Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Non-Cognitive Religious Utterances Produce Beliefs about Reality

Philosophers have made a distinction in human speech acts between those that are cognitive and those that are non-cognitive. Cognitive speech acts amount to assertions. They are claims that the world is one way and not another. So if Barrack Obama’s minister claims “AIDS is the product of a U.S. government conspiracy to kill black people,” he is asserting that something is true. He intends that AIDS originated in one way and not another. If a prosecuting attorney argues that a defendant, call him Smith, is guilty of murdering a liquor store owner in a holdup, she means that the death of the store owner was due to Smith’s actions and not caused by something else. It is not the cases that Smith did not do it. To assert that p is the case is to assert that it is not the case that not-p is true. The world is one way and not another. This is not to say, however, that cognitive speech acts are all true. What it means is that the speech act expresses a proposition that is either true or false. Determining whether it is true is another matter. But by labeling it “cognitive,” we mean that the sentence conveys a description that reflects or represents some state of affairs that is either in the world or it isn’t.

But non-cognitive speech acts don’t admit of evaluation in terms of true or false. Many of our utterances are not intended as claims about what is true. They cannot be usefully construed as denials that their opposites are the case. Consider a cheerleader leading a crowd of football fans through a chant. Or imagine a poet reciting lines of verse for an audience. The cheerleader and the poet aren’t making assertion, as such. “Parkwood High is N-U-M-B-E-R O-N-E,” if it is taken literally as an assertion says something that is probably false. And the poet’s, “Humanity staggers across cold, expanses of empty space to board the 8:15 bus to Manhattan,” isn’t best understood as a real claim about what every human does in the morning on the way to work. Other non-cognitive speech acts include someone’s scream of pain when he hits his thumb with a hammer, or someone’s mindlessly singing the lyrics to a song from the radio. These sorts of utterances are better understood as emotive or expressive of feelings. They may even be done with the intention of inducing similar feelings in their audience. The cheerleader is certainly trying to achieve a certain sort of mental state in her audience. She wants to stir up feelings of excitement, enthusiasm, and support for her team. The poet may want to evoke similar subtle aspects of mood in his audience as he was experiencing when he had an experience. Some non-cognitive speech acts could be understood as something like, “I am feeling this way and I want you to feel it too. Share my emotional state.”

Lots of religious speech acts and behaviors are non-cognitive. Chants, litanies, ritualized actions, crossing yourself, saying “Amen” in response to someone else’s words, songs, some prayers, and call and response exchanges between speaker and audience should all be considered non-cognitive. The best way to understand their function in the lives and minds of the people performing them is often not as bold assertions of some fact they take to reflect the world. There are mixed cases and borderline cases, of course, but we’d be missing something if we took a cheerleader to be literally asserting that, “We will, we will, rock you.” Singing psalms in church or sprinkling water on a newborn baby shouldn’t be understood as assertions of facts. They are speech and behavior gestures that play a different role in humans’ lives.

Non-cognitive speech acts often succeed. That is, they often do produce the desired emotional and mental states in their audiences. Consider the effects of playing the American national anthem and looking at the flag (even if you aren’t American!). That music makes us feel a certain way. Cheers often make us have pronounced feelings. Poetry does evoke strong visceral, intellectual, and emotional reactions in us.

Here is the hazard with non-cognitive religious utterances. Many non-cognitive speech acts induce beliefs in us. That is, many speech acts that are not themselves assertions about the world nevertheless create the mental state of thinking something is true in their audience. No reasons or reasoning have been given. No evidence has been cited. And no argument has been presented. But in many cases, people still end up believing that certain things are true about the world. What started as a subjective expression of emotion, or maybe an act intended only to induce some shared feelings in the listener actually yields a conviction that something is the case, objectively. An absurd example might be a high school student leaving a pep rally feeling like the class of 2008 really is the best, whatever that means. Certainly people are roused to political action by poetry and song. They become motivated to act on their beliefs and bring about change whereas they weren’t before. Or the intense passion of the moment generated by the speech act leaves them with a deep sense of conviction. National anthems, patriotic songs and sentiments have been used in countless cases to rouse people to go to war. And a willingness to go to war is predicated on beliefs that something is true of the enemy, and its contrary is not. Intense public rallies stirring up fervent German nationalism made believing that Jews were the wicked source of Germany’s economic problems much easier.

