The Language of God: Joy and Wishful Thinking

The Language of God, Chapter 2

By B.J. Marshall

Collins continues on his theme of the universal search for the divine with an argument from emotions. He cites his beloved C.S. Lewis, who describes this in his book Surprised by Joy. Lewis relates how this search, this intense longing, is triggered by moments of joy, which he describes as "an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction" (p.35). After reading this line several times, I still have no idea what this is supposed to mean. I desire something because I want to see a certain state of affairs come to fruition; to be continually thwarted, to have that desire permanently unsatisfied - indeed, unsatisfiable - would seem to me to be amazingly depressing. As a simple example, I desire to donate to secular charities because I want to ease the suffering of others. If I had this desire, but no one was willing to help me and I was not able to achieve this goal myself, I would feel very sad to know that there was nothing I - or anyone - could do to ease the suffering of others. I certainly wouldn't think "Gee, this unsatisfied desire is the best thing ever - way better than all other desires I've ever satisfied!!"

Anyway, back to this longing business that Collins sees as so important to transcending the natural realm. He relates a few examples, ranging from gazing through a telescope to hearing emotionally powerful descants in Christmas songs. But his understanding of emotion doesn't run too deeply: "as an atheist graduate student, I surprised myself by experiencing this same sense of awe and longing..." (p.36). Really? Surprised? Reading Collins' surprise at feeling the very natural senses of awe and longing, it made me wonder what other emotions surprised Collins during his stint as a atheist whose views were so "robust" that they completely shattered at the simple question of an elderly woman. I can picture Collins thinking to himself, "Wow. I really love my girlfriend, but how can that be since I am an atheist?" or "Huh - I find this comedian very funny, but I didn't think atheists could feel this sort of mirth!" Oh, but Collins pieces it all together at the end. You see, when he experienced the emotions prompted by the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven's Eroica following the terrorist attacks at the 1972 Olympics, "for a few moments, I was lifted out of my materialist worldview into an indescribable spiritual dimension" (p.36). See, atheists? The reason you get surprised at your emotions is because they transcend you into another realm.

Sadly, this reminded me of an e-mail conversation I had with my Catholic priest. I came out to my family and closest friends as an atheist last year, and I stopped attending church. I e-mailed my priest asking him what he thought the best argument for God was. If you had ever heard his sermons, you would know him to be very intellectual, well-read, and eloquent. I was expecting some reply from him along the lines of what Plantinga might say about warranted belief or W.L.Craig's Kalam Cosmological Argument. Instead, here is the response I got:

"I don't think arguments really do it for me. Our training was in Neo-Scholasticism and the Aristotelian arguments. Far be it for me to second guess St. Thomas Aquinas, but for me the flashpoint is pure and simple---LOVE. If there is love there is God. And I've experienced love."

I have a difficult time expressing how incredibly disappointed I was in that response. It's only marginally better than a wise friend who told me that he had doubts about God but came to faith through Pascal's Wager.

So Collins wonders what we are to make of these experiences. He posits that, if it's anything like the Moral Law, maybe these emotions are signposts pointing to something larger than us. He asserts that the atheist view is that we are not to trust these longings as indications of the supernatural, and that ascribing those to God is really just "wishful thinking, inventing an answer because we want it to be true" (p.37). I agree that emotions do not point to the supernatural, but I would not say it's just wishful thinking. In fact, I'd say it's a lack of thinking. Collins, from whom I get the impression he simply thinks humans are uncapable of wonderful emotions without God to anchor them, is content to just punt to God; otherwise, why would he have been surprised at his emotions? But, Collins tries to back up his point by citing Freud, in whose writings this "wishful thinking" view reached its widest audience.

Freud's The Future of an Illusion, published in 1927, interpreted all religious beliefs as illusions or wishful thinking based on childhood dependency. 1927 is a long time ago - Collins couldn't find anything more current than this? Now, clearly, this does not apply to all religions but only the major monotheistic religions. Freud's Totem and Taboo, which Collins quotes, mentions how our view of God and our relationship with God stem from our biological fathers. Funny, then, how I completely believe my biological father exists and that any semblance of a spiritual father does not.

Now, Collins states that he does not agree with the wish-fulfillment idea, but his reasons are arguably equally absurd. Going back to C.S. Lewis, Collins explains that, if wish-fulfillment were true, we would get a very different kind of God than the one we find in the Bible. Instead of "benevolent coddling and indulgence" (yeah, because my father was all the time coddling and spoiling me, wasn't yours?), we find a God who requires us to hold to the Moral Law, throwing in our faces the possibility of being eternally separated from the Law's Author. I agree that we wouldn't find a coddling and indulgent god in the Bible. Rather, we'd find one that condones slavery, genocide, rape, murder, and human sacrifice (unless you're Abraham, in which case God says "PSYCH!!" at the last minute). I also see a god who requires us to uphold the Amoral Law - if anything arbitrarily goes because God says so, that seems amoral to me.

Collins then does something I thought was interesting: attempt to use logic. "If one allows the possibility that God is something humans might wish for, does that rule out the possibility that God is real? Absolutely not. The fact that I have wished for a loving wife does not now make her imaginary. The fact that the farmer wished for rain does not make him question the reality of the subsequent downpour" (p.38). He tries to extend the argument: Why would a desire exist if there were no means by which one could obtain that desire? He gives some examples. A baby feels hunger; well, there is food. A duck wants to swim; well, there is water. Sure, wanting a wife does not make the wife you have imaginary, but it says nothing about whether you'd ever get a wife in the first place. Would my casting bones or stirring tea leaves make me question the reality of a subsequent downpour? No - it is possible to arrive at a truthful conclusion by completely wrong means. As far as desires existing without means of obtaining them: Who, when they were a kid and saw The Never-Ending Story, did not want their own Luck Dragon? I read the DragonLance Chronicles when I was in junior high school, and I distinctly remember wanting to be a wizard. My commute to and from work kind of sucks: I strongly desire the ability to teleport.

