Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Problem with Natural Theology

I want to expand a bit on a concept I talked about a while back in my post on ontological naturalism: namely, the idea that supernatural concepts are fundamentally incoherent. Theologians argue that theology is, like science, a viable means attaining knowledge; I am going to argue that theology is in principle incapable of imparting us with knowledge.  I'm not concerned with theological debates over doctrine (revealed theology), but rather natural theology. From Wikipedia:
Natural theology is a branch of theology based on reason and ordinary experience. Thus it is distinguished from revealed theology (or revealed religion) which is based on scripture and religious experiences of various kinds.
Natural theology is what most apologists, from C.S. Lewis to William Lane Craig to Francis Collins to Alister McGrath, are preoccupied with; it's the idea that we can use our understanding of the natural world to make inferences about the existence and nature of divine or supernatural things. Take, for example, the Kalam Cosmological Argument:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause to its existence
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Ergo, the universe has a cause to its existence
The purpose of this argument is to articulate what we feel is intuitively true – the idea that something can't come from nothing – and cantilever those intuitions into realms that are beyond our immediate, objective reach. In other words, it's attempting to use our intuitive understanding of the world around us to infer things about worlds beyond us. That's the crux of all natural theology and, as I aim to show, its downfall.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Does Atheism Equal Nihilism?

Does Naturalistic Atheism Equal Nihilism?

God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him.
–Friedrich Nietzsche

Contrary to what you may have heard, atheism isn’t a nihilistic philosophy, since it’s not really a philosophy at all. Atheism is, rather, merely a cogent position which rejects the fallacious claims of the theist. Yet ever since religion has espoused the existence of God, atheism has been getting some bad press. Atheism is often demonized by religionists who have misunderstood it, or by those who wish to demean atheists for political reasons, usually to bolster the illusion of their group's uncontested prestige (often a misguided form of devotional allegiance aided by a massive confirmation bias which refuses to acknowledge any other outside philosophy as worthy of consideration). Needless to say, those believers who have felt threatened by the irreligion of the skeptic and the atheist have resorted to throwing out all kinds of senseless accusations. Among them is the accusation that atheism equates to a nihilistic philosophy. This is simply absurd for reasons we shall now examine.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Responding to Sam Harris on Torture

In The End of Faith, Sam Harris challenges the reader to consider situations in which we might find torture to be a morally permissible course of action. Famously, he gives the example of a nuclear bomb having been dispatched in a crowded metropolis, which will detonate in an hour; we've captured the person responsible, and unless he reveals the location of the bomb in time for it to be defused, millions of people will die. In such an extraordinary scenario, Harris argues, torture is an acceptable course of action.

This passage provoked a knee-jerk reaction from some of Harris' critics, who subsequently mischaracterized him as favoring torture. He recently authored a response to his critics, which he posted on his own blog, in a post titled Why I'd Rather Not Speak About Torture. He reflects,
I believe that there are extreme situations in which practices like “water-boarding” may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary—especially where getting information from a known terrorist seems likely to save the lives of thousands (or even millions) of innocent people.  To argue that torture may sometimes be ethically justified is not to argue that it should ever be legal (crimes like trespassing or theft may sometimes be ethical, while we all have interest in keeping them illegal).

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Approaching Abortion Objectively

Pro-life. Pro-choice. Women's rights. "Right to life." abortion. These words and phrases are enough to heat up any discussion a few degrees centigrade. Some readers may think the title of this article is too difficult to achieve, and in many cases they may be correct. Humans are an emotional breed, oftentimes overly so, and no topic is as emotionally-charged as abortion. Nevertheless, I have hope that a level of objectivity can be maintained, even when the abortion controversy is raised. Needless to say, the task of approaching abortion objectively is daunting, and hard work is the key. There are three steps to achieving it.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Literary Traditions: Ten Reasons the Gospels are Works of Fiction

Literary Traditions

Ten Reasons the Gospels are Works of Fiction

The NT documents, especially the Gospels, are precisely the sort of literature we would expect to emerge from a time when the dividing line between the natural and “supernature,” indeed, the divine and the human, was not clearly drawn: the true miracle would have been for the NT to stand completely outside the limits of Hellenistic storytelling and the rudimentary historiographical interests of a religious community.
–R. Joseph Hoffmann