In psychological experiments, we can see evidence that sensory stimulus that registers with emotional centers in the nervous system has a causal impact on what a person’s believes to be true. If humans are exposed to visual stimuli for less than 200-250 milliseconds, they cannot reliably report what it is they have seen. They don’t seem to be aware that they have been shown a picture at all. If subjects are primed with a fast stimulus, and then given another task, however, there are often measurable effects. In one study, researchers primed strong Republican test subjects with pictures of John Kerry, and then they showed the subjects positive words such as “happy,” “pleasant,” and “hope,” or negative words such as “sad,” “angry,” and “pain.” They also performed the opposite experiment with strongly Democratic subjects and primed pictures of George Bush. When they read the words, the subjects were instructed to identify the word as either positive or negative. In both cases, even though the subjects were not consciously aware that they had seen a picture of Kerry or Bush, their ability to identify the positive words as positive was hindered. After being primed with a picture of Kerry, the Republicans took longer to indicate that “happy” is a positive word. And after having Bush flashed at them, the Democrats took longer to affirm that “hope,” is a positive word. Priming effects like this have been corroborated and explored now in countless experiments and their existence is widely accepted. The significance for religious belief is that a person’s beliefs at the conscious level are often affected by stimuli, and by cognitive systems within their own brains that the subject is utterly unaware of. What feels like a voluntary mental and physical act that seems to be transparent to introspection, in fact, is significantly influenced by forces and aspects of the emotional nervous system that are behind the scenes for us intellectually. We don’t have access to and don’t know about the forces that produce beliefs that appear in consciousness. But they are there and they are making us believe things.

So we can begin to see the ways in which non-cognitive speech acts and behaviors might be working on us to produce or affect beliefs. If priming experiments in psychology show that the contents of their conscious awareness can be causally affected or changed without the subject’s awareness, then the same mechanisms will be at work on us in religious contexts. First, non-cognitive speech acts affect us, sometimes strongly. Second, we are often unaware of the causal factors and stimuli that contribute to the production of the beliefs we find in our minds. Third, the line between non-cognitive and cognitive speech acts is often blurry—“Did that guy singing really have his heart broken by a woman who cheated on him, or is he just singing as if he did?”

The hazards of forming convictions about what is true on the basis of non-cognitive utterances and behaviors should be obvious. A belief that something is the case in the world should not be based upon visceral, emotional, and unconscious processes, if we can help it. It’s dangerous to vote, fight, argue, march, pull triggers, and pass laws on the basis of emotion instead of reason. Passion is a highly unreliable guide to the truth. In fact, for many of us and many of our beliefs, they are inversely correlated.

And here’s the problem with many of the moderate defenses of religious practice. Many people defend religion as being a source of personal fulfillment and meaning. “We don’t take those stories literally. We don’t actually think that the earth was created 6,000 years ago, or that people’s physical bodies will literally ascend to heaven after death. Those are just metaphorical, poetic ways a speaking. Those words aren’t literally true.”

The problem is that the lines between truth, pretend, and metaphor are frequently blurred and crossed. The difference in feeling between mere metaphor and actual assertion, as we have seen, is slight. The fierce feelings of pride, aggression, and enthusiasm produced by rousing cheers from the cheerleaders or from playing the national anthem with a flag raising aren’t compartmentalized in our minds. Fights and murders frequently occur at sporting events. The feelings that non-cognitive speech acts induce aren’t controlled and isolated from the rest of our convictions and our beliefs about what is true. Those feelings produce actions, and actions feed beliefs, then those beliefs feed more actions, and the beliefs and actions catalyze more non-cognitive speech acts that rouse us further. We can’t sing or chant that “Jesus is our Lord and savior” or that “There is only one true God” over and over for years while having strong emotional reactions to the music, a throng of pious believers around you, and while listening to a passionate sermon and not be affected at the level of belief. To think that one can go through the motions repeatedly, acting, talking, singing, and preaching just like one would if X was true and be completely unaffected is na├»ve self-deception.

