Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Considering the Bible and Christianity Without A Prior God Belief Is Meaningless"

"And, I concur; considering the Bible and Christianity without a prior God belief is meaningless."

Commenter MS Quixote raised this point in the midst of a discussion on the blog Daylight Atheism.

I have seen this point raised so many times that I feel it is necessary for me to address this point directly, once and for all, on record.

First, what exactly does it mean to consider the Bible and Christianity?

I state here that I am assuming that what I mean by "considering the Bible and Christianity" is that I am considering whether I believe the spiritual claims are true. If this can be said more precisely, please let me know how I can summarize this in a more accurate way.

I assume that MS Quixote wants to know if the claims of the Bible and Christianity are true, and that he assumes that other people want to know if the claims of the Bible and Christianity are true, and that this is what he means when he says "considering the Bible and Christianity".

I hope I have made correct assumptions in determining what each of us is trying to accomplish when we consider the Bible and Christianity, because those assumptions are fundamental to this exercise.

In the comments section of the original entry by MS Quixote, I noted that Muslims do approach the Bible and Christianity with a prior god belief, but they still have different god beliefs than Christians.

MS Quixote was gracious enough to recognize this, and amended his statement to say that one needs a Christian god belief before considering Christianity and the Bible in a meaningful way. At least, I hope this is what he meant to say, and that I have correctly stated his position.

In suggesting an experiment with MS Quixote's line of reasoning, I am providing the following counter-examples for comparison:

"And, I concur; considering the Qu'ran and Islam without a prior belief in Allah is meaningless."

"And, I concur; considering the Book of Mormon without a prior belief in the revelations of Joseph Smith is meaningless."

"And, I concur; considering the Bhagavad-Gita without a prior belief in Krishna is meaningless."

I wonder if MS Quixote would have any objections to these lines of reasoning if he encountered them in a discussion from a fellow theist, albeit one of a different belief system than his own?

If Christianity can be a properly basic belief, then can Hinduism also be a properly basic belief? Can Islam be a properly basic belief? What about Mormonism?

According to the basic tenets of these religions, not all of them can be true. Therefore, if one can say that the followers of all of these religions have properly basic beliefs, one can say that out of a large number of the people who have properly basic beliefs, many of them have properly basic beliefs that are wrong.

I believe that this circumstance should give anyone who defends religious belief with the notion of "properly basic belief" a moment of pause.

If a large number of people who have properly basic beliefs about a subject are wrong, then one should acknowledge that having a properly basic belief alone is not good enough as a standard for one to be confident of one's conclusions about a subject.

The idea that only consideration of Christianity with a prior belief in the Christian god can be meaningful does not account for the way human beings actually believe in things and acquire beliefs about the subject of religion. I have given counter-examples of patterns of belief in other religious belief systems to demonstrate where I believe that this argument is deficient.

Lastly, there are probably many areas where I have said something that is not as precise as it could be, or I have said something which is a mischaracterization or a misinterpretation, or I have not been clear enough in articulating my ideas. I openly acknowledge the possibility of errors, and if someone can identify them, I will gladly revise my statements. I freely admit that I am a relative novice in discussions of religion and philosophy, but I hope to learn as much as possible as I increase in experience and practice, and to continue a civil and productive discussion of belief and knowledge and "life, the universe, and everything".

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Old Religion and New Atheism

Sam Harris. Richard Dawkins. Christopher Hitchens. Daniel Dennett.

A surge of criticism of religion's role in society and the nature of religious belief itself has arisen in the last several years.

Many critics have derisively termed the authors of these criticisms and their supports as "New Atheists".

What is the "New Atheism"? And why does anyone care? Is it a category which actually is meaningful and significant, or a rhetorical device used to reinforce pre-existing stereotypes and to shut down conversation about religion and humanity's interactions with religion, especially conversation which condemns religion?

Most people would agree that atheism is simply the lack of belief in gods.

However, this does not mean that there is not greater significance to the recent emphasis by atheists to increase visibility of our existence in the public sphere (of athiests) and also to increase exposure to religious criticism in the public sphere.

To determine why this is significant, let's examine what religion is. How do we define religion through the context of our own lives and in the context of our societies? How is this important, and why should anyone care?

