all.

Now, I can well imagine Dan would go along with this when it came to Santa, since kids haven't yet become autonomous. He could still argue back that adults have become autonomous, or should have, and it's the responsibility of the people in authority to help them along that path. It is. But these are really two separate issues, often but not always related. If the lie keeps the people being lied to from exercising their autonomy, it's obviously wrong. But that doesn't apply with the Santa Claus example. (And to be clear: it's not just chronological children who lack the capacity for autonomy. It's very easy to grow in age but not in wisdom.) But if a person doesn't have any autonomy to interfere with yet, I don't think the lie in itself is bad. It can be helpful or hurtful, depending on whether it encourages the person to grow.


Now to the heart of the matter: is theology a noble lie? And if so, is it a permissible one? That's a fiendishly hard question to answer, because people use the word "theology" in lots of different ways. I've come up with at least three ways, and there may well be more. One of these approaches is clearly wrong, both by the standard I've described above and by the Bible's own lights. (Since I'm most familiar with Christianity, I'll speak of Christian history, the Bible, and so on, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if this thinking can be applied to other faiths as well.)

First, there's what I call static theology. This is probably the most common kind of theology in practice – it's what you see on display when someone says in a debate over (say) LGBT rights or abortion or feminism or whatever, that "you're not disagreeing with me, you're disagreeing with God." Under this approach, theology is a set of beliefs, usually the most commonsensical interpretation of a certain Bible verse, or the one that goes back in history the furthest. The problem is, even the Bible doesn't follow this model. Take the Sermon on the Mount, in particular the antitheses ("You have heard it say ____, but I tell you ____.") Those verses aren't saying the first interpretation is wrong, but that there is a second, less obvious interpretation that is true at the same time.

This static kind of theology can turn into a lie, quite easily. Biblical verses are misinterpreted or, more likely (and more troublingly), they are interpreted one way and the faithful deny that the interpretation can progress. But since our interpretations of the Bible do progress, the old views can easily turn into a lie. And since there's no challenging, nothing to strain against, there's no potential for growth. As I said, this is a common approach in practice, meaning a good proportion of the people filling up the pews approach the Bible this way. It's simpler – but in most cases it's also wrong. That's why I tend to fight against this approach to theology.

Then there's the dynamic model. This is the idea that theology consists of a group of beliefs, but those beliefs are always changing and are always imperfect. In a lot of ways this approach is similar to the idea that science is progressive. We describe DNA as strands of molecules that coil around each other and are connected by (IIRC) hydrogen molecules, and scientists operate as if that description is true. But it's always understood that the model could still be disproved, and the model will have to be revised.

Similarly, under the dynamic model theological beliefs are always open to revision. I say God is powerful because the Bible says so at various points. But what does power mean? What does knowledge mean for God? What does goodness mean? All of this can change, and we understand our beliefs more fully through a few methods. There's Aristotle's endoxic method, which is alive and well in the Methodist denomination I grew up in. That's largely due to the Wesleyan quadrilateral, which says among other things that revelation, tradition, reason, and experience do not contradict each other. When they do, we need to reexamine our interpretation, and maybe revise our first-glance interpretation of one of the elements. And that includes Scripture. Scripture itself isn't made false, but the way we read it can be.

The only way to really lie here (let alone lie justly) is to think you have a better handle on things than you really do. To think what you believe now is the end of the story – basically, to slide back into the static model. That may be a necessary lie (say, with children or the newly converted), but as soon as possible you get people to thinking about the "truth" like an approximation. There are still beliefs here, and those beliefs can be critiqued so bad ones are thrown out and good ones are built upon.

Finally, some people approach theology more as a process than a set of beliefs. I find myself increasingly drawn to this approach, though I'm still finding my way in it and am not sure I'm completely comfortable with it. It seems the height of hubris to think that something like God could be boiled down to easily-understood propositions, and I'm not sure to what extent our normal words should be applied to God. This approach would look a lot like what I called dynamic theology, only without the possibility of any beliefs ever being true.

I'm not sure how it could critique Scalia or his ilk, which is a major reason I'm only wetting my toes in this idea. It seems a lot like agnosticism that leans toward theism rather than agnosticism that leans toward atheism. I'm not against that in principle, though it does seem to lose a lot of the advantages of theism, But whatever else you could say about it, I think this much is clear: without any actual beliefs, or belief-like statements, it's impossible to lie.


Having said all that, I can imagine Dan asking why we should bother with theology at all. That's a very different question than what we've been saying about noble lies, and it requires at least a new blog post if not a whole book to do it justice. (Something can avoid lying without it being useful.) But I will try for the ninety-second version, and if people are interested I will try to expand on this another time. Though it won't be easy – I've been trying to work out lately where I fit regarding theism, atheism, and all the varieties in between, and so I don't always have a pat answer to why I believe what I believe.