When we engage in non-cognitive speech acts without being very clear about the lines between truth, feeling, and assertion vs. non-assertions, we play with fire. If you don’t really believe in God, if you don’t take all the ontological claims in religious doctrine seriously, and if you don’t really think that humans need salvation from an invisible, magical being who reads minds, then how can it be acceptable to repeatedly act and talk as if you do? Those speech acts affect us—they change us. In religious contexts they blur the line between reality and wishing. They affect other people who frequently do take the claims as serious assertions and then act accordingly. They train us to believe and act emotively instead on the basis of good evidence. Religious speech acts foster visceral, intuitive, emotive believing. They train and reinforce bad intellectual habits instead of acute critical thinking skills. Ironically, isn’t it bad faith to act like something is true that you suspect is not?

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Believer's Moral Double Standard for God

For the non-believer, one of the most stultifying phenomena is watching the gross double standard that believers apply to their ordinary lives and God. In a thousand day-to-day interactions with other people, the believer’s actions and words reveal a normal sense of moral decency. They know what fairness, respect, kindness, and goodness are and they act on them without hesitation. The believer (we hope) helps someone in desperate need, expresses outrage when they see moral neglect, and strives to make the world better, or at least not worse. But with God, all of these moral sensibilities get jettisoned. God is given a free pass on behaviors or negligence that would invoke moral outrage in any other human case. Many believers hold themselves and the rest of humanity to a stern standard of moral behavior, but it would appear that no act, no instance of neglect, and no omission on the part of God can produce a similar sense of moral outrage. God, it would seem can do no wrong, even when what he does is blatantly wrong. Over and over God is absolved for behaviors that we would never let another person get away with.

Suppose a serial murderer testified on his own behalf and said, “I know that my brutally murdering dozens of people seems wicked, but in the cosmic scheme of things, what I did actually works out for the greater good—in ways that we can’t see, the tortures and deaths of all of those people will actually create greater goods in the world and avoid worse evils. So I should be judged as doing something virtuous and praiseworthy.” We would never buy it—we wouldn’t even consider it seriously as a defense of murder for a minute. When David Cash stood by and watched his friend rape and kill a little girl in a Nevada Casino without reporting it or doing anything to stop it, his fellow students at Berkeley, and the California State Legislature rightly concluded that he had done something profoundly wrong. Standing by and doing nothing when you can easily stop a horrific crime is gross negligence. If you saw thousands of people in a primitive village in Africa dying of typhoid or cholera, and you knew that all they needed to do in order stem the outbreak and save thousands of lives was to clean up their water supply and separate it from contaminating sewage, but you did and said nothing. Instead, you stood by watching while thousands of them died in ignorance. If you did that, you’d be an immoral monster. Any minimally decent person would be haunted by guilt and sorrow for the rest of their lives if they had seen such a thing and not been able to stop it. If you knew about slavery, child abuse, and child rape, and if you were able to do something to stop it, but you didn’t, you’d be an immoral monster.

Suppose someone thundered, threatened, cajoled, and extorted a group of people by insisting that they believe in him, acknowledge his superiority over all beings, and demanded that they devote their entire lives to worshipping him, he’d obviously be a selfish, vain, petty, and vile person. If he demanded that people believe in him and worship him, and then subjected them to unimaginable torture for not complying, he’d be one of history’s most fiendish villains. When Pacific Gas and Electric knowingly put cancer causing chemicals into the town drinking water in Hinkley, CA and then conspired to hide the evidence, a jury found them guilty and awarded the residents hundreds of millions of dollars in restitution. Knowingly inflicting, directly or indirectly, cancer on innocent (or even guilty!) human beings and then doing nothing to help is immoral. Surely God knows more and has more power than P.G. and E. Surely if P.G. and E. is guilty of killing the residents of Hinckley, God has been just as reckless with his toxic dumping. If someone knowingly injected or exposed millions of people to polio, bubonic plague, or malaria, and then insisted that the suffering was deserved, or the suffering would develop their moral character, you’d conclude that their crimes against humanity were worse than Josef Mengele. If someone hid from you by concealed all empirically manifested traits of their existence, yet insisted that you believe in them on pain of eternal punishment, you’d think they were insane. If someone claimed to be able to perform miraculous tricks, raise the dead, or levitate, but refused to demonstrate, you’d conclude that he was a liar or delusional.

