christianity

C. Michael Patton writes honestly about the day he lost his faith, and how it came back again. One paragraph of his struck me: “My new affair with atheism, carried with it the sudden burden of ultimate meaninglessness. People were no different than the rocks if there is no God. Not one thing has claim to be more value than another.”

It’s a popular line of thought, but so far as I can tell, not well founded. If you think Patton was right, you think that the statements:
1. There is no God.
2. People are of greater moral value than rocks.
are incompatible: if one is true, the other cannot be. But, on the face of it, I see no reason to think that. To make an argument, you’d need to introduce other, related, statements and back them up. (If you spend a lot of time debating this sort of stuff, you’ll noticed I’ve taken a leaf from William Lane Craig’s book. My response is pretty similar to his response to the logical Argument from Evil, where he points out that his opponents have just made statements without showing how the statements are logically related).

I mentioned this in the comments on Patton’s post, and have been discussing it with The 27th Comrade. Comrade makes the weaker claim that “If God doesn’t exist, it is not necessarily true that people are not rocks”. He then goes on to claim that a person’s value can only depend on a transcendent, immutable opinion; and that without God, there can be no objective moral values.

But I see no reason why, if there are moral facts independent of human opinions, they would be defined by the opinions of a (non-human) person. I also don’t see how this makes values objective, since that word usually means “independent of anyone’s opinion”.

On the horns of a dilemma

At this point, I mentioned the Euthyphro dilemma (which I apparently introduced to William: I’m glad someone’s learning something from my ramblings). If God sets what is moral by his opinions, they seem arbitrary: God could have made anything moral by fiat. If God’s moral opinions reflect some other independent facts (as my opinion that “the sky is blue” does, say), while God may well know the facts better than we do, the facts would still be facts if he did not exist.

If you’ve had some evangelism training, you’ll know there’s a popular response to the dilemma, which is to say that goodness is part of God’s essential nature: not external to him, but not something he chooses. Craig adds that we understand what words like “good” mean without reference to God; it is informative, rather than tautologous, to learn that “God is essentially good”. But it seems then that any being which had the morally good properties God is claimed to have would be good, whether or not that being existed. As John D says, “All that Craig is doing is ascribing certain moral properties to God, but it is these moral properties that provide the foundation for morality, not God. He is talking about necessary moral truths, not necessary theistic truths. In other words, morality is still not ‘up to God’, it merely inheres in him.”

Comrade seems to have got diverted by my examples of horrifying things God could have made good by fiat. I was unclear here, and unfortunately I chose as examples some of the horrifying things the Christian God actually does in the Bible, which Comrade then felt compelled to defend (I often run into this problem with theists: with hindsight, I should have avoided the sensitive subject of racism when talking to robhu about complementarianism, but I had trouble thinking of an example of discrimination which evangelicals don’t already think is a good thing). But that wasn’t my point, which was rather that, if morality is based solely on God’s opinion, there’s no reason to suppose that God’s opinion is anything like what we mean by “good” (notice that Craig is cannier here).

Comrade asserts that (edited: if there is no God) we have no basis to judge anything that has evolved as wrong, referring to Orgel’s Second Rule: “evolution is cleverer than you are”. But again, I see no more reason to identify “what has evolved” with “good” than I do to identify “God’s opinion” with “good”. Evolution may be clever, but clever isn’t the same as good.

The psychology of moral arguments

What I take from this is that some people want different things from moral values than I do. Some people just intuitively feel that if there isn’t a God, they can’t get those things. What they seem to want is:

  • Moral values must be “objective”: this means they cannot be pure opinion, unless it’s the opinion of someone they can always trust and who has much higher status than them.
  • Moral values must be unchanging.
  • Moral values must be “grounded”: this word is often used. It’s not clear what it means for morality to be grounded, but it gives us a strong visual image of grounded objects (at least, I assume you’re also seeing a tree with an extensive root system underground), so suppose it does well as an intuition pump. God is supposed to be pretty solid, in non-physical sort of way: I hear he’s a bit like a rock.

Over at Parchment and Pen, Michael Patton wonders why some people believe and others don’t. He hews pretty close to the standard Christian answer that people know there’s a God but don’t admit it because they don’t want to admit to God’s authority (actually, it’s educated Christians who know there isn’t really a God but don’t admit to it).

Moses and the Prophets

I was interested in his discussion of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, in which the Rich Man ignores Lazarus, the beggar at his gate. The Rich Man ends up in Hell, while Lazarus ends up in Heaven. The Rich Man wants Lazarus to visit his brothers and warn them, but Abraham (who’s in charge of Heaven and Hell in this story, in a sort of Jewish version of St Peter’s role, I suppose) tells the Rich Man that “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Patton says this illustrates that “we have a much bigger problem than the lack of evidence”.

