Stuff I found on the web, probably on andrewducker‘s del.icio.us feed or something.

Psychology Today on ex-Christian ex-ministers and on magical thinking

Psychology Today has a couple of interesting articles, one on ministers who lose their faith, and another on magical thinking. Quoteable quote:

“We tend to ignore how much cognitive effort is required to maintain extreme religious beliefs, which have no supporting evidence whatsoever,” says the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. He likens the process to a cell trying to maintain its osmotic pressure. “You’re trying to pump out the mainstream influences all the time. You’re trying to maintain this wall, and keep your beliefs inside, and all these other beliefs outside. That’s hard work.” In some ways, then, at least for fundamentalists, “growing out of it is the easiest thing in the world.”

That sounds sort of familiar. I’m not sure I’d consider myself an ex-fundamentalist, but I did find that giving up removed the constant pressure to keep baling.

The stuff about moral contagion in the magical thinking article reminded me of Haggai 2:10-14, where it’s clear that cleanness (in the Bible’s sense of moral and ceremonial acceptability, rather then lack of dirt) is less contagious than uncleanness. There’s possibly a link here to the tendency of some religions to sharply divide the world into non-believers and believers, and to be careful about how much you expose yourself to the non-believing world (q.v. the unequally yoked teaching you get in the more extreme variants of a lot of religions).

Old interview with Philip Pullman

Third Way interviewed Pullman years ago. It’s the origin of one of his statements on whether he’s an agnostic or an atheist, which I rather like:<lj-cut text=”The quote”>

Can I elucidate my own position as far as atheism is concerned? I don’t know whether I’m an atheist or an agnostic. I’m both, depending on where the standpoint is.

The totality of what I know is no more than the tiniest pinprick of light in an enormous encircling darkness of all the things I don’t know – which includes the number of atoms in the Atlantic Ocean, the thoughts going through the mind of my next-door neighbour at this moment and what is happening two miles above the surface of the planet Mars. In this illimitable darkness there may be God and I don’t know, because I don’t know.

But if we look at this pinprick of light and come closer to it, like a camera zooming in, so that it gradually expands until here we are, sitting in this room, surrounded by all the things we do know – such as what the time is and how to drive to London and all the other things that we know, what we’ve read about history and what we can find out about science – nowhere in this knowledge that’s available to me do I see the slightest evidence for God.

So, within this tiny circle of light I’m a convinced atheist; but when I step back I can see that the totality of what I know is very small compared to the totality of what I don’t know. So, that’s my position.

This isn’t really a surprising statement, but, like Ruth Gledhill’s discovery that Richard Dawkins is a liberal Anglican, some people seem surprised that atheists aren’t ruling out things which some people would regard as gods. The point is that there’s no decent evidence that anyone has met one. Deism is a respectable position, I think (although I’m not sure why you’d bother with it), but religions which claim God has spoken to them are implausible because of God’s inability to keep his story straight.

The walls have Google

The thing about blogging is that you never know who’s reading. Someone called Voyou makes a post ending with an aside which is critical of A.C. Grayling’s response to Terry Eagleton’s review of The God Delusion. Grayling turns up in the comments to argue with them.

(I keep turning up more conversations about the Eagleton review: see my bookmarks for the best of them).

“Compact of hypocrisy and secret vice”

Yellow wonders whether or not he should sign the UCCF doctrinal basis in this post and the followup. Signs point to “not”. Si Hollett reminds me of myself in my foolish youth.

131 thoughts on “”

  1. When I stopped being a Christian I felt relief because I no longer had to view myself as a very naughty sinner (in fact I’ve probably swung too far the other way now), and not having to believe that the scientific community was wrong about the age of the earth and how man came about were a bit of a relief.

    On the other hand secular / atheistic explanations for things aren’t terribly easy to accept either. Atheism is nice in that you can sail which ever course you want to avoid the rocks you see in your path (rather than feeling you really have to sign the DB or something), but I don’t want an easy life – I’m more interested in a worldview that makes sense and explains things. I find it terribly hard to believe that me, the self, consciousness, is a property of the material world, for reasons I find hard to explain (perhaps I should write a post about it). People like Chalmers who suggest that maybe we don’t have consciousness at all solve the problem in a way that is totally unsatisfactory to me.

    There are many examples of things like that which I find unsatisfactory, like the fine tuning issues with the universe. As with the fine tuning argument many of them seem to boil down to “well we don’t know, but hopefully we’ll have better answers in the future”, which is fine I suppose – science has a habit of coming up with the answers, so I’m reticent to start betting on another horse. That doesn’t mean it’s satisfying or easy to think about all these things and hold on to that worldview though.

    It’s a shame toothycat doesn’t post about his beliefs more often (or in more detail), not just because toothypocalypses are amusing – but because it is surprising how close his beliefs are to mine (and those of many atheists) but he remains a (Evangelical?) Christian. I suspect that many of the things atheists think are knock down arguments against Christianity (I’m thinking of arguments referring to science and such rather than ‘where is the evidence for God type arguments) really only seem like that because Christians at the moment think the opposite position is required for Christian belief. In the future when they change their minds it may not be (just) that they need to evolve to keep their religion alive, but because it was never really required that they held such a position (e.g. the universe doesn’t have to be finely tuned, maybe God created a ‘multiverse’ in the same way and for the same reasons that Christians tend to accept that God created a universe that is hostile to life with one corner that resulted in the evolution of human life – why not extend the idea to universes themselves?)

    1. I find faith-based versions of “how human minds work” extremely limiting to exploration of the mind – largely because even otherwise largely secular people seem to bash their heads against a brick wall when it comes to the idea of machine intelligence. I’ve had many a fruitless argument with people all over the religious spectrum where they basically say “machines can’t think because humans have some special thing that makes thinking possible” (souls, but not everyone says that) or variations.

      It seems to be one of the hardest ideas to give up from religion – the idea that we have ‘souls’ that make our thought processes special. Possibly because it seriously questions free will. Possibly because it makes us want the brain bleach (thinking about thinking is tough).

      1. I’m not saying that I think that religion has a very good explanation of what consciousness / qualia are – I’m saying that purely material explanations seem to me to be insufficient.

        It seems to me that we could create sufficiently complicated neural networks that would behave in exactly the same way as (say) a human mind – but that’s not the same as saying they are consciousness in the way that we are (or more accurately the way I think I am). This path leads me to a place of Chalmersian zombies, which while it might explain all how all of you guys say you’re conscious – it doesn’t explain my qualia in a way that is very convincing.

        edited to add penrose icon

        1. I feel myself to be concious – however the only way I know that *you* feel yourself to be concious is that you say you are, and that you act in ways I understand as ways that concious-humans act. I think an AI that talked like a concious being would be in all the ways that matter a concious being.

          Also I think Penrose is insane; especially his thoughts on how the brain works. Especially his thoughts on how quantum gravity works on the brain. No, really, I had to study this (Josephson was marking it; he is also insane, especially on the brain, and he disagrees entirely with Penrose aiui so insanity is not providing useful information here).

          1. I feel myself to be concious – however the only way I know that *you* feel yourself to be concious is that you say you are, and that you act in ways I understand as ways that concious-humans act
            Exactly. That’s what I said.

            I think an AI that talked like a concious being would be in all the ways that matter a concious being.
            “All the ways that matter” is the classic strong AI dodge. As I said – it makes sense to me that materialism can lead to human level (or greater) ‘intelligent behaviour’ zombies, but that doesn’t really explain the sense of consciousness that I have of myself, which is ISTM a weakness of materialism.

            1. Your self-conciousness (and mine) is IMO simply an emergent property of a complex system.

              Without wandering into the supernatural (souls) or the insane (quantum micro gravity tubule things) I don’t see what else it *could* be really. I don’t have anything against the zombie idea really, what’s wrong with it? Why is it so hard to accept that as a description of reality?

                1. I don’t think I’d say “happy”, because it hurts my brain to think about how brains work; and I still don’t have a full understanding of the biology (no-one does aiui).

                  I think “resigned”. Because all the arguments against it are based in “but but but, I don’t *like* it!” rather than in actual evidence.

                  1. Exactly. That’s kind of my position (if I have to accept a purely material world, which probably I do), except that an additional argument against it is to consider my own subject experience of consciousness to be of higher trustworthiness than the series of logic that leads me to argue that I am just a zombie.

            2. Yeah, materialism fails to explain consciousness. However, I’d feel that this was more of a blow for it if there was some other proposal floating around that does explain consciousness.

              1. ISTM that it is a blow to materialism being an explanation for consciousness regardless of any other options being around. That there are no other good explanations doesn’t diminish whatever failings might be indicated wrt materialism. Why would it?

                1. Materialism isn’t an explanation of consciousness any more than it’s an explanation of general relativity. The fact that we don’t have an explanation without invoking ghosts doesn’t mean we won’t have one, just like the fact that we don’t have a non-materialistic explanation of consciousness doesn’t mean we’ll never have one.

                  1. Yes maybe the answer is out there, and one day we’ll find it. On the other hand, maybe it’s not. On balance I’m far more swayed by the current arguments in philosophy that argue that it’s not than those that argue that it is.

          2. I don’t think Penrose is insane, merely mistaken. If making mistakes in areas outside your field of expertise requires a diagnosis of insanity, then who among is sane enough to make that diagnosis?

            His argument in The Emperor’s New Mind seems very weak to me. As far as I can tell, it goes like this:

            1. Premise: we don’t understand quantum gravity.
            2. Premise: we don’t understand consciousness.
            3. Conclusion: they might be related.

            Josephson on the other hand has a bit of a persecution complex. I went to a talk by him a few years ago and when someone in the audience asked him (very mildly, in my opinion, given the nonsense he had subjected us to for the last hour) whether he had any evidence for the paranormal phenomena he was talking about he complained that we were all closed-minded bigots.

            1. Not knowing/being wrong are non-insane. Writing books about things that you know squat about so as to look like a confident expert… somewhat more insane.

        2. purely material explanations [of consciousness] seem to me to be insufficient

          Purely material explanations of dark matter are insufficient too.

          That’s because all explanations of dark matter, material or otherwise, are insufficient. As yet.

          But it’s a big leap from “I don’t understand how something works” to “materialism must be wrong”.

          1. I didn’t say “materialism must be wrong”, so please don’t put words in my mouth.

            Consciousness seems to be in quite a different category to dark matter. There are various potentially testable theories with respect to dark matter, the same is not true with consciousness.

            Also, I have a lot more confidence in astrophysicists (who have a good track record with similar problems) that than the pseudo-science pseudo-philosophy of the materialistic models of the mind.

              1. You were replying to something I said, and specifically quoted me stating that material explanations were insufficient. At the end of your reply to me you said ‘it’s a big leap from “I don’t understand how something works” to “materialism must be wrong”.’

                It’s not unreasonable to assume that in a reply to me in a sentence that paraphrases what I said (which you quoted) that, you know, you’re suggesting that’s what I’m proposing.

                At best then you were being ambiguous. In the future please be clearer, or don’t reply to me.

                1. Let me unpack my comment a bit for you then.

                  You indicated in your post that you are influenced by the zombie arguments of David J. Chalmers. Now, Chalmers is, as far I can understand him, which is really not very far since his writings resemble big turgid balls of wool, arguing that “the mere primary possibility of zombies causes problems for materialism”. So for Chalmers at least, zombie arguments lead to the conclusion that materialism must be wrong.

                  Now I know that a slight leaning towards Chalmers does not mean you would agree with everything he says. You might find the argument intriguing without coming to any conclusion on the matter. But it seemed reasonable for me to reply to your allusion to Chalmers with a jibe against him.

                  1. Err no.

                    First of all look at the time stamps on these things. My recent posting was made after these comments. OK, only a day later – but it was a big day.

                    Secondly, my post does not say materialism must be wrong – at least in terms of creating consciousness. I think for the reasons given above that it probably is wrong, but I wouldn’t say “must”. I don’t think a materialistic view of the brain / consciousness is incompatible with Christianity either (after a rather extensive discussion with Mr toothycat who more or less sees us as AIs).

                    1. … and, most importantly, if I do think X but make an argument for something like X but not X, I do not want to be told I am saying X. Even if I believe X, if that isn’t the argument I made on that occasion I do not want people telling me I made the argument X, which I very much did not.

        3. If I’ve understood it correctly, Chalmers’ Zombie argument is not that because science cannot explain our own subjective consciousness, physicalism is wrong. Rather, he argues that because it would be possible to have a world physically identical to our own where everyone is an unconscious zombie, consciousness does not supervene on the physical. Accepting physicalism cannot force you to accept that you are a zombie, because you already know that you’re not.

          Interestingly, Chalmers argues that, in our world, consciousness arises from certain functional configurations in things like brains, but also possibly in things like silicon chips. I think this means that he thinks a suitable AI would be conscious. If I’ve understood how he’d relate this to the zombie argument correctly, what he means is that these physical structures generate consciousness but only because of the bridging laws that apply to our world, which generate non-physical consciousness from matter. I’d be grateful if any real philosophers reading this could tell me whether I’ve understood Chalmers correctly.

          I’m puzzled by this because I don’t see in what way he thinks consciousness is non-physical. If bridging laws exist, how do they differ from physical laws (assuming those exist), except that, by construction, they don’t apply in zombie world.

  2. That Voyou blog post was quite horrific. I’ve never seen so many people (well, since I last read Fundies Say The Darndest Things) completely fail to grasp the point of comparing one’s opinions with observable reality.

    Said Voyou:

    if the difference between theists and atheists is explained by their stupidity and our cleverness, we’re left without a way of analyzing how our own sets of beliefs might be plausible but ultimately false.

    Hey look, if we posit straw men we can knock them down really easily!

  3. I did find that giving up removed the constant pressure

    You, and C.S. Lewis:

    “The whole thing [Christianity] became a matter of speculation: I was soon (in the famous words) ‘altering “I believe” to “one does feel”‘. And oh, the relief of it! […]

    “And so, little by little, with fluctuations which I cannot now trace, I became an apostate, dropping my faith with no sense of loss but with the greatest relief.” (Surprised by Joy, chapter 4)

    Although, of course, that was not the end of the matter, and he has a different analysis of the experience.

    RE: moral contagion, I don’t think you have to be a Christian to believe that “bad company corrupts good character”. And I simply didn’t understand the argument at the end of the “unequally yoked” hyperlink.

    1. I’m not sure I’ve got a copy of Surprised by Joy around, although I have read it. What is his analysis?

      It may not be the end of the matter for me, for all I know. robhu‘s recent reconversion reminds us that none of us can be lax about these things, lest we backslide into theism.

      I think the theory of moral contagion isn’t about bad company, it’s about uncleanness as a thing that can get passed on without an obvious mechanism (so I don’t want to wear a shirt worn by a murderer, or whatever). With bad company, there’s an obvious mechanism.

      There isn’t really an argument on that page, just a parallel between two things that modify their hosts’ sexual behaviour for their own benefit.

      1. Paul,

        There’s not really a quotable analysis of the relief as such, but I think the following passage gives a fair reflection:

        “what mattered most of all was my deep-seated hatred of authority, my monstrous individualism, my lawlessness. No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word Interference. But Christianity placed at the centre what seemed then seemed to me a transcendental Interferer. If this picture were true then no sort of ‘treaty with reality’ could ever be possible. There was no region even in the innermost depth of one’s soul (nay, there least of all) which one could surround with a barbed wire fence and guard with a notice No Admittance. And that was what I wanted; some area, however small, of which I could say to all other beings, ‘This is my business and mine only.'”

        I think the theory of moral contagion isn’t about bad company, it’s about uncleanness as a thing that can get passed on without an obvious mechanism

        And I’m saying that IMHO the caution in Christianity at least about mixing with (and marrying) non-believers is much more about bad company than anything else. No offence.

        There isn’t really an argument on that page, just a parallel between two things that modify their hosts’ sexual behaviour for their own benefit

        Their hosts? Do you not think the implication that Christianity is a parasite ought to be accompanied by an argument?

        Rob,

        Hallelujah!

        1. St Jack gave up his childhood Christianity because he wanted autonomy. The implication of the quotation you give above is that he later thought this autonomy was a bad thing, monstrous and lawless. Returning to our favourite topic of Derren Brown, I’m not sure where this leaves the free will defence, which seems to assume that autonomy is a good thing, good enough to allow all the evil of the world, even. If Jack, and hence God, objects to autonomy so much, why not use NLP to ensure we always make the right choices?

          My relief at leaving Christianity was probably partly a relief at not being told what to do (although being told what to do is in some ways a relief in itself: too much choice tends to make people unhappy, psychologists say. De-converts often feel quite lost). None of us are pure and disinterested seekers of the truth (robhu has clearly re-converted to get girls, for example), and I don’t want to exalt myself too much (just enough will be fine).

          What I recall most, however, was a relief as at the resolution of the tension of trying to believe stuff that wasn’t true. Evangelicalism (rightly) teaches you that truth is important. The quote from Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians, which I’ve mentioned before, precisely describes my feeling of knowing the truth is important and realising that what I previously believed wasn’t it.

          Thinking on it some more, I think there’s more to the moral contagion stuff than bad company, because, if we’re honest, most unbelievers are not that bad and most believers are not that good (this is gjm11‘s Christian behaviour argument, as it happens). To take separatism to the sort of extremes that, say, the Johanine community seems to have (the church is light, the world is darkness), requires you to think that unbelievers are yucky (and therefore bad and contagiously so), regardless of whether we’ve actually done anything much other than fail to believe. You’d be forgiven for not wanting to hang out with Dawkins or marry me (although note that I only play the fire-breathing atheist on the Internet), I guess, but the average agnostic on the Clapham omnibus? Really?

          We can call Christianity a symbiote instead if you like. Religions behave a bit like organisms (although there’s no science to “memetics”, so I’m not going to argue about that). The choice of organism for the analogy reflects the writer’s prejudices about the religion, to some extent. Would you agree that evangelicalism is like a fluffy bunny?

          1. My relief at leaving Christianity was probably partly a relief at not being told what to do
            What were you told to do that you didn’t like?