If a doctor wants to perform a new procedure on you that will save your life, especially one that is painful, or has serious side effects, they have to obtain informed consent from you. Even if I plan on doing something to a person that will benefit them enormously in the end, I have to tell them what I am doing and why. And it would be wrong to do it without getting their voluntary, informed permission to do it no matter how great the possible benefits to them. The offense would be even worse if a doctor or a politician or some social engineer inflicted some harm on one person against their will in order to benefit people in some other place or time. If God is subjecting some sentient beings to horrible suffering for the sake of some unseen good that will result to future generations, or for other people, his justification can be no better than Josef Mengele in Auschwitz who offered the same justification. Achieving some good, even a greater good, doesn’t justify subjecting innocent, unwilling beings to horrible suffering.

The response to this moral double standard argument will be that in all of these cases God’s actions or God’s omissions are not analogous to the human cases. Humans don’t have an excuse in any of these cases that would absolve them of moral responsibility. But God, since he’s God and has a grand plan, or because he is infinitely good and loving, can be excused because he’s operating on a different level. Imagine some fanatical Megele devotee making the same excuses. You’d never buy it there.

The objections to the atheist’s problem of evil argument fail in the end, but what’s also important is that for many believers, it never even occurs to them that their God might be guilty of some moral offense in such cases and that some justifying explanation needs to be given to get him off of the hook. Their affection for the God idea, and the distorting lens that God belief imposes on reality for them prevents many believers from even seeing that there’s a problem here. They might offer up some objections when the curmudgeonly atheist like me complains, but otherwise, they seem to be untroubled by the cognitive dissonance that these double standard examples should bring about. It just never seems to occur to many believers that there’s anything out of whack here—and nonbelievers find that demoralizing. It seems like lots of believers can’t even be brought to acknowledge that there’s something prima facie out of alignment here. The double standard problem seems to be completely invisible or undetectable to them. The nonbeliever feels like the little boy trying to point out that the emperor has no clothes.

One irony is that through the moral gymnastics to justify why a good God behaves worse than the most vile criminal in human history, the believer maintains that God is still the one and only source of moral goodness in the world. So the believer, like most normal people, has a highly developed and sensitive capacity for recognizing goodness and moral obligation, but they systematically refuse to apply that capacity to God. If they did, the obvious result would be that God’s a moral monstrosity, and yet they maintain all the while that God, despite his failure to live up to any of those obvious moral truths, is the real source of goodness. Their infatuation with the God idea has rendered them unable to see something that would be starkly obvious in any other ordinary case; if a person behaved like God is alleged to, we would think that he was guilty of the most awful moral crimes in moral history. Orwell’s ministry of truth has done its job: down is up, right is wrong, and all of God’s vices are virtues.

What the examples above show is that at the very least there is a substantial burden of proof on the believer who even wants to claim that God is as good as a minimally decent, normal human being. No minimally decent human being would engage in any of those acts or omissions. So a fortiori, the claim that God is infinitely good is outrageous seen in this context. Importantly, in the most ambitious theodicies that we have been given from philosophically minded believers have pressed that it is possible that God has a plan whereby all suffering produces a greater good or averts a worse evil. Given the argument illustrated by these examples, the claim is laughably implausible. It’s logically possible, perhaps, but patently false: “It’s possible that what Hitler did was really a good thing, we just can’t understand how with our limited intellects.” “It’s possible that every single one of the 240,000 people who died in the Thailand tsunami deserved a violent, wrenching death by battery and drowning.” “It’s possible that child rape is actually good when we view it inclusively enough.”

