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 (This post is part of the August synchroblog.)

A few weeks ago Jared Wilson entered my world for the first and what I hope will be the last time with a sexist screed that rocked the blogosphere, or at least my corner of it. His original post has been deleted, and I don’t exactly want to give his words any more air-time than they already received by posting them again, plus they are rather trigger-ish for anyone with an exposure to rape or domestic violence, and to a lesser extent to women generally. So let me just summarize them briefly.


Warning: Triggerish for rape, DV, and general ickness )

The thing is, I’m not sure it’s that simple. Don’t mistake me, Mr. Wilson is 100%, outrageously wrong here. But to be fair here, he does have one Biblical land to stand on. To wit:

I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception;

In pain you shall bring forth your children;

Your desire shall be for your husband,
And he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16, NKJV)

The problem for folks like Mr. Wilson is they’re a few thousand years out of date:

Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:24-27, NKJV)

I don’t want to turn this into testimonial or anything. If I wasn’t a Christian, I’d probably find lots to object to about this statement, like the implication that we need faith to know that that rape-triggerish junk is, if you’ll excuse my language, complete and utter crap. We don’t. All we need is to be decent humans.

But speaking as a Christian, within that tradition, there’s something that’s especially wrong with Mr. Wilson’s language. Not only is it wrong and insulting but it turns the whole of Holy Scripture – you know, the sola thing you evangelicals are so keyed into – on its head. Because curses like this that were clearly temporary and the results of sin are quite honestly the only Scriptural evidence I can find that one group gets to lord it over the other. I don’t particularly accept the idea that men and women are innately different, but I sure don’t accept the idea that this gives any other human the right to dominate, particularly in such a violent way. And if that was ever the case, the whole thing about being sons (and daughters) of God through faith pretty well proves it. Alike in dignity, alike in worth, and each of us precious and unique – whatever bits of anatomy we might have between our legs.

This summer session I read Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship” with my ethics class, and we got into some interesting discussions on human dignity and autonomy and whether having God dictate right and wrong got in the way of all that. Russell writes,

A strange mystery it is that Nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurrying through the abysses of space, has brought forth at least a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother. In spite of death, the mark and seal of the parental control, Man is yet free, during his brief years, to examine, to criticise, to know, and in imagination to create. To him alone, in the world with which he is acquainted, this freedom belongs; and in this lies his superiority to the restless forces that control his outward life.

Russell’s point, as I understand it, is that there is a certain dignity and a moral worth in being the one to choose. This idea seems very Kantian to me: we are the moral legislator, the one that makes sense of the chaos, and to submit to someone else’s authority is a betrayal of self. Is this idea at least reconcilable with the Christian ideal of submission, of following? Obviously the rest of Russell’s essay is thoroughly atheistic, and I don’t want to Christianize him. But the idea expressed in the quote above is a naturally attractive one, and I see it in a lot of religious peoples’ attempts to live well through horrific consequences. How does submission come into all this?

Years ago, when my grandfather died after a long illness, I remember standing against a wall at the wake and being unable to cry. We weren’t all that close as he had been chair-bound for most of my life, and I thought that was it. So on top of feeling, well, as bad as one does at funerals, I was feeling royally guilty too, but strangely stoic at the same time. My cousin Lisa (who even then “got” me very well) saw what was going on and said that, just for that day, she would be my big sister. I was maybe thirteen or fourteen and the oldest of three siblings, and I thought it was my job to be “strong” for them.  I was wrong, and only when someone showed me that could I start to cry like we all need to at those points.

Christianity glorifies submission and weakness but at the same time many Christians rely on human dignity to find worth in their lives, particularly in life’s dark allies. (This is what I think Paul is really getting at in 2 Corinthians 12 – not that humans are decrepit without God, but that we are strong enough to see even weakness in our strength, something greater than ourselves.) I think, particularly in the wake of tragedies like the Colorado shooting or the recent attack on the Sikh temple, we need what Russell pointed to: “to examine, to criticise, to know, and in imagination to create.” It’s also for me the beauty and salvific power of Tolkien’s mythic vision of a world where “the [story’s] cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands.” As humans, we need to stare into the void and find more than emptiness. And if there isn’t anything but vacuum, we need to fill it ourselves.

That requires a very different kind of submission, of following, than the one Mr. Wilson points to, and for reasons that go beyond the obvious ones. It isn’t about giving up our authority and dignity as rational beings, capable to act on something other than simple instinct. It’s about recognizing our limits and choosing to rest a bit, let someone else carry the load for a mile or two, so we can take it up again all the better.

That’s a kind of submission even this dyed-in-the-wool egalitarian can get behind.

(Originally posted at LJ.)
fidesquaerens: (religion)
Tim Kurek (a Christian author I follow over on FB) has a new book coming out. As he describes it:

In January 2009 I entered the closet a straight man and came out to my friends and family as a gay. I lived with the label for an entire year. After my life as I knew it had quickly unraveled into nothing, I began building a new one. I became a barista at a gay café. I played in a LGBT softball league. I protested in New York City with a group of gay activists that I had encountered years before while I studied Liberty University. And I even participated in a marriage equality event with the son on Jim and Tammy Faye, Jay Bakker. For a year I immersed myself, completely and utterly, in the small gay scene of Nashville, Tennessee, and experienced firsthand the agony of being isolated, repressed, and alone.

My book is the result of that year and it tells the story of the men and women that challenged, and ultimately changed my life’s path. It is a book about faith, and a book about doubt. But mostly it is a book about people, and how the men and women I’d always been taught to shun ended up saving my life.

He emphasizes that he is not writing about the gay experience, since (as he's not really gay) that's not a topic he feels competent to address. Rather, it's about a rather extreme exercise in empathy: a Christian trying to exorcise his inner-Pharisee, as it were, and to live with what many LGBT Christians live with "for real."

He's asking the same questions that spurred my own "evolution" on homosexuality, and changed me from someone who thought the Bible taught homosexuality was immoral to being convinced of the opposite. While I didn't go so far as Tim did (not nearly that brave, unfortunately!) I found myself asking questions like the ones that motivated his project. If I was gay, could I come out to my family and friends? Could I still be a Christian? What made any love I felt for another man better or more worthy of support than the love a gay friend of mine felt for his boyfriend? These on top of the obvious political problems of denying equal legal protections to anyone, based on a religious belief. It was this striving for empathy that really changed my position on homosexuality, and though this was private in my case - I lived with "what if's" rather than dealing with peoples' very real reactions to my actually coming out - I can definitely see the appeal of Tim's project.

