Saturday, April 28, 2007

Textual Exegesis Will Not Solve Religious Problems

Frequently in history, religious people have committed great crimes against humanity. And they have done it for explicitly religious reasons with religious motivations. They kill, maim, commit mass murder, fly planes into buildings, beat women for having more than their hands and eyes exposed, deprive women and girls of their basic human rights to education and political representation, behead blasphemers and heretic, burn sinners at the stake, imprison and torture those who misstep in the faith, and on and on. The examples are too numerous to mention.

And there is also frequently a gross failure on the part of the religious to take responsibility for the acts committed by their social and historical movement. Too often, when they are confronted with the atrocities committed by religious zealots, they explain away or dismiss the acts by asserting that “well, those weren’t real Christians,” or “that’s not what a true Muslim would do,” or “they are misunderstanding the Bible,” or “they are misinterpreting those passages of the Koran.” And many other religious moderates nod their heads, confident that no one who is “truly” religious, or who understands religion as they should would ever do something so horrible. Antony Flew coined the “No True Scotsman” fallacy to describe this mistake.

The religious moderates may be confident that “really” religious people would never do such awful things, but from the outside, it is much less clear to us that such a claim is true. Religion is as religious people do. Is it just an a priori truth that if someone is really religious they won’t commit horrible, intolerant acts against others? That’s not the way they see it. As they see it, the only way to be truly religious is to fly the plane into a building, maim or kill anyone who violates the holy law, or to destroy all of those who lack the proper faith. So from the outside, how are we to determine who really represents religion? They all insist that their way is the right way—and as we see it, it’s all spooky, superstitious make-believe. From the outside, they all look dangerous or potentially dangerous to us, especially since the drive towards fundamentalism, intolerance, and theocracy always seems to be present. None of the religious traditions are free from their bad seeds, and even what appear to be progressive and moderate sects have produced their nutcases.

So the non-religious are non-plussed by the “Well, they don’t represent true Christianity” response. Religious people keep saying that, but it doesn’t really jive with the facts. Christianity and Islam keep producing people who are violent, intolerant, and oppressive. That really does seem like it is a part of true Christianity, whatever that is.

We are also unimpressed by the feeble attempts to dismiss the horrible acts of the faithful by appeal to textual exegesis. Far too often we have heard that if a passage is understood in its “proper” context and in the “right” way, then that extreme belief, or act is clearly not what God intended. Even George Bush was quick to point out in many public forums that those Muslims who committed 9-11 and other terrorist acts do not represent true Islam. (Somehow I doubt that Bush knows much about Islamic doctrine.)

I’m not a relativist in general. I do not think that the truth is just what some individual, or some group, or whole culture thinks it is. I don’t believe that there are no objective universal moral principles. But I am at a complete loss when I am trying to understand someone’s claim that a passage in the Bible or The Koran has a ”correct” or “true” interpretation. What I have seen over the years is thousands of people conveniently invoking that endorsement for the reading that they are giving to that passage. It would appear that if we are to take their word for it, then there are as many “true” or “correct” interpretations of a passage as there are people reading it. Everyone seems to have a great deal of confidence that the way they are understanding it is the way to see it and all the others are wrong. From the outside, I just see a lot of people frittering away vast amounts of time and energy doing textual exegesis on a document that is a complete train wreck of ambiguities, contradictions, stylistic conflicts, omissions, extraneous details, competing themes, and vagaries. It doesn’t even make sense to me to talk about one single true or correct interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and that’s a very carefully written, cohesive, and remarkable work of art written by one person (a genius) in a relatively short period of time. Anyone who thinks that the Bible or the Koran are internally consistent, cohesive, sensible works full of sound advice about morality, society, and our personal lives probably hasn’t read them. And they can’t seriously expect those of us who are not religious to view their over confident textual exegesis project with much understanding or sympathy.

“Oh, ok, now I see. You’ve made it clear to me that your fundamentalist movement is the first one to get it right and all these Catholics, and Lutherans, and Anglicans have all been getting it completely wrong for all these centuries. It’s so obvious now that you say it, I don’t see why all of them can’t see it too. They must all be stupid and sinful—all 800 million of them.”

In a debate I pointed out recently that 55% of Americans believe that the faithful will be saved by the Rapture before the end of the world, and more than 36% of Americans say that the Bible’s book of Revelations is full of true prophesies. My responder argued that the “correct” interpretation of some passage or other did not suggest anything about an afterlife. So that would mean that at least 165 million Americans, all of whom have complete confidence that they have gotten the Rapture business right, are all wrong about the text, but my responder had it right. And he seemed to be suggesting, with a straight face, that “true” Christianity doesn’t actually include a rapture or an afterlife. There’s not much that binds all the varieties of Christians together under the label, but what has been an essential part of the institution for its entire history is that they think that Jesus is the son of God, and that believers are going to heaven in the afterlife.