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Deal With It

One of the most frequent complaints or objections, if you can call it that, an atheist hears is something like this: “But if there’s no God then life has no meaning.” “How can you stand to live in a world like that?” “I need to believe because it fulfills me and makes me happy.” “Believing gives me a reason to get up in the morning.” “But your life (atheist) has no worth.”

This refrain has been repeated so many times, and the believer’s sense of indignation is usually so fierce that non-believers have come to feel like they must give an answer. Lots of atheists have devoted much time and energy to an atheistic replacement such as secular humanism, or some form of community that will soften the blow of letting God go. And lots of believers seem to think that until atheism has something to offer them in these regards, then they have legitimate reasons for rejecting it. Since the life of the atheist is meaningless, it’s reasonable to continue believing in God.

But there are several serious mistakes lurking here in all of this. First, the fact that some argument, or worse, its conclusion doesn’t give you the warm fuzzies is not a legitimate reason for rejecting or criticizing it. Your feelings about the truth are beside the point. How we happen to feel about it, and the sorts of psychological and personal reactions we have to it are completely independent issues from whether or not it is true and whether or not there is justifying evidence for believing it. It may be true that an 8 year old is crushed to learn that there is no Santa, but there it is. That’s just not a good reason for adults to persist in believing something that runs so clearly against the evidence. We don’t get to exempt ourselves from the demands of reason and argument because we’re not pleased with the outcome.

Second, the fact that some cherished belief does give you the warm fuzzies is not legitimate grounds for thinking it is true. Religious beliefs aren’t subjective, harmless, internal preferences like, “I like broccoli, but I can’t stand peppermint.” Religious beliefs are claims about the world, about what is the case, about what sorts of things exist, about where the world came from, about where we are going. Those are all things that matter, and they are not subject to individual preference. Religious beliefs feed into people’s votes, their political views, their ideas about social and public policy, and what they take to be valuable in the world. We are all accountable to each other for what we believe and we’re all accountable to each other to give some grounds for believing it. That religious beliefs satisfy some psychological and emotional longings you have may be some of the motives you have for wishing they were true and wanting to believe, but those feelings aren’t reasons for believing. Those are needs, not evidence.

Third, it’s just not the burden of someone who is presenting what they take to be good reasons for believing that there is no God to also provide some emotional compensation because that conclusion is unpalatable. The truth may or may not be comfortable. The evidence may or may not take us to those conclusions that we think we want to find. It would be perverse to allow our comfort to guide this decision. It’s narcissistic to think that the ultimate truths about the nature of reality must line up with our feelings. There either is a God or there isn’t, and our feelings about the matter are completely irrelevant. Instead of being so frequently criticized for robbing people of something they enjoy, the non-believer should be praised for having the courage to follow the evidence and be willing to face it even if the results aren’t popular. So, suck it up.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Moving On

A non-believer I know puts his view this way to a young Christian who was perplexed about why he turned away from Christ:

I didn't turn away from Christ; I accept most of Christ's teachings about how to live, though of course I do not live up to them. I just don't accept the metaphysical interpretation that other people gave to Christ's life. Once you receive a proper education in the history of science, it is almost impossible to take seriously the idea that a view that people created about the origin of the universe a few thousand years ago is true. That was a time when people believed that the stars were all tiny objects on a celestial sphere just a few hundred miles away. They had no knowledge of how the universe worked or its vastness or how babies are made, or what the brain does, or why we get sick, or our genetic relation to animals.

Once you begin to assimilate all of this knowledge and more, then you begin to realize that the theory that universe was created by a being that has a gender and resembles a human in the way that it thinks and acts is just incredibly unlikely to be true. It made sense at the time it was proposed, but it is completely inadequate to this one. It is possible to avoid conclusions like these by simply refusing to become educated, assuming that you were just lucky enough to be born into a culture that has had the truth delivered to them in a simple comprehensible form, but that is just to choose the path of ignorance. It is better to try to take everything good from Christ's teachings as well as those of Buddhism and other religions, and try to incorporate them into a world view consistent with our current scientific understanding of it.

