True Christians, New Christians and Crocoducks

Bring on the crocoducks

Remember Ray Comfort, of Crocoduck fame? Tony Miano, Comfort’s vicar on Earth, made a blog posting in which he argued that the Clergy Project (which tries to help ministers of religion who’ve become closet atheists) was doing the church a favour by ridding it of people who were never Christians in the first place. He also mentioned that atheists know there’s a God really (see previous discussion).

This attracted the attention of the Dawkins massive, mainly because they thought it was written by their arch-enemy Comfort himself, so it got quite a few comments. There was some good stuff. An ex-Christian called The Skeptical Magician had a go at beating the fundies at their own game, arguing from the Bible that he was a real Christian (someone who believes Jesus was the Son of God who rose from the dead) who changed his mind. I stuck my oar in, pointing out that if Miano is right, we can’t know someone’s a Christian until they die. Is Tony Miano a Christian? Well, we’ll have to wait and see, by his definition.

Had the Magician merely said that he was a believer, the first responses from Christians would have been “it’s easy to say you’re a believer, but that doesn’t make you one”. So he gave examples of doing things he would likely do only if he were truly a believer (faith without deeds being dead, as James tells us). He got replies telling him that his faith had been all about “doing” rather than “believing”, therefore his actions were evidence against him being a believer. This is cheating of the “heads I win/tails you lose” sort, as any Bayesian could tell you.

Some presuppositionalists commented, including my old mate the Internet-famous Sye Ten Bruggencate, who invented the Proof That God Exists (Danger! Atheists, don’t click that link!) Presuppositionalists start out sounding as if they might be fun, in a “late night conversation with philosophy students” sort of way: they like to ask for “accounts” of stuff that most people take, if not as a brute fact, then as a reasonable starting point (the evidence of our senses, memory, logic, belief in the sun rising tomorrow and so on). This might lead to an interesting philosophical discussion, but they spoil it all by applying radical scepticism to all views other than their own, which is cheating. If you read their literature, the reason for this is that they’re not interested in a discussion where both parties might modify their views, they just want to force their opponent “below the line of despair” so they’ll turn to Christianity. It’s fun to ask what an “account” would have to look like to satisfy them, and how they “account” for God’s unchangeable nature. They don’t answer, of course, but the point of intervening in such discussions is to defend the philosophically naive marks who’ve never run into Hume and Descartes before, not to change the presuppers’ minds.

But! I’ve never been one of them

Leah Libresco, an atheist blogger who originally started her Unequally Yoked blog when she was going out with Catholic, announced she’d converted to Catholicism because she’d realised that Morality is a Person who loves her. Camels with Hammers did a good summary of ways atheists responded, noting that the best response was probably to point out that she seemed to have missed a few steps in her argument, rather than accusing her of being off her medication.

squid314 wondered about local maximas in belief-space (which is mathematician speak for wondering whether the steps he’d have to take to get Catholicism individually made his new view seem less likely than before, even if once you get there Catholicism is actually more likely than the Official Bayesian Conspiracy Worldview). He noted that he knew quite a few clever people who’d become Catholic, so maybe it was worth looking into. He reported back on his investigation of the Catholic blogsphere in an amusing fashion, which makes me think he’s safe, for now.

A friend of Libresco’s started a thread on Less Wrong’s discussion board on how to thwart the conversion. Someone there was prepared to predict that the conversion won’t stick, as it’s based on metaphysics rather than the unpleasant reality of the Catholic church (Libresco is already wobbling a bit on the issue of homosexuality). We’ll see: I don’t know her well enough to want to bet on it.

I made a few comments on Libresco’s blog: on the Euthyphro Dilemma (ended up going in circles as usual, gave up); pointing out that the Catholic orthodoxy is that God is not morally good (he’s ontologically good, see Camels with Hammers again), making him a poor choice for a virtue ethicist like Leah; and dealing with the usual bad arguments about science.

22 Comments on "True Christians, New Christians and Crocoducks"

  1. the Proof That God Exists (Danger! Atheists, don’t click that link!)

    With a sales pitch like that I was hardly likely to resist, now was I? πŸ™‚ I managed to end up at the Argument from Rape, which looks totally ridiculous when seen from a moral-noncognitivist perspective. You deny (and confirm in the ‘are you sure?’ page) that moral laws exist, and they promptly say that if we think there is no right and wrong then it would imply the Nazis had the right to do this and we wouldn’t have the right to stop a society-approved rapist and there’s nothing wrong with doing this or that and … Honestly, did they even read the thing I just clicked that said those words were out of bounds for this kind of argument?

