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my interview with Dan

A few days ago Dan Fincke and I sat down for a debate as part of his blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance. It was the first time I'd done anything of the kind, and I'm trying to look at it in terms of what I can do better, both in terms of setting up the interview (I'm not nearly the night-owl I thought I was, for one thing) and of explaining my thoughts better on the fly. All of which are good, even if I wish I had been better able to explain myself in the actual debate.

You can read the debate here. Basically, we talked about four things: why I support the SSA; why I think Christianity shouldn't condemn homosexuality; what as a Christian I made of the Biblical story where my supposedly all-good, all-knowing God ordered the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites; and what it would take for me to give up what Dan called the "God Hypothesis."

The last point was the most philosophical. Basically, it boiled down to whether I thought I could have any beliefs without having good arguments for why they were true. Dan seemed surprised that a philosopher would think some beliefs didn't need justification, in particular a belief as unlikely as the idea that there's a personal God. And his surprise actually threw me a bit off kilter because I'm actually not the only philosopher to think this. Alvin Plantinga, a very well-known contemporary philosopher of religion, argued that belief in God is what he called "properly basic" – that is, the kind of thing we assume is true as a first principle, rather than the kind of thing we prove using other beliefs.

Another philosopher who has impacted my thought on this question is the late D.Z. Phillips. He invokes a Wittgensteinian distinction surface grammar and weak grammar. According to Phillips, the statement "There is a God" may resemble statements like "There is a cat on the mat" – they both seem to make an indicative claim about the kind of things that exist in the world – but this is only when we look at their surface grammar. Statements can have the same structure without asking for similar meanings. For example, the statements "I have a pain in my thigh" and "I have an ulcer in my stomach" have the same structure, but they're talking about very different things. A surgeon could cut me up and point to the ulcer, but the first statement isn't really claiming there's an actual thing in my thigh a surgeon could find if he looked there. Similarly, Phillips claims, "There is a God" isn't the same kind of statement as "There is a cat on the mat" – namely, the kind of statement philosophers can say is true or false. As Phillips puts it:

To ask whether God exists is not to ask a theoretical question. If it is to mean anything at all, it is to wonder about praising and praying: it is to wonder whether there is anything in all that. This is why philosophy cannot answer the question 'Does God exist?' with either an affirmative or a negative reply. From whose mouth does the question come and how is it answered? Praising, thanking, confessing, asking, and adoring before God may have meant little to a man. But, then, it means everything to him. He says that God has become a reality in his life. Has this come about by discovering an object? Hardly. What has happened is that he has found God in a praise, a thanskgiving, a confessing and an asking which were not his beforehand. And if coming to God is not coming to see that an object one thought did not exist does in fact exist, neither is losing faith in God coming to see that an object one thought existed does not in fact exist. 'There is a God,' though it appears to be in the indicative mood, is an expression of faith. (Religion and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation p. 98; emphasis mine)

Put simply: "There is a God" only resembles "There is a cat on the mat" in a surface way. The grammar is similar, but it's not making the kind of claim we should expect logical proof of, like "There is a cat on the mat" does. It's simply not doing that kind of work.

I'm not doing an appeal to authority here, saying "here are two smart dudes who believed the same thing I was arguing for." For one thing, I haven't had the time to study them in nearly the depth they deserve so I can't say with 100% certainty that I'm on board with either of them. But when Dan seemed surprised that someone could actually think "God exists" didn't require evidence, when he thought a philosopher in particular could ever believe something like this, I found myself more than a bit confused. Because here were two eminent philosophers who did believe the same thing. It simply confused me that a philosopher like Dan who writes about religion and atheism wouldn't know about these folks; and if he did know, I couldn't see why he would think it wasn't philosophically respectable to hold those opinions, even if they turned out to be wrong. Chalk it up to the late hour – I just couldn't quite get past that hold-up in my brain, and so I wasn't able to explain my thoughts on this nearly as well as I would have liked to.

On the Canannites story, Dan actually did get me thinking. If you're not familiar in the book of Judges God commands the Israelites to go into their promised homeland and to completely kill and destroy all traces of the people living there at the time. In fact, when they do spare some people God blames them for this in pretty strong terms. Dan asked me how I made sense of this, given God was supposed to be all-knowing, all-good, etc. It's theodicy by any other name in a lot of ways, but this case is particularly hard to sit with. It's God himself commanding the Israelites to massacre women and children because their tribe had the audacity to settle on the wrong piece of land.