Well, maybe we do, but we certainly do have the problem of lack of evidence, and the Abraham of the parable is either irrational or encouraging the Rich Man’s brothers to be so. People rising from the dead is strong evidence in a way that merely writing books is not, because many worldviews have books which advocate them and they can’t all be right, and because the fact that your opponents write books isn’t very surprising to a whole load of views. Resurrections, on the other hand, are very surprising to views which don’t predict them.

This, then, is how you should pray

I was listening to the Christian philosopher Tim Mawson on a podcast recently. He thinks atheists should pray to God to reveal himself, which seems fair enough: I’d like to try it if I can think of what would be a fair positive and negative result. Any ideas?

Pre-commitment

Crucially, Mawson agrees beforehand that a negative result is evidence against Christianity, which makes him more rational than Abraham. As I mentioned previously, I’ve been following Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fun bit of creative writing which explores what would’ve happened if Harry Potter had been educated in science and rationality before the Hogwarts people turned up. Mawson’s attitude is a bit like the alternate Harry Potter getting everyone to agree on the significance of possible outcomes before doing an experiment at the beginning of this chapter of the story.

Edited: Speaking of Hell, there ended up being a lively discussion on Hell on one of my previous posts, which you might also be interested in.

Plato’s Man Cave

Shadows on the wall, plus 52" plasma TV.
(tags: plato cave philosophy funny parody)

Why Sex and the City 2 is a science fiction movie

I LOL'd.
(tags: movies review funny future sf scifi sci-fi science-fiction)

Decoding God’s Changing Moods – TIME

You'd think the Abrahamic God would make up his mind — Can he live with other gods or not? What's with the random mood fluctuations?
But the fluctuations aren't really random. If you juxtapose the Abrahamic Scriptures with what scholars have learned about the circumstances surrounding their creation, a pattern appears.
(tags: religion islam history christianity god culture)

God, Science and Philanthropy | The Nation

An interesting article on the history of the Templeton Foundation, the controversial foundation which provides grants to scientists interested in "the Big Questions".
(tags: templeton dawkins richard-dawkins science religion intelligent-design)

Living in denial: Why sensible people reject the truth – opinion – 19 May 2010 – New Scientist

"…denialism, the systematic rejection of a body of science in favour of make-believe. There's a lot of it about, attacking evolution, global warming, tobacco research, HIV, vaccines – and now, it seems, flu. But why does it happen? What motivates people to retreat from the real world into denial?"
(tags: climate conspiracy creationism epistemology politics psychology religion science denialism denial)

GMC | Determinations

The General Medical Council ruling on Dr Andrew Wakefield, where you can read why he was actually struck off (via Ben Goldacre).
(tags: medicine mmr uk wakefield andrew-wakefield vaccine vaccination gmc)

Searching for Jesus in the Gospels : The New Yorker

Adam Gopnik writes about the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith, bringing in people like Bart Ehrman and Philip Pullman. Interesting stuff.
(tags: religion christianity history jesus christ paul bart-ehrman ehrman adam-gopnik philip-pullman)

Failing The Insider Test: The Problem of Hell

One of the reasons I'm not a Christian any more is that I realised the God I was being asked to worship was evil. Jeffrey Amos explains what I mean with great clarity, and also addresses the "ah ha, but how do you know what's evil without God, eh?" argument.
(tags: hell god evil christianity religion morality)

The Swinger « Music Machinery

Turn anything into a jive (well, anything in 4/4 anyway): "The Swinger is a bit of python code that takes any song and makes it swing. It does this be taking each beat and time-stretching the first half of each beat while time-shrinking the second half. It has quite a magical effect."
(tags: music python audio programming software swing jive)

Why the New Atheists Failed, and How to Defeat All Religious Arguments in One Easy Step

A neat summary of Luke's problem with Dawkins, and what he thinks is a better argument against theistic explanations. Youtube video with a transcript (hurrah).
(tags: richard-dawkins dawkins atheism religion philosophy explanation)

Curing the gays « Derren Brown Blog

Derren Brown (who's gay, and who used to be a Christian): "I have, however, attended these sorts of church sessions and even courses which set about healing the ‘brokenness’ of homosexuality… I read of such things now and shiver."
(tags: derren-brown gay homosexuality christianity religion philippa-stroud sex)

Top Tory Adviser Ran Prayer Group to “Heal” LGBTS

Focusses on why the media have ignored the story. Contains a comment from one of the people quoted in the original Observer article, something which the regular media won't print, apparently.
(tags: philippa-stroud conservatives conservative politics sex religion homosexuality demons)

Erasing David

Ross Anderson on poor operational security in the NHS, made worse by politics: "Last night’s documentary Erasing David shows how private eyes tracked down a target by making false pretext telephone calls to the NHS. By pretending to be him they found out when he and his wife were due to attend an ante-natal clinic, and ambushed him as he came out."
(tags: privacy security nhs ross-anderson health)

A Bit of Fry and Laurie – A word, Timothy

"Berwhale the Avenger, the Weapon of the Chosen One." "He lives far beyond… in Saffron Walden."
(tags: funny fry-and-laurie stephen-fry fantasy parody berwhale)

Via pseudomonas, I got the news that Conservative high-flyer Philippa Stroud founded a church that tried to ‘cure’ homosexuals by driving out their ‘demons’. The Observer quotes a couple of people who were on the receiving end.

