September 29, 2009
There’s an increasingly popular apologetic making the rounds these days: that Christianity provides the intellectual framework for our modern conception of individual rights. This is a popular David Barton conceit, for example, and Dinesh D’Souza relied on it extensively in his debate with Christopher Hitchens.
Unsurprisingly, the argument has always struck me as completely batty. Our modern conception of rights stems exclusively (and some would say axiomatically) from the concept of the social contract, made explicit in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, and extended in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government. Locke and Hobbes articulate a theory of individual rights that is entirely secular; in fact, Hobbes puts it this way:
A law of nature, lex naturalis, is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved. For though they that speak of this subject use to confound jus and lex, right and law, yet they ought to be distinguished, because right consisteth in liberty to do, or to forbear; whereas law determineth and bindeth to one of them: so that law and right differ as much as obligation and liberty, which in one and the same matter are inconsistent.
I do concede that both Hobbes and Locke were (to varying degrees) theists, and both drew upon the Christian tradition in framing their arguments. That is, of course, to be expected. But — at least for me — the underyling contribution of social contractarianism to liberty is that it can be justified on exclusively secular grounds. Thus, I have long concluded that Christianity offers no sort of justification for the American scheme of individual rights we now enjoy.
This is readily confirmed by history; beginning in 380 AD and extending for more than a thousand years, Christians and Christian thought dominated Western Civilization, and nobody — not even indisputably brilliant theologians and Christian philosophers like Thomas Aquinas — ever articulated a theory of individual rights (or anything that is even arguably a precursor). Rather, it was only once Christianity’s influence over Western Civilization began to subside in favor of the secular philosophy of the Enlightenment that we developed the theory of rights described above.
However, I stumbled across this interesting article by well-known atheist George H. Smith, author of Atheism: The Case Against God (which is a must-have for any skeptic’s bookshelf. Interestingly, Smith’s article was written for the Acton Institute, a Christian organization dedicated to, among other things, “promoting a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.”
So the resulting article is, I think, about as “fair and balanced” as one can be on this topic. Smith forcefully articulates the positive role that Christian thought and institutions played throughout history in the development of the concept of liberty as we understand it today.
Of course, the apologist’s argument that Christianity provides an ontological justification for liberty remains patently false; there’s nothing in the Bible that suggests that individuals enjoy basic rights, and plenty to the contrary. But as a social institution and a force of history, Smith has persuaded me that the relationship between Christianity and individual rights is a bit more complicated than I initially thought.
September 28, 2009
You might consider one more argument (thought) to tackle. Why have you dedicated so much time and effort to destroying “pixies in space?”
Well, I think maybe you’ve misinterpreted the mission of this site. As it says right up there on the top of the screen, I write this blog to evaluate apologetic arguments for Christianity. If you have some personal faith in Jesus that makes you happy, and you’ve got a live-and-let-live mentality, then we’re not going to have much to discuss. Most of my family members are Christians; most of the people I interact with on a daily basis are religious. My favorite baseball player is a Christian. And so on. Believe what you believe and be happy with it!
On the other hand, if you think you have a good argument why I should believe in Jesus, then I’d like to hear it. So far, I’ve found those arguments pretty unavailing, but who knows — maybe you’ll come up with a good one. Until then, all I can do is evaluate and answer the arguments that people make to me.
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I want to apologize for disappearing on everyone over the past few months — I had two major cases prepare for and go to trial at the same time, and I was pretty much unable to devote the time that this blog sometimes requires.
The good news is that those cases are over, and Evaluating Christianity is back! Thanks to all the well-wishers who contacted me either via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or in the comments — I appreciate them all.
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).
In the U.S. — and in most, if not all of the Western world — a witness in court can elect whether to “swear” an oath (by reference to God) or to “affirm” under penalty of perjury the same oath (without such a reference). As far as I know, this seems to please just about everybody; religious folks can swear to God if they want, people who belong to religious sects that forbid those sorts of oaths (such as, I believe, Jehovah’s Witnesses), can affirm, and atheists can also affirm. Everybody wins.
Well, almost. For this particular nitwit, he decided to object to a police officer being sworn during a routine traffic court hearing in Vancouver, BC:
THE DISPUTANT: Your Honour, I object to the court proceedings starting off with a lie. It is not ‑‑
THE COURT: Well, what is ‑‑
THE DISPUTANT: It’s not a good indication that this is a fair trial if the witness starts off lying about there being a God and that he swears to it.
