Report on Icelandic religious belief “literally” misleading

continental-fault-line-iceland-2013

The Washington Post reports under the headline, “In this country, literally no young Christians believe that God created the Earth.” The country is Iceland.

So is it “literally” true? God by any standard conceptual defintion just is the creator of the entire physical universe, which includes the Earth. So whether a Christian, or any theist for that matter, believes this through young earth creationism, old earth creationism, theistic evolution/evolutionary creationism, intelligent design, natural theology, or by logical inferences after reading the back of a cereal box, she believes indeed that God created the Earth. For any theist, the Earth did not get the way it is today without at least two means. First, God’s immediate, creative act that brought the physical world into being out of literally nothing, and second, God’s sovereign supervision over ordinary physical means, attributed by virtually everyone to what are called the laws of nature.

This piece of reporting shows how major media can drastically downplay what Christians actually think while in pursuit of the sexy narrative that traditional religious belief is in dramatic decline.

Exemplifying the misleading pull of this narrative, one graphic charts the “Rise of atheism in Iceland,” but the two mutually exclusive responses plotted are “Religious Believers” and “Non-religious,” where the latter includes atheists and non-religious people. Like a cheap off-brand hot dog vendor, some editor has allowed this chart to puff up “atheism” with filler that includes agnostics and non-religious people. This probably counts many spiritual theists who for whatever reason don’t self-identify with a religious tradition.

So all told, don’t believe a headline when it says “literally” no young Icelanders believe in creation.

Photo credit: travfotos via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Faith and reason: on predication, rationality, and charity

Predication can be bruising at venues like Parliamentary Question Time. | UK Parliament / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Last month, I posted a critique of Dr. Tania Lombrozo’s interlinked think pieces at Boston Review and 13.7.  I was gratified but slightly apprehensive when she linked back with a post titled, Science Vs. Religion: A Heated Debate Fueled By Disrespect.  To boot, a photo of a South Asian firebreather accompanied the text!  Granted, editors sometimes make decisions not always in accord with the writer’s wishes.  Still, I wondered, what kind of splash did I make on the inner life of this cognitive scientist?  From what Dr. Lombrozo wrote of my critique, I think I acquitted myself well.

Before I comment further on this interaction, I must congratulate Dr. Lombrozo for undertaking a couple of posts on charitable discourse.  In her aforementioned post, I got to serve as a counterweight to biologist Jerry Coyne, one of the staunchest defenders of evolution.  A comment on his blog accused her of being an “accomodationalist,” a scientific Nevil Chamberlain, an appeaser.  Needless to say, her post generated hundreds more heated comments by the clamorous content consumers at 13.7.

But then with her subsequent blog entry, Dr. Lombrozo came back with a real shocker.  She shared an academic paper authored by Lara Buchak, a Berkeley philosopher of religion.  Buchak asked, “Can it be rational to have faith?”  I particularly enjoyed the explication, because Buchak’s theory of decision making is based on a general assumption that human persons are more or less rational.  Quite possibly, that could even apply to nomadic Iron Age sheep herders!  I can see religious epistemologists–philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, Paul Moser, and Richard Swinburne–having fun engaging with Buchak’s work.

The assumption that humans are innately, even unconsciously and unwittingly, reasonable is a counter-intuitive antidote to the popular belief that today, we’re somehow automatically smarter than our ancestors.  It also matches the underlying premises of my college two majors, international relations and economics.  If you want to know what a rational actor or a utility-maximizing agent is, crack open the textbooks of those disciplines.  As I received them at UC Davis a decade ago, the operative principles of those fields were still firmly rooted in mid- to late Enlightenment thought.  No special taint of phenomenologies, Higher Criticisms, or other products of Teutonic intellectual degeneracy.

