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Heather MacDonald's Irreligious Conservative Cri de Coeur:

In The American Conservative. An excerpt (one paragraph break added):

[Conservative atheists and agnostics] find themselves mystified by the religiosity of the rhetoric that seems to define so much of conservatism today. Our Republican president says that he bases "a lot of [his] foreign policy decisions" on his belief in "the Almighty" and in the Almighty's "great gifts" to mankind.

What is one to make of such a statement? According to believers, the Almighty's actions are only intermittently scrutable; using them as a guide for policy, then, would seem reckless. True, when a potential tragedy is averted, believers decipher God's beneficent intervention with ease. The father of Elizabeth Smart, the Salt Lake City girl abducted from her home in 2002, thanked God for answering the public's prayers for her safe return. When nine miners were pulled unharmed from a collapsed Pennsylvania mineshaft in 2002, a representative placard read: "Thank you God, 9 for 9." ...

But why did the prayers for five-year-old Samantha Runnion go unheeded when she was taken from her Southern California home in 2002 and later sexually assaulted and asphyxiated? If you ask a believer, you will be told that the human mind cannot fathom God's ways. It would seem as if God benefits from double standards of a kind that would make even affirmative action look just. When 12 miners were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion in January 2006, no one posted a sign saying: "For God's sake, please explain: Why 1 for 13?"

DJR:
I always wondered about the phrase, "There but for the grace of God go I." Sure, it's meant to express humility and thankfulness that one has not suffered some malady or tragedy, but I always think it pretty presumptuous that the speaker should assume he knows who is and is not in God's grace.
8.15.2006 2:31pm
Tracy Johnson (www):
I would think that anyone's interpretation of someone else's sayings are equally inscrutable. (In this case, GWB.) It could be a reference to his sect's interpretation of the hereafter (and how to get there,) for all we know.
8.15.2006 2:33pm
Taeyoung (mail):
[Conservative atheists and agnostics] find themselves mystified by the religiosity of the rhetoric that seems to define so much of conservatism today.
I dunno. I'm not mystified, particularly, myself. Possibly this is that "Straussian" thing (never having read a word of Leo Strauss, I know only the paranoid conspiracy-junkie's version of Straussianism), where religion is the "noble lie," or somesuch, but still . . .

Conservatives -- particularly conservatives living in the present, after the political upheavals from 1789-1948 (especially 1914-1948) in which traditional forms of governance that had evolved over centuries, and traditional societies that had evolved over millenia were, in much of the world, rooted out and obliterated -- must almost inevitably find, I think, that religion offers one of the few living links back to a traditional heritage. I don't think there is or should be anything surprising or mystifying about atheist or agnostic conservatives finding religious folk to be their closest political allies.

This isn't to say that religion is inevitably a conservative affair -- religion has been radical, disruptive, and revolutionary in the past, and with all the distasteful knock-on effects you'd expect. You don't have to be Gibbon to think that. But religious communities -- even novel Christian sects -- tend to reach back across a broader sweep of history than most contemporary institutions.
8.15.2006 2:37pm
te (mail):
The cow-minded religious are the useful idiots of conservatism.
8.15.2006 2:42pm
Moshe (mail):
She is making a false comparison.

To the believer, both the good and the bad are a product of G-d's actions. In neither case to we claim to know what G-d's ultimate purpose was in having the world work out in this particular way. When a tragedy is averted people thank G-d for the miracle, but this does not mean that they understand his ultimate plan. Similarly when a tragedy happens, we also acknowledge that G-d was the cause, and we are sad about the event. We recognize, however, that we do not know G-d's entire plan. How is this inconsistant? In both cases we recognize that the event comes from G-d, and in both cases we don't understand G-d's plan for the world. The difference is that in happy events we are thankful and glad and in sad events we are sad, hurt, and repentant.

None of this, I think, is the least bit relevant to the issue of making policy decisions based on a belief in the all-mighty. There are many different religious traditions that dictate how people ought to behave in order to emulate G-d best. These have nothing to do with deciphering any particular action of G-d. These are usually general rules and they are different in different religions.

It seems to me that the article is overly critical of a perfectly sensible and coherent worldview.
8.15.2006 2:42pm
Jimmy (mail):
As a lapsed Catholic, I always have found the public rhetoric invoking God to be very confusing. I remember one of the parables where Jesus tells the elders about the two men, one who prays in private and the other who prays in public. He makes the point that faith is not something that others have to see to be effective, and he promises that those who pray in private are seen in a more favorable light by God.

But that seems to be 180 degrees removed from the Baptist &Pentecostal POV, where every word and action is derived directly from God's mouth, Jesus' will, etc. I do not understand how those who follow the New Testament can countenance these two ideals. Any thoughts? Is it just a simple tug-of-war with selective Scriptural readings that seem to disconnect from the impact of the entire collection of his teachings? I could care less if he was the actual son of God; he was an excellent philosopher and champion of the downtrodden, and for those reasons I still listen after leaving the Church.

For myself, I tend to worship at the altar of logic, reason, and science. I can find plenty of ways to live cleanly and help those around me without invoking any unseen agents. I respect many of the Bibles' values and particularly the teachings of Jesus. He taught as an egalitarian and to treat less fortunates with extra care and aid. I can get behind that, no problem!

If humanity followed those teachings together, we'd have less strife and greater acceptance of all things. I feel that science and logic offer many of the same hopes. By understanding to a greater extent the reasons why events occur, from birth to volcanic eruptions to solar flares to love, then I get additional perspective and feel that the knowledge helps me to act in a beneficial way for myself and those around me.

But too often I hear people hide behind the concept of God or the concept of science as a defense of their close-mindedness or promotion of their "special-ness". It does disturb me that the country founded by free-thinker "rationalists" is being led by someone who doesn't feel compelled to explain his "rationale" to his voters, who have the right to ask why their representatives do something.

Giving the "God told me so" answer always seems to be the cheap way out of a debate or discussion. Whenever I would ask a preist or clergyman a difficult faith-related answer, they were usually more than competent and bright enough to give me an answer beyond "just believe". I would have thought them liars and swindlers looking for my 5 spot in the collection basket otherwise. And when my parents would answer the same questions without the base of knowledge that the priests had, they gave that easy answer that always rang hollow.
8.15.2006 2:51pm
Frank J. (mail) (www):
I'm a fundamentalist Christian, and it grates me anytime someone make some presumption on God's purpose. Pat Robertson does it all the time, and it make me want to smack him. Actually, I want to smack him right now.

Religion is useful for knowing how to lead your life and for hope and humility, but it's horrible for trying to interpret a purpose behind events.

Come to think of it, I don't think I'm supposed to smack Pat Robertson...

Jimmy wrote:
For myself, I tend to worship at the altar of logic, reason, and science.

That's a minefield; have to be a nearly infinite number of false gods being worshiped in those areas.
8.15.2006 3:01pm
Erasmussimo:
The cow-minded religious are the useful idiots of conservatism.

C'mon, now, that's not nice. I know some very bright religious people. I disagree with them on many things, but I never underestimate their intelligence.
8.15.2006 3:08pm
David Mears (mail):
I think describing why following a god's will was a strange thing for a politician to profess was really pretty unnecessary. Mostly when people claim to be motivated by god they're just giving a false name to their conscience. Personally I would rather elected officials advance the US's interests rather than this or that's gods interests. We elected the politicians, after all, and not the gods.

In any case, it's as easy for atheists to be conservative as liberal, maybe more easy. Nearly all political thought in this is made into a dichotomy, in which our two parties pick which issues belong with them, or which groups decide which party to align with.

If God called GWB and told him he wanted the US to surrender to the French, I doubt he would do it even though he does profess to follow God's will. It is possible for religion to be important to you and you still manage to be a decent enough American. Freedom is, after all, what we're all about.
8.15.2006 3:10pm
Tracy Johnson (www):
Frank J. wrote:
Come to think of it, I don't think I'm supposed to smack Pat Robertson...


Only if he turns the other cheek!
8.15.2006 3:11pm
PeteRR (mail):
It's God's game. He busts everybody at the table eventually. You might have a good run and win a few hands from him, but it's his house, his odds, and his rules.

Praising him for saving you, while squashing the neighbors with a runaway train, sounds like schadenfreude to me.

(Being an atheist, I would substitute "probability" for "God" in the above statement.)
8.15.2006 3:16pm
Corporate Law Drudge (mail):
Come to think of it, I don't think I'm supposed to smack Pat Robertson...


Watch out - the dude can leg press half a ton
8.15.2006 3:19pm
Just John:
I read Jimmy's comment and think, "You know, I don't see why people wouldn't vote for an atheist president..."

Then I read te's comment and think, "Oh yeah, atheists are jerks."
8.15.2006 3:21pm
HLSbertarian (mail):
Definitely reminds me of an article in The Onion a while back: "Basketball Star Blames God for Defeat"
8.15.2006 3:22pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
To the believer, both the good and the bad are a product of G-d's actions. In neither case to we claim to know what G-d's ultimate purpose was in having the world work out in this particular way. When a tragedy is averted people thank G-d for the miracle, but this does not mean that they understand his ultimate plan. Similarly when a tragedy happens, we also acknowledge that G-d was the cause, and we are sad about the event. We recognize, however, that we do not know G-d's entire plan.