If you engage with Christians about philosophical arguments, where, say, God is advanced as the best, most elegant explanation for creation or the order in the universe, it’s easy to forget that both evangelical and Catholic Christians are committed to belief in the existence of Satan and his minions. For some reason, these Christians tend to downplay this aspect of their belief when evangelising. I’ve previously mentioned the slippery slope that someone might go down, from intellectual arguments for deism, to the Christian Trinity, to a pantheon with angels and demons and bears, oh my.

Those Christians who do believe in the Adversary can be further distinguished by how readily they’ll invoke him as an explanation. My former church saw the Prince of this World as primarily a tempter, not as someone who might possess a person: it might be the Devil’s fault if you had, you know, urges, but I don’t recall anyone attributing illness or even homosexuality to the actions of the Beast (as opposed to the generally fallen state of the world).

It sounds like Stroud’s church is a charismatic church, where people expect to have spiritual encounters, both with God and with the Evil One, much more directly than at more conservative evangelical churches.

Christian blogger and author Adrian Warnock tells us he plans to vote Conservative, partly based on Stroud’s influence on the party. He’s not talking about demons, though, but about social justice: both in Warnock’s article and the Observer‘s, it’s obvious that, in Stroud’s church, the hair-raising stuff about demons is married to a genuine concern for the poor, which I think can only do the Conservative party some good.

Still, I can’t help but think there must be alternatives where the party both wants to help the poor and doesn’t have its social policy written by people who believe demons cause The Gay.

Edited: Iain Dale writes that Stroud has been smeared by the Observer, and quotes a statement from her in which she denies that she thinks homosexuality is an illness. I think questions remain, though: after all, the Observer article didn’t say she did think it was an illness, did it?

Edited again: Andrew Brown chimes in with a utilitarian argument for Stroud.

And again: odd that the media isn’t reporting this one, isn’t it? Pam’s House Blend talks about why, and also has this comment from one of the people the Observer interviewed.

AlterNet: What Happened When I Went Undercover at a Christian Gay-to-Straight Conversion Camp

Via Metafilter. Comical yet sad stuff: you do end up really feeling for these guys even as you laugh at the silliness of the camps.
(tags: homosexuality religion christianity sex conversion)

YouTube – Latin Technique Class – Cha Cha

Walks and locks. Wish my hips did that…
(tags: cha-cha dancing video youtube)

General election 2010: The liberal moment has come | Comment is free | The Guardian

The Graun comes out for the Libdems. I endorse this message.
(tags: politics uk election guardian liberal-democrats libdems)

After the last case of nature imitating art, Gordon Brown’s gaffe reminded me of that moment on Yes, Prime Minister when Sir Humphrey learns an important lesson: the microphone is always live, just as the gun is always loaded.

I don’t know whether Mrs Duffy is a bigot. As Bernard Woolley might say, that’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it? I engage in open discussion on immigration; you are a bigot; he’s being charged under Section 19 of the Public Order Act. Andrew Rilstone says she’s read too much of the Nasty Press, and that Brown is himself too used to pandering to them, in public at least, both sentiments which seem fair enough, to me.

Justice and Laws

There’s a lot of blogging going on about the failure of yet another legal case where a Christian claimed they’d been discriminated against when they were sacked for discriminating against gays. Gary McFarlane, a relationship counsellor, was sacked by Relate for refusing to give therapy to homosexual couples. Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, intervened in the case. He submitted a witness statement in which he called for special, religiously sensitive, courts to hear cases like McFarlane’s; said that Christians were being equated with bigots (that word again); and warned of “civil unrest” if things carried on (for an example of civil unrest organised by the Church of England, see Eddie Izzard’s Cake or death sketch).

