Monday, October 27, 2008

Everything is to the Glory of God -Revamped

Lots of religious believers now believe that humans and life on earth evolved. It turns out, they claim, that natural selection is God’s means of achieving his ends. Furthermore, that evolution was aided from time to time by God giving it a little nudge when necessary.

Now it’s thought by many people who are religious that the physical constants that physics has found in nature—the strong nuclear force, the weak force, Planck’s constant, the mass of the top quark, and so on—are all part of God’s doing. God is responsible for the narrow range of values for the laws of nature that keep our universe on the knife edge that makes life possible. It turns out that God has fine tuned it all for our benefit.

When we discover that the universe is 15 billion years old and not 6,000, and that humanity has been around for 100,000 years and didn’t start with Adam and Eve, they acknowledge (reluctantly) “yes, that’s right. That was God’s plan. Isn’t the breadth of God’s plan sweeping?”

By many believers’ reckoning, the Big Bang, which wasn’t even postulated until a few decades ago by cosmologists, turns out to be God’s means of creation. (Never mind that no one in the history of any of these religious traditions offered any hint that it occurred until after we defied religious authority and discovered it on our own.)

It would appear that every conceivable discovery is interpreted as evidence of God’s existence and God’s transcendent power, knowledge, and goodness. And no possible developments in our empirical investigations will be accepted as counter evidence. It’s a sort of conspiracy theory. The conspiracy theorist takes everything that happens to be more proof that the government is watching him. The fact that he can’t get any pictures of the black helicopters surveiling him just shows how stealthy they are. The fact that no one around him lets on that they are spying on him just shows how good they are at covering their tracks. The fact that we cannot find compelling evidence that links the CIA and the mob as conspirators in the John F. Kennedy’s assassination itself shows that the CIA and the mob did it because no one else could have so effectively concealed their scheme. But with God, everything we discover, including the fact that there appears to be no need to invoke any supernatural agency to explain any phenomena we analyze, is taken to indicate just how transcendent God is. Even the fact that the universe appears to be just the sort of place you’d expect if there was no powerful, knowledgeable, and caring supernatural being itself is taken to indicate that that sort of being has good reasons for making its presence completely undetectable.

In all seriousness, if God were to build the universe and then give us a book, a doctrine, and a religion with which to worship him, and if all of the remarkable things about God’s role in the creation and sustenance of the universe that believers claim are true, then wouldn’t we have expected to find some hint about them from God, from his religion, from his book, or from his believers before they were discovered by science? In every, science forges ahead through hard work, insight, and struggle, to discover some truth about the world. And then, after science has done all the heavy lifting, the religious dogmatists snatch the discovery, “Of course, we knew that all along because that’s a part of God’s remarkable creation. It all just suggests more praise to God’s glory for his universe.”

There remain many unanswered questions in science now. We aren’t sure about the existence of the Higgs-Boson, or the graviton, or the relationship of the gravitational force to the other fundamental forces. We don’t have a clear, developed picture of the origins of consciousness in evolutionary history. We don’t have adequate information to ascertain the prevalence of life in the universe at large. But presumably with time, hard work, and human ingenuity, we will find answers to all of these questions.

So here is the challenge for the believer. If all of those future discoveries in science are going to be co-opted and neatly adapted to show that God is such a profound being, then we should be able to find some indicator of these mechanisms of God’s handiwork in religion, religious doctrine, or the words of God himself without science to do all the hard work. If the four fundamental forces—gravity, strong, weak, and electromagnetic—are all God’s means of constructing the universe, after all, then why can’t we find any indication of that anywhere in any religious doctrine or tradition before physics discovered them. If evolution was the method whereby God brought life into the universe as so many Americans now believe, then why can’t we find even the slightest hint of it in any religious source or the word of God prior to Darwin’s hard fought battle with those same believers? If the intelligent design hypothesis about God’s interventions in evolutionary history is correct, then why did no religious source ever give any indication of it until the 1990s? If viruses, not evil demon possession, were the source of disease all along and part of God’s plan, why has religious doctrine always been so clearly in favor of demons? If the abundant amounts of apparently pointless suffering and death in the world has always been part of God’s plan to build moral character, then did we not get any indication that this was true from religious sources until after atheists like William Rowe in the 1970s argued that pointless evil is evidence that there is no God?

