Monday, June 18, 2018

Did the Democrats Boo God?


            Alright, calling out a personal acquaintance here. Someone on my FB friends list, an old acquaintance from college and current right-wing evangelical, recently posted the following:


            The article that is referenced in the image can be found here. It’s about people objecting to AG Sessions and the Trump administration citing Biblical prescriptions that Christians should obey the law to justify the separation of families at the southern border. Specifically, it’s about those who raise Biblical passages commanding compassion for strangers and the oppressed to refute that position.
            Literally everything about that post is an illustration of the poison of right-wing evangelicalism (and, to an extent, religion itself) in life and politics.
            Let’s start with the claim that Democrats booed God. That is a lie. I normally try to give benefit of the doubt, but not on this. It’s too easily debunked to believe that the author wrote it honestly. Even if he believed it, it’s because he wanted to believe it so badly that he ignored the easily discoverable truth. He. Lied.
            If you follow the link to the article, you’ll find that what the author is referencing is an incident at the 2012 Democratic National Convention where the chairman attempted to add to the party platform, on a voice vote, statements affirming God as the source of moral and political convictions. If you watch the videos (which the author conveniently links, presumably on the assumption that anyone reading his article would either not watch them or would be just as biased as he was), you can see that the chairman clearly and obviously lied about the outcome of the vote. That is what the boos were about. They weren’t booing God, who was clearly not the person speaking on the stage; they were booing a person standing in front to them and blatantly lying to support his preferred outcome on a political procedure.
            And, sad as I am to say it, even the majority of Democrats are still Christians. So the idea that they were booing God is clear nonsense.
            Nor is it even remotely realistic to interpret the volume of “no” votes as a “booing,” of God. Those delegates were voting against a political statement that happened to reference God, for the very good reason that it has no place in a document purporting to represent a religiously diverse political organization. Furthermore, many Democrats recognize the importance of the establishment clause, and take its defense seriously enough to actually vote accordingly. Nobody voted against God (who, it should be noted, did not put in an appearance to state his preferred outcome on the vote), but against the inclusion of sectarian religious language in a political document.
            Plus, of course, there’s the fact that there was still a substantial volume of “yes” votes. So it’s pretty damn disingenuous to suggest that, because of this incident, no Democrat has a position to speak on Biblical issues. The party is pretty clearly divided on this topic.
            So, lying about what happened and what it means is the first way this is poison. The second is the framing of the objections as summed up in the quote my acquaintance chose to accompany his post: “The Devil knows the Bible better than almost anybody – certainly better than you or I…” Basically, making the point that anyone who would use the Bible to support a different political policy than the one the author wants you to support, even (or especially) if that person seems to know the text better than you do, is simply lying.
            This is poisonous on multiple levels. On the general level, it seems to be part and parcel of the general right-wing push to undermine the value of expertise. It contains within it the idea that someone who knows a subject better than you is, almost by definition, someone who will use that knowledge to lie to you. That expertise is a tool to mislead you, not one you can use to discern the truth. Note that the article does not, in any way, encourage readers to improve their own understanding of the Bible or any of the topics at hand. It doesn’t say that, if someone knows the Bible better than you and reached different conclusions, you should try to study how they reached those conclusions and see if they hold water. It tells you to reject them because the author (and perhaps his faith tradition) says to, and because experts lie.
            On the more specific level, it encourages the demonization of other Christians. In the viewpoint presented by the author, Christians who conclude that their god’s call to show compassion to the stranger supersedes the injunction to obey the law aren’t merely believers who have interpreted their god’s desires differently from you or your political leaders. They are liars who are manipulating scripture to mislead you. They are, on some level, literally the Devil.
            More subtly, this speaks to the problematic nature of religious beliefs in political policy. Because, ultimately, how does one decide which side is right (or whether either of them is)? It’s not like God has issued, or is going to issue, a press release telling us which policy to pursue. All any of us has ever seen, or is likely to ever see, is just people arguing about how to interpret an opaque, ancient book to make policy in the present. And occasionally calling each other evil for coming to different conclusions. It’s a recipe for sowing rancor and division. And, in case you’re wondering, I think that’s a bad thing.
            By the way, what’s the difference between the following two statements?
1)      I don’t want to separate these children from their parents, but I will because the Bible says I have to obey the law.
2)      I don’t want to bake this cake for this gay couple, but I will because the Bible says I have to obey the law.
Because suddenly the religious right is very concerned about the Biblical injunction to obey the law in the first case, and not so much in the second. The Big Book of Multiple Choice seems, as usual, to be merely the thing you can draw on to justify doing what you wanted to do in the first place. What you choose to justify says much more about you than about the book or the desires of any celestial being.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

What About these Thirty-Three Questions?