            I almost wrote “What were you told to think that you didn’t like?”, but you didn’t say that…

            Was it StAG telling you what to do that you didn’t like, that you thought God was (or might be) telling you to do something, or just anyone telling you to do something?

            If God (by which I suppose I’m interested in ‘god’ in the general sense as well as Yahweh) was real and wanted you to do (i.e. act) in a certain way how would you respond?

            We can call Christianity a symbiote instead if you like. Religions behave a bit like organisms (although there’s no science to “memetics”, so I’m not going to argue about that). The choice of organism for the analogy reflects the writer’s prejudices about the religion, to some extent.
            I think memetics is helpful in the weaker sense. It’s obviously pseudoscience if you try to push it to far.

            So I’d agree that Christianity is a meme in the same way that atheism, science, Labour party political views, and so on are.

            I think arguing that religion is a mind virus is a bit of a cheap shot tbh.

            1. I don’t really recall any specific thing that StAG wanted me to do that I didn’t (erm, except at one stage they wanted me to consider helping with the youth group or something, and I didn’t want to because I wasn’t sure I’d get on with youth, because I was shy). I think rather that the idea of an absolute authority is worrying unless you absolutely trust that authority, and one of my major doubts was whether the God portrayed by StAG was trustworthy (partly because I took the OT record of God ordering genocide as historically accurate, partly because of concerns about hell).

              Yahweh is, as you know, the most unpleasant character in all fiction. In general, my response to a god which wanted me to do something would depend on whether I thought that thing was good. My impression of most gods is that the people who’ve devoted their lives to them are better than the gods themselves (a point Terry Pratchett makes in Small Gods).

              The characterisation of religion as a virus can apply if a religion is mostly about reproducing itself. Some of religions can be like that, to some extent (evangelical Christianity, Scientology, Mormonism, some kinds of Islam). A virus can be harmful to the host, too, which again, I’d say those religions can be.

              I wouldn’t characterise ideologies which aren’t hard-nosed replicators in the same way, so I’d argue that atheism (in itself, not New Atheism, which is evangelistic) and science are not in the same class. Party politics might be, in the sense that people are encouraged to canvas.

          2. You’re conflating two different senses of “autonomy”:
            (1) The ability to make free choices (as per the FWD)
            (2) The fact of those choices being no-one’s “business” but the chooser’s (what CSL was so keen to have at one point)

            If someone e.g. gets married, or joins the army, they sacrifice a large portion of their autonomy (2), without thereby ceasing to be a locus of free will. But actually it’s the Christian claim that, in the final analysis, autonomy (2) (auto nomos, “self-law”) doesn’t exist, because “God will bring every deed into judgement, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil”.

            We can all play the motivation game all day and get nowhere, as you point out in you comment about Rob (I assume that’s what you meant). I didn’t mean to imply that your reasons for relief were the same as CSL’s, or Rob’s, or anyone else’s. I just wanted to show that there’s no necessary connection between the emotion of release and “pressure to keep bailing”.

            Suppose I alter the saying to “un-Christian company corrupts Christian character”. Now we have a statement to do with concern about taking on the values of those surrounding you (or “following their gods”, as the OT warnings to Israel went). Again, this has nothing to do with “uncleanness as a thing that can get passed on without an obvious mechanism”.

            And no, I don’t think any belief is like an organism in any useful sense. You already have some idea of how dim a view I take of “memetics”.

            1. If, in the end, God’s going to judge everyone, then what’s the point of the ability to make free choices? Given how bad Hell is, it’d be better not to have been able to make those choices. “You have free choice, but I’ll fry you if you chose something I don’t like” limits my ability to chose, I think.

              I just wanted to show that there’s no necessary connection between the emotion of release and “pressure to keep bailing”.

              I agree that there’s no necessary connection, but I certainly found that in my own case.

              Suppose I alter the saying to “un-Christian company corrupts Christian character”. Now we have a statement to do with concern about taking on the values of those surrounding you (or “following their gods”, as the OT warnings to Israel went).

              Then I’d agree (but you’ve removed the moral dimension which religions tend to add to that sort of statement).

              1. “You have free choice, but I’ll fry you if you chose something I don’t like” limits my ability to chose, I think. As you know, this isn’t what (most) Christians think. It’s more like “You deserve this punishment, but if you make this choice you don’t have to face the punishment you rightly deserve”. A big difference being that in your version it sounds like God is responsible and almost ‘fries’ people on a whimsy, whereas in the other we rightly deserve judgement but because of God’s great love for us he provides an escape (to his own cost). Of course not all Christians believe in decision theology.

                1. Why do we deserve punishment? If it is because of our wrong choices, my argument applies. If it is because of someone else’s (Adam’s, say, although I thought you had abandoned creationism in Christianity 2.0), this is unjust.

                  Similarly, if God choses who to save and no-one is saved who God does not chose, by implication he choses who to damn (God’s knowledge and power being absolute, so that there’s no third position of people God just forgot about). Again, this is unjust.

                  I think we’ve discussed this previously. My position hasn’t changed since then: evangelical Christianity portrays God as evil.

                  1. I don’t know whether original sin is correct or not. In a sense it doesn’t matter, because even without original sin we (well, *I*, I don’t you whether you have made such choices) make bad choices.

                    If it is because of our wrong choices, my argument applies.
                    Your argument is wrong. You said “If, in the end, God’s going to judge everyone, then what’s the point of the ability to make free choices? Given how bad Hell is, it’d be better not to have been able to make those choices. “You have free choice, but I’ll fry you if you chose something I don’t like” limits my ability to chose, I think.”

                    Let me break that down in to pieces:
                    If, in the end, God’s going to judge everyone, then what’s the point of the ability to make free choices?
                    There is of course speculation about whether love has to be volitional act, and so if free will is a prerequisite of having beings that can love (one another, and God). I’m quite sure there are lots of valuable things possible because of free will like that. By just focussing on judgement you’re being a bit blinkered. One could similarly ask “If, in the end, a child is going to grow up and die, then what is the point of the ability to make a child?” – the question doesn’t really state it’s assumptions, which are, I think, flawed.

                    Given how bad Hell is, it’d be better not to have been able to make those choices.
                    IIRC there is someone in the Bible who says that (I *think* it’s someone who is already in hell). It pushes the blame on to God though, whereas the whole point of a free choice is that you could have chosen the path that didn’t lead to hell.

                    “You have free choice, but I’ll fry you if you chose something I don’t like” limits my ability to chose, I think.”
                    I agree with mattghg – because there are consequences to your actions doesn’t limit your ability to choose (in the sense that you are irresistibly compelled). It’s obvious consequences don’t that (that’s pretty obvious just from looking at the world in the general case, and personally at one point I thought hell was real but decided to choose the path that led to hell which refutes the stronger example you made).

                    If you mean the consequence of hell is so severe that you would choose heaven out of fear of hell, then great – that’s a good outcome. Hell is so bad that I hope everyone would know how bad it is, recognise how serious the offense must be to warrant it, repent, and be saved.

                1. Do please feel free to show us where Paul said that his choices shouldn’t have consequences.

                  He did say that choices that every human being makes shouldn’t have the consequence of eternal torture. You might notice a slight difference between that and “my choices should not have consequences”. Or, then again, you might not.

                  (Well, actually he didn’t say “choices that every human being makes”. But the Standard Evangelical Position on this, which so far as I can tell is what you’re offering here, is that everyone without exception — or, perhaps, with one or two supernaturally-enabled exceptions over the whole course of history — makes choices that will land them in hell unless they Turn To Christ. “Nice soul you’ve got here. Shame if anything happened to it, eh?”)

                  1. I understand this isn’t obvious from the layout of this thread-thing, but my last comment was actually in response to this remark of Paul’s:

                    “You have free choice, but I’ll fry you if you chose something I don’t like” limits my ability to chose, I think

                    To which I retort as above. Or, if you prefer: Your ability to choose is not diminished but the fact that your choices have certain consequences. Let’s be rigorous here. (Also, “I’ll fry you if you choose something I don’t like” is an utter caricature, as I explained to Paul, like, a year ago).

                    But then Paul said to Rob:

                    Why do we deserve punishment? If it is because of our wrong choices, my argument applies

                    What argument is that? Surely not the argument that we don’t really have free choices because some choices have horrible consequences – after all, now we’re talking about those consequences! You think it’s this, I guess:

                    He did say that choices that every human being makes shouldn’t have the consequence of eternal torture

                    But he didn’t say exactly that, either. Not at this point in the discussion. What he said was:

                    Given how bad Hell is, it’d be better not to have been able to make those choices

                    which is a stronger claim ((p & ~q is better than p & q) isn’t as strong a claim as (~p & ~q is better than p & q)), and is far from obvious, given:
                    (1) I have no idea what life would be like without free will.
                    (2) There are choices which lead to catastrophic consequences, but there is another choice which makes everything alright, namely
                    (3) “Given how bad Hell is” is one thing, but how good Heaven is has so far been left out of this discussion.

                    Standard Evangelical Position on this, which so far as I can tell is what you’re offering here

                    It is (I hope!). That said, I believe that (so far) this is also the standard Roman Catholic position and the standard Eastern Orthodox position as well – although I am of course open to correction on this point by any RC or EO believers out there.

                    “Nice soul you’ve got here. Shame if anything happened to it, eh?”

                    At the start of this thread, Paul was calling Christianity a parasite. I asked him for a supporting argument, and he declined. Now you’re comparing evangelism to unscrupulous insurance sales or something. OK. I’m simply going to ignore this kind of baseless slander as of (three, two, one) now. If you don’t think sin is serious, I don’t know what I can say that will change your mind. I admit that.

                    Paul,

                    Sorry to end up talking about you in the third person on your own blog.

                    1. Actually, I had correctly identified what comment you were replying to. And, I repeat, “my choices should not have consequences” is not the same as “it is unreasonable for *these* choices to have *those* consequences”, especially not when *these* choices are ones everyone makes and *those* consequences include eternal torment. You may repeat the same retort as often as you please, but that won’t make it any more reasonable.

                      I agree that “given how bad hell is, better not to be able to make those choices” is an odd way of putting it; I think Paul has been briefly suckered by the all-too-common Christian move of representing eternal damnation as something God simply has no choice about. Much better than hell-and-no-choices would be choices-and-no-hell, I expect. “How *good* Heaven is” seems to me to strengthen Paul’s argument that the choices aren’t real choices; the bigger the carrot and stick offered to encourage choice A over choice B, the less meaningful it is to say that you get to choose freely between A and B. (The reality is that the choice between A and B is not clearly offered; those allegedly inseparable consequences are not clearly enough indicated to make those who choose one way or another responsible for those consequences.)

                      I was comparing (some versions of) Christianity to the mafia, actually, which is somewhat worse than most unscrupulous insurance sales. And it’s not a baseless slander; evangelical Christianity really does represent God as offering that sort of choice. It’s not *my* fault that your religion has such nasty bits in it :-). I’ve no idea how you get from there to “you don’t think sin is serious”; that really *is* a baseless slander, since I’ve not suggested in the least that sin isn’t serious. We do, perhaps, disagree over just how serious, and over what an omnipotent and perfectly good being might be expected to do about it. As for what you can say that will change my mind: well, you could always try rational argument. But if you prefer to think that because I made an analogy you don’t like I’m impervious to reason, go ahead.

                    2. the bigger the carrot and stick offered to encourage choice A over choice B, the less meaningful it is to say that you get to choose freely between A and B No, I know that isn’t right. There was a point in my life where I believed in hell, and a fairly good appreciation of how bad it would be. Yet I decided that I was making a choice to reject God that would (I thought) lead to hell. I had no less free choice then than I have today, or that I have had at any point.

                    3. Oh, sure, there’s *some* real choice still available. Just as you have *some* real choice what to do if a lunatic threatens you at gunpoint and also offers you untold riches if you do what he says. But it’s a pretty attenuated sort of freedom, it seems to me, which makes nonsense of the claim that All The Trouble In The World is there for the sake of our precious freedom. If a supremely powerful god really cared as much about our freedom as would be needed to make the “free will defence” work, then I think we’d be entitled to expect more freedom than we have.

                      (There are two separate and kinda-opposite freedom deficits at work here. On the one hand, if I know that some choice of mine means the difference between eternal bliss and eternal torment, then that greatly reduces my ability to make a meaningful choice, just as being told to do something at gunpoint does only infinitely more so. On the other hand, if that’s true but I don’t know it, then my choice might be nicely free but you don’t get to claim that I freely chose damnation. That last claim isn’t one that anyone’s making a big deal of in this particular discussion, I think, but it’s commonly made when people start asking whether it’s reasonable to condemn people to hell for their very finite sins. )

                    4. Sorry, putting asterisks around ‘some’ does not nullify my point – which is that to deny that people have a free choice if they believe this stuff is true is wrong – I can say that with certainty as I was such a person and it was a choice I freely made.

                      If there was a metaphorical gun being held to my head (which I presume is the threat of hell), and untold riches on offer for doing what the gunman wants (which I presume is heaven, cute Christian girls, and so on). Then I very definitely had a completely free choice to choose what I wanted, and I chose to be shot (in your analogy).

                      Arguing that people have no choice here just doesn’t stand up.

                    5. Um, whatever gives you the idea that putting asterisks around “some” is meant to nullify anything? I agree with you: even at gunpoint, or even at hell-point, it’s possible to make a genuine choice. I can’t speak for Paul but I’m guessing he’d agree: all he says is that the threat of hell “limits my ability to choose”.

                      Are you trying to say that actually the threat of infinite harm, versus the offer of infinite benefit, *doesn’t* constitute a limit to one’s ability to choose the other way? Do you never say things like “I can’t do that, it’s against the law” or “I can’t go that way, there’s a 100-foot cliff and I might die” or “I can’t do that, I’d lose my job” or whatever?

                    6. Because I said I had a real choice, then you responded by saying I had *some* real choice. I presumed (maybe wrongly) that the contrast was meant to show that my choice was not as fully real as I thought it was, hence the asterisk emphasis on some.

                      I can’t speak for Paul but I’m guessing he’d agree: all he says is that the threat of hell “limits my ability to choose”.
                      But it doesn’t. My ability to choose in just the situation we’re talking about wasn’t limited. I made a choice, the choice that you’re saying was limited. Yet it can’t be limited because I made it.

                      Are you trying to say that actually the threat of infinite harm, versus the offer of infinite benefit, *doesn’t* constitute a limit to one’s ability to choose the other way?
                      Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.

                      Do you never say things like “I can’t do that, it’s against the law” or “I can’t go that way, there’s a 100-foot cliff and I might die” or “I can’t do that, I’d lose my job” or whatever?
                      Yes I do. I do that because language is imprecise and when making offhand remarks like that I inevitably use imprecise and incorrect language. I would try to avoid doing that in a discussion like this of course.

                      A more accurate rendering of the things you portray would be: “I don’t want to do that, it’s against the law, and because of the consequences of breaking the law I’m choosing to not do it”. The point being that the fact that there are consequences doesn’t limit my ability to choose at all. It influences the decision I might make, but that’s not a limitation.

                      If knowing that sin is so serious that we’re going to burn in hell for an eternity (not the only possible reading of the Bible I think, but certainly the most stark one (and the one I think most likely, I’ll add before you think I’m trying to wiggle out of things here)) makes us stop and consider if that’s what we really want, then I’m really glad it influences our choices. If a criminal (or potential criminal) decision as to whether to commit a crime is influenced by the knowledge that he will be punished for committing the crime, then that’s a great thing! That doesn’t mean he has no choice (otherwise we wouldn’t have any crime).

                    7. I think a person making a choice with a big threat hanging over them is (1) potentially still making a real choice but (2) less able to make a real choice than someone without the big threat attached to their decision. It may or may not feel like there’s less choice, on any given occasion.

                      Apparently you disagree; correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like your position is that any given choice-like-thing either is or isn’t a real choice, with no scope for different degrees of real-choice-ness. That seems very odd to me; perhaps the oddness will be clearer if we consider some different sorts of context where choice might be impaired: habit, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, hypnosis, starvation.

                      I agree (of course!) that if sin inevitably means damnation, then it’s good for the prospect of damnation to influence our choices. The points at issue are (1) whether it’s reasonable for an allegedly supremely good and powerful god to set things up that way, (2) whether it’s plausible that actually God didn’t really have any choice but to set things up that way (there is a certain sort of recursive irony around about here…), (3) whether, given his decision to set things up that way, it would in fact have been better for us not to have the option of making the choices that would land us in eternal damnation, and perhaps (4) whether, given the decision to set things up that way and our option to make the choice either way, we ought to have been better informed about the consequences of our choices. My own best-guess answers are: no, no, dunno, yes.

                    8. Apparently you disagree; correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like your position is that any given choice-like-thing either is or isn’t a real choice, with no scope for different degrees of real-choice-ness.
                      I’m not really sure what a not real choice would look like. I’ve only ever encountered real choices (should I follow God or not?, shall I kiss this nice Christian girl?, etc). I suppose you could say some things that happen are not-real choices (Shall I choose to obey gravity? Erk, yes I have to), but that would be a category mistake.

                      That seems very odd to me; perhaps the oddness will be clearer if we consider some different sorts of context where choice might be impaired: habit, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, hypnosis, starvation.
                      I think if you want to properly compare it then you ought to compare it with a crime where the criminal knows he may be (or perhaps will) be judged for the act. That’s the closest analogy I think.

                      (1) whether it’s reasonable for an allegedly supremely good and powerful god to set things up that way
                      Which I think resolves down to the question of whether an eternal conscious torment in hell is a reasonable punishment (assuming it is eternal etc). There are other angles to look at it from – some people interpret things as people making a choice as to whether they want God in their life, and if they choose no then ultimately they get exactly what they want, with absence of God (who is the source of all good things) being the worst thing that there could possibly be (i.e. hell). Personally I don’t buy in to that all that much, but I don’t want to completely write these things off because of my lack of understanding of them.

                      (2) whether it’s plausible that actually God didn’t really have any choice but to set things up that way (there is a certain sort of recursive irony around about here…)
                      I suspect that is unknowable. Or if it is knowable (which I doubt) we’re going to have to wait around for a long time for the philosophers to work it out (and even then, who knows, philosophy is quite the fuzzy thing).