The textual exegesis response to religious crimes against humanity is a frustratingly evasive answer to a real problem that the rest of us are desperately concerned about. Religious people have the capacity to commit staggering harm to the rest of us. And they are frequently intolerant of disbelief and disregard of their religious agendas. But when we raise those concerns and we justify our suspicion of religion, their misdeeds are almost always dismissed and explained away by some cryptic appeal to an ancient text that has been “misunderstood.” What the text says really has nothing to do with the real problem we are facing. Religious ideas have enormous appeal, and religious movements spawn murderous zealots, sociopaths, and theocrats. So religious institutions and the people within them need to take responsibility for those disasters. With 165 million Americans thinking that the Rapture is coming any day, it would seem that we have already crossed over the line where the so-called extreme fringe of the movement has become mainstream. The non religious are worried because they are the people that the “true” believers will come after first. But when they are done with us, they are going to come after the religious moderates whose faith isn’t profound enough and whose zeal is lacking commitment.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The God Urge

There are few things that we want to believe more than that there is a God. We want to believe so much that we will go through absurd contortions of reasoning and belief to make it feel like there is more justification for the belief than merely that we want it to be true. The only other sort of case where the gymnastics of reasoning to compensate for a failure of evidence resemble the case of religion is when the evidence is there that a husband, a wife, a boyfriend, or a girlfriend is cheating. And rather than face the evidence and admit the horrible, painful fact of it, we imagine other interpretations of the evidence, possibilities, extenuating circumstances, and justifying reasons that absolve them of responsibility. The difference with religion is that it’s not just one person doing it with their friends trying to convince him that his wife is unfaithful, it’s the whole race of humanity engaging in the deception. And they support, encourage, and fortify our resolve to sustain the redirection of reason.

Not everyone has the urge in equal amounts, and it often manifests itself in very different forms, but there's no denying that we find the prospect of a godless, material, deterministic, soulless universe ugly, horrifying, nihilistic, and hopeless.

The urge make it harder for us to get our heads straight about why we believe in God and why we are religious--we often think we believe for what appear to be good reasons, but in fact it is our emotional, psychological, and personal enthusiasm for the God idea that makes those reasons look better than they are. The urge makes it harder for us to even know why it is that we actually believe. It seems to us on reflection that we believe because there is good evidence, but in fact, unbeknownst even to ourselves, it is the urge at work behind the scenes.

So it's very hard to find the urge and to know what it's up to in your head. It works hard at hiding itself--we don't want to think about ourselves that we do what we do or believe what we believe primarily out of psychological or emotional need. We have a very hard time thinking of ourselves as mere effects of some causes beyond our control. (It's never seems too hard to analyze the causes of other people’s beliefs, however.)

It should be noted, of course, that it’s not just religious beliefs that have the problem where wishing something is true interferes with our ability to think clearly about whether or not it actually is true. We have this problem for all sorts of beliefs--even atheists have it.

It is this urge to believe that bolsters our God beliefs. It raises our threshold for what we will tolerate in the name of religion. It amplifies our emotional commitments to religious ideas. In general, it contributes to our tolerating and committing all sorts of unpalatable and detrimental things for the sake of religion.

Of course, theists will attest that something similar is going on with the doubters and skeptics. “There’s nothing that they want to disbelieve more than that there is a God. They don’t want to admit the fact, and they will go through enormous contortions of reason to try to make their disbelief seem reasonable.”

If they make that argument, then I guess it will be up to you to determine who is more obviously guilty of distortion and logical gymnastics to justify believing what they want to be true.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Science Always Replaces Supernatural Explanations

An Argument Against Supernaturalism

1. In the past, every supernatural or paranormal explanation of phenomena
that humans believed turned out to be mistaken; there was a natural, physical explanation.

Fever was thought to be caused by demon possession.
Insanity was thought to caused by spirits.
Epilepsy was thought to be caused by evil spirits.
Bad weather was thought to be the wrath of angry gods.
Disease was thought to punish the wicked.
Settling foundations of buildings were thought to be ghosts.
Elves and fairies were thought to bring good/bad luck.
Witches were thought to be able to cast spells and curses.
Unexplained natural phenomena were explained by magic.
Pregnancies in convents were thought to be incubi (not priests)
Sexual dreams and encounters at night for men were thought to be succubi.
Mythological gods were thought to govern every aspect of the natural world.

2. Many of the specific explanations of phenomena offered in connection with the existence of the Judeo-Christian God have turned out to be mistaken.

The wicked aren't punished with disease
The good aren't blessed with success.
Prayer doesn't work.
Modern organisms evolved from lower life forms, they weren't created 6,000 years ago in the finished state.
Many miracle claims have turned out to be mistakes, frauds, or deceptions.

3. It is reasonable to conclude that all supernatural explanations are mistaken and that we will discover a natural, physical explanation for everything.

4. Therefore, it is not reasonable to believe that the existence of the Judeo-Christian God adequately explains anything and that there is no such supernatural entity.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Can We Find Evidence for the Divine Properties In the Universe?