Collins wonders why we seem to have a "God-shaped vacuum" in our hearts and minds unless it is meant to be filled. First, I flatly deny that any such void exists. Second, granting for a moment that such a void exists, it seems pretty obvious that any size hole can be filled in with an amorphous concept. Given all the different attributes assigned to God from all different religions, I'm sure anyone who wanted to could find a God to fit any deficit they thought they had.

Other posts in this series:

September 5, 2010, 9:57 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink23 comments

Rebutting Reasonable Faith: The Atheists Are Multiplying!

Since I've been busy the past year and a half answering Lee Strobel's Case for a Creator, I haven't written any posts responding to William Lane Craig's "Reasonable Faith" columns. But I'm done with Strobel's book now - and Craig has avoided my fire for far too long!

Today I'll address question #170, in which Craig answers a correspondent who frets that there are just so damn many atheists at his university, and he doesn't know how to respond to them all:

Dr. Craig, I attend Louisiana State University and I am a student worker at our school's library. Of all the people I work with, half are agnostic and the other half are atheists... I am worried for our future. I don't know how to combat atheism. I am a Christian, I converted based on personal experiences, and I am not a philosopher. Atheists are grumpy and want answers, answers I don't have the time to find out.... How does one who has no time to learn philosophy or read theology become a debater against these closed minded ranting non-believers?

By his own admission, this believer has no answers to the objections of atheists, and yet he wants to learn how to defeat us in an argument. In other words, he made up his mind before looking at the evidence, and now that he's being challenged, he wants to find ways to justify that belief. It's as if he's asking, "I think that Christianity is true. Why do I think that?"

Common though it is, this behavior is intellectually dishonest in the extreme. If this student really wanted to know what's true, he should begin by looking at the evidence and then make up his mind. What he's doing instead is starting out with his conclusion and only then going out in search of evidence that supports it.

On a side note, I find it interesting that even in the heart of Louisiana, atheists on campus are becoming so common that Christians are starting to worry about us. Is this unintentional testimony to the fact that the new atheist movement is making inroads?

One easy thing that we can all do is learn to ask questions. Greg Koukl recommends asking two questions of non-believers:

1. What do you mean by that?

2. What reasons do you have to think that?

It's amazing how these two disarmingly simple questions can tie people in knots!

Stop the presses: For once, I agree completely with William Lane Craig! The only small, trivial difference is that I think these questions can far more effectively and usefully be asked of the Christian.

For example, when Christians say that God is a "spirit", we can ask them, what do you mean by that? When they say that God is a trinity and is three people without being more than one god, we can ask them to explain what they mean by that. When they say that Jesus' death redeemed humanity from sin, we can ask how exactly that process works.

And the question "What reasons do you have to think that?" offers up a wealth of possibility regarding the epistemic foundations of the Christian worldview. If a theist cites their own personal religious experience, we can bring up the obvious fact that millions of people have equally convincing experiences which lead them to totally different religious beliefs. We can point out that faith can support any possible conclusion and thus can't be used as a means for deciding among them.

A second thing you can do is refer the unbeliever to some resource. You don't have to have any brains to tell someone, "Have you seen the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology? Before you say there are no intelligent theists and no good reasons to believe in God, maybe you'd better look at that book first. Otherwise, you're not really informed." ...Shame the unbeliever for his ignorance of the literature.

Again, Craig apparently doesn't realize that this is a tactic that not only works both ways, it's arguably even more effective against Christians. If they can demand that we familiarize ourselves with their literature, then we can ask the same of them - and in my experience, the percentage of atheists who've read at least some Christian apologetics books is much, much higher than the percentage of Christians who've read any books at all arguing for atheism. This is a tactic that's likely to backfire badly for Craig's beleaguered correspondent.

When I'm in situations like this, I'll always offer to read a Christian book of the apologist's choosing in exchange for him reading an atheist book of my choosing. In my experience, the Christian will inevitably slink away in shame. (I've been in an exchange like this where I held up my end of the bargain, and then when it came time for the Christian to read a book I selected, he refused.) After all, there's only one side in this debate that's telling their followers not to read or think about the other side's writings.

Third, learn to drop the names of some Christian scholars. When the unbeliever says that Christians are all ignorant bigots, look really surprised and say with astonishment, "Do you really think that?

If "the unbeliever" said that, they'd be rightfully taken to task. But this claim is more often made in Christians' imaginations than in the actual arguments of real atheists. What we actually say is completely different: that Christians may be intelligent and educated people, but that they don't apply this intelligence to critically analyzing their own religious beliefs. For example, Craig cites Francis Collins as an example of an intelligent and educated Christian - but while Collins' scientific achievements are indisputable, his arguments for God are downright terrible.

Fourth, offer this handy-dandy rejoinder to his assertions:

"Now let me get this straight: your argument is that

1. Christians are stupid and illogical.

2. Therefore, Christianity is not true.

Now can you explain to me how (2) follows logically from (1)?"

It sure is easy for a Christian to win a debate when he gets to make the atheist's arguments for him, isn't it?

Again, this is an argument that occurs more in the imagination of evangelists than the writings of real atheists. Insofar as we use any form of this argument at all, it would be in the opposite direction: because Christianity is not true, therefore Christians are illogical to believe it.

I feel sorry for the letter-writer who, confessing his ignorance in matters apologetic, tries to use these lines in an actual debate. Craig's advice would only help him if he were arguing against the imaginary atheists that Christian apologists fantasize we are, i.e., people consumed by personal hatred of Christians who are ignorant of the actual teachings of Christianity. In a debate with an actual, knowledgeable atheist, meanwhile, I think this correspondent would fare disastrously. I realize that it serves Craig's apologetic ends to promote the false claim that atheists are all ignorant misanthropes - but I'm genuinely surprised to find out that he seems to genuinely believe it himself.