Often times a certain work of fiction so profound that will challenge the way we perceive the world around us. As a student of literature, I know the profundity of stories which can capture the human imagination and hold power over us. In all this, there is probably one figure, one story that is still considered taboo to criticize completely—a story that has for centuries been so venerated, so inviolable, as to avoid the critical commentary of the iconoclast—and that is the story of Jesus Christ.
Recently, however, there has been a greater attempt by scholars and historians alike to treat the material more explicitly. The Gospels, which contain the exploits of the so-called historical Jesus, once safeguarded from criticism by a shroud of uninfringeable piety and tireless orthodox conviction, are now being adjudicated in a different light by those seeking an unadulterated truth.[i] Whether we are scholarly historians, laymen, believers or nonbelievers we must set aside our preconceived biases and correct our misperceptions by exposing what religious patriarchs would rather keep veiled and out of sight—evidence which shows the Bible to be—a work of fiction.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Slow Crawl Toward Ontological Naturalism

I've often expressed in the past that my atheism is not a founding principle of a philosophy of ontological naturalism, but an outcome of epistemic naturalism: I am not asserting that God cannot or certainly does not exist – only that the absence of evidence for God's existence prevents me from reasonably affirming a such a belief.

But the more I've thought about this, the more I've found it to be not inaccurate, but inadequate.
In the words of anthropologist Pascal Boyer, in his book Religion Explained:
"The sleep of reason is no explanation for religion as it is. There are many possible unsupported claims and only a few religious themes." [p. 31]
I'm not an atheist only because I don't think there is any compelling evidence that God exists; that's actually the smaller part of why I'm a non-believer. On the contrary, I'm an atheist primarily because I think there are lots of good reasons to believe that God does not exist. This is not solely limited to God; I possess a positive belief that supernatural things, in general, do not exist.

I'm sure any theist who has read this blog in the past is thinking, Aha! I knew it!, but they'd be sorely misguided to jump ahead of me before fully understanding my position – I still think that theists generally mischaracterize naturalistic beliefs. Before I explain my beliefs more in detail, I think I should give a quick refresher on Naturalism 101:

Why Say Atheism is a "Lack of Belief in God"?

Those who spend any significant amount of time reading atheist bloggers are bound to see the word atheism defined as a "lack of belief" in god(s). I want to discuss the reasons why we (or at least I) go to pains to describe atheism this way:

1. Because that's the definition. I don't deny outright that there is a god. I don't know whether any gods exist in, around, or above our universe (or "multiverse," si vous préférez). My atheism is an extension of my agnosticism. I know some atheists argue that there is no god, promoting what has been called "strong" or "positive" atheism (as distinguished from "weak" or "negative" atheism). Regardless of whether one's atheism is "strong" or not, the common denominator among all atheists is the absence of a theistic belief.

2. Because it establishes the burden of proof. Because I neither deny nor affirm the existence of a being who could rightly be called "god," I have nothing to prove vis-à-vis atheism. The burden of proof rests on the one who makes the claim. If you say, "God exists!" and expect me to agree with you, then the onus is on you to provide sufficient reason for me to believe your claim. Likewise, if you say, "God doesn't exist!" I will demand the same sufficient reason, or I won't believe it.

Knowing What We Know

The first book on physics I ever read was Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. It's actually the book that catapulted me from a sort of weak theistic agnosticism into full-on atheism. It wasn't that I thought Hawking had disproved the existence of God or anything like that, but it was the thought process that intrigued me – he bravely took certain "big questions" out of the realm of mysticism and into the quantifiable world of science. This was also the book that introduced me to the famous double-slit experiment in quantum mechanics. In the experiment, a particle does not take one path from A to B, but rather all possible paths simultaneously. That's a profoundly counter-intuitive idea, one that's even more counter-intuitive than the weirdness of things like gravitational time dilation from Einstein's General Relativity.

Our minds play tricks

We tend to view the world from a rather insular kind of bubble. We're bombarded with a massive amount of sensory data which our brain constructs into a reasonably reliable model that we call "reality". We develop an intuitive understanding of the world, where we assume that things are going to work a certain way. We don't test every inch of ground before we step on it to make sure we won't fall through. We know from experience that if we let go of something, it will fall to the ground – and we don't bother making sure that applies to every object we encounter. In case you were wondering, cognitive psychologists have a name for these assumptions – they're called "intuitive physics".