Anyway: ninety-second version. I know that I have a tendency toward being a "know it all." It goes with the territory of growing up a bookworm, and teaching has only encouraged that tendency. So I am likely to believe that I completely understand things, that there is nothing to know or relate to beyond my comprehension. Given that, I need what I call epistemic humility: the idea that I don't know it all. Having something I can't wrap my mind around completely is morally helpful. It also gives me something to struggle against, which I think encourages character growth.

As far as I can tell, reason hasn't been able to make it more or less likely that God exists, and (for various reasons that would take significantly longer than ninety seconds to explain) I think that where reason is silent, we are free to believe what we choose. Given my personality, I get real benefit from believing there is something external to myself that I need to struggle to make sense of. Theology is that struggle. I could perhaps find that struggle in philosophy, psychology, and the rest, but believing this struggle has an anchor I didn't create is helpful to me, so I keep believing until someone proves me wrong.

(That of course doesn't mean I'm not disgusted by the abuses of religion. I am. But I can reject bad religion without rejecting all of theology along with it.)

fidesquaerens: (religion)

Over the last few days, my friend Dan Fincke and I have been discussing a comment made by Justice Antonin Scalia on Americans’ acceptance of capital punishment. The quote first appeared in the journal First Things, then was quoted by the blog Doggy Style and reposted by Dan himself (that’s where I first encountered the passage. For context, here is the quote that started our interesting discussion (in its entirety so far as I have read it; emphasis is Doggy Style’s):

“So it is no accident, I think, that the modern view that the death penalty is immoral has centered in the West. That has little to do with the fact that the West has a Christian tradition and everything to do with the fact that the West is the domain of democracy. Indeed, it seems to me that the more Christian a country is, the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral. Abolition has taken its firmest hold in post-Christian Europe and has least support in the church-going United States. I attribute that to the fact that for the believing Christian, death is no big deal. Intentionally killing an innocent person is a big deal, a grave sin which causes one to lose his soul, but losing this physical life in exchange for the next – the Christian attitude is reflected in the words Robert Bolt’s play has Thomas More saying to the headsman: “Friend, be not afraid of your office. You send me to God.” And when Cramner asks whether he is sure of that, More replies, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.”

For the non-believer, on the other hand, to deprive a man of his life is to end his existence – what a horrible act. And besides being less likely to regard death as an utterly cataclysmic punishment, the Christian is also more likely to regard punishment in general as deserved. The doctrine of free will, the ability of man to resist temptations to evil is central to the Christian doctrine of salvation and damnation, heaven and hell. The post-Freudian secularist, on the other hand, is more inclined to think that people are what their history and circumstances have made them, and there is little sense in assigning blame.”

Dan had a rather nice analysis of the quote, outlining just why he found it such a “scary travesty” (his term), ending with the following comment: “These are the kinds of consequence that fantastic, dogmatically held, faith beliefs (that no one supposedly ever takes literally) can have. This is why some of us atheists think it is a big deal what people believe—even if their beliefs sound so ludicrous that no modern person in his or her right mind would ever be expected to make practical decisions based on them in fact.

I agreed with an awful lot of what Dan said. The phrase “scary travesty” is pretty accurate in my opinion! I have to believe that if one of Scalia’s children was murdered, he would not agree that that death was no big deal because his child could look forward to an afterlife. Here, I disagree with Thomas More: to be killed unjustly is a crime of the worst sort, and even if we did have an afterlife to look forward to, this would not make the death any less horrible. Even assuming the religious metaphysics is factually true, we will experience a utopia outside of time. There’s no advantage in rushing into it, and quite a bit to be lost in terms of the time-bound existence we can only experience as part of “this” life. This is why Christians and religious people generally are as upset by murders and suicides and accidents and fatal illness (before the end of life) as we are. Such grief is not a failure of theology or even the pang of our own loss, but a grief at the what-should-have-been.

This was what I had in mind when I replied to Dan. Specifically, I said:

Personally, I think this proves we need more theology, not less, within the religious community. Because this view is such an astoundingly bad interpretation of immortality and its relationship to ethics, it just begs to be refuted – not just by those people who deny immortality but also by those who believe in it and don’t think this means that we should all be suicidal.

This is a major difference between Dan’s and my views, I think. I was horrified that someone could so abuse Christian metaphysics to think that any unjust death was no big deal. I can easily imagine Scalia’s belief doing real harm, if he actually believes it (as opposed to just summarizing other peoples’ beliefs; the context isn’t 100% clear) and if he would use it as the basis of a legal opinion, even unconsciously. That possibility makes me want to convince him that his belief is wrong, as quick as possible. And Scalia’s Christian metaphysics – to the extent that it’s based on a text and can be critiqued internally – can actually be useful here, not a hindrance.

