Africa needs God?

Mattghg and Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, both linked to Matthew Parris’s article As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.

Parris is an atheist who writes admiringly not just of the work done by Christians in Africa, but of the changes conversion brings about in people, supplanting a tribal mindset he regards as unhealthy.

Matt also links to (but rightly criticises) a response to Parris by Stephen Noll, who writes for something called Anglican Mainstream. Noll’s article makes a couple of good points and then veers off into a parody of the Daily Mail, telling Parris that he should reflect on how atheism has lead Britain into darkness, and rounding off with the threat of the UK being over-run by Islam. I’ve not really been keeping up with who’s been anathemising whom in Anglicanism lately, because it’s all a bit tedious, but I’m assuming that something called “Anglican Mainstream” is actually a fundy schismatic organisation, much like a “People’s Republic” is always a communist dictatorship.

It’s odd that Noll thinks Theodore Dalrymple supports his claims about Britain, because in the article Noll links to, Dr Dalrymple doesn’t prescribe a dose of God: he says Brits were civilised and are now being un-civilised by intellectual activity and legislation (presumably they believed in God throughout the civilisation phase), and speaks fondly of a time when Brits regarded religious enthusiasm (a term which once referred to evangelicalism) as bad form.

Strangely enough, I’ve already quoted Dalrymple in a statement which will probably get my Dawkins Club membership card confiscated, namely, that faith groups in prisons are OK if they introduce prisoners to a culture which is less broken than the one they belong to already. This pragmatism is a reflection of my devotion to the ideas of Neal Stephenson, I suppose. (Of course, the faith groups needn’t be theistic: Buddhism can do the job, too).

It’s an annoying fact that religions are better at spreading than rationality is, as Andrew Brown points out. Christianity, or at least the right sort of Christianity, certainly isn’t the worst belief system out there. If a dose of God will displace tribalism or nihilism (which, pace Noll, isn’t equivalent to atheism), it seems like the lesser of two evils, to me.

Is it inconsistent for me to say this and also write stuff about how Christianity is wrong? I don’t think so: I’d always want to help someone to become a rationalist, which is the goal of the stuff I write. But I’m trying to be realistic about the prospect of that happening to someone who’s starting from less than zero. Evangelical Christianity is infectious and can create in some people a tremendous valuing of truth per se. We can use that 🙂

Share via:Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on Tumblr

Alex Byrne: God

Alex Byrne in the Boston Review addresses the existence of God, pointing out that modern debates echo those of Hume and Paley (he of the watchmaker). Byrne talks about the Ontological, Design and Fine Tuning arguments for God.

The article is interesting because it addresses some weak responses to these arguments, from Dawkins’s The God Delusion. As gareth_rees said, the popularisation of this debate will hopefully encourage everyone to consider whether the reasons they have for their positions are good ones.

In other news, Father Christmas (who really does exist, otherwise who’s bringing all those presents, eh?) brought me Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett, Bitches; and Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem (about the Problem of Evil). I expect I’ll be posting about those once I’ve read them.

Share via:Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on Tumblr

Pope still Catholic

Jessel, the Tri-felge Putenard, is the subject of part IV of my Bishops Gone Wild series. This means the bishops of the Catholic Church and the Church of England are now neck and neck after a promising start by the C of E: come on Anglicans, put your backs into it!

Jessel was reported as saying that saving humanity from gayness was as important as saving the rain forests. There’s no official English translation of his remarks, but a comment on Ruth Gledhill’s blog provides a translation from a papal fan-site (yes, really), and the BBC has translated some extracts.

Various postings here on LJ have been saying the media have got the wrong end of the stick, and that the speech didn’t mention gays at all. However, Reuters reports that the term “gender” in Italian is “a broad term that includes anyone who doesn’t identify entirely with their assigned sex and can include homosexuals, bisexuals, pansexuals and others.” Anyone out there know some Italian?

The rest of the talk about sex in the speech sounds like the usual natural law stuff. Humanae Vitae gets a mention, so you can read that if you want to see an example of the reasoning here, such as it is.

What with this stuff and all that substance/accidents transubstantiation stuff, the church does seem rather wedded to Aquinas and his scholastic friends (although transubstantiation is also What the Bible Says). I hope for some sort of slow reform, whereby they’d gradually change to using more modern incorrect physics: perhaps there’s mileage in the idea that prayers are transmitted via the luminiferous aether because God is the Absolute. Or something. I’m hoping to work phlogiston in there too.

andrewducker says that we shouldn’t be surprised when theists say the funniest things. Perhaps not, but inasmuch as the Pope has some influence on people’s lives, he deserves the storm he’s called up.

Share via:Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on Tumblr

Derren Brown and Richard Dawkins

Dawkins has published the complete interview he did with Derren Brown for the Enemies of Reason programme: it’s available on YouTube (in several parts, but that link is to a playlist which should play them in order). It’s mostly Brown talking about the techniques used by mediums, with occasional questions from Dawkins. I’m a fan of Brown, so I enjoyed it.

Like all the best people, the inestimable Mr Brown is an ex-Christian. The final part of the video re-iterates the first chapter of Tricks of the Mind, where he describes how he turned to rationality. He learned about hypnosis, which his fellow Christians claimed would allow in demons (keen students: from the teaching on demons in Matthew 12, or otherwise, show that this is What The Bible Says [5 marks]). He got into stage magic and learned how psychic powers were a con, and that believers in it were only interested in evidence in favour of their beliefs (this is what he calls “circular belief” in the book and video), and would discount or forget the evidence against them.

The young Brown realised this circularity applied to his own Christianity as much as it did to the believers in the psychics. As Brown says, it’s hard to see a difference between these sorts of claims, other than that religious claims have a certain gravitas from having been around for a long time. After all, you could probably construct plausible reasons for the psychic “misses” or why the people who are in contact with aliens can’t provide a proof of the Goldbach conjecture, just as you can for why God is silent (in fact, variants of “it doesn’t work because of your scepticism” and “you wouldn’t believe me anyway” are already common to all of them).

These beliefs rely on rear-guard actions against those who explicitly deny them, coupled with a personal conviction that the belief must be true. There’s little positive evidence in favour. We saw this in the case of Christianity, recently, when looking at Keller’s reasons for faith, much as Brown found when he investigated his former faith for himself.

Both Brown and Dawkins seem surprised that people don’t actually want to know that psychics have been debunked. Randi debunked Peter Popoff, but Popoff is still pulling in the donations. Although I’m occasionally irritated by Andrew Brown’s “New Atheists: UR DOIN IT WRONG” stuff, I think he’s right to say that most people don’t think the way Derren and Dawkins do, whether they’re theists or atheists:

It’s not natural to suppose that our emotions should be in line with our intellectual representations of the world and consistent and coherent over time: but as an ideal it’s tremendously important. Even as an ideal it has to be transmitted by a culture: as a discipline, it needs years of education and of practice. You might call it thinking for yourself, in a rather silly clever way, if by that you meant not independence from society, but using thinking as a tool with which to build yourself. Getting to that point is just about the central task of education, moral as well as intellectual, which means that almost everyone pays lip service to it. Yet the evidence suggests that most people, certainly most believers, don’t entertain it as a serious possibility. But neither do most unbelievers.

It’s all a bit depressing really. Perhaps Plantinga is right and rationality doesn’t necessarily have a survival value.

Share via:Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on Tumblr

The Reason for God: part 2

One of my friends did that “grab the nearest book to you and post the Nth sentence on page M” meme. I grabbed the nearest book (Keller’s The Reason for God) and her sentence was the same as mine! This is clearly a sign from God that I should finish my review of the book (the first part of my review is already generating a lot of discussion in the comments). So, here goes. As in the previous part, we’re following the book’s chapters.

Intermission

<lj-cut>In the Intermission between the two halves of the book, Keller talks about standards of proof. He says that the New Atheists have accepted “strong rationalism”, which he says is the view that no-one should believe anything unless it is proved so strongly, by logic or empirical evidence, that no sane person could disagree. What Keller calls strong rationalism seems to be what the rest of us know as logical positivism.

I can only think that he has not read the books he criticises, since Dawkins at least is pretty clear that he thinks belief should be proportional to evidence (hence his preference for the atheist bus sign to read “There is almost certainly no God” not “There is no God”), not that there is some threshold of evidence below which all beliefs should be rejected. Despite Keller’s claims that the New Atheists subscribe to verificationism, I doubt that the Dennett and company would reject Karl Popper’s insights on falsifiability, say. You get the impression that Keller’s an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to this philosophy stuff, eagerly on the look out for big names who at least appear to back his position.

In place of strong rationalism, Keller advocates something he calls critical rationalism. This seems to be something like abduction or inference to the best explanation: we observe a bunch of stuff (the clues that Keller will later talk about, of which more below) and that God would be an explanation for that stuff, therefore it’s reasonable to say God exists. It seems to me that Keller must do more work to avoid this becoming something like Heinlein’s objection to Occam’s Razor: that the best explanation is “The lady down the street is a witch; she did it.”

I’m a bit of an amateur too, as it happens, so I’ll leave the epistemology there, and refer you to the professionals, or at least, the professionals in training: Chris Hallquist’s review concentrates specifically on the philosophical problems with Keller’s book. Let’s look at some of Keller’s specific arguments.

The Reasons for Faith

The Clues of God

This chapter deals with hints that God exists, as Keller correctly points out that this is a necessary pre-cursor to Christianity. He deals in clues, as he accepts that these arguments are not conclusive, although he thinks some of them are strong. Let’s look at Keller’s clues:

<lj-cut>The Big Bang

The Big Bang is the first clue. Some Christians (notably William Lane Craig) have identified this with creation of the universe from nothing, and ask what caused it, reasoning that the cause must be outside the universe, since the Big Bang represents the start of space and time. These Christians are over-reaching: the Bang represents a place where theories break down. Sean Carroll is a researcher at the cutting edge who argues that popular science books also over-reach here.

Fine tuning

The second clue is fine tuning, which goes something like: Slight differences in the physical constants would make the universe inhospitable to life. It’s unlikely that the universe got hospitable by itself, therefore someone must have made it hospitable. We call that someone “God”.

I did have a whole section on the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and Linde’s eternal inflation here, but then I realised I was committing the same error as Keller, namely, drawing on a highly speculative cosmology to make my point. We just don’t know enough to argue with any certainty that fine tuning was required. For instance, perhaps those “constants” we’re treating as free parameters in a fine tuning argument aren’t so free after all.

Instead, since Keller’s argument is “this is what we would expect if there were a God”, we should respond “is there anything about which you wouldn’t say that?” (Philosophy fans, note that a disciple of the New Atheists has just abandoned “strong rationality” and backed falsificationism: I expect they’ll take away my Dawkins fan club membership card next). Why did God create a universe which is largely hostile to our sort of life, just to house the Earth in one corner, a pale blue dot? Returning to the problems with Keller’s idea of theistic evolution (which I mentioned last time), if you’re a Christian, when you speak of the cosmic implications of the Fall or the Second Coming, do you imagine they apply to the entire universe? Personally, if there were a God, I’d expect a smaller cosmos, possibly the original Christian cosmos, where ideas of a friendly universe made for us and cosmological consequences of sin make a great deal more sense.

The regularity of nature

The third clue is the regularity of nature. Keller refers to the problem of induction, as pondered by Hume. How do you know yesterday will be like today, or that any regularity you discover will continue? Well, you don’t, but if you’re a Bayesian, I guess you’re able to count each sunrise as evidence, if not proof. It seems odd to talk about this as evidence specifically for theism, though: if you’re some sort of Platonist, you could argue that the regularities were evidence for the world of forms, if you’re a Many Worlds fan, you could argue that conscious observers can only exist and continue to exist in regular worlds, and so on.

Beauty

The fourth clue is the existence of beauty. Keller’s argument is that beauty makes us feel life is significant, therefore God exists. Keller’s other argument here is that the existence of an appetite suggests the existence of the thing it is an appetite for. This all strikes me as so much wishful thinking. Applying the Rake disposes of the argument, because it is entirely composed of things we wish were true.

The Clue Killer

Keller moves on to what he calls the Clue Killer, evolution. Keller says that evolution is claimed as the killer argument against all of the previous clues, because naturalistic accounts of religion (see Pascal Boyer’s summary of these) would say that people only find the clues convincing because of cognitive bias. Keller says that naturalists are happy to believe that religious beliefs arise from cognitive biases, but what about the evolutionists’ belief in evolution? He moves into the Argument from Reason, pointing to arguments from Plantinga and others that if evolution is true, we can’t trust our reason. After all, if deception had survival value, our brains would deceive us. How can we trust anything, including the conclusions of evolutionary theory?

Keller writes: “It seems evolutionary theorists have to do one of two things. They could backtrack and admit that we can trust what our minds tell us about things, including God. If we find arguments or clues to God’s existence that seem compelling to us, well, maybe he’s really there. Or else they could go forward and admit that we can’t trust our minds about anything.”