So what are the Christian's options? As far as I see it Christians (and Jews, and other people encountering this story as part of a religious narrative) have three main options.

1.       The story as related in Judges isn't accurate – the Israelites were trying to justify an ugly part of their own past.

2.       God commanded this war, and was right to do so.

3.       God commanded this war, and was wrong to do so.

#1 seems a non-starter for anyone who thinks the Bible is divinely inspired or even reliable – you'd expect God to not let himself be slandered so much. #3 bumps up against many of our ideas about God, such as the idea that He is perfect and unchanging. And as for #2, it just seems so wrong on a visceral level. I mean, could I really worship a God that would order me to disembowel five-year-olds? If we really can't accept that the story is wrong, or God did this rightly, or God did this wrongly, then we're at an impasse.

My point with Dan was that this is precisely the kind of thing religious people (and really, all people, but religious people especially) need to struggle with. If you believe God exists and that He really ordered this genocide, you need to either work out why it was okay for him to do this, or why it wasn't okay for him to do this. There are ways to handle this point, and I tried to lay out a few of them for Dan; but I definitely think either approach requires hard thought. As well it should.

Let's take the second option: that God actually commanded the genocide, and that this was the right thing to do. This is an issue philosophers have dealt with a lot in other contexts (though they've not talked specifically about Canaan): can a good God allow bad things to happen? The thinking is that either God could have prevented it and didn't (in which case He's not all-good), or He couldn't have prevented it. If He couldn't have prevented it, this is either because He didn't realize something He allowed would lead to evil (in which case He's not all-knowing), or He knew and still couldn't avoid that happening (in which case He's not all-powerful). Either way, it seems like a problem for Christians and for most people of other people who conceive of God along similar lines, like many Jews and Muslims.

One possible defense against this problem is to say that the evil isn't really evil. Or at least that it's the best of all possible events. The standard philosophical example of this idea is surgery. Under normal circumstances, a stranger cutting into your chest would be a crime because it causes pain and bodily harm, but we all recognize that when a surgeon does this as part of a surgery it's not a bad thing. That's because cutting the chest is necessary for some greater good. So if a Christian wants to say God was actually doing a good thing when He orders a genocide, one way to explain that is to say the genocide is necessary for some greater good. I'll admit, I have a hard time buying that because it just seems such an unnecessarily bloody lesson. But to be fair to the religious people who think this, non-religious people often make a similar argument. Looking at it in terms of human misery and body counts, I'm sure the Iraq War is worse than the one portrayed in the Bible – and that's really just a blip in history, if you look at why the war was fought. If the Canaanite genocide was necessary to teach the Israelites some lesson, it would probably have even higher stakes if only because it happened so early in history. What I'm trying to say is that if any war is justified, then it's not beyond the pale that this particular war could be justified. And that means that God's commanding it would be painful but for the greater good.

I don't actually buy this approach. What I was trying to do with Dan was lay out what it would mean for a religious person to think God actually did the right thing when He commanded this. But I do think there's something worth struggling with even here – it's simply not an approach I find all that convincing.

Which leaves option #3: God commanded that war, and was wrong to do so. That sounds blasphemous, I know, but I actually think it works pretty well, certainly better than all the other options available. Many Christians think of God as something that can't change, but suppose this idea was wrong. In that case, the God who existed at that point in history could have been wrong, but could have gotten better over the years. If God is dynamic and grew better throughout history (even if He was as perfect as anything could have been at that point in history), God could still do things we would never think of as good today, and still turn out to be the kind of God religious people believe exists today.

As far as I see these are the only options available to religious people. And what I was trying to say with Dan was that, while they're all challenging, I think some of these options actually are workable. They may involve changing what we mean by God (for instance, rejecting the idea that God can't change), or viewing the Bible differently. But I don't think any of this proves God doesn't exist; it's a challenge that needs to be addressed but not a fatal one.

It was an interesting debate, even though as I said I hope I'll do better next time. (Among other things, it's made me realize that I'm really more interested in constructive dialogue rather than debates between rivals.) Still, I was glad to do my part for the SSA. Do read Dan and my debate, and the many other interviews he did – there's some really thought-provoking stuff here.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 17th, 2012 08:53 pm (UTC)
Wouldn't it be a lot more parsimonious to go with Option #1?

For Options #2 and #3, it seems you have to twist and turn and justify and hem and haw and make words mean things other than what is commonly understood ... when Option #1 is obvious, common and happens all the time at both the personal and the government level.