Why should religion be criticized in public societies? Isn't religion just a personal choice, an expression of personal values? Why should atheists criticize other people's personal beliefs? Isn't this cruel and needless stigmatization?

Such an analysis of atheists' criticism of religion is sorely misguided and does not accurately characterize the intricate series of relationships between individuals, societies, and religions.

Religion is more than personal choice; it is more often a societal and even a political construct. Throughout human history, religion has been invoked as one of many ties which bind tribes, polities, and social categories of all kinds. With changes in leadership, have come changes in the religious practices encouraged and incentivized by the state.

As a belief, as a state (or states) of mind, and as a practice, religions are invariably linked with their respective cultures. Religion is not only a political experience, but a cultural one as well.

Without the context of our societies and the groups in which we associate, how would any of us resolve our identities as human beings in this modern age?

Some critics have charged that the "New Atheism" is overly politicized. Religion has always been politicized. Any criticism of religion is essentially a political criticism. Religion is just one more imagined community, constructed in the mold of the nation-state and the social club.

Religion is shot through with power and politicking. The Pope is elected. Ayatollahs control the nation of Iran. The ceremonial head of state in the United Kingdom is also the head of the Anglican church.

"New atheism" may not be a new message or a new strategy at all. However, the public campaign for increased critical thinking about religion and skepticism is a political fight.

Did the Ayatollahs descend from the heavens? Did Pope Benedict XVI come down from the Mount of Olives? Did Queen Elizabeth II's mother receive frankincense in the manger?

I personally believe that most atheists' criticism of religion is not a criticism of personal expression -- rather, I believe that it is a criticism of the social and political construct, the established order which is modern religion, which is in turn enabled by poor critical thinking and a deficit of skepticism.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter - Why Am I Even Mentioning It?

In a few hours, Easter will be celebrated once again by the world's Christians.

This year marks my first Easter when I will not be attending church; it's the first time I've had to look at my calendar to see when it was, or be reminded of the festivities by the signs spread across my campus alerting worshippers to service times and by the chocolate eggs and bunnies sprawled upon the dresser of my nominally Catholic roommate.

I belong to a freethinkers' group and tonight they arranged a showing of "The God Who Wasn't There", and neither was I.

If I am trying to find a new way to (not) celebrate Easter, am I still not celebrating it?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Evolution and the God Hypotheses

Is evolution compatible with religious beliefs?

Perhaps -- it likely depends on the selection of religious belief under consideration.

Is evolution compatible with the existence of an omni-benevolent and all-knowing god?

I believe that it is highly improbable that these two things can coincide, though I cannot eliminate the possibility.

However, there is an intriguing implication for the belief that evolution is guided by a divine hand:

Almost all of the species which have ever lived are now extinct. Does this mean that a hypothetical god has failed? Or is a non-supernatural explanation more plausible?

Would an omni-benevolent god use the mechanism of natural selection to develop the diversity of life? Perhaps there is some utility in this high failure rate, but then one must consider the immense suffering which is implicit in this arrangement.

Competition -- vicious cycles of living and dying brutally -- a state where most animals not able to thrive, but only able to do enough to survive, does not seem like a product of either an all-knowing or an all-loving god.

Let's examine each distinct god hypothesis and decide whether the claims about the nature of gods are consistent with the realities of our existence.

I consider all claims of an interventionary divine being to be a hypothesis: if a god is said to interfere in the natural world, then we cannot simply shrug off difficult questions and deflect criticism with the excuse that such a god is beyond space and time. How can a god which is said to interfere with natural processes be strictly beyond space and time? The claims are not consistent.

Can the existence of gods be proven or disproven? In all likelihood, this is an impossible task. However, I do have every confidence that we can establish the probability or improbability of religious claims.

I believe that the claims of modern religions are extremely improbable in the context of the evidence which we currently have, and therefore I cannot accept them.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

David Brooks, Kerosene Firefighter

David Brooks' editorial from April 7th's New York Times simply tries to do too many things.

Brooks is successful when he examines developments in psychology, but he falls on his face when he tries to extrapolate the broader implications he has presented in the first sections of the article.

Brooks is citing research which supports the hypothesis that human beings are not fundamentally rational actors.