This seems to take the argument too far in a direction that, as far as I’m aware, the professionals like Plantinga don’t take it. I’ve not seen them saying that acceptance of evolution or a naturalistic account of religion are specific examples of cognitive bias. Rather, if I’ve understood them correctly, the pros are saying that naturalism undermines the whole project of rationality, since physical things cannot be said to have justified beliefs. Keller presents a false dichotomy between accepting things which “seem compelling to us” and giving up on reason. Why not try believing in stuff we have evidence for? Keller himself said at the beginning of the chapter that the Clues were not compelling, so it doesn’t seem right to object to naturalists saying people give these clues too much weight because of a pre-disposition to believe in God.

The theistic alternative is not particularly satisfying either. If God gave us the capability to reason, then he was not completely successful, because we know about biases and we see disagreements even between reasonable people. If we follow these sorts of arguments through, as Barefoot Bum does here, we end up concluding that the theistic account doesn’t explain anything, because it ends up just making a list of how people’s minds work and saying “God wants that”, which gives no explanatory advantage over just listing how people’s minds work.

Keller goes on to talk about the “final clue”, namely, that believing in God explains all of the previous clues. Perhaps, but only if you’re prepared to regard God as basic enough to be the place where the buck stops in these explanations, without requiring an explanation for God. There are people who find that sort of explanation satisfying, but there are others, like me, who regard it as giving up. The lady down the street is a witch; she did it.

The knowledge of God

Keller argues that we already know God exists, deep down. Not, as the New Testament says, from what has been made, but, as C.S. Lewis’s New New Testament says, from our moral sense.

<lj-cut>We feel that morality should be universal, morality can only be universal if there’s a God, therefore God exists. There’s been some debate about this argument on my journal and on Rob’s recently. I think I’ve said most of what I’d like to say in one of those two places. To summarise, even without examining the questionable justification for the second premise, the Rake does away with this again, in the absence of any other reason for believing in a universal morality, because it’s just a statement of how we wish the world to be.

Keller moves on to practical arguments. If you would intervene in another culture’s treatment of women, say, then you’re implicitly believing in a universal morality, says Keller. This appears to be an argument that the alternatives are timid relativism (“We can’t tell them to stop, it’s their culture”, as the New Yorkers might say) and theism. I’d advocate Charles Napier’s approach: “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”

Keller speaks of the “who sez” response to moral claims. Moral claims are things we ought to do but don’t always. For them to be effective against the people who don’t do what they ought to, we need both a source of morality and an enforcer. Despite their complaints that the only alternative to theistic morality is a belief that might makes right, a lot of the Christian arguments against an atheistic morality boil down to the absence of an ultimate enforcer (otherwise we can have moral realism without God, if we’re moral Platonists, say). We have social disapproval, police and prisons, and armies for the Nazis, but they won’t always mean that the side we consider to be good wins out. This means the bad guys can win, which can’t be true. Can it?

Well, yes it can. The mere fact that we might wish it were otherwise does not make it so. To me, that’s an argument for less timid relativism. We can and should use persuasion and eventually even force. Who sez? I do, and I’d better be able to convince a whole load of other people, or I’m pissing in the wind, regardless of how right I am.

The problem of sin

Keller identifies sin as placing something other than God at the centre of our lives. Keller claims that anything other than God placed there will ultimately let us down, and the worship of these things may even lead to harming ourselves or others. Keller talks about identity, and how investing our identity in something leads us to despise people with a different identity (whether it is politics, race, or interestingly, religion).

<lj-cut>Keller’s claim that anything other than God as our cause will ultimately let us down isn’t backed by evidence other than literary quotations, alas. I’m not sure why we should believe it. After all, some people even feel let down by God.

He goes on to mention the Biblical account of the cosmic consequences of sin. Given his earlier acceptance of (guided) evolution and modern cosmology, it’s not clear what this means. Is the Earth broken? Or the whole universe? As I mentioned when talking about theistic evolution, was there a Fall which introduced death (and how did stuff evolve before that)? He admittedly does describe this cosmic effect as mysterious, but this seems a fairly big hole in this cosmology.

Keller’s theories about identity are another repetition of that evangelical common-place, the idea that everyone worships something. Keller previously asserted this worship is the cause of people going to Hell if that something is not God. As I said to apdraper2000 I don’t believe the common-place is true. Some people don’t really have a cause, they just drift along, and the word “worship” seems to imply a passion that’s lacking in those people. Most people have a variety of stuff they like, but I’d be hard pressed to say they worshipped it.