                Here is a lovely set of questions laid out by Matt Slick, a popular Christian apologist, on his website CARM.org. I thought it might be interesting to take a shot at answering them on the off chance that it might help give people some insight into an atheist viewpoint.

1. How would you define atheism?
            The lack of a belief in a god or gods.

2. Do you act according to what you believe in or what you don’t believe in?
            I suppose it would be fair to say that I act according to what I do believe, but those beliefs do not include a god.

3. Do you think it is inconsistent for someone who “lacks belief” in God to work against God’s existence by attempting to show that God doesn’t exist?
            Huh? This is a weird question, tortuously worded in what looks like an attempt to formulate a “gotcha!” scenario, that only ends up making the asker look like he understands far less about the subject than he thinks he does. When an atheist attempts to persuade someone not to believe in a god, he’s not “working against [that] god’s existence.” The god either exists or it doesn’t, and persuading anyone either way has no effect on that. What an atheist is working against is belief in that god’s existence. If you’re of the opinion that there’s no good reason to believe the god exists, and that people make decisions that negatively affect themselves and others based on the belief that it does, then it is totally consistent to attempt to persuade people to abandon the belief.

4. Why are you an atheist?
                I can’t say that I’ve ever encountered a reason to believe in a god, despite being raised in a churchgoing Baptist household.

5. How sure are you that atheism is proper position to hold?
            Pretty darn. I’d like to think I could be persuaded otherwise if there were good reason to change that belief.

6. On a scale from 1 to 5, one is weak, 5 is strong, how sure are you that God does not exist
            I’m going to have to go with 4, given that on the web site this is actually a multiple choice question and choice 5 is listed as “I know that God does not exist.” I don’t claim to know it, so 4 is the next most certain.

7. Why do you believe your atheism is a justifiable position to hold?
            Because I haven’t seen anything that convinces me that a god exists. Without a convincing reason to believe something, why would it be justifiable to believe it?

8. Do you affirm or deny that atheism is a worldview? A Worldview is a set of unproven beliefs and/or assumptions that a person uses when interpreting the world around him.
            Deny, I suppose. It’s a single answer to a single question, and no more defines a worldview than whether or not I believe in centaurs or dark matter. Why does it matter whether I consider it a worldview?

9. What is your opinion of the Bible?
·         The Bible is primarily fiction with occasional truths woven into it.
·         The Bible was written by ignorant desert nomads
·         The Bible has been corrupted and cannot be trusted
·         The Bible is full of contradictions
·         The New Testament was written hundreds of years after Jesus.
·         All of the above

            If I were limited to the options above, I guess I’d have to say “All of the above,” but with some provisions.
            For example, I wouldn’t describe the Bible as “corrupted and cannot be trusted.” That implies that there was, at one point, a pure form of it that could have been trusted, and that the reason not to trust it is that it has been altered from that form. The stories it contains probably have been altered from their original forms, but I don’t believe they were ever trustworthy, so any “corruptions,” are largely only of academic interest.
            Also, whether you think the New Testament was written “hundreds of years after Jesus,” depends a lot on how you are using “New Testament,” “written,” and “after Jesus.” I mean, different books were written at different times by different (largely anonymous) authors, none of whom were evidently contemporaries of Jesus (if he even existed). Many of the books were edited and revised by other anonymous authors until gathered together into their final canonical form hundreds of years after the time Jesus supposedly lived. And more than once, as there are multiple “canonical” forms of the Bible floating around nowadays, all dependent on which translation it is and what denomination approved it.

10. What is your opinion of Jesus?
·         Jesus never existed
·         Jesus existed but has been fictionalized into deity
·         Jesus was a great teacher like Buddha and Confucius
·         I don’t know if Jesus existed or not

            I don’t know if someone existed who inspired the stories of Jesus from the New Testament. If there was such a person, he’s almost certainly been so heavily fictionalized that it doesn’t matter much whether the stories are based on someone real or are complete fabrications.