He cites psychologist Jonathan Haidt's work, and I am definitely a fan of Haidt. I readily acknowedge Haidt's conclusions, but Brooks' interpretation is essentially a misrepresentation.

I would say I disagree with Brooks' interpretations, but this criticism goes beyond disagreement. Brooks is just wrong -- his assumptions are faulty and his logic is terrible. As if those travesties were not enough, while evaluating the consequences of Haidt's research, he also misses some of the most obvious and some of the most profound conclusions of all.

He attempts to present Haidt's conclusions as an atheist dilemma.

"It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning."

However, from the premise "reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it", it does not logically follow that a pursuit of "pure reason" is ill-advised or illogical.

Brooks implies that we should combat irrationality with more irrationality.

That's like throwing lighter fluid instead of water on a burning building. It's a recipe for destruction.

Because we have realized that human beings are not rational actors, we should acknowledge the necessity of examining the basis for our decision-making as closely as possible. Because we acknowledge that humans have a propensity to make irrational decisions, then we must do everything we can to constantly reevaluate our own thought processes.

Brooks pontificates that "most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself". And what ends may we use to achieve goodness? Reason.

Much of organized religion is a stumbling block in this pursuit, which is one of the most important claims of the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris.

People often make bad decisions precisely because emotion circumvents reasoning, and this is why reason is critically important to improving the quality of human life.

Pope Benedict XVI advised Africans that use of condoms increases AIDS. Because of this poorly reasoned, emotionally-stoked advice, people will die. People will die because the man formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger failed to properly examine the scientific and medical evidence, and instead relied on his intuitions to arrive at an important decision.

People will die because of this irrational advice. It won't be because Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins waged a war of "pure reason".

It is not when reason is overwhelmed by emotion that reason is unwarranted. Rather, it is just when people do not operate primarily by reason that a faith in reason is most warranted.

David Brooks, the kerosene firefighter, has it exactly backwards.

Is God Deceiving Us? Evolution and Sound Decision-Making

Alvin Plantinga asks how we can have confidence in our conclusions if we reach them via a brain that is hardwired not for truth, but for survival purposes.

However, if our brains are not hardwired for truth, then what are they hardwired for? Are they hardwired for deception?

Humans are notoriously susceptible to both optical illusions and hypnosis.

If Plantinga is willing to admit that our brains are not hardwired for truth, then what is he acknowledging about the feasibility of a designer? Were our brains purposely set in motion to be deceived?

What is the best explanation? Would a benevolent god really have hardwired our brains for survival but not truth -- deception but not reality?

The god of the Bible may want our attention, our loyalty, our love, and our devotion, but such a god does not want us to perceive it clearly, if Christian and other theistic claims are to be accepted.

This would imply that any such god is either indifferent or malevolent.

If human beings are not wired for sound decision-making, then who could blame Adam or Eve for their transgresion in the Genesis story? Who could blame Lot's wife for looking back at the burning city? If human beings were intentionally wired for deception, then we are really the victims of the divine, if the apologists' claims are to be accepted.

A God who does not want human beings to see the truth is the inevitable result of this line of reasoning, and clearly possesses unacceptable consequences for many commonly-held religious beliefs.

Under this scenario, the Biblical god would be every bit as guilty of deception as Satan himself.

Monday, April 6, 2009

When Possibility Is Not Enough

It has been suggested that, having laughed at Christopher Columbus and Thomas Edison, we should not laugh at those who assert the possibility of the supernatural, because their claims may also be confirmed at some point in the future.

However, this vague notion of possibility is not enough to establish credibility for most religious claims, especially when the argument is not even fully honest.

There is a basic contradiction in this line of thinking: we must keep our minds open to all possibilities of future supernatural discovery, while simultaneously limiting our menu of choices to a select few ancient tribal narratives.

Because we know less than we may in the future, we should turn to those who knew far less than we do now? That's quite an absurd and confusing position to hold.

I hope that those who would assert this argument would not let themselves become entrenched in any specific supernatural position just because of cultural and traditional biases.

Can those who claim to be open-minded, who exhort others to be open-minded to the possibility of the supernatural, actually be open-minded in practice as they are in preaching?

It's possible.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Believing in Belief

I have interacted with many evangelical Christians over Internet blogs and forums. One common claim I have heard is that I was never really a Christian.