That's one possibility, another (and not necessarily inconsistent with what you suggested) is that God doesn't mete out tragedy and triumph in the world but that faith in Him is what sustains people during times of trial and enables them to overcome all sorts of horrible tragedies. By thanking God during good times and remembering our blessings during hard times, believers are able to sustain themselves spiritually.
8.15.2006 3:22pm
DJR:
Just John: You have a remarkable talent for stereotype and tokenism, where your last encounter with a member of a group defines the characteristics of every member of that group. I guess the atheists just needs to make sure that Jimmy's comment is the last one you read before you head into the voting booth, rather than te's.
8.15.2006 3:27pm
frankcross (mail):
While I prefer Thorley's formulation, Moshe is surely correct when he writes:

We recognize, however, that we do not know G-d's entire plan.

But the trouble with this is the fact that the same people who invoke God as the cause of tragic events seem pretty sure they do know God's plan when it comes to passing judgment on others' behavior.
8.15.2006 3:28pm
te (mail):

I know some very bright religious people. I disagree with them on many things, but I never underestimate their intelligence.

Oh - I didn't mean to imply that ALL religious folks are cow-minded - just the vast majority.

I, too, know some very intelligent religious people.
8.15.2006 3:40pm
Erasmussimo:
Jimmy Just writes Then I read te's comment and think, "Oh yeah, atheists are jerks."

C'mon, now you're doing exactly the same thing that te did.
8.15.2006 3:49pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
While I generally agree with many of Heather McDonald's writings and consider myself a secular conservative/libertarian, IMO she may have lost a lot of her targeted audience by writing:
Suffice it to say that, to many of us, Western society has become more compassionate, humane, and respectful of rights as it has become more secular. Just compare the treatment of prisoners in the 14th century to today, an advance due to Enlightenment reformers. A secularist could as easily chide today's religious conservatives for wrongly ignoring the heritage of the Enlightenment.
A secular value system is of course no guarantee against injustice and brutality, but then neither is Christianity. America's antebellum plantation owners found solid support for slaveholding in their cherished Bible, to name just one group of devout Christians who have brought suffering to the world.

Suffice to say, religious conservatives would easily and rightfully point out that (a) the most brutal civilizations have been the most secular (Soviet Union, People's Republic of China) or otherwise hostile to Christianity and (b) the abolitionist movement as well as many of the "reforms" McDonald believes were improvements were spearheaded by social activists who were largely religious in nature.

It's unfortunate because she started out by making a valuable point that being secular and politically conservative aren't in any way mutually exclusive. Presumably since religious people are the overwhelming majority of the nation at large as well as within the conservative movement, she was hoping to persuade them to that belief. Unfortunately by adopting some of the same language used by secular leftists ("see, the Bible isn't all it's cracked up to be because slaveholders used it to justify slavery!"), she may have turned off a lot of the people who was hoping to persuade.

Even though I agree with her larger point, I'm afraid that this is what a lot of people will carry away from her article and they may not see her as a "temperamentally compatible all[y]" and lump her in with the same secular leftists that religious conservatives are embattled with over "personal responsibility, self-reliance, and deferred gratification" and trying to roll back the Nanny State.
8.15.2006 3:49pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
You don't have to be Gibbon to think that.

"The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful."
8.15.2006 3:50pm
te (mail):
And, for that matter, I am sure there are a fair number of cow-minded athiests out there -but I think that there are apt to be fewer of them given the structure of society currently.

The norm now is to grow up in a household that at least claims to be religious and to be inculcated with those views as a child. It takes a certain amount of intellectual independence to cast aside these earlier prejudices and accept reality.

By the same token, if most Americans were athiests, I am sure that being an athiest would then greatly appeal to the cow-minded - because they would just accept whatever the prevailing sentiment is.

I mean only 48% of Americans belive that humans evolved - so it is hard to overestimate the stupidity of about 1/2 of the population.
8.15.2006 3:50pm
Chris Lansdown (mail) (www):
I always assumed that when Bush said things like, he bases "a lot of [his] foreign policy decisions on ... the Almighty's great gifts to mankind", that he meant things like "Arabs are not unfit for democracy", "all people are created equal", etc.

There's certainly no scientific basis to believe that all people start off equal (created or otherwise). In fact, there's no simple or compound measure — apart from how much we expect that God loves people — by which human beings all come out the same.

Bush is fond of saying that Freedom isn't our gift to the Iraqi's, it's God's gift to mankind. Again, a statement with no scienfitic backing — the sentiment behind it isn't even scientifically addressable, really. Moral imperatives aren't scientifically testable.

That is, I believe that Bush is explaining the moral imperatives that drive his foreign policy, not the particular strategies used.
8.15.2006 3:52pm
Dan Hamilton:
"But the trouble with this is the fact that the same people who invoke God as the cause of tragic events seem pretty sure they do know God's plan when it comes to passing judgment on others' behavior."

If you believe in your religion and it says such and such is a sin and then yousee someone doing such and such and then you say they are sinning. You are passing judgment, just like your religion wants you to.

Everybody passes judgment on others' behavior they just base their judgements on different things.

You can't be one of those fools who believe that people should NEVER pass judgements on others' behavior. Or do you think nothing of some person taking a dump in your front yard?
8.15.2006 3:55pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
Moshe,

There are many different religious traditions that dictate how people ought to behave in order to emulate G-d best. These have nothing to do with deciphering any particular action of G-d.


They don't? Is it instead that they have to do with deciphering the deeds or statements of people? As in preachers? Or deciphering the meaning of traditions?

I'd say that the entirety of religion involves trying to decipher particular actions that were allegedly God's doing. This just happens in various ways, whether you're trying to decipher the meaning of a sermon or a book that God allegedly wrote, or anything else that happens from day to day. They're all the same types of questions: why did God write this, or why did he allow it to be written, or why did he have this person say this, or why did he do this, or why did he allow this. That's religion: What did God do, and why, and how should I act accordingly? I'm not sure your distinction holds up.

The problem is that, if there is a god, you kind of have to keep asking why he keeps killing all these people. Surely he must be trying to tell us something. After all, what else could it be? If we were all doing dexactly as we were supposed to, it must be possible for God to create a world where we weren't constantly being killed in mass numbers. As far as I can see, the only possible explanation for all this evil in the world is that it is brought about by our free will, and our tendency to do bad things that god is trying to tell us not to do. Thus, you really have to try to figure out what God is trying to say. If there is a perfect God, it would be insane not to.

To say otherwise is to say that the world is truly perfect as it is, and exactly as God wants. That is, he's really not trying to tell us anything; he's just doing what's necessary. Is that what you think?

Of course, under my view, God becomes the kind of divine terrorist envisioned by people like Pat Robertson or Fred Phelps. But that would be why I think we should be somewhat skeptical of the whole god idea in the first place...
8.15.2006 4:01pm
Moshe (mail):
Thorely: yes, of course there are many other possibilities, and every religion or sub-religion has its own perspective. But I believe that my point still stands: there is nothing inconsistent in the worldview of those who do see G-d as meting out reward and punishment, and the sense ion which most people try to look to G-d for policy inspiration is not at the level of interpreting individual actions of G-d, but is typically at a much more general level.
8.15.2006 4:10pm
Joel B. (mail):
The idea conveyed here seems to be that a belief in God, rules out a recognition of chance. I don't think this is theologically accurate. The Christian believes, the all things work together for good for those who love the Lord, and rightfully so. What is beyond us however is to recognize what is "good." Our comprehension is so limited, so narrow, that we are not entitled to see, at least not in the present, we only get to accept such a truth.

The preacher himself teaches on the power that "chance" has in the world "I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise, nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to the men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all." David and other psalmists speak of the harm that came upon God-fearing men, while the wicked thrived. Yet they all remained steadfast in their faith. That we see chance in our world does not mean, that where God chooses to act, he cannot be seen.
8.15.2006 4:12pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):

Our Republican president says that he bases "a lot of [his] foreign policy decisions" on his belief in "the Almighty" and in the Almighty's "great gifts" to mankind. What is one to make of such a statement?


Um, that President Bush is a Christian whose religious beliefs shape his moral compass and hence the direction that he will generally follow as a leader? And that in the specific instances in which he has invoked such "religiosity" in his "rhetoric" it's clearly been to express the idea that freedom isn't just for Americans and that there is nothing about being an Arab which makes one any less deserving of freedom.