The answer should be obvious. With every new development and empirical discovery, many believers (usually, after resisting the truth with all their might,) construct an ad hoc explanation that allows them to co-opt that discovery and contort it into their worldview and use it to their advantage. That their worldview previously contained no indicators of what is now taken to be obvious because of what science has forced them to accept is conveniently written off as metaphor, discounted, neglected, or forgotten. “Adam and Eve? Oh, we never really believed that literally.” “The earth is only 6,000 years old? That’s so quaint—it isn’t what we really believe.” All of the ad hoc re-engineering and reverse conspiracy gymnastics in order to salvage an Iron Age ideology is gross intellectual dishonesty when it is clear that the space left for the God of the gaps is rapidly shrinking.

Either the universe is as we would have expected to it to be according to traditional theism or it is not. Believers are in a very difficult position with every new discovery or invention that doesn’t fit nicely within the traditional theistic picture. If they argue that the world as we are finding it is exactly as we would have expected it to be on the theistic hypothesis, then they need to explain how it is that theism has not anticipated so many of the results we have found. They need to explain how it is that the world has turned out to be so obviously not exactly as traditional theism described it. Why has traditional theism been blindsided by every important scientific development for 500 years? Worse, why has traditional theism viciously resisted and tried to erase them from our collective consciousness all of those same developments at every stage? If a 3 billion year evolutionary process was God’s modus operandi all along, then why is it that hundreds of millions of believers still insist that evolution didn’t occur and that it was all created in its present form a few hundred generations ago? If the Big Bang was God’s act of creation, then why is it such news to those whose God has given the one, true access to perfect knowledge of reality through the Bible? Apparently these manifestations of God’s knowledge and power aren’t as obvious in his plan as the revisionist believers would like.

If all of this is all part of God’s infinite wisdom and creation, why didn’t God and all of his followers seem to have a clue about the rotation of the earth, biological history, geology, physics, chemistry, morality, and the origins of life? The story they did tell was the one that we would have expected Iron Age humans with no scientific grasp of the universe to give about the nature and origin of humans and the universe.

When the members of that tradition now try to backpedal and give God the credit ex post facto for the complexity, and breadth of the empirical world discovered by those who broke from religious authority, the hedging is clear. They’re re-engineering their story to fit the facts and trying to insist that that’s what they believed all along. But as we discover more and more about the way the world is—in stark contrast to the theistic picture—it gets harder and harder for the believer to continue this ad hoc revisionism while the rest of us keep a straight face. Consider the popular view that the “days” described in the Genesis creation story may have lasted longer than our days, so maybe life did evolve for 3 billion years on earth and Genesis is actually giving an accurate record of that. “Yeah, yeah, that’s what we believed all along. We knew that life evolved and humans came from monkeys from the start. Yeah, that’s the ticket.” Never mind that in Genesis the order of primordial events contradicts what we now know about the development of life and events on earth on a long list of points.

If, on the other hand, believers acknowledge that what we have discovered about the universe, the earth, and life on earth is not consistent with the picture that traditional theism had us believe, then they have several other very difficult problems. If the world is not as theism described it to be, then all of that counter evidence weighs heavily against the plausibility of traditional theism and any doctrine that finds its origin in it. That is, believing today has its roots in believing from the past. Without the inception of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in their historical contexts and the sweeping social institutions that they have become, it’s hard to see what would motivate a modern theism. If your belief doesn’t trace its origins back to the advent of Christianity, then what exactly is there to recommend it? It’s not that there can be no independent grounds upon which to rest a modern version of theism. But the vast historical establishment of Christianity has been a substantial factor in leading people to believe. The fact that so many others for so long have believed, and that they have passed that believe on to us through our education, our culture, our churches, and our personal and social lives is not insignificant. If it turns out that historical belief has little or nothing real to stand on, then what is left for a modern human who knows about these discoveries and scientific developments to build their belief upon?