Other posts in this series:

September 3, 2010, 5:45 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink32 comments

The Language of God: Ultimate Meaning

The Language of God, Chapter 2

By B.J. Marshall

In this section, Collins poses the questions of whether the near-ubiquity of the search for the existence of a supernatural being represents "a universal but groundless human longing for something outside ourselves to give meaning to a meaningless life and to take away the sting of death" (p.35). The search for meaning in one's life is an important question, but I don't think the search for the divine stops there. We have a curious approach to the world, and we like to understand why things happen. When we don't understand why things happen, we have throughout history tended (sadly, some still do) to invoke gods. Don't know why the sun goes around in the sky? Oh, that's Apollo's chariot. Not sure why there's thunder and lightning? It's due to Ah Peku, Inazuma, Karai-Shin, Lei Kung, Ninurta, Orko, Pajonn, Tien Mu, Thor, Zeus, or several others. Let's get more modern: Not sure where the universe came from, or why it seems so finely-tuned? Yahweh did it.

Back to Collins' point here: God gives meaning to a meaningless life and takes away the sting of death. I will grant that humanity has no ultimate purpose in the universe; in another five billion years, our sun will die and our planet with it. (I use "humanity" loosely here knowing that, since it took about three billion years to go from single-celled organisms to humans, our descendants five billion years hence will most likely look nothing like us.) Furthermore, some physicists theorize the universe itself will die a sort of heat-death; it's not a rosy picture for ultimate purpose. But just because there is no ultimate purpose does not mean life is without meaning. Many atheists find meaning in life. For me, I find meaning in: raising my son, sharing my life with my wife, enjoying time spent with friends, caring for my neighborhood, a chance to play golf, a good scotch. And that list is certainly not exclusive.

I find Collins' statement about removing the sting of death to be puzzling, especially given that it seems religious people are still rather afraid of dying. There are plenty of web sites addressing the Christian fear of death, so it leads me to think that there really isn't much sting taken out by a belief in God. If anything, there is an added fear of going to Hell, even if one thinks one's done the right things to avoid Hell. I think the frank and honest acknowledgement that there is no god, no heaven, and no hell, and that nothing other than death happens when you die is rather liberating. Furthermore, in addition to taking the sting out of death (or at least reducing that sting), this acknowledgement has the added bonus of provoking me to do the best I can in this life, rather than treating this life as a proving grounds for some afterlife.

Other posts in this series:

August 31, 2010, 5:54 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink13 comments

The Language of God: A Doubtful Belief

The Language of God, Chapter 2

By B.J. Marshall

Collins starts off this chapter noting that, if we've followed him this far, we've no doubt begun to form numerous objections. That's an understatement to be sure! He gives us some of his own: Isn't belief in God just a case of wishful thinking? Hasn't a great deal of harm been done in the name of religion? How could a loving God permit suffering? How can a serious scientist accept the possibility of miracles? We'll upack those questions in a few posts. But for now we'll focus on doubt.

Collins kicks off this chapter by stating that doubt is an unavoidable part of belief. He supports this with a quote from Paul Tillich: "Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith" (p.33). I doubt the existence of Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. So would Tillich (and Collins) say then that my doubt is an element of faith in these beings? Collins tries to argue in favor of doubt by stating that an airtight faith would be a bad thing because "then the world would be full of confident practitioners of a single faith. But imagine such a world where the opportunity to make a free choice about belief was taken away by the certainty of the evidence. How interesting would that be?" (p.34). First, assuming there should be any religion at all, wouldn't having just one religion be a good thing? No more religious persecution, holy wars, or religious terrorism. No more cults leading to the Jonestown massacre, the Branch Davidians, or Heaven's Gate. Indeed, the Protestant Reformation would have never happened since there would be nothing to reform. According the the World Christian Encyclopedia, there were over 33,000 Christian denominations alone in 2001. If each denomination was represented by one Christian, that would be enough to almost fill Fenway Park! In the meantime, if you need help figuring out which religion you should follow, then this handy flowchart can help.

Secondly, an abundance of evidence (which many would claim gets us as close to certainty as we can get) does not prevent people from believing all kinds of crazy stuff.

I suppose I could also make the case that just because certainty takes away my freedom to choose something does not necessarily limit how interesting life is. I've come to realize that gravity will always pull me back down to Earth. I jump, I come back down; I fall off the bed during the night, I crash into the endstand and break a lamp. These things happen, and I have no choice in having gravity not work on me. And my life is pretty damned interesting, thank you very much.

Other posts in this series:

August 23, 2010, 5:55 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink37 comments

Apologetics that Annoy Me

If you debate theists very often, there will soon come a point where you'll start hearing the same arguments over and over again. And although I do my best to bear in mind Greta Christina's wise words on patience and remember that most proselytizers have never been exposed to an effective atheist critique, some of these claims annoy me more than others. Usually, this is because the logic behind them is so patently flawed, or the fallacies so obvious, that even an evangelist with no formal education in critical thinking ought to be able to spot them.

In this post, I'll list a few of the apologetics used by Christian proselytizers that I find the most irritating, in the doubtless vain hope that it will help put them to bed sooner.

Jesus defied chance by fulfilling the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament.

Christian apologists love to tout the many prophecies of the Jewish scriptures and the allegedly staggering odds against anyone fulfilling them by chance. Here's a typically overblown example:

"Someone did the math and figured out that the probability of just eight prophecies being fulfilled [by chance] is one chance in one hundred million billion. That number is millions of times greater than the total number of people who've ever walked the planet!" (Louis Lapides, in Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ, p.246)

Discounting these ludicrous numbers and the fanciful assumptions that doubtless went into them, what these apologists always ignore is that this was not a blind comparison; the Old Testament was not a set of sealed scrolls that was cracked open only after the New Testament was written. No, as even the most hardened apologists acknowledge, the New Testament authors were well-versed in the Old Testament and could well have had the scrolls in front of them while writing.