    They seem to have embraced a false dichotomy whereby, if you say morality is not absolute, the only other option is a cartoon version of relativism in which each society gets to determine its own morality by whatever social consensus emerges from lots of initially disagreeing people, but once they have done so everyone then has some kind of vaguely specified imperative to agree that each society’s chosen ‘morality’ is indeed moral in the context of that society. They spin this as a logical imperative (so that I can’t even coherently utter a sentence expressing disapproval of something done by the majority of our society, even though I was perfectly at liberty to disapprove of it during the consensus-forming stage) but of course they really think it has moral force, so they’ve snuck an absolute moral law (‘thou shalt agree with thy society’s opinions’) in by the back door.

    I suppose their brain must abhor a moral vacuum so much that if you say you don’t believe in absolute moral laws then they promptly make one up to pretend you do believe in.


    1. so that I can’t even coherently utter a sentence expressing disapproval of something done by the majority of our society, even though I was perfectly at liberty to disapprove of it during the consensus-forming stage

      Actually, now I look at that again, the thing it reminds me of most is Cabinet collective responsibility. That seems like a particularly strange place to go and look for your moral imperatives!


    2. It seems pretty common for people who think that without Christianity there can be no moral absolutes to also think that if there are no moral absolutes there’s something incorrect or inconsistent about the desire to intervene to stop $BAD_THING (which is always rape or the Nazis). Timothy Keller says the same thing in his book, for example.


    3. Wait, that’s NOT a parody?

      I started with “I don’t know if absolute truth exists” which then asked me if “I don’t know if absolute truth exists” is “absolutely true”, or “false”. I don’t think that website really groks the concept of “don’t know”… πŸ™‚

      It didn’t have a button for “Well, I’m 99% sure, but I might have misunderstood something” or “I didn’t mean EVERYTHING is uncertain, just that SOME things are.”

      And then it threw me back to the beginning of the labyrinth. At least I didn’t get eaten by a grue, although it sounds like you met one… πŸ™‚


      1. As grues go it seemed remarkably unscary. Perhaps this is what a grue looks like if you meet it in broad daylight, even though it would eat you instantly if it were dark…


    4. No, that was the second path I took. The first path was “absolute truth exists”, which gave me a spiel about the purpose of the website, but no useful buttons to click…?


      1. I clicked “absolute truth exists” (on the basis that I did a degree in it) and did indeed get a page of tedious spiel, but in the middle of it there were two big grey buttons marked “Go to Step 1” and “Exit”. The former took me through “do you think laws of logic exist?”, “do you think laws of science exist?”, and then got to the morality question.


        1. Ah! I didn’t even notice “go to step 1” didn’t link back to the beginning, since it seemed all the other links did. Apparently this argument is 0-indexed, which I guess is nicely mathematical, but was a surprise to me πŸ™‚


        2. And then, I got to the question about rape, but couldn’t bring myself to click on either link. As I commented before, it’s a good example of appeal to consequences: “If absolute morality didn’t exist, it would be awful, uncondonable, squicky, terrible, I really wouldn’t like it. Therefore, it does exist.” Which is very moving, but not, as far as I can tell, very sound.

          So I went back and found out what happened if I DO believe in an absolute morality. First, I had to agree to a lot of questionable comparisons between mathematics and morality, and that all were eternal, unchanging, universal, immaterial etc.

          And then… I don’t know. I completely missed the argument for why God exists part.

          I think it went something like:

          7a. If something is important and eternal, it’s initial state can’t be arbitrary.
          7b. The only possible cause of morality/logic is God
          7c. We can prove stuff
          8. Therefore, God.

          Unfortunately, he didn’t have any backing for assertions 7a-7c other than wishful thinking, so he didn’t give buttons for them, just buried them in the middle of paragraphs of exposition πŸ™‚


          1. Mmm. It did feel unpleasant to have to click on the bare text ‘molesting children for fun is not absolutely wrong’. If I were asked the same question with the opportunity to give a freeform response, I’d certainly be unwilling to just say that, since it would give an obviously inaccurate impression. Instead I’d be inclined to follow it up with a whole pile of disclaimers: stressing that although I don’t believe one could rigorously justify from first principles in a philosophy classroom the wrongness of molesting children, I am nonetheless strongly against it, would support all reasonable measures to stop it happening, would not tolerate it if I saw it going on, would do my best to instill a similar attitude into any offspring that a hypothetical situation might bestow on me, etc etc. So I did feel uncomfortable about not being given the opportunity to append all that to my click, but nonetheless I think that the text on that button is true even if woefully incomplete.