                      (3) whether, given his decision to set things up that way, it would in fact have been better for us not to have the option of making the choices that would land us in eternal damnation
                      Not having the option of making the choices that land us in eternal damnation essentially means that we wouldn’t have free will, as it is by free choice we choose to sin (or at least I do). So it doesn’t make sense to say that it might be better for me to not have the option of making the choices that would land me in eternal damnation because to do so would mean robbing me of my free will, and without free will I do not think I would be a robhu anymore because free will is a required property of robhuness.

                      (4) whether, given the decision to set things up that way and our option to make the choice either way, we ought to have been better informed about the consequences of our choices
                      So essentially, are we culpable for our actions if the consequences are not explicitly spelled out?

                      Imagine that the consequences are never spelled out at all. Imagine that someone (for some reason) is completely unaware that there are police and that there is a system of law. If that person went out and raped someone, would it be a reasonable defence to say that they did not know there would be a consequence on them for their action?

                    9. An entirely not-real choice would be one where your decision was not made freely. For instance, that might happen as a result of hypnosis or brain damage or something. But perhaps your position is actually that everything that looks like a choice is a real choice, which is certainly simpler than what I’d thought it was :-).

                      The point of suggesting thinking about things like hypnosis is that they seem to me to give further reasons for thinking that any sort of free will we have comes in degrees: some choices are free-er than others.

                      Question 1 isn’t just about whether eternal torment is a reasonable punishment for how we actually behave, because even if it is God might have had the option of arranging for us to behave differently, so that eternal torment wasn’t necessary.

                      I agree that questions like “could a god such as Christians believe in have arranged things in such-and-such a hypothetical manner?” are going to be … tough to resolve definitively :-). But we might reasonably hope for probable answers. (Could a god such as Christians believe in have arranged for lightning to strike my house last night? It’s hard to see how the answer could be no, at least if by “Christians” you mean “most Christians” rather than “some unusually liberal Christians”. Could such a god have arranged that triangles have four sides? It’s hard to see how the answer could be yes; changing the meaning of “triangle” doesn’t count, btw.)

                      Yes, making us unable to land ourselves in hell by our choices would mean radical curtailment of our free will. Not necessarily complete abolition, though; for instance, if it’s true that becoming (genuinely, sincerely, etc.) a Christian reliably saves you from hell then God would only need to do enough free-will-overriding to make everyone become a Christian. It seems to me (assuming arguendo that he’s actually there, that Christianity is right, etc.) that by providing better evidence he could probably make almost everyone freely become a Christian, so the amount of will-overriding required might be very small. (Perhaps becoming a Christian is no use for salvation if it happens in response to compelling evidence? But I think that’s going to be a very difficult position to maintain…)

                      No, the point of my question 4 wasn’t to suggest that we wouldn’t be culpable if the consequences of our actions weren’t spelled out for us. (Consider, again, stupidity as a sort of parallel to wickedness. Wrong calculations are wrong even if you don’t know your bridge is going to fall down; but someone who cares about the people on the bridge, and knows that the calculations are wrong and can point that out, would surely do so to prevent the bridge from falling down. Similarly, if some decision of mine is going to land me in hell then someone who cares about my welfare might be expected to make sure I know before I have to make the decision; not to make me culpable or make me not culpable, but to make me less likely to land in hell.)

                      To repeat: I am *not* saying that culpability for an action is dependent on knowing the consequences. Especially, I’m not saying that culpability for an action that affects other people is dependent on knowing how you might get punished for it. I thought I’d been quite careful to avoid giving the impression of saying anything so stupid, but apparently I wasn’t careful enough :-).

                    10. But perhaps your position is actually that everything that looks like a choice is a real choice, which is certainly simpler than what I’d thought it was :-).
                      Oh, I choose to be a very simple man 😉 That may be an oversimplification, but it works for me AFAICT.

                      I agree that questions like “could a god such as Christians believe in have arranged things in such-and-such a hypothetical manner?” are going to be … tough to resolve definitively :-). But we might reasonably hope for probable answers.
                      I agree completely, it’s going to be tough to resolve. I don’t think I can prove to you that I’m right, but I do think that where we are now in the discussion shows that even the ‘hardline conservative evangelical’ position (which I guess is how people would classify my understanding of the Bible) stands up to quite a lot of scrutiny and stress testing.

                      Yes, making us unable to land ourselves in hell by our choices would mean radical curtailment of our free will. Not necessarily complete abolition, though;
                      I think, if we crudely say that the fair punishment for sin is hell, and define sin as choosing to disobey God / what is right – then to avoid us deserving hell we’d have to lack the ability to choose whether to do good or evil / obey or disobey God. It’s hard to imagine how I could be me anymore if you stripped that much away. How great it is (I think) that God does not strip those things away, I’m certainly very glad I have those choices available to me.

                      Then there’s the classic response that what God really wants is people that love him and love one another. If (as I think I said earlier.. this conversation has got a bit fragmented) love must be volitional then free will is a pre-requisite for things that love. Again, I’m really glad I can love.

                      then God would only need to do enough free-will-overriding to make everyone become a Christian
                      Sure. We’re back to the earlier thing about mechanics though. If you can do that, then it isn’t a choice it’s just a universal thing that everyone is saved because of Jesus’ death. ISTM God either doesn’t do things that way for some reason, or he can’t (because the nature of the escape route is that it must be chosen).

                      It seems to me (assuming arguendo that he’s actually there, that Christianity is right, etc.) that by providing better evidence he could probably make almost everyone freely become a Christian, so the amount of will-overriding required might be very small.
                      I wish there were better evidence available to people. I think that’s why God wants people like me to stay up in to the early hours of the morning arguing about it. I’d prefer trumpets (well, not loud ones, as I want to go to sleep) as they’d make my life a lot easier. I think provision of the better evidence to people that don’t have it is something he has largely left up to us.

                    11. (continued)

                      Wrong calculations are wrong even if you don’t know your bridge is going to fall down; but someone who cares about the people on the bridge, and knows that the calculations are wrong and can point that out, would surely do so to prevent the bridge from falling down. Similarly, if some decision of mine is going to land me in hell then someone who cares about my welfare might be expected to make sure I know before I have to make the decision; not to make me culpable or make me not culpable, but to make me less likely to land in hell.)
                      So the issue is why God doesn’t make all this stuff absolutely clear to everyone given that (presumably) he doesn’t want everyone to go to hell. I think he did quite a lot to get people to know, it’s not like he stood by on the sidelines doing nothing. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if it was like that. He sent his son in to the world to warn people, the son who we killed. The cost for saving us was enormous. Could he have done more? Should there be trumpets? I’d like there to be more trumpets, but I think the reasons there aren’t so many are complex. The complexities unlock other questions for which there seem to be no answers (e.g. it’s clear the world is not as God wants, and that there are demons as there are angels, and the demons are opposed to and work against God’s plans, how can this be if God is omnipotent?). I don’t have all the answers – I don’t think God has provided all the answers to these questions. I think he has provided enough answers that we can be sure he is exists, is loving, and is worthy of our worship. In other words I’m never going to understand it all, but I understand enough that I’m very confident that it’s right.

                    12. The cost was enormous, eh? Seems to me that the cost God allegedly paid was considerably less — infinitely less, indeed — than the cost every single non-saved human being is going to be paying, and God (more or less by definition) is much better able to pay that cost. However, never mind that; I don’t think anything much depends on how much it “cost” God to do whatever he did; actions don’t become more meritorious just because you make them needlessly painful.

                      Once again, it appears that standing up to scrutiny means avoiding the difficult questions. Billions of people are suffering eternal torment. It seems that God could avoid this, at least for most of them, by providing better information more clearly. So why doesn’t he? Oh, um, well, I don’t know, it’s all a mystery, but that’s OK because there are also *other* problematic questions with similarly unknown answers, like “why does God leave his world in such a mess even though he supposedly cares for its inhabitants and can do anything he wants?”. (Obviously a belief is better supported when it has two fatal objections than when it has only one.)

                      But, apparently, God has “provided enough answers that we can be sure he exists, is loving, and is worthy of our worship”. That seems to me rather like saying “I know my spouse is openly sleeping with a dozen other people, insults me in front of my friends, and only talks to me once a year. But I’ve got ample reasons for believing that s/he loves me beyond description and is perfectly faithful to me.” Or “I know my new theory of physics appears to predict that the planets will fall into the sun instead of orbiting it, and that protons decay with a half-life of one nanosecond, and that there’s no such thing as light. But it gives enough good answers that I’m sure it’s correct.”

                      Could you provide at least a brief sketch of what these answers are that God has provided and how they outweigh the obvious facts of (e.g.) living in a world full of evil and, according to you, billions of people suffering eternal torment?

                    13. Seems to me that the cost God allegedly paid was considerably less — infinitely less, indeed — than the cost every single non-saved human being is going to be paying
                      I don’t know why you think that.

                      and God (more or less by definition) is much better able to pay that cost
                      I don’t think it’s like being fined where people who have lots of money are less affected by the fine, I think it’s more like enduring pain or torture or something where there is little or no variation in how reduced the effect is. Given that the separation from God the father on the cross was total (the why have you forsaken me stuff) I’m inclined to conclude that it was less costly for God.

                      However, never mind that; I don’t think anything much depends on how much it “cost” God to do whatever he did; actions don’t become more meritorious just because you make them needlessly painful.
                      I don’t think God did make it ‘needlessly painful’. I don’t understand the mechanics of it all (I admitted that a while ago), but my lack of understanding of things as complex and external to my everyday experience is something I just wouldn’t expect to understand.

                      I think we’re going in circles here. You seem to think God is obligated to save people, and if he doesn’t he is bad, whereas I think we are rightly judged for our actions and if God chooses to save any of us that’s an amazing thing. I’m not sure this bit of the thread is really going anywhere.

                      “I know my spouse is openly sleeping with a dozen other people, insults me in front of my friends, and only talks to me once a year. But I’ve got ample reasons for believing that s/he loves me beyond description and is perfectly faithful to me.”
                      It’s not like that because I don’t consider God’s actions to be immoral. I don’t think there is good contradictory information as you are suggesting here.

                      Could you provide at least a brief sketch of what these answers are that God has provided and how they outweigh the obvious facts of (e.g.) living in a world full of evil and, according to you, billions of people suffering eternal torment?
                      I can give it a go, and will do in the coming weeks on my blog.

                    14. I agree that discussion of who got hurt more is neither central nor very productive, so let’s drop that.

                      Please imagine that the person talking about his/her spouse adds “I’m sure there’s a good reason why it’s right for her/him to be sleeping with all those other people and so on; I’m sure it’s the best thing for me somehow”. I’m sure *you* don’t consider the things you predicate of God to be immoral. Fair enough; I neither can nor wish to tell you what moral values you have to have. All I’m saying is that the way you say God behaves seems to me to be monstrously immoral, and that my understanding of the values most deeply embedded in Christianity (which may differ from yours, and may be wrong) has them condemning the behaviour you ascribe to God too.

                    15. If by “stands up to scrutiny” you mean “can be maintained by saying ‘dunno’ to the hardest questions” then sure, just about anything stands up to scrutiny :-). I don’t think you’ve given any reason to think it’s reasonable to suppose that human sins justify eternal torment.

                      Clearly Christians continue to disobey God (by which I mean: do things that are against what they consider, and what most people would consider if they took Christianity as premise and went from there, to be the will of God). So if you hope to escape hell then hell can’t be a necessary consequence of disobeying God. So saving everyone from hell wouldn’t require God to force everyone never to disobey him. So it doesn’t seem like keeping everyone out of hell would require a total negation of human freedom.

                      I agree that it could still be true that getting out of hell requires (e.g.) that one make *at least one* genuinely unforced choice, which God couldn’t interfere with without making it not work any more. (Though I have never yet heard any really coherent account of why that should be. It’s easy to argue that your position is sound when you’re allowed to invent constraints that supposedly apply even to God, without any actual evidence that he is under any such constraints or any good reason to think he should be…)

                      If, as appears to be the case, you agree with me that (assuming, as before, that Christianity is right) providing really good evidence would suffice to make the great majority of people become Christians of their own free will, then it seems to me that it’s not enough just to say “oh, well, God’s left it up to people like me to provide that evidence”. Because, as you may have noticed, People Like You are *not* providing anything like enough evidence to make the great majority of people become Christians. (Even in places where the great majority of people *are* Christians, this appears to be mostly because people follow their parents’ religion, not because of the weight of evidence they’re provided with. And globally, the majority of people are not Christians.) I’m not blaming you for this (because, e.g., you can’t provide evidence you don’t have). But it seems to me that God, if God there be, ought to be doing something more effective.

                      Imagine that there is a global epidemic of a terrible disease, and that you are a phenomenally rich and phenomenally clever person who has just discovered a simple cure for it. You could make use of your tremendous wealth to set up manufacturing facilities everywhere, hire lots of people to provide the curative agent to everyone, provide demonstrations so that people can tell your cure really does cure, keep an eye on the operations to make sure they’re actually working, etc. Instead, you pick a few not-specially-reliable people and say “Go and hand out the stuff”. It turns out that they do a rather lousy job of this and billions of people are dying because they aren’t doing it well; but you don’t switch to a better way of getting the job done. I would not be greatly impressed by the depth of your concern or by your competence in this situation. I would not take “Oh, well, you see, I chose to leave it up to them” as a good explanation of why you weren’t doing better.

                    16. If by “stands up to scrutiny” you mean “can be maintained by saying ‘dunno’ to the hardest questions” then sure, just about anything stands up to scrutiny :-). I don’t think you’ve given any reason to think it’s reasonable to suppose that human sins justify eternal torment.
                      That’s not what I mean by stands up to scrutiny. I don’t think Christians have complete answers to some questions, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. What I find more telling is that when people say things like “Hell is clearly wrong because I feel like it’s wrong” they’re relying on ‘common sense’ which I don’t think is reliable when applied to things this far removed from our common experience, or when they say “Hell is clearly wrong because it is an infinite punishment for a finite crime” you find that when you open that up a bit it becomes clear that we have such a sketchy view of all of these things that you can’t state that dogmaticly – how can we tell from our vantage point how bad sin is or what the correct way of determining a punishment for it would be?

                      From the perspective of God not being real all this stuff is not going to be convincing. I don’t think it should be. I don’t expect to argue a really strong positive cas about hell just from hell. I think if you come Christianity from other angles, become convinced that God is real, then it is reasonable to say “I don’t entirely understand this, but I trust that God who is much greater than me has got it right”.

                      Clearly Christians continue to disobey God (by which I mean: do things that are against what they consider, and what most people would consider if they took Christianity as premise and went from there, to be the will of God). So if you hope to escape hell then hell can’t be a necessary consequence of disobeying God.
                      Hold on – this doesn’t make sense. The argument Christians make is two stage. First that our sin means we deserve punishment. Then that because of Jesus’ death on the cross this escape route is open to us if we choose to accept it. Your argument is locked in stage 1, but that’s not what Christians believe.

                      I agree that it could still be true that getting out of hell requires (e.g.) that one make *at least one* genuinely unforced choice, which God couldn’t interfere with without making it not work any more. (Though I have never yet heard any really coherent account of why that should be. It’s easy to argue that your position is sound when you’re allowed to invent constraints that supposedly apply even to God, without any actual evidence that he is under any such constraints or any good reason to think he should be…)
                      … and it’s easy to argue that God is wrong when you presume to understand the mechanics of how salvation must work and how God could have better designed the world without any actual evidence of these things.

                      If, as appears to be the case, you agree with me that (assuming, as before, that Christianity is right) providing really good evidence would suffice to make the great majority of people become Christians of their own free will
                      Err, no, I don’t think that 🙂 It might be the case, but I don’t think so.

                      Anyway, as I said – I don’t think God is obligated to provide us with salvation or knowledge of salvation. We’re rightly judged guilty even if we choose to do things that we know are wrong but don’t know we’re going to be punished for them. As I said in my example of the criminal who does not know of the existence of police or a legal system. That God made any effort to save any of us is breathtakingly amazing and loving, it is not something we deserve.

                    17. There’s a difference between not having answers to questions like “so, according to your theory, what should the ratio between the masses of the proton and the electron be?” and not having answers to questions like “so, according to your theory, the proton and the electron should have the same mass”. Let’s call them puzzles and problems, respectively.

                      For Christians, I think “who exactly ends up saved?” is a puzzle. It doesn’t matter much if you don’t know the answer. But “how come your supposedly loving god has made the universe such that billions of people — almost certainly the majority of people, and perhaps a large majority — end up suffering eternal torment?” — that’s a problem, not a puzzle. On the face of it, it indicates something badly wrong. Sure, it might turn out that there’s some subtle or surprising reason why it turns out not to, and you’re entitled to point that out, but that doesn’t really help very much. There *might* be some way for a mediaeval-style cosmology to produce the results we observe, but it sure looks like there isn’t. So we reject the mediaeval-style cosmology. There *might* be some way for a supremely loving and powerful god to make a world most of whose allegedly-loved inhabitants end up in eternal torment, but it sure looks like there isn’t. So I reject Christianity-with-hell.

                      I don’t think I’m arguing from the perspective that God isn’t real; I’m saying “let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Christianity is basically right; now, what about hell?”.

                      I don’t understand your claim that I’m “locked in stage 1”. I do understand that Christians who believe in hell believe (1) that our sins deserve eternal punishment in hell and (2) that God has provided a way out by means of What Jesus Did, open to anyone who chooses to accept it. (Some Christians would delete that last clause. I don’t think you’re one of them.) So far as I’m aware, nothing I’ve said has ignored either half, or failed to take either half seriously. Could you explain a bit more explicitly?

                      I don’t “presume to understand the mechanics of how salvation must work”. I have not at any point made any claim about the mechanics of how salvation must work.

                      I admit (as I have already admitted) that I don’t know for sure what options might have been open to a supremely good and powerful god when setting up our world. If you take that to mean that no argument is legitimate that involves saying “well, you say God did X, but it seems like he could have done something along the lines of Y, which would surely have been better because P, Q, and R” … then congratulations, you’ve made your belief in the goodness of God entirely inaccessible to rational criticism, and thereby (I think) entirely meaningless.