Tim has a trailer out for the book...

Read more... )

... and he is accepting donations to help pay for a publicist and final book editing. Even if you decide not to donate (which I plan to, and encourage - this really is an interesting story that needs to be told), I hope you'll check out the trailer and think about the experiences he describes. It'll be four minutes well spent. The book comes out October 11.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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Over at FB, I've seen several people post this meme;

Read more... )

It's not that different from lots of other memes that float around there, and I feel a bit guilty for singling it out. Particularly as I'll be posting a link of this to FB and really don't want to single out my particular friends. So let me say at the start - I'm not trying to single out the people who shared this. I know they meant well, and my frustrations have to do with a much larger problem. In particular, several larger problems.

#1. Armchair Activism: I always get frustrated with altruism, activism, whatever that doesn't require any real sacrifice. The Kony2012 video is a great example of this phenomenon. You also see it in stores that make donations if you buy a certain product, like the recent October Baby that would donate ten percent of the profit to pro-life groups. Whatever practical good they do, they inoculate us. There's something we're supposed to care deeply about, but all we have to do is go to the movie, or share a YouTube video, or share a picture on FaceBook. And suddenly we feel like we've done our part.

Loving God and loving your neighbor should require more than that. It's supposed to be hard - certainly harder than sharing the news about the new Hobbit movie. And of course there's nothing wrong with doing the simple stuff either. But I know in my experience, with things like this, so often this is the end of the story. You're outraged over child soldiers, you share the video, and there's this catharsis; your angst is relieved. My faith requires more of me.

#2. The "Christian Nation" Vibe: This picture says that 97% of FB users won't repost this simple message. I bristle at drives to "won't you please forward/repost this" on principle - they strike me as manipulative even when they're not meant that way! - but here in particular it seems to assume that all FB users are the kind of people who will post Christian-themed things. There are around two billion Christians in the world, last I heard - roughly 1/3 of the world's population. And that includes people who are Catholic because they were born in Italy, or Southern Baptist because they were white and born in Atlanta, or whatever.

In lots of areas of the world, if you're born there and you don't really think that much about religion or theology, you're probably going to be a member of a certain religion. It's actually a very rare person who considers the different views on offer by the different religions and secularism, chooses the one that best matches up with his own, and is as likely to be a Buddhist or a Jew as he was a Baptist. It's a matter of identity (and of necessity - understanding theology takes a lifetime of study and living with it; not everyone can afford that). Christian Scripture pretty much teaches this fact - cf. Mt 25.

Whatever you think of people like this, it's not just that they're lazy. Acting like the whole world is Christian, let alone devout Christians, is misleading at best.

(For the record, I'm one of those Christians that feels odd about public professions of faith. Not because I'm embarrassed or anything, but because what Jesus said about using faith in God as identity - you know, the people that prayed loudly in the temple, who'd already received their reward. It's not laziness on my part, either.)

#3. He Sees You When You're Sleeping... It's the last bit that really pushes my button. You should post this picture because: "Repost if you love God. He already saw you read it. That's just insulting on many levels, as if the way I live out my faith is just because God's watching over my shoulder. It actually reminded me about another meme I've been meaning to blog about. Will just link to it because it has some triggers for domestic violence, but I can't say it any more plainly: the kind of love depicted in that picture - and that grows out of the fear implied in that last line - is not worthy of worship. Or even sharing on FaceBook. And it's definitely not worthy of God.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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Many atheist friends of mine (I’m thinking of Dan Fincke in particular, but I’m sure I’ve heard the point other places as well) describe “faith” as being more sure of something than is warranted by the available evidence. It’s not a complement. The thought, as I understand it, is that we should only believe things we have good reason to think are true, and that there’s no good reason to believe God exists. So people who do believe God exists are either making a factual mistake (they think there’s evidence but there isn’t), or otherwise they’re wrong to think we don’t need that evidence. Either way, all theists are being irrational.

Obviously I don’t agree with this in every situation or I wouldn’t be a theist. on theology being 'true' )
on heaven, hell, and a rather messed-up kind of justice )
fidesquaerens: (Default)
 I actually saw this one coming a mile away:

What the 'After-Birth Abortion' and 'Personhood' Debates Have in Common

A few weeks back I wrote about a journal article proposing that infanticides just after birth should have the same legal status as abortions just before. Meaning that they should be legal if the mother's welfare was at risk, and not even called infanticides. I find this claim preposterous, and I tried my best to explain why. Basically, I think there's a big distinction between legal status and moral status.

ChristianityToday, a major online and print magazine in the evangelical (not necessarily conservative, not necessarily fundamentalist, but just evangelical) publishing world made the above post in one of their associated blogs. Basically, the argument goes, this whole debate over infanticide comes from the recognition that there's no recognizable distinction between a fetus and an infant, meaning we should give  all the rights of an infant to a fetus. Think the personhood bills you've seen put out in U.S. states like Mississippi and Colorado.

The problem here is that the concepts of "fetus" and "born human" (to say nothing of human and person generally) are really not so simple, and we're using them like they are. I tend to think the whole abortion debate would be much, much easier if we thought about what we meant by a fetus. I'll grant that a fetus a minute before birth has more in common with an infant one minute after birth, than it does with a fetus one minute after conception. I'll even grant that some of the ways these three things are similar and different are morally relevant. All that proves, though, is that a fetus is a distinction where the members in it don't all have the same moral status.

There are a lot of big philosophical words floating around in there, so let me try to make this simpler. I'll give you that it's morally wrong to kill a fetus one minute before it's born. (Allowing the usual exceptions for self-defense, etc.) That doesn't mean it should be morally wrong to kill any fetus. And, just for the record, it doesn't actually mean it should be illegal to kill a fetus one minute before birth. The law's a blunt instrument and may not be up to the task of splitting that moral hair. It just means that not all fetuses are in the same position, morally speaking.