Take a belief in witchcraft as a historical parallel. 2,000 years ago, 1,000 years ago, and 500 years ago, the view that witchcraft was real was pervasive. Many elements of our culture and our heritage were built around it. Our social, legal, economic, and religious institutions acknowledged it. Everyone knew that witches and magical powers were real. But science has shown us the light. At one point, for a person to believe in magic was understandable, even excusable, given that so many people believed in it and since there seemed to be so much corroboration of it in the culture. Someone in a village in Massachusetts in the 1600s could hardly be blamed for believing given the context they were in. But today we don’t have that excuse. And without all of the push to believe coming from the culture around us, the remaining believers appear to be uneducated cranks, ideologues, or counter-culture dropouts.

So it stretches credulity beyond the limits of charity for us to accept the revisionist believer’s story. They can’t defend the claim that the universe that we’ve discovered is just as we would have expected it to be coming from God. Our discoveries fly in the face of too many of the traditional articles of faith. And if the believer acknowledges that traditional theism seems to have gotten so many basics wrong about the nature of the world, that weighs heavily against the plausibility of traditional or modern theism.

There’s one other much less appealing alternative for the believer. They can dig in and insist that all of the discoveries that we have made about the history of the universe, Earth, and life on earth are mistaken if they are not consistent with the traditional theistic story. The earth really was created in its present form 6,000 years ago. All humanity came from Adam and Eve. There really was a great flood that wiped out all life that wasn’t on the ark. There really was a deity who visited a small group of people in the middle east 2,000 years ago who performed miracles and who wants us all to believe in his existence. And so on. But this science denying believer is in a worse position than either of the ones we considered above. This believer has to defend the reasonableness of all of these claims against the mounting evidence produced by centuries of scientific work by the greatest minds in history. This believer has to outperform the smartest biologists in history by arguing that all of their scientific work is mistaken. This believer has to claim expertise beyond that of the entire historical academic community. This believer needs to know enough about cellular biology, carbon dating, radioactive dating, geology, paleontology, sociology, psychology, physics, chemistry, and cosmology to be able to reasonably argue that the conclusions that the experts in all of those fields have reached are all wrong. This believer has to out-science the scientific community and claim that really, when you do good science, what it shows is that the Bible and traditional theism was right all along.

So the believer is deeply mired in a paradox. There’s the God of traditional theism and the story it tells about what the world is, and there is the account of what the world is that our hard work in science has given us. The believer can argue that the two accounts actually don’t diverge at all and that what we’ve discovered in science was all a manifestation of God’s plan all along. The problem is that traditional theism has not anticipated or concurred with the picture of the world science has given us. Or the believer can concede that the plan and God of traditional theism don’t jive with the world we have found. That significantly undermines the reasonableness of belief that is based upon traditional theism. Or finally, the believer can stubbornly insist that what we thought we knew about the world in an Iron Age religion is in fact accurate down to the last detail and all of what we think we have discovered is in fact mistaken. The easiest way to extricate themselves from this hopeless mess, of course, is to just give up this notion that there is such a being as God and join the rest of us in the 21 century.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

God is Hiding

God could have caused much more compelling miracles that would have been believable to a much wider range of people and far more impressive. God could have made the evidence for his existence, say in the details of nature, vastly more obvious than he did. If God wanted to, he could have made his existence obvious and manifest to everyone. If God had chosen to do so, he could have left compelling evidence that life came from him, not from evolution, and that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago. If God had chosen to, he could have created the world so that humans, allegedly his chosen, favored beings in the universe, were of obvious central importance in the cosmos. If God had chosen to, he could have had Jesus appear and provide much more evidence to people who were not his fanatical followers. If God wanted to, he could have caused the Big Bang and made it obvious that he was the cause. If God wanted to, he could have made it easier for us to discover the cure for polio, or for cancer, or for bubonic plague.

If he exists, he certainly has the capacity to make his existence known. Mere humans are able to manifest themselves far more obviously. He would know how to make his existence known. He would have perfect knowledge of the most effective means of revealing himself. Even the most impressive alleged cases of God’s presence in the world are utterly trivial against the scale of what a supernatural being with God’s extraordinary powers could have brought about. In all of the questioning, exploring, pleading, and seeking that billions of people have engaged in for centuries, he has refused to respond in any unequivocal ways. In every instance where someone claims to have contact with God, we can easily think of vastly more effective and unmistakable evidence that such a powerful being could have transmitted if he had chosen to.