You are a bright young man, and I think this will happen to you as you move through the world. It will happen naturally without you even thinking about it as long as you choose to keep learning.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

One of Several Ways to Prove the Negative

Suppose I tell you that “Screeds exist.”

Then you ask some questions and it turns out that what I mean by “screed” is something that is bleen, croom, and weeq.

Then you ask some more questions about the terms bleen, croom, and weeq. It turns out that those terms mean, “reptile,” “married,” and “bachelor,” respectively. So here’s the disproof:

1. Suppose that X is a screed. Then it would follow that:

2. X is bachelor, and

3. X is a reptile.

4. Bachelors are unmarried, adult human males. So,

5. X is human (by 4) and X is not human (by 3)


6. X is unmarried (by 4) and X is not married (by 3—reptiles can’t be married.)

7. Contradictions are impossible. Nothing can both have a property and not have it.

8. Nothing contradictory can exist.

9. Therefore, screeds cannot exist.

We just proved a negative. What’s the problem, exactly? Why is it that the urban myth that “you can’t prove a negative” persists, and persists, and persists?

For centuries, nonbelievers have been giving deductive proofs for the impossibility of God that demonstrate that there is no God using a strategy like this. But rather than actually consider any of those attempted disproofs, the widespread practice is to simply declare “Everyone knows that you can’t prove a negative.” That’s complete nonsense. We can and do prove negatives of all sorts—ask any mathematician. How do you think they conclude that some piece of mathematical reasoning is flawed. If I present you with a complicated logical formula like this one: ~(~a --> ~b) --> ((~a --> b) --> a)) do you think you can simply declare that it is true because “You can’t prove a negative”? It turns out that this formula is contradictory so we can prove that it must be false.

So if the concept of God is logically contradictory, which many people have argued, then we can prove the negative. For a recent collection of articles purporting to do just that, see Martin and Monnier’s anthology, The Impossibility of God.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Adding Epicycles to God

Consider the difference between the way the history of science has treated the concepts of “heat” and “demons.” Our modern account of heat defines it as the kinetic energy or motion of molecules. When one object heats up another, some of that energy is transferred from one object to the other where the mean level of molecular motion increases. Until the beginning of the 19th century, this exchange of heat was not understood in terms of molecular motion. They postulated the transfer of an invisible fluid known as caloric between the objects. When we began to understand molecular energy levels and motion, the term “heat” was retained, but the definition of heat as caloric was dropped. So the concept, in a new form, survived the expansion and change created by progress in scientific knowledge, but only by radically defining the ultimate nature of the phenomena in question.

Demons had their place in our explanations of things at one point too. During the Middle Ages, erratic, unpredictable, psychotic behavior in some people was attributed to demon possession. But when our knowledge of the phenomena expanded and we began to understand mental illness as a pathology, we ultimately abandoned the concept of demons altogether. The idea was too embedded in an outmoded, non-functional, unhelpful ontology to make it usable in the new scheme of the world. Demons were eliminated in favor of a new concept, “mental illness” explained in the context of a theory that conceived of the behaviors in terms of a physical illness rather than the elaborate metaphysics countenanced by the demon possession explanation.

We are at an important stage in history concerning the concept of God. To be sure, there are people who still harbor a highly anthropomorphic conception of God that varies little from the concept as it was understood by the founders of the Judeo-Christian, and Islamic religious traditions. The analogy between those sorts of believers and someone who still retains a conception of demons as the cause of erratic personal behavior is not inappropriate. But there are many people who, either consciously or unconsciously, would retain the conception of God but who would revise, adjust, and reallign it to fit with our shifting model of the nature of the world we inhabit. This so-called God of the gaps has had a shrinking corner of the explanatory room to occupy. There is less and less need to invoke God as we understand the mechanics of nature better. (Some would have us just replace our account of God with nature.) But those wishing to hold onto the idea have try to argue that evolution is actually the way he created human life. The subatomic particles we have discovered and the Big Bang are alleged to be his handiwork too. (It seems that every hard earned scientific discovery that is initially resisted, suppressed, or discounted by believers fearing proof against God eventually gets coopted in some strange fashion as proof of God.)