Recall that the classic approaches to the proof for the existence of God have particular challenges with regard to the Divine properties. The teleological argument purports to show that there must have been a divine designer who is responsible for the order and complexity of the cosmos. Such an argument, if it is successful (they are not), will give us the conclusion that the being responsible for the universe must have had enough power to create the universe. It is not at all clear that a teleological argument could ever give us omnipotence from that evidential ground alone. Even though it may take an incredible amount of power to create a whole universe, even a complex, and highly ordered one, we can readily imagine first, a being who has it in his power to create the universe, but doing so is all that he can do. It will exhaust his power completely to do so. He will not have any more power beyond that to rectify or change anything about that universe. In fact, we could imagine a being for whom the task is so near the limits of his power that the act of creating the universe destroys him.

Now, by contrast, we can imagine a being that is something more like the traditional characterization by western theists of God. An omnipotent being, as God is by hypothesis, could build this, or any other logically possible universe. Doing so would not generate any taxation on his power, or push him to his limits. Creating this universe, or even one that is more complex, more highly ordered, would be effortless for such a being.

The challenge for us, of course, is that we are behind the veil on this alleged act of creation. So even if the teleological argument goes through and gives us compelling evidence that some divine, supernatural being must have had a hand in the creation of the universe, what evidence could we possibly find from within that universe that would inform us to a reasonable degree about whether the being that did the act was of the first weaker sort, or of the latter omnipotent sort?

I see no such evidence. No matter how impressive an act of creation we determine must have given rise to the universe we inhabit, it will always be an open question whether the being who performed that act had just enough power to pull it off, and was utterly weakened or even destroyed thereafter, or had enough power to do that act, and to repeat it, to change it, or any of the other acts that would be within the scope of omnipotence.

And that's just the challenge to the teleological argument on the question of power. Suppose the teleological argument succeeds (it doesn't), would we then have sufficient grounds to conclude that the supernatural agency involved was omniscient? Or was he just smart enough to perform that act? The only answer to these sorts of challenges that the theist might make is to argue that omnipotence and omniscience are necessary to perform an act like create all of the universe. But since it is readily imaginable that some being of great power and knowledge, but not full omnipotence and omniscience, could perform the act, how will it be possible that the theist can argue that omnipotence and omniscience are necessary? Such arguments will not succeed. There are too many open questions from behind the veil. Unlike Toto, who yanks aside the curtain for Dorothy, we cannot get a privileged glimpse into what the wizard is up to and what sorts of tools and powers the wizard has at his disposal.

And those are just the problems for omnipotence and omniscience. What about omni-benevolence, or infinite goodness, or omni-justice? In the history of the debate over the teleological argument, it has been exceedingly rare that the proponent of the argument has been willing to argue that we can get any goodness, much less infinite goodness, as a property of the responsible supernatural being from an examination of the artifact created. That is, while many have argued that it will take great power and knowledge, even infinite power and knowledge to build this universe. No one is foolish enough to argue that there are properties empirically manifest in the universe that make it resoundingly evident that whoever or whatever was responsible for creating was certain to possess an infinite amount of love for that creation, moral superiority, goodness, or justice.

Indeed, the classic theodicies struggle long and hard just to try to make it plausible that the divine being responsible for the universe might possibly have good intentions behind all the horrors, and unfathomable suffering that sentient creatures here undergo. That is, defenses of God have expended vast amounts of energy and ink just to make this conclusion reasonable: the staggering amounts of seemingly pointless suffering in the world could possibly be compatible with the existence of an omnibenevolent being because that being might have good reasons for making it appear that he does not exist, for allowing moral evil to go unchecked, for standing by while tsunamis, earthquakes, plagues, hurricanes, and pestilence wrecks complete havoc.

The insurmountable challenge for the theist who would put all his or her eggs in the teleological basket should now be clear. The teleological theist needs an argument from the apparent complexity and order that we can observe in the universe that is strong enough for omnibenevolence that it can meet the challenge of evil. But ironically, all that teleological arguments and theodicy accounts of evil have tried to show is that God might still possibly be infinitely good despite the overpowering evidence to the contrary. Without a compelling argument for omnibenevolence from some quarter, the promisory note we were given in connection to the problem of evil challenge is not met. The answer to the problem of evil was something like, "well, God might possibly still be infinitely good despite all this apparently pointless suffering because he might have good reasons for tolerating it." But then when our attention turns towards those arguments for the existence of God that might give us some real reasons to think that God is infinitely good we don't even find an adequate argument for the conclusion that the creator of the universe is good at all. Honestly, if one were to examine all the events in the world and all the suffering, would it be manifest that whoever was in charge of the show even cared at all about what was happening to those puny beings down there? It is manifestly obvious that whoever is in charge of the show is not omnibenevolent.

So where do we get the check we were offered for the bill of evil paid? Where is the argument that gives us any more grounds to think that God actually is good than the modest assertion that he might possibly be infinitely good?

And we cannot tolerate any more slippage from mere possibility to probability. There appears to be nothing but possible legs holding up the table of theism--no real legs.