While we're on the concept of distinctions, it's worth looking at one more: human vs. person. On one definition, it's quite obvious that a newly-fertilized zygote is human. So is an amputated leg or fingernail clippings. Human here just means "has human DNA" or "has human cellular structure." But a doctor who amputates a leg to save the patient doesn't have to go through a hospital board inquiry, and I didn't have to explain to the police why I cut my nails last night. There's another definition of "human," which philosophers both prefer to call "person" to avoid speciesism and to avoid the confusion of using human in more than two ways. Persons are members of the moral community, things that have rights and responsibilities. Some philosophers use  the ability to feel pain; more common is the sentience idea, or the ability to act on something other than just instinct. But when a scientist or a bioethicist talks about a fetus being human, they don't usually mean it in the personhood case.

So to sum up:

  1. Yes, fetuses are (genetically) human.
  2. No, not all fetuses are humans/persons in the moral sense.
  3. The solution is not to call a zygote a person – it is to recognize that fetuses exist along a continuum, and while some may reasonably be called a person, not all can.
  4. So: drop this drive to call a zygote a person. It's not helping.

I am actually as dismayed by this journal article's claim as anyone else. The solution, though, isn't to double down and insist all fetuses are people. It's to recognize the very real difference between a zygote smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, and an eight-month old human baby that could survive on its own outside the womb.

It also wouldn't hurt to distinguish between a late-term fetus's right to life, and the mother of a late-term fetus's obligation to preserve that life. She may have such an obligation based on her past actions of not terminating the pregnancy, not using appropriate birth control, etc. (depending on the situation – this is a big if), but it's not all about a "right to life." There are other concerns that play out here, and the dueling claims in this situation are complicated. You don't do anyone any good by pretending this is a simple issue.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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Whatever else the recent blowup over the ACA contraception mandate might have shown, it's that Americans need a better epistemology. The news story has interested me on many levels and will probably pop up in blog posts from time to time. But one philosophical idea kept seeming to float to the forefront, at least in my mind as I read the different news stories. Namely, that the people participating in this debate seemed to be using concepts in very different ways. They weren't even consistent within the different sides.

This becomes clearer if you think about different groups. There was a lot of talk in left-leaning circles about "the 98%" – a statistic that 98% of sexually active Catholic women had used contraception at least once, and that a high number (I think in the neighborhood of 70-80%) used it regularly or were currently using it. The implication was that this meant Catholicism no longer had a major problem with birth control. I previously argued that religious institutions like the RCC don't operate like unions or PACs, where all you need for a position change is a new consensus view. The RCC, like all religious institutions represents its tradition, not the current view of all its members; and the members get to vote by agreeing to be a part of it or not.

So it's in the church's best interest to make its positions relevant to its members, through education and dialogue. I may not agree with the position (in point of fact I don't), but it's not my opinion – or any Catholic parishioner (which I'm not), or the majority opinion of those parishioners – that decides here. Here, what it means to be a Catholic is controlled by those people charged with interpreting and guarding Catholic tradition. The bishops and the rest of the Catholic hierarchy.

The liberals have it wrong here. I say this as a liberal! But on this particular point, they're off base.

Interestingly, they're also wrong on a related issue but for exactly the opposite reason. This one came up in the context of hearings on this same mandate. There was a bit of a brouhaha over the fact that there weren't any women on the first panel that appeared before the committee, and specifically that one witness who had been denied contraception by her Catholic employer that she needed for non-reproductive reasons wasn't allowed to testify. The charge of "Where were the women?" was pronounced immediately by Nancy Pelosi and soon went viral. I wasn't convinced even at first, because this particular hearing was over whether the mandate posed a challenge to religious freedom, and the woman they wanted to testify didn't have any comment on that particular issue. Do I wish the various religious groups had highlighted some of their female leaders (which do exist)? Yes, if only to drive home the point that religion is not all male-dominated, and that the lashback was tempered by an awareness of the reality women live. But the proposed witness was none of these things, and so I didn't feel excluded on those grounds.

It's what came next where things got really interesting. See, as it turns out there was a woman on the second panel that testified before the hearing (two in fact), but they didn't testify in favor of the mandate. So the idea that no women had testified was revamped a bit to say no women had testified for women. This irked me in the same way that the line that anti-abortion access laws are somehow a war against women. I don't like those laws, I find them insulting in their insinuation that women's decisions couldn't possibly be well-reasoned and I think some of them (like the recent narrow miss down in Virginia) are awful assaults on women and turn the doctor-patient relation on its head.

But I don't think attacks on them are a war on women, because lots of women do resent having reproduction labeled as an illness. Women tend to be among the most ardent pro-lifers, and they probably see abortion as an assault not only on a child but also on their way of life. I don't agree with them, but it is disenfranchising to them to suggest that unless you hold a certain view, you are not speaking for women or you're not a real women. Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann are women, and as much as I hate what they stand for on nearly every issue, they represent the viewpoints of many women.

The difference here is that "women" are not an institution like a church is. So here, you can't say you are protecting the institution of womanhood. If you were talking about a specific institution organized along gender lines (NOW, for instance) then, yes, we have a right to say that such-and-such a legislation is anti-NOW or against the interests of NOW. But the larger issue that a legislation is anti-woman? That only makes sense if you think of women as a monolithic group. We aren't that, and again the Democratic party is on the wrong end of it to suggest we are.

I've made my feelings on this mandate clear in recent posts, but that doesn't mean I can't recognize sloppy sentiments when I see them. Ironically, the left-leaning blogosphere is contradicting itself when saying on the one hand the RCC must take every member's position into account with no regard for history when determining the RCC's position, and then on the other hand that "women's issues" should only be decided by the "right" kind of women. Ironic that they get it wrong in both cases, really.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
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*rushes in with noise-makers and cake*

Yesterday I had planned to write about pandemonium_213's birthday. I had every intention of writing her a nice birthday post, full of meaty science-and-faith thoughts. I'd even planned out a witty opening line about yesterday (now two days ago) being Charles Dawin's birthday, but even more importantly it was the day before our own pandë's. :-) But I got a bit obsessed with the unhappy juxtaposition of (1) Chris Brown making a "come-back" by performing at the Oscars and (2) the upcoming Valentine's Day focus on love. I couldn't quite get my thoughts to go other places, including what I'd wanted to write about.

So, first things first. Pandë, I really hope you had a first-class day. Our corner of the interwebs is better for your being part of it.

I also wanted to say a few words about the topic of atheism, religion, faith and science. I can't hope that both Pandë and Darwin would approve. Annual posts thinking about the kinds of questions I imagine Pandë asking me are becoming a bit of a tradition, actually! The rest of this post is dedicated to her, though of course the thoughts don't represent her position. But I do hope the labor of love inherent in pondering deep questions will be a fitting tribute to her. (And as always, Pandë, do feel free to respond honestly, if you want to.)