Why COULDN'T the Israelites have done something in their best interests and to an extreme even for the time and tried to put the responsibility for the resulting genocide on a god? Especially when things didn't go their way afterwards as easily as they had hoped and the people in charge blamed that on the fact that a few people escaped their wrath? And we are assured that hurricanes strike land because teh gey are allowed to live there. Same reasoning. Same sorts of people doing the rabble rousing.

At least we don't, usually, do genocide any more.

Sorry, #1 sounds FAR more reasonable and likely to me than either of the other options.

Deciding on the merits of #2 and #3 as an intellectual exercise ... if that's how you want to spend your time and energy, hey, go for it. But, IMO, it's no more "real" than figuring out the limits of Manwe.

Jun. 18th, 2012 12:40 pm (UTC)
#1 is certainly the simplest answer, and I think most people who aren't committed to other beliefs keeping them from accepting that belief do accept it. The trouble is that most Christians (and I'm assuming Jews) are committed to the idea that this story is basically accurate. So does this mean just because they can't deny the Biblical story is wrong, they're committed to God being a first-class bastard? That's really what I was trying to say - that even if you think things happened as the Biblical story tells it, there's still some interesting work to be done.

I don't see this as a waste of time, for two reasons. First, we do still fight bloody wars even if they're not genocides. If we're repulsed by the idea that God could order the Jews to kill Canaanites, it's worth working through why we're okay with Obama sending drones off to kill whomever is living near a terrorist. Second, very few people build their lives around Manwe's teachings. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, it's worth taking religious beliefs seriously, seeing what ideas are damaging or irrational (as in, there are logical contradictions as opposed to just a lack of evidence) and working out ways for religious people to make sense of what they believe in a more constructive way. That's worth doing, at least from my perspective.
Jun. 18th, 2012 02:26 pm (UTC)
So does this mean just because they can't deny the Biblical story is wrong, they're committed to God being a first-class bastard?

Well... yes. Because that genocide for the reasons given was a reprehensible thing to order and no handwaving or discussion can make it anything else.

If we're repulsed by the idea that God could order the Jews to kill Canaanites, it's worth working through why we're okay with Obama sending drones off to kill whomever is living near a terrorist.

Absolutely! (Always remembering that the "we" of people you've invoked here is a very poorly defined group.) And this is the sort of thing that ought to be discussed, and the kind of thing we need a rigorous - but not a religious - framework to have the discussion in. We *know* that any political leader who commits or condones things we (there's that fuzzy "we" again) do not approve of is just some guy and we can examine their motives and the outcomes and actually try and find the "best" - or at least a better - moral/ethical path or outcome for difficult situations.

I've never said that exploring moral and ethical issues is something not worth doing. It's more necessary than ever. We've explored them far too little in my opinion because this notion of how to appease a god or live according to some god's decree of the way things have to be done has preempted far too much of the discussion.

very few people build their lives around Manwe's teachings

That it is popularity that determines the actual amount of divinity present in any given idea seems very wrong to me.

Jun. 19th, 2012 03:49 am (UTC)
Gwynnyd, if I'm reading you right you seem to have a hard time with religious people having a discussion about a religious story and bringing critical thought into the equation. You're not alone there (if I'm reading you right) - lots of religious people and atheists seem to hold it - but it's not one I agree with. That's actually a big point of philosophy of religion. Even if religious beliefs don't require proof, they still need to be consistent with the believer's other beliefs.

And this is the sort of thing that ought to be discussed, and the kind of thing we need a rigorous - but not a religious - framework to have the discussion in.

You seem to be assuming that religious people can't have a rigorous discussion about a Biblical story. Many religious people discuss Bible stories' deeper themes and meanings with a great deal of seriousness. The Talmud, for example, is full of interesting reinterpretations of Biblical stories that try to resolve tensions in the original text (or between the text and later discoveries/moral intuitions). True, your average church-goer may not be working with the stories on that level, but many contemporary Christian writers are. These are stories and statements that religious people care about a great deal, so they can be very useful for dealing with these deeper questions. Philosophers do this in the secular world, too - see the Philosophy and Pop Culture series, which takes movies/TV series and interprets them using philosophical concepts.

That it is popularity that determines the actual amount of divinity present in any given idea seems very wrong to me.