11. What is your opinion of the concept of the God of the Bible?
·         The God of the Bible is a moral monster
·         The God of the Bible is loving
·         The God of the Bible is fiction and does not exist
·         The God of the Bible is omnipresent
·         The God of the Bible is a construct of other god concepts

            Although the poll doesn’t give the ability to select multiple options, I’d go with a combination of 1, 3, and 5.

12. What is your opinion of the Christian concept of hell?
·         Hell is an idea invented to control people
·         Hell is just an idea meant to scare people
·         Hell is what we experience here on earth
·         Hell does not exist
·         Hell is separation from God
·         All the above

            Again, a combination. This time 1, 2, & 4. But not merely that, either. Hell is an insanely evil concept. The god of the Bible condemns people to eternal torture for no real purpose. The punishment can’t teach them to choose to be “good,” or obedient to the god, because the opportunity to do so is lost once you die. It can’t serve as an example to others because nobody sees it until after they die and it’s too late. It’s torture for torture’s sake. I cannot understand why anyone would think the being that would create such a place would deserve any worship, even if it did exist. Look ahead to question 25, by the way, and think about hell in the context of that question.

13. What is your opinion of Evolution?

            Evolution is the scientifically best supported explanation for the diversity of life on earth. I guess I’m not clear on what you would consider in-depth study, and I can’t say that I’ve studied it with the rigor of an actual evolutionary biologist. But I do have a scientific and technical background, and the broad strokes of what I do know of evolutionary theory fit neatly and logically with the rest of my understanding of the natural world. Since I haven’t encountered an anti-evolution argument that didn’t contain at least one gross misunderstanding of the theory, I see no reason to reject it.

14. How would you define what truth is?
            Well, I’m no philosopher, and I understand this to be a question that has vexed professionals for quite some time and is still unresolved. But I suppose a reasonable practical definition would be that truth is that which corresponds with reality.

15. Do you affirm that the physical universe is all there is and that all things can be explained in terms of motion, matter, chemical reaction, etc.?
            I don’t know. I haven’t encountered anything to suggest anything else, though.

16. If you were at one time a believer in the Christian God, what caused you to deny His existence?
            I can’t point to any specific event or events. I have no trauma related to church, or any great tragedy that made me angry at God, or anything like that. I just realized as I got older that I didn’t really believe that one exists, and the more I thought about it I realized I didn’t have any reason to believe one exists.

17. Do you believe the world would be better off without religion?
            Yes.

18. Do you believe the world would be better off without Christianity?
            Yes.

19. If you oppose Christianity, which of the following options best fits your reason.
·         I oppose Christianity because Christianity is morally wrong
·         I oppose Christianity because Christianity is dangerous
·         I oppose Christianity because Christianity is oppressive
·         I don’t oppose Christianity

All of the first three?
                Really, it depends what form of Christianity you’re talking about. Some of them seem relatively benign, and I have little quarrel with them beyond their evident untruth. Some, though, are actively engaged in activities that I consider harmful to society and to individuals. These include, but are not limited to, attempting to subvert the government to promote their own power, persecuting LGBTQ people, fighting scientific progress & scientific literacy, oppression of women, withholding medical treatment in favor of prayer, child abuse, sectarian warfare, etc., etc.

20. Do you believe that faith in a God or gods is a mental disorder?
            No.

21. Must we be able to demonstrate God’s existence through the scientific method? Basically, the scientific method is a means of gaining understanding about the physical universe via observation, hypothesis, experimentation, prediction, and theorizing.

            Don’t think I didn’t see what you did, there. You see, I read ahead, and I know that you’re setting up the next question by slipping the word “physical,” into the definition of the scientific method. That way, you get to try and exclude the method from applying to your god later on merely by definition. Well, I noticed, and I’m not amused. It’s kind of my feeling that if anything is observable, then the scientific method applies. And if it’s not observable, then you can’t claim to know anything about it. Physical or not.

22. Is it a category mistake to require material evidence via the scientific method for an immaterial God? A category mistake is an error in logic in which one category of something thing is presented as belonging to another category such as saying “the rock is alive”. Life cannot be properly attributed to a rock since a rock is not within the category of living things
            Why do you think putting the word “immaterial,” in front of something means we have to accept its existence without a demonstration? Do you believe in immaterial pizza? Immaterial dragons? Immaterial aliens from the Crab Nebula? As far as I can tell, the category of “immaterial things other than thoughts,” is an empty set. And even thoughts have physical manifestations whose effects can be evaluated.
            Either your god affects the world, or it doesn’t. If the first, then it ought to be demonstrable. If the second, then there’s no possible way you could know anything about it anyway. But at the bare minimum, Christians claim a god that is capable of directly communicating with them, and they are capable to translating those communications into the physical world. So one ought to expect consistent results from prayers for guidance – but we don’t see that, do we?
            Ultimately, hiding your god behind “immateriality,” and “category mistake” language isn’t providing a reason to actually believe in it, so much as making an excuse for your inability to provide a reason. It’s basically saying “I can’t meet your standard for proof. So, rather than take my assertion as unproven, I think you should lower your standard for just this one thing.”