Read more... )

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I'm teaching an Aristotle reading tomorrow where he talks about what it means to be a good human. Before he can do that, though, he thinks he has to work through what a human is. I'll spare you the details, but asically Aristotle says that what sets us apart is that we can look at a situation and choose to go one way or the other; unlike Buridan's ass, we can move beyond our impulses. The important thing is that Aristotle defines humanity in terms of some characteristic that we actually have – not that we might have, not that we'll someday develop, not that we'll one day develop. And certainly not that we have human DNA as opposed to orangutan DNA.

This question has some obvious connections to the whole abortion debate, because a zygote or even a six-week-old fetus has very few qualities. If a human is a choosing thing, can a young fetus do this. Can a newborn baby, for that matter? Aristotle's account of humanity seems to say that a fetus's (or for that matter, a small child's) status as human depends on what it can do. If it can decide whether it wants to play with the red ball or the blue ball, then it's a human and killing it is murder; if not, then it is still alive (and so can be killed), but maybe that killing doesn't rise to the level of murder.

Preparing for class, I wanted to prepare several arguments Aristotle could give for why abortion is wrong without calling it murder, at least in some circumstances. I don't necessarily agree with them, but I thought it might be fun to discuss them anyway.

1. Potential vs. Actual Traits: Aristotle distinguishes between traits we have right now and traits we have the ability to develop. So while a fetus isn't human (since it can't make choices at this point), it has the ability to develop. Aristotle says it's important that we develop character virtues, which he sees as potential traits we should develop. (So basically, the Adrian Monks of the world should build up their courage, so they can face new and challenging situations, but they're not courageous until they've done that.) I think a story could be told here that people who have a duty to protect a particular child have a duty not to squander that potential.

(Caveats: I'm almost certain Aristotle would say actual trumps potential, so a mother has a duty to have an abortion if her life is in danger. You could also ask whether certain parents have a duty to a particular fetus. You might argue that until you accept responsibility for it, its not really your responsibility to nurture a fetus just because it's taken up residence inside you.)

2. The Duty to Care: Aristotle defines humans not just as a rational animal but also as a social animal. We develop our virtue in a community, and friendships – good kinds of friendships built on a love of virtue – are definitely to be sought after. Treating a fetus as just something getting in the way of our desires objectifies us. And to the extent that we think of it as a human or a potential human, it makes it that much harder to form genuine human relationships. This probably is more true of very young children who weren't yet able to choose, or fetuses that were old enough they were known to resemble very young humans – the concern is that by treating fetuses/infants that remind you of mature humans as things, you train yourself to think of real humans the wrong way.

(Caveats: Aristotle's perfectly clear that not only can't you have a friendship with a non-human, you can't have a true friendship unless it's between equals – knocking out the parent/child relationship even once the child is born. So this only addresses the way that treating a potential human as a thing damages the mother's ability to foster future friendships with fully-mature humans.)

3. The Practical Harm of Abortion: Aristotle doesn't define right and wrong in terms of how much pleasure or pain they generate, but he does recognize its importance. Any abortion will involve physical pain, either from surgery or from cramps and discomfort as the zygote/fetus passes. There's also the psychological pain, if a woman feels like she has had to kill a human or a potential human; the lost money that went to the abortion; and the social stigma.

(Caveats: The pain a woman suffers through an abortion may be less than the pain she'd suffer by going through a pregnancy, to say nothing of either adoption or motherhood. And Aristotle's not totally averse to some suffering, if it leads you to develop character; he seems to be more against pointless or excessive pain. I'm also not sure how an Aristotelian would count the pain the fetus went through as it died. Since it's not surviving it can't have a bad impact on the fetus's future character.)

So… three ways that an Aristotelian could say abortion is not murder but it's still wrong in most circumstances. Thinking about this, I'm reminded of Bella's pregnancy in Breaking Dawn. It seems to me that an Aristotelian would almost certainly disagree with Bella's initial decision to have a pregnancy that put her life in very real danger (she's told in no uncertain terms that this child is killing her) – but once Edward senses the child's thoughts, I think at that point an Aristotelian would have a harder time insisting on an abortion. The child is increasingly human (I'd say having actual thoughts, certainly actual desires, is a key marker of being human), and at that point the parents had formed a special attachment to it, so killing Renesme then would lead to the problems I pointed out in #2.

What do you guys think. If you think abortion is wrong, would these ideas let you condemn it strongly enough without calling abortion murder? Do these ideas put enough value on the mother's right not to have a fetus take over her body for nine months, maybe even kill her? I'd be interested in peoples' reactions.

(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)
This is disgusting:

Not the article but the phenomenon. Basically, in a small town in Minnesota (Sen. Bachmann's district actually), they've had a collection of I think nine suicides by high school and middle school kids. Many but not all were LGBT, and it started around the same time the school board barred teachers from promoting homosexuality through the sex ed curriculum. (That included presenting homosexuality as an acceptable "lifestyle.") Because the curriculum was so unclear, teachers were afraid to admit they were homosexual or teach about the role LGBT people had played in history. Or, you know, stop the students who taunted their perceived-as-LGBT classmates, chasing them down the hall and calling them faggot or dyke. I find those words offensive to type; imagine being thirteen an having your peers call you that in full view of a teacher, who does nothing.

There is a real sense of the-inmates-have-taken-over-the-asylum here. Some parts of the story don't quite track for me, like why teachers waited so long to take a stand. Or why the board met with an LGBT activist without having their story straight, if they needed a story. Or why the students were simultaneously traumatized by the deaths but simultaneously went on teasing them until yet more died. But I think denial can explain a lot, as can the inherently messy and illogical nature of all suicides, especially where it's kids we're talking about.

What really shook me (aside from the physical details of the suicide; they're not excessively graphic, but definitely triggery for someone with my history) was the reaction of the local "family values" advocates:

Asked on a radio program whether the anti-gay agenda of her ilk bore any responsibility for the bullying and suicides, Barb Anderson, co-author of the original "No Homo Promo," held fast to her principles, blaming pro-gay groups for the tragedies. She explained that such "child corruption" agencies allow "quote-unquote gay kids" to wrongly feel legitimized. "And then these kids are locked into a lifestyle with their choices limited, and many times this can be disastrous to them as they get into the behavior which leads to disease and death," Anderson said.