But instead, if we are to believe that God exists and that he is the creator of the universe, then we must accept that a loving, powerful, caring God who wants us to believe in his existence set up the entire universe to look exactly as it would if there were no God. He deliberately obscured or hid every bit of information that might have made it possible for people to come to believe in his existence in a reasonable, sensible manner. Instead he devised a set of natural laws, a course of natural events, and a process of natural selection that when taken together render need for God as an explanation completely pointless.

God, if he exists, is hiding so effectively that the world looks just as we would expect it to if there were no God; it doesn’t have any of the features we would expect to find if there were a God. All of our attempts to confirm his existence have come up empty handed. God is hiding so effectively that even by their own admission, the vast majority of believers admit that in order to believe they must do it by ignoring the contrary evidence and having faith. He is hiding so effectively, we must conclude, among other things, that he does not want us to believe. If he wanted us to believe, things would be different in a thousand obvious ways.

So the believer can insist that there really is a God, and that he really wants us to believe in his existence, but he has gone to extraordinary lengths to make that difficult. Then the believer can construct some elaborate justification for thinking that this sort of God exists, but he has complicated reasons for keeping his existence perfectly hidden. And then the believer must engage in elaborate conceptual gymnastics and ad hoc justifications in order to make the whole implausible story consistent with the seemingly Godless world. Or the believer can ask himself this question: isn’t it more reasonable to just acknowledge that the world looks just like there is no God because there is no God?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Real Evil of Original Sin

Is disobeying a commandment immoral? 2,500 years ago in the Euthryphro, Socrates showed that the question of whether or not God commanded something is conceptually distinct from the question of whether or not it is good. The mere fact that God commands or forbids something doesn’t render it good or bad, and it doesn’t provide one with sufficient justification for doing it or refraining. It’s always an open question whether the command is a good one. Or, a person always has to invoke some other criteria and apply them for their own reasons to the case to decide whether following the commandment is worthy. Consider the difference between obeying the speed limit which is 65 mph, and abiding by the law that forbids kidnapping. Both are the law, but only the latter one has a clear moral justification too.

What criteria can one apply to commandments to decide their morality? Moral theorists for centuries have provided us with lots of plausible answers: Aristotle argued that we strive to increase our virtues to maximize human flourishing, Kant argued that an action isn’t moral unless it is done on the basis of a universalizable, rationally consistent principle as its motive, Mill argued that actions are right or wrong to the extent that they promote or diminish happiness or utility, and so on. Presumably, when believers make their choices about which commandments they will follow—maybe you try to honor your mother and father, but you opt not to obey the commandment that mandates execution for anyone who does not—they already apply some criteria like Aristotle’s, Kant’s, Mill’s, or others. Clearly, it won’t do to simply justify an action on the grounds that it has been commanded. God has commanded a lot of morally abhorrent things like the rape of virgin girls and the wholesale slaughter of whole races of people.

Adam and Eve, we’re told, disobeyed a commandment. And because of that error, they and all of the rest of humanity (who had nothing to do with that choice) are condemned to an eternity of horrible suffering unless they rectify the mistake. But the commandment, “Don’t eat from this tree,” as I argued in “The Sin of Original Sin” is one of those examples, like the speed limit, or cleaning up your dog’s poop in the park, that may have been the law, but there’s nothing clearly moral or immoral about it. Aside from God’s capricious threat, there doesn’t appear to be anything about eating from the tree that might justify classifying it as immoral. No one will be evidently harmed, it doesn’t obviously violate any Kantian principle to respect persons, it doesn’t seem especially selfish or negligent. In all the centuries that we’ve been hearing about how wicked and deserving of torment humanity is, have we even paused to ask the question: What exactly was wrong with eating the fruit off of that tree? And now that I ask it, it’s plainly obvious that there was nothing wrong with it evident in the details of the story we’ve been told. And there’s certainly nothing so wrong with it to warrant the infinite punishment that Christians so smugly threaten us with. In fact, you’d think that in general obtaining as much knowledge of the world as you can, including knowledge of good and evil is a positive thing. How can you know to do the right thing if you don’t know the difference? Ignorance is obviously harmful, willful ignorance is even worse.