Ultimately, the cop concedes to affirm under oath (without reference to God) rather than be sworn in with the religious reference, which is what I imagine most of us would do when someone is ranting in the courtroom about irrelevancies. But let me be clear: atheists shouldn’t behave this way, and if you tried this sort of nonsense in a U.S. courtroom, you’d quickly find yourself in contempt.
May 20, 2009
In light of my previous discussion on the Establishment Clause, a commenter emailed me to ask about the status of student-led prayers in public schools. As you (may) know, the common refrain that the Supreme Court “banned prayer in public school” is incorrect; students may pray voluntarily and may otherwise engage in religious activities on school properties on an equal footing with secular activities as a part of their First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion. (And — although you wouldn’t know it from folks like Jay Sekulow — the ACLU is actually the biggest defender of Christians and other religious people in these sorts of free exercise cases.)
But as you also probably know, the Free Exercise clause has its limits, and those limits come into play when a governmental policy seems to prefer religious behavior to secular behavior. Thus, what the Supreme Court did in Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962) — surprisingly, the Wikipedia article on this is pretty good — was to prohibit state-led and other mandatory prayers in public school.
So that led one commenter to ask me:
Andrew – What about prayers that are led by students in front of the other students at, say, a football game or a graduation?
I thought this was such a great question that it deserved to be front-paged. Here’s my take:
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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
Richard Posner: “Religious Criteria in the Selection of Public Officials” (Partially) to Blame for Death of Conservatism
Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner has a new blog post up entitled Is the Conservative Movement Losing Steam?, in which he laments the current state of conservativism in the U.S. (as being “at its lowest ebb since 1964”). The cause?
The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of management and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.
Lawyers know Posner as the guru of the law-and-economics movement, an unbelievably smart guy who always seems to be on the short list of potential Republican Supreme Court nominees. But before reading this, I would not have associated Posner with any sort of sympathy towards secularism; I’ll have to go back and read his Establishment Clause decisions.
Shorter Posner: “Monica Goodling? You’ve gotta be kidding me….”
I suggested the following guidelines for whether atheists should call a particular creationist a liar:
I think it’s reasonable to hold someone who is representing himself to the world as an expert to the standards one would expect from such experts.
Such standards include, at minimum, that if one reads someone else’s research and draws conclusions not present in the original article, you should (1) contact the original author to get his views; (2) represent that author’s views of your conclusions fairly in making your own argument; and (3) submit your argument to a scientific journal for review by other professional academic peers within the respective scientific community.
When you bypass all of that … I think it’s fair to call that “misuse” at best and yes, even “lying.”
Commenter Ben responds:
I was actually thinking of that same distinction in the car yesterday and trying to decide whether it’s justified or not. I definitely agree the “expert” is much more responsible for the intellectual integrity of their claims, and I definitely agree that your three criteria are reasonable expectations for them that they should be held to. But it still seems to me that this forces you into a perspective rut where virtually every single “expert” creationist is now an official liar. Round them all up and in all likelihood every single last one of them supports some position paper on their side that you and I might agree misrepresents the source material. Surely they’ve even read some response from our camp that points that out. Are they really ALL liars? Even most of them? That’s just implausible like the whole mainstream creationist movement is composed of charlatans.
As it is, this gets instantly complicated because one of your criteria opens up the “Expelled”-esque can of worms and rather than focusing on the issue (whatever it happens to be), we now have to deal with defending against auxiliary politics and conspiracy. That’s a lot of work and a lot of yuck to sort through. Decision theory, in my opinion, would favor, A: Not calling even creationist “experts” liars even if they might be lying since laity typically rally around mainstream position pieces that get lots of attention. B: Politely encouraging and giving partial credit for honoring criteria 1 and 2 since that in and of itself would be progress. C: Allowing our criticism of their papers even in their own journals to partially count as criteria 3 since that’s basically what it is. In other words set aside the “this sucks because it wasn’t published in a mainstream journal” talk and just show qualitatively why it wasn’t published in a mainstream journal.
I could be wrong and granted I’m not always that polite myself, but I am working towards that goal in the long term and it seems to me that we would be better served that way. We could surely test it. The next big quote-mining fiasco or the next big news splash on PZ Myers blog that has “creationist” and “liar” in the same title…try out a different approach and see if you like those results better. Can’t really hurt can it?
I think it’s worth a shot. Thoughts?