Let's assume just for the moment that she's right, that homosexuality actually does lead to a shorter lifespan. Say there's a higher prevalence of AIDS and other diseases, that social pressures lead to self-destructive behaviors. I don't believe that, but let's just say for arguments. In these cases it wasn't AIDS or "limited choices" or anything else that killed these kids.

It was hate.

And that hate can be traced back to the bullying and alienation that the policy not to mention LGBT issues and individuals in the curriculum pointed back to. Some of the suicidees were thirteen. I can't imagine Samantha had even heard of ACTUP, the GLF, or whatever their modern analogs are. But she knew the hate she dealt with every day. If the person who put this policy in place cannot feel empathy for her and thinks the only proper response is to blame her "kind," then Ms. Anderson is missing something big about being a human. Kids are dead. I'm not so naive to think it's all her fault because, as I said, suicide is complicated. But teachers who stood by while this harassing happened time and again and district policies that made it difficult to do anything else had more of a role in this dynamic than any "gay agenda."

Honestly, stuff like this makes me ashamed to be a Christian. I've read enough of my Bible to know these folks aren't practicing the real deal, and I've known enough Christians to know they're not all this. But if I was a high school kid in Anoka, MN, I think I could be forgiven from praying the bumper-sticker's prayer: Lord, save us from your followers.



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)
I've been following the debate over health care mandates, freedom of conscience, and religious exemptions pretty closely. It's really very interesting and (for me at least) very personal.

For those of you who aren't American or, you know, have lives to live that don't involve watching the news, the new health care bill basically requires everyone to carry insurance. If you can't afford it, you get a tax-paid subsidy to help out; if you refuse, you pay a penalty to cover the cost of health care if you get sick. The problem is that many companies only offer very minimal coverage – either really high deductibles (the amount you have to pay before insurance kicks in) or low caps (after which you're responsible for the bills). So to help with that problem, Congress said that each eligible plan – meaning, the plans that will let you avoid the penalty – have to provide a certain level of coverage in several defined areas.

And one of those areas was reproductive health for women. Anyone familiar with American politics and the *erm* heightened interest anything to do with sex seems to draw.

Even before the law passed, it was on record that no taxpayer money could go to fund abortions. I wasn't crazy about that decision, but at the time I accepted as the price of doing business. Personally the thought of people with money deciding what medically-necessary health procedures I should have access to (yes, even if they're footing the bill) really bothers me. This is basically because I recognize that yes, capitalism is great at encouraging innovation and hard work and all that, but it really and truly sucks at distributing resources in a fair way. I think that middle- and upper-class people are generally overpaid, meaning that we should give up our money to fill the actual needs of the poor. I see this as a moral duty, and I don't think I should get to say how that money is actually used. So I don't think I should be able to tell a poor woman she can't have an abortion or buy a soda out of their food stamp money (another personal bugabear, brought to you courtesy of Mayor Bloomberg) or whatever, any more than I should be able to tell a rich or middle-class person. But whatever. As I said, with the abortion provision, I do think the ends justified the means there, even if I wasn't totally comfortable with it.

Now the government is trying to work out just what insurances should have to cover. One of those areas, as I mentioned above, is reproductive health. Basically, the government wants to force all health insurance plans to cover health insurance – including plans paid for in part by employers who have traditionally opposed birth control, like the Roman Catholic Church. There are conscience clause exceptions, which basically let people whose jobs are suitably religious in nature (think pastors and priests) buy insurance plans that don't cover birth control. Sometimes the groups oppose birth control on principle, like the Catholics whose natural law ethics condemn any ejaculation that doesn't have the goal of procreation. Other times there's a concern that the some of the birth controls can act as abortifacients, opening up a back door to taxpayer-funded abortions. Still others, usually conservative Protestants, point to the connection between birth control and extramarital sex and don't want to subsidize promiscuity.

But whatever the reason, these groups don't want to limit the conscience clause to clergy and church employees. The conscience exception wouldn't apply to people whose work wasn't devoted to religious ends. Like social workers and nurses employed by Catholic charities, for instance. And plans for students at religious universities would have to cover birth control.

This is where it gets personal for me, because I am a graduate student on stipend at attend a Jesuit (Catholic) university, and I was very much surprised to discover that my health insurance (purchased through my school) doesn't cover birth control or really anything reproduction-related besides OB-GYN exams. I'm not a member of the Roman Catholic Church, nor do I think I accepted a "Catholic" ethic because I decided to study and teach here. Jesuits just happen to produce the best scholars in my corner of philosophy. As it happens, I don't need birth control because I'm not sexually active, and I actually think most premarital sex is immoral for various reason. But that's my decision, based on my moral choice. And for the majority of the culture that disagrees with me, that's there moral choice, too. To be perfectly honest, I really resent the idea that some group I never joined up with should decide what kind of health choices I'm able to access.

(To be clear: this "joined up" idea can be hard to nail down. If you were born into a church and your whole family belonged, staying on the church rosters could just be inertia at work. Or maybe you joined because you agreed with most of the beliefs but not this one. Or maybe you took a job at a Catholic hospital or teaching Spanish at an evangelical high school because it was the only or best opening in your area. None of these should take away your access to medical procedures. But this is doubly so for college students, given how little emphasis students put on the school's ideology when choosing to go there.)

This, right here, is why the whole idea of relying on charity for basic needs doesn't work. The Catholic Church (and the other groups taking similar stances) are saying it's an affront to their freedom of conscience if they have to pay for my birth control (if I decided I wanted it). I would maybe be okay with that (maybe) if not for the refrain I keep hearing in politics. We're told that government is inefficient, that it's wrong to make people give up their money to support people who didn't earn it. That Americans are the most generous nation and to just let people hold on to their money so they can donate it willingly. But many, many charities have religious ideologies. Those that don't tend to have their own ideologies, and many attach requirements to people using their money. That doesn't sit right with me.

Think about an analogy. Say someone proposes we slash the budget for Section 8 housing. [for Non-Americans: government $$$ paid to private landlords, to provide lower-income housing for the poor] This is in exchange for a taxcut, with the assumption people will turn around and donate that money to private charities working in their local area. Only those charities have their own ideology, as most do. Say a certain charity has a strong ideological position against smoking. (Perhaps it's Mormon-backed, whose church considers tobacco use a sin; perhaps the group's founder just lost a favorite uncle to emphysema and hates smoking.) I can't help thinking low-income people would be less free under this system than the current one.