23. Where does morality come from?
            Us. The practical realities required for a social species to live together in cooperation, given the state of the universe in which we live.

24. Are there moral absolutes? A moral absolute is a moral truth that is always true and not dependent on opinions, society, or preferences.
            Short answer: no.
            Longer answer: There are certain moral attitudes that are so broadly and deeply ingrained in human instincts that they seem universal and feel absolute. But they are neither of those things.

25. Is the following statement true or false? “It is always wrong for everyone to torture babies to death merely for one’s personal pleasure.”
            Gonna go with “neither true nor false.”
            Look, I know that the purpose of this question is to present a situation so viscerally revolting that almost everyone would be forced to admit we believe it’s wrong. And I do. I believe it strongly enough that, I’d like to think, I would try to intercede to stop it if I were to encounter it. I believe that most people would. But that still doesn’t make it an absolute.

26. Should morality be based on reducing unnecessary harm?

            Sounds pretty reasonable to me. Maybe more on promoting the wellbeing of thinking/feeling entities.

27. What would it take for you to believe in God?
            Evidence that can be consistently replicated regardless of who performs the test, and points to that god as the single best explanation.

28. Do you think that a society that is run by Christians or atheists would be safer? Why?
            That’s actually a very broad question. I would say that a generic atheist society would probably be safer than a generic Christian one, if for no other reason than because atheists would be focused on real-world consequences of their behavior. Plus, atheism contains no commandments to harm anyone, whereas Christianity contains a host of commands to kill and harm others. However, any specific society is subject to a vast array of influences and philosophies, so it’s really difficult to say. I imagine that a society run by the Khmer Rouge would be hell on earth. But then, so would one run by Westboro Baptist Church. Whereas societies run by Humanists or moderate Methodists will probably be significantly more pleasant.

29. Do you believe in free will? (free will being the ability to make choices without coercion).
            By that definition, yes.

30. If you believe in free will, do you see any problem with defending the idea that the physical brain, which is limited and subject to the neuro-chemical laws of the brain, can still produce free will choices?
            That’s a bait-and-switch. In question 29, you defined free will as the ability to make choices without coercion. In this question, you seem to be redefining it as the ability to make choices without the constraints of physical law. Those are not the same thing, and free will as you seem to be describing it in this question may not be a thing that exists.

31. If you affirm evolution and that the universe will continue to expand forever, then that would require an infinite number of evolutionary possibilities. In an infinite number of such possibilities, do you affirm that life forms would then evolve to the point of exceeding mere physical limitations and become free of the physical and temporal, and thereby become "deity" and not be restricted by space and time?
            That seems pretty far-fetched. It makes an entertaining science fiction or comic book trope, but that doesn’t mean it’s plausible. There’s nothing in evolutionary theory that suggests this might happen, and no mechanism I’m aware of that would suggest how it’s even possible. So, absent a demonstration that a nonphysical lifeform is even possible, I don’t think this is likely at all.
32. What is the Dillahunty Dodge?
            Of the choices offered in the survey, I guess I’d go with “not committing to any position during a discussion so that you can’t be cross examined,” since we weren’t offered the option of answering “a term Matt Slick made up in an effort to blame his opponent for his own inability to prove his position.”

33. What is your opinion of Matt Slick, founder of CARM.org?
            I know little to nothing about Matt Slick, except that he’s evidently the kind of dude who’d use a survey with the supposed purpose of “…compil[ing] more information on what atheists are thinking…” to take a shot at a debate opponent he’s been unable to best.
            So that’s the end of the questions. I hope my answers have helped provide some insight into how I think about these issues. It was a long list, and some of the questions required pretty involved answers to be fully addressed, so I’m sure there are probably some answers that me be unclear or incomplete. So please feel free to ask for further clarification on any of them.
            As a “by-the-way,” if you followed the link above you’ll note the following description for these questions and their purpose:
“They are survey questions.  The purpose is so that CARM can compile more accurate information on what atheists are thinking about their atheism, about religion, about evidence, and more.”
            But if you read the questions, they are obviously designed to lead the casual reader toward a conclusion. And also to take shots at people the author doesn’t care for. It’s kind of disingenuous in that way. But still, I felt like many of the questions were still worth addressing. I hope you agree.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

How Do You Feel about Anti-LGBTQ Hypocrites?