That being said, my interest in Continental philosophy, the brainchild of Kant, Hegel, Marx, et al. has grown over the years.  Perhaps the best place for common, “charitable ground” as Lombrozo tagged it, is to be found there.  Recently, I discovered that Dallas Willard, a widely admired evangelical teacher and popular author, cut his philosophical teeth on the work of logician Edmund Husserl.  Dr. Willard even drew upon him when contributing to a collection of essays on Derrida!  There, he critiqued Derrida’s conception of “Predication as Originary Violence.” Are you totally lost yet?

So what of that tangle between Lombrozo and myself?  In “Science Vs. Religion,” she observes that my reading of her piece as “‘a rational argument discounting a certain strain of creationism’ . . . suggests an antecedent assumption of hostility.”  I would agree with this!  But only in a limited sense.  I think “hostility” is best understood as a state of affairs between persons proper.  But a close reading of both my critique and her response will show careful wording that produces not interpersonal hostility, but sets up an adversarial contest between ideas.  William Lane Craig observed recently at Reasonable Faith (Are Debates too Polarizing?) that in academia, the relationship between two different theses apprehending the same object is inherently “agonistic,” or competitive.

If predication is an assignment or affirmation about an antecedent object–the possible intent behind a person’s words–then it is only the mind of the reader that can predicate hostility.  Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder.  To practice charity in discussion, then, is to refrain, if possible, from assigning malevolence to the author’s intent.

I suspect that awareness of the nature of intent is something Dr. Willard took away from his reading of the Biblical Jesus.  In the gospel of John, again and again Jesus masterfully avoids the snares of his questioners, whether his disciples, the Pharisees, or Pontius Pilate.  The question is answered with another question; inquiry is turned back on itself.  Is there a more radical skepticism than that?  “Who do you say that I am?”  On Christianity, the divine nature–perhaps the goodness of freedom of the will–is of such weight that the answer to Jesus’ question is only found in one’s own predication.

And so it might be for us.  To avoid violence against the other as she actually is, we judge the merit of the idea, not the motive of the person.  Is there any better way to collaborate in reconciling our disparate ideas to objective reality?

One god less

20130430.cogitduck029

Have you encountered the “one god less” rhetorical appeal before?  It goes something like this: “You don’t realize it, but you are an atheist too.  You already reject thousands of other gods.  I just believe in one god less than you do.”

Never mind that the correct grammatical form is “fewer,” not less. The slogan is clever but a poor truth claim. It treats the existence of deity as a quantitative rather than a qualitative issue. The appropriate question is not whether any number of deities exist, but is deity a quality of any part of reality?

In his debate with Alex Rosenberg last February, William Lane Craig laid bare the absurdity of metaphysical naturalism, which I identify here with materialism.  On such a view, science cannot find God.  But neither can it find persons!  Craig highlighted eight problematic implications of materialism.  Among them: first-person perspectives are illusory, individuals don’t persist through two moments of time, and no one actually thinks.  This last one follows from the premise that material cannot exhibit intentionality; it can’t inherently be “about” or “of” anything.  The conclusion contradicts our everyday experience; we think about things all the time.  The reality of mind is at odds with materialism.

Rosenberg deflected Craig’s metaphysical critique during the debate.  However, being more candid in the post-debate exchange, he did address a relevant chapter of his popular book, The Atheist’s guide to reality. The chapter is titled “The Brain Does Everything Without Thinking About Anything at All.” It recalls a book by Floyd Ferris, a fictional government scientist in Atlas Shrugged.  That work is amusingly titled, Why Do You Think You Think?

When it comes to building a worldview, the materialist is confined to a set of insufficient explanatory options. I’ve recently found that Thomas Nagel and Alvin Plantinga, each coming from very different places, seem to be saying as much in their own respective works (Mind and Cosmos and Where the Conflict Really Lies).

Indulging the mystique of exotic sciences like quantum mechanics and brane cosmology, lay materialists illicitly attribute intelligence, awareness, and causal potency–hallmarks of personality–to their favorite model of reality.  No amount of quantitative work can make up for a lack of qualitative analysis.

Back to “one god less.”  Why should it not follow that belief in a negative number of gods is more true belief in zero gods? If the materialist seriously entertains this question on a qualitative basis, she runs the danger of believing the existence of one God more.