If you have read my story on this blog, you'll recall that I was raised as a Christian and deconverted because I decided that the evidence for its validity was severely lacking.

But was I an actual Christian? At first, this question annoyed me greatly. I believed that this claim was nonsensical and absurd at best, and that it was a stinging personal insult and rebuke at its worst.

However, I have now realized that the answer to this question is not entirely black and white. Of course, that conclusion alone should not surprise me. Few things in our existence are entirely black and white.

What shocked me is the realization that I may not have been an actual Christian before I deconverted.

I am trying to remember what exactly it was that I believed in during this time. Did I believe in a higher power? Did I believe in the Bible? Did I believe in the community of my church congregation? Did I believe in the power of faith or belief itself?

Why do these questions matter? These questions are critically important because they attempt to define what Christianity is, and in doing so attempt to determine what exactly it means to be a Christian (or to be a religious person of any persuasion) in today's environment.

I did believe in a higher power. I prayed to my God before meal times and before I fell asleep at night and while I was in church services. Did I believe in the Bible? Yes and no. I had not read all of it. I believed that some of its claims were figurative and that some were literal. I don't think this made me any less of a Christian. I viewed the creation story in Genesis as figurative while acknowledging the reality of evolution, though I fully embraced its claims about Jesus and his supposed sacrifice for humanity. I believed in the eternal existence of heaven and hell, though I had no idea who would end up in each place (I had not made up my mind about universalism or other approaches, but I knew that the Bible said that Jesus was the only way, and I could never get past that reality).

However, as much as I believed in the technicalities of Christian dogma, I also believed strongly in its pragmatic aspects. I believed in the power of faith. I had faith in my government and my society and my family and my friends -- and in God. I also believed in the power of the community in my church. I knew that they were basically good people. I saw my church as a positive influence in my life and as a positive influence in my community.

A nagging question pervades my thoughts: did I really believe in Christianity or did I believe in being Christian? Did I have a belief or did I believe in having a belief? Was I part of a belief community or was I a believer? I don't know the answer.

I don't know if I really was a Christian before I deconverted.

However, if I was not really a Christian, than most of the people in America who proclaim Christianity as their religion probably are not Christians, either. Of course, this assumes that there is an objective definition of what a Christian is, which is probably not accurate.

The major question is this: what do you believe in?

Do you believe in belief? Do you believe in community? Do you believe in faith? Do you believe in charity? Do you believe in good works?

Do you believe in Christianity because it provides an outlet for your other beliefs which you already have, or do you believe in it because you are a sincere follower, you've thought about it at length, and you really do believe that its claims are accurate?

It appears that many people in the world practice Christianity not because they have extensively researched the issues and determined that it is better than all the other religions and spiritual traditions in the world, but because it provides a framework for their other beliefs about themselves and the world which they have adopted from society and family and tradition.

And of course, the same thing is more than likely true for Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and practically every other religious tradition on the planet.

I am tired of asking and answering "what" questions about religion. Now I am much more fascinated with the "why" questions. Why do people believe? Why do individuals believe a certain way?

Was I ever a Christian? Maybe not. Is anyone ever a Christian? Maybe not. Have you ever been a Christian? Maybe not.

Do you believe in a book? Do you believe in a revelation? Do you believe in belief?

Religions often try to be none of these things and all of these things at the same time, for everyone. The whole process of examining religion just confirms my opinion that the religions of our world are human-originated social constructs and not divine manifestations.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Natural Selection and the Haber Process

The Haber process is responsible for the synthetic mass production of ammonia.

The ammonia is used to make nitrogen fertilizers, which play a critical role in feeding about one third of Earth's population.

The ammonia from the Haber process is also used to make ammunition. Germany used the Haber process during WWI to do this. Some have speculated that Germany could not have waged WWI (or waged it for as long as it did) without the benefit of the Haber process.

So this technology is simultaneously responsible for preserving the lives of over a billion people...and could ultimately be responsible for the deaths of just as many?

Natural selection is comparable to the Haber process. It has led to us, for instance. However, almost all of the species that have ever existed are extinct.

Would an all-knowing, all-loving, all-good god use this kind of mechanism to bring us into existence?