It’s worth reading the full text of the judgement by the excellently named Lord Justice Laws. After giving his legal opinion, the judge addresses Lord Carey’s statement. He rejects Carey’s claim that the law says Christians are bigots, distinguishing discriminatory outcomes from malevolent intentions. He goes on:

The general law may of course protect a particular social or moral position which is espoused by Christianity, not because of its religious imprimatur, but on the footing that in reason its merits commend themselves. So it is with core provisions of the criminal law: the prohibition of violence and dishonesty. The Judaeo-Christian tradition, stretching over many centuries, has no doubt exerted a profound influence upon the judgment of lawmakers as to the objective merits of this or that social policy. And the liturgy and practice of the established Church are to some extent prescribed by law. But the conferment of any legal protection or preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled. It imposes compulsory law, not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion. This must be so, since in the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence. It may of course be true; but the ascertainment of such a truth lies beyond the means by which laws are made in a reasonable society. Therefore it lies only in the heart of the believer, who is alone bound by it. No one else is or can be so bound, unless by his own free choice he accepts its claims.

This debate is usually framed as Christians vs atheists and secularists. Indeed, Carey is still fulminating, fellow bishop Cranmer rumbles about establishment, and the Christian Legal Centre appears to think it’s a good idea for the courts to take a position on the veracity of the Bible (let me know how that one works out for you, guys). But not all Christians are with Carey and the CLC: some Christians call out Carey for bringing Christianity into disrepute, and some recognise that claiming persecution has become a cottage industry for Christians in the UK. See also How to spot a fundamentalist Christian lobby group in your news, where you’re encouraged to spot a pattern developing.

The Evangelical Alliance would like these cases to stay out of the courts. A common response to this sort of case is to ask whether some accommodation could be made to the discriminatory Christians: perhaps those who objected to dealing with gay couples could be excused such duties? That seems reasonable to an extent, but Lord Justice Laws makes it clear that there is no legal obligation on employers here. It would be churlish to object to employers freely choosing to make such arrangements, so long as they do not inconvenience co-workers who do not discriminate in this way, but it seems hard to argue that employers have a moral obligation to do so, either: co-workers would probably feel a bit like the elder brother in Prodigal Son parable, and might ask why should someone behaving badly get equal pay and more flexibility about their work then someone willing to do the entire job. More generally, if society has decided that such discrimination is wrong, why should those doing wrong get special treatment? What do you think, readers?

Edited to add: some more discussion of the McFarlane case is happening over on andrewducker‘s post about it.

‘Richard Dawkins: I will arrest Pope Benedict XVI’ by Marc Horne – TimesOnline – RichardDawkins.net

Dawkins Our Leader: "Needless to say, I did NOT say "I will arrest Pope Benedict XVI" or anything so personally grandiloquent. You have to remember that The Sunday Times is a Murdoch newspaper, and that all newspapers follow the odd custom of entrusting headlines to a sub-editor, not the author of the article itself. What I DID say to Marc Horne when he telephoned me out of the blue, and I repeat it here, is that I am whole-heartedly behind the initiative by Geoffrey Robertson and Mark Stephens to mount a legal challenge to the Pope's proposed visit to Britain."
(tags: richard-dawkins pope catholic abuse children ratzinger law uk politics dawkins)

Christian faith and modern British politics, a layman’s view

Mattghg has a post on the role of faith in politics. He mentions an illiberal attitude taken by Labour (they wanted to reverse an amendment which said that discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred). Robhu and I are having an interesting chat in the comments, concerning whether Britain is a Christian country, among other things.
(tags: robhu religion discrimination homosexuality politics christianity uk britain)

Arresting comedy « Open Parachute

Graham Lineham (Father Ted, Black Books) on what would happen if Dawkins and Hitchens actually arrested the Pope.
(tags: pope dawkins hitchens funny arrest graham-lineham richard-dawkins christopher-hitchens)

Evangelical scholar forced out after endorsing evolution – USATODAY.com

"Forced out"? Don't you mean "expelled"?
(tags: evolution theology bible expelled bruce-waltke lolxians seminary biologos)

Special Investigation – Atheist Alert

The horrifying truth about atheists.
(tags: funny video parody religion atheism youtube nonstampcollector darwin stalin)

Hyperbole and a Half: The Alot is Better Than You at Everything

The Alot is a mythical beast. Lots of people on the web write about them.
(tags: funny grammar spelling english language internet)

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman | Books | The Guardian

Rowan Williams review Philip Pullman's latest. Via andrewducker.
(tags: christ jesus books christianity guardian literature religion review theology rowan-williams pullman philip-pullman)

They Work For The BPI

Who voted for the Digital Economy Bill, coloured by party affiliation. A sea of red. Oh well, they'll be gone soon, with any luck (though of course, most of the Tories didn't even turn up).
(tags: politics bpi debill digitalbritain election)

The Third Strike by Andrew Sullivan

"The AP's story on Joseph Ratzinger's direct involvement in delaying for six years the defrocking of a priest who had confessed to tying up and raping minors ends any doubt that the future Pope is as implicated in the sex abuse crisis as much as any other official in the church."
(tags: catholic pope abuse church corruption rape ratzinger religion paedophilia)