Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Defense Lawyers for Jesus

There is a mode of reasoning about Jesus and other religious matters that is a seductive mistake.  Our inquiries into some matter can be oriented towards defending a belief, or they can be evidence driven by and receptive to whatever conclusion is best justified.  The difference is that we often approach the world with pre-formed conclusion or preference already in mind and that guides our investigation.  Then as we consider new information that is relevant to that cherished doctrine, we are receptive to the arguments, evidence, and reasoning that corroborate it and we are hostile to arguments that run counter to it.  The exercise of our reason is separated from truth as the goal, and it is co-opted in the service of some particular belief that might be deeply mistaken.  Consider a lawyer with great rhetorical and analytical skill whose sole purpose is to defend a mob client, without any real concern for truth or justice.  The lawyer’s intellectual powers for reasoning, constructing arguments, and answering objections have been detached from the goal of drawing the correct or true conclusion.  But the defense of the client, or the skeptical analysis of the evidence against the client, can be complex, carefully reasoned, penetrating, and seductive.  Here the conclusion or goal-- get the client off—constrains the reasoning.  Reasoning is subjugated to a particular end result.  Its critical function is confined to constructing rationales for rejecting any considerations that might show the defendant’s guilt. 
By contrast, we can attempt to make an objective, balanced, and non-prejudicial approach to the relevant body of information, keeping the truth as our goal.  Ideally, we do not let our preference for one outcome or some priori prejudice skew our gathering and evaluation of the evidence.  And we are resolved to accept whatever outcome that evaluation supports.  The conclusion is open during the search and evaluation phase.  And the investigation determines the conclusion at the end instead of the prior belief constructing the investigation from the start.  Here it is the evidence that directs us to the resulting conclusion and we are prepared and committed to accepting whatever result that is.  The inquiry determines the belief, not the other way around. 
We are all guilty of lapsing into rationalizing some preferred conclusion instead of pursuing the second model.  With God beliefs, the problem is much more pronounced.  People often acquire their religious beliefs when they are young and receptive to supernatural thinking.  Some people are among the part of the population with strong or hyper-religious tendencies.  The beliefs hold deep emotional, social, and psychological appeal.  For many people, the promise of eternal life hangs in the balance.  To make matters more difficult, there is a growing scientific consensus that evolution has wired us to be religious.  Religious beliefs are at the center of a perfect storm of neurobiological, evolutionary, emotional, social, and psychological forces that make them some of the hardest matters in our lives for us to reason clearly about. 
Some believers dedicate themselves to constructing rationalistic defenses of their doctrine.  The doctrine itself is the unquestionable starting point, or the presupposition.  The purpose of the apologetic or polemic exercise is to then expose flaws, or generate objections to any world view that differs from that doctrine.  Reasoning has been subordinated to religious belief; its use is confined to constructing defenses and corroborations of the belief.  But the acceptability of the belief itself is not responsive to reasoning.  No reasoning is permitted to raise legitimate doubts about its fundamental legitimacy.  The domain of reasoning is restricted just as the lawyer’s application of her rhetorical and argumentative skills have been wholly subordinated to getting her client off the hook.  The question of guilt is left aside.   Nicholas Wolterstorff says,
The religious beliefs of the Christian scholar ought to function as control beliefs within his devising and weighing of theories. . . Since his fundamental commitment to following Christ ought to be decisively ultimate in his life, the rest of his life ought to be brought into harmony with it.  As control, the belief-content of his authentic commitment ought to function both negatively and positively.  Negatively, the Christian scholar ought to reject certain theories on the ground that they conflict or do not comport well with the belief content of his authentic commitment.  (Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, 72)

In this light, Wolterstorff and William Lane Craig are defense attorneys for Jesus.  Their explicit goal is to evaluate everything with regard to whether it supports their beliefs about Jesus.   Reason must be subordinated to faith.  Here is Craig in making some candid remarks about his focused pursuit of belief in Jesus at all costs. 

