There’s a lot of hatred toward Christianity these days. Some of it can’t be avoided, if the Bible is right. For it predicts opposition from Satan, God’s enemy, who rules the minds of most earthlings.
But Satan doesn’t just directly try to turn people against God. He also tries to get Christians to act immorally/unethically/irrationally, with the aim of tarnishing God’s reputation. And Satan has been pretty successful so far.
We all know about the Inquisition, the Crusades, witch trials and the like. But, honestly, Christians don’t do this kind of stuff anymore. Or if some do, it’s a very small group. You can’t reject the whole of Christianity because a few people abuse it.
But there are other abuses. One of these is the weird mixture of Christianity and the Republican Party (I’m speaking of America, of course. I don’t know as much about other countries.). Sure, I can see the connection between anti-abortionists and the more or less biblical view (I say “more or less” because I’m not sure it’s wholly supported by scripture in the ways that anti-abortionists claim) that fetuses are persons and have a right to life. I can also see why they might oppose homosexuality because of the Bible. But I just don’t see what “small government” and the Tea Party have to do with Jesus. I don’t see why the Bible is seen as support for an ambivalent attitude toward racial minorities, nor why it would necessarily support a hard-line and rather cold approach to illegal immigrants from Latin America. I certainly don’t see why being a Christian would mean supporting weak gun-control laws, or less government oversight of Wall Street, or the “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to Iraq that Bush took, or the hatred of Obama rampant in the red states.
It’s historical accident, of course. Most conservative people in America live in the countryside/South. In the country you don’t run into people of other ethnicities so much, you don’t like the idea of some government thousands of miles away filled with bureaucrats telling you how to run your farm and asking you to support some inner-city kid from Mexico (the South took this pretty far in the past, of course). You like the idea of standing up for yourself, not backing down from a fight. You also like hunting, and proudly serve in the military. You also think that people have a duty to be strong, for country people are strong, and weakness/poverty is a sin or at least a defect of some kind. Bleeding-hearts promote weakness. It also just so happens that America was more Christian in the past than it is now, and thus those with conservative bents will bend toward whatever happens to be traditional. But that connection is historical accident.
And the fact that it’s historical accident is made really vivid when you notice that the red states were mostly Democratic 50 years ago, back before Democrats started supporting the rights of minorities, when the Democrats favored a “states’s rights” agenda. It’s only with Kennedy and Johnson that the Democratic party started supporting the Civil Rights Movement, and it was with them that the South turned red*. And these same states connected their Christianity to their southernness and preference for the Democratic Party.
I wish the accident will be seen for what it is. But too many Christians seem to think that being a Republican somehow follows from being a Christian. I think that’s nonsense. I think that this is more a sign of the syncretism human beings are so susceptible to. When people hear about Christianity, it is an almost universal temptation to want to mix the teachings with the beliefs one already has. Cultures take Jesus and mix Him with tribal religions all the time. Maybe American frontier-ism or small-town-ism is also mixed with Jesus in the same way**.
But this turns people who are not so provincial off to Christianity. And it leads to abuses as well: one shouldn’t denigrate poor minorities in the city and tie it to the Bible or being a Christian somehow. One certainly shouldn’t use it as a justification for violence upon LGBT folks either.
I’m not bashing small-town or Southern culture here (nothing will get a Southerner rill’ed more than speaking evil of the South), for there are some nice things about them (I lived in both), the community aspect is one of them (e.g., my car broke down once, almost immediately two men were helping me get it running again). But my complaint is that there is also a dark side to that life (e.g., If I were black, those two men almost certainly wouldn’t have helped, given how racist the town was), and because these places tend to be more Christian than others we associate that dark side with Christianity, an association that is illusory. That is what I’m speaking against.
* Another accident, “red” states. I remember watching the Reagan/Mondale election, when Reagan’s states were represented with blue (I forgot which channel it was). The newscast kept referring to the “Blue Wave” that was sweeping the country as Reagan won state after state.