Of course, believers will insist that eating from the tree WILL cause great harm—if Adam and Eve do so, then they will bring enormous suffering down on humanity. But it’s not the act that actually creates any harm to anyone—it’s God’s seemingly random creation of the rule and his subsequent willingness to subject humanity to hell that causes the harm, not the act itself. The harm that befalls humanity as the result of the fall isn’t humanity’s fault, nor does the fruit from the tree cause it. God is the cause of the resulting suffering. God is the one who chooses to inflict (presumably he could refrain) eternal suffering on humanity.

People made a similar mistake when they focused all of their blame for 9-11 on American foreign policies that supported Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in the past. Lots of critics responded that we had it coming. That’s forgetting who’s directly and immediately to blame: the guys who freely and deliberately flew the planes into the buildings (we’ve also largely overlooked that 17 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi Arabian, not Afghan or Iraqi). Doesn’t blame fall first and foremost on them? To focus instead on other surrounding and sometimes remote elements like the CIA or the American contributions to anti-American sentiments in the Middle East, suggests that the hijackers themselves are not autonomous, moral agents who are directly responsible for their actions. It’s like saying, “Oh they couldn’t help themselves—look at how mad we made them with our policies afterall.”

The Christian who touts Adam and Eve’s mistake in Eden as justifying God’s wrath on us makes a similar mistake, like the domestic abuse victim who after being beaten by her despicable husband, defends the guy and justifies his action: “You can hardly blame him for beating me. I didn’t have his dinner ready, and I didn’t clean the house. I really deserved it. He warned me that if I didn’t do what he said, he’d beat me. So really it’s all my fault. I had it coming.”

Could it be more obvious that the mere fact that some tantrum throwing tyrant issues a command and then threatens to punish disobedience severely doesn’t make that act immoral? And his warning that he will punish you forever doesn’t render that punishment just. Notice also that several of the famed 10 commandments aren’t remotely moral at all—they seem only to be designed to sustain God’s threats and secure his position of authority: Don’t worship any other gods, don’t worship idols (because I am a jealous god), don’t misuse my name, don’t do anything except worship me on Sunday.

No doubt the abusive husband would like to get his vicimtized wife and familty to abide by some similar rules so he can sustain his tyranny. And perhaps he’d even punish infractions severely. But again, his doing so clearly doesn’t make his behavior moral and infractions immoral.

Being a mature, responsible, morally autonomous agent can’t come from commands. It’s got to come from making reasoned, principled, informed decisions. We don’t need commands from God, we need explanations, reasons, and arguments. We need to be convinced that doing X is the right thing, not threatened, berated, or inflicted with guilt and fear of not doing it.

So we should be outraged, morally incensed that Christians would have us accept this perversion of real morality. We should be shocked at their presumptuousness. We should recognize the petty, juvenile, and insulting nature of the original sin model. And we should reject their attempts to foist blame on humanity (and their distant, unsuspecting offspring) for hellish punishments, instead of the volatile and capricious tyrant who would inflict them. The real evil is in Christians’ propagating this perverse misanthropy. The original sin doctrine spreads humiliation, sorrow, self-loathing, and lies about the real human nature.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Sin of Original Sin

Like lots of the utterly bizarre and nonsensical claims of Christianity, we’ve all become inured to the strange counter logic of the notion of original sin. Lots of bellicose Christians will invoke a sanctimonious, and strangely confident tone about the inherent depravity of humans. We’re prone to wickedness by our nature; we’re morally depraved; we’re deeply deserving of God’s scorn and punishment. There’s even a kind of perverse pride in their eyes when they point to our downfall in the Garden of Eden and how it shows that we’ll get what we deserve.