But the question, like the question about the concept “heat,” is what room is there left for God in the new order, and what explanatory work will postulating God do for us? If God and his believers continue to backpedal in response to the advances of scientific knowledge what sort of being do we have left? In what ways does the room left by the rapidly closing gaps leave us with something that is worthy of worship, or worthy of the name?

Another conceptual shift from the history of science can help us see the wisdom and value of conceptual revolution.

In the famous account, the Ptolemaic worldview that had the sun orbiting the Earth began to disintegrate as careful thinkers made close observations and calculations. The sun rises and falls as if it was orbiting the earth but the planets have retrograde paths across the sky—they inch forward then go back, then inch forward more, and go back, and so on. As their observations grew more detailed and careful, astronomers postulated orbits within orbits, epicycles within epicycles, in order to explain the movements of the planets and in order to preserve the geocentric model of the universe. By the 16th century, the theoretical system had become baroque to the point of uselessness. Then Copernicus brought a revolution to the data that suddenly resolved all of the discrepancies in the data—the earth must be revolving around the sun.

Belief in God has undergone the same accumulation of ad hoc provisions, speculations, and epicycles. It turns out that he didn’t create humans 6,000 years ago, rather life evolved on its own for billions of years (but somehow that’s still the result of his will.) Centuries ago, God showed himself to humanity regularly, but now that no one sees him we are told that he hides in order to preserve our freedom to believe by faith. Sickness used to be the manifestation of his disapproval, now we know about viruses and bacteria (but all of that complexity in nature, we are told, is evidence of God’s glory.) Prayer doesn’t work (but that’s only because it won’t work for anyone who doubts and lacks faith, we are told.) Our efforts to corroborate and understand the God claims are left unsatisfied ( but that’s only because in his wisdom he wishes us to grown in virtue and intellect, is the excuse.) And so on. For every hard question that lacks an answer, some elaborate provision or excuse, or worse, an ad hoc revision is offered so that the pious can cling to a slender thread of belief. The ultimate trump card for believers is the claim that “we just can’t know what God is really like or how everything makes sense from his perspective.” Similarly a recalcitrant geocentric astronomer could insist that we just can’t understand how really the sun orbits the Earth, it just looks exactly like it doesn’t—it’s just beyond our capacity to understand how all the data could be wrong. It gets more and more implausible to keep hiding God behind these excuses.

Now we are seeing that the God we believed in during the infancy of the human race just can’t be made sense of on the many fronts of our expanding knowledge of the world. It doesn’t fit with physics; An an infinite metaverse that contains countless varied universes among which ours is a single, insignificant speck cannot be reconciled with a picture of humanity and the Earth as the purpose and pinnacle of God’s creation. Evolution has rendered the God who was invoked to explain the complexity and appearance of design in nature superfluous. Molecular biology and genetics have supplanted God, demons, possession, sin, and piety as explanations of disease and health.

There are those who still have an affection for religion and religious ideas and who cling to the notion that there still could be some higher power out there watching over us. The religious urge dies very, very hard.

But what is clear, and growing clearer with every advancement of scientific knowledge, is that the God hypothesis has even less to recommend it than the Ptolemaic scheme of the sun orbitting the Earth. It takes wilder and wilder gyrations and rationalizations in order to hold onto the view as we mature scientifically, socially, and philosophically. An Iron Age mythology just can’t be reconciled with what we now know about ourselves and the world we inhabit. And at some point it should become evident that making a shift analogous to the one Copernicus did, and giving up theism just makes a lot more sense of the information overall. And once you do, ironically, it feels like the dumbfounded thinker in Plato's cave who emerges into the light after casting off the chains that bound him in ignorance.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A God Who Performs Miracles is Evil

If a doctor travels to a village with enough polio vaccine to inoculate 1,000 children, but only gives 10 of them the shot and throws the rest of the vaccine away arbitrarily, and then watches the remaining 990 die or be crippled by polio, we would conclude that doctor was a monster, not a saint.