Seriously this is one of the things that bothers me about the "bewildered secularist" type of articles. The author expresses her befuddlement over religious rhetoric and tries to pretend that the meaning of what the speaker was saying was somehow a great mystery. It seems rather obvious what Bush was talking about and personally, I don't see that he is any more likely to use such religious rhetoric than most of the presidents we've had in the past. That he would refer to his religion as shaping his belief that it is right to liberate and defend from dictatorships and terrorists those who may not even share his beliefs (e.g. Muslims) speaks rather well of him IMO.
8.15.2006 4:23pm
joe (mail) (www):
> That's one possibility, another (and not necessarily inconsistent with what you suggested) is that God doesn't mete out tragedy and triumph in the world but that faith in Him is what sustains people during times of trial and enables them to overcome all sorts of horrible tragedies. By thanking God during good times and remembering our blessings during hard times, believers are able to sustain themselves spiritually.

Can someone translate this into atheist for me? I don't get it.
8.15.2006 4:27pm
Moshe (mail):
Well said, Thorely
8.15.2006 4:28pm
Goobermunchermunch (mail):
PeteRR--


It's God's game. He busts everybody at the table eventually. You might have a good run and win a few hands from him, but it's his house, his odds, and his rules.

Praising him for saving you, while squashing the neighbors with a runaway train, sounds like schadenfreude to me.

(Being an atheist, I would substitute "probability" for "God" in the above statement.)


One of my favorite authors once said


God does not play dice with the universe: He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players [i.e. everybody], to being involved in an obscure and complex variant of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won't tell you the rules, and who *smiles all the time*.


--G
8.15.2006 4:41pm
ctw (mail):
"it is hard to overestimate the stupidity of about 1/2 of the population"

oh, I don't know. if you interpret "stupidity" to mean "below median IQ", half the population is "stupid" by definition without regard to their position on evolution.

more seriously, the issue isn't "stupidity", it's ignorance. and it doesn't strike me (and numerous others, apparently) as "shocking" that a high percentage of people are ignorant of evolution's status in the scientific community. the vast majority of people have no knowledge of any details about evolution (I didn't until recently and I'm pretty well educated and have eclectic interests, among which aren't life sciences) and essentially just know what they've been told. so the statistic may only suggest how well the creationist propaganda machine is working and to a lesser degree how deep the anti-intellectualism runs (cain't trust no pointy-headed, atheist, commie perfessers!).
8.15.2006 4:45pm
Medis:
As an aside, if we are keeping score, as far as I know the Laws of Physics remain "unbeaten" whenever people have tried to fight them. Indeed, to my knowledge the Laws of Physics have eventually caught up with every person who has ever lived. So, in that sense it is Laws of Physics X, People 0 (where X is the number of people who have ever lived minus those still currently alive). I'll leave it to others to determine what that means about God's Plan, but personally, I don't plan on trying to break this streak.

Anyway, on the main point: the background problem is that "conservative" is such a nebulous phrase, particularly today. So, I think for some people, "secular conservative" is basically an oxymoron. And it is hard to protest, because there is no agreed definition of "conservative".
8.15.2006 5:01pm
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
Frank J:

I'm a fundamentalist Christian...

[...]

Jimmy wrote:
For myself, I tend to worship at the altar of logic, reason, and science.

That's a minefield; have to be a nearly infinite number of false gods being worshiped in those areas.

Plenty of 'em in your neck of the woods too, Frank.
8.15.2006 5:06pm
Hoya:
There is a straight answer. God is the source of all good in the world, in that on the theistic perspective everything that is good in the world exists because it is intended by God. Of course, God accepts that there will be evil in the world, but God does not intend it.

Since we characteristically treat someone as more responsible for what is intended by that person than for what is merely foreseen but not intended, it makes perfect sense to treat the good God brings about differently from the evil that God accepts but does not intend. As for that evil, it is still perfectly appropriate to ask, and wonder, why God allowed it to occur. But God didn't try to bring the evil about.

As for why not posting a sign 'why only 1 for 13?', I imagine that lots of theists wondered why twelve had to die. Maybe the head-scratching and ignorance-peddling posted in response here might be assuaged by a brief peek at the centuries of serious theistic thought on the problem of evil.
8.15.2006 5:09pm
Huck (mail):

As for that evil, it is still perfectly appropriate to ask, and wonder, why God allowed it to occur. But God didn't try to bring the evil about.


Too simple answer to a very basic religious problem.
8.15.2006 5:24pm
Huck (mail):
8.15.2006 5:25pm
ted (mail):
It's 2006 already--people have been positing countless formulations of the God (or gods) BS since the beginning of time. Is there any particular reason why I should think that today's God BSers are any more enlightened than any of the God BSers of times past, most of whom belonged to belief systems now extinct? Isn't it the height of arrogance for any of you to think that you, magically, are so much more enlightened than the countless generations that came before you?

This trend is evident even internally within what we consider longstanding faiths. Look at Christianity--there is a huge segment of Christians in the US who believe in "the Rapture" and all that crap. That concept is less than 200 years old for Christ's sake--you won't read about it the writings of Aquinas, or Martin Luther, or anywhere else during the first 1800 years of Christianity. Were those 1800 years worth of Christians just dumb in reading the supposedly immutable "Word of God"--or, let me guess, are today's Christians who beleive such things just more "enlightened"?

I find religiousity the height of human arrogance and anthropormphic thinking. The truth is, nobody knows a damned thing about the topics religion supposedly addresses, not in the past, and not now, after untold generations and innumerable belief systems. It's a loser's game that offers solace, like a rigged slot machine that will never pay off--but the sucker pulling the lever always gets to keep his hopes.
8.15.2006 5:32pm
Duncan Frissell (mail):

Seriously this is one of the things that bothers me about the "bewildered secularist" type of articles. The author expresses her befuddlement over religious rhetoric and tries to pretend that the meaning of what the speaker was saying was somehow a great mystery.

Progressives are big at that sort of thing as well -- "I can't imagine why SSM wasn't adopted 3000 years ago." "It's so obvious that only having OSM violates human rights."

I've heard this sort of thing called an "attack formation." The speaker actually can figure out the reason for certain historical practices but chooses to pretend that they are completely mystifying in order to put pressure on others to adopt the position. Helps to avoid the need for argumentation.

GW's formulation is just a version of "endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights".

It's also kind of humorous that unbelievers complain bout the numerous historical sins committed by believers against reason and human rights even though Christian Europe was the first region to abolish slavery (circa 1200) and Christian Theology paved the way for the Elightenment.

I notice that the rest of the world didn't originate same (still hasn't adopted it).
8.15.2006 5:36pm
Ken Arromdee:
What is beyond us however is to recognize what is "good." Our comprehension is so limited, so narrow, that we are not entitled to see, at least not in the present, we only get to accept such a truth.

But, since you don't thank God for bad things, the whole idea of thanking God depends on your belief that you *can* recognize what's good.

Or to put it another way, you don't thank God when a car crashes. If for all you know saving someone from a mine could result in a car crash (perhaps some driver hears it on the radio and is distracted), should you be thanking God for saving people from mines?
8.15.2006 5:40pm
Medis:
The most sensible theodicies to me are the ones that note that God could have a different sense of good/evil than we humans. So, for example, we might define the suffering of a human child as evil, but God may see that suffering as good to the extent it is simply a consequence of the operable physical laws (and again, it seems to me the evidence indicates that God is overwhelming in favor of the Laws of Physics).

In that sense, the "problem of evil" depends on the anthropomorphism--the idea that God must have a human sense of good and evil.
8.15.2006 5:45pm
M. Brown (mail):
A heavy dose of bitterness there, Ted.
8.15.2006 5:47pm
plunge (mail):
Everything is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds. Except SAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAATAN!
8.15.2006 5:48pm
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
Eugene wrote: When nine miners were pulled unharmed from a collapsed Pennsylvania mineshaft in 2002, a representative placard read: "Thank you God, 9 for 9."

Ah...that argument is known as proof of God's existence by incomplete devastation.

It's rather popular; there are many variations on that theme.

It's number 36 in Over 300 Proofs of God's existence.
8.15.2006 5:52pm
Medis:
I'd say the 9-9 case is actually #8:

ARGUMENT FROM MIRACLES
(1) My aunt had cancer.
(2) The doctors gave her all these horrible treatments.
(3) My aunt prayed to God and now she doesn't have cancer.
(4) Therefore, God exists.

But the one miner out of 13 who survived could use #36.
8.15.2006 6:03pm
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
Indeed Medis, you're quite right. Regardless the link is a veritable treasure trove of theology well worth a peruse.

One does encounter many of them in the real World.
8.15.2006 6:13pm
Hattio (mail):
Jimmy,
As a lapsed pentecostal, I will try to explain to you the difference between praying in private and letting yourself be seen as a separate and distinct people. The public praying is meant to persuade other believers of your holiness. The things that mark pentecostals or baptists as separate are a sign of your separateness to the rest of the world, and a sign of your obediance to God. There is that whole verse (I can't recall a cite) about being a royal priesthood, a separate people etc.

But as I said, I'm lapsed by over a decade now. Maybe someone with more up to date theology can explain the difference better.
8.15.2006 6:26pm
te (mail):
ctw - re your post suggesting that ignorance and stupidity are different things. Maybe. But see here
8.15.2006 6:44pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
Hoya,

>Of course, God accepts that there will be evil in the world, but God does not intend it.<

God didn't intend the Tsunami in Indonesia? Or the Hurricane in New Orleans? Did they happen by accident? Did he have no choice? Was he powerless to stop it?

I'm not sure the distinction between intent and knowledge really holds up for a god. Israel can say it only kills civilians incidentally, even though it knows it will happen, and acts intentionally, but that's because they didn't create the scenario. God does.

I guess you can still say that this was the best God could do, but I find that pretty unbelievable. If God is really that limited by reality that he can't even create a world without the kind of mass disease/catastrophes/injustice/etc. that we have, then for me at least, the whole idea of God is shot. It makes God another slave to his surroundings, no different really from you and me. Is that still a god?

I think the true belief of theists, though, has to be that even the worst kind of death and suffering really aren't that bad. After all, most people would still rather have lived than not to have. So as much as we talk about evil in the world, it's really just a lot of huffing and puffing. And in that regard, they might be right. We do like to exagerate (and normally more to constrain others' behavior than for any other reason).

In any case, the fact that the world could still theoretically be perfect just doesn't really do it for me. Really, I find the whole idea of "perfection" pretty goofy. This world may be fine, and better than it used to be, but can you call it perfect? I'm going to say not really.
8.15.2006 6:52pm
tom@office:
I think the answer to Eugene's question may lay in two goals of Christianity: to nuture faith and humility among the followers of Jesus Christ. These are two attributes that Christians believe are necessary to develop, that they will not only serve us in this life, but they will serve a purpose in the afterlife. I know that many of us Christians are not as humble or faithful as we should be, and that gets noticed. For others to point it out is legitimate in my perspective. Do we hold God to a double standard? No, we try to thank him in good times and in bad times. While we err often, we demonstrate our faith in His plan and purposes every time we succeed in not faulting Him for a loss. As Job said "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord." Instead, we try to remember that mortality is the middle act of a three act play; we don't expect equitable resolution or perfect justice in this life. This is not an empirical question, so to say "The numbers don't add up in god's favor" misses the point. It's about believing in something we cannot see. Quite the opposite of empiricism. Now, this resignation begs the question: can religion lead people to stop improving themselves in anticipation of some post-death nirvana? Sure, that's a problem that religions have to grapple with, but to accept not everything can be fixed does not automatically mean you work less to improve your surroundings. It's just a different path to take. I think The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is a fine example of someone who did not let an acceptance of his limited sphere of influence (or the limitations of mankind in general) to thwart his overall resolve to be a force for good.
8.15.2006 6:54pm
Erasmussimo:
I disagree with the claim that the most oppressive regimes in human history were secular (USSR and China). Their level of oppression is as nothing compared to the level of oppression in some modern-day Islamic nations, nor compared to any of the pre-Enlightment Christian states. For example, many pre-Enlightenment Christian nations burned people at the stake -- an especially painful way to die. And they killed LOTS of people for heresy. If you ever want to be truly shocked, look up some of the drawings of the behavior of Spanish troops in the Netherlands during that country's fight for independence. It will surely make you wonder how they ever called themselves Christians.

Now, it could be argued that it was not the retreat from religion but the steady progress of civilization that is responsible for the diminishment of barbarity. In other words, one could argue that correlation is not causation and the decrease of barbarity in societies in the modern world is unrelated to the advance of secularism. I think this hypothesis is a reasonable one; I would prefer arguing that the same forces that led to the increase of secularism also led to the decrease in barbarism. What most sways me is the apparent correlation between fundamentalist religious belief and a preference for military solutions to political problems. Moreover, the most secular societies on this planet (the Northern European nations) are also the least barbaric, showing greater reluctance to use military power and an absolute ban on the death penalty.
8.15.2006 7:05pm
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
Theism is quite literally unreasonable; Tom's post is an example. It's full of circular arguments.

There is little point in trying to rationalise with belief held on the basis of faith. That is faith in the religious sense, rather than the sense of faith in the Sun coming up in the morning, which is faith based upon reason.

By definition, religious faith is, literally - unreasonable. Indeed many theists, Christians of varying stripe especially, punt as a virtue holding something to be true on the basis of faith. In my World view holding something to be true -- despite lack of evidence, is a rather considerable vice, one that can get individuals and communities that think thus into all sorts of trouble.

If a theist is trying to use reason to persuade a well informed rational person of the sense in their theism, it will fail. To get faith, religious faith that is - one must make an existential leap - one that involves the abandoning of reason; Into this belief without evidence or faith. A point Martin Luther well understood and was quite explicit on.

For me, I renounced Christianity completely as a teenager when I grasped this point. I simply failed, and I still fail, to see the virtue in 'blind' or religious faith.

The threats of theists - Pascal's wager and so on, really leave me cold. As have all the arguments for the existence of any omnipresent, omnipotent deity. All of them are very easy to shoot down. As an explanation 'the God' model begs more questions than it answers and is never the most parsimonious; so why seek attachment to it?
8.15.2006 7:17pm
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
I disagree with the claim that the most oppressive regimes in human history were secular (USSR and China). Their level of oppression is as nothing compared to the level of oppression in some modern-day Islamic nations,

I do as well, I could drill into but that would be to tangent because it's besides the point as the argument is not an argment that cuts to truth; it a consequences of belief argument. A logical fallacy.
8.15.2006 7:24pm
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
...following on by way of exposition. To argue that believing in something has good consequenes or that not believing in something has bad consequences, is not to argue that it's true.
8.15.2006 7:27pm
Taeyoung (mail):
Re: Marcus1:
I guess you can still say that this was the best God could do, but I find that pretty unbelievable.
I'm pretty sure Panglossianism is not actually a tenet of the Christian faith. Or any of the great religions, actually.
8.15.2006 7:39pm
tom@office:
Nick Good's post is correct in its description of what is required in terms of reason and faith. Where I'd like to address the question of blind faith, as it is relevant to Eugene's question. By blind faith do we mean any statement that cannot be independently verified? How does a straight replication in a lab setting work?

Well, we find out what the methodology of others was, and you copy it as closely as possible. Then we don't have to take their word for it, even if it's in a esteemed source.
One you have data of your own, you know for yourself.

During 2 years of being a missionary, I never once asked someone to simply take my word about God's existence. That's akin to having data that support a theory, and telling people "Don't collect your own data, just use mine." Everyone is invited to get an answer from God if they want one, but they have to do it in God's way. That means humble, sincere prayer. Sure we can poke holes in that method "selection bias!!" but so many of our house rules probably seem unreasonable to my daughters... we often resent the rules of our Father in Heaven that parallel my daughter's resentment at not being able to stand on the top of our couch and jump onto the cushions.

The talk of blind faith is misguided. The testimonies of the religious is an empirical analysis, replicated across individuals. There are good reasons for God doing it this way, not the least of which is accountability. That it does not fit our notion of "valid" is to be blamed on our culture. I don't think Nick's dismissal is unreasonable, but I know its misguided.
8.15.2006 7:46pm
Medis:
I agree pinning Sovietism and Maoism on secularism is a bit misleading. Indeed, I think those systems of thought have an awful lot in common with many dogmatic religious systems (for example, the Little Red Book might as well have been a religious text, and Mao might as well have been a "prophet").

In any event, it is no mystery why these sorts of belief systems tend to be associated with starting wars--in most cases, for a leader to convince a people to start a war, he has to instill in them an uncritical conviction in the rightness of their actions and in the certainty of their success, or at least in a compensating reward after death. Priests in that sense have always helped Princes send their people to war. And that is true even when the Priests are called "Party Members".
8.15.2006 8:15pm
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
Tom wrote: During 2 years of being a missionary

Sounds like fun, I must admit that there's something to be said for a good missionary position!

Smutty jesting aside; that's one of the reasons I prefer Buddhism to Christianity (though I am not a Buddhist) it's focus on 'mind posture' rather than obsession with supernatural entities. This and it's charter for free enquiry - the Kalamas Sutra

The testimonies of the religious is an empirical analysis, replicated across individuals. There are good reasons for God doing it this way, not the least of which is accountability

Such 'empirical' accounts of religious experience, common as they are, to my mind have perfectly natural explanations that are more parsimonious than the supernatural ones religious adherents assign to them.

That it does not fit our notion of "valid" is to be blamed on our culture.

The term 'valid' in logic and science has a specific meaning. Logic, science and reason are not constructs over which any given culture holds sway, gaining traction in only in one culture. There is no such thing as British or American or Russian or Chinese science...just science. The http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_method is the same everywhere. If there is a better way of doing it, the scientific method will ensure that this method is adopted.

Reason and science work on a self correcting feedback loop…that is at their essence. Religious 'truths' or beliefs don't; indeed they positively eschew them, and history, even very recent history demonstrates this. This militates against actually cutting near the truth with revealed truth, with religion and for cutting nearer to truth with reason and science.

If I want to understand the origins of the origins of the universe, the world and mankind, I will go to astronomers, astro physicist, geologists, anthropologists and biologists. I will steer well clear from theologians. Their track record is not great and critical thinking is not their speciality, and that's being kind.

None of this is to deny the emotional aspects of the human mind and of our personalities.
8.15.2006 8:40pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
Taeyoung,

>I'm pretty sure Panglossianism is not actually a tenet of the Christian faith. Or any of the great religions, actually.<

Isn't it? I'm not sure whether Pangloss pinned partial blame on sin, but in the big picture, wouldn't God have to have made the world perfect? Or maybe he just made it the way he felt like making it. I guess that could be too.

I dunno. You can always say, after all, that there really isn't any suffering in the world; maybe it just looks that way. Maybe when people die, then don't actually feel any pain, but feel just fine, and then are transported to a world of everlasting marshmallows and candy. The real problem, of course, is that people simply have no good reason for believing these things, and that it's painfully obvious that various cultures have made them up.

I'm still intrigued by the various problems with the idea of perfection, though. I think that when you toy with it enough, you see how nonsensical it is. Whether or not God has to be perfect, the realization that he couldn't really be perfect is still pretty interesting, and I think something a lot of people avoid considering.
8.15.2006 8:56pm
tom@office:

Reason and science work on a self correcting feedback loop…that is at their essence. Religious 'truths' or beliefs don't; indeed they positively eschew them, and history, even very recent history demonstrates this. This militates against actually cutting near the truth with revealed truth, with religion and for cutting nearer to truth with reason and science.



That religion is unapologetic about eternal truths being subject to correction/updating is a fair point. Science double checks itself because it starts out with the premise that there is no 100% valid answer book to the questions it asks. If there is no known answer, then experimentation is the best way to go, and putting faith on a single study (or discipline even) is unwise. However, a scientist can get a lot more done by accepting findings of past researchers and building on them. Scientists are not as skeptical as we sometimes suppose, if they like the source of the claim, and the outcome, most don't rush to the lab to double check. It's not that different from the patterns among the religious crowd, so I'd hesitiate to reify alleged differences.


If I want to understand the origins of the origins of the universe, the world and mankind, I will go to astronomers, astro physicist, geologists, anthropologists and biologists. I will steer well clear from theologians.



But do many intellectually honest astronomers, astrophysicists, etc. claim that their research answers those questions about the origins of the origins? If they do, they have an overdeveloped confidence in the generalizabilty of their results. This seems to amount to admitting one is simply not interested in finding out the answer to the question.

If I can't find the latest CD by Goldfrapp at the farmer's market, before I conclude there is no new album after all, I consider the possiblity that I looked in the wrong place.

I doubt we should look at science and say "If it's not here, maybe it doesn't exist." That sounds less like parsimony, and more like faith.
8.15.2006 9:07pm
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
If it's not here, maybe it doesn't exist." That sounds less like parsimony, and more like faith.

We don't talk like that, we - or rather thoughtful atheists, say - that there is no reason to posit as an explanation for anything at all any supernatural entity that is omnipresent, omnipotent and as some argue - micro manages the cosmos. That theory begs more questions than it answers. The child asks 'But Daddy, if god created the Universe, who created god"? The child smacks the essence of the problem, right on the nose.

Of course we can't 'prove' that there is no such entity; but then we can't 'prove' that there is not a troupe of gerbils in purple sequined suits, playing Boney M medlies in a sub-terrainian cavern on one of Saturn's moons. I have no good reason to seek attachment to either theory.

Proving a negative is always problematic. But then it is traditional, for good reasons, for those making an assertion to bear the burden of proof. The theist bears the burden of proof, it is not incumbent on the atheist to prove the negative. I'm still waiting for one hint of a theistic theory that makes sense and does not have far, far better explanations for it's basis than tradition, superstition, fear and wishfull thinking, never mind any a hint of credible evidence or supporting argument.

An explanation that begs more questions than it answers, is not an explanation at all. Richard Dawkins - professor of public understanding of science at the UK's Oxford university - captures it well in his inimitable style in this essay.

Perhaps this is why the overwhelming majority of top scientists -- over 90% are atheist, and that's in America, perhaps the most religious developed country. Elsewhere it's just about a clean sweep.

Rather than posit unhelpful theories that add nothing to our understanding. Theories that are not scientific, in the Karl Popper sense of being falsifiable; far better to maintain a noble silence, and leave the origins of man, the world and the Universe it to the professionals -- the professional scientists, not the theologians. Open a decent bottle of the fairest Cape's Shiraz and ruminate upon that.
8.15.2006 10:26pm
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
Oh by the way, talking of Dawikins. He publishes a new book next month sure to be a spiffing read - The God Delusion

Personally I dont care for his politics, but on Science his brilliant. His writting is particularly good English too, and that helps.
8.15.2006 10:45pm
Ken Arromdee:
Do we hold God to a double standard? No, we try to thank him in good times and in bad times.

That's like saying "I treat everyone equally. I take money from people who want to give it to me, and I take money from people who don't want to give it to me".

Truly not holding God to a double standard would mean thanking him in good times and blaming him in bad times.
8.16.2006 12:01am
Ken Arromdee:
The most sensible theodicies to me are the ones that note that God could have a different sense of good/evil than we humans.

That fails because it cuts both ways. True, perhaps the suffering of a child is really good, but by the same reasoning, perhaps saving someone from a mine accident is really evil. It just appears good to us because we come to a conclusion based on knowledge vastly more limited than that of God.
8.16.2006 12:06am
Henry679 (mail):
If the suffering of children is really "good", then I'm with Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov—screw God, I'm done with him.

Rebellion
8.16.2006 12:31am
Medis:
Ken,

I'm not quite sure what you mean by "really good" and "really evil". The idea would be that both are good (suffering child and saved miner) as far as God is concerned, regardless of how we humans define good and evil.

In other words, this is not a "if we knew everything God knew we would know why it was good" argument. Rather, it is a "even if we knew everything God knew we might still call it evil, but that is just evil in the human sense" argument.

Of course, Henry679 is right--if God has a different definition of good and evil than humans, then it is not clear why humans should love, respect, worship, etc., God.

Again, though, I think all this is already somewhat obvious. As far as I know, what God really cares about (assuming God exists) is making sure the Laws of Physics are obeyed. If that means a child suffers or a miner is saved, fine--as long as the Laws of Physics dictate those results, God appears to be satisfied with the outcome.

And to me, it is indeed unclear why we would care much about a God like that. But that appears to be the God we have.
8.16.2006 12:55am
Harry Eagar (mail):
Which god are we talking about?
8.16.2006 2:12am
Ken Arromdee:
Rather, it is a "even if we knew everything God knew we might still call it evil, but that is just evil in the human sense" argument.

I don't see much difference between this and the other version. If something can just be evil in the human sense, couldn't something also just be good in the human sense? So saving someone from an accident would be good in the human sense but evil to God.
8.16.2006 3:05am
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
That fails because it cuts both ways. True, perhaps the suffering of a child is really good, but by the same reasoning, perhaps saving someone from a mine accident is really evil. It just appears good to us because we come to a conclusion based on knowledge vastly more limited than that of God.

This is just a variation of the old 'God Works in mysterious ways' shtick used to justify an absurd proposition whose premise - a deity that is omnipresent, omnipotent and beloevolent - is rather directly contradicted by the facts.

See no 282

also 309.

Darwin - who pole-axed the most compelling theistic argument, the Teleological argument - touched on this pointedly, and with some wit ...
I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars
8.16.2006 5:29am
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
Religion is the poeticization of ethics, which is also how to take the believer's statements.

``I act ethically,'' is how it translates.

Ethics precedes religion. He doesn't get it from God, but expresses it that way.
8.16.2006 7:49am
Medis:
Ken,

I'm not sure what you are looking for out of a theodicy.

The general goal is to logically reconcile the existence of "evil" with the existence of God. Here, the reconciliation is achieved simply by noting that God COULD have a different sense of good and evil than humans, and if so, then "evil" in God's sense may not exist at all, even though "evil" in our sense does exist.

I think you are pointing out that we can't know all this is true. So, for example, since we don't really know which things God thinks are evil, we can't rule out the possibibility that God DOES think that some things which exist are evil (in his sense).

But now you are moving from what COULD be true to what IS true. And that is asking a theodicy to be not only valid (in that if the assumptions are true, the problem of evil is solved) but also sound (in that we know the assumptions to be true). In that sense, you are asking for more than a theodicy--you are asking for the TRUE nature of God, not just the POSSIBLE nature of God. In other words, you are essentially asking for a complete theology, and apparently one which is provably true.

Personally, I make no real claim to having such a thing (a complete and provably true theology). Although as I have mentioned previously, I do think the best evidence is that God (if he exists) sees obeying the Laws of Physics as "good". And I am not personally aware of any circumstances in which the Laws of Physics have not been strictly obeyed, so to my knowledge there is no such "evil" in the universe. Therefore, God appears to be getting exactly what he wants, which makes sense if he is really omnipotent.

Again, though, this isn't really a proof of God's nature, or even his existence. But it does describe a set of propositions which, if true, would resolve the problem of evil.
8.16.2006 11:17am
Medis:
Nick,

Again, though, I think it is important to recognize the difference between the theodicy I am suggesting and the "mysterious ways" theodicy.

The "mysterious ways" theodicy basically claims that if we actually knew everything God knew, we would see how what "appears" to be evil to us is in fact good in the greater scheme. In that sense, it preserves the assumption that God sees good and evil in the same way we do, but posits that God knows things that we do not.

But the theodicy I am "endorsing" requires no such premise. Indeed, it specifically allows for us not being unaware of anything relevant to evaluating the "evil" of something, and for us rightly concluding it is "evil" as we humans define the term.

So, for example, we can imagine a hypothetical discussion with God. We might point out a case in which an innocent child suffered, and claim that it is evil. God might respond that the Laws of Physics were obeyed in that case, and claim that it is good. We might reply that we already knew that the Laws of Physics were obeyed, but that doesn't change the fact that an innocent child suffered. And God might reply that he doesn't care about whether innocent children suffer, as long as the Laws of Physics are obeyed.

In all this, there is no mystery, or difference of knowledge. There is just a difference between us and God over what constitutes good and evil.

Of course, this really is just relaxing one of those three conditions for God (omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent). God is still technically "benevolent" insofar as he does what he sees as good, but he is no longer benevolent in the human sense.

But to me that makes perfect sense--it was always a bit odd that we would think that God cares about the things humans care about more than anything else. And clearly, he mostly (and probably entirely) does not play favorites with humans--we'll get eaten by tigers, and drowned by tsunamis, and all the rest, apparently exactly when the Laws of Physics say we should.
8.16.2006 11:32am
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
Medis,

Did God create the concepts of good and evil, or does he just follow them?

I'm not sure how his version can just be "different" from ours. Perhaps if we were relativists, but that would render God's version irrelevant. He'd still be evil under my conception, which is the one that matters for me.

Otherwise, you could say that one entity's morality simply can't be applied to another, so I simply can't judge God. Still, this creates the problem that you say; under conventional religions, we DO judge God, and we judge that he's good. In either of these scenarios it seems that you've pretty much killed the idea of morality altogether in order to accomodate for God's behavior.

I think you probably pretty much have to say that God's view is right and ours wrong. That's the conventional religious view, and it probably works the best, although it has its own problems: 1. Did God just make these notions up? and 2. How do we know this even happened.

I remember in high school, I sat next to a kid who was constantly coming up with these wild theories to explain the universe. It was totally clear that if he could just invent one that wasn't completely riddled with contradictions, that he was immediately going to accept it as true. You could see this from his excitement, when he came up with a great new conspiracy theory, but also when I'd ask him, "Yeah, but do you actually believe that?," and he'd respond, absolutely. I was always struck by how completely nuts it was, but also by how irrelevant he considered the idea of evidence.

I guess there's a fundamental need for people to feel like they understand things. I've seen it in myself; I feel much better when something is bothering me, and I work through it so I feel like I understand it. Apparently, though, the concept of evidence is pretty much irrelevant to most people's emotional need in that regard. I think this is what makes it so hard to find logical contradicitons in religious view points; it's so easy for them to just change, when evidence and plausibility are simply dismissed from the picture.
8.16.2006 11:43am
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
And of course, they've been radically changing to achieve some sort of coherence for millenia.
8.16.2006 11:49am
tom@office:
Do we hold God to a double standard? No, we try to thank him in good times and in bad times.


That's like saying "I treat everyone equally. I take money from people who want to give it to me, and I take money from people who don't want to give it to me".

Truly not holding God to a double standard would mean thanking him in good times and blaming him in bad times.



No, trusting God in all situations is completely consistent. If you believe the other person in a relationship loves you had has your best interests at heart, you don't continually sit poised and ready to denounce them as unworthy of your trust. What Ken recommends (blame God when something goes wrong) is just another way to respond consistently. It's just outcome-oriented instead of relationship-oriented. It sounds very fair-weather to me. For reasons already covered above, Eugene's question can be answered by noting that Christians are expected by their religion to trust God. Thanking him for saving miners is not to say "We're glad you're finally seeing it our way God" but "We're glad your will regarding the fate of these miners is the same as our will."
8.16.2006 11:55am
Medis:
Marcus1,

It seems to me that moral relativism in this area is perfectly appropriate. Personally, I don't think much of moral relativism as applied to humans. But how about tigers? Or tsunamis? Or non-human ETs? In my view, once you are talking about non-human things, even intelligent non-human things, it is no longer obvious that there will be moral notions that apply to both humans and these other things.

In that sense, I tend not to judge things like tigers or tsunamis as "evil". I judge them as "dangerous", which is a non-moral notion. Of course, I might also judge a tiger as "beautiful", or a tsunami as "fascinating", which are still non-moral notions unlike "good". And I assume that other beings would reciprocate in kind--a non-human ET might judge we humans as something like "dangerous" because of our lack of a common moral sense, but also as "fascinating", but not necessarily as "evil" or "good".

So, once you have placed God into the non-human category, it seems plausible, and indeed quite likely, that any moral notions we have will not apply to God, and vice-versa. And again, my little "proof" of this is that I can see no real favoritism between humans and tigers, or humans and tsunamis, or humans and anything else, on God's part. So, I see no reason to believe God is humanlike when it comes to his morality.

In that sense, I think it perfectly appropriate to treat the "morality of God" in the same way we would treat the morality of tigers or tsunamis. Which means that in total, God has the same "moral valence" as the entire universe. But I wouldn't call the universe "good" or "evil", but rather a mix of the helpful, the dangerous, the beautiful, the ugly, and so on.

Finally, I agree that all this renders God's "morality" pretty much irrelevant to human morality, and vice-versa, which many religious people will refuse to accept. But I would note that some naturalistic pantheists and pandeists basically believe all this.

Moreover, if so inclined, one could suggest that God "wants" us to behave in accordance with human morality, insofar as the nature of human morality is itself an outcome determined by the Laws of Physics. In other words, human morality could be a "special case" of God's broader morality. Again, though, humans are constantly bumping up against other "special cases" of God's morality, and it seems to me our particular "special case" doesn't have a privileged place in the overall scheme.
8.16.2006 12:15pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
I agree, Tom's view in that regard isn't really inconsistent. It simply starts with the premise that there is a God and that God is good, and then forces everything else into alignment. Since our knowledge is so limited, it's pretty easy to do; anything could be good, and anything could be magic. If everyone murdered by Stalin or Hitler went straight to heaven, what really is the problem?

Death, really, is a particularly easy problem, since it's so opaque. I think there are much harder ones, though. For isntance, why does God allow billions of people to worship false Gods? Clearly, they're trying. Clearly they have faith. Can we really convince ourselves that this is for the better, or that they're evil, or that we Westerners really just ended up that much more spiritually insightful than all of the billions of people elsewhere who lack the virtue to find the right God?

If you believe in a personal relationship with God, and you believe that this relationship is important, it seems pretty hard to reconcile why God only reveals himself to basically everybody in America, most people in Europe, virtually nobody in China, and so on. It's pretty inconsistent, I would think, at least with the idea of human equality. Talk about disaparate impact! Which raises the real question (as far as I'm concerned): Isn't all of this a bit more suggestive of the theory that religion is, oh I don't know, cultural?
8.16.2006 12:23pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
Medis,

Well, I don't morally judge tigers because they're not competent. I don't morally judge people who aren't competent for the same reason. But God has to at least be competent, right?
8.16.2006 12:37pm
Phutatorius (www):
Here's a classic example of the double-standard in practice:

Last year, after Red Sox pitcher Matt Clement was hit in the face with a blistering line drive during a came against Tampa Bay, I happened to be listening to sports talk radio (fault me for this weakness, surely, but bear with me now).

A woman called in and said that Clement survived what appeared to be a severe head injury, with no lingering effects, because he was a devout Christian, and just a few days earlier he had attended a Bible study with Bill Mueller, the Sox's starting 3B at the time. The woman noted that Mueller had taken a knee after the play and prayed that Clement would be all right.

The woman notably failed to identify any divine agency in the trajectory of the ball off the bat.
8.16.2006 12:50pm
Medis:
Marcus,

What would you do with intelligent aliens (of the other-planet kind)? Would you judge them by human standards of morality?
8.16.2006 12:51pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
Medis,

If they were nice, I wouldn't kill them...

Really, I think competence is a pretty good test. Whether something is living or non-living is a more basic test, but then you have to ask if even a living thing is competent. Or maybe god isn't living, but he's still comeptent. I don't know; I don't really see the basis for relativism here, unless we find something with a totally unanticipated situation... like an alien that needs to kill humans to survive or something. But even then, we could ask him not to kill more than is absolutely necessary, I think.
8.16.2006 1:13pm
KeithK (mail):

If you believe the other person in a relationship loves you had has your best interests at heart, you don't continually sit poised and ready to denounce them as unworthy of your trust. What Ken recommends (blame God when something goes wrong) is just another way to respond consistently. It's just outcome-oriented instead of relationship-oriented. It sounds very fair-weather to me. For reasons already covered above, Eugene's question can be answered by noting that Christians are expected by their religion to trust God.