When I made this comment I had in mind a distinction I draw in my ethics courses, when teaching ethical subjectivism and cultural relativism. Subjectivism, roughly defined, is the idea that by “right” I mean the kind of action or motivation I personally approve of; relativism gives a similar definition but at a societal level. Subjectivists and relativists do allow for what I call internal critique. For example, if a subjectivists believe human life begins at conception but also thinks abortions are permissible in the case of rape, I could point out that her beliefs are contradictory even by her own standard. But it’s less clear that a subjectivist’s belief can be critiqued externally. That is, if a subjectivist believes we should euthanize everyone at the age of seventy irregardless of health or personal wishes, and that belief doesn’t contradict other beliefs, I’m not sure we can always argue that the view is simply wrong even if it doesn’t contradict some of the individual’s other beliefs. (We may be able to, in certain cases; I’m thinking of Hume’s ideal observer view in Enquiry 9.1, but I’d have to give it some careful thought before making a definitive statement one way or the other.)

Anyway, the specifics of that debate are really beside my point. I only bring it up because it’s a good philosophical example of a distinction many of us make all the time: claims can be analyzed regarding their consistency (1) with other subjective beliefs, and (2) with other objective truths that the person may not recognize yet. I’d also make the further claim that if the first kind of argument will work and if time is a factor, we should usually opt for that route. If you want to convince a libertarian as quickly as possible and Rand will do the trick, use Rand; for a communist it is pragmatic to appeal to Lenin; and for a self-avowed Catholic, who is speaking on behalf of the supposedly Christian American culture, you appeal to the Bible.

My reasoning is actually pretty simple, and I believe it applies universally. People have a vested interest in beliefs they have already adopted, and they like to think they are being consistent (that seems like part of human nature, to dislike contradictions). Asking them to adopt a new belief is always more difficult because they need to think it through and see if they really agree with it, and even if they do choose to adopt the belief they will need time to integrate it into their existing belief systems. Even then, since people grow more attached to their beliefs with time, I believe they are more likely to sacrifice newer beliefs in order to preserve newer beliefs. I’m not saying this is correct or not, but if our main purpose is to avoid the practical (and serious!) consequences of this particularly rancid belief, and if there’s a path of less resistance than the battle of the metaphysics, I’d say let’s take that path.

Dan then wrote a very nice post answering the point I was raised. (By the way: thank you, Dan. I was honored that you took my argument so seriously.) He summarized my argument as:

Her argument seems to me to be that if Scalia, due to religious prejudices, will not listen to philosophically presented arguments that he thinks are trumped by his (or Americans’) theology, then we should present those philosophical arguments within the theological terms he is most deeply committed to so we will have hope of actually persuading him.

I reject this approach because it just perpetuates both the false attribution of authority to theology and the false idea that it is just to consider theological arguments in legislating and these are the real sources of the problem. Not to challenge this perpetual error machine itself but to just try to work within it and correct the errors one by one is like treating symptoms and not the real disease.

Religious prejudices have nothing to do with it, actually. I simply think, human nature being as it is, it would be more effective to use Justice Scalia’s pre-existing beliefs as a tool to reform this particular one. I was making an appeal to utility, but I thought that was warranted since Dan seemed to make a similar point in his post. (Dan, please correct me if I misunderstood you.) In Dan’s original post he seemed to imply that Scalia’s belief was particularly bad because it might motivate his action. If the goal was to prevent future actions, I’d say practical concerns become relevant.

Dan then says that in addition to the specific belief of Scalia’s, he also wants to “challenge the perpetual error machine itself.” This claim, along with Dan’s comparison of theology to Plato’s “noble lie,” deserves a post of its own, and I will try to address it at greater length tomorrow. (I have tickets to see J. Edgar and need to leave soon, and don’t want to rush through such an important topic.) But let me speak briefly to what seems like the heart of the matter.

Dan compares theology to Plato’s noble lie (see the first section of his post for a truly well-done overview of that concept). This suggests that theology is a set of defined beliefs – God is just, God created evil, substitutionary atonement was necessary, etc.; otherwise I am not sure how theology or any part of it could be a lie.

I tend to view theology quite differently. There is a fine tradition in Judaism, Christianity, and I expect other traditions as well of theology being the continuing struggle to find new truths in old books. The revelation itself (as in the corpus that the rabbis, priests, pastors, etc. are trying to interpret) is old but the interpretation is continually new. Philosophers see this same phenomenon; just as modern scholars read Aristotle but often interpret him differently than Aquinas, Kant, or Dan’s own favorite Nietzsche would have, theologians re-read Leviticus in a different way than Talmudic scholars or medieval Catholic Scholastics would have. I guess I see theology more as a process than as an end-product, and so it seems like a category error to believe it could function like Plato’s noble lie.

I actually would be happy to challenge the “perpetual error machine” that says here are the facts of what the Bible means and they can never be understood differently. That implies that the God I believe in (incidentally: out of faith rather than reason) is reducible to propositions; I deny that claim. It also implies that our current moment in history is the pinnacle of human understanding, something both history and philosophy (and science, for that matter) argue against.

But that is unfortunately all I have time to say tonight. More on Dan’s comparison to the noble lie tomorrow. If you haven’t encountered it before, do yourself a favor and read his discussion of it. It’s really a very interesting line of thought that’s worth mulling over.


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August 2012

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