No objective morality without God

Hi cogitators, this post is coming out of an existing comment thread on the relationship between God and objective morality on my “About” page.  I’m moving it here for tidiness and greater visibility.

To get you up to speed.  It started with a comment I made at blogging compatriot A Reasonable Faith: “What basis does the work of clay have to judge its Maker?”

I received a response from a third blogger that “a work of clay can judge its maker if it’s better than its maker.”  While denying God’s existence, the blogger continues:

There are indeed objective standards for morals, in that they are those that allow civilization to move along smoothly e.g. the ideas of property and laws about the handling of it, the ideas of individual freedom, etc.

In turn, I characterized these as subjective:

Laws and customs about personal liberty and property rights, as you’ve mentioned do exist, but are only “subject” to limited enforcement. If for some moral duty a person can evade the long arm of accountability, then the moral duty is properly characterized as subjective.

In the subsequent reply, my fellow blogger defined objectivity:

If a law is uniformly found by humanity to be advantageous and can be demonstrated as such by facts, then one can call it objective, not beholden to personal beliefs that are not supported by facts.

Now we’re caught up.  This use of the word “objective” circumvents the conventional definition.  In Merriam-Webster Dictionary defintion 1b, “objective” is descriptive of something “having reality independent of the mind.”  Basing morality on laws “found by humanity” depends on mind twice, first to recognize it, and then to codify or normalize it.  This is not objective, but subjective, completely subject to human minds.

Besides this, restricting moral duties to what is advantageous to humanity is an arbitrary distinction.  Why not extend the limit to all animals, or even lichen?  Or, why not restrict it to only those humans in your halpogroup?  And what is “advantgeous” has been and will continue to be highly controversial among the ranks of humanity.  Say if the People’s Republic of China successfully spread the practice of one-child policy so that it was “uniform” throughout the world, would it then become right?  Finally, I am interested to know what specific moral values and duties are uniformly found to be advantageous?

What my fellow blogger is describing doesn’t quite get to the crux of objective morality.  He is focused on the epistemology of morality, that is, how we come to know moral values and duties. But the ontology of morality, the question of whether morality itself really exists, requires a logical grounding.  Otherwise, morals cannot be more than a subjective illusion.  After all, values like charity and fairness are immaterial, and “facts” themselves are incapable of pointing to their reality.

Speaking of facts, there is another distinction.  Right and wrong are descriptive of duties, while good and bad are descriptive of values.  An action that is right entails moral obligation.  No set of facts derived from observation of the material world can tell you what you are morally obligated to do.  In this sense facts are morally neutral.  But most people will affirm the reality that some actions we ought to do, regardless of the circumstances.  That which is deemed advantageous to humanity is at most a value but not an obligation, and thus fails to meet the full, common experience of morality.

Escaping subjectivity and achieving objectivity is indeed a high bar.  Moral values and duties are immaterial things that can’t exist in the natural world.  The only way objective morality might exist is supernaturally.  If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

*****

Now in the course of this post I will need to address some challenges from my fellow blogger, but these stand apart and are not necessary to support the above argument.

Challenge:

I’m guessing you think that your god enforces laws with no limit. That would be a good response *if* you could show that this was the case and that your god existed *and* did something. There is no evidence for this or any other god being a law enforcer. Thus, your claims of objectivity coming from god fail.

Response:  If God exists, he is the maximally greatest being.  As such, he is among other things perfectly just and omnipotent.  Whatever justice you do not see delivered in this world he is perfectly capable of administrating in eternity.  Obviously, he is very capable of “enforcing laws,” or our moral obligations, without limit in eternity if not here and now, as he often does through the providence of governments, natural disasters, and other things in his creation.

To show that God exists, I will build on the above premise about objective morality.  This is a version of the moral argument used by William Lane Craig.

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

3. Therefore, God exists.

I have laid out some reasons for premise 1 prior to the challenge section, and you, my fellow blogger, have assented to premise 2 twice already.

Challenge:

I need to see that you can show me that the Christian god exists and is the only one responsible. Can you do that? You seem to have ignored my point that most, if not all religions, make the same claims, that their god/gods created the laws of mankind. This makes your claim simply one among many. Do you understand the weakness of your position?

Response: I just offered arguments for God’s existence through the moral argument above.  Are there other Gods?  Occam’s razor advises us not to multiply causes beyond necessity.  One deity is sufficient to cause our existence.  The one triune God has revealed himself through the Bible, which includes multiple, reliable historical narratives attesting to the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, fulfilled prophecies concerning the messiah, and is internally consistent.  It’s clear in this body of evidence that there is only one real deity.

Challenge:

If there were any objective laws from your god, then why did we have Christians on both sides of the slavery debate? Which side was on your god’s side? Why do we still have Christians who cannot agree about women’s issues, homosexuality, etc?

Response: Through the noetic effects of sin, the ability for all humans to know truth accurately has been impaired but is not without recourse.  That Christians, or anyone for that matter, may not apprehend objective morals with accuracy doesn’t affect the reality of objective values.  You have also assented to objective morality, so you share a similar burden to the Christian in justifying your specific stance on morality in contradistinction to the many others on the table.

Challenge:

I suspect you will invoke “free will” and claim that those Christians who disagree with you are not Christians at all and that your god is allowing them to make the mistakes they make. Again, this requires you to show me that your version is the only true version, and that your god exists at all.

Response: Free will is irrelevant to disagreements within the church.  There has been a recognizable pale of Christianity throughout the church’s history, sometimes captured by the idea of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.  There does exist a “true version” though it is obviously impossible for a human to know all its detail fully and accurately.  God’s grace is sufficient for a church whose constituents hold varied beliefs on secondary issues.

Destiny without Deity

Like lots of folks last week, I invested a bit of time looking for a good Valentine’s Day Card to give my beloved.  Whether for a birthday or some other occasion, I’m always dismayed by the selection of cards in the store.  For the most part, they alternate between mildly profane and unbearably saccharine.

I did manage to find an agreeable V-Day card.  However, another card happened to catch my attention.  It was one of those sappy ones, but different; a card that wanted to retain a sense of romantic destiny without tipping a hat to deity. I don’t remember it verbatim, but in essence, it read something like this:

“I am in awe of a universe that put the two of us together, and even more so that it knew I needed someone who could put up with me.”

It was a striking example of two powerful but opposing forces at work in the human mind. On the one hand, the propensity toward awe, and on the other, the conspicuous denial of whom that awe is owed to. What does it mean to be in awe if not to acknowledge the masterful work, power, or fury of a willing agent?

And describing a universe that knows something about the couple beforehand not just implies intelligence, but borrows from a sense of divine providence. It shouldn’t have been a big deal for the card to just say “God” instead of “universe.”  Even a pantheist could be happy with “God” wording; on such a metaphysical view, God is the universe.  So maybe the card maker was trying to be inclusive of an acutely irreligious clientele.  Whatever the reasoning, the consumer is confronted with an inconsistent sentiment on the card shelf.  Our material universe cannot be owed awe or have foreknowledge.

The late pastor and apologist Francis Schaeffer gave us a potent tool for making sense of this inconsistency in his concept of the upper story and the lower story. Imagine human knowledge as being contained in a two-story house. On the lower story, we have truths about the material world: what we can learn through empirical inquiry and science. The facts formed from the observation of physical phenomena do not support any normative end in themselves.  Even with them, we find ourselves asking, “How now shall we live?” We somehow must find those answers in the upper story, where morality and meaning reside.