Where the Mystery Ends

The following is a paper on the Cosmological Argument for the existence of god. I wrote it back in early November 2009. The Cosmological Argument served as the final pillar upon which I continued to accept my belief in god as both rational and warranted. For years the Cosmological Argument stood alone amidst the rubble of other pillars which had collapsed under the weight of scrutiny. I wrote this paper in order to test the strength of that final remaining pillar. This was a test I had been afraid to conduct before. Sometimes, the pursuit of truth means one must overcome one's fear. This was my attempt to do just that.

Where the Mystery Ends: a Critique of the Cosmological Argument

Bud Uzoras

While I never considered the Ontological Argument sound (though for a long time I had difficulty explaining why this is the case) and the Teleological Argument gradually lost its sway over me, for years the Cosmological Argument held the distinction of being the last remaining of the traditional arguments for the existence of god that I accepted as sound; in spite of this, my confidence in the argument (which subsequently augmented my confidence in a theistic paradigm) coincided with a nagging doubt that something is wrong with the argument. I grew frustrated because I could neither demonstrate that my doubt was unfounded nor determine why I suspected something about the argument was amiss.

The purpose of this paper is to both offer a critique of the Cosmological Argument and analyze the foundational premises upon which the argument rests in an attempt to discern and express discursively the source of my continued doubt in the soundness of the argument, so that I may endeavor to offer a variant of the Cosmological Argument that is, if not demonstrably sound, at least yielding a process of reasoning towards a conclusion that is verisimilitudinous.

Inception: Examining the First "Christian" Myth


Examining the First “Christian” Myth

 The [Church] Fathers may sometimes say that we are punished for Adam’s sin: but they much more often say that we sinned ‘in Adam’. It may be impossible to find out what they meant by this, or we may decide that what they meant was erroneous.
 –C.S. Lewis

In the beginning, having created the heavens and the Earth, and on the sixth day God created all living things and among them he created man and woman, from which he fashioned out of the red clay of the Earth herself. God breathed life into his creation and he placed them in a paradise garden, wherein grew a very special tree. This amazing tree had magic fruit containing all the knowledge in the world. And then God made the serpent—and he made sure the serpent was more cunning than all the other beasts.

This Hebrew myth, or more specifically fable (since it involves a talking animal and a moral injunction, as we shall soon see), is familiar to many because it is one of the best known and most revered of all the Bible stories. It is one of the most familiar stories in Western culture. Indeed, many of us were taught it in Sunday school, but outside of church not very many people ever stop to re-examine the story and pause to consider what it’s really about. In other words, they take it for granted, and they simply believe what they are told about it because someone of authority tells them what the conventional Christian thought on the matter is. But there is much more to the story of Adam and Even in a magical garden with a magical talking snake than first meets the eye.

    The goal of this section is to correct several misconceptions regarding the first three chapters of Genesis—specifically that of the story of Adam and Eve. What I want to do in this final chapter is show the difference in interpretations of a well known myth and how certain contextual readings are demonstrably better than others.

As such, I will juxtapose the pious view of Genesis which adheres to a strict devotional belief in Christian theology with the secular view which attempts to objectively look at the facts as they are without any preconceived biases. Admittedly, however, there will always be a certain level of prejudice when interpreting a text, as we must always allow for the variation of our unique personal experiences, but what I propose is that we must, at the least, make an effort to start off as objectively as possible before reaching any set conclusions. Only after considering all the relevant information can we come to any sort of conclusion.

    Although it may seem out of place from the rest of this book, I want to ask that you induldge me (perhaps consider this a bonus chapter of sorts), as I analyse the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3. First, I’m going to focus on why the Adam and Eve story in Genesis cannot be considered history and why it is just a myth. Next, I will discuss what the underlying meaning of the story is, pinpoint the core morals of the fable (minus any additional theological dressing), and explain why Christians are misreading it and have been misreading the Garden of Eden story since its inception into Christian faith.