** “Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town” — John Mellencamp. Listen to the song, Jesus is one of the many things that are part of small town life. But it’s the small town that’s emphasized.
This post is mostly about believers. Or, better, the general public. The topics I blog about often come up in my intro to philosophy classes. Some students are interested. Many are not.
My strategy has been to try to generate interest by tying philosophical debates into the God debate. We cover, say, epistemology (the theory of knowledge) and compare rationalism and empiricism. Some students yawn when 18th century philosophy comes up (not your party topic). But my hope is that if I can say that empiricism is threatening to their religious beliefs, I will pique some interest. The same with the philosophy of mind. Again, yawns. But if I can show them that materialism means no life after death, Jesus, or karma (most seem to believe in all), maybe I can get some interest.
It works, but only if I make it very confrontational. I tell them that a lot of my atheist colleagues think students (and the public, for the most part) are stupid, ignorant, etc., and that people need to grow up and stop believing fairy tales. This wakes them up (people always perk up when there is conflict). It’s easy for me, because I’m not “one of them,” of course.
But then something interesting happens. When I ask them whether all these smart people being atheists bothers them (like it bothered me), they say “No.” I asked, “What about their arguments?” Again, students don’t really care. They usually say that the atheist scientists and philosophers are entitled to their opinions, but that they are just that, opinions. It’s all just opinion.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, and all that. There’s a long intellectual history about “it’s all just opinion.” One can get into the subjectivism of Kierkegaard, the underworld of postmodern thought, Derrida, Foucault, Beaudrillard and the like. But that’s not what’s going on here: these people have never heard of all that (or care). My guess is this: people in America feel that they have a right to their opinions, especially about things they consider to be in their private lives. The whole idea of having to change their opinion because of experts is noxious to them (they would only do this if there were some immediate practical consequence of being mistaken). And this is where logic/evidence comes in. If the authorities use logic, and the people responded, that would give them power over the people regarding their choice of belief. And the people don’t like that. This isn’t the Soviet Union.
That’s my current theory, though I’d add that “the cares of this life” also weighs in with the average Joes: they are thinking about getting a good job, paying the rent, feeding the kids, getting a girlfriend/boyfriend, or keeping a girlfriend/boyfriend, or getting rid of a girlfriend/boyfriend, getting a good grade (my hook), or the sale at Nordstrom (for my wealthier, suburban female students). These cares choke the seeds of inquiry and make them unfruitful. Educated people think about these things too (maybe not the sale at Nordstrom), of course, but they also think about other things as well.
Since it is “just a matter of opinion,” and changing belief/discussion has a cost of some kind, and since there is no immediate practical outcome that depends on their being right about, say, God, and finally since there are better things to do, most people don’t engage in this debate. My strategy is to say that they cannot refuse to engage, for logic challenges them. But for them, logic is just another tool of authority that they need not obey. It’s a free country!
But there are people who are deeply spiritual, and not merely apathetic, who reject this debate as well. I knew many in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship back when I was in college. For them, logic is equated with arrogance. Also, they see a relationship with God as that, a relationship. It’s personal. It’s emotional. “Can’t you just feel Him?!” They were/are (I hope are too) more interested in loving Jesus than arguing that He rose from the dead.
Back then I didn’t respect that, but I do now. For that’s what God wants, if the Bible is right. God wants us to love Him more than anything else. My difficulty, though, still remains. What if God doesn’t exist? All this love would be a delusion. And a costly one, too, for Christianity, at any rate, is very demanding. I almost feel that these people are victims in a way; a meme has got hold of them, in the form of a person they love.
But they would say, and maybe they are right, that I’m the victim. These things are all beyond human ken. One of the tricks of Satan is to get us to disobey the Bible and “rely on our own understanding” — he can outfox us every time. Even from a secular point of view, human understanding is limited (if the philosophical skeptics are right, and so far no one has proven them wrong, I don’t even know I am typing at my computer right now). It may even be skewed in important, yet undetectable ways, especially if atheistic evolution is true (evolution is concerned with survival and reproduction; truth is only one possible means to these ends).
At bottom I wonder what use logic really is, if this sort of skepticism is true. If Calvin and many other Christian thinkers are right, our ability to reason has been seriously compromised by the Fall. And it seems that, to many, including my students, the sides are at a stalemate. Intelligent people are, indeed, defending both sides.
Still, I think that I should keep on thinking, as well as others. For at least we might know that we can’t know. That’s something. Surely God isn’t against our using logic if we use it carefully and not as an excuse to bag Him.
Oddly enough, I think I do have a lot in common with atheists in this regard. I actually get along better with most atheists than I do with most Christians (I had much more fruitful and interesting discussions with, say, atheists in my department back in grad school, than with people at church.). I, and Christians like me, feel that we shouldn’t throw our minds away when we enter the church doors.
The Webster Online Dictionary says here:
a : a disbelief in the existence of deity
b : the doctrine that there is no deity
One thing is clear, ‘atheist’ sounds cooler than ‘agnostic’— a lot of people don’t even know what an agnostic is (I had the hardest time trying to explain what I was back then.)!
Maybe it’s about high-school. I was bullied too, a lot. I know how it feels. But is it theism, or bullying, that is the problem? Plenty of Christians don’t bully. Those that do should be ashamed. Or maybe it’s about LGBT rights. But isn’t that a different issue? Why pick on people who believe in God, if they don’t gay-bash? Besides, can you call a group that is defined simply by it’s opposition to something as a legitimate minority group, entitled to special consideration? Being an atheist isn’t the same as being Black.
I’ve heard this more than once from anti-theists. The idea is that Christianity is pretty obviously irrational, especially when one focuses on certain Bible details (gross anthropomorphisms regarding Yahweh, hard-to-believe miracle claims, weird and sometimes immoral laws, the creation story itself, etc.). Yet some philosophers are performing rather contorted intellectual gymnastics to somehow make this ridiculous religion seem plausible. I am reminded of the comment from the movie JFK regarding the use of theoretical physics in defense of the “magic bullet theory:” “Yet, the government says they can prove it with some fancy physics and a nuclear laboratory. Of course they can, theoretical physics can prove that an elephant can hang from a cliff with its tail tied to a daisy. But use your eyes, your common sense.”
So philosophers (which would include me) are like these physicists. So the best thing to do is ignore people like me. Just use common sense; God doesn’t exist, end of debate: Now was that so hard?
But, on the other hand, there are lots of common sense things that science asks people to give up. Quantum mechanics asks us to give up common sense. So does general relativity theory. But I don’t see anti-theists rejecting these theories. So complexity and sophistication in argument used to defend something that goes against common sense cannot be a reason to disqualify.
Of course, these theories have the advantage of empirical confirmation. There are no experiments that have confirmed the supernatural. But this may be because many scientists do not allow confirmation of the supernatural in their science. And the question of whether God should be allowed as an explanation for something isn’t actually a science question; it’s a philosophy of science question, a question about the limits and methodology of science, a question coming from outside science about science, about the foundation of science. So here’s one place where you have to do philosophy, whether or not you consider yourself a philosopher.
Another issue is whether there can be knowledge beyond science. Again, a philosophical question. There is a case that many make that God cannot be known with science. Even if this is true, that doesn’t mean God can’t be known at all. We all know that it’s wrong to hurt someone without a good justification; hurting people just for the fun of it is obviously wrong, yet not something we can verify experimentally. Maybe religious beliefs fall more into the ethics category than science category. Again, a philosophical issue.
Finally, there is one point on which I and people like Richard Dawkins agree: belief in God in the abstract is a lot more plausible and defendable than the specific beliefs of the Bible. That’s why it’s no accident that anti-theists focus on the latter. They feel that apologists, when they focus on the former, are trying to get away with something.