                      I’ve made no claims about what God (if God there be) is *obliged* to do. I doubt that obligation is a concept one can apply to God, should he exist. I’ve made claims about what a being who is as good and as powerful as God is alleged to be should be expected to do, and about how that matches up with how the world actually appears to be. If you present me with a chess game in which white gets mated on move 15 after making several elementary blunders and tell me it was played by Garry Kasparov at the height of his powers, against another grandmaster, then I’m going to be skeptical — not because I think Kasparov was obliged to play good moves, but because I think he quite reliably did. If you show me the first 14 moves, I’ll be a bit less skeptical — I’m no Kasparov, so maybe all those weird moves by white are much better than they look — but still (rightly, I claim) very skeptical. (He’s lost his queen, his king is being attacked, his pawns are a mess; sure, *maybe* there’s some amazingly clever way out, but it really doesn’t look like it.) And if instead you present me with a world full of evil and stupidity and suffering and tell me a supremely good and powerful god made it that way (yeah, I know, that’s a simplification; this comment is too long already) then again I’m going to be skeptical. “It looks like this could all have been done much, much better” isn’t *proof*, but it most certainly is *evidence* if anything is evidence at all.

                    18. I’m going to have to apologise and say I don’t have the time right now to continue this discussion. Maybe I will in the near future, but more likely you’ll pop in on the posts I’ll be making and we can argue again there 😉

                      I’m also not sure any progress is being made here. Perhaps that it is because I’m not particularly clear in putting my point across.

                      I may pop in here and there and say bit’s and pieces if I’m terribly bored at work 😉

                    19. OK, no problem. I was feeling bad about contributing to keeping you up at 2.30am anyway. My apologies for any lack of progress that was my fault.

                    20. It was 3:30 AM actually… Anyway, it was a fun discussion (one I’ll probably not be able to resist commenting on anyway (especially now pw201 has made a post pointing back to this post)).

                    21. I think a person making a choice with a big threat hanging over them is (1) potentially still making a real choice but (2) less able to make a real choice than someone without the big threat attached to their decision.

                      So do you think that choices are least free when they have significant consequences, and most free when they’re inconsequential?

                      I disagree; I think, if anything, it’s closer to the opposite. An inconsequential decision like what to have for lunch is probably fairly deterministic, based on how hungry I am and what else I’ve eaten recently and how nicely the food is presented. I don’t put much effort or thought into choosing. But if I’m making an important decision, where a lot is riding on it, then I’m actively choosing, as a conscious, decision-making agent. I can tell you the thought processes I went through in order to make my decision.

                      Also, think about fiction: often the most compelling moment in a story is when the hero has to make a decision that has huge consequences. It wouldn’t be compelling if we didn’t believe (within the fictional universe, obviously) that he was making a free choice – that he could choose either way – that a different hero in the same set of external circumstances may well have chosen differently.

                      All choices have some consequences, even if those consequences are extremely trivial. You are always choosing between competing pressures, deciding which of them is more important to you. I don’t see how enlarging the consequences makes the choice less free.

                    22. No, I don’t quite think that choices are least free when they have most consequences. I think they are least free when the pressure on the person choosing to choose one way or the other is greatest. Actually, even that isn’t quite right. Let me make a mathematical analogy, since you’re a mathmo :-). Suppose you flip a biased coin. The entropy of the result — the average amount of information in it — is – p log p – (1-p) log (1-p), which is biggest when p = 1/2 and tiny when p is very close to 0 or 1. But if the coin actually comes up the unexpected way, the amount of information in *that* result is very large. Similarly: a choice made under strong pressure is, on average, not very free; if you actually manage to make the “unexpected” choice then it’s a more-than-averagely free choice, but usually you don’t and on balance it ends up being less free. I actually think the analogy with entropy is quite close, but I’m prepared to be persuaded that there’s a major problem with it :-).

                      Large consequences aren’t quite the same thing as high pressure. Firstly, because we care more about some consequences than others. In those compelling fictional moments of choice, the usual setup is that the hero has a lot of pressure on him (it’s usually him rather than her) to choose the “wrong” way. So he ends up choosing the right way despite the pressure, which is why it feels like a particularly big and genuinely-chosen choice. Secondly, because there are other forms of pressure; for instance, force of habit (can our hero resist the urge for another cigarette when the smoke may be seen by the enemy?), social norms (can our hero work together with a member of the tribe he’s been brought up to hate?), moral constraints (can our hero kill an innocent child in cold blood when it’s the only way to save the galaxy?), bodily demands (can our hero keep going despite the tiredness and hunger? can he resist the seductions of the voluptuous enemy agent?), and so on.

                    23. Your entropy analogy is good – it helps disambiguate between choosing in accordance with strong pressure (what you’re saying is wrong with the Christian message) and choosing against strong pressure (our fictional hero fighting against the odds). I think my post may have conflated these slightly.

                      Can I clarify what you’re saying: are you saying that, for a given unbalanced choice (i.e. one with strong pressure in one direction), we can’t know a priori how free it is until the decision has been made, and then if the person chose the “difficult” option they did so freely, but if they chose the “easy” option they did so much less freely? Or are you saying that, if the choice is known to be unbalanced, we can say a priori that it’s not very free, because most people will choose the easy option and that will average out with the few who choose the difficult option?

                      (The answer may be obvious if I were more familiar with the maths in the entropy analogy, but I hadn’t actually met that formula before.)

                      I think there are logical difficulties with the former. Suppose you have a smoker trying to quit. Clearly it’s more difficult for him to resist a cigarette than it is for a lifelong non-smoker. But if he successfully resists and you congratulate him on his free choice against the odds, you can’t also say, if he gives in, “It was inevitable, he wasn’t free, he couldn’t have chosen any differently.” Surely both possible outcomes have to be as free or unfree as each other? (I don’t think free/unfree is the same thing as easy/difficult.)

                      If it’s the latter, that makes sense, but I think it’s a statistical statement which relies on there being multiple instances of the choice. (You can encode 1000 flips of your biased coin in fewer than 1000 bits, but you still need 1 bit to encode 1 flip, regardless of whether it came up the expected way or the other way.) So it depends whether you think every choice that every person has to make is unique. I think the case is arguable either way, but if they do turn out to be unique then I don’t think the statistical principles can be applied, in the same way that you can’t use gas-diffusion laws to predict the motion of a single particle.

                    24. What I think I’d say (though I’m not entirely sure it’s right) is: (1) as you say, we can’t know in advance how freely the person will choose, (2) more people will make the much-easier choice (that’s almost what “much easier” means), (3) in some sense the right way to think about how much freedom that choice itself introduces to the world is to look at the average — it might help to imagine millions of people making similar choices, so that most of them make the easier decision, etc. — and (4) the average works out so that a more-pressured decision introduces less freedom to the world.

                      I’d say about the smoker either “coo, well done, that was a really difficult choice” or “ah well, it was almost inevitable; try again”. (It wouldn’t be “it was inevitable, he wasn’t free” unless there was really no possibility of choosing to resist.)

                      On reflection, I think I dislike some terminology I’ve used here. The quantity that’s different in the two cases isn’t exactly “freedom”, it’s something more like “decision”. Freedom is (at least according to my analogy) expected quantity of decision.

                      I don’t think the free-ness of a decision can really be affected by whether or not there happen to be lots of other people making very similar decisions, so I’m happy saying “this is how it is in the many-instances case, so that’s also how it is in the single-instance case”. And since I’m strongly inclined towards the “many worlds” view of QM, maybe there are in effect *always* many instances, with many of them going each possible way…

                    25. On reflection, I think I dislike some terminology I’ve used here. The quantity that’s different in the two cases isn’t exactly “freedom”, it’s something more like “decision”. Freedom is (at least according to my analogy) expected quantity of decision.

                      So what are we actually discussing: freedom/unfreedom, in the sense of how much an individual is able to exercise their free will at the point of decision; or ease/difficulty; or some kind of information-theoretic metric?

                      Freedom/unfreedom seems to be the only one with any bearing on the wider discussion.

                      The information-theoretic quantity is intellectually interesting, but unless it corresponds to how much the individual gets to exercise their free will it’s not relevant to the discussion about whether Christianity is true and whether it’s reasonable for God to expect people to choose him. (Phrases like “how much freedom that choice itself introduces to the world” make me think you’re conceptualising it as an abstract informational quantity very similar to entropy, rather than something the individual making the decision experiences.)

                      And if it’s ease/difficulty, then your complaint would boil down to “God makes it too easy for people to choose him”, which is the opposite of what you’re saying in the last paragraph of this post.

                    26. I’m suggesting that the three notions are closely related, or perhaps even identical. Free will is notoriously difficult to give a satisfactory definition of, but freedom seems to be (at least) closely related to lack of constraint, and I think it’s clear that constraint comes in degrees, and I think following those ideas through leads fairly inevitably to something like what I’m suggesting. (I expect the logarithms are optional.)

                      I’m open to being shown other ways to deal with the question, though. How would you go about evaluating how much freedom someone has in a given situation?

                      The choice is experienced and made by the individual. I could equally have written “how much freedom the agent gains by having that choice to make in those circumstances” or something.

                      As for ease versus difficulty of choosing God: yes, there are two separate issues that pull opposite ways. If we pretend that God has actually told us about our situation (our situation, that is, as described by believers in eternal torment) then we don’t get much of a choice because it’s like being threatened at gunpoint only much worse. (Of course sometimes people *do* manage to make a clearly-genuine choice despite such threats, as Rob says he did with hell.) But if we drop that pretence, there’s a different problem, which is the one I’m whingeing about in the paragraph you cite.

                      One might hope that these problems cancel out somehow, but it doesn’t seem to me that they do. It’s a bit like the old ethical puzzle: A, B and C are travelling through the desert; A (who hates C) puts poison in his water bottle, and then B (who also hates C, but doesn’t know what A has done) puts a hole in his water bottle so that it all runs out before he ever gets to drink it; so who killed A? I’m not sure that question has an answer, but C isn’t any better off for being killed in two “opposite” ways. And we aren’t any better off for being mistreated by God in two “opposite” ways, namely (1) being required to do certain things on pain of eternal torment and (2) not being told about #1.

                    27. but freedom seems to be (at least) closely related to lack of constraint
                      Do you mean constraint as in determinism, or as in coercion, or as in pressure from a conflicting value/drive/appetite in an individual’s make-up? They have to be distinguished, otherwise “But I really really wanted to” would be a valid defence in law.

                      How would you go about evaluating how much freedom someone has in a given situation?
                      I think – tentatively – I would say all decisions not actually forced by determinism are equally free, but not equally easy. Someone coerced by a gun to their head is still totally free to make either decision (if not, there would be no martyrs); it’s just that we don’t blame them (legally or morally) if they make the self-preserving decision, because we recognise that the alternative would have been extremely difficult and perhaps pointless.

                      As for ease versus difficulty of choosing God: yes, there are two separate issues that pull opposite ways. …One might hope that these problems cancel out somehow, but it doesn’t seem to me that they do…. we aren’t any better off for being mistreated by God in two “opposite” ways, namely (1) being required to do certain things on pain of eternal torment and (2) not being told about #1.
                      OK, I see what you mean. Fair point.
                      About “being required to do certain things on pain of eternal torment”, I’d like to repeat some comments I made to someone else on this thread:
                      “It’s not punishment for not believing, it’s punishment for our sins. Your comment sounds as though the default is heaven and then God goes round finding all the non-believers and chucking them out, whereas the default is hell and then God goes round finding the believers and rescuing them because they’ve accepted his gift of salvation. It’s like saying medical science kills people who refuse to take their medication, when actually medical science saves people who do take their medication (not 100% of the time, but it’s only an analogy).”

                      I’ll try to address the “not being told” bit on the other branch of the thread.

                    28. I think your view and mine are pretty much opposites. I don’t think determinism, as such, need imply lack of free will (if determinism is right then “free” needs a definition like “causally dependent on one’s preferences”; the details are notoriously difficult, but it’s not like “free” is actually any easier to define if you don’t assume determinism), but I think it comes in degrees.

                      I don’t understand why a decision at gunpoint has to be “*totally* free” for there to be martyrs. Not unless you take it as axiomatic that “totally free” and “not at all free” are the only options, which seems to me a very implausible position.

                      Yes, I do understand that hell isn’t generally conceived as a punishment for not believing. I’ve tried to avoid saying anything that makes it look like I think otherwise, but obviously I didn’t quite succeed in this case. (Unfortunately, it turns out that a profusion of bite-sized comments isn’t a great medium for serious theological discussion. Now there’s a surprise :-).) So, anyway: no, I don’t imagine that (either in reality, or in Christians’ opinions, or in any compromise between the two) God goes around finding unbelievers and throwing them into hell for not believing. But if the situation is “if you don’t do X then you go to hell”, and if God knows this and could have set things up differently, then I think it’s reasonable to say that God is requiring you to do X on pain of hell even if it’s something else that provides the justification (such as it is) for burning your soul. It might be a different matter if God had no choice (as some Christians claim, more or less), but that option is one of those that involves postulating peculiar necessary truths for which there’s no other evidence besides “if this were true then it would be easier to believe in my preferred version of Christianity”.

                    29. Complete tangent:
                      who killed [C]? I’m not sure that question has an answer

                      It seems to me that B did (assuming the cause of C’s death was thirst), although A is guilty of attempted murder. I think the situation is equivalent to A and B each trying to shoot C, and A missing and B succeeding. (Which seems more straightforward.) A’s poisoning attempt was thwarted by forces outside his control, but the victim was killed by someone else.

                      I think the objection “but if B hadn’t acted, C would still have died” is a red herring. In the shooting example, maybe A wouldn’t have missed if B hadn’t appeared and startled C, causing him to leap out of the way; but I don’t think that changes the charges of attempted murder and murder respectively.

                    30. That’s certainly quite a plausible answer. I remain unconvinced that there’s much point in distinguishing between A’s action and B’s, since for both of them (1) the agent intended to kill C, and (2) C did in fact die, and (3) C would still have died without the other person’s action. But if for legal purposes it were necessary to set down one of them as the killer, I expect your answer is as good as any.

                      (What if B, instead of putting a hole in C’s water bottle, put in a substance that is poisonous on its own, and that reacts with A’s poison to make yet a third poison? If you still think the answer is that B was the real killer, is your intuition disturbed at all by considering a scenario where instead B puts something into C’s water bottle that’s unpleasant but not deadly on its own, but that reacts with A’s poison to make a different deadly poison?)

                    31. Actually, my intuition finds your second example more straightforward than your first. I think in your second example A is the killer; and similarly if they each put in a substance that was unpleasant but not deadly and the two substances reacted to make a deadly poison, neither would be the killer and both ought to be legally guilty of manslaughter – just as if a single enemy put in an unpleasant substance which reacted fatally with a medicine he didn’t know the victim was taking, he ought to be guilty of manslaughter.

                      Your first example is less clear, IMO. I think I’d have to say they both killed him. It’s not quite the same as the original story – in the original story B’s action actually thwarted A’s murder attempt, whereas here it doesn’t. This example has a symmetry that the original story lacks; there is nothing to distinguish A and B except chronological order, which seems an arbitrary criterion, and even one which it might not be possible to establish afterwards (A and B, with remorseful goodwill and/or lie detectors, might not be able to figure out which of them acted first). I think this one is equivalent to the case where they each put in a poison and the poisons don’t react, so the bottle contains two poisons each of which is sufficient to kill C.

                    32. The second example was conditional on your thinking “definitely B” about the first example. Since that wasn’t your reaction to it, I’m not particularly surprised that you didn’t find the second example difficult :-). Of course it’s not the same as the original story; what would be the point of offering something that was? I suppose my higher-level point is that by tweaking stories of this sort one can generally find situations in which any given person can’t give a confident verdict of the form “A rather than B killed him”.

                      The whole thing’s a digression anyway…

                    33. I forgot to say something: what I’m comparing to the mafia isn’t *evangelism*. The person extorting protection money in my analogy is God, not you.

                      And, since I claimed my slander isn’t baseless, I suppose I’d better justify it. Christianity (in the version that, AFAICT, you espouse) says that sin is soooo serious that it requires those who commit it to burn eternally in hell; not even omnipotence can (without compromising justice) simply set that punishment (or “consequence”, as you may prefer to call it, ignoring e.g. Jesus’s admonishment to “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”) aside; but, on the other hand, that the on-the-face-of-it-irrelevant action of Turning To Christ can entirely, or almost entirely, get rid of that “consequence”.

                      Let’s turn that around: sin is so trifling that one can (without compromising justice) entirely escape its consequences provided one sincerely Turns To Christ (despite, e.g., continuing to sin at more or less the same rate as before), and yet God leaves everyone else (insert here the usual, no doubt perfectly sincere, pious platitudes to the effect that of course we don’t know the will of God and he may in his infinite grace choose to save more people than we imagine; but heaven forfend that choices not have consequences) to burn.

                      Which, I submit, is not so very different from your classic protection racket. There’s a threat (shame if something happened to that nice soul of yours such as, say, eternal damnation). It’s a very big threat. There’s nothing remotely resembling a decent justification for it (please feel free to demonstrate that I’m wrong, but I’ll take quite some convincing). There’s a way out, which curiously has rather little to do with the actual threat (e.g., it doesn’t involve, you know, actually not sinning any more). The fact that this way out is available suffices to show that God does, in fact, have a choice in the matter, so you don’t get to claim that eternal damnation is just some kind of inevitable “consequence” of sin that God couldn’t prevent.

                      I’m sorry that you don’t like the comparison. But, unfortunately, if you hold beliefs that entail that God is a monster then every now and then people are going to be tactless enough to point it out.

                    34. The fact that this way out is available suffices to show that God does, in fact, have a choice in the matter, so you don’t get to claim that eternal damnation is just some kind of inevitable “consequence” of sin that God couldn’t prevent.
                      This raises the question, if Jesus’ death on the cross provides a way out then why is it necessary for people to also choose to turn to Christ to get access to that way out? Is it an inevitable consequence of the ‘mechanics’ of how that works, or is it an ‘arbitrary’ additional step that God introduces?