He has a “self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit” in his heart in which he knows that “Christianity is true “wholly apart from the evidence.”  With enough diligence and time, any new information can be made to conform to that which cannot and should not be doubted. 
What’s particularly chilling and frustrating about Craig here is the tight, and inpenetrable circle that he has constructed.  First, reason must be subordinated to faith.  Nothing can be allowed to controvert Jesus.  Suspend all questions and doubts, no matter how legitimate, until you can devise a way to engineer or rationalize them into conformity with the prior belief.  The “right” picture of the evidence is defined as the one that conforms with Christianity.  No other outcome is permitted.  If you have doubts, “cultivate your spiritual life, engaging in spiritual disciplines, like prayer, meaningful worship, Christian music, sharing your faith with other people, being involved in Christian service, so that you will foster the witness of the Holy Spirit in your life so that you will be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  Doubting is an enemy to be denied, rejected, or coerced into conformity with the “incontrovertible” belief.  Doubting is the evil work of Satan.  (Note that in a genuine intellectual investigation with truth as its goal, doubt is best and only tool we have.  Doubt is the welcome antidote.)  And finally, when you find a way to engineer an analysis of a doubt that can bring it into conformity with the Jesus belief, it “leaves you with the conviction that Christianity does indeed stand intellectually head and shoulders above every “ism” or philosophy that it might compete with.” 
See the circle?  Put Christianity first and make all of your reasoning support it.  Suspend all doubts, and then employ your reasoning where you can, only to corroborate Christianity.  Then you will find that Christianity is superior to any other “ism,” or position.  Christianity is right.  Suspend any doubts that might lead you to think that Christianity is not right.  Then only use your reasoning to defend Christianity, and then you will be satisfied that Christianity is right.      
What’s disturbing about the strategy that Craig has constructed to insure that Christian belief is always vindicated is that it can be used to defend any view.  Here’s some verbatim quotes from Craig, with only a few key terms changed:    

Question:  Some of us who wish to subscribe to a belief in unicorns have our doubts.  When we go to college, they raise issues that seem to undermine the belief that unicorns are real, magical creatures who give us delight.  What is your advice? 
Answer:  First, they need to understand the proper relationship between faith in unicorns and reason.  The way in which I know that unicorns are real is on the basis of the witness of the magical Unicorn spirit in my heart.  And this gives me a self-authenticating means of knowing that unicorns are real wholly apart from the evidence. . . If I were to pursue this with due diligence and time, I would discover that the evidence, if I could get the correct picture, would support exactly what the witness of the magical Unicorn tells me.  It’s very important to get the relationship of faith in the magical unicorn and reason right, otherwise, what that means is that our faith in the magical unicorn  is dependent upon the shifting sands of evidence and argument which change from person to person,. . . whereas the magical Unicorn and his testimony gives every generation and every person immediate access to a knowledge of him that is independent of the shifting sands of time and place and person and historical contingency. . . and finally, the secret will be to cultivate your magical unicorn spiritualism, engaging in spiritual unicorn disciplines, like praying to the magical unicorn, meaningful worship of the unicorn, magical unicorn music, sharing your faith with other unicornists, being involved in Unicornist service, so that you will foster the witness of the magical Unicorn in your life so that you will be filled with it. . . then it will leave you with the conviction that Unicornism does indeed stand head and shoulders above every “ism” or a-Unicornist philosophy. 

It is possible to implant, sustain, and foster a belief in anything with this strategy.  And since the only permitted employments of reasoning are those that support the belief, it cannot be reasoning that originally justifies the conclusion.  The strategy for deealing with doubts insures that the dogma is conserved, immune to any considerations that might lead to its reasonable rejection.  Unicorns are silly and somewhat harmless, but the framework for building a mind-consuming cult that Craig has outlined here works for UFO suicide cults, the Branch Davidian, the Jonestown suicide cult, Shoko Asahara’s Aum Shinrikyo group, the Raelian UFO church, Scientology, Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, Falun Gong, the Church of Bible Understanding, and thousands of others. 
Here’s a kind of enslavement far more dangerous than any physical chains.  Get some young people interested in your movement.  Teach them that your central dogma must be first and central in their lives.  Tell them to suspend all of their doubts unless they can construct a rationalization that refutes the doubt and confirms the central dogma.  Urge them to surround themselves with other believers and exploit any means possible to foster positive and poignant feelings about the central dogma.  Encourage them to feel vindicated that their cult is superior in every way to all other worldviews. 
In a healthy arrangement, one’s faculties of reasoning would be engaging in evaluating competing hypotheses by their respective conformity to a broad, objective body of evidence.  That is, the vital role of reasoning is to raises doubts that undermine some conclusions, leaving those that fit the best.  But doubts that cannot be subjugated to Christianity have been excluded from play for Craig, and reasoning can only be employed with the explicit purpose of corroborating a particular, prejudicial conclusion.  Our general predicament is that with enough ingenuity, cleverness, and time, people can construct rationalizations for anything, and then raise doubts and figure out objections to any contrary view.  So when you’re deep in it with Craig, it can really feel like you’re reasoning carefully and critically from premises to conclusions.  But  9-11 conspiracy theories, global warming deniers, Holocaust deniers, Birthers about President Obama’s citizenship, Illuminati theorists, and countless other examples show how far ill-founded rationalizing can take people from the truth. 
Craig’s and Wolterstorff’s revelations here put their arguments for God in a new light.  When Craig presses the Kalam argument, or any other argument for a religious conclusion, what we see now is that he doesn’t really mean it.  He has openly resolved to reject any other argument no matter what its merits if it doesn’t have the right conclusion.  The acceptability of any argument is determined solely by whether it gives him the conclusion he already favors.  Trying to argue him out of that conclusion is doomed to fail because the only legitimate function that reasoning can be put to, as he sees it, is in support of Jesus.  There are no considerations, reasons, pieces of evidence, or arguments, even in principle that could possibly dissuade him.  That would presume that his conclusions about Jesus were arrived at on the basis of reasoning, and not the other way around. 
That means that we must attach an asterisk is any pseudo-reasoning or faux-arguments that they present for their conclusions.  Without knowing how Craig’s meta-rational convictions actually undermine any rational discourse, you might be fooled into thinking he’s engaged in authentic reasoning and evidence analysis.  We should be careful to not confuse a sophisticated rhetoric in the service of a predetermined conclusion for real critical analysis or a genuine appeal to reason to justify a claim. 
Ultimately, I think we must treat this sort of choice to enslave oneself to religious belief as arbitrary, groundless, and without principle.  If all reasoning is subordinated to the goal of defending the doctrine, then it cannot really be that sound reasoning supports and justifies the doctrine.  The defender has constructed a polemical castle in the sky that has no foundation.  Ultimately there can be no reasoned preference for the belief that justifies adopting some other ideology that happened to co-opt one’s thinking.  If he was motivated, a clever apologist could construct a comparable framework of justifications and rebuttals with a belief in The Great Pumpkin or fairies at the center that is just as impressive.  And when it’s UFO suicide cults, or Jim Jones, the results are disastrous.  Despite the fact that they seem to employ sophisticated and careful reasoning to defend their beliefs, we have to conclude that they have left the playing field of rationality.  If you’ve been seduced by one of these rationalizations, or by something like Christian apologetics, you’ve been sold a bill of goods.  

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Neural Substrates of Religious Experience

One of my students (Thanks Kate!) put me onto this amazing paper:

The Neural Substrates of Religious Experience by Jeffrey Saver and John Rabin in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry.  The abstract:

Religious experience is brain-based, like all human experience.  Clues to the neural substrates of religious-numinous experience may be gleaned from temporolimbic epilepsy, near-death experiences, and hallucinogen ingestion.  These brain disorders and conditions may produce depersonalization, derealization, ecstasy, a sense of timelessness and spacelessness, and other experiences that foster religious-numinous interpretation.  Religious delusions are an important subtype of delusional experience in schizophrenia, and mood-congruent religious delusions are a feature of mania and depression.  The authors suggest a limbic marker hypothesis for religious-mystical experience.  The temporolimbic system tags certain encounters with external or internal stimulie as depersonalized, derealized, crucially important, harmonious, and/or joyous, prompting comprehension of these experiences within a religious framework

Take special note of various religious figures and their likely psychiatric maladies in a chart on 501-502.