            So there’s kind of this trend where vociferously anti-LGBTQ public figures will be outed for engaging in homosexual relationships themselves. It happens often enough that plenty of us are no longer even a little bit surprised by it. Often, the revelations are greeted with a certain amount of gloating and accusations of hypocrisy from the left. But is that really fair? And why is this in an atheist blog, anyway?
            Well, to answer the last question first, it’s because a lot of organized opposition to LGBTQ rights is religiously motivated.
            But back to the first question. Is it fair to pile on anti-LGTBQ leaders when they are outed against their will by some sex scandal? I gotta tell you; I’m kind of ambivalent about it.
            I mean, on the one hand, these are often people who have done real harm to others. So part of me wants to see them punished. Part of me wants to decry them as hypocrites, and see them humiliated, brought down, and driven from their positions of power.
            But then, there’s the other part. The part of me that sees them as victims, as well.
            You see, it’s not that hard for me to imagine anti-LGBTQ advocacy arising from a genuine believer who is, nonetheless, gay themselves. The logic is not that hard to see, once you think about how certain beliefs might interact with certain facts.
            Imagine, if you will, that you have a sincere belief that the all-powerful creator of the universe hates homosexuality and will send you to eternal torment if you practice it. And imagine that belief running smack-dab into the fact that you’re gay. When you have sexual fantasies, they’re of someone of the same gender. When you have romantic thoughts, they’re about someone of the same gender. When you fall head-over-heels in love, it’s with someone of the same gender. You have no control over this, it just is. And everything you’ve been taught to believe tells you it’s wrong, and that you’re going to hell for it.
            Perhaps you can resist giving in to your “sinful” urges for a time. Maybe you can do so for your whole life. But you’ll almost certainly be miserable doing so – most humans just aren’t wired to endure that kind of isolation indefinitely. So say you can’t hold out forever. Say that, in a moment of passion and despite all of your convictions about what your god wants and what he’s going to do to you, you engage in some sexual activity with a member of the same sex. Well, now you have a problem: you believe that you must resist these urges, but also demonstrated that your own faith and conviction are insufficient to allow you to resist. Especially if it happens more than once.
            What are you to do? Everything depends on this. Because you “know” what your god wants, and you aren’t able to comply; does that mean you really aren’t committed to your god? And, if so, does that mean you will go to hell (and, even more, that you’d deserve it)? That’s eternal stuff, that’s a big deal, so you’d damn well better find a way to comply with your god’s demands. At the very least, you have to be able to believe you have done everything in your power to do so.
            How do you solve this problem? Well, one logical step to take might be to try to empower societal authorities to stop you. In other words, to advocate for making the behavior illegal. This would probably be an especially appealing approach if the religious denomination to which you belong is already advocating for that. You may see it as necessary to helping yourself and others like you to resist the so-called “sinful urges.”
            I have to think it takes a significant amount of emotional pain to dedicate your public life to screaming out to society “you have to stop me!” while being unable to admit that you are the one you need society to stop. It sounds like a horrific situation to me. Unfortunately, that translates into demands to oppress everyone who’s attracted to people of the same sex, regardless of whether they’re saddled with your same painful hangups.

            I don’t know that this is the logic behind all cases of anti-LGBTQ advocacy on the part of people who turn out to be gay. Truthfully, I don’t know that it’s the logic behind any of them. But I can imagine it, or something similar to it, driving at least a few of them. That makes it hard for me to unequivocally condemn people when they get caught out. To me, these people are just as much victims of their religions as they are victimizers of the people who stand to be harmed by the laws they advocate. They are driven to harm themselves and others by fantasies, and it’s so much pointless pain and suffering. I just can’t gleefully pile on to these people, and I can’t just dismiss them as mere hypocrites. Compassion won’t let me.