                      I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t think the mechanics of these things is spelled out in great detail in the Bible (if at all) because there is no real need for us to know that sort of stuff. It could be an inevitable consequence.

                      If it’s not then I don’t think it can be right to blame God for the problem of sin (you could blame him for creating you at all I suppose, but personally I’d rather have existed) when he actually has provided a way of dealing with the problem at great personal cost.

                    35. Yup, I agree that that’s a good question. (FWIW, when I was a Christian my answer was that anyone at all could, in principle, be saved by means of What Jesus Did. So “no one comes to the Father except by me”, but that isn’t the same as “… except by joining my club”. I think this is theologically quite satisfactory. Whether there’s any answer to the question “And how often, roughly, do this happen?” that doesn’t either clash too badly with the Christian tradition or make God out to be monstrous, I don’t know.)

                      I’m not sure what you mean by “If it’s not” at the start of your last paragraph — there are a couple of different things you could be referring to. But (1) even if God somehow had no choice about tying salvation to Turning To Christ, there remains the question of why he’s not done a better job of getting the news out. “Beware of the Leopard” and all that. On the other hand, (2) if in fact The Whole Jesus Thing enables everyone to be saved, or everyone other than major-league psychopaths, or something, then I agree that that makes it much harder to argue “hell is evil and unjust, therefore Christianity is wrong”. So, for that matter, would annihilationism, which seems pretty unobjectionable theologically and is quite popular these days even among evangelicals. So, perhaps despite appearances in this thread, I’m not inclined to make a big deal about hell — except in discussion with people who appear to be attached to the traditional idea of eternal torment for (more or less) everyone who doesn’t join the club.

                      (Well, there’s also the fact that for most of Christianity’s history that traditional idea seems to have been more or less universally believed. If I’m right in thinking that the traditional idea of hell is disgustingly unjust, then I think that’s evidence that God, should he exist, isn’t all that concerned to keep Christians from near-unanimous error. How much that matters is debatable.)

                    36. Cards on the table: I do think an eternal conscious torment is the most likely reading of the Bible, and I am committed to believing what God has written in the Bible. I don’t think it’s the only possible reading that is faithful to the text, but I do think it is the most likely. I went to a really good talk at Spring Harvest about this actually (the audio of which I could probably put somewhere if you wanted to listen to it).

                      I think there is room for saying people can come to the Father without knowing Jesus’ name, etc, except that it doesn’t really explain why Jesus sent his disciples out to preach the gospel in the knowledge that they would be persecuted and martyred. If salvation is universal and the gospel is more like an optional add-on that makes people have more fuzzy warm feelings in their life then it probably isn’t worth being martyred over.

                      If it’s not means “If it’s not an inevitable consequence of the mechanics of it”, i.e. if God chooses to add that on as a requirement. I don’t think that’s option 1 or 2 that you gave. Option 1 was what I was proposing about it being a mechanical / unavoidable consequence thing. In that case why hasn’t God got the message out more clearly? I suppose trumpets from heaven might be better in that you don’t have to sit around waiting for Christian missionaries to come to your country (which of course might not happen). There’s the passage in Romans of course (which you may not find helpful). I think there are grey areas in all this – I don’t deny that, but I think I’m being faithful to the general thrust of scripture here.

                      Is it wrong for God to punish us if he doesn’t both provide an escape route and make us aware of it? I’m not sure that it is wrong. If our sinful actions deserve judgement it doesn’t seem right to blame the judge for doling out justice. We should have no expectation that we will receive leniency, and that in some sense the judge is unjust if he does not provide such an escape for us.

                    37. I think the risk of martyrdom could potentially be justified by things other than having the one and only recipe for salvation. For instance, having a recipe that raises one’s chance of salvation from 50% to 90%. Or having a message that enables people to live far better lives here and now. I agree that a mere increase of warm fuzzies wouldn’t be likely to be worth risking martyrdom for. It’s far from clear that what Jesus is reported as having sent people out to preach (either during his life, or after the Resurrection) is The Gospel in the Two-Ways-To-Live sense of a recipe for salvation. (See, e.g., the discussion of N T Wright over on your LJ recently.)

                      Getting the message out doesn’t just mean making sure people hear it. Not when there are lots of other people with incompatible messages. Not when the people with The Message have little evidence to offer that their message is the right one. Not when the very need for such a message is so non-obvious. The advantage of trumpets from heaven would be that they’re better evidence, not that they get the message out quicker.

                      What Paul says in Romans 1 about God’s nature being clear to everyone from looking at the universe is obviously wrong. Perhaps it was true, or something-like-true, when he wrote it (e.g. because there was then no decent naturalistic account of how living things come to fit their environments so well), but it’s obviously wrong now.

                      I don’t think I think (and I certainly haven’t *said*, unless I goofed) that punishment is never just unless there’s a well signposted escape route. The trouble is that hell is an utterly disproportionate punishment for human sin, and that we don’t actually have the option of living sinless lives any more than we have the option of never making mistakes or never getting ill. It is unjust to punish people for something they have no way of avoiding. (Of course there’s no logical impossibility about never making a mistake, and if someone were miraculously preserved from all error that wouldn’t make them non-human. It also wouldn’t be evidence that the rest of us have any such option. The analogy to sinlessness is left as an exercise for the reader.)

                    38. It’s far from clear that what Jesus is reported as having sent people out to preach (either during his life, or after the Resurrection) is The Gospel in the Two-Ways-To-Live sense of a recipe for salvation. (See, e.g., the discussion of N T Wright over on your LJ recently.)
                      As I said in the discussion over on my LJ, I don’t think that a few scholars have come up with a different idea that is very new, a minority view, and one where N.T. Wright says “there are probably almost as many ‘new perspective’ positions as there are writers espousing it – and I disagree with most of them.” is strong enough to warrant a “It’s far from clear” statement. “There is a tentative minority theory…” seems more reasonable.

                      The advantage of trumpets from heaven would be that they’re better evidence, not that they get the message out quicker.
                      I agree, trumpets from heaven would be better in all kinds of ways. That does not appear to be the way God chooses to do things though. He largely works through mankind to do all this stuff.

                      What Paul says in Romans 1 about God’s nature being clear to everyone from looking at the universe is obviously wrong
                      Well it depends what is meant by God’s nature. If it is meant to indicate at the very least that God exists, then arguably the case is much stronger now now that we know how ‘finely tuned’ the universe is. Woah, before you write a large treatise disagreeing with me – it might be better to note that it’s 2:30AM, and that I’m going to write a post about this in the near future which might be a better place for an extensive rebuttal 😉

                      I don’t think I think (and I certainly haven’t *said*, unless I goofed) that punishment is never just unless there’s a well signposted escape route
                      I thought you were saying that, but perhaps I’ve just read that in to what you were saying.

                      The trouble is that hell is an utterly disproportionate punishment for human sin
                      I’m not sure how I would work out what an appropriate punishment was as I do not have the right vantage point / knowledge with which to make such a determination. I could throw out trite phrases like “Ah, but it’s sin against an infinite God” and so on – but I think such phrases merely demonstrate that we do not understand how to work out what an appropriate punishment would be for our sin because we cannot properly appreciate the sin itself never mind anything else that would have to go in to the equation (if we even knew what that was) that would calculate a fair punishment.

                      that we don’t actually have the option of living sinless lives any more than we have the option of never making mistakes or never getting ill
                      Obviously this is a complex subject that I can’t really do justice to here, tonight, in an LJ comment – but I don’t think it is like never making mistakes. If you think of sin as being about volitional acts then it’s quite different from making mistakes. Mistakes are not volitional.

                      It is unjust to punish people for something they have no way of avoiding.
                      I’m a bit tempted to say that God can do what he wants, but I know the doors that opens. However the temptation remains there.

                      Of course (I’ll just add) I don’t think Christianity is true because of all this stuff. I think it’s true because of other stuff. All the things you’ve raised (many of which are admittedly quite hard to respond to) do not represent critical hits to Christianity AFAICT. I think it stands up to critical analysis pretty well.

                    39. On the meaning of “gospel”: note, e.g., that the 1911 Britannica article on “gospel”, written long before N T Wright, says e.g. “The disciples of Jesus proclaimed the Gospel that He was the Christ.”; the idea that “gospel” doesn’t always mean “how to get saved” is not unique to Wright and I think is far from being a tentative minority theory.

                      Fine-tuning arguments are interesting, but I don’t so far find them very convincing. (But they do constitute one of the few lines of theistic argument that I can imagine becoming quite convincing in the future.)

                      I agree that it’s hard to know for sure what constitutes a reasonable response to any given sin. And I suppose it could in principle turn out that the Right Thing is to burn people for eternity for any sin, no matter how trifling. But I think it’s about as obvious that that isn’t in fact the Right Thing as, say, that murdering people is usually wrong, or that fooling large numbers of people into accepting a totally false religion by causing error-packed scriptures to be written is wrong. Any degree of moral skepticism that leaves that last option seriously open completely undermines any form of religion that goes much beyond deism, I think; and I think you need that much moral skepticism before it becomes plausible that eternal torment is just.

                      Of course I don’t think committing moral wrongs is just like making mistakes. But they resemble one another in the one respect I was pointing out: the fact that on any single occasion we can if we choose be pretty sure of avoiding them doesn’t mean that we really have the option of living our whole lives without them. No matter how firmly you or I might decide right now that we will never again do anything selfish or hurtful or dishonest or otherwise Wrong, sooner or later we will; and any scheme of punishment that reckons *that* worthy of eternal damnation is unjust. (And, further: even if it were just, then letting the world get into a state where we are in that predicament would be monstrous.)

                      And now, as you rightly remark, it’s 2.30am — I mean, 2.50am — and I shall go to bed.

                    40. One quick note before I go to bed. I agree that this stuff doesn’t represent a critical hit on Christianity, because as I think I’ve said already somewhere in this discussion I think annihilationism is certainly a viable option for Christians (even if they’re committed to a pretty conservative outlook) and largely sidesteps any complaints about hell; and universalism is probably viable too, and does away with such complaints entirely.

                      On the other hand, I *do* think these considerations render belief in eternal torment entirely untenable. You are, of course, welcome to disagree.

                    41. On the meaning of “gospel”: note, e.g., that the 1911 Britannica article on “gospel”, written long before N T Wright, says e.g. “The disciples of Jesus proclaimed the Gospel that He was the Christ.”; the idea that “gospel” doesn’t always mean “how to get saved” is not unique to Wright and I think is far from being a tentative minority theory.
                      I contest this point – I think it really did mean that and you can be quite sure that the NT authors did mean something very much like what I talk about, but really this deserves a nicely researched LJ post where we can argue about it specifically over on my LJ rather than doing it all on the hoof over here (I’ll add it to my list).

                      As tifferrobinson said, I think these arguments about the New Perspectives on Paul probably don’t affect what I’m calling the gospel in a serious way anyway. I don’t think the gospel is ‘how to get saved’, I think ‘how to get saved’ is a part of it – and in a sense I don’t really care what label goes with ‘how to get saved’, let’s not call it the gospel if you like – but I want to tell people about ‘how to get saved’ as well as ‘why you need to be saved’ and other such topics. If gospel isn’t the technically correct term for that collection of stuff then that doesn’t bother me particularly.

                      I think the things I’m saying about ‘how to get saved’ and ‘why you need to get saved’ are ‘historic’ in the sense that they go all the way back to the NT writers. If I’m collecting them under slightly the wrong banner term then that is really of no concern.

                      Fine-tuning arguments are interesting, but I don’t so far find them very convincing. (But they do constitute one of the few lines of theistic argument that I can imagine becoming quite convincing in the future.)
                      How might they be convincing in the future?

                      But I think it’s about as obvious that that isn’t in fact the Right Thing as, say, that murdering people is usually wrong
                      I’m very wary of ‘obvious’ things. It’s a bit like common sense. Lots of things that we think are ‘common sense’ in all cases, but it seems to be that the further away they are from our ordinary experience / understanding they are the more chance there is that while being terribly convincing to us they are in fact wrong. Consider for example the idea that cats in boxes can only be either alive or dead (not in a superposition of those states). Even the greatest of men make these errors.

                      … or that fooling large numbers of people into accepting a totally false religion by causing error-packed scriptures to be written is wrong. Any degree of moral skepticism that leaves that last option seriously open completely undermines any form of religion that goes much beyond deism, I think; and I think you need that much moral skepticism before it becomes plausible that eternal torment is just.
                      Sorry, you’ve completely lost me. Could you rephrase all that?

                      the fact that on any single occasion we can if we choose be pretty sure of avoiding them doesn’t mean that we really have the option of living our whole lives without them. No matter how firmly you or I might decide right now that we will never again do anything selfish or hurtful or dishonest or otherwise Wrong, sooner or later we will
                      I just don’t think this is true. In practice we (or at least I) will do selfish, or hurful, or dishonest, or otherwise wrong things because I will choose to do so. I might decide never to do those things, but that doesn’t bind my future choices, it doesn’t preselect what I’ll do. I still have to choose to be selfless, loving, honest, and good – and I know I won’t make those choices all the time – not because I am compelled such that I am unable to always be good (although that might be there, through original sin, but I’m not sure about all of that so I don’t want to argue that) but because I will choose to.

                      As you point out, I *will* do those things in the future. However that *will* is really a prediction saying “It is highly probabilistically likely”, and that prediction can be made based on the past choices I freely made.

                      (post edited to use very cool icon)

                    42. I agree that the exact meaning of “gospel” isn’t critical here. The only reason I brought it up is that it seemed like you were assuming that the disciples went out and potentially risked getting killed, or at least lightly ridiculed (I think independent evidence for any sort of serious persecution of Christians in the first century is nonexistent), in order to spread How To Get Saved, and I wanted to point out that there’s more to what they were saying than that, which could provide reasons for their willingness to do it other than “it was the only way to save all those people from damnation”.

                      I don’t know what it would take to make fine-tuning arguments actually convincing. It just seems much more plausible that future discoveries or ideas might do that than, e.g., that the same might happen for something like the old first-cause arguments, or the argument that far and away the best explanation for having four old contradictory non-independent documents that tell differing stories about a resurrection is that the resurrection really happened.

                      Yeah, I’m wary of “obvious” things too, but as I said I think Christians can’t afford too much skepticism about right and wrong. I see that I wasn’t clear enough about that, so I’ll expand on it a bit and try to make it clearer.

                      You believe that the Bible is reliable. (The exact details of how reliable aren’t important for this particular line of reasoning.) Presumably you have some sort of reasons for believing this. I don’t know exactly what they are, but I’ve basically heard two sorts. (1) “When I’ve checked it, it’s come up OK.” (2) “God wouldn’t provide us with a pack of lies masquerading as revelation.” (Both of those are of course terrible oversimplifications. I know, OK?)

                      Now, #1 can only take you so far. Especially if your checking involves actual comparison with the real world. For the rest, you need #2.

                      (Some Christians might base their beliefs not on the Bible but on, say, the teaching of their church, or some personal revelation. The same principles apply.)

                      But notice that #2 depends, inescapably, on the assumption that God *wouldn’t* engage in a massive systematic disinformation campaign with you among its targets. Well, why wouldn’t he? Presumably because it would be evil, or because it would be against his character.

                      So you’re happy for something crucial to your faith to depend on an assumption either about what’s good and what’s not, or on what’s consistent with the character of God and what’s not. And, so far as I can tell, any skeptical argument you might deploy along the lines of “well, we can’t be absolutely certain that it’s wrong to torture billions of people for eternity on account of finite sins” will lead you equally to “well, we can’t be absolutely certain that God wouldn’t systematically deceive us”. So if I’m not justified in saying that a supremely good God such as Christians profess belief in wouldn’t countenance eternal torment, neither are you justified in saying that the Bible is trustworthy.

                      I’m not claiming that your future wrongdoing is compelled or coerced or anything like that. Just that for practical purposes it’s inevitable, and entirely predictable, that there’ll be some. Put differently: human nature is such that (barring miracles and a-million-heads-in-a-row coincidences) everyone does wrong. Requiring a standard of behaviour that no one is, in practice, able to live up to … well, this chap called Jesus had some harsh words for people he thought were doing that.

                    43. re “obvious” things, there’s an extension of Gareth’s argument, which is that if you’re considering whether to convert to a theistic religion, at some stage you presumably look at whether the God(s) are the sort you want to worship.

                      If you’re interested in being good rather than evil, presumably you don’t want to worship an evil God. Imagine a sales pitch from an evangelist which went along the lines of “Why not worship Satan? He’s good, just like you want. By good, I mean that he loves his devotees, encourages you to help the poor, tortures kittens and eats babies”.

                      At this point, you’ve not committed to worshiping Our Dark Master, so you’re reliant on your own moral judgment of what good is. You might think that being loving and encouraging you to help the poor were good, but you’ve no reason to accept the kittens and babies stuff. Why do evangelical evangelists expect people to think that eternal conscious torment is a moral response to sin? In my experience, it requires quite careful preparation of the ground (along the “sin is very serious, you might think it’s a long way down the road to the shops, but that’s just peanuts compared to sin” lines that you might find elsewhere on this thread) before anyone will get anywhere near accepting it. I’m continually saddened by how easy it is to convince people that they’re so wrong that they deserve hell, especially as the easiest people to convince generally seem quite nice.

                    44. I’m continually saddened by how easy it is to convince people that they’re so wrong that they deserve hell, especially as the easiest people to convince generally seem quite nice.
                      (I’d say bad rather than wrong – as wrongness tends to be about understanding or belief, and that’s not really what sin is about)

                      Maybe there is a good reason why people are so ‘easily’ convinced when they spend time looking in to it and praying about it. Maybe the reason is they discover it’s true.

                    45. So you’re suggesting that the question “is it just for people to suffer eternal torment for living as most humans do?” is one that we can, after all, reliably find the answer to?

                      That’s not what you said before, you know…

                    46. I’m not sure what I’m saying here that contradicts what I’ve said before. I’m making two points there, the first is that the judgement I think the BIble claims people deserve is not as a result of misunderstanding stuff, it’s about what you do.

