May 28, 2009
Answering another email question, this time about the occasional asides I’ve made here against Lee Strobel.
Let me say this: the works of Lee Strobel are one of the things that crystallized my atheism. As a Christian, as an argument for Jesus/Christianity/theism, I think he has absolutely no credibility; as a person, I think he has absolutely no scruples. Here’s my case:
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May 21, 2009
The Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement is often explained by an analogy to the courtroom: sinners stand before a judge (God) and are properly adjudicated guilty and deserve punishment, but that fine can in turn be paid by someone else (Christ). I imagine most of us have heard this analogy. (If you haven’t, or if you want to delve into it more deeply, you might enjoy this article by J.I. Packer, “The Logic of Penal Substitution.”) In any event, I think I’m representing this view fairly, and I’m sure my commenters will correct me if not.
If so, then I have to say that from the perspective of a lawyer, the analogy makes absolutely no sense. The law can be thought of as roughly dividing into two spheres, civil and criminal. Civil law focuses on recompensing the victim; if I steal $100 from you, you sue me for the $100 in order to be rendered whole. That kind of debt can be paid by someone else, but only because civil contract law is wholly unconcerned with the rightness or wrongness of the actor. To put it another way: our civil law setup is such that we neither encourage nor discourage people from breaking contracts; we just require that if you do break a contract, you (or someone else) has to render the contractee whole. Even if you break a contract maliciously, civil law doesn’t really care and doesn’t impose any kind of penalty on you to stop you from breaking contracts again in the future. It isn’t “justice” in the colloquial sense of the word (and in the sense that Christians are invoking the concept when they draw the penal analogy).
Criminal law, on the other hand, has an entirely different focus. It is concerned with the goodness or rightness of the actor, and it is wholly unconcerned with recompensing the victim; that’s usually what we think of with the word “justice.” Thus, criminal convictions impose a public penalty in order to punish the wrongdoer and deter him and others from committing the same offense against society in the future.
It would make no sense in the criminal scheme to allow someone else to serve out a convicted criminal’s sentence (or pay his fine, or whatever). The point isn’t to get the money; it’s to impose a hardship on someone who’s a danger to society and deter others from following in his shoes. So that’s why the penal substitution analogy doesn’t work; if a penalty can be paid by someone else and you can go scot free, it isn’t “justice” — at least, not in the way we humans understand it.
This is so readily apparent to anyone (even nonlawyers) who think about it that it surprises me that the analogy and argument continue to be so popular (e.g. Todd Friel and the Way of the Master crowd).
May 20, 2009
Continuing the discussion of presuppositionalist arguments for Christianity, one common thread seems to be that Christianity as a worldview better “explains” certain features of the world than does a naturalist/physicalist worldview. While I have previously challenged the dichotomy inherent in the argument — one need not be a naturalist/physicalist in the strong sense to be an atheist, of course — I also challenge the premise itself.
So let’s start with first principles: what does it mean to give an “explanation” for something? One need not accept Kant’s epistemology to nevertheless recognize the distinction Kant drew between (1) the analytic and (2) the synthetic. An analytic explanation is one where the explanation is derived entirely from the predicate of the proposition; put more simply, when I say, “That object is a triangle, because it has three sides,” I have given an analytic explanation. I haven’t told you anything about the triangle that you didn’t already know, because the definition of a triangle is that it has three sides.
On the other hand, if I say that object is green because it was painted with watercolors, I have given you a synthetic explanation; that is, one in which the proposition contains more information than is simply found in the predicate.
Now, to the point: it seems to me that only a synthetic proposition truly counts as an ‘explanation.’ If I say that the grass is green because it has a “green-producing nature,” that isn’t really an explanation. Ultimately I’ve told you that the grass is green because the grass is green. An explanation doesn’t just tell us that something exists; it tells us how.
And this is the problem I have with presuppositional apologetics and comparative worldview arguments. It’s just not an explanation in the synthetic sense to say “God did it.” It doesn’t tell us ‘how,’ it just gives us another name for the problem.
So my question to those of you who favor those sorts of comparative “worldview” arguments: what’s your criterion/-ia for what counts as an “explanation?”
May 12, 2009
In response to recent posts about the ICR, their lawsuit, and creationism generally, commenter Phil takes me to task:
“Evaluating” Christianity by picking on the Institute for Creation Research is like “evaluating” atheism by picking on the Rational Response Squad.