By examining the genesis of the story, to turn a phrase, we can better detect where Christian reasoning frequently goes wrong thereby correctiing any misconceptions which may arise because of it. If true, and the Christian interpretation is colored by a preconceived biase of either theological or the religious kind, then it would suggest that much of Christian scriptural interpretation might also be tainted by similar biases. Something we would need to be mindful of when talking about the historicity or cultural significance of any religious text.
Adam and Eve: What's the Meaning of the Myth? Six Interpretations
    Alice C. Linsley, a Christian scholar, has written about the various views of the Adam and Eve story. Is it fable? Myth perhaps? Linsley outlines six possible ways to read the Garden of Eden story. We can interpret the story of Adam and Eve as 1) literal interpretation, 2) allegory, 3) federal headship, 4) typology, 5) myth, and finally 6) archetype.[i]

    Personally, however, I would submit that myth contains both allegory and archetype, since that's usually what a myth is. But Linsley seems to separate them for the reason that, as with the example of allegory, like most Christians she presumes the concept of sin is a real phenomenon. As the Christian view holds it, the story may be alluding to the supernatural phenomenon of sin. Sin is something humans aren't fully capable of grasping, but because of the simple allegory found within the story we can see that sin is quite real—even while admitting the story is, perhaps, not meant to be taken literally. This is not Linsley’s view personally, just one of the Christian views, which is probably why she separates it into other distinct theological classifications. However, I see no reason for the distinction, since it is merely attempting to allow for the variation of Christian hermeneutics. As we are not talking about what this story means to Christians, but talking about the meaning of the stories content and its possible origins, our exegesis need not apply the additional classifications which Linsley supplies.

Linsley seems to subscribe to the Archetype position that Adam and Eve are Archetypal ancestors of Christ, as Pauline theology teaches. The Biblical scholar Randel Helms details, “For Paul, the story of Adam was not merely the history of past things; Adam was a “type [typos] of him who was to come”—Christ (Rom. 5:14).[ii]

    Such a Pauline consideration is made explicit in Linsley’s comment that “Genesis is first and foremost about Christ and the Edenic Promise (Gen. 3:15). The rulers listed in the Genesis genealogies are Jesus Christ’s historical ancestors, the people to whom God gave the promise that the Woman's Seed would crush the head of the serpent and restore paradise.”

Perhaps Linsley would be better off just combining typology and archetype since it appears as if she is merely using archetypal ancestry to buttress Paul’s theory of typos. If so, we are only dealing with two practical categories, Myth proper and Christian hermeneutics. It is within Christian hermeneutics that various theological considerations, interpretations, or readings can flourish—but all of them are distinctly variant Christian formulations of the same myth.

    On her website, Linsley was asked the question: “What is the point of the Adam and Eve story if it is only a myth’?” Linsley's replied, “The point is that God made us in the Divine Image to enjoy His fellowship and He is restoring that Image through the Divine Person Jesus Christ.”

    While this may sum up Christian orthodox conviction regarding the meaning behind the allegory that Christians find contained within the myth, it is strong misreading of the text. Linsley's answer, however, reveals a common mistake Christians make in their reasoning regarding ancient Hebrew texts. To put it plainly, such an interpretation relies on both the literal belief that the story contains reliable elements of history, that there is implied typology relating Adam (the archetypal man) to Jesus Christ (the perfected man), that the allegory all points toward and defines Jesus ultimate destiny—the Edenic Promise—and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the salvation belief in him brings, as well as his atonement freeing us from the curse of the serpent. All this is what the Christian reading entails when we read the myt literally. However, I feel this literal interpretation is invalid.

Not only does the Christian reading seem rather contrived, because it is, but forcing to myth to mean all this requires lots of theological tap dancing in order for the Christian to pull the meanings they want out of thin air.  In actuality, these Christian claims about what the myth means reak of theological fabrication.

    Myths are typically rudimentary—they are stories with morals—but they do not contain advanced theology or even Christology of the type alluded to in Linsley’s answer. The thing I have always found disturbing about similar interpretations of the Adam and Eve fable is how easily contemporary Christians make an ancient Hebrew fable into a story about the Christian savior. Jesus would not have read the Adam and Eve myth the way Paul did, and so it seems strange to assume he did. Forcing the Hebrew meaning of the story into the straight-jacket of Christian faith does not help to elucidate the unadulterated meaning of the potent myth.

Four Columns


The Sermon That Made Me An Agnostic

"We sit outside and argue all night long
About a God we've never seen, but never fails to side with me."

- Primitive Radio Gods,

Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand

I delivered a sermon once in which I described four categories of understanding, or knowledge columns as I called them. The purpose of these columns, as I'll explain in more detail later, is to address the question of how well we understand god, his will, doctrine, and how we understand ourselves in light of all this. I came across some old notes from that sermon - notes from a sermon I preached in the year 2000 - and that got me thinking about the intellectual and spiritual journey I've been on since I preached this sermon over a decade ago.