                      The other is that pw201 should consider that maybe the reason that it’s ‘easy’ (his words) to convince people that they deserve hell is because they discover that it’s true. That discovery is not a discovery in the sense that they can logically demonstrate to others that their sin deserve a punishment of that order, I don’t think anyone has a proof like that – all we can do is make analogies and references to how bad it might be from God’s perspective. From the outside all anyone can do is stress different bits of their argument to see if it chimes with other people. For the person who has become convinced (presumably who also becomes a Christian) I think they are convinced in favour of the punishment stuff because God’s Holy Spirit convicts them of their sin, and if they become Christians then God’s Holy Spirit comes to live within them and testifies to them.

                      That is certainly my experience – it is absolutely convincing for me, and explains why when there are two possibilities of how to interpret whether God is good or not (for example) I will tend to go for the one that says he is. It doesn’t make sense for someone on the outside – I should have stayed neutral or maybe gone for saying God is evil. It makes sense to me because I have access to something that those on the outside don’t.

                      I know pw201 (and perhaps you, I don’t know your history) don’t have / haven’t had this kind of inner witness. I don’t know why that is.

                    47. What you’ve said before is that no matter how obvious it appears that eternal torment isn’t a reasonable consequence for finite sins to have, we aren’t justified in thinking it’s true (and therefore, e.g., that a good and powerful god would arrange for the world not to have billions of people suffering eternal torment for their finite sins) because we don’t know everything about sin and justice and so on.

                      But apparently this hard-line skepticism (and it really is pretty hard-line; without the Christian traditions about hell, do you think anyone would take you seriously if you said: all things considered, it’s probably best for the world if most of its people suffer eternal torment?) only applies when a person’s conclusion is that hell is monstrous; the fact that so many people (including, by the way, some eminent evangelical Christians) draw that conclusion isn’t, for you, evidence that hell really *is* monstrous, but the fact that many other people decide that hell isn’t monstrous *is* reason to think that they’ve somehow “discovered” that yes, what’s best for the world is that I and billions of others should be tortured for eternity.

                      Perhaps, instead of saying that the monstrousness of eternal torment is (1) obvious and (2) a straightforward deduction from just about every system of ethics I find at all credible, I should claim to have had an “inner witness” telling me that eternal torment is monstrous. But I rather doubt that it would help :-).

                    48. What you’ve said before is that no matter how obvious it appears that eternal torment isn’t a reasonable consequence for finite sins to have, we aren’t justified in thinking it’s true
                      I’ve not claimed that because I don’t think you have given any such obvious arguments. I think you’ve said it feels wrong (which I can understand, but I think is an appeal to ‘common sense’), that really it’s not our fault because God must have designed us to be like this, and then that it’s wrong that God has compelled us to not be like that by forcing our hand by threatening us with hell.

                      The position I’d want to persuade people of is that our bad actions ought to warrant a response from God in the role as judge. I wouldn’t (at least not yet) want to push the position of eternal conscious torment as the appropriate punishment. I’m defending that position because that’s where the argument is happening, I’m not constructing an externally verifiable proof for the whole of that position though, I think that can only really come by God supernaturally revealing it to someone.

                      Perhaps, instead of saying that the monstrousness of eternal torment is (1) obvious and (2) a straightforward deduction from just about every system of ethics I find at all credible, I should claim to have had an “inner witness” telling me that eternal torment is monstrous. But I rather doubt that it would help :-).
                      I guess here you’re either saying I’m lying to make my case stronger, or that I’ve mistaken my own inner intuition to be something more than it is. If you think I’m lying I can’t do a great deal about that. If you think I’m mistaking my own intuition then all I can do is to say that it is completely unlike the intuitional sense that I had before I was a Christian, and is entirely different from the intuition I get about other things that I wouldn’t expect to have any witness from God on (say which programming language is best or something like that).

                    49. When claiming something’s obvious, I’m not sure there’s much to do other than saying “it’s obvious”. And I really do think it’s about as obvious that finite sins don’t merit eternal torment as, well, anything else in ethics; I don’t know what I could appeal to that would be any less obvious. If you think that’s an “appeal to common sense” then, well, perhaps it is but I’m not sure what’s supposed to be wrong with that.

                      But, not that I think it will be much help, here are a few lines of thought that lead from possibly-more-obvious premises to the conclusion that eternal torment is not a reasonable consequence for finite sins to have.

                      1. (For utilitarians.) Eternal torment provides its victim with a huge (perhaps infinite) dollop of negative utility, and there’s no evidence that it provides any counterbalancing dollop of positive utility. (Further: the only plausible way for it to do so is if God or someone else takes pleasure in others’ torment, which is in fact not very plausible.)

                      2. (For Christians.) According to the New Testament, Jesus repeatedly told his followers to forgive others any wrongs done to them, and to repay evil with good, and this appears to be intended as a moral imperative. The NT also claims in multiple places that goodness consists of emulating God. (Or: emulating Jesus, who reveals the character of God.) It is hard to understand eternal torment as repaying evil with good; it appears to be repaying evil with infinitely more evil.

                      3. (For anyone.) Punishment, according to every legal or moral system I’ve ever heard of, is required to be proportionate to the offence. Eternal torment is by definition not proportionate to finite offences.

                      Another thing I don’t think I’ve said is that “really it’s not our fault because God must have designed us to be like this”, but I have said some similar things: (1) that if our nature (as humans) is really such that in practice none of us, even with intentions as good as humans are capable of without divine intervention, will behave in a particular way, then it is not reasonable to punish not-behaving-in-that-way; (2) it is wrong to bring about the existence of billions of people who will (entirely foreseeably) behave in ways so bad as to justify eternal torment; (3) it is wrong to bring about the existence of billions of people whom, entirely foreseeably, will end up suffering eternal torment. (Actually, I don’t think I’ve explicitly said #2 before in this discussion.) Note that none of those claims is about whether anything is our *fault*. The question I’m addressing is whether it’s reasonable to torture us for eternity for our sins, which is not the same question as whether they are our fault.

                      And I certainly haven’t said that “it’s wrong that God has compelled us to not be like that by forcing our hand by threatening us with hell”. I’ve even said something almost exactly opposite to that, namely that if our actions inevitably lead to hell then it is a good thing if God (or anyone) warns us about it; the more clearly the better.

                      I am alarmed by how many things I am being accused of saying in this discussion that I have not, in fact, said. (And I apologize if other people feel the same way in reverse.) It is tempting to speculate on why it is that skeptics’ criticisms of Christian doctrines so often get transmogrified into sillier criticisms when Christians reply to them, but I shall manfully resist temptation.

                      I am not saying that you’re lying; I’m sorry if I gave that impression. I do think you’ve mistaken your own intuition as something more than an intuition, but I dare say you think the same about me. My point was only this: I decline to give some people’s intuitions extra credit because they describe them as “inner witness” or “revelation” or whatever, at least until such time as they give me evidence that it has some source more reliable than their own brains.

                      I would, however, be interested to know more about the ways in which this whatever-it-is differs subjectively from (other) intuitions.

                    50. If you think that’s an “appeal to common sense” then, well, perhaps it is but I’m not sure what’s supposed to be wrong with that.
                      I think I explained that here, and you said you were wary of ‘obvious’ things too.

                      1. (For utilitarians.) Eternal torment provides its victim with a huge (perhaps infinite) dollop of negative utility
                      But I’m not a utilitarian.

                      2. (For Christians.) According to the New Testament, Jesus repeatedly told his followers to forgive others any wrongs done to them, and to repay evil with good, and this appears to be intended as a moral imperative. The NT also claims in multiple places that goodness consists of emulating God.
                      But God does continue to dole out goodness on those who are his enemies, He ‘causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. He sent his son to die for us, He has already done enormously more than we could ever reasonably expect.

                      emulating Jesus, who reveals the character of God
                      Exactly, and the supreme way Jesus revealed the character of God was by dying on the cross so that the punishment we deserve could be avoided.

                      3. (For anyone.) Punishment, according to every legal or moral system I’ve ever heard of, is required to be proportionate to the offence. Eternal torment is by definition not proportionate to finite offences.
                      I agree it’s hard to understand from our perspective. Like I said, I think our perspective is so far removed that we can’t work it all out logically.

                      (1) that if our nature (as humans) is really such that in practice none of us, even with intentions as good as humans are capable of without divine intervention, will behave in a particular way, then it is not reasonable to punish not-behaving-in-that-way;
                      When you use say ‘in practice’ you’re removing our responsibility, which I just can’t accept because I know that when I do bad things it is because I choose to do so. I’ve said this a lot in these threads and you’ve come back with arguments about how it’s statistically improbable that anyone would not sin and so on – I agree, but that’s not because they have to but because they choose to. Our choices will have consequences (as they should), and “Well everyone else did it too so it’s not my fault” is not going to wash I don’t think.

                      For example, if there was a town where everyone stole things, we’d rightly wonder why everyone in the town stole things, but we’d consider that they had done it of their own free will and so deserved to be punished – even if everyone in that town chose to steal.

                    51. The question I’m addressing is whether it’s reasonable to torture us for eternity for our sins, which is not the same question as whether they are our fault.
                      At the end of the day I think Christians have some answers to these questions (woodpijn has tried to give some of them), but none that are entirely convincing to people who lack trust in God or the witness of God’s Holy Spirit. I think it’s a terribly bad angle to investigate Christianity from. Far better, I think, to assess whether Christianity is true, get to know God, and then think about it. There are a whole bunch of questions that don’t have good answers, such as why we weren’t created perfect to begin with (which is kind of related to all this), why there was a snake / devil at all, etc… But because we don’t know the answers to questions we should expect to be outside of our domain of understanding (we don’t know if love requires free choice which entails sin for example, and how could we know for sure unless we were God?) doesn’t mean Christianity falls down – there are other things about Christianity we can check, and we can ask God if he is real and get to know him before / without understanding these things fully.

                      It is tempting to speculate on why it is that skeptics’ criticisms of Christian doctrines so often get transmogrified into sillier criticisms when Christians reply to them, but I shall manfully resist temptation.
                      Trust me, we could say the same about how people (perhaps not you) keep missing out that we actually make these choices that are sinful, or the (hopefully not deliberate) conflating of the two separate points of us doing wrong and so deserving punishment (point 1) and God providing an escape route (point 2).

                      I do think you’ve mistaken your own intuition as something more than an intuition, but I dare say you think the same about me.
                      No I don’t. You haven’t claimed to have an inner witness from the Holy Spirit.

                      My point was only this: I decline to give some people’s intuitions extra credit because they describe them as “inner witness” or “revelation” or whatever, at least until such time as they give me evidence that it has some source more reliable than their own brains.
                      Fair enough. I’m not using it to score extra credit, I’m trying to explain why I am so solid in my position (about God’s existence primarily – not all the details of the punishment).

                      I would, however, be interested to know more about the ways in which this whatever-it-is differs subjectively from (other) intuitions.
                      It’s not like any other ‘intuition’ at all. I don’t want to use the term intuition, but dictionary.com sez ‘The act or faculty of knowing or sensing without the use of rational processes; immediate cognition’ which I suppose means it falls under that banner. It’s like having truth imparted to you by an external power more powerful than yourself. That’s not a very good description really. Oh well.

                    52. I’m not *investigating Christianity* from this angle. I’m investigating (or, actually, criticizing, but if anyone finds anything new and worthwhile to say in defence then I’m all ears) *the doctrine of eternal torment*. And, guess what?, what I actually did is to first of all evaluate (almost entirely on other grounds) whether Christianity is true, just as you suggest. The outcome of that prevented me continuing along your recommended course.

                      I am not claiming that not knowing the answer to every question is a problem with Christianity, or indeed with belief-in-eternal-torment. I have said so absolutely clearly and explicitly. (I drew a distinction between “puzzles” and “problems”, if I’m remembering my terminology correctly.) Enough with the straw men, already!

                      Yes, there are other things in Christianity that we can check. I checked. Christianity is wrong. Yes, we can ask God if he is real. I asked. If he is, he’s not telling.

                      Sorry to be so blunt about that, but it seems you’re suggesting that somehow it’s improper for people who aren’t Christians to make any comment on things like hell because the only right perspective to approach such things from is (1) that of having investigated Christianity carefully, and simultaneously (2) that of actually being a Christian, which for some reason you appear to take as equivalent. They are not equivalent. But, in any case, perhaps it hasn’t escaped your notice that people who *are* Christians don’t always find eternal torment credible, or compatible with the alleged goodness of God.

                      I am sure that people on all sides of this debate erect straw men, misunderstand one another’s positions, etc. As you already remarked in another context, “other people do it too” isn’t a very good justification for anything. So please don’t.

                      Of course I haven’t made the *same* claim about my intuitions (or whatever they are) as you have about yours. But I am claiming that my conviction that eternal torment is not a reasonable consequence for finite sins to have isn’t *just* a matter of how I happen to feel. It seems that you disagree. This is pretty much parallel to my opinion of your belief that, all considered, the best thing is probably for me to be tortured for eternity.

                      I’m afraid I don’t know with much confidence what it feels like to have truth imparted to you by an external power (unless you count things like university lectures). Did you have prior experience of that, to enable you to tell that whatever-it-was-you-experienced was that rather than something else?

                    53. Yes, I’m wary of obvious things too. But if something you believe is contradicted by Very Obvious Things, then I think that’s evidence against it; and if your defence is to say “well, the understandings that lead you to think that’s obvious aren’t reliable” but you don’t have some specific account of why *that* evaluation of obviousness is more unreliable than other similar ones, then you’ve landed yourself with (in this case) a very far-reaching skepticism about our ability to tell what’s right and what’s wrong; and I’ve explained my reasons for thinking that such skepticism badly undermines Christianity, or any other revealed religion for that matter.

                      Of course I don’t think you’re a utilitarian. But, as I said, one of the things that makes me trust this particular bit of “common sense” is that a variety of different ethical systems seem to me to lead to the same conclusion. Also, it’s widely (not universally) agreed by non-utilitarians that utilitarianism is at least often a good approximation to the truth.

                      Perhaps what you “reasonably expect” doesn’t include “not being tortured for eternity”. Expectations differ. But tell me, what would you think of someone who claimed to be obeying Jesus’s instruction to “turn the other cheek” if when someone slapped him in the face he smiled sweetly, offered the other cheek … and then, a few days later, burned his assailant’s house down?

                      I am not, of course, removing your responsibility. (Go on, check it’s still there. See?) I have said at least twice now, I think, that I am *not* claiming that “everyone else did it too so it’s not my fault”. In fact, I see that I made that clear in the very comment you’re replying to. If you must argue with straw men, could you at least make them ones I haven’t already explicitly said aren’t my position?

                      If there were a town where everyone without exception stole, then actually I *wouldn’t* conclude that everyone in the town should be punished. I would conclude that probably there’s something in the water or the culture that somehow stops the people understanding what’s wrong with stealing, or makes them unable to resist the temptation; I would regard punishing them as an exercise in futility; but I would try to figure out what was broken so as to make the town stop being a place where everyone steals.

                      And of course that’s different from our actual situation, since in your hypothetical example I’d know (since it’s not true that everyone everywhere steals) that the problem, whatever it was, wasn’t so deeply ingrained as to be Part Of Human Nature; but here in the real world, we aren’t in a position to draw any such conclusion.

                    54. Moral intuitions are good and important, but (assuming moral objectivism) ought to be open to correction. In your Satan example I guess the balance of good to bad (as per my intuitions) isn’t such as to make me believe I’ve encountered a superior moral authority.

                      On the other hand, if I come across someone whom I (for independent reasons) hold to be perfectly good and completely trustworthy (like, say, Jesus), and that person says “the life you’re living has you heading for unmitigated catastrophe unless you repent”, I sit up and take notice.

                      I’m continually saddened by how easy it is to convince people that they’re so wrong that they deserve hell

                      Maybe there is a good reason why people are so ‘easily’ convinced when they spend time looking in to it and praying about it. Maybe the reason is they discover it’s true.

                      Right. ISTM there’s a bit of a tension here between the view that “x is obviously false” and “it’s easy to convince people of x” – it’s not obviously false to them, obviously…

                    55. If someone you’ve hitherto regarded as perfectly good and completely trustworthy tells you that it’s right and proper and morally good that most of the world’s population should spend eternity suffering torments worse than any human has inflicted on any other, it’s time for some urgent re-evaluation of their goodness and trustworthiness. (Failure to do this sort of re-evaluation, on a more modest scale, is part of how crazy cult disasters like Jonestown happen, so it’s important to be willing to do it when appropriate.)

                      Of course no one is saying (at least, so far as I’ve noticed) that if someone you’ve decided to trust tells you you’re headed for disaster then you shouldn’t take notice.

                      I agree about the tension. (There’s the same tension between saying, as e.g. Rob has been doing in this discussion and St Paul did a couple of thousand years upthread, that God’s made his existence clear to everyone and noticing that there are lots of people to whom it seems not to be clear at all.) But there *are*, demonstrably, lots of things it’s easy to convince people of but that when looked at clearly enough are easy to see are false. See, e.g., the thing sometimes (I think unfortunately) called “conjunction effect” or “conjunction fallacy”, where it doesn’t even take any convincing to get people to judge that A-and-B is *more* probable than A. Or consider the success of racist and nationalist demagogues throughout history. It’s possible, at least a priori, that something like the nonexistence of God or the defensibility of hell is one of those things that people are easily convinced of but that aren’t sustainable once you look at them from the correct angle.

                    56. Just to throw a slightly different perspective on things (completely derail the thread and annoy everyone…)

                      I think that when we boil Christianity down to a system of one right and one wrong choice leading to this destiny or this we miss the essence of the message. When Peter preaches to 3000 in Acts 2 he tells them all of the great wonders Jesus had been doing, the miracles and signs, and how he was crucified by them, but raised up by God. He was the Lord and Messiah, whom you crucified.