On a pre-modern worldview, which allows the possibility of the supernatural, we can ascend a staircase that connects the lower and upper stories.  But with the Western Enlightenment came modernity.  Strict naturalistic presuppositions disallowed any real connection between the two stories.  On this materialism, there was no effective way to indict evils like the Nazi holocaust or European colonialism.  So postmodernism launched in an attempt to recover some sense of meaning for humanity. Yet, its claims on meaning and morality are only a “leap” of faith from the first to the second story.  It doesn’t even want to affirm any real logical connection.  Only an objective supernatural reality can ground true morality and purpose.

Without the supernatural, all our sentiments are empty.  That we picked out a nice greeting card and some flowers becomes a matter of simply going through the motions. There are still philosophers, like Luc Ferry, who suggest that we ground our meaning in the frame of reference of our fellow human beings.  But if matter is all there is, to speak of meaning as if were something real becomes itself incoherent.  Anyone who harbors such a worldview must come to terms with the idea that nothing can inspire awe, and that there is no path of destiny you can embrace. Thank God this is not actually the case.

World better without religion?

At some point, you’ve likely heard the lament that the world would be better off without religion.  You may have even unwittingly imbibed it this past New Year’s Eve, when Cee Lo Green covered John Lennon’s classic hit “Imagine.” The song starts famously:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

And in due course the listener is asked to imagine a world with “no religion too.”  What better way to kick off 2012?  I’m sure Times Square’s officiants Lady Gaga and Michael Bloomberg approve wholeheartedly.

Beyond the pop culture realm, but still in the confines of Manhattan, the Oxford-style debate forum Intelligence Squared US picked up on the same theme this October past.  For some time I’ve heard bits of their debates on NPR, but only recently did I bother to get the podcast.  Naturally floating to the top of my queue was the episode featuring the resolution, “The World Would Be Better Off Without Religion.”

The debate, held before an audience at New York University, was remarkable in that the pro- and con- teams were prohibited from discussing the existence of God.  At first this might seem absurd; whether  God exists or not is patently germane to the question of religion.  But the imposed restriction has the benefit of allowing the debaters to focus neatly on the social ramifications of religion.

Consider what religion is in the restricted sense of the debate: moral beliefs with social consequences, that happen to be theistic. Then listen to the debate participants in action, and the chief complaint becomes clear: people kill and oppress others on the basis of differing moral beliefs.  So, would any hypothetical, religion-free world be better? No.  We would only be exchanging a world filled with a diverse array of theistic moral belief for a world filled with a diverse array of atheistic moral belief.  That people hold moral beliefs, and differ from each other on those beliefs are immutable elements of humanity.  So is the fact that we are social creatures.  We cannot escape each other.  I suppose we can imagine a world of people in secluded pods, or one solely populated by clones, or else a world that is entirely monocultural.  But most people would rightly see such worlds as deeply impoverished and no improvement over our own.  An inescapable part of being human is living in a world with others who hold to different “oughts” and “ought nots.”

Let’s move from possible worlds to the historical record. For thousands of years, religion has presided over mankind, such that any given killer, oppressor, or victim for that matter, could in some sense be tagged by us as “religious.” Only after the Enlightenment do we start to see significant cases of self-identified irreligious individuals.  All we need is one instance where an atheist kills another atheist on the basis of differing morality to obliterate the idea that religion is uniquely harmful.  Consider who swung the ice pick that killed Leon Trotsky.  It seems someone thought he “ought” not have disobeyed Stalin.  Purging religion only allows new types of contentious belief to crop up and take its place. Religion doesn’t kill or oppress people, human wickedness does. Christians rightly recognize this as sin nature.

So, how did the Intelligence Squared debate turn out?  The pro-side, making the case things would be better without religion, persuaded more audience members at the end and thereby won.  Unfortunately, the con- debaters Dinesh D’Souza and Rabbi David Wolpe failed to decisively isolate the social idea of “religion” from man’s underlying wickedness.  But even if they effectively made that case, what other outcome could we expect from public broadcast patrons congregated in a New York university performing arts center?

That the finger of blame could be pointed toward oneself has been thoroughly expunged from our culture today.  It’s easier for some just to chalk our problems up to some conception of a social condition called “religion.”

%d bloggers like this: