Link blog: funny, evidence, philosophy, unbelievable

Peter Boghossian vs Tim McGrew – YouTube
Here’s an “Unbelievable” show in which Boghossian (“A Manual For Creating Atheists”) talks to Tim McGrew, who’s reasonably well known for his arguments in favour of belief in miracles. I’ve linked to a set of comments from “MrShamuto” where he undertakes more or less the process Boghossian describes in the books, of Socratic dialogue with “AdeToz”, a Christian. It is long and occasionally interrupted by other people who are bonkers, but it’s interesting to see Boghossian’s stuff in action.
(tags: street-epistemology epistemology peter-boghossian tim-mcgrew philosophy evidence unbelievable premier christian radio socratic)
W00tstock 5.0 – George RR Martin vs. Paul and Storm – YouTube
The singers of “Write like the Wind, George RR Martin” get a surprise.
(tags: game-of-thrones grrm george-rr-martin funny video wootstock)
List of testimonies from people who just know their religion is true
amymea, writing in the ex-Mormon Reddit, takes to task someone who argues that the “testimony of the spirit” is good evidence that Mormonism is true, by listing a bunch of other people who had strong feelings upon reading their own religious texts.
(tags: mormonism reddit feelings faith religion evidence)
Advanced Trolley Problems
(tags: philosophy funny comic ethics trolley-problem)
What I’ve Learned About Female Desire From Reading
Mallory Ortberg is fun. “100% of women want to have sex with a man who embodies the fox version of Robin Hood from the cartoon Robin Hood, but most do not actually want to have sex with a fox or a man dressed as one.”
(tags: mallory-ortberg funny reading sex desire books)

Link blog: islam, christianity, office, solitude

When people ask why I have a problem with religion, it’s hard to come up with a single answer… – Imgur

(tags: christianity islam religion)

Worrying developments for freedom of expression in the UK – Various – Various –

“This thread combines a number of examples where atheists, humanists and/or secularists have been threatened or coerced into silence, both by Muslims and by institutions or other groups apparently subscribing to the view that ‘If someone believes it, you must respect it’. All these examples have happened in the UK in the course of the last week or so. … But the key thing to note in all these cases is that it is no longer just the religious who would inhibit our freedom of expression: increasingly, secular bodies are buying into this invidious idea too, all in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘community relations’ or ‘respect’.”

Fuck it, I’m joining the EDL.

Just kidding, I don’t have the beer belly or the conviction for football hooliganism and I’ve never seen a “Muslamic raygun”. Still, it is alarming to see these things happening in Britain. Who are the reasonable opposition? Can’t leave something that important to the Nazis.
(tags: sharia speech freedom islamism uk islam)

Atheism isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship … with reality | Unreasonable Faith

A summary of blogged responses to that “I hate religion but love Jesus” video that’s been doing the rounds. I made a comment at the bottom. Also good for the comment thread on Atheismo, the diety for atheists.
(tags: relationship with god video atheism religion)

Driscoll & Brierley on Women in Leadership « Cognitive Discopants

Well known complementarian and fan of big strong manly men, Mark Driscoll, recently did an interview with Justin Brierley of Premier Christian Radio. Driscoll came out with a few choice quotes about Christians in the UK (“guys in dresses preaching to grandmas”).

He then had a go at Brierley for going to a church run by a woman (Brierley’s wife!) and not believing in penal substitutionary atonement and eternal conscious torment in Hell (Brierley is an annihilationist: we unsaved will be told off and then vapourised rather then being tortured forever). Fun times.
(tags: homosexuality premier christian radio complementarianism mark-driscoll religion church mark driscoll christianity women sexism markdriscoll)

The Rise of the New Groupthink –

“Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”
(tags: flow solitude groupthink team office work creativity)

Healing prayer experiments and pigeons

Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable programme recently featured the atheist physicist Victor Stenger talking to the Christian statistician David Bartholomew about whether the failure of healing prayer experiments provides evidence against God’s existence. You can listen to the programme, and see some of the lively debates which occurred on Premier’s site, here and here. Bartholomew’s claim seems to be that these sort of experiments just can’t give any evidence about God, either for or against his existence. If the experiments had instead shown prayer did help with healing, he’d be among the people cautioning his fellow Christians not to draw any conclusion from it.

God is not a pigeon

So, why can’t experiments tell you anything about God? On the Premier forums, Tom Coverly summarises Bartholomew’s argument by saying that “God is a person, not a pigeon” (presumably a reference to Skinner’s experiments). But the objection that God is a person doesn’t seem to stand up: psychologists do useful experiments on people, after all, so God’s personhood alone can’t be the problem. Likewise, the fact that God knows every detail of the experiment isn’t necessarily a problem: not all experiments involving people can be done as blind trials (for instance, I suspect it’s pretty hard to come up with a placebo therapist when comparing antidepressant drugs to therapy).

The reason why scientists do healing prayer experiments in the first place is that Christians generally do claim that God answers prayers. They usually (though Coverly does not, as we’ll see) anticipate that some prayers are more likely to be answered than others: they might say that God is more likely to answer a prayer to heal a sick child than a prayer to give someone a brand new Ferrari. I’ll assume that Christians have some evidence for these beliefs. The claim that healing prayer experiments don’t provide evidence about God is then a rather strange one. Is this other evidence that the Christian has invalidated because they believe God is a person and that God knew he was providing the evidence? What makes the healing prayer experiments different?

Whatever can be destroyed by Bayes’ Theorem should be

Perhaps foreseeing this problem, Coverly claims that he does not think God is more likely to answer certain prayers than others, in fact, he says that humans cannot anticipate God’s actions at all. How should someone who agrees with Coverly bet on prayer experiments? How should an atheist bet? Suppose there are two outcomes: call healing the result that the prayers had a healing effect (after allowing for everything else), and no healing the result that the prayers had no effect. If we think that God exists but we cannot anticipate his actions, we should bet that the two are equally likely: after all, if we bet preferentially either way, we’re anticipating God’s actions (we could not bet, Coverly’s preferred option, but let’s suppose we have to bet, so we’d best minimise our losses). If we think that God doesn’t exist, we should bet strongly on no healing.

What this means is that the result no healing still provides more evidence for the claim that “God does not exist” than Coverly’s claim that “God exists but you can’t anticipate the result of prayers”. The claim that “God does not exist” is bolder: it sticks its neck out and says “you’ll certainly see no healing“, so that when no healing occurs (and it does), this claim is confirmed more strongly than the claim that which predicts you’ll see no healing about half the time. We can turn this into mathematics if we like, but that’s the gist of it.

Of course, there are other possibilities, such as “God exists but likes hiding from scientists more than healing sick people”, and in fact, this claim is confirmed over Coverly’s by our observations of no healing. Clearly, this area needs further research to differentiate the possible claims (for instance, we might investigate whether there is some threshold of seriousness for an illness, where God switches over to preferring healing to hiding from scientists): don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t learn anything about God from science.

Arguing elsewhere

I’ve not posted for a while, mostly because I’ve been busy discussing elsewhere. Here’s where:

Not a Scotsman in sight

Michael Patton writes about ““How People Become Evangelists of Unbelief” or Leaving (Christ)ianity – An Evangelical Epidemic. I’ve linked to Parchment and Pen before: it’s written by Christians who get it. In this case, what Patton gets is the process involved in leaving Christianity. While his Calvinism commits him to the position that people who leave the faith and don’t come back were never Real Christians, he writes to his fellow believers that “Looking to transcendent reasoning for the problem offers us no practical look at what you and I can do as we are called to make disciples… From their point of view, they truly believed. It would be hard to tell a difference from their faith and ours.” I’ve commented on his post.

Things are also busy down on the Premier Christian Radio forums. There was a bit of a drought for a while, during which most of the discussion was of the “evilutionists, hur hur; creationists, hur hur” variety, but some interesting things have come up recently.

Presuppositionalism again

The presuppositionalism thread I mentioned previously has started up again. I’ve read a bit more philosophy since it went into hiatus, so I think I’m giving a better account of myself in the more recent postings. Comments from people who know more philosophy than me are welcome, though: I don’t expect my opponent to spot my mistakes. You might also enjoy Stephen Law’s argument that presuppositionalists were hit on the head with a rock.

I’m also wondering about the popular Christian statements that God “grounds” things like morality, laws of nature, and logic. I’d quite like to know what it means for something to be “grounded” in this sense. Since we intuitively know what it means for physical objects to be grounded, but explicit arguments that, say, God is necessary for morality to be meaningful don’t seem to work, I wondered if this sort of statement might be an intuition pump (in the bad sense).

Science and faith

There’s also been a fun thread on science and faith. I’ve stuck my oar in, and even managed to quote one of my Bad Arguments postings (provoking the evangelicals to accuse me of worshipping myself, or something: I remember these people had a real thing about masturbation). There was also a discussion on whether scientists and mathematicians who deal with concepts like irrational numbers are hypocritical for saying the Trinity is a silly idea. I did some evangelising for Bayesianism, which was followed by an argument that God exists because we’ve not encountered any aliens yet. All good clean fun.

Christian Presuppositionalism: buh?

I recently had a random encounter with a proponent of Christian presuppositionalism, over on the Premier Christian Radio forums. Presuppositionalism is a pretty odd position: not content with pointing out the evidence in favour of Christianity, as most Christians do, the presuppositionalist apparently reckons that unless you presuppose the existence of the Christian God, you can’t possibly make any sense of the world at all. The original thread the discussion was on got very convoluted (not helped by Ning‘s limit on thread nesting depth: if you ever want to start a social network, don’t use Ning, it’s crap). I started another one over here. My initial posting is below, for my reference and also because I’d like to know what you guys think of it. I’m an amateur philosopher, but I know there are some pros reading. Here’s what I said:

I’d like to clear the decks a bit rather than arguing in circles. I’m kind of new to presuppostionalism. I used to be a reformed evangelical, but more of an evidentialist (now I’m an atheist, as you might have gathered). Here’s what I’ve managed to glean so far:

Presuppositionalism (as advocated by Sye, at least) seems to be the position that it is necessary to presuppose that the Christian God exists in order to make any sense of the world at all. On this view, the Christian God is the only possible explanation for various stuff which we need for the world to make sense, like logic, mathematics, and our apparent ability to reason from specific cases to general cases (“all the copper we’ve seen conducts electricity, so all copper conducts electricity”). (This sort of reasoning is usually referred to by philosophers of science as “induction”, but note that it’s not the same thing as “proof by induction” technique you may have learned in maths lessons). I’ll refer to these things as “logic and stuff”.

<lj-cut text=”Now read on…”> The method of attack used by the presups (I’m now going to start using this abbreviation to save me from RSI) is to present the only possible alternatives as Christianity (of the reformed, inerrantist sort: liberals presumably need not apply) and radical scepticism, the belief that knowledge is impossible. You can see this method at work on the previous thread here, and in Sye’s responses to Stephen Law, an atheist philosopher. This is a bold claim: not only is the Christian God an explanation for logic and stuff, but it’s the only possible one.

Sye himself doesn’t appear to have an argument that Christianity is the only possible explanation. On Law’s blog, he asserted something called “the impossibility of the contrary”, but never made an argument in detail that the contrary is in fact impossible. Instead, his tactic is to attack whatever other possible position his opponent prefers, or, if his opponent won’t commit to a single preferred position, to attack them on the basis that they are using logic and stuff without sufficient grounds to believe that it produces true results.

David Snoke, a Christian professor of physics, has written a critique of presup from a reformed Christian perspective. It’s an interesting article: Snoke also goes into the history of presup ideas and various schools of thought within presup. I’m guessing Sye is more taken with Cornelius van Til than with Alvin Plantinga.

Of course, as I don’t possess the Holy Spirit, I’m unqualified to judge Snoke’s Biblical arguments. Instead, here are a few problems I see with presup:

1. Presups have not established the impossibility of the contrary. If presups were merely to claim that the contrary was unlikely, it might be possible to make an argument if presups could defeat all other known possibilities, but an argument to establish impossibility requires ruling out unknown possibilities as well.

2. Presup does not in fact remove the problems of knowledge that it claims to, so not only doesn’t establish itself as the only way to avoid radical scepticism, but doesn’t establish itself as a valid way to do so. Examples:

2a. Presups claim knowledge from God by revelation, but have not accounted for disagreements among Christians. Presups claim that the presup position itself is a revelation from God, but it seems God has not given this revelation to Christians like Snoke (and Richard Morgan, in the other thread). A presup might claim that God gives different revelations to different Christians, but this seems to further undermine their position (see below).

2b. Presups claim that non-Christians actually know the Christian God exists but suppress this knowledge. (Other Christians, for example, Richard Morgan and Karal (whose replies seem to have disappeared), disagree, another instance of problem 2a). While it’s possible for people to be deluded, presups have not explained how a mere mortal could shut out the revelation of an omnipotent being. Why not, as Carrier says, expect that “Even if we rejected it, we would all at least admit to each other, “Yes, that’s what this God fellow told me.”?

2c. Presups claim that non-Christians have no grounds to trust the evidence of their senses, memory or reasoning, but this is also true of presups. Whether the presup claim is that God’s reveals himself to their senses (by reading the Bible, say) or directly into their minds, someone with control of the Christian’s senses or with the inner workings of their mind could still deceive them (for example, by making what are apparently revelations from God). In this, the Christian is no better off than the non-Christian. Worse, even if God exists, according to Christians, humans cannot understand all his motives. Though he is generally in favour of truth, God might give a false revelation if it served his own purposes, just as God apparently allows suffering for some greater purpose despite being generally in favour of relieving suffering. So the presup cannot have absolute confidence in the truth of revelation even if it comes from God.

2d. Preups claim that the Christian God makes induction work, but I’m not quite clear what the actual claim is here. Do they claim to have a solution to the New Riddle of Induction, for example?

3. Presups claim that the Christian God is the only possible explanation. There does not seem to be a good reason why other sorts of God would not do.
3a. Sye mentioned that Allah will not do because the Quran contradicts itself. Yet he also claims that non-Christians cannot interpret the Bible correctly. If this is a legitimate move, surely a Muslim could claim that a non-Muslim could not interpret the Quran correctly (they might even add “How do you like your argument now?”) In fact, Sye’s reference to the contents of the Quran seems to be an evidential objection to Islam, not a presup one at all (but I won’t grass him up to the Presup Doctrinal Rectitude Council if he doesn’t want me too).

4. Worse, it’s not clear that some atheistic views won’t do as well as presup. In the other thread, I suggested Platonism, the view that logic and stuff exists necessarily and non-physically, and that this stuff governs the universe, and is perceptible to humans either because humans have some faculty that allows them to perceive it, or because humans evolved in a universe so governed (the second of these is probably weaker, but it’s a line of retreat in case the perceptual argument doesn’t work).
4a. Sye asks whether logic and stuff reveals itself, on this view, or whether humans perceive it autonomously. On Platonism, I take it the latter is true, because logic and stuff is impersonal, not a personal God. This seems to remove part of objection 2c, namely, that God might chose to deceive us, since impersonal stuff cannot chose anything. It also does well against the equivalent of options 2a and 2b, since if perception of logic and stuff is a human faculty, it may be weaker or non-existent in some people, and logic and stuff cannot be said to have chosen to allow this to happen.
4b. Sye asks for an example of such perceptions. I’d say that the truth of modus ponens is something we can just see to be true, and on Platonism, we just see it using this faculty.

To sum up, presup seems a vain attempt to avoid the problem that every theory of knowledge has to start somewhere (or be circular or infinitely recursive, I suppose) by grounding the starting point in God. However, I think I have more confidence that, say, logic “works” than we do in why. I drive my car without knowing what’s under the bonnet, and, unless there’s a Cartesian daemon deluding my senses, it apparently still gets me from A to B. I might claim that it runs on petrol (gasoline) or on batteries or on some as yet unknown technology, Sye might claim it runs on God. Yet the world is as it is: my car runs on something, and if it isn’t God, it’s something else.

TULIPs from Hamsterdam

In this issue: more Alpha, more de-converts copying me, and more liberal Anglicans doing the Devil’s work. Yes, it’s time to close some more browser tabs before Firefox seizes up completely.


Chat continues over on my previous posting about Channel 4’s documentary on the Alpha course. I found Jon Ronson, the documentary maker, had been on Alpha himself back in 2000 and written about it for the Graun. The link comes via Metafilter, where there’s some discussion of the article and of Alpha, into which I’ve dipped my toe.

I de-converted before it was fashionable

Jamie Frost sounds like he had a experience of Christianity at Oxford which was similar to mine at Cambridge (except, of course, the Cambridge one was just better). He went to St Ebbes, which is the Doctrinal Rectitude Trust church in Oxford, as StAG is in Cambridge. He was, and is, a science student. He also left Christianity, and his tale (of struggling to keep the faith, being buoyed up by emotional sermons and then realising he didn’t have reasons to believe) sounds awfully familiar. He writes about it in a meaty essay (I think it’s even longer than mine), which is worth a read.

The link to Frost’s essay came to me via the indefatigable Steven Carr, who helpfully posted it to the Premier Christian Radio discussion forum.

OK, so I’ve been watching The Wire

Yeah, so after the Templeton boys got lit up in a drive-by by PZ, I heard it was going down over at the Premier Christian Radio discussion forum, so me an’ my boy Carr grabbed our nines and mounted up. I done showed that Richard Morgan (who used to be tight with the Ditchkins crew before he snitched to the Christers) how we do it, then I had interesting discussion on epistemology [You seem to have slipped out of character – Ed], and shit. [Better – Ed]

Bishops Gone Wild

Those crazy Anglicans and their schisms: I can barely keep up these days, so I don’t usually bother. One thing caught my eye: Ruth Gledhill reports that Bishop Greg Venables, of the Fellowship of Mainstream True Christians Except If You’re Gay, had said of the fight against the godless liberals that “We must remember we are not fighting flesh and blood. This is about principalities and powers.”

If you weren’t a CU Bible Study group leader, you might not be able to complete that quote. It ends “and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms“. Yep, liberal Christians are in league with the devil. John Broadhurst, Bishop of Fulham, allegedly said “I now believe Satan is alive and well and he resides at Church House.” As Roy Zimmerman would say, “That was out loud, did you know that?”

PZ Myers on the radio

Did I mention I was on Christian talk radio once? No? Well, anyway, some other chap called PZ Myers was also on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable programme, talking about science and religion, a topic much discussed in blog-land recently. His Christian opposite number was Denis Alexander, who runs something called the Faraday Institute here in Cambridge, which was started by a grant from those naughty (but terribly well funded) Templeton Foundation people. You can listen to the audio on Premier’s site, and read Myers’s commentary on his blog.

It was an interesting programme. Myers is a strident shrill fundamentalist neo-rationalist atheist on his blog, but is softly spoken in person. The talk was pretty well mannered. <lj-cut text=”Who said what”>Myers and Alexander agree that there’s no place for god-talk in the science lab, and that evolution happened without divine meddling (amusingly, the presenter was careful to add a disclaimer that not all Christians believe the latter, presumably in an attempt to anticipate the letters in green crayon from creationists and intelligent design supporters). Myers was careful to limit the terms of the debate: he specifically objected to the project of using religious means to find out stuff about how the world works, saying that religion gets it wrong and science does better. Alexander accused Myers of scientism and argued that there are fields of discourse other than science which humans find worthwhile (law, art, and so on), but Myers kept coming back to how we find out how the world works.

Alexander argued that big questions like “why is there something rather than nothing?” are things we can reason about (specifically, using inference to the best explanation), but are not within the purview of science. He finds the human feeling that life has a purpose suggestive, because there’s a dissonance between atheism and the feeling of purpose. Myers argues that a sense of purpose is inculcated by successful cultures. Justin Brierley paraