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.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

What About Teen Pregnancy?

            So… it seems that our current administration is cutting funding for investigations into how to prevent teen pregnancies. And, of course, this thrills conservative Christians who favor abstinence-only positions. And liberals are less than thrilled, since it’s rather demonstrably true that abstinence-only polices pretty much always result in increases in teen pregnancies. So of course, there has been the usual chorus of liberals and secularists pointing out this fact as if it ought to affect the policy. But I don’t think it will work, because it never does. And I’d kinda like to talk about why I think that is.
            Now, this is just my personal theory. I may be way off base, here, and I encourage anyone who thinks they know better to correct me. But I think that trying to point out the effect of different policies on teen pregnancy rates completely misses the point. It’s based on the assumption that the target audience agrees that teen pregnancy is a problem, and that reducing it ought to be a policy goal. And I don’t think that’s true.
            I don’t think that conservative Christianity, or at least that portion of it seriously involved in government policy and practically orgasmic over the current administration’s eagerness to pander to their agenda, cares even a little bit about teen pregnancy. We liberals and secularists may think they should, and we may even have good reasons for thinking that, but they just don’t. What they care about is premarital sex.
            You see, to secular society, the problems with teenagers having sex is the possibility of contracting an STD, and that getting pregnant at such a young age frequently leads to health problems, unnecessary abortions, and long-term educational and economic disadvantages for both the mother and the baby. Since those are the problems, and it is demonstrably true that sex education (including abstinence, birth control methods, how conception and pregnancy work, and how STDs are transmitted) reduces the chances of these occurring, then it only makes sense to have a comprehensive sex education policy.
            To conservative Christianity, the problem is with anyone, of any age, having sex outside of marriage because their god doesn’t approve of that sort of thing. It doesn’t give a fig whether we’re talking about teenagers or geriatrics; if they’re married they can have sex and should get pregnant, and if they’re not married they should not have sex for any reason. Full stop. The only possible policy that meets this goal is abstinence outside of marriage. It’s not about whether anything negative happens as a result of sex. The consequences are immaterial. Their god said you shouldn’t do it, so you are supposed to obey.
            Thoughts? Anybody?
            I think that we sometimes talk about fundamentally different worldviews that value different things as if they value the same things. We like to focus on what we have in common, and in general I think that’s a good idea. But we shouldn’t allow it to blind us to how the differences impact the way we talk to each other. Or rather, allow it to let us talk past each other because we make too many assumptions. It behooves us to pay attention to what other people profess to believe, and take them seriously. I know it bugs me when other people treat me as if I don’t actually believe what I say I believe. I figure I owe other people the courtesy of taking them at face value.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

What is Falsifiability (and Why is it Important)?

            The concept of falsifiability is a scientific idea that often comes up in discussions on the existence of gods. Judging by the reactions I sometimes see, it seems to be a badly misunderstood concept. So I figured I’d put up a short post about what it means.
            Falsifiability, in a nutshell, is the ability to frame a test for a hypothesis that would be capable of disproving it (i.e. proving it false). If an idea is unfalsifiable, that means that no test can be devised that would prove it wrong. Here’s where the confusion often comes in: “unfalsifiable,” does not mean “true,” and “falsifiable,” does not mean “false.” In actuality, many facts about reality that we generally accept as true are falsifiable.
            Let me see if I can illustrate the idea with an easy example. Suppose I had a pebble sitting in the bottom of a bowl of water, and I wanted to investigate why the pebble is sitting at the bottom instead of floating. So I come up with the hypothesis that the pebble must be denser than the water. To check, I take the pebble out of the water, dry it off, weigh it, measure its volume, and come up with a density number. Then I do the same with a volume of the water, and I compare the two densities.
            So what happens if it turns out the pebble really does have a higher density than the water? This doesn’t actually prove the hypothesis. It’s a data point in favor of it, but there still might be other factors besides density that are the actual cause of the pebble sinking. More investigation is warranted, and that’s often the case in science; you rarely, if ever, get to say that a given hypothesis is proven true. All you can do is amass evidence that is consistent with it. In that sense, a positive result in this test isn’t all that important on its own, but rather as a building block to a fuller understanding.
            But there is a more important possible result of the test, and that would be if it turned out that the pebble had a lower density than the water. Because if that were the true, then the hypothesis that the pebble sinks because it has a higher density than the water could not be true. The test would have falsified the hypothesis. We’ve never seen that result, we generally accept that it’s true that objects denser than water will sink, but there is a potential outcome of the test that would tell you that the hypothesis is false. This is what it means for hypothesis to be falsifiable.
            But suppose that I had, instead, come up with the hypothesis that the reason the pebble sinks is because there are invisible, intangible water spirits called Naiads that really love pebbles and want to envelop them. Clearly, testing the density of the pebble does nothing to prove this hypothesis true or false, since any possible result can still be explained as the vagaries of Naiad behavior. But here’s the thing: there may very well be no test at all that could ever disprove the Naiad theory. Because no matter what physical observation you make about what traits result in objects sinking in water, it can always be covered by “that’s just what Naiads like to do.” The Naiad hypothesis is not falsifiable.
            So why should we care? What does it really matter?
            Well, as it turns out, an explanation that is not falsifiable is kind of useless. And that’s because the thing that makes a theory unfalsifiable is the fact that it makes no predictions. Going back to the Naiads above, what does believing in the Naiads actually tell you about whether any given object will float? What does it tell you about anything? Does it tell you that you can expect to see Naiads? No; they’re invisible. Does it tell you that you should expect to touch Naiads? No; they’re intangible. Does it tell you that you should expect dense objects to sink? No; Naiads may just not like any particular object even if they seem to have liked every object denser than water in the past. Does it tell you that you should expect less dense objects to float? No; Naiads really could take a liking to anything. Ultimately, there’s no observation you could possibly make that could not be “explained” by saying that it’s just how Naiads choose to behave in that instance. But, by claiming to explain every possible observation, it actually explains none of them. Not in any useful way, anyhow.
            Are Naiads real? Who knows? They’re unfalsifiable – you can’t prove they don’t exist. But since you also clearly can’t make any decisions about the real world that are predicated on their existence, it doesn’t make much sense to act as if they do. How, in fact, would you behave as if they exist, when you can’t test or observe anything about them to know how you should behave?

            Does that sound like anything else you know?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Do You Feel Loved?

            How do you know your mother loves you?
            Or, rather, what is it that you believe you are feeling when you are experiencing your mother’s love? Or the love of anyone, really, whom you love and/or feel like they love you. When you are in their presence and feel that special combination of warmth and happiness that you associate only with them, what is it that you think you’re feeling?
            As I see it, there are two possibilities. One of these is that what you are feeling is your loved one’s actual emotion; that somehow, the love they feel gets projected directly into your consciousness and you are feeling what they feel as they feel it. The other possibility is that what you are feeling is your own emotion, generated in your own brain and triggered by your positive associations with that person combined with the belief that they love you.
            Did I say two possibilities? Because I don’t think the first option is actually possible. Nothing we understand about how the world works suggests that anyone, much less everyone, is capable of projecting their emotions directly into other people’s heads. Nor do we have any reason to think anyone, much less everyone, is capable of plucking the emotions directly out of anyone else’s heads.
            Now, that has some interesting implications. It suggests that it’s quite possible that, when you’re being held by someone you love and are basking in those beautiful emotions, the other person might not even be feeling them. For all you know, they’re wondering how you might taste fire roasted with a barbeque glaze. Or, maybe they’re not actually thinking about you at all. Maybe your girlfriend is absent-mindedly stroking your hair while wondering whether Agents Coulson and May are ever actually gonna share that bottle of Haig. You don’t need them to be feeling that emotion in order for you to feel it. All you need is the right emotional cues, or even just to put yourself in the right frame of mind. Actually, I’d bet that if you think hard enough about it, you could summon up those emotions without your loved one having to be present.
            Or even having to be real…
            Yeah, I’m sure you saw that coming. It is the nature of this blog, after all, and it usually comes to this point eventually. You see, one often hears believer saying that they can “feel God’s love,” and I have to wonder how they know that’s what they feel. After all, we use the same language to say we feel our mother’s love, but I think we all understand that it’s an emotion generated in our own heads that we are feeling. I suppose that it’s possible that, if an all-powerful god existed, it would be capable of telepathically projecting its emotions into our minds. But that would be the only instance of “feeling X’s love” where what you were feeling was X’s actual emotion and not something generated in your own head. And how do you tell the difference? How would you know if the emotions originated with you or with someone else – especially someone else that you can’t otherwise see or hear?

            I don’t know… it seems to me that, knowing that in every other instance of “feeling someone’s love,” is an emotion generated in your own head, you’d have to acknowledge the possibility that “feeling God’s love,” falls in the same category. Or at least that I don’t have any reason to think it’s any different. Wouldn’t you?

Friday, June 9, 2017

Aren’t You Just Rebelling Against God?

            A frequent accusation leveled against atheists is that they don’t really disbelieve in God, but are just rebelling against him. This seems kind of silly from my perspective, but I can see why it might have some weight to someone who actually believes in a god. After all, someone who doesn’t believe in a god isn’t going to be terribly bothered by how that god wants us to behave. Therefore, most vocal atheists not only don’t feel they are bound to follow any god’s orders, but are openly resentful of attempts by religious believers to impose those orders on them. If you think that god is real, and encounter that resentful attitude, it’s easy to see why you might think it’s the source of the atheism.
            It doesn’t help, of course, that some holy books make exactly that claim. I don’t know whether the writers just made the same mistake described above, or if they cynically exploited the fact that it’s an easy mistake for others to make. In the end, I don’t suppose it matters. The statements are in there, and I guess we just have to deal with the fallout.
            But let’s think about this just a little bit. Can you think of any time in history when anyone actually rebelled against any actually existing authority by pretending it didn’t exist? Can you imagine a thief analyzing a target’s security, deciding that he can’t possibly get past it, and then deciding to go ahead with the robbery on the basis of deciding the police don’t exist? Think the American Revolution would have been successful, if it were predicated on the idea that the British Empire didn’t exist? Do you suppose that anyone even stood up and suggested that as a serious approach to take to the problem? People just don’t behave like that.
            Or perhaps, even more nonsensically, you think we’re rebelling against a god we believe exists, and we’re just telling you it’s because we don’t believe. As if, somehow, we have the balls to spit in the face of the all-powerful creator of the universe, but are scared to admit it to ordinary people. Does that make any sense at all?
            On a more personal note, allow me to tell you a little something about myself: I’m not a particularly rebellious person by nature. I am a go-along-to-get-along kind of guy. I’m a follower. As a rule, I do not like to argue. I don’t like to contradict people about things they clearly feel strongly about; I just don’t feel comfortable with that kind of conflict. I especially do not like to engage in those conflicts if I don’t believe I have a really solid reason for my contrary position. I don’t go around breaking laws (well, except maybe the occasional speed limit. Shh! Don’t tell!), even ones I don’t agree with. I am not a brave person. The idea that I could stand up to the ultimate authority in the universe and “rebel” makes no sense at all. That’s not me.
            And yet, here I am telling you that I don’t believe that such a being exists. I’ve spent more than three years writing with fair regularity about this perspective. This isn’t a testament to my vast desire and capacity for rebellion. It’s a testament to just how ridiculous the very idea of a god seems to me, how utterly wrong-headed it appears to me that anyone should bind themselves (and attempt to bind others) to the dictates of an imaginary being.