Relationships are built on trust. You trust your spouse (hopefully!) because she has earned this trust over time through her behavior. While some religious people base their trust in God on blind faith, many others see the effect of God on their lives and consider this evidence that God is trustworthy. Atheists reject this evidence, positing a human or non-divine explanation, and thus come to different conclusions.
8.16.2006 1:38pm
Medis:
Marcus1,

I'm still not sure I understand how you are dealing with intelligent aliens.

Suppose, for example, they are something like superintelligent ants, and as a consequence, they place very little moral value on individual lives. So, when we cross paths with these aliens, they have a tendency to kill individual humans for what we would consider to be inadequate justifications. But they also wouldn't mind if we did the same to their individuals.

Would you call these superintelligent-ant-aliens "evil" because they place very little moral value on individual lives? Obviously, given our values, they would be potentially dangerous to us, and we would want to be careful in our dealings with them. And if we wanted to interact with them (say, for the purposes of trade), we might even try to negotiate mutually-acceptable rules of behavior, which might require them to not kill individual human beings as they see fit. But in that case, they would be conforming with these rules because it was to their advantage to accomodate our values, not because they shared our values.

But again, would you call these beings "evil"? Personally, I would not, despite their "competence".
8.16.2006 2:02pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
Well, if the ants showed a complete lack of appreciation for human values, I would probably take that into account in how to deal with them by showing them less courtesy as well.

God, though, is supposed to know. Sure, you can turn God into something like a super-intelligent ant completely disassociated with us and our society, but that's a pretty weird and unconventional depiction of God.

I think conventional religions view God as using the same moral system we use. God may get special leeway, but that's because he's God, and his situation is different from ours (perfect knowledge, execution, etc.). Yes, you can give him an entirely different system (you can say anything you want about him, since you're inventing the whole idea of him anyway), but that renders him irrelevant, and seems unnecessary.
8.16.2006 2:24pm
tom@office:
If it's not here, maybe it doesn't exist." That sounds less like parsimony, and more like faith.


We don't talk like that, we - or rather thoughtful atheists, say - that there is no reason to posit as an explanation for anything at all any supernatural entity that is omnipresent, omnipotent and as some argue - micro manages the cosmos. That theory begs more questions than it answers. The child asks 'But Daddy, if god created the Universe, who created god"? The child smacks the essence of the problem, right on the nose.


First, there is no reason to offer explanations, except for the fact that a whole lot of people seem to have a drive to explain their existence. Where did we come from, why are we here, and where are we going are questions that might not interest everyone, but they interest a lot of people.

"So if there's a god who created him" is not a quesion without an answer. I'm sorry people convince themselves that faith is incompatible with critical thinking. Were that the case, I'd be done with religion too, but it's not the case. There must be a term for this fallacy "I can't understand how this question [God's existence] could be answered, so there must be no good answer."


Of course we can't 'prove' that there is no such entity; but then we can't 'prove' that there is not a troupe of gerbils in purple sequined suits, playing Boney M medlies in a sub-terrainian cavern on one of Saturn's moons. I have no good reason to seek attachment to either theory.


No one is asking for proof of God's nonexistence. It would be silly. I'm simply pointing out that God can answer this question, but he does it on a person-by-person basis. By design, people are not intended to be "convinced" by another person that God exists. They are intended to go directly to Him for proof.


Proving a negative is always problematic. But then it is traditional, for good reasons, for those making an assertion to bear the burden of proof. The theist bears the burden of proof, it is not incumbent on the atheist to prove the negative. I'm still waiting for one hint of a theistic theory that makes sense and does not have far, far better explanations for it's basis than tradition, superstition, fear and wishfull thinking, never mind any a hint of credible evidence or supporting argument.


Again, this is not about proving the nonexistence of God. I'm sorry if I was at all unclear on that point. It is not incumbent on the athiest or the theist to prove anything. It's up to God, and anyone who asks Him with humility and real intent knows that He answers.


An explanation that begs more questions than it answers, is not an explanation at all.


I think you mean to say, an straw man cannot offer sound counterarguments, so let's stick with the straw man. There are answers to the questions you feel could spring up if one were to conclude that God exists, but someone who is unwilling to find out if God exists in the first place has little justification for complaining about lack of additional answers.


Richard Dawkins - professor of public understanding of science at the UK's Oxford university - captures it well in his inimitable style in this essay.

Perhaps this is why the overwhelming majority of top scientists -- over 90% are atheist, and that's in America, perhaps the most religious developed country. Elsewhere it's just about a clean sweep.


So correlations equal causation eh? The overwhelming majority of top CEO's are likely athiest. What exactly can we conclude from these statistics? I'm surprised at this detour in your reasoning.


Rather than posit unhelpful theories that add nothing to our understanding. Theories that are not scientific, in the Karl Popper sense of being falsifiable; far better to maintain a noble silence, and leave the origins of man, the world and the Universe it to the professionals -- the professional scientists, not the theologians.



Popper was talking about searching for truth via science, not the idea that truth itself is subservient to scientific inquiry. I love popper's theory; I just don't see it as applicable, since science is not the key to all knowledge. The suggestion that religion adds nothing to our understanding, and is unhelpful, is simply wrong.
8.16.2006 2:25pm
Medis:
Marcus1,

I've never claimed this is a "conventional" religious view, although as I noted previously, it is not entirely unprecedented (it is something along the lines of naturalistic pantheism/pandeism).

By the way, God on this view would not be the divine version of a superintelligent ant any more than he would be the divine version of a superintelligent primate (that is us, of course). God would be his own sort of superintelligent being, and neither ants nor primates nor the superintelligent gas clouds of Zarkon 8 would be able to claim to have the moral system most closely resembling God's.

But as unconventional as it may sound, and as threatening to conventional ideas on religion and morality as it may be, I do think this idea is relatively well-supported by the available evidence. Indeed, assuming God exists at all, he doesn't appear to be "using the same moral system we use," precisely because there appears to be no concrete evidence that he shows any favoritism to humans.
8.16.2006 2:41pm
tom@office:

Death, really, is a particularly easy problem, since it's so opaque. I think there are much harder ones, though. For isntance, why does God allow billions of people to worship false Gods? Clearly, they're trying. Clearly they have faith. Can we really convince ourselves that this is for the better, or that they're evil, or that we Westerners really just ended up that much more spiritually insightful than all of the billions of people elsewhere who lack the virtue to find the right God?

If you believe in a personal relationship with God, and you believe that this relationship is important, it seems pretty hard to reconcile why God only reveals himself to basically everybody in America, most people in Europe, virtually nobody in China, and so on. It's pretty inconsistent, I would think, at least with the idea of human equality. Talk about disaparate impact!


This is, I think, one of the strongest critiques that can be made against Christianity. I'm grateful to be in a religion that teaches that not only Christians (during mortality) are going to heaven (after mortality). To consider that anyone who does not happen to be born at the right place or the right time in history loses out on heaven suggests God is not fair, or loving towards us. There's so much data out there showing the general relationship to the religion one is raised in and their inclinations in later life. This suggests to me that for many people (myself included) religion starts out (at the very least) as a factor beyond our control. Conversions into or out of religions happen, but for most people, religion is a function of environment. To believe that all my friends who are not members of my religion are destined for an unhappy afterlife is to believe God is unjust, cruel, arbitrary, and unworth of worship. Fortunately, I have a more optimistic view of God, and of the eternal destiny of my fellow-men.
8.16.2006 2:42pm
Josh Ard (mail):
If I were devout, I doubt that I'd proudly say that God has chosen me for something. I recall from Bible reading that God often chose venal people to punish the Israelites for some sin.
Isn't it like the story of the evil man sent to Hell who finds he's having constant sex with some beautiful woman? He asks one of Satan's minions why he isn't being tortured. He is then told that he has misunderstood. It's the woman who is being tortured.
8.16.2006 4:08pm
Ken Arromdee:
If there were intelligent ant-like ETs who killed some of us, and didn't mind if we killed some of them, that doesn't mean they have different ideas of good and evil. It means they have the same idea of good and evil as us, but improperly applied it to things (individual ants and individual humans) that aren't comparable.
8.16.2006 4:57pm
Medis:
Ken,

How do you know individual superants and individual humans aren't "comparable"? What attributes are you assuming are different?

By hypothesis, all we really know is that the superants don't place as much moral value on the lives of individual superants as humans place on the lives of individual humans. So, why are you assuming the difference is between the properties of individual superants and individual humans, rather than between the values of superants and humans?

Or in other words--are you assuming all intelligent creatures must share the same idea of good and evil? If so, what is this assumption based on?
8.16.2006 5:07pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
Tom,

>To believe that all my friends who are not members of my religion are destined for an unhappy afterlife is to believe God is unjust, cruel, arbitrary, and unworth of worship. Fortunately, I have a more optimistic view of God, and of the eternal destiny of my fellow-men.<

I'm glad you agree. I'd suggest, though, that this realization has forced you and many Christians to abandon a major principal of Christianity, which historically has very much been that only Christians go to heaven. So God keeps getting nicer over time, which is good, but also is, I think, cause for some skepticism.