Which brings us to another strange component of the Original Sin doctrine. It’s not just that we’re wicked, but we’re wicked and deserving of punishment because of something that your ancient ancestors did. In religious contexts, that notion doesn’t bother them at all. But of course, if you tried to get someone to pay for their dad’s defaulted mortgage, or put one of them in jail for a crime that their mom did, they’d scream about how grossly unjust that is. Once people have heard all this surreal religious metaphor and metaphysics enough, it just sounds perfectly natural and normal. But when we take it out of its ordinary context and cloak it with equivalent but unfamiliar language, the insanity becomes clear: “So there’s a giant, invisible space being who lives in the sky and he can read minds and grant wishes?” “And you go to your sacred space god worship session once a week you drink the blood and eat the tissue of another space god who is the big one’s offspring?” Seriously? But in the Christian’s mind, it all makes sense somehow that someone who existed thousands of years ago made a bad choice (Eve), and even though you didn’t know this person or have anything to do with the decision in question, you deserve to be punished for their crimes. And by eating juice and crackers and calling it the blood and flesh of Jesus, it is possible to somehow rectify the sin debt.

Which brings us to the question of what exactly it was that Adam and Eve did wrong to bring all this tenacious guilt and horrible suffering down on the rest of humanity. One of the many paradoxes of Eden is that Adam and Eve presumably didn’t understand the difference between good and evil before they ate from the tree. It was the tree of KNOWLEDGE of good and evil, after all. So they couldn’t have possibly understood or appreciated the implications of God’s threat. Nor would it have been clear to them that disobeying a command, which is distinct from doing something immoral, was somehow wrong. Recall your frustrated mother saying, “because I’m the mommy, that’s why!” Nevertheless, when Adam and Eve did this thing that they couldn’t have possibly appreciated as wrong, they tainted all of humanity with some sort of metaphysical stain that cannot be removed unless those people adopt the right sort of belief states about God. And aside from not doing what they were told—recall that freewill is usually celebrated by Christians as God’s great gift to us too—there’s no plausible interpretation of the whole thing that could possibly warrant the reaction. I mean, it’s not like they went out and committed genocide or something. He said “Don’t eat from this tree.” That’s not a moral commandment, it’s just him flexing his muscles. Consider the difference between the law that puts the speed limit at 65 and the one that prohibits rape. Neither eating fruit, nor refusing to do something that a power tripping-bully demands of you are immoral. Nevertheless, because of their action, every one of the billions of humans to descend from them is condemned to an eternity of unbearable suffering. Oh sure, THAT’S fair.

Recently there have been a bunch of cases in the news where some slimy preacher who has cloistered himself into a compound in the boonies with a bunch of naïve followers. Then he precedes to lord his power and religious authority over them so that he can rape all the girls, banish the boys, all while hiding behind the banner of our religious tolerance. Imagine if one of these guys insisted that one of the girls have sex with him, but when she refused, he set about to inflict horrible suffering on her and all of her descendents. Would we defend his actions by insisting that they had, after all, willfully disobeyed his commandments?

Imagine a parent who puts a ripe, sweet apple (Genesis doesn’t say it was an apple, by the way) down on a chair in front of a normal, hungry, curious toddler, and then says, “Whatever you do, don’t eat this.” And then she walks off. Then when the inevitable happens, she storms into the room and thunders at the child for breaking her arbitrary and pointless rule. Next, she puts the kid on a plane by himself, sends him to be dropped off in the middle of the Sahara desert with no preparations, no food, no water, and no aid. But it gets even better. She arranges it so that every single person who descends from that little boy in the desert (if he survives) from now on must 1) believe in the Great Mother in the Sky, 2) obey all of her commandments no matter how antique, or pointless they are, and 3) if they don’t comply, they will be tortured mercilessly for eons. All because the clueless toddler, who didn’t have any knowledge of good and evil after all, took a bite from the apple. Not because anyone did anything that was actually wrong like commit genocide or enslave a race, but because he broke a capricious and irrational rule.

“Oh, but I don’t think all that stuff literally happened,” says the moderate Christian. “Those are just enriching stories that communicate important moral, social, and cultural lessons.”

Fine. How exactly is it better to endlessly thrust this harmful nonsense into a child’s head and reinforce it in a thousand other ways when you’d readily admit that you don’t even think it is true? How can people form mentally healthy self-images or come to value humanity for their remarkable capacities and virtues against this misanthropic backdrop?

So when an Original Sin Christian is feeling sycophantic about the inherent moral corruption of all of humanity, and about humanity’s need for a long, hard spanking because they’ve been sooo naughty don’t expect the rest of us to even comprehend your point.