I guess it all comes down to this for me: you can only use those rights you have the power to exercise. I'm all for personal responsibility and saying that if you have enough money to meet your needs if you were smart about it and you squander it, that you're responsible for. Maybe those people need to suffer, or maybe there's room for honest-to-goodness charity there. But if someone isn't making enough to have a basic standard of living, if they're trying to find a job and can't or if the jobs available pay too little, that's not what charity's for. They need public funds – yes, taken from my tax $$$ – and it's really not up to me how they spend it. That's justice.

Your thoughts?

Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.
fidesquaerens: (religion)
Over at FaceBook, my friend Edward and I were discussing an article he had posted about the abortion of the disabled. I happened to mention in passing that while I tended to think abortion was immoral in most cases --pro-choice doesn't always mean pro-abortion-- I also didn't think early-term abortions were murder because I didn't think early-term fetuses were human.

Edward asked me a perfectly reasonable question, probably the most common question I get when I talk about my views on abortion: how could a fetus conceived by two humans not be human? My answer got a bit long for a comment, so I thought I'd make it a post. Besides, I thought some people might find it interesting.

I have no problem saying a fetus is genetically human - that it has the genetic code of a human. If that's all it takes to be a human, then I suppose in that sense Edward is right and the offspring of two humans has to be a human. But my understanding of life science --and any scientists, please correct me!-- is that species aren't just determined by their genetic code. Organisms have a structure, an arrangement of cells. After all, I got my hair cut yesterday and shed nary a tear over the mass genocide of split ends. And we don't drag doctors before the review board when they excise a cancer and those human cells die, because cells aren't humans.

That's an intuition I think we all have - that a human involves not just a certain DNA but also a certain structure and (dare I say) a certain set of capabilities. A zygote in the earliest weeks of a pregnancy is a clump of cells. There's no structure, let alone no characteristic functions of being human. So that clump of cells isn't a human, though it may have human DNA.

Our language supports this conclusion. An acorn is not an oak tree, though it comes from an oak tree and will grow into one. Neither is a tadpole a frog in any obvious sense. It lacks critical abilities like the capacity to breathe air rather than air, the existence of legs for jumping, and the like. With humans we tend to use the same word for all stages of development, but I think this is a bit of a misnomer. Or at least it lends itself to misuse.

Here's where things get tricky. When people say abortion is murder, they usually have an argument in mind along the lines of:

1. It's always wrong to kill a human (setting aside self-defense, accidents, etc.)
2. A fetus is a human.
3. So it's always wrong to kill a fetus (setting aside self-defense, accidents, etc.)

Problem is, people are using the word "human" in very different ways here. I'll grant that (1) is true if we're talking about an adult human who's able to think and evaluate the situation - a rational animal, in Aristotle's terminology. I'm even willing to extend that to small children who aren't yet fully rational but are on their way, and to older fetuses that can react to their environments and show signs of self-awareness, decision-making, etc. But a blastocyst can't think.

On the other hand, it's only obvious that (2) is true if we're talking about a genetic human. Young fetuses --before consciousness-- are only human if we understand human in a very different way here than we did in statement (1). Ergo: equivocation. To avoid that, I have trained myself to only use the term "human" in the first sense (a self-aware being, mainly).

Now, Christians (myself included) may want to talk about the soul as well. One definition of human is something that has a soul. That is wonderfully unhelpful to my philosopher's mind because you haven't explained what a soul is, and what reason you have for thinking that humans have one or that only humans have one (making the killing of a human worse than the killing of an ox). But I'll set aside those issues for the moment. What evidence do we have that the soul enters the body at conception, or implantation, or whenever? I have a vague memory of one of the Catholic saints who said that the soul joined the body at quickening - Innocent III, maybe? I remember Gregory VI (1500s) issued a bull clarifying that abortion was only post-quickening, and that that changed the position of an earlier pope who said abortion was at any point in the pregnancy. The idea that death pre-quickening was an abortion was a bit of an aberration at that point, IIRC. So if the soul doesn't enter in right away, then until that happens the fetus is only a potential human, not a full human - even though it has human DNA.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. And yours? Feel free to discuss in the comments.


Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.
fidesquaerens: (Default)

A few days ago I promised Celandine a more in-depth reply to some points she raised in my last post. We were straying into some rather philosophical waters, at least in my mind – the distinction between knowledge, belief and faith, whether the scientific method required that all claims be verifiable, etc. – and they really deserve their own post. I do promise to get back to that.

But before I get to that, Gwynnyd actually made another comment on another track that screamed out "pick me! Pick me!" whenever I started to write about all that knowledge/belief stuff. See, in that last post I had listed a long list of things that some of the "faithful" had done, but then said:

But to paint all the faithful with this brush is like blaming your local Southern Baptist Church because they share their name with the Westboro crowd. To be sure, the SBC has done and said some things that make my skin crawl and that I heartily disagree with, but I prefer to blame them for their own sins (to use the churchy phrase) and not those who share their name. Similarly, I am one of the faithful but I'm not faithful like that.

To which Gwynnyd replied:

But, but… if I say, "the picture on the right describes the way people of faith approach the world" – is that wrong? The way "people of faith" approach the problems does – often – look exactly like the picture on the right. You tell me you are a "person of faith." – head scratch – How can you object to being grouped in with them if you tell me yourself that you belong to a group with the same name?

It's a fascinating question, and one worth pursuing. (Or at least I hope so! It's one of the questions motivating my dissertation.) And it's one that comes up in all kinds of contexts. I recently read a piece over at the NY Times' Opinionator blog ("Where is Europe?"; highly recommended to all geography geeks, btw) that basically looked at what people meant by Europe throughout history. The question really depends on who you ask and how you use the word "Europe." Is it a political ideal? A mass of land? A cultural/religious institution (i.e. Christendom)? A political structure like the E.U.? British people who deny that they are part of Europe may mean one thing by it; cartographers who want to include Russia mean another. You can see similar distinctions come up whenever we try to divide people or places. When I see things like this, I see a question lurking just behind the scenes: do I have a right to assume, when you use a word, that you mean the same thing I would mean by it?