            There’s another layer to this, too, in that it’s not really my fight. I can sympathize with LGBTQ people, and advocate for them. But, being a cis hetero guy, I just haven’t been subject to the same kind of harm as those who are part of the community. Maybe I’d feel different if I were, and I’m certainly not lecturing anyone on how they should feel. This is just where I’m at, myself.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Do You Believe in a Thing Called Love?

            A fairly common rejoinder to atheists’ desire for concrete evidence to indicate the existence of a god is something along the lines of “well, you believe in love, don’t you?” The essence of the argument is that love, like god, doesn’t have any kind of physical form, can’t be seen, heard, tasted, smelt, or felt, and yet pretty much everyone (atheists included), believe that it exists. So, if you believe in love, how can you not believe in gods? Or, conversely, if you don’t believe in gods, how can you believe in love?
            This is an equivocation. That’s when you pretend that two things that share only a superficial similarity are actually the same in order to apply to one of them an argument that only supports the other.
            You see, god and love are not being said to exist in the same way, so the comparison isn’t actually valid. Love is an emotional state. It is generated in the brains of individual human beings. It manifests in people’s consciousness as a set of feelings. It manifests outwardly only in the way that it compels human beings to behave, and we are able to communicate to each other a shared understanding of how that feels and what actions it motivates. We can monitor brain states and see, physically, how the experience affects the brain. But love doesn’t have any existence outside of that. I don’t think most people believe that love is a conscious entity floating around in the universe doing things independently for its own reasons.
            Now, you can accurately say that at least some people experience a god as a set of internal feelings. And that it manifest outwardly in the ways it compels people to behave. That we can communicate a sort of shared understanding of how it feels and what actions it motivates. We can even monitor brain states and see, physically, how the experience affects the brain. But then we’re asked to accept that the god does have an independent existence outside of that. We’re asked to believe that the god is a conscious entity floating around doing things independently for its own reasons.
            That’s where the comparison completely breaks down. Evidence that is sufficient to believe in the existence of an emotional state is not also sufficient to believe in the existence of an independent conscious entity. They’re not even remotely the same thing. It’s like asking us to believe unicorns exist because we already believe the color pink exists.

            Yeah, I believe in love. Just not God.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Is Christianity Inherently Offensive?

            A friend of mine posted a religious meme a little while back that annoyed me. I mean, people are posting religious memes all the time, but this one got on my nerves because it read like a direct accusation that people who aren’t focused on God all the time are inherently selfish and self-absorbed. So I said something about it. We had a brief conversation, and the part that stuck out to me was when she that she couldn’t promise not to post anything offensive in the future on account of Christianity being inherently offensive due to its claim to be the only true religion.
            So… is that true? Is Christianity inherently offensive? And, if so, is it because of its exclusive truth claim?
            As usual, this question is complicated by the fact that there are just so many versions of Christianity. Some of them I think are offensive, and some I don’t. But then, maybe that makes the answer simple: if there can be versions of Christianity that aren’t offensive, then Christianity must not be inherently offensive.
            But that’s kind of dodging my friend’s assertion, because of course she means her Christianity is inherently offensive (and, by implication, those versions that aren’t offensive are not valid Christianities). So let’s examine that.
            First, I’m not going to make any claims about what is or is not a valid Christianity. That’s not my issue to sort out. I don’t buy the baseline claims of any of them, so it would be a pointless exercise. I’m just going to talk about what makes some versions offensive.
            I guess the place to start is to think a bit about what makes a claim offensive. Because I don’t think that mere assertion that one proposition is true, and another false, is offensive by itself. If I say it’s true that the earth is round, and false that the earth is flat, that is not an offensive claim. And, despite the common assertion that “you’re only offended because I’m speaking the truth,” I don’t think people are generally offended by truth, either. No, I think that what makes a claim offensive is a perceived combination of negative judgment and falseness. In essence, if I feel you are judging me negatively based on a false premise, I am likely to be offended.
             By way of illustration, do you suppose that a woman might be offended by the claim “girls can’t do math,” because she believes it’s true, or because she believes it’s false? Do you suppose she might find it offensive because it indicates a positive judgment of women, or a negative one? Or, think about some time you, yourself, may have been offended; was it because you thought the offensive idea was true or false? I’m betting you thought it was false.
            I suppose someone could feign offense if you made a negative, but true, judgment about them. But, in that case, they’re not actually offended. They’re ashamed and trying to cover for it. Note, however, that even the feigned offense is an attempt to deny the truth of the statement, not confirm it. Even in this case, offense is inextricably tied to the perception of falseness.
            Of course, the mere fact that someone finds your position offensive doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re incorrect. It only means that they believe you’re incorrect. So if you find that you’re regularly offending people, you need to consider that something is going wrong in your communication. You’re saying things that are wrong, or you are failing to persuade your audience that you’re right. Either way, it means that you still have some work to do – whether that be in reevaluating your presentation and argument, or questioning the actual truth of what you’ve said. In neither case should one be proud of being offensive.
            Unless, of course, you’re just a jerk who gets off on upsetting other people to no purpose.
            So, how does this tie back to the original question of whether Christianity is inherently offensive? Well, it boils down to this: I don’t think things that are true can be inherently offensive. They can be perceived as offensive, but only to the degree that they are perceived as false. So I would say that the kinds of Christianities that proudly describe themselves as inherently offensive are probably correct, in that they are both judgmental and false. It is not the fact that they claim to be true that makes them offensive; it’s the fact that they claim they right to judge people negatively (in many cases to the point of inflicting real harm on people), while appearing to be false, that makes them offensive.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Have You Heard the Trilemma?