But when one attacks someone else’s beliefs, he should attack the most plausible versions of them, lest he attack a strawman. I think that Christianity’s pimples and blemishes (or beauty marks) found in, say, the Old Testament can be compensated for by the plausibility of God’s existence, taken apart from the Bible. The best case for Christianity (or anything, for that matter) would start with the easiest to defend ideas and then move to the harder ones. The Bible is not a book a modern can easily accept; it’s not the best starting place. Also, Christians aren’t committed to the literal truth of everything in the Bible: only fundamentalist/evangelical Christians are (and even they aren’t committed to the literal meanings of texts: only the authors’ intended meanings). Even if the Bible is shown to be wrong about something, that doesn’t prove the main ideas of Christianity wrong.
So if you wan’t to be an intellectually responsible anti-theist, you have to do the philosophy, for that’s the field where the abstract case for God is best made. If you close your ears to it, and focus on Leviticus, you are attacking a strawman.
Edit: I should add that anti-theists really do do philosophy, perhaps without realizing it. When they demand that every belief be supported by evidence, they are doing philosophy (and not well, I’d add). When they decide that God is always a poor explanation, or that science is the limit of knowledge, or that God is complex, they are also doing philosophy. When they decide that morality either doesn’t exist or that it can be reduced to science, they are, again, doing philosophy. My suggestion is that anti-theists who poo-poo philosophy as somehow Christian trickery (Gees, how could they think this, when 80% of philosophers are atheists?!), ought to learn more about it. They definitely do philosophy themselves; they need to do it better.
Anti-theism: Opposition to belief in God (often with anger), or the view that one should oppose belief in God.
Atheists often construe atheism as a-theism: lack of belief in God. They do this to secure a burden of proof advantage over theists: non-commitment usually has the advantage over commitment. Then some atheists use this, perhaps without thinking, to support anti-theism. That is, they say theism is irrational because it fails to meet its burden of proof, and thus anti-theism is now justified (though, to be fair, anti-theists sometimes add observations regarding how belief in God has been misused to support evil causes/actions). What this amounts to, in the end, is a presumption of anti-theism as well as a-theism. I disagree. Here’s my counter-argument.
(1) One is not justified being an anti-theist unless one can rationally hold that God has a low probability.
(2) The claim that God has a low probability is a commitment.
(3) Commitments have a burden of proof.
(4) Therefore, the claim that God has a low probability has a burden of proof.
(5) Therefore, one cannot rationally hold that God has a low probability unless one can meet the burden of proof for God’s low probability.
(6) Therefore, one is not justified in being an anti-theist unless one can meet the burden of proof for God’s low probability.
(7) Therefore, anti-theism has a burden of proof.
I think that (4-7) follow in a relatively straightforward way from (1-3), and that (2-3) are pretty uncontroversial (I could address questions about them in comments). The premise that needs defending is (1).
My reason for is that it would seem rather odd for someone to be actively opposing belief in God if he is unwilling to say that God has a low probability. If he won’t commit himself to this, then, as far as he’s concerned, God might have a high probability. How could someone rationally oppose belief in something that might, for all he knows, be probable?
This is just a hunch, but I think a reasonable hunch, that anti-theists, when pressed, will say that God is improbable. The hunch is supported by the sorts of comparisons anti-theists make with God: they compare Him to, say, ridiculous beings like the Flying Spaghetti Monster. This belies a belief that God is improbable. This belief is, no doubt, a major factor in the anti-theism. But such a belief has a burden of proof (as do all probability assessments).
Before I claimed that materialists sometimes argue that there are things that common sense accepts that are incompatible with materialism, and that because materialism is true, we must give these things up. I argue that because of these things, we should give up materialism. That is:
(1) If materialism is true, then it is plausible to give up A, B, C, . . .
(2) It is not plausible to give up A, B, C, . . .
(3) Therefore, materialism is false.
In the last post on this topic I considered the view that the case for materialism is so solid as to force us to abandon common sense when it conflicts with materialism. I found that the case for materialism isn’t that solid.* There are hints and hopes at best. So now I turn to (1) and (2).
This discussion will take more than one post. But before I start let me remind you what materialism amounts to. Materialism views everything as physical. What this means is that all that exists are things that science studies, which reduce, ultimately, to sub-atomic particles. So all there is are sub-atomic particles. It’s a modern version of Democritus’ “atoms in a void.” Whatever cannot ultimately be explained in terms of these particles would have to be abandoned on materialism.**
Here is a partial list of the ABC’s that will have to be eventually abandoned on materialism: psychology, sociology, anthropology, folk psychology (beliefs, desires, experiences, will), intentionality, personal identity through time, morality, rationality, consciousness. My argument is that if materialism requires the rejection of all these things, then it had better have very, very good evidence behind it before it can demand our acceptance. That is, because it cannot play nice with the above list, it has a heavy burden of proof. It has come nowhere near meeting this burden. Not only that, but we should actually reject materialism because it is incompatible with these very plausible things.
In the next group of posts I’ll consider each of these: why they are incompatible with materialism, and why they should be retained at materialism’s expense, and not the other way around.
* There are cracks in the shell of “neuromania” even neuroscience. See Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by neuroscientists Sally Satel and Scot Lillienfeld. They are naturalists, but they caution us against thinking that neuroscience is the end all regarding our minds.
** There are subtleties I will, for the present, put off. There is such a thing as non-reductive materialism, the view that sometimes physical parts are greater than wholes, and that causation can occur at multiple levels of organization. I will consider these later. Right now I’m considering reductive materialism. I will also consider a naturalist rival to substance dualism, property dualism, later.
I’m actually in a bit of a dilemma. I teach at community colleges: in inner-city Los Angeles and in the suburbs. On one hand I do notice a consistent achievement gap between my Latino students and my white and Asian students. On the other hand I feel a bit constrained because I’m a white male. I feel that if I brought this up to anyone (even my colleagues), I’d be labeled a racist. I’m even apprehensive about writing about it.
Here’s one reason why I feel apprehensive. At job interviews I’m usually asked the question of how I deal with diversity in the classroom. One time I did bring up ethnic differences regarding students (patterns I’ve seen in the classroom), and the room suddenly got very, very cold. The key interviewers were Latinos. They looked at me as if I were Hitler himself! I didn’t say anything negative about the groups, only observations about how African-American students tend to participate more often in discussions (which is true in my experience at my inner-city school: 66% of my students are Latino, 33% African-American, yet 80% of the participation comes from African-American students). Ever since I have felt very shy about talking about race. But the conversations do need to be had.
I want to do something about the gap. There are a lot of theories about the it. Some have to do with having Spanish as the household language. Poverty is also an issue. As is low self-esteem and perception of threat in the classroom.
I did stumble across an article by the Stanford News that might help. It describes the efforts of psychologist Geoffrey Cohen to close the gap. In an experiment, Latino 8th graders were given self-affirming reflective activities, such as writing about their own values. Compared to the control group, these students got better grades (oddly enough, the activities had no effect on white students). The explanation was that these students felt less threatened by their environments because of this self-affirming activity, and were able to perform better as a result. The perception of threat seems key here.
I did have one doubt about this. Asian students also often feel out of place, and often do not have English as their household language. Why do they consistently outperform white students (see here)? We would expect them to be at the same level as the Latino students, given the hypothesis. But perhaps Asian students have compensating factors such as powerful parental pressure from parents to succeed in school, and are influenced by the very high view of education in most Asian cultures. Also, the stereotype of Asians is very different from that of Latinos: Asians are expected to excel academically. Maybe they are influenced by these expectations.
Well, I’m thinking of trying the activity (if I could get a hold of the actual assignment sheets that would be great: I’ll improvise for now). Heck, what do I have to lose? I won’t tell my students that this is an effort to help with the Latino achievement gap. I’m also thinking of emailing the article to my colleagues, but I’m afraid they will think I’m a racist. I wonder if I should do this.