If they noticed that their story did not fit the guidelines of prophecy, there would have been nothing at all to prevent them from revising, embellishing, or outright inventing, as necessary, to make it conform to the predetermined Old Testament prophecies which any plausible messiah candidate would have to have fulfilled. (This need not imply a deliberate effort to deceive. It may be that they believed Jesus was the messiah so strongly, they assumed that he must have fulfilled the prophecies, even if they didn't have direct knowledge of him doing so.) And once we admit this possibility, those supposedly astronomical odds evaporate.

The gospels must be true stories because they contain references to real people and places.

Apologists such as Lee Strobel make hay out of the fact that some people and places mentioned in the gospels, such as Quirinius or the Jewish bath at Bethesda, did exist in history. They're not reluctant to imply that the gospels' accuracy about these historical facts should convince us to trust them about matters that aren't as easy to verify.

But this doesn't prove that the storyline of the gospels actually happened. At best, it means that the gospels were written by authors who knew of those people and places, but what does that prove? As in the last point, there's nothing to prevent an author from writing a work of fiction that's set against the backdrop of real historical events. If the apologist logic was correct, we'd have to conclude that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is an accurate historical documentary, since it, too, depicts real personages (i.e., Adolf Hitler) and places from history.

The New Testament is trustworthy because Jesus' resurrection was vouched for by four hundred witnesses.

This one is particularly irritating because of its willful disregard for the laws of evidence. We do not have four hundred separate, notarized eyewitness accounts of anything in the New Testament. What we have is one verse in the New Testament, by one writer, who says that four hundred people saw the resurrected Jesus.

Clearly, this is a completely different situation. We don't have four hundred separate testimonies that can be checked against each other for consistency, to see if their authors all had the same experience. We don't know who these alleged four hundred witnesses were - neither their names, nor anything else about them by which we could verify their trustworthiness. We don't even know if there actually were four hundred of them, or if Paul might have been fudging the numbers, exaggerating, or honestly miscounting.

If I said, "A thousand people saw me levitate off the ground", that by itself would not establish that I had a thousand witnesses to vouch for my supernatural powers. This kind of evidence is called hearsay, and it's banned from criminal courts for a reason. A witness who can't or won't speak for themself is no witness at all.

Jesus was neither a liar nor a lunatic and therefore must be who he said he was.

This argument, the so-called "Lord/Liar/Lunatic" trilemma usually credited to C.S. Lewis, may be the most absurd of the bunch. It implicitly assumes that the New Testament is historically reliable and that everything in it can be treated as true. Well, if you accept those presuppositions, it hardly matters what Jesus said - the stories of him calming storms, walking on water, healing the sick and raising the dead would be more than sufficient evidence of his divinity.

But if you don't accept that absurdly broad premise, then the trilemma grows another option: lord, liar, lunatic or legend. It's possible that he was a real person, maybe even a would-be religious reformer, but that his words and his deeds became exaggerated over time, or that episodes which would cast doubt on his character have been censored from the historical record. It's also possible that he began as a purely legendary figure who was gradually historicized into a real human being. In any of these cases, the simplistic choices of the trilemma fall apart.

April 14, 2010, 12:07 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink39 comments

Rebutting Reasonable Faith: Remembering the Lost

In question #86 of his Reasonable Faith column, William Lane Craig addresses a question from a Christian who's troubled by one of the most wicked doctrines of that theology, the dogma of Hell. Craig's correspondent wonders whether the saved will feel compassion for the damned, but also worries that it would be a violation of free will for God to erase their memories of their lost loved ones.

I would never forget that I had a child and wish to be with them in the afterlife unless God specifically altered my mind... I am just having trouble imagining myself so happy that I just don't think about my child who is burning in eternal damnation.

Craig's response begins:

You object... that God would violate the free will of redeemed persons were He to take such action. I don't see that this implication follows. God's respecting human free will has to do with moral decision-making. God will not cause you to take one morally significant choice rather than another. He leaves it up to you. But obviously God limits our freedom in many morally neutral ways... if God removes from the redeemed knowledge of the damned, including knowledge of loved ones that are damned, He does not violate the moral integrity or free will of the persons involved, any more than if He had removed their knowledge of calculus.

This is just obviously wrong. Stealing people's memories of the suffering of others is a morally neutral limitation on their freedom? By what bizarre reasoning could anyone possibly arrive at that conclusion? Taking away that knowledge stops us from acting in ways that we would otherwise want to, which is the essence of making a moral choice.

It would be as if I had a relative who was dying from cancer, and I went to see a therapist who could hypnotize me into forgetting their existence, so I wouldn't have any desire to visit them in the hospital and comfort them. By Craig's reckoning, this is a "morally neutral" choice. By any rational system of morality, however, this would be an act of supreme callousness and depraved indifference to the suffering of others.

But not to worry, Craig has a fallback answer:

This alternative suggests that the experience of being in Christ's immediate presence will be so overwhelming for the redeemed that they will not think of the damned in hell.

Craig compares this to a wounded soldier having a limb amputated without anesthetic, suffering from pain so intense it drives all other thoughts out of his mind - except, he says, we should substitute happiness for pain to get some idea of what it feels like to be in Heaven. (Great analogy!)

What this comes down to is saying that the saved will be like drug addicts on a permanent high, so wrapped up in their own euphoria that they care nothing for the world outside their own head. Heaven will be like the Land of the Lotus-Eaters from Greek mythology, its inhabitants forever smothered in a blissful haze that leaves them unable to think of or contemplate anything else, for all eternity. Am I the only one who finds this image disturbing rather than appealing?

Craig isn't the first one to suggest this; other Christians have said very similar things. But whenever they try to describe in any detail what people in this state would look or act like, they always wind up painting a picture of Kafkaesque automatons that I call bright machines. Far from being the fullest and most perfect realization of human potential, the imaginary inhabitants of Heaven are less than human. They're lacking in all the emotional depth, all the richness and color that makes our lives real and meaningful.

We do have a glimpse of this vision here on Earth. Certain kinds of brain damage can rob a person of all emotional affect, so that all they ever feel is a constant, all-enveloping bliss - very like Craig's vision of Christians overwhelmed by the beatific vision. But the result isn't an appealing picture:

"He looks like our son and has the same voice as our son, but he is not the same person we knew and loved.... He's not the same person he was before he had this stroke. Our son was a warm, caring, and sensitive person. All that is gone. He now sounds like a robot."

This, then, is the Christian conception of the afterlife - blissed-out robots in Heaven, billions of the damned eternally suffering in Hell. If that's what William Lane Craig and others want to believe, that's their right. But I would hardly call this reassuring or comforting to the worried questioner - much less a "reasonable faith".

Other posts in this series:

December 30, 2009, 6:50 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink98 comments

On Christian Hypocrites

Anyone who's familiar with Christianity knows that, in the last few decades alone, the Christian church has seen an astounding number of its powerful preachers exposed as blatant hypocrites. The most famous example, of course, is Ted Haggard, former president of the National Association of Evangelicals and a fervent opponent of gay marriage, who fell spectacularly from grace after revelations of a three-year sexual relationship with a male prostitute.

But he's not the only one. There's Jim Bakker, a once-powerful televangelist who was found guilty of fraud for running a phony investment scheme, and Jimmy Swaggart, who exposed the sexual indiscretions of several powerful preachers and was later caught patronizing a prostitute himself. The list could further be extended to include Peter Popoff, a faith healer whose "miraculous" knowledge of audience members' illnesses came through a covert radio receiver in his ear; Richard Roberts, who resigned as president of the college founded by his father Oral Roberts after a lawsuit alleging misuse of school funds; Randall Terry, the anti-abortion activist who was censured by his own church for adultery; the secret anti-Semite Billy Graham; the turbulent and violent life of Francis Schaeffer; recent revelations about Todd Bentley; and many, many more.

The charge of hypocrisy in the church has become so pervasive that even Christian apologist sites feel obligated to address it. In this post, I'll address the common apologist replies and show how they unintentionally illuminate the depth of the problem, as well as discussing what it does and does not prove.

To start off, it's quite true what most apologists say: that the existence of hypocrites within the church does not prove that Christianity's claims about the existence of God are false. There is no logical connection between those two propositions. But all these hypocrites, I think, do undermine a different supernatural claim: the alleged ability of Christian belief to transform people's lives in a uniquely effective and beneficial way.

The apologist site unintentionally points this out when it insists that many Christians have unequivocally condemned hypocrisy:

Addressing 10,000 itinerant preachers and evangelists in Amsterdam in the summer of 2000, Dr. [Ravi] Zacharias then went on to challenge his listeners with these words: "Why is it that a community that talks so much about supernatural transformation shows so little of that transformation?"

Why indeed? Zacharias' point is a good one, although that probably isn't the message he intended to convey. For a religion that so frequently touts its life-changing powers, it seems Christianity has more than its fair share of frauds who gleefully engage in the private acts that they loudly condemn in public. And this hypocrisy occurs not just in lay believers, but among the very leaders of the church: the ones who were believed to be godly and virtuous by millions of followers, the ones who had by far the most to lose if they were caught. If Christianity can't change the hearts of these people, shouldn't we take that as an indication of how well it will work for the rest of us?

And where would you go anyway? With what faith would you ever align yourself? Certainly there are also hypocritical Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. Even atheists.

No doubt of that. Then again, atheists, unlike Christians, don't claim to have privileged access to the sole font of moral virtue. On the contrary, we believe that every sect will have both good and bad people among its membership. Nor do we claim to enjoy supernatural protection from temptation, as Christians do.

But what's interesting about this excerpt is that it's essentially admitting that Christians are no different from everyone else! This defense of "well, everyone else does it too" is a tacit concession that Christians as a whole display no special virtue that sets them apart from everyone else. If that were the case, this apologist site could argue that, despite occasional hypocrisy, Christians as a whole are still morally superior to other faiths. It's notable that they make no attempt to claim this.

No one can escape the charge of "hypocrite" — no one except Jesus Himself.

And here's the crux of the matter: the claim that human beings may be fallible, but God is not. But what evidence do they offer to support this? There is no God manifesting himself in the world and displaying his moral perfection. (And the Bible and other texts supposedly dictated by this being contain many verses of highly dubious morality.) If Christians could point to a morally perfect deity giving them instructions, that would be one thing. But they can't: they ask us to take his existence on faith. And when they concede that, morally speaking, they are as a whole no better than the rest of us, this does suggest that they have no privileged link to such a being.

August 29, 2008, 7:21 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink98 comments

On Presuppositionalism

In "Unmoved Mover", I wrote about the presuppositional argument used by some modern Christian apologists. In this post, I want to say some more about presuppositionalism.

The presuppositionalists have a point in this sense and in this sense only: a worldview is worth being held only if it is possible to reason consistently from that worldview given its own starting principles. If those principles lead inevitably to their own negation, then that worldview is self-contradictory and must be discarded. This is correct as far as it goes. Where presuppositionalists go wrong is in the assertion that Christianity is the only worldview that possesses or could possess this kind of consistency. This assertion is both fantastically arrogant and unequivocally false.

Here's an example of a worldview that genuinely is inconsistent. The laws of thermodynamics say that, over time, entropy increases to a maximum. The higher-entropy configuration - the more "chaotic" state - is always more likely. Yet our universe as we currently observe it is in a low-entropy state, with plenty of organized pools of energy available to do work.

As we proceed toward the future, the overwhelmingly likely outcome is that entropy will increase. But the laws of physics are time-symmetric: they make no distinction between past and future. Therefore, if we look back into the past, it is also far more likely that entropy was higher back then than it is now. Granted, it's unlikely that entropy would spontaneously decrease, from a chaotic past to an orderly present. But if we assume that the past had less entropy than the present, we have an even more unlikely configuration to explain - we're making the problem worse, not better. Applying the laws of thermodynamics in a naive way, then, leads to the conclusion that everything we observe might be a rare, but statistically inevitable, random fluctuation that produces a temporary island of order in the midst of pure chaos.

And the smaller the island of order, the more likely it is that it could arise through random fluctuations in chaos. Thus, compared to the odds of producing an astronomically vast, orderly cosmos, it's much more probable that random fluctuations would produce a single, isolated observer - a disembodied brain, say - floating in the void of chaos and falsely imagining a whole world surrounding it. This is called a Boltzmann brain.

But there's a problem. If we are Boltzmann brains, then nothing we believe about the world can be trusted - including the very observations which led us to suspect we might be Boltzmann brains in the first place. The circle of logical contradiction is closed: observations lead us to infer conclusions which in turn lead us to doubt and disbelieve those observations. The Boltzmann-brain worldview falls apart from its own inconsistency. (This is not to say it's necessarily false - maybe we are Boltzmann brains, there is no way to disprove that - but even if it is true, we could never know it, because the hypothesis itself undercuts all possible basis for believing it.)

The way out of this dilemma is to assume that the evidence is reliable, and that our sensory perceptions and memories of the past reflect a real external world with a real history. This starting point leads to a position which does not contradict itself.

The atheist viewpoint runs along similar lines. Its intrinsic starting point is that the universe is a collection of physical things which exist independently of us, the behavior of which is governed by orderly, immutable principles which we call natural laws. Although the cosmos is complex far exceeding our ability to fully conceptualize it, and although our senses are imperfect and can be misled, we still have the ability to perceive reality with a fair degree of accuracy, to discover its governing principles, and to make inferences about how events will unfold in the future. In other words, we are rational creatures who can learn how the world works.

Contrary to what presuppositionalists claim, this view is consistent. Accepting it as true does not lead to any self-contradiction. (The usual response - that evolution would not produce rational believers - I dealt with in 2006, in "Are Evolved Minds Reliable Truth-Finders?")

Of course, this by itself does not prove that atheism is true. This is a trivial conclusion, since there are infinitely many consistent worldviews, but only one world. A worldview might be entirely consistent with itself and still be false because it does not reflect the way the world actually is. But self-consistency is the starting hurdle that any worldview must clear before we begin examining it to see whether it corresponds to empirical reality. Atheism is one of the consistent worldviews worthy of consideration, and the attempts of religious apologists to rule it out of hand from the beginning - or to make the ridiculous claim that theirs is the only possible consistent worldview - cannot be sustained.

April 21, 2008, 7:34 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink32 comments

Francis Collins on Atheism

The Point of Inquiry podcast recently aired a very interesting interview between D.J. Grothe and Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project and a devout evangelical Christian. In the interview, Collins discusses the intersection of science and religious faith, whether belief in God is a scientific hypothesis, and the attacks on religion by Richard Dawkins and other prominent atheist scientists.

Dr. Collins is a superlative scientist, and his published work is beyond reproach. Sequencing the human genome is undoubtedly among the greatest scientific achievements of all time, rivaling the original discovery of DNA itself for importance. Not only was this a tremendous leap forward in our own self-understanding, it also promises immense practical benefits that may save countless lives, including the keys to fighting hereditary disease and the prospect of medicine custom-tailored to each individual's genetic makeup.

So, Francis Collins is an intelligent, accomplished scientist: about this there can be no doubt. This makes it all the more surprising that his arguments for the existence of God were so outright terrible. Without exception, his case was shallow, poorly thought out, and in many places plainly fallacious or flatly contradicted by evidence. His arguments against atheism indulged in many typical apologist fallacies, including the blatant use of straw men that bear little or no similarity to the actual positions of real atheists.

I recommend listening to the whole podcast, but to get a sense of what I mean, here are some highlights:

8:45: "[Atheism] assumed that the atheist knows so much as to be able to exclude, within their own band of knowledge, the possibility of something outside of nature, namely God. That seemed to be a pretty arrogant position, a position of some hubris, for anybody to take and certainly not one that you could defend on rational grounds."

Almost right out of the gate, Collins resorts to the time-worn "you'd have to search the whole universe to know there's no god" apologetic. This comment demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of atheism, as well as a fallacious attempt to shift the burden of proof onto disbelievers. Anyone who makes a positive claim has the obligation to support that claim with evidence. If no evidence is provided, then the rest of us are fully justified in disbelieving it, and this holds especially true where evidence is missing when it should be present. We do not need to search the cosmos for proof positive of God's nonexistence; we can merely observe that no one has yet provided evidence remotely compelling enough to support such an extraordinary possibility.

11:08: "A purely naturalistic worldview is impoverished in certain important ways. It basically says some questions are just out of order, like 'What's the meaning of life?' and 'Why are we here?' and 'Is there a god?' If you're going to insist upon a 'fundamentalist' brand of atheism, which is the brand that I think we hear from people like Dawkins and Harris, then basically you are saying those are not questions that are worth asking."

This is a grossly ignorant mischaracterization of atheism. No atheist I've ever known or heard of has ever said that questions about the meaning of life are "out of order". On the contrary, we discuss them routinely and repeatedly emphasize that humanism can give answers to these questions that are at least as satisfying as any answer offered by religion. (Grothe did rightly chide Collins for this obvious falsehood.) Most especially, we do not believe that the question "Is there a god?" is "not worth asking". It should be too obvious to bear saying that the reason we are atheists is precisely because we have asked this question and consider it answered in the negative.

13:30: "I began to read what some of the great minds of the last many centuries have contemplated... some of those thoughts caught me up short, because they raised issues I'd never really seriously considered. Most prominently amongst those thinkers was the Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis... He outlines those [reasons] in a little book called Mere Christianity, which I would challenge any atheist to look at seriously and see whether those arguments in that book can be easily refuted. I don't think they can."

I have read and reviewed Mere Christianity, and yes, it can be easily refuted. It is a shallow and ill-considered bit of apologetic fluff. Lewis' main argument is that all human cultures have had essentially the same moral code, which could only be the case if God had installed it in us. He breezily ignores the fact that all cultures throughout history have not had the same moral code, but differed in many drastic ways about the nature of moral behavior. If Collins takes his cue from Lewis, this would go a long way toward explaining his similarly vacuous theology.

18:20: "Why do the atheists insist that we should get over religion and try to be good to each other? Who cares about being good? If they're right, we should all shrug off the whole idea and be just as darn selfish as we possibly can."

Again, Collins drags out the old fallacies. This time it's, "If there is no god, then there's no morality and we should all go on killing sprees." Again, as opposed to his uninformed criticisms, atheists have given great thought and in-depth discussion to this topic, and many nonbelievers have proposed secular foundations for morality.

24:00: "Science essentially has to remain silent on the real, fundamental question of 'Is there a god?' There may be clues from nature that are more consistent with God's existence than not, but it's not really a scientific question."

We can clearly see here how Collins wants to have it both ways. He wants to claim that science offers evidence supporting the existence of God, but whenever there's evidence presented against the evidence of God, he draws back and declares that this is not a scientific question. Which is it, Dr. Collins? Either this is not a scientific question, in which case science can offer no evidence either way and belief in God is purely a matter of faith; or it is a scientific question, in which case it can be answered in the negative as well as in the positive. (I myself believe that the existence of God as conceived of by most religions is most certainly a testable claim, and one that has been tested and found wanting.)

26:45: "By applying the scientific method to religious claims, you're committing, I think, a logical fallacy." [Collins recounts a parable about a scientist who sweeps the ocean with a three-inch-mesh net and goes on to conclude, based on what he found in the net, that nothing lives in the ocean which is smaller than three inches.]

As an analogy for God, this is utterly inappropriate. With this or any other scientific study, one can always point out the limitations of the original study and propose a new one that rules out those sources of error. What Collins is proposing is something completely different: an entity whose existence can never be detected by any empirical investigation.

A better analogy to Collins' view would be if the ocean survey was done, and the scientist's critics accuse him of incompleteness because, they say, there are fish that live in the ocean that are intangible. No matter how fine a net you use, they can pass immaterially through it, so the scientist failed to catch any of them and incorrectly left them out of his catalogue of ocean life. Such a claim would, of course, beg the question of how the claimant could know that these fish exist in the first place.

Collins makes one more final, telling comment that I can't let pass. He says that when he was young and an atheist, he assumed that faith was "something that people arrived at by childhood indoctrination or maybe some emotional experience". He then says that he finally investigated for himself and found that, to his amazement, there was a "compelling and rational case to be made for God" that overwhelmed his skepticism.

Or so he says in this interview. How did he describe his own conversion on a different occasion?

...I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains on a beautiful fall afternoon. I turned the corner and saw in front of me this frozen waterfall, a couple of hundred feet high. Actually, a waterfall that had three parts to it — also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth — that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.

Collins' own conversion came about for the exact reason he himself assumed earlier in life: as the result of an emotional experience owing nothing to reason. (P.Z. Myers sarcastically asks, "If the waterfall had two parts, would he have converted to Zoroastrianism?") He assumed that people become believers for irrational reasons and then went on to prove it.

It's amusing how Collins, in describing his own conversion, tries to employ two stock apologist narratives which contradict each other. First he says that he was an atheist when he was younger, and I see no reason to doubt that, but he also says that he had never really thought about or investigated the topic until prior to his conversion. This second admission greatly weakens the first, for if it's true that he had never considered an intellectual defense of atheism, why should atheists who have studied the topic be impressed by his testimony? (When D.J. Grothe, to his credit, presses Collins on the obvious point that his lack of intellectual background in atheism made him "ripe for being plucked up" by proselytizers, he laughs and admits, "Perhaps so.")

The interview mentions that atheism is far more common in the scientific community than religious belief, and if Francis Collins is any sort of representative example, it's not hard to see why. He isn't a creationist, nor does he fall prey to the other forms of scriptural literalism that make most forms of fundamentalism laughable and demonstrably untrue. He's also a highly qualified scientist who should understand how to argue rationally and know how to recognize a fallacy. If anyone could present a respectable case for theism, I would expect that it would be him. But instead, all we get are the same tired old falsehoods about atheism, emotion substituting for evidence, and easily refuted apologetics. There really is nothing more to it than that.

September 14, 2007, 6:43 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink82 comments

The Moving Light of Time

"In a word, the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time — for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays."

—C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

In the above excerpt, C.S. Lewis expresses a very common view of time: that it "flows" from future to present to past like a filmstrip passing through a movie projector, with each frame of the film momentarily becoming the present as it is illuminated by the projector's light. Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig use this view of time to argue that the universe must have had a beginning, and hence a creator, because a universe with an infinite past could never have traversed the infinite number of past moments to reach the present moment (the kalam cosmological argument).

This is the most widely held view of time, for obvious reasons. It seems intuitively true, in accord with our experience; we do observe time apparently flowing, with one moment following the next in succession. In the present, we can act and make choices that seemingly affect the future, while the past is frozen and beyond our ability to alter.

This view is also, indisputably, false.

This may seem a strange thing to say. How can time not flow? We feel it flowing, don't we? If time does not flow, then what does it do, and why don't we notice? If time does not flow, how can there be such a thing as cause and effect? How can there be such things as choice or free will?

These are all valid and important questions. Nevertheless, the widespread perception that time flows is - must be - an illusion. Consider the following points.

First: If the "moving light" of the present, in fact, moves, how can this be? Ex hypothesi, that "moving light" is outside time, because its motion is what defines what time is. And yet, how can there be motion without time? The very idea of motion implies a time at which an object is in one place and a different time in which it is in another. If there is no time, there can be no motion. For this light to move at all, there must be some "meta-time" within which it moves. But if that is the case, then does this meta-time dimension have its own moving light determining the present? And so on, in an infinite regression. The kalam argument, invented to avoid the supposed impossibility of an infinite, ends up running right back into that same impossibility.

But in addition to committing its user to an infinite number of temporal dimensions, this view of time has another problem: the moving light is utterly superfluous. We do not need it. To see this, imagine a thought experiment: What would happen if the spotlight of the present suddenly started moving in reverse? Would we notice anything?

As a moment's thought should make clear, the answer is no. If there is a moving light, then time must be divided into some number of discrete slices - like the frames in a filmstrip - each one representing a snapshot of the universe at a single moment. But the people - more accurately, the people-slices - inhabiting each moment only have the memories leading up to that moment, regardless of whether it is "replayed".

Consider three frames in the filmstrip of my life. In moment A, I'm graduating high school; in moment B, I'm starting college; and in moment C, I'm putting up the first post on this blog. If the spotlight of time started moving backward, so that these moments happened in "reverse" order, would I notice? Of course not. The spotlight of the present cannot change the content of these moments; even if it moves backward to reilluminate a particular moment, that moment will reoccur exactly as it did the first time. And in each of those three moments, I only have the memories of the events preceding it. Regardless of which way the spotlight of the present is "actually" moving, the sequence of my memories imposes a consistent order on my experiences, making it seem as if time is flowing in the "right" direction. And this works exactly the same way if there is no such light at all. The spotlight of the present is an unnecessary explanation, conferring no additional ability to explain our seeming perception of time's flow. Thus, by Occam's razor, it should be eliminated.

But all this is not just a matter of armchair philosophy. It is also a matter of empirical evidence. And in this regard, the evidence strongly confirms the arguments I have put forward. Physicists have known for over a century that the commonly held view of time is incorrect.

For example, if there was a spotlight of time, highlighting moments in succession so that each one briefly becomes the "now", this implies that there is one true present in which everyone shares. All observers should agree on what is happening "now". But this is not the way the universe actually works.

Consider a classic example. Imagine a moving train car, with a light source in the exact center. At a predetermined moment, the light source switches on and fires two photons, one toward a detector on the front wall of the car, one toward a detector on the back wall. Which detector will be triggered first?

An observer on the train, moving along with its motion, will observe both detectors trigger simultaneously. After all, the emitter was in the exact center of the car, so the two photons have to travel the same distance to their respective detectors. This is undoubtedly a correct answer.

But an observer on the platform, watching the train pass by, will observe something different. To that observer, the back wall of the train was moving toward the photon, while the front wall was moving away from it. The difference in distance is miniscule, but it exists; so the back detector should trigger first. This, too, seems to be a correct answer.

Which observer is right? As Albert Einstein first demonstrated, the answer is that they both are. Strange as it seems, there is no one absolute answer to this question. Rather, simultaneity is relative: it depends on the perspective of the observer. Observers who are in motion relative to each other will disagree on which events are simultaneous - in other words, they will disagree on what is happening "now" - and there is no way to say that one is right and the other is wrong.

And this is not a unique, contrived case, applying only to this one example. On the contrary, this is the basis of Einstein's theory of special relativity. Observers in relative motion will always disagree on which events are taking place in the present. At ordinary time and distance scales, this effect is so small as to be almost undetectable, but at very high velocities or over astronomical distances, it can become very significant. Physicist Brian Greene, in his book The Fabric of the Cosmos, gives a startling example: an observer 10 billion light-years away from you, who moved in a direction away from you at a mere 10 miles per hour, would have a "now" consisting of events 150 years in your past. And if this observer moved toward you at the same speed, his "now" would consist of events 150 years in your future.

This shows that moments cannot be partitioned into "past", which have already happened and cannot be changed, and "future", which have yet to be decided. These terms do not correspond to any fundamental attribute of reality. In fact, one observer's past may be another observer's future, and vice versa. Even more importantly, there is no single, universal present, no one moment somehow highlighted in a way that differentiates it from all other moments. Quite the contrary, there are only the moments themselves - each one existing eternally, each one unchangeable, and each one just as real as all the rest. We do not experience this because, as already explained, the causal order of our memories produces an illusion - a convincing illusion, but an illusion nevertheless - of time's mutability and flow.

This realization demolishes the kalam argument. The supposed impossibility of traversing an infinite number of past moments to reach the present simply evaporates, because nothing is traversing anything - there is no spotlight moving in sequence from one moment to the next. The term "now", rather than some special metaphysical significance, becomes, like "here", a term of purely indexical significance. "Here" is wherever I am when I invoke that word; similarly, "now" is whenever I am when I invoke that word. You do not need to traverse anything to reach "here", and nor do you need to traverse anything to reach "now".

The last important question is what place there is for free will in such a scheme. The apparent fixity of the future would seem to deny the possibility of choice, but this ceases to be a problem when we realize that free will does not require the ability to have done otherwise. We choose in accordance with our natures, and our natures are shaped in turn by those choices, regardless of whether that process takes place in a single, special "now" or in one of an eternal succession of moments.

Though the commonly held view of time is wrong, this does not deprive us of anything important. We should always bear in mind that unaided human perceptions are not necessarily, and in fact not usually, a reliable guide to the true nature of ultimate reality. But using science and reason, we can surpass our limitations and arrive at a more fundamental understanding of the orderly laws by which the cosmos operates.

September 4, 2007, 7:37 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink23 comments

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