                      And then he stops. And the people respond. He hasn’t mentioned heaven or hell, and the people respond just the same. This isn’t scare tactics, this isn’t TWTL, nor is it a “choose this and live, that and die” system. It is simply a case of telling truth, inspired by the Spirit, a truth which convinced 3000 people to respond (if you take Acts to be authentic, but it is likely this kind of situation is, considering that the theology of Peter wouldn’t have been too dissimilar to Luke, who was writing very early anyway, and the numbers are likely to be necessary for the rapid growth of Christianity in the 1st century, taking into account the ratio of those converted against those willing to give their lives for the sake of mission)

                      The disciples clearly believed in an eternal place of suffering for those who don’t accept forgiveness, and the glorious new heaven and new earth resurrection for those who do, but those are the consequences for our choice, not the motivation for the choice itself (although it can be). If someone told me that if I didn’t believe in the toothfairy I’d go to hell I would probably be 0.5% worried that it might be true, but if I didn’t feel the claims of the toothfairy were convincing no amount of scare would make me pledge my life to her (can fairies be male?). People accept the claims of Christianity and accept the love and grace that the cross and resurrection have made accesible to us, and their eternal destiny is a consequence of that. First God loved us, then we love God, then either stick with him for eternity or, well, don’t.

                      Of course I’m not saying you can’t boil it down to the response+choice if you so desire, but it isn’t the way the New Testament puts it. If we discuss Christian concepts such as hell without the Christian belief in the cross in mind it makes little sense, which is kind of the point really.

                    57. I pretty much agree with this.

                      I’m not a Christian because I want to avoid hell, although I do also want to avoid hell.

                      Discussions about whether hell is really a place of eternal conscious torment have a tendency to become so focussed that they imply that’s why you’re a Christian.

                    58. For the avoidance of doubt: I wasn’t suggesting that anyone becomes a Christian for the purpose of avoiding hell I’ll guess that, in fact, some people do, but it’s no part of any point I was making. Nor do I think anyone should, nor do I think that that’s what Christianity is about. (One of the multiple things I loathe about “Two Ways To Live” is that it does rather give the impression that that *is* what Christianity is about.)

                    59. Which, I submit, is not so very different from your classic protection racket. There’s a threat (shame if something happened to that nice soul of yours such as, say, eternal damnation). It’s a very big threat. There’s nothing remotely resembling a decent justification for it (please feel free to demonstrate that I’m wrong, but I’ll take quite some convincing). There’s a way out, which curiously has rather little to do with the actual threat (e.g., it doesn’t involve, you know, actually not sinning any more). The fact that this way out is available suffices to show that God does, in fact, have a choice in the matter, so you don’t get to claim that eternal damnation is just some kind of inevitable “consequence” of sin that God couldn’t prevent.

                      I don’t think it’s as arbitrary and protection-rackety as you suggest:

                      * There are psychological laws which you can infer from observing yourself and others, such as “if I think mean thoughts about people all the time, I’ll become a mean person” or “if I indulge my every desire, I’ll end up with no self-control”.

                      * It is at least possible (although I don’t know) that these laws aren’t contingent, but are necessary properties of any conceivable rational/sentient creature, and that God can’t change them, in the same sense that (to use your example) God can’t make a four-sided triangle.

                      * This is similar to what CS Lewis says about each of us gradually becoming either a heavenly creature or a hellish creature, by means of these kinds of little choices.

                      * Heavenly creatures end up in heaven and hellish creatures end up in hell – this almost certainly is a necessary truth that God can’t change. If heaven were full of hellish creatures it would cease to be heaven.

                      * (Alternatively, some people think that heaven and hell aren’t distinct, but that we all encounter God when we die, and those who have learned to love him experience this as bliss whereas those who reject him experience it as torment. I find this plausible.)

                      * The “way out” is not God arbitrarily choosing to pardon a subset of people when he could just as easily have pardoned everyone. I think evangelicals sometimes overemphasise imputed righteousness at the expense of imparted righteousness. Salvation means God can actually make me fit for heaven, if I let him; it doesn’t mean merely that he states that I am. (I’ll be the first to admit there are non-Christians who are way better people than me, but I believe over time – probably extending beyond this life – my derivative is positive and theirs is negative.)

                    60. I think evangelicals sometimes overemphasise imputed righteousness at the expense of imparted righteousness.

                      That’s because imputed righteousness is what the Bible says, you heretic.

                      (Seriously, I’d be interested to see whether you could find anything to support your view other than the relevant passage in C.S. Lewis. Lewis doesn’t quite count as scripture yet, I think, although he’s getting pretty close).

                    61. Gosh, I’m surprised. I didn’t think imparted righteousness was disputed, just that people gave it different emphasis. I feel a bit like if I’d said “Evangelicals sometimes overemphasise Easter at the expense of Christmas” and you’d said “What is this Christmas you speak of?”

                      But I’ll try:

                      (It could be that we’re using the terms differently. I might be getting them wrong, but as I understand it imputed righteousness means God declares that we’re righteous even though there’s no ontological change in us, and imparted means that God actually changes us, transforming us into his likeness and making us righteous.)

                      * 2 Cor 3:18 “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

                      * Galatians 5:22 – fruits of the Spirit – suggests actual observable righteous behaviour, not just imputed, and that it comes from God[‘s Spirit]

                      * Philippians 1:9-11 “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, 11filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” – he’s describing observable changes in behaviour, and saying it comes through Jeses

                      * Romans 2:12 “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

                      * 2 Cor 9-10 “Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.”

                      Romans 6:16 “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” suggests an actual ontological righteousness, I think

                      * Ephesians 5:8-10 “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9(for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10and find out what pleases the Lord.” It’s phrased as a command, but seems to imply that we don’t have to do it without help (which would be inconsistent with a lot of other scripture anyway)

                      * Ephesians 4:24 “the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”

                      And if hymns and songs count:

                      * Away in a Manger “And fit us for heaven…”

                      * Breathe on me, breath of God: “…that I might love as thou dost love, and do as thou wouldst do”

                      * Various worship songs that say things like “Make me holy” or “Make me like you”

                      Of course imputed righteousness is very much there in scripture too – I was never denying it, just trying to argue that both exist.

                      Lewis doesn’t quite count as scripture yet, I think, although he’s getting pretty close
                      Yes – a friend once sent me a quote from Screwtape, saying “A deuterocanonical quotation for you…” 🙂

                    62. Yes, I agree that the salvation-and-damnation story is less arbitrary and protectionrackety if you switch from the standard evangelical version of the story to one that involves being actually made better. I think the fact (and it does seem to be one, though I’m not sure anyone’s really done a proper study) that in this life — which after all is the only one we can actually observe — Christians don’t seem to be markedly nicer, more generous, more honest, etc., etc., than non-Christians, does make it a lot less plausible.

                      Christians seem to be awfully willing to postulate necessary truths for which there’s no evidence other than “if this were true it would make it easier to believe what Christianity says” :-). I don’t find it at all plausible that sentient creatures get limitlessly better or worse over time, which seems like it’s what you need to get your proposal to work.

                      Neither does it appear to be the case that when they die Christians are all heavenly creatures who could and should be admitted straight to heaven while non-Christians are all hellish creatures for whom it’s clear that nothing other than eternal torment is appropriate. But if that isn’t true, I don’t see how your justification for hell is supposed to work. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Paul is one of those non-Christians who are way better than you (note: I have absolutely no reason to believe either that he is or that he isn’t, other than a vague guess that in fact you’re probably about as good as one another), and that you both get killed in a freak accident tomorrow. It seems to me that either (1) nothing happens at that point to change your relative merits, in which case your attempt to justify hell fails, or (2) something does happen which dramatically changes those relative merits, so dramatically that you become a Heavenly Creature and Paul becomes a Hellish Creature, in which case I think you’re missing an account of why that happens and why it’s either fair or inevitable that it does so.

                      Yes, I agree that the “encounter with God is either blissful or unbearable” approach has more promise. But, again, it really doesn’t seem terribly plausible that Christians when they die are all such that encounter with God would be blissful, nor that non-Christians when they die are all the reverse; and the question remains of why God wouldn’t do anything for those non-Christians (like, say, actually letting them know he really exists) before zapping them with the consuming fire of his presence.

                      The key points here: (1) if it’s really inevitable that Not Being A Christian leads to hell — whether directly, or indirectly by e.g. not having that opportunity to be gradually transformed into a heavenly being, as you are and I’m not — then it seems odd that the god who supposedly loves us all enough to die for us wouldn’t take the elementary steps that would enable far more of us to *know* (as opposed to “be told, not very credibly”) about the problem and its solution. And (2) the arguments that it might be inevitable all seem to require postulating (what seem to me to be) tremendously improbable and inexplicable and unevidenced necessary truths, such as to constrain even omnipotence (or whatever approximation to omnipotence God has), which makes them difficult to believe.

                    63. if you switch from the standard evangelical version of the story to one that involves being actually made better.
                      I think that’s implying a false dichotomy – I don’t think most evangelicals would dispute the account I gave. It’s just differing emphases. They don’t put it in tracts, but that’s because tracts are necessarily brief introductions aimed at people unfamiliar with the message.

                      Christians seem to be awfully willing to postulate necessary truths for which there’s no evidence other than “if this were true it would make it easier to believe what Christianity says” :-).
                      It was admittedly speculative – I said “it’s possible” and “I don’t know”. Sorry if it was sloppy of me to do it even with those caveats. Is it a general trend? Where else have you noticed it?

                      or (2) something does happen which dramatically changes those relative merits, so dramatically that you become a Heavenly Creature and Paul becomes a Hellish Creature, in which case I think you’re missing an account of why that happens and why it’s either fair or inevitable that it does so.
                      So – this is also speculation – but it could be that when we die we end up outside time, as God is sometimes thought to be – or at least somewhere where “a thousand years is as a day”. That would have two consequences: 1) the upward or downward trajectory could be continued to its conclusion instantly, even if it would have taken millennia of our time; and 2) it may be that the direction can no longer be changed, because there’s no longer time to change it.
                      Or, it could be that after death (with or without time-contraction) God perfects people, but can only do so in those who are willing to let him, i.e. those already positively disposed towards him, because he still will not override anyone’s will.

                      it really doesn’t seem terribly plausible that Christians when they die are all such that encounter with God would be blissful, nor that non-Christians when they die are all the reverse
                      I think it’s certainly plausible, although I can’t argue that it’s certain. I think some souls are fundamentally aligned in the right direction, and the mistakes they make don’t change that, and others aligned in the wrong direction, and the things they get right by luck or their own strength don’t change that. King David is a good example of the former – he did some terrible things, but I’m sure that when he met God he was delighted. (There’s some stuff at the end of Screwtape, and also elsewhere in Lewis, about how there is pain even for the saved when they meet God, but it’s a welcome kind of pain, like removing a scab or a diseased tooth. I imagine that pain is proportional to sins committed on earth. But perhaps the unsaved are those who don’t welcome it, who want to keep their scabs and diseased teeth.)

                      it seems odd that the god who supposedly loves us all enough to die for us wouldn’t take the elementary steps that would enable far more of us to *know* (as opposed to “be told, not very credibly”) about the problem and its solution.
                      *sigh* Yes. I admit I struggle with that. I think if I had one question to ask God it would be something like “Why don’t you make yourself more visible to people? Especially my non-Christian friends?”

                      I don’t know the answer. There are proposed answers, and I expect you know them. Ironically, one of them is roughly what you’ve been saying on the other branch of the thread: that if we knew with absolute certainty we’d be guaranteed to choose right and then it wouldn’t be a free choice.

                      Something which I think is true – although I find it difficult to believe when I’m having doubts, and you may find it difficult to believe too – is that it is fundamentally our disobedience rather than our incomplete knowledge that prevents us coming to God. The evidence for this is various people in the Old Testament, who had much better evidence that God existed and still disobeyed him. Adam and Eve walked with him in the garden; the Israelites in the desert saw the Red Sea part and the pillars of cloud and fire, and then made their golden calf. I kid myself that my doubts and sins are due to incomplete knowledge, and would disappear if God revealed himself; but in reality I’d probably have been helping build that calf.

                    64. Yes, I think it’s a general trend. You can see it all over this discussion. You can also find it, e.g., in discussions of the problem of evil. (For instance, one of Plantinga’s famous papers proposes that maybe it’s a necessary truth that every possible created sentient being with free will does evil in all possible worlds. He calls it the “principle of trans-world depravity”, I think. I remark that the existence of such a principle would make it *even more* unjust to inflict eternal torment on anyone as a punishment for doing something it was *metaphysically necessary* that they would do, but that’s a separate issue and no one is under any obligation to believe Plantiga’s silly principle.)

                      It doesn’t seem obvious (or even plausible) to me that every Christian’s moral trajectory at the moment of death is upward, or that every non-Christian’s is downward.

                      Thank you for the suggestion that I have a fundamentally evil soul. (It’s no worse than the suggestion, implicit in every defence of eternal torment, that all things considered it would probably be best for me to suffer torture for all eternity. Which is, I think, a more abominable thing for anyone to say about anyone else than the worst insults spouted by racist bigots and the like. One of the things I dislike about Christianity is that it encourages basically decent people to say such things and consider themselves to be acting reasonably in doing so.)

                      It’s nice (note: I’m not being sarcastic here) that you “struggle” with the idea that perfect goodness and mercy and justice require that people like me suffer eternal torment and not be given a credible way out even though supposedly there is one. I’m afraid it seems to me that something more than struggling is really called for, though. It’s a bit like saying “I struggle with the knowledge that my employer is building torture chambers and encouraging governments to buy them” but not actually making the step from there to “er, that’s just *wrong* and I should blow the whistle”.

                      The fact that the Old Testament *says* that various people had really good evidence but still disobeyed is not, in fact, good evidence, at least not for those of us not already committed on other grounds to believing everything in the Old Testament. I also remark that the OT doesn’t say that Adam and Eve and those naughty Israelites decided that God didn’t exist at all.

                    65. I’m genuinely sorry if I’ve offended you.

                      Is it still bigotry if it’s said about everyone indiscriminately? I don’t think you have an evil soul any more than I have, and I don’t think you deserve hell any more than I do. I may have been unclear with the stuff about souls’ alignment, but what I meant was something like this:

                      All souls are partly good and partly evil. But, by default (since the fall), they are aligned the wrong way: inwardly, towards themselves; they look to themselves for ultimate authority and rely on themselves. However, some have made the decision to align towards God: to look to him for authority and to rely on him (however imperfectly they carry this out). God is able to work in this second group of souls, transforming them and bringing about genuine moral improvement, both before and after death (I think), and eventually making them fit for heaven. But he cannot do so in the first group of souls without overriding their wills, which he’s committed to not doing.

                      (I think some Christians, myself included, are guilty of talking too glibly about hell. I don’t know if I’ve said this yet or not, but I find annihilationism quite plausible; so when I say hell I’m thinking of a kind of superposition of states that’s about 2/3 annihilation and 1/3 torment. But even then I ought to be much more careful what I say about it.)

                      I also remark that the OT doesn’t say that Adam and Eve and those naughty Israelites decided that God didn’t exist at all.
                      Yes, exactly; that’s what I mean. They had such visible demonstrations of his presence that they couldn’t possibly doubt his existence – and still they disobeyed. This implies that people are inclined to disobey God even if they have irrefutable evidence of his existence; and therefore, in our case who do not have irrefutable evidence, that lack of evidence is not the only thing preventing us doing God’s will; even if we had irrefutable evidence we would continue to disobey.
                      I’m trying to argue that if someone met God after death and said “It’s not my fault; if only you’d given me more evidence of your existence, I’d have followed you” they may be mistaken.

                      at least not for those of us not already committed on other grounds to believing everything in the Old Testament.
                      You don’t have to believe it very much; I think you just have to believe that the people described in it were convinced of the existence of their God, which I think is a reasonable conclusion for an atheist to draw from the text as a historical document.

                    66. No, I’m actually very hard to offend. But I do think it’s worth pointing out, at least every now and then, just what it is that’s involved in belief in hell (in the Eternal Torment sense). It’s very nasty indeed, and one of the things I dislike about Christianity is that it encourages otherwise decent and nice people to think and say things that they would be horrified by if it weren’t made to seem normal by being part of Christianity.

                      I don’t think it *is* bigotry. I just think it’s the same *kind* of thing as bigots say, only much worse.

                      I am (grimly) amused by the idea that God cares so much for my autonomy and welfare that he won’t override my free will even a little bit, but that he doesn’t have any comparable objection to my suffering eternal torment. My own priorities aren’t quite the same, and I hereby give notice that if I have to choose between eternal torment and having my free will overridden in a way that brings my beliefs, attitudes and actions closer in line with the truth, then I choose the latter.

                      I regret that I am not impressed by an attempt to justify burning me in hell by telling me that (1) if God’s reality were revealed to me then I would still deny him, which you know because (2) you have an old book that says that some entirely different people once did that. Sorry. 🙂

                      (It’s possible that if God’s existence, and nothing else, were conclusively demonstrated to me then I might decide that the evidence then favours the belief that God is real but evil or indifferent. So I don’t guarantee that I *would* follow him as soon as I was convinced of his reality. It would probably depend on exactly what I was being convinced of.)

                      What you have to believe for the argument-from-the-OT to work is that the events described there really did take place, and that the people involved really had as much evidence of God’s reality and care for them as would be provided by the events described in Exodus. I don’t see any reason why anyone not committed to treating the text as scripture should believe those things.

                    67. I hereby give notice that if I have to choose between eternal torment and having my free will overridden in a way that brings my beliefs, attitudes and actions closer in line with the truth, then I choose the latter.

                      Go on then ;P

                    68. I am not, as yet, persuaded that I do have to make any such choice, nor that doing as you suggest would bring my beliefs, attitudes or actions closer to the truth.

                      But you knew that :-).

          3. What I recall most, however, was a relief as at the resolution of the tension of trying to believe stuff that wasn’t true.
            That sounds familiar. I remember a huge sense of relief at my deconversion. I felt like I’d been trying to do a jigsaw with pieces that didn’t fit together, or trying to hang wallpaper and every time I pressed down a bubble another one came up. Deciding that I simply didn’t have to do that any more was an immense relief.

            But then I started to find (but maybe you don’t find this?) that there were similar jigsaws and wallpaper in atheism. Giving up believing in God didn’t mean I was free to not believe anything at all – I had to have some kind of worldview, and that came with holes, tensions and contradictions of its own. I came to the (somewhat irritating) conclusion that intellectual peace, absence of tension, a sense of everything fitting together, were luxuries we’re not entitled to have.