            Well done for exploring the other pathway. I did briefly wonder whether it would be interesting to make a full map of the site and see if all the counterarguments were equally poor, but since I couldn’t even be bothered to explore one other path – I ran out of motivation after I’d put in my honest metaphysical beliefs and arrived at a counterargument that didn’t challenge me – I think that would be a job for someone with more energy πŸ™‚


            1. It did feel unpleasant to have to click on the bare text ‘molesting children for fun is not absolutely wrong’.

              This is of course for social reasons: we (rightly) fear the social disapproval we risk if we bite this bullet.

              It seems to me that in picking child sexual abuse as his issue (something that our culture finds particularly vile), Bruggencate is conceding the social nature of morality. If morality were truly absolute, it wouldn’t logically matter which issue he picked here. But somehow he chose an issue where social disapproval is particularly strong…


              1. Possibly, although issues where social disapproval is particularly strong probably correlate well with issues on which the person being grilled by this website is unlikely to disagree with the party line on what is and isn’t wrong. If they’d picked something on which there was widespread disagreement (say, premarital sex) there’d have been a lot of people responding ‘of course there’s nothing wrong with that even if you do believe in absolute morality, what’s your point?’.

                Thinking further about the feeling of discomfort clicking that button, I think part of it is that my brain looks for ways in which the statement might be reinterpreted out of context, and feels that “is not absolutely wrong” might easily be taken to mean “is not always wrong” – one fears one might be read as saying that in a sufficiently extreme hypothetical situation it might be that all other courses of action are worse, or some such. Which is of course an entirely different argument, more to do with what one’s moral principles are than whether one believes they’re universal laws…


                1. the statement might be reinterpreted out of context

                  Yes, that’s exactly why it feels awkward to assent to it: not because you don’t assent, but because of the social consequences of that assent, which includes deliberate misrepresentation. Bruggencate is suggesting (without saying explicitly) that if you want to stick to your guns about absolute morality then he’s going to make you run the risk of being smeared as a paedophile.

                  if they’d picked something on which there was widespread disagreement

                  That’s not really my idea of the counterfactual. He could have picked something we all agree is wrong (like murder), but where there isn’t such a strong societal taboo.


                  1. if you want to stick to your guns about absolute morality then he’s going to make you run the risk of being smeared as a paedophile

                    That makes the parting comment “Unless you reconsider your stand on this matter” sound a lot more sinister! Now it reads more to me as “When you come crawling back after deciding you can’t face the social opprobrium any more…”


          2. The whole thing reminds me of toddlers who’ve figured out the structure of jokes but not what actually makes them funny, but applied to apologetics. It’s funny in toddlers but I assume the author of the site is an adult…


    5. I managed to end up at the Argument from Rape

      Yes, I got there too. But basically Bruggencate admits that you’ve got him beat: “Unless you reconsider your stand on this matter, your road to this site’s proof that God exists ends here.”

      (Oh, and I just noticed the image in the bottom left. It shows a tic-tac-toe game in which all the moves have been made by X.)


      1. (Oh, and I just noticed the image in the bottom left. It shows a tic-tac-toe game in which all the moves have been made by X.)

        An excellent metaphor for these choose-your-own-adventure argument websites! If you make all the arguments yourself and invent counterarguments for your opponent that you know how to respond to, you’re bound to win.


      1. Nope. If you ask to prove it’s his God, he’ll ask you what God you were thinking of instead and try to demolish belief in that. Presuppers aren’t interested in disproving all possible gods though, because of the “reduce to despair” goal: they’re only interested in arguing about your own worldview.


  2. As usual with your posts, I need to set aside a couple of hours to finish reading all the interesting links. Do you keep track of all this stuff with delicious? I’m starting to think I need a better information management tool than typing “mlp cosplay” into Pinterest.


    1. This post was written by dumping links from my open tabs and writing stuff to go around that. I do use delicious, though: the regular “link blog” posts are made by batching up my delicious bookmarks.

      I get the religion stuff from following the usual suspects (Dawkins, Unreasonable Faith, Friendly Atheist) using Google Reader, the philosophy stuff from following some slightly less usual suspects.


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