That's not actually what I meant. (Though maybe I didn't explain well enough; I was posting from a smartphone.) What I meant was that there are many people who take Biblical teaching seriously, so getting them thinking about better ways to interpret that book is useful for all kinds of practical reasons. Even if you don't think Yahweh or Allah or whomever exists, it still makes sense to pay attention to how people read the Bible and Quran, and try to get them to interpret those writings in the best way possible. Whereas there are very few people who take their ethical principles from the Quenta Silmarillion, so the practical consequences of how we read that book don't matter nearly as much.
Jun. 19th, 2012 11:49 pm (UTC)
Gwynnyd, if I'm reading you right you seem to have a hard time with religious people having a discussion about a religious story and bringing critical thought into the equation.

Blink... blink... what? Er, no. That's not at all what I think or mean. If you think when I said, "We've explored them far too little in my opinion because this notion of how to appease a god or live according to some god's decree of the way things have to be done has preempted far too much of the discussion." I meant that critical discussion doesn't/can't/shouldn't happen within a religious framework, that's a complete misreading of my intentions and my words.

My point is that there is *too much* critical, thoughtful, intellectual discussion *within* the religious traditions and not enough attention to philosophical issues that happens outside of it and does not invoke the concept of God.

It may be interesting, in a philosophical/intellectual way, to do an in depth analysis of an episode in the Bible wondering if your point #3, God commanded this war, and was wrong to do so, could be interpreted to be correct and still give God expected God-like qualities and what the ramifications for this are to theology. I'd think it would be far more interesting, in a philosophical/intellectual sort of way, to apply the philosophical skill set to option #1, the story as related in Judges isn't accurate – the Israelites were trying to justify an ugly part of their own past, and analyze why those sorts of justifications work so well and so consistently within the human framework and what philosophy can do to unpack those kinds of justifications for a modern sensibility so the same sorts of justifications for genocide cannot be applied to current events.

We are probably talking at least a little at cross purposes here. I don't think you are suggesting that the same sorts of justifications that are used to reconcile the fact that the Israelites behaved in an ugly manner with their sense that they could do no wrong because they followed the dictates of their god should also be be used to justify the fact that modern nations often behave in an ugly manner because they have a god-like sense of manifest destiny that assures them they can do no wrong. That they often do so is as ugly now as it was when the Canannites were exterminated (even if that particular episode didn't actually happen, it's still held up by religious people as an example of how well and thoroughly God's orders should be followed.)

If the sense of what is right and what is wrong has changed over the years, I don't think it is God who changed, I think it is human society that has evolved. Man made up their gods in their own image and with the same moral sensibilities that were the norms at the time, and this kind of blasphemous "evolution" of God's moral sense you are suggesting ... well, I know you won't change your opinion on the matter, but it's yet another proof to me that it's all fiction.

IMO, we don't need better ways to interpret the so-called sacred scriptures so we can figure out what an external God wants us to do now. There is no god that is not us. And yet, what we ought to do is not a settled question much less an answer.
Jun. 17th, 2012 11:05 pm (UTC)
I would agree that number 3 is the most interesting, and potentially the most fruitful, option, but I'm not sure of the following:

#1 seems a non-starter for anyone who thinks the Bible is divinely inspired or even reliable

Is it a non-starter because otherwise, we might have no consistent way of determining what's an error based on cultural prejudices and what's not? Or is it a non-starter because "divinely inspired" means absolutely accurate, straight from the horse's mouth, with no loss or change of meaning by having passed through countless generations of oral story-tellers down to the guys with the pens?

I'm assuming it's number one, just because I don't know that I've heard you say anything that would suggest the second option. I'm still not sure that's a reason to rule it out, though, just because the consequence is a clear recognition that all we're doing is interpretation of a relationship which is essentially changed when the community changes. And religious communities change every time a member dies, let alone when whole cultures die or are significantly transformed in response to the environment they exist in. Add in the notion of a transcendent God, and yes, why would it not be an act of interpretation - whose accuracy or perhaps acuity is open to doubt - at every level?

I'd also have to wonder, here: does the practical life of a community constitute no testimony to what a sacred text means? Now, I grant you, Christian denominations in the U.S. are doing an absolutely shitty job of practical interpretation in many, many ways, starting with Catholicism's hierarchy doing an ideological swan dive into the receptive pit that neoliberalism is digging for us all and ending with Christian fundamentalism's stunning ability to climb into bed with American nationalism and misuse science since science is the only name of the game when trying to give proofs about the history of the world. That does not, however, make the question irrelevant, and if there's something to that, then it means that the meaning of the text is not fixed but is produced in the struggle to interpret by one's actions. That doesn't make all acts and omissions forgivable, but it would mean that the religious community in its relationship with God is not only the history of its crimes.
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