In the bathroom of a Las Vegas casino in 1997, Jeremy Strohmeyer brutally killed a little girl while his best friend, David Cash Jr. watched and did nothing about it. Strohmeyer was tried and convicted for the murder, but even though Strohmeyer had confessed to Cash, the law had no provision for prosecuting Cash for his gross failure of moral duty to report the crime. The California state legislature quickly passed a law obliging witnesses of felonies against minors to report them. David Cash’s negligence was morally wrong.

Many years ago, a woman name Kitty Genovese was murdered outside her apartment in New York. Dozens of neighbors listened and even watched, but did nothing. The murder took over half an hour. After the attacker had stabbed her repeatedly, stolen her money, assaulted her, gone away and come back, and left her for dead, someone finally called the police. They came within a few minutes but it was too late. The neighbors were immoral in their indifference.

The doctor, David Cash, and the witnesses to the Genovese murder
have done something, particularly since so much good could have been accomplished with so little effort.

Adults have greater moral obligations in the presence of children or animals than they do with other normal adults. They must restrain themselves and to protect the other beings because they are weaker, more vulnerable, and have greater basic needs. There are moral obligations of stewardship. In general, it is wrong to do less good or to fail to prevent evils that you are able to prevent with very little effort.

At any given moment on the planet when miracles are alleged to have occurred, there are billions of other people who are not
being miraculously cured, healed, or benefitted.

Suppose that Jesus miraculously fed and healed thousands, raised someone from the dead, or that God parted the Red Sea to save the Israelites. Suppose that all of the millions of visitors to the shrine at Lourdes, France who claimed to have been miraculously healed were actually miraculously healed. Suppose that God were to reach out and instantaneously eliminate all pointless suffering in the world today. None of these miracles accomplishes nearly as much as God could: He didn’t do it yesterday, he didn’t do it at Auschwitz in 1945, or when the bubonic plague ravaged and killed millions in Europe during the 1300s. He didn’t do it in countless other cases where all of the morally relevant details were the same as the cases where he is alleged to have performed a miracle.

Christine Overall says, “If Jesus was the Son of God, I want to know why he was hanging out at a party, making it go better [turning water into wine], when he could have been healing lepers, for example.”She concludes, “a being that engages in events that are trivial, capricious, and biased cannot be a morally perfect God.”

She says, “As those who would defend the argument from evil point out, there is a huge amount of evil in the world—psychological and physical suffering, malnutrition, starvation, pandemics, cruelty, torture, poverty, racism, lynching, sexism, child abuse, assault, war, sudden deaths from natural disasters—the list is appalling. . . . Instead of using miracles to feed a small number, to transform water into wine, or to convert a few people, God could very well be performing miracles that have a much larger effect, especially on the lives of the millions of children whose suffering is particularly incomprehensible to anyone with a sense of justice. The question is why a good God would be concerned with details like the need for wine at a wedding, and yet apparently not be concerned with huge tragedies like the holocaust of six million Jews.”

James Keller argues against God’s performing miracles: “The claim that God has worked a miracle implies that God has singled out certain persons for some benefit which many others do not receive implies that God is unfair.” He continues, “there may be two cases which are similar in all ways that seem relevant, yet in one case there will be a recovery (which some deem a miracle) and in the other case no recovery.”

A supernatural being who performs a miracle while idly standing by in the presence of so much suffering in the course of history would be guilty of gross negligence, failing to meet obligations of moral stewardship, and failing to fulfill a duty to rescue. It would be reasonable to conclude that such a being is evil.

Overall, Christine, “Miracles, Evidence, Evil, and God: A Twenty-Year Debate,” Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review, vol. 45, no. 2, pp. 358.

Keller, James. “A Moral Argument against Miracles,” Faith and Philosophy. vol. 12, no 1. Jan 1995. 54-78