            C.S. Lewis once made this response to people who claim Jesus was a great moral teacher but not a god:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”
                This is referred to as the Lewis Trilemma, and is often shortened to the phrase “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord.” The basic premise being that Jesus cannot have been a great moral teacher and still been an ordinary human, because he also claimed to be God. If that claim was untrue, then he could only have been a liar or a madman, both of which would mean everything he has to say should be disregarded. A popular atheist response to this is that the trilemma is a false one, in that there exists a fourth ‘L’-word that could also be applied: Legend. The argument basically goes that Jesus, if he existed at all, was a dude who had valid moral lessons to teach, while his supernatural claims and/or abilities were legendarily attached to him as embellishments by the authors of his stories. And while I agree that this is a valid alternative, I kind of hold to a different view.
            My view is that the Trilemma is nonsense from the outset. Quite simply, the whole argument rests on an assumption that we need not make in the first place: that the question of whether or not Jesus’ moral teachings have value is dependent in any way on his identity or character.
            Let’s just take one example: the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As a general rule, I think most of us can agree that this is a reasonably good one to apply in your life. But in evaluating the idea and how it might best be applied, does it really matter who said it? Does it matter whether that person held some delusion that he possessed supernatural ancestry? Does it matter whether he lied about his parentage? Does it matter whether every word he ever uttered in his entire life, except for that one sentence, was a complete fabrication? Absolutely not. Either it’s a good idea, or it’s not. It is the idea that we ought to evaluate and not the speaker.
            That’s why I think the whole formulation of the Trilemma is misguided from its very core. If somebody convinces people that they really ought to be doing things that make other people’s lives better, and I am rationally convinced that these are good moral precepts, then I’m likely to call that person a good moral teacher regardless of how ridiculous any claims he might make about his nature and origin might be. I’m on board with giving medicine to the sick, for example, even if the person who convinced me to do so claims to be a lily pad, a god, a demon, or an alien from the planet Orgasmo. Those claims are irrelevant to the value of medicine.
            To Lewis, though, it’s the claim of supernatural authority that is the only relevant part of the equation. Either Jesus really was a god, in which case everything he said is authoritative, or he wasn’t, in which case everything he said was a damnable lie or irrational insanity. It’s a paradigm in which the moral value of everything is dependent solely on whether it has supernatural authority behind it, as if there was no possibility of independently evaluating the impact and value of Jesus’ various statements and claims. To Lewis, it doesn’t matter how good or valuable anything Jesus had to say was; if he claimed to be God, and wasn’t, then he was leading people away from the real God. That makes him either evil or insane, and his teachings valueless.
            I can even sort of get why that would be the case from his perspective. In many forms of Christianity, the only true good is to believe in, worship, and obey their god. Outside of that, nothing you do matters. But it’s an argument that, it seems to me, is silly to direct at anyone. With rare exception, Christians accept that Jesus really was God, and so they wouldn’t be making an argument that he was a great (but merely human) moral teacher. And most people who do think he was a great human moral teacher don’t think the value in his teachings comes from being a god. So what’s the purpose of the argument? I suspect, mostly, that it exists to reassure people who already believe in Jesus’ divinity that they should continue to do so.

            But there’s no logical connection between Jesus being a literal god, and Jesus having some cogent things to say on the subject of morality.