            So, to sum things up, the idea that people are atheists because they just want to rebel against a god gets the equation backwards. Rather, because we don’t believe a god exists, we see no reason to take its demands seriously. And it isn’t necessarily even a case of rebelling; if a god doesn’t exist, then many of the dictates attributed to it don’t even make any sense. There’s no reason to care what it wants. We evaluate the demands, therefore, on what we perceive to be their merits in the real world, and feel pretty free to disregard the ones that are evidently harmful or pointless. That’s really all there is to it.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Should We Ban Sharia Law?

            From time to time, people in some segments of American government and society make calls for the banning of Sharia law. For those unfamiliar, Sharia is a body of law that has grown up in majority-Muslim countries based on the commands and requirements of the Koran and the Hadith. It actually varies a bit from country to country, depending on how the local power structures interpret the requirements of Islam, so it’s a little difficult to nail down exactly what it is. But, nonetheless, a significant portion of Americans seem to think it needs to be banned in order to prevent things like female genital mutilation, child brides, and wife beating. But mostly, so that Muslims will know in no uncertain terms that they are officially unwelcome here.
            But here’s the thing: most of the stuff that would actually make sense to ban is already illegal, and if Sharia has somehow managed to invent some forms of abuse that aren’t addressed under current laws we have the option to address those as needed. Most of the rest of it are things we’ve generally decided it’s not the government’s business to regulate. You may feel like Sharia’s rules on dividing up inheritances are pretty shitty, but we kind of take it for granted in America that it’s up to the deceased how to divide up his property on his death. Dietary rules are also part of Sharia. Gonna ban people from not eating pork? Gonna ban people from not drinking alcohol? Gonna force people to charge interest whenever they loan someone money? How would that work, exactly, given that many versions of Christianity and Judaism include similar restrictions? Would you ban people from refraining from eating certain foods or drinking certain drinks only if they do so because of Muslim rules but not if they do so because they just don’t want to? Or if they are following (for example) Jewish dietary rules? Clearly that kind of thing is unworkable. Oh, yeah, and it’s also unconstitutional.
            Oops! That niggling little thing: the Constitution. Remember the establishment clause of the First Amendment? Do you think, possibly, that it might be a “law respecting an establishment of religion,” to place a blanket ban on all the behavioral rules of a specific religion? Think that might be somewhat infringing the religious rights of Muslims? Perhaps?
            Or maybe you’re concerned that Muslims would legislate Sharia onto the rest of us if it weren’t banned. Well, currently Muslims make up only about 1% of the population of the U.S., so it’s hard to see them coming up with the kind of legislative majorities that would be necessary to pull that off. But there’s another little secret you may not be aware of: that’s already illegal. Once again, the First Amendment. Just as the government isn’t allowed to ban people from practicing their own religion, it’s also not allowed to force people to practice someone else’s religion.
            I know there’s a grand tradition in this country of ignoring that last part, which may explain some of the confusion. You see, trying to use the government to force religious practices on people who don’t share your religion is the right-wing Christians’ shtick. These are the same people who regularly call for the banning of Sharia law. And it’s a case of creating their own problem, because this is the same group that has been, by leaps in bounds, the most dogged and the most successful in eroding the secular legal principles that would allay these concerns.
            After all, it’s hard to argue that American law prevents the imposition of a particular religion on the populace, when it’s your goal to impose your own religion on the populace. It’s hard to argue that people can’t ignore laws that conflict with their religion, while demanding the right to ignore laws that conflict with your religion. It’s hard to argue that religious laws don’t trump national laws, while regularly electing officials who claim your religious laws do trump national laws. It’s in this context of denial that the American Constitution is supposed to guarantee freedom of and from religion that is the only context where a Sharia ban makes any sense.

            So, diatribe aside, I don’t believe we can or should ban Sharia. While it contains many examples of what I would call bad ideas, even horrific ideas, it also contains some that are reasonable and worthwhile and some that are just not worth writing any legislation about one way or the other. It’s a lot like other religions, in that way. In my opinion, such a ban would be unconstitutional, entirely inconsistent with American traditions of religious freedom, and cruelly alienating to Muslims for no good reason whatsoever.