Kant famously said (well, famous to philosophers!) that all definitions are analytically true. What he means is basically that the statement "a bachelor is an unmarried man" is always going to be true. So is the statement that "a bachelor is a married man" or "a bachelor is a ten-foot-tall orangutan." When we say "X is Y" we're not making any claim about how the world really is, but really are just talking about what we mean by an external word. That's an attractive view, to be sure, because there's something violent in being told you can't even use words to describe your own thoughts how you want; it reeks of Orwellian doublespeak.

The problem is, language doesn't just stay in our own minds. This is a problem Richard Dawkins picked up on in I believe The God Delusion. Lots of Christians wanted to claim Albert Einstein as one of their own because he often talked about God in his writings. (Perhaps the most famous example is the quote, "God does not play dice with the universe.") But Dawkins argued – and I believe he was correct, based on what little I know of Einstein – that Dawkins's God is not the God of your standard churchgoer. He did not believe in an intelligence, a first-mover, or someone to whom we could pray and expect a reply. If anything, Einstein used God as sort of shorthand for the whole of the cosmos, or perhaps the sense of mystery that expands beyond our discrete "facts" and animates all scientists. Dawkins didn't object to Einstein being labeled as a believer in this; but he warned that the language could be misleading at best. More likely, it would lead to equivocation: where you use the same word but mean one thing at one place and something else somewhere down the road.

This is where my guy Anselm can be helpful. Anselm is a medieval monk living in Normandy around the turn of the millennium, and is probably most well-known for his ontological argument that God exists. Think of that proof what you will (and you'd be in good company to say it's hogwash, although not mine), the first part actually has some rather interesting things to say about language. Let's say I tell you that God exists. You want to disagree with me, but to do that you need to be talking about the same concept (or thing) as I was. Simply saying "God doesn't exist" won't cut it, if Kant was right about definitions; we could both have different ideas in mind when we talk about God, so when you say God doesn't exist, what guarantee is there that the thing I said didn't exist, was what you had in mind?

Anselm's solution is rather simple. If I want to talk meaningfully about something you hear, then I must first "understand what [I] hear, and what [I] understand, is in [my] understanding." So to follow through Anselm's example, let's say I claim God exists and you want to say I'm wrong. You must first understand what I mean when I make the sound "God" with my voice, and that concept must exist in your understanding (in your mind) so you can turn around and say that that concept we're talking about doesn't exist. Since you're trying to say that what I meant was wrong, you have to hold the discussion on my terms. The one who makes the first statement basically gets to say what the terms mean. And yes, you can also use God to mean something else entirely, but then you're no longer engaging with me, and the fact that we're both making the sound "God" when we talk is really just a big coincidence. According to Anselm, that's not communication.

So, back to Gwynnyd's original question. If Anselm is right – if I have to use your term on your terms in order to communicate with you – then I think it follows that the first person also gets to say when the term is wrong. The flip side of that, though, is that if I don't disown how you use the term, your use becomes part of my concept as well. Terms do change, but it's almost always with the permission of the people who are using the terms; or it should be. Otherwise, we run the very real risk of talking at each other rather than with each other.

Take for example that politically-charged term marriage. At one point it may have been a contract for producing and raising the next generation, and so procreation (and the ability to procreate lawfully) was at the heart of it. But as the people already getting married changed their conception of marriage's aim – once procreation wasn't enough, and things like love and mutual support became key – the term changed. Since we ought to be consistent, once the people who had the right to define marriage said it meant a certain kind of loving relationship, I'd argue it's right to say same-sex couples can get married too. The only way around that is to say marriage means something those couples are incapable of sharing in – procreation is the obvious answer, or you could argue that men and women complement each other in a way two men never could. But feminism has (at least for me and most people I know my age!) made that second option untenable. Women aren't intrinsically different from men, so two women could in theory complement each other the same way a man and a woman can. My point here is that once the definition has changed, it's only fair to apply it consistently; but the initial change has to come from the inside.

All of this can seem horribly abstract, I know. But the basic premise is something we Tolkien fans are pretty familiar with. I didn't read the books until after the movies were released, but from friends who had, I know they often resented what those movies did to the characterizations of certain characters. Gimli was comic relief. Arwen was Xena Warrior Princess. Denethor was… well, the less said about the Denethor characters most movie fans had in mind, the better, really. To those book fans' mind, there was an influx of people who were using the same word but describing something very different. And the book fans fought back, educated the newbies like me on what the book characters were really like, even came up with linguistic conventions like referring to book!Denethor or movie!Denethor to differentiate two different concepts masquerading as the same thing. It worked, to an extent.

But remember the frustration you felt when someone talked not about PJ's Denethor but about Denethor full-stop, and you get the frustration I feel when I hear people talking about the "faithful" like we are all Bible-thumping, climate change-denying reactionary luddites. Because there *is* a tradition that provides context to what this term means, just like Tolkien fans have a book to point to, a standard that says this interpretation is not really what this word means anyway. Looking at that tradition seems like a better place to start, than just taking a head-count and going along with majority rules.


Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.
fidesquaerens: (Default)
Several years back (so my department's lore goes) when the philosophy and theology departments were housed in the same building, someone put up a sign. Above the official sign pointing to the philosophy department it said "Questions without Answers", and toward the theology department, "Answers without Questions." I'm fairly certain it was a philosopher who put it up, but the theologians must have had a sense of humor about it because it apparently stayed up for several years, maybe even several years.

My school is a Jesuit school, which is a rather questioning and open-minded wing of the Roman Catholic Church. Knowing the theologians that are here today, I am sure that they could laugh such a jab off because they are confident that it was a stereotype that doesn't apply to them. It doesn't; in my experience, they never met a question they didn't like, and the old joke "Two Jews, three opinions" applies to them just as well.

But I was reminded of this story when I saw a CafePress ad for a t-shirt poking fun at faith.

Read more... )

Apparently, they think I'd be interested in atheist gear based on the keywords I type. Which is interesting, but not all that surprising given the truly awful directed ads I've received over the years. Anyway...

Images like this make me sad because they reflect a grain of truth. There are many people and groups that claim the label "faith-based" that apply more or less this approach. Evolution contradicts Genesis 1? Nuts to Darwin, then. The Bible says God will never again destroy the earth with a flood? That means we don't need to worry about global warming. Hermione and her lot are called witches? That alone makes Harry Potter taboo in many circles. I've seen it played out more than once, and it always makes me cringe.