I began my sermon by explaining the dichotomy between the noumenal and the phenomenal in Immanuel Kant's epistemology (Sounds like I was a boring preacher, I know, but it actually wasn't as bad as you might think). Noumena refers to the "thing in itself" (Ding an sich), or reality as it is independent of our experience of it. Phenomena refers to the appearances which constitute our experiences. Put roughly, the noumenal is reality as it actually is, whereas the phenomenal is reality as we perceive it.

The Problem of Suffering

It felt both a little cliche and a little inaccurate to give this post the more predictable name: "The Problem of Evil". That's how it's generally written in Christian apologetic literature, but I think that, strictly speaking, "good" and "evil" are fairly abstract and often arbitrarily defined religious terms. "Evil" seems to work fine for things like murderers, rapists, child molesters, fascist dictators, and other behavior of generally unsavory characters in human history, but I think the acts of humans against each other could be (and generally is) theologically dismissed as a mere consequence of free will. "Evil" seems much less appropriate a descriptor when the subjects are things like natural disasters, cancer, disease, famine, and other natural occurrences that inflict great suffering on people indiscriminately – that is, cancer does not seem to care if you are a good person or whether you go to church. Bad things do happen to good people, and in their grief the faithful can only naturally wonder why a loving, all-powerful God would allow such things to happen. For these things, I think a better question than "Why is there evil in the world" is "Why do people suffer?" I don't think "evil" is what concerns most people; rather, it is suffering that makes believers question the view that somehow, God is a god of love and justice. How could a loving God allow children to suffer and die of starvation, cancer, or disease? How could God allow thousands of people to die in an earthquake or tsunami? I don't claim these questions as my own (obviously of course, since I am an atheist!), but these are precisely the kinds of questions that people of faith struggle with often, and questions I too struggled with in my days as a Christian.

I am going to examine some prominent theologians' explanations for these issues, and explain why I find them unpersuasive. Then I will describe a secular, naturalistic explanation for suffering – a scientific view of why bad things happen to good people. But first, I think it's important to describe the issue in detail, and really drive home just how deep and powerful a problem for believers this really is.

An Unassuming History: The History & Origins of the Biblical Canon

An Unassuming History

The History and Origins of the Biblical Canon

Although our New Testament gospels contain historical material, the theological editing is a factor that the discerning reader must constantly keep in mind.
–James D. Tabor

It has been my experience that independent freethinkers walk the road less traveled because they seek out pearls of truth and wisdom. Their skepticism drives them to question everything, and so, skeptics and freethinkers never seem to be satisfied. For this reason we value free inquiry and the pursuit of the truth over loyalties to pre-established doctrines or dogmas which relegate the truth to the narrow confines of devotional faith. Herein the confines of faith the believer can throw away free inquiry for pure conviction. Often this causes those of faith to stop questioning their faith altogether, and this leaves us skeptics as the only ones left willing to raise the difficult questions.

            When it comes to professions and declarations of faith, I don’t doubt the sincerity of most Christians, but I do question their reasons for believing. Are they Christian because they have stopped to examine the evidence and have seriously considered what it all means, or are they Christian for different reasons? Maybe they were born into Christianity? Maybe they got caught up in an evangelical movement when they were a teenager because they lived in a predominantly Christian culture and society? It’s hard to tell why people believe what they do, but when it comes down to understanding the reasons for why we believe what we do, professions of faith carry no weight. “I believe because I just do” or “I believe because deep down in my heart I know” are meaningless statements. Time and time again I have made it a point to raise the question, “What is your faith based on?” Minus professions of faith, this question forces Christians to pause and think—what is it that I believe, exactly? What are my beliefs based on? For Christians the answer would ultimately have to be “the Bible.”
            Needless to say, without a central doctrine, without the articles of faith, there could be no devotional agreement as to the proper convictions a Christian should hold. Or to say it more plainly, without the Bible there could be no collective agreement of what the faith should even be about. If you think about it, this is some heavy handed business, because what it means is that without the Bible then there would be no good reason for Christianity.[i]
In this article I will take you through the history of the canonization of the Bible, what books were selected, by whom, and for what purposes. As it so happens, we can answer the question what is Christian faith based on, but the answer may shock believers, because it turns out it’s not based on any divinely inspired word of God, but rather, the Bible is an undeniably man-made text!