It’s true that the thrust of this blog is directed at scholarly and popular apologetics, starting with my Summary Case for Atheism and the pages linked from there, and continuing with posts I’ve made on the Argument from Morality (see also here), presuppositionalist apologetics, the so-called “Minimal Facts” argument for the historicity of the Resurrection, and so on.
It’s comforting to see Christians like Phil concede that the ICR is a group of morons; I wish more of his co-religionists would see the light on this issue, and perhaps Phil and others like him who decry the ICR as undermining the intellectual rigor of their religious beliefs can actually speak out against them.
But the prevalence — I would say the ubiquity — of creationist arguments even among scholarly Christians is disturbing, and it contributes to my general case against Christianity. For example: if 99% of atheists believed that paying your taxes was voluntary, or that Sarah Palin faked a pregnancy while Governor of Alaska, or that the Apollo moon landing was a hoax, or that George W. Bush was the mastermind behind a 9/11 conspiracy, or whatever, then, yes, that would increase my skepticism about atheism. Generally speaking, I’ve found that conspiracy theorists tend to be unreliable sources of information.
So the fact that — as far as I can tell — 100% of all Christian apologists subscribe to absolute crackpottery is indeed relevant to me. This is not just the ICR; it’s leading lights such as William Lane Craig and Lee Strobel publicly proclaiming nonsense while other educated Christians refuse to call them on it.
That’s a problem. Now, let me be clear: the fact that Craig and Strobel parrot outright scientific falsehoods without the slightest criticism from their colleagues is not evidence against Christianity per se. It is not even evidence against their apologetic arguments in other fields (except insofar as a general misuse of science indicts one as a source for other arguments from science; e.g., cosmological and teleological arguments). But it does suggest that (1) these people are not reliable, and (2) their followers either don’t know or don’t care, and from there, we should go looking for explanations for those two facts and see if that explanation affects our view of Christianity.
And what do you know? It does! Unsurprisingly, both Craig and Strobel are Biblical inerrantists, which is to say that their view of Christianity — the God in which they believe and for which they are arguing in their books and debates — is one who literally revealed every word of every book selected by Christian elders to be compiled into the Bible, and that said Bible:
…is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.
That’s the endpoint of Craig’s argument; of Strobel’s argument; of Geisler’s argument; of all of these guys’ arguments. And if you can’t swallow creationism (or million-man battles in ancient Mesopotamia, or any of the other stories passed off as “world history” in the Bible), then you don’t believe in Craig’s God.
I don’t believe in Craig’s God. And that’s why I blog about creationism.
May 8, 2009
In New Scientist, Andy Coghlan says that Collins’ BioLogos website (which I previously discussed here) “strays into the realms of mumbo-jumbo” in presenting quantum arguments for the existence of God:
But the idea that God can undetectably intervene when he wants to is having your cake and eating it. It disappoints me that such a gifted scientist could make this argument.
The entire (short) article is worth a read.
May 6, 2009
You’ve all probably seen this tape of Chris Matthews doing his usual Hardball shtick interview of Indiana Rep. Mike Pence:
The money quote, in my opinion, is this: “This is why people don’t trust Republicans. … I think you believe in evolution, but you’re afraid to say so because your conservative constituency might find that offensive.”
Thus the Republicans [...] are in something of a death spiral. The more conservative [...] their message becomes, the more they alienate non-base Republicans. But the more they alienate non-base Republicans, the fewer of them are left to worry about appeasing. Thus, their message becomes continually more appealing to the base — but more conservative, partisan, and strident to the rest of us. And the process loops back upon itself.
For me, I replace the word “conservative” — which is not a dirty word in my book — with “catering to the religious right,” and I see a party that is incapable of appealing to libertarian and other would-be right-leaning atheists. That’s why — if you click on a random theist blog — you’ll probably find yourself also reading about the conspiracy between ACORN and black liberation preachers to destroy democracy or how Barack Obama is a secret Muslim who wasn’t born in the U.S. or other parroted, right-wing talking points that strike me as, frankly, crazy.
(Another case in point: Christian commenter Phil calls Cass Sunstein a ‘fascist.’ I can’t begin to process how one would think a left-leaning, somewhat iconoclastic law professor is in the moral vicinity of Adolf Hitler.)
It wasn’t always this way. It doesn’t have to be this way. But for now, we appear to have a Republican Party that is interested in becoming nothing more than the Right-Wing Evangelical Christian Party. With atheism, agnosticism and freethought on the rise, that is indeed a recipe for a “death spiral.”