But to paint all the faithful with this brush is like blaming your local Southern Baptist Church because they share their name with the Westboro crowd. To be sure, the SBC has done and said some things that make my skin crawl and that I heartily disagree with; but I prefer to blame them for their own sins (to use the churchy phrase) and not those who share their name. Similarly, I am one of the faithful but I'm not faithful like that. Nor are many people I know. Most religious people are carried on by inertia, as unreflective as the great masses of any group that achieves a certain critical mass.

But I'd say among the groups that have truly thought through the principles, at least as many of the faithful see conflicting evidence as an interesting challenge as see it as a threat. If Darwin has a good case (and I believe he really does, what I understand of evolution - I'm a philosopher, not a scientist, so my science education stops at the gen-ed level), then I need to reinterpret other things I believe to be true in a way that makes sense of that. It's the challenge by which we weed out bad interpretations and get below the surface level. To disregard the challenges posed by "new evidence" is bad stewardship of a gift from God. So I say shame on my fellow Christians (and Jews, and Muslims, and...) who don't take that challenge seriously. You're missing out.

I accept the scientific method in all its glory. Most Jesuits and Methodists (the faith traditions I'm most familiar with) do, too. What I reject - emphatically - is physicalism. That's the idea that the physical facts, the kind of things described by science, describe the sum total of reality. I am not so vain to think I can explain God or offer a proof, but I find that living with that reality is humbling, and in a good way. To think that there's something bigger than myself out there, bigger than the world. Does he wear white robes and make the thunder rumble when he laughs? Probably not. Does he answer prayers and can he prevent natural disasters? I don't know, though my first response (due to indoctrination or faith or something innate within me) is yes on both accounts, though I struggle with both, philosophically and personally.

I prefer Bilbo's approach to physicalism:

He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: it's springs were at every doorstep and every path was it's tributary. "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door," he used to say. "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to.

Or Sam's:

'The road goes on for ever,' said Pippin; 'but I can't without a rest. It is high time for lunch.' He sat down on the bank at the side of the road and looked away east into the haze, beyond which lay the River, and the end of the Shire in which he had spent all his life. Sam stood by him. His round eyes were wide open - for he was looking across lands he had never seen to a new horizon.

I don't mean to get preachy here, and I certainly am not trying to convince everyone to be like me. It works for me and my character, but I know the word faith conjures different images for different people given our experiences. I get that.

But please, don't tell me all "faith" looks like that picture on the right. Where there is evidence, I try to make sense of it and reformulate my beliefs so to be consistent. There I will adopt the method on the left. And where there is no evidence one way or the other, I believe what is most useful to me or try to be content with not knowing, more or less in line with William James and Blaise Pascal (who, icky Wager notwithstanding, actually had some pretty interesting ideas about the nature of faith). That doesn't mean I ignore evidence; in the cases I'm talking about, there's simply no evidence to ignore. But I still reject the idea that the world I know is the sum total of what there is. When, in the history of science, has that ever proved true?


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: (science)

(Written for the November 2011 synchroblog; other posts available here.)

Over the last few days I've been following an exchange of blog posts by my friend Dan and Jerry Coyne, a professor of ecology at the University of Chicago. I call Dan by his first name because he recently finished his dissertation at the same school where I'm currently studying, and I always feel a bit odd using titles for people I know personally. But here I will give him the honorific, because he has earned it and because he's bringing his expertise to bear on an important topic. Drs. Coyne and Fincke (along with other academic bloggers) have been debating the value of a recent postdoc grant that was recently announced, to do with the problem of free will. Specifically, if some timeless being like God knows what you're going to do, are you still free to do it?

The appointee (Patrick Todd of UC-Riverside) will be looking at this in much more detail than I could talk about here, even were I so inclined. But I am familiar with the basic problem since I've taught it (via a textbook) to my freshmen, and it has always interested me. It goes something like this:

1.       God knows everything there is to know.

2.       Whatever God knows, is by definition true.

3.       God is timeless, so whatever God knows must also be timeless.

4.       So if something is true for God, it must always be true.

5.       So if God knows (for example) that I will have chicken for lunch, it must always be true that I will have chicken for lunch – even before I “decide” to order that.

The obvious problem is we tend to think we can choose how we’re going to act. That’s why we blame people for their actions: they could have chosen to do otherwise, they <i>should</i> have, but they didn’t. One common definition of freedom is the ability to have done otherwise, and if that is the definition we are working under, I have a hard time imagining how Ockham or anyone else would get around it. If God knows I will have chicken, then it is true that I’ll go for the broiled chicken at lunch today. On the other hand, if I have free choice, it seems that there’s a possibility that I won’t do this – but then it’s both for sure that I will and possible that I won’t. That makes my head spin a bit, but it’s also pretty clearly a contradiction!

I say all this without having read Ockham, by the way. He may have a thought-provoking approach (knowing Ockham on other topics, I suspect he does!). But the general problem is quite interesting and as it turns out really quite relevant to this month’s synchroblog. We’re supposed to be talking about prophecy, whether we think it still happens or ever happened and what role it plays. And I don’t really buy it. The Star Trek reboot put it quite well:

Spock: We must gather with the rest of Starfleet... to balance the terms of the next engagement.

James T. Kirk: There won't BE a next engagement! By the time we've gathered, it'll be too late! But you say he's from the future and knows what's gonna happen - then the logical thing is to be unpredictable!

Spock: You are assuming that Nero knows how events are predicted to unfold - the contrary. Nero's very presence has altered the flow of history, beginning with the attack on the USS Kelvin, culminating in the events of today, thereby creating an entire new chain of incidents that cannot be anticipated by either party.

Lt. Nyota Uhura: An alternate reality...

Spock: Precisely. Whatever our lives might have been if the time continuum was disrupted - our destinies have changed.

Knowing the future makes it quite likely that the future we knew won’t actually come to pass – we change how we act and react, so things unfold differently. And that may be the point, the proper way to interpret prophecy in the religious tradition. Perhaps rather than a sneak peek at future history, we could see it as a red light warning us to beware of future dangers, to change things, so we affirm free will and moral responsibility rather than deny it.

But the Harold Camping shtick, that the world’s going to end next week or next year and there’s nothing we can do about it? That’s a lot harder to swallow. In the fine tradition of prophecy as warning, I’ll believe it when I see it – and live like this planet has to last forever in the mean time.



fidesquaerens: (Default)

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