            A few years ago I read an economics book – Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher. He talks about “convergent” and “divergent” truths. The former are neat and make sense, and the latter are messy and often apparently contradictory, but nonetheless true, and usually apply to the things that really matter in life. (He wasn’t talking about religion – just economics and human relationships and stuff.) As a mathmo and a CICCU-ite I had been far more accustomed to dealing with convergent truths, and needed the validity of divergent truths to be explicitly pointed out to me.

            (robhu has clearly re-converted to get girls, for example)
            Bit of a cheap shot. And I don’t think it’s true – he says he thinks a relationship at this stage would be unhelpful for him and for the girl, so he’s not looking.

            1. I think Paul’s “cheap shot” was purely a joke.

              So far as I can tell (and of course I’m very fallible),
              – reality doesn’t in fact contradict itself
              – outside specially-tamed areas like pure mathematics, our grasp of reality is imperfect and imprecise
              – so if we treat it as perfect and precise (e.g., attempting to construct lengthy chains of logical inference, not nailed down anywhere except at one end) then we’re going to get wronger and wronger as we extrapolate further and further
              – and if we do this in multiple (conceptual) places then where our extrapolations meet they’re going to clash (and we may well not be able to figure out how to adjust them to make the extrapolations fit)
              – and this is what’s going on with “divergent truths”; our best-available approximations to the truth in different domains are all slightly wrong, and when we push them far enough that they meet one another the errors may have grown enough for us to notice
              – but none of this means that reality actually contradicts itself, that there are *real* divergent truths (i.e., things that are actually genuinely 100% true but contradict one another).

              It seems to me, so far, that atheism (of the hard-nosed materialist variety) requires much less jigsaw-piece-hammering than Christianity (of the moderate evangelical variety; some other varieties work with jigsaw pieces made out of blu-tak, but I think that misses the point a bit), and lets you extend your jigsaw further before getting stuck.

              1. I think I agree with all your bullet-points, but not your last paragraph. I guess “which worldview requires the least jigsaw-hammering” is a very subjective judgement, depending on which apparent contradictions an individual considers most unacceptable.

                1. Yes. Also, different people may notice different problems or pseudo-problems, or spot solutions to different ones. Maybe you’ve spotted an inconsistency in atheism that’s never so much as occurred to me. Or maybe we’ve both spotted it but I’ve figured out why it isn’t really an inconsistency and you haven’t. Or, mutatis mutandis, the same for Christianity.

            2. If you read the final few paragraphs of this, you’ll see that I do say that the only sort of Christianity I could return to would be one which acknowledges that it doesn’t have an over-arching Answer. That rules out evangelicalism, as far as I’m concerned, because evangelicals tend to believe they’ve got the Truth as it was originally given by God. The thread on evangelical tradition over on robhu‘s journal is an example of the sort of thing I mean (I don’t mean to pick on Rob here, that sort of thing is common to all evangelicals).

              I don’t find the same sort of problems with weak atheism as I do with evangelical Christianity because weak atheism is merely the lack of belief in a god. I’m not required to be a physicalist (which seems to be Rob’s problem with atheism in the discussion elsewhere on this posting, although I think he’s misunderstood what David Chalmers is saying). What I try to do is base my level of belief in something on the evidence I think there is for it. I’d say I’m a tentative physicalist because of that.

              So I don’t have a worldview in the same sort of way I did as an evangelical Christian, where it seemed I was required to assign arbitrarily high probabilities (in the Bayesian sense) to some statements of how the world is. What I try to have is a worldview where my confidence in a statement is reflected in how much evidence there is. As far as God goes, the objective evidence that Christians advance seems internally contradictory, and the subjective evidence is no good to me because God hasn’t revealed himself to me.

              1. I’m not required to be a physicalist Ah, OK. For me – and I guess for Rob too – the only plausible alternatives were ever theism and physicalism (I assume that’s the same as what I’d call materialism), so for me rejection of one entails acceptance of the other. I wrongly assumed that was the same for you.

                1. Really? Chalmers, robhu‘s philosopher of the moment, thinks panpsychism is at least plausible, for example. AFAICT panpsychism doesn’t require theism, but wouldn’t be compatible with physicalism (which is apparently a modern term for materialism, preferred as it includes stuff like energy and fields which aren’t “material” i.e. made of matter).

                  So: physicalism seems plausible. Theism could be true in some sense, but, for example, the God robhu is portraying in this entry is presumed to be good, but is actually evil, and so is internally contradictory, so we can dismiss the idea that he exists (We can remove the contradiction if we imagine a God who claims he’s good but is actually evil, but the question then is why you guys worship him). Similar objections apply to most gods conceived of by other religions (or at least, those I’ve looked at).

                  It’s OK to not know stuff. Another thing the doctrine of Hell does is force you into making a decision where there’s insufficient evidence (after all, I might get hit by a bus tomorrow, right?). See the Pullman quote, again.

                  1. I don’t know what Chalmers is saying now, but back when I studied him at university there was definitely the idea that it was silly to ask if we were conscious because really we aren’t, and he was one of the people arguing this position (or at least he seemed to be, philosophers are always a bit vague) may not be unreasonable.

                    The God I’ve portrayed is most definitely not evil, and I don’t really know why you’ve stated that as if it’s an agreed point when you know full well woodpijn doesn’t agree with you. I don’t see any internal contradictions. I suppose in response you’ll just repost everything that has been said in the thread between myself and gjm11. I think – this whole discussion is going in circles too much to be worth continuing right now (and I’ve spent far more time on it that I really have at the moment).

                    While I was a self described weak atheist I don’t think you can really get away with ‘just’ being a weak atheist (or at least I couldn’t) given that weak atheism is the position that there is insufficient ‘positive evidence’ for god but not strong ‘negative evidence’ that there is no god. Weak atheists AFAICT tend to still adopt a worldview to explain things – in your case (and mine) that is scientific materialism.

                    It’s perfectly reasonable and valid to do what woodpijn is doing which is to say that that world view is just as open to scrutiny as her position as a Christian theist. The New Atheists are fond of criticising theists who at one point make big claims, then when the light of enquiry is shone on them say “well, we don’t really believe something like that”. Weak atheists AFAICT are guilty of a similar crime.

                    I don’t understand why you think the doctrine of Hell forces you in to making a decision where there is insufficient evidence. Do you mean insufficient evidence for the non Christian or for the Christian? As a Christian I am convinced there is more than ample evidence. For the non Christian it is not required that they know how they are to be punished for their actions to make such a punishment fair. We all know we do wrong, a defence of “but I didn’t know I was going to be punished for what I’ve done wrong!” isn’t going to wash.

                    BTW I’d appreciate it if you didn’t say things like “robhu‘s philosopher of the moment”. I know I invoked Chalmers before, but that was me sharing a not well developed thought that is part of a larger system of thoughts and conclusions that I have not had time to crystalise and right down.

                    1. wrt the “philosopher of the moment” stuff, I was under the impression that reading Chalmers was your main reason for being dissatisfied with physicalism (based on your mention of that dissatisfaction in your conversion most and your comment about Chalmers in this post, which might be a bit tenuous, I admit). So, I was a bit concerned that your conclusions didn’t agree with what I’ve read about Chalmers.

                      Anyway, I’m not an an expert and it’s possible that Chalmers has himself changed his mind at some point. I wonder whether gjm11 knows more about this stuff (as I think he’s read far more philosophy than me) and would be able to tell us.

                      I’m not stating that your God is evil as if it were an agreed point, I’m referring to myself using the majestic plural (or perhaps just using “we” the way it tends to be used in mathematical explanations: “if we do this, we can see that”).

                      There’s good reason to think the God you’re portraying here is evil. gjm11‘s chess analogy is a good one: there might be other explanations for the way that God plays, but the moves evangelicals say he makes don’t seem to tie up with goodness, quite the reverse in fact. I’m surprised you’re finding this difficult to see, because you’ve made the same points yourself before your re-conversion. From the outside, the decision to believe that God is good no matter how he behaves looks like abdication of your moral faculties, in the way that more than one person has likened to toleration of an abusive partner.

                      I’m not sure what you mean by “get away with”. I can, if I want, say that I haven’t got enough evidence to believe in God and then be a humanist, a Buddhist or whatever. A weak atheist who’s never really considered God at all (because they’ve never been taught about God and never seen anything like evidence, a position a lot of younger people in this country might be in today, I suppose) might have all sorts of other superstitions which are incompatible with scientific materialism. I’d say a scientific attitude was actually pretty rare in weak atheists, more’s the pity, although you’re probably right to say it’s more common among those who have considered it seriously.

                      The New Atheists are fond of criticising theists who at one point make big claims, then when the light of enquiry is shone on them say “well, we don’t really believe something like that”. Weak atheists AFAICT are guilty of a similar crime.

                      I don’t what sort of thing you’re criticising here. Can you give an example?

                      I don’t understand why you think the doctrine of Hell forces you in to making a decision where there is insufficient evidence.

                      It forces (which is probably too strong a word, let’s fall back to the traditional Christian “encourages”) the person considering Christianity (which I didn’t make clear) into making that decision, because making no decision is equivalent to saying no and risking Hell, so the temptation is to take Pascal’s Wager.

                      The fact that you’re convinced there’s ample evidence doesn’t really help: the main evidence you’ve shown so far is a personal experience which is not accessible to anyone else, which seems to override any arguments anyone else makes. I think both gjm11 and I have made good arguments that evangelical Christianity is incoherent: most recently, Gareth in the comments here, and me on the evangelical tradition thread in your journal. I don’t think your answers hold up, so I don’t understand how you can then say that it is reasonable to believe it, as you do on the conversion posting. To me it looks like you’ve got a feeling God is real and are looking for reasons, whether in the works of Chalmers or elsewhere. But I would say that, of course 🙂

                    2. I’m absolutely not a Chalmers expert — I think I’ve read a grand total of about 5 pages of his work. So I have no idea whether he’s changed his mind, or how well what Rob’s saying matches up with any given opinion of his. (Except that I know Chalmers has said he’s an atheist.)

                      One word of warning for anyone inclined to find out more. Some time back, on the talk page for the Wikipedia article about either Chalmers or one of his pet subjects (I forget which), there was a discussion along the following lines. A: “Y’know, all the stuff about Chalmers’s position about P, Q and R is wrong because X, Y and Z.” B: “Bollocks it is. I’ve read his work, and he definitely thinks what the article says.” A: “You might like to know that I am in fact David Chalmers.” B: “Well, you’re wrong anyway.” A: “Oh, I give up.” (It was verified that A really was Chalmers. There was some further amusement because the way A initially revealed his identity was by quoting that bit in “Annie Hall” about Marshall McLuhan, and B didn’t understand. So, anyway, Wikipedia pages about Chalmers may possibly have been edited by people who are confidently wrong about Chalmers.

                      I’m guessing that what Rob means about weak atheists is: they talk as if there’s definitely no god, religion is definitely bunk, etc., but when pushed to justify their position they retreat to “well, of course I don’t know for sure” and “atheism is a default position, it doesn’t need justifying”, and so on. I’ve not gone trawling for examples, but I’d guess that (1) that happens sometimes and (2) it also happens sometimes that the weak atheist says much more reasonable things and gets misunderstood by the theist, who hasn’t fully grasped the difference between “the evidence is strongly against X” and “I have proof that X is wrong”, or between “I’ve never been given any good reason to believe X, which in any case seems unlikely a priori” and “I just randomly choose to act as if X is false without having any evidence”.

                      I don’t think what I’ve said here amounts to an argument that evangelical Christianity is incoherent; I think it’s possible to be an evangelical Christian and also an annihilationist (as e.g. John Stott does), and I’ve almost exclusively been arguing that the traditional idea of hell is monstrous and stupid. It’s possible that bits of what I’ve said could be repurposed to make an argument that some ideas more central to evangelical Christianity (e.g., the way evangelicals are supposed to think about the atonement) are nonsense, but that would be a different argument and one I haven’t made here. (Also, one I’m less sure is correct.)

                    3. The traditional view of hell is simply the default, because it’s so culturally engrained in our culture. Likewise the traditional view of heaven (pearly gates etc). Christians tend to work with it because it’s easier than re-educating people on what the correct doctrines actually are, but I think this is a mistake. The hell of trad culture is much more interesting exciting and scary than, say the small amount that is written about it in the Bible (the OT just talks about a dark place, for example). That’s not to say it isn’t bad, but it has no worms, that was definitely a later addition. They never worried me so much, actually.

                    4. The worms are in the gospels, actually. And the fire. The molten sulphur is in Revelation. Not so sure about the devils with pitchforks :-). Lots of other details in the ancient-pop-culture hell come from Dante, I think.

                      Anyway. I’ve been arguing against “eternal conscious torment” because that’s something that (1) a lot of Christians believe in, and defend, and (2) it’s monstrously evil. I quite agree that there are notions of hell that aren’t so bad; and I think one can have authentic Christianity without having hell at all (other than, perhaps, as a place of final destruction). So, as I’ve said elsewhere in this Very Long Discussion, I’m not aiming here to refute Christianity or even evangelicalism. Just to explain why I think one particular idea believed by some but not all evangelical Christians is odious and silly and generally Bad.

                    5. No worms! The worms are in a later greek text. KJV has them, most modern translations use the Westcott hort text, which is a compilation of the earlier text. Textus receptus is the manuscript used in the KJV, hence the worms.

                      The fire is not necessarily literal, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t bad. It tends to be fairly difficult to explain to people what eternity will be like, so metaphor can come in handy. And quicker.

                    6. D’oh, you’re right. I was fooled by the fact that the worms are in the RSV, which is pretty decent textually. (In particular, it’s well post-W+H and isn’t the TR.)

                      I think the fire (and worms, perhaps 🙂 ) are pretty clear references to Jerusalem’s municipal rubbish dump at Ge Hinnom, where rubbish was burned _in order to get rid of it_. Which is one reason why I think annihilationism is a pretty tenable position for Christians even if they take a conservative view of the Bible.

                      I suspect that the very phrase “what eternity will be like” embodies an oversimplification — the usual view AIUI is that eternity is all about sharing in God’s transtemporal existence. (I have some suspicions that this is a sophisticated modern understanding that would have baffled the authors of the NT. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Christians shouldn’t adopt it.)

                    7. I suppose that some people are weakly atheistic in the general sense, and strongly atheistic towards some gods. I’d say I’m a strong atheist wrt evangelical-Christian-God. I can see that adding to the confusion about who’s claiming what in debates like these.

                      You’re right, I was writing as if all evangelicals believed in eternal torment, but neglected annihilationists like Stott, so when I was referring to your arguments I should have said “non-annihilationist evangelical Christianity”. By “incoherent”, I mean that the idea of a good God and eternal torment don’t hang together, which I think is what you’re arguing (or at least, a consequence of what you’re arguing).

                    8. I take it that atheism is a negative worldview in the sense that it represents a claim or belief about how reality isn’t (strong), or at least how it seems not to be for all you can tell (weak). But what’s far more interesting are claims about how reality is, and I don’t think that anyone can do without one of these in practice. Refusal to offer a positive worldview (like physicalism or whatever) which then in turn has to be defended may be what Rob means by “get away with” – although I’m sure he’ll tell us.

                    9. That’s kinda what I was saying yes.

                      Perhaps there are a lot of weak atheists out there who don’t really believe anything positive – but I didn’t encounter many (if any). I found that I adopted a strong worldview which made positive claims alongside my weak one which just denied that the claims of another positive worldview were correct. In practice when under fire I’d return to my weak worldview and claim it couldn’t be attacked by anyone as it was just a rejection of other people’s positive claims, but later I’d go on the offensive with my (scientific physicalist) worldview that made positive claims.

                      I meant more than this – but I’ll write that up later when I’m not meant to be tidying up 😉

                    10. Of course, I do have a positive worldview, but one of the principles of it is that I try to think about how likely a thing is, rather than either believing it or not.

                      This thread started with an assertion that the only two sensible alternatives were physicalism and theism.

                      I’m never very sure what “physical” means. As I mentioned in the comment on Chalmers, because I’m not sure what differentiates these bridging laws from undiscovered physics. Chalmers says stuff that I agree with, in the linked paper, but is apparently not a physicalist. So I wouldn’t want to state absolutely that I’m a physicalist, for fear of committing myself to philosophical positions I don’t hold. We don’t know what the fundamental bits of the universe are yet (and we may never) so I’m not sure what it’d mean for me to assert that everything else supervenes on them.

                      Rather, what I think is that treating everything as if it arose out of the most fundamental bits of matter/energy we know about at the moment hasn’t lead to contradictions (except in the places where the more fundamental things are poking through, hence the desire to build particle accelerators and the like), or to stuff we cannot explain in principle, if not yet in practice. Working that way has got us a long way with explaining things, and I don’t see a reason to think that is going to peter out. I don’t know whether there’s a name for this attitude. Previously, I suggested it might be methodological naturalism.

                      I’m an atheist in the same sense as the Pullman quote, with the addition that some Gods seem so unlikely that I’m prepared to say that they don’t exist (strong atheism).

                    11. How many people do you know who became a Christian because of the doctrine of Hell. In particular those who remained Christians more than a year? I travel in lots of very different Christian circles from all theological and church traditions, and I can’t think of a single example. I’m not saying they don’t exist, but it clearly isn’t a huge phenomenon.

                      I have known people who have realised that Hell (of some sort) exists, and then been very worried and scared, and then realised that if Hell exists then God must exist, and He happens to be loving and glorious, and they decide to love God because of who he is and the fact that he Very Definitely exists. I have never met anyone who has said “if this person is correct, I could be in trouble. Just in case they are correct, I’ll pray the sinners prayer and then get on with my life as normal/live as a Christian just in case it’s all true”.

                      This is why I think that evangelism which uses Hell as a motivation for conversion is a)ineefectual and b)unbiblical. The problem is if you don’t mention it at all people think you aren’t telling them the whole truth. The place for Hell is in the pulpit, to encourage Christians to do the evangelism and social justice stuff!

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