May 5, 2009
One response by religious people to the rise of the so-called “New Atheist” movement has been to wade into the trenches and ratchet up apologetic arguments in an effort to convince the wavering that religion is at least as well-supported as atheism. Evaluating those arguments is the bread and butter of this site.
But, as Stanley Fish reminds us in his review of Terry Eagleton’s new book, Reason, Faith and Revolution, the religious can take a different approach as well:
When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” [Terry] Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”
Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: “[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.
Oddly, this reminds me of PZ Myers’ off-the-cuff remark — played to ominous music in the schlock propaganda film, Expelled, of course — that he would like to see religion reduced to the role of knitting in American society:
If only PZ had said “ballet” instead of “knitting” — perhaps we would have been spared that awful movie. :)
Seriously, though: both PZ and Eagleton are essentially advocating for the same thing, even if neither of them realize it. When religion is thought of as a personal preference, those who hold it and those who don’t occupy roughly the same social and political space; nobody thinks that you need to appreciate knitting or enjoy the ballet to hold elective office in this country, for example. Thus, the more we see theists move to Eagleton’s position, the more we atheists are accepted in the social, political and cultural mainstream. And that’s primarily what even the most vocal “New Atheists” (like PZ Myers) want.
April 30, 2009
I think I was less than clear in my previous post on Francis Collins using creationist rhetoric to argue for the fine-tuning of the universe. That post was not really about the merits of Collins’ argument (which I think are dubious), but about Collins employing tactics that are indistinguishable from those trotted out by the garden-variety creationists against whom Collins still seeks to distinguish himself, including misappropriation of scientific credentials and intentionally misleading language.
With respect to the so-called “fine tuning” argument itself, I’ve noted that the universe is, to 37 significant figures, completely, 100% uninhabitable by humans. It strikes me as a very strange view of the facts when Christians characterize “100% uninhabitable” as “fine tuned for our unique benefit!”
Commenter Siamang makes another terrific point: the fine-tuning argument is vacuous because if the facts were exactly the opposite of what they are, creationists would be able to make the exact same argument! If the constraints of the universe were such that life was incredibly likely, that stars and planets would always form, then the very same Francis Collins-style creationists who declare that the universe is finely-tuned “on a razor’s edge” could make the exact same claims about divine providence in establishing a universe that would always be able to support us. But here, I’ll let Siamang say it, because he’s much pithier than I am:
What I want to know is, if the universe is fine-tuned, Who decided what settings the Tuner had to set the knobs to? I mean, if God was really God, couldn’t He create life in any kind of universe, not just the tuned ones? If God was merely following a recipe, then who wrote the laws that God was following?
I see these as fundamentally flawed competing claims:
[1.] The universe is fine-tuned for life. Therefore YAY GOD!
[2.] The universe is NOT fine-tuned for life, but life exists anyway. Therefore REALLY YAY GOD!
In any universe where life existed, beings using this argument are only extrapolating a God from the fact of their own existence. You don’t need to run this supposition through physics to come to this conclusion. That’s running around the barn to get a tool you’re already holding.
I don’t see a way, in principle, to rescue the “fine-tuning” argument from this criticism.
April 28, 2009
One of the most popular contemporary apologetics is the Argument from Morality (AfM); William Lane Craig uses it in every debate round, for example. Despite its near-ubiquity, I maintain that the AfM is, on balance, an argument against the command-morality of theism. Let’s dive in:
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Here’s a sneak peek at the rules and regulations at Pensacola Christian College. Students and staff at PCC are prohibited from:
* the use of alcohol in cooking
* watching PG-rated movies
* listening to “popular contemporary Christian music artists” such as “Steve Green, Amy Grant, or Steven Curtis Chapman.” (Don’t even ask about Stryper!)
* possessing a cell phone
* utilizing any wireless computer connection (including wireless print servers?)
And so on. The strangest part is the bit where women are not allowed to drive east, and men are not allowed to drive west. I would make some Sun-god crack here, but seriously: I can’t figure this out.
Although there’s a certain amount of ridicule in this post, let me be clear: if you want to live your life this way, have at it. I do think this highlights the pernicious influence of the belief that morality requires a God to lay down the rules. Once you no longer trust human reason, you wind up with a set of guidelines prohibiting adults from carrying cell phones, listening to Amy Grant, and driving off into the sunset. That’s part of why I think the argument from morality is one of the worst apologetic arguments for the existence of God (even as it remains stunningly popular).
HT: Slacktivist, and if you haven’t been reading liberal evangelical Fred Clark’s hilarious and well-informed dissection of the Left Behind series, you owe it to yourself to head over there right away.