For people that do have a passion, a cause, I think the important thing is to realise its faults, and avoid the Happy Death Spiral. If slights to the Big Idea are slights to yourself or worse, if your gut reaction to arguments against it is anger and arguments for it is a hit of joy, if everyone who disagrees with you is automatically an idiot, then you’re heading off the deep end. There is a time for anger (if someone wants to hurt people who hold your idea, say), but sometimes such reactions are a danger sign. Either you’re too tired of people who disagree with you and need a rest from engaging with them, or you’re entering the Death Spiral. I see no evidence that Christianity is a sure-fire way to avoid that problem, quite the reverse in fact.

It seems odd to put this chapter in the section of the book about reasons and evidence for God, because it doesn’t seem to contain either, it’s just a re-iteration of what C.S. Lewis thinks about sin.

Religion and the Gospel

Keller says that Christianity is not a religion. What he means is that Christianity says you’re not saved by doing the right thing and earning merit with God. The nice thing about this chapter is that Keller speaks to people who’ve experienced what he calls Pharisaiac Christianity (recall that in the New Testament, the Pharisees are the self-righteous hypocrites, possibly because they were engaged in founding modern Judaism to the exclusion of Christians at the time the gospels were written).

<lj-cut>Religion, says Keller, is about what you’ve done. If you’re doing well by your religion’s standards, you look down on others (he neatly points out that this can either mean calling them bigots if you’re liberal, or immoral if you’re conservative). If you’re doing badly, you’re overcome with guilt. Keller says the right motivation for religion (sorry, Christianity) is gratitude to God rather than guilt or fear.

I can’t actually see anything wrong with this chapter as a presentation of what Christianity should be like. The problem is that most evangelical churches aren’t preaching Keller’s Christianity when they’re not explicitly doing their gospel presentations (read The Post Evangelical for stories of how people found evangelicalism stultifying in the UK, and bradhicks‘s Christians in the Hands of an Angry God for how a lot of evangelicals are in league with Satan in the USA). That, and, you know, there isn’t a God. Apart from that, this stuff is how a good religion would be. If he’s managing to get that across at his church in New York, it’s no wonder it’s doing so well.

Still, there’s not an awful lot of evidence that Christianity is true in this chapter, either.

The Resurrection

Keller says that the Resurrection is pretty much the only explanation for the beginnings of Christianity. Drawing on N.T. Wright’s work, he argues that people in the 1st century weren’t simpletons who believed in any old nonsense, that the resurrection of the body of a single person was something neither Jews or Pagans believed could happen, that nothing else can account for the sudden change of the disciples from a frightened rabble into bold preachers.

Finally, we’ve found a chapter about evidence, but it’s not evidence most of us are qualified to judge. Convincing people that the Resurrection happened is a popular apologetic technique among evangelicals, yet according to the Christians who commented on the first part of this review, God doesn’t require us to become experts in ancient literature. But how else can someone judge this evidence? We can look to other experts rather than becoming experts ourselves, I suppose, but they disagree, so I don’t think the evidence can be as clear cut as Keller says. gjm11 tells a parable which points out the problems with Keller’s argument which are apparent even to non-experts.

And the rest

I’m afraid I got bored at this point. The rest of the book is an explanation of orthodox Christian doctrines without much evidence in, er, evidence, followed by an altar call. So, Jesus’s death on the Cross is necessary for forgiveness because we all recognise that forgiveness costs the forgiver; the Trinity makes the statement that God is love meaningful, and never mind that the Bible is equivocal on it and it’s impossible to talk about without committing some heresy or other. Finally, if you want to know more, why not go to church?

Summing up

The second half of the book is mostly a statement of what Keller considers Christianity is, without much evidence that it’s true. Elsewhere, robhu said that he thought that, though rational arguments have a role, the main way that people come to Christianity was to hear the good news about Jesus (what Christians call the “gospel”) and respond to it, so that his main evangelistic method as a Christian was to present the gospel.

The gospel as evangelicals understand it is composed of factual claims. A bare presentation of the gospel (which is quite similar to Keller’s book, since it turns out that he spends most of the second half of his book saying what Christianity is) asks people to accept those factual claims based not on good evidence, but on an inner conviction, a feeling that the claims are right. To the extent that someone does this, they’ve abandoned even the everyday rationality which we use to judge other claims (that Daz washes whiter, or that the used car had one careful owner). Clearly this works on some people (including me, at one point), but I suspect it’s because rationality is a discipline that most people don’t learn, or even see the value of applying to religion. As far as I’m concerned, Keller fails to offer good reasons for God.

Share via:Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on Tumblr