Basically, I think there's a pretty uncanny correlation between the nature of god over time and the extent of human knowledge. Back when we didn't know much about the world, God was all kinds of things, and did all kinds of things. But every time we learn something new, God becomes something a little less definable, and a little less verifiable. A person has to wonder how long it will carry on, before people are confident enough to say "enough." Or maybe the natural limitations on human knowledge are great enough that that time will never come.

The correlary to the too-many-religions argument, incidentally, is this: clearly, humans will invent religions whether there is a god or not. Unless you think that God inspired every religion that exists, it's proven fact that people are capable, and strongly tend towards inventing religions out of thin air. Is this not a good reason, then, to have some doubt toward religion in general?
8.16.2006 5:32pm
ray_g:
"No one is asking for proof of God's nonexistence. It would be silly"

I agree it is silly, but often when I remark that I am an atheist I am asked for this as justification for my atheism. Same thing if I remark that I don't think UFO's are visiting extraterrestrials, I am asked to prove the nonexistence of flying saucers. It is my experience that often when people cannot provide proof for what they think exists they fall back on "well, you can't prove it doesn't exist".

>To believe that all my friends who are not members of my religion are destined for an unhappy afterlife is to believe God is unjust, cruel, arbitrary, and unworth of worship. Fortunately, I have a more optimistic view of God, and of the eternal destiny of my fellow-men.<

I hear this kind of thing all the time, mostly from Christians but others too, and it annoys me. Something unpleasant in their religion pops up, so they redefine their god. Sometimes I think that fundamentalists and Bible literalists are, if not more rational, then at least more logically consistent than your average Christian.
8.16.2006 7:16pm
Ken Arromdee:
How do you know individual superants and individual humans aren't "comparable"?

It's inherent in the comparison. The ants don't mind dying, and we do. You can't compare (for this purpose) a being who doesn't mind dying and a being who does. Their difference is directly related to whether it's okay to kill one.

The ants cannot conclude that it is okay to kill humans because it is okay to kill ants--part of the reason it's okay to kill sentient ants is that they don't mind, and humans do mind.
8.16.2006 7:35pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
ray_g 'Sometimes ... thinks that fundamentalists and Bible literalists are, if not more rational, then at least more logically consistent than your average Christian.'

You should think that all the time. When dealing with a Holy Scripture, fundamentalism and literalism are the only possible intellectually respectable positions.

Once you start interpreting, it stops being divine, doesn't it?
8.16.2006 8:47pm
Georgiana (mail):
Even literalism depends on interpretation, for reasons as simple as metaphor, allegory and simile. As a silly example, if G-d says in the text, "When pigs fly," it could be a fanciful way of saying "Never" or indeed, it could mean it'll happen when, by divine intervention, porcines go airborne. Granted the metaphorical and literal both share the sense of "not any time soon." But it is a simple showing that plain text can be read by two different readers, legitimately, in two different ways.

More seriously, even Talmudic scholars working in the original tongue have lively debates over how to understand the text and the body of commentary is rather impressive. Not to mention that most Christians would state that they consider the New Testament to have greater weight than the Old, based on Jesus' saying he came to fulfill the law and offer a new covenant. Well, that implies a new interpretation of an earlier covenant ... and is one of the reasons why Christians generally see no sin in eating pork and shrimp, both plainly banned in the Old Testament.

In short, everyone interprets...
8.16.2006 9:52pm
Medis:
Ken,

Actually, the hypothetical was that superants didn't mind killing other superants as much as humans mind killing other humans. It didn't include anything about the individual superants minding less when they got killed.

Moreover, it isn't obvious to me this is a sufficient distinction. Indeed, in human morality, we don't generally condition the value of human lives on how much the particular human would mind being killed.

And certainly superant morality could work this way. So, we might inform them that individual humans really don't like being killed. And they might respond, "So what? The individual desires of a being have no relevance to whether it is morally acceptable to kill that being." And so the superants would be acting with full information about how human beings regarded their own deaths--they just wouldn't think that was morally relevant.
8.16.2006 10:06pm
dirc (mail):
I recommend "The Problem of Pain" by C. S. Lewis to anyone interested in a thoughtful examination of this issue.http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/jonbenet_ramsey
8.17.2006 12:08am
Harry Eagar (mail):
If that's so, Georgiana, then the opinions expressed are human, not divine, and have no more weight than a David Letterman routine.
8.17.2006 12:52am
ray_g:
Georgiana,that raises (at least) two questions: (1) Why can't (or won't) an omnipotent being present their message in an unambiguous way; (2) once you have conceded that the next is full of metaphors, allegory and simile, how do you convince a non-believer that the god of the text in question is not, itself, just a metaphor, allegory or simile.

My real problem with interpretations I see from those I talk with, who admittedly are not scholars or theologians, is that their interpretations always seem to favor their personal preferences. Like I said, they see something they don't like (or something unpleasant that I point out), they rather casually redefine their god. I don't think that is an intellectually legitimate thing to do without some solid reasons based in good scholarship or theology.
8.17.2006 12:57pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
It's easy to show that metaphorical, poetic etc. interpretations are arbitrary and undivine. Two obvious examples:

For over a thousand years, no one detected the metaphorical element in the Seven Days of Creation, everyone took that literally. Until doing so became ridiculous.

On the other hand, a passage that seems to call out for a metaphorical interpretation ('This is my body, take and eat'), because the literal meaning is so revolting, has been insisted upon (by Catholics, at least) as being the literal truth.

All educated people hoot at the stubborn literalism of the Discovery Institute, but it is intellectually more honest than the arbitrary assumptions of the self-congratulatory rationalism of the Jesus Seminar.
8.17.2006 1:18pm
Georgiana (mail):
ray_g:

Georgiana,that raises (at least) two questions: (1) Why can't (or won't) an omnipotent being present their message in an unambiguous way; (2) once you have conceded that the next is full of metaphors, allegory and simile, how do you convince a non-believer that the god of the text in question is not, itself, just a metaphor, allegory or simile.

ray_g: My argument was a response to whether it is possible to read Biblical text without interpretation, and a comment that even those who call themselves literalists do, in fact, interpret. In the specific case of the Bible, the text is not always clear, it does contradict itself. And even theologians and scholars who work with the text do have styles and preferences. So even if one is a professional, some messages will resonate more than others. See scholars of the US Constitution, especially in debates over the first and second amendments as another example.\

But I digress.

I guess the question you are really asking presumes the text is divine (some believe the Bible is divinely inspired, but written by humans, so the question you raise isn't apparent to all believers, fyi).

You asked, why doesn't a deity do a clearer job communicating, enough so a non-believer will be convinced. Or, I suppose preferably, talk to people in their own heads so no misinterpretation is possible? I have no idea. Mischieviously because we're supposed to figure this out ourselves?

Seriously, I've not worried about the text being convincing to non-believers. I have yet to see a successful argument for G-d's existence (or against) that doesn't presuppose G-d is (or isn't). In other words, you have to accept the initial assertion for the argument to hold.
8.17.2006 6:42pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
There does not need to be an argument for god's/gods' non-existence.

Even people who claim to believe in some gods do not believe in all of them, so the non-existence of gods is universally accepted. An axiom, if you like.

I agree, I've never seen a successful argument for the existence of gods.
8.17.2006 9:23pm
Rich Devine (mail):
All of this argument with respect to the nature of God omits examination from first principles. Presuming God exists, and by definition has the power to create the Universe and everything in it set forth precisely to his will, one question must precede all others: why would a being of such power even bother creating the Universe?

When one contemplates the necessary nature of such a God, it becomes absurd to think that humankind is the object of this creation, or else the creator has done a horribly inefficient job of bringing about its intended result, apparently having waited about for some thirteen-million millenia for humanity to manifest, so that it might or might not destroy itself in less than ten millenia of reasoned existence. To a being of the capacity of such a God, we can be no more than ants ourselves, perhaps less than ants, perhaps a batch of some certain virus temporarily infecting some certain ball of fungi.

The sensible explanation as to why God created the Universe must be to silently observe the vast expanse of the Universe as a whole (as in Deism), or perhaps more likely still, if God is omnipresent as is traditionally claimed (and as in Pantheism), to observe the Universe as part - perhaps the whole - of his existence, for however long the Universe exists (notions now popularly called Panendeism if the Universe exists as part of God or Pandeism if the Universe exists as the whole of God).

It is not under any rationale whatever that it makes sense for God to intercede in human existence in any manner whatever, most certainly not to judge, in any manner whatever. That, for example, over a billion Chinese have rejected Theistic religions and instead adhered to Pantheistic or Pandeistic beliefs is a credit to the collective logic of that race, and a view that humanity as a whole would be wise to hop on, having dismounted the high horse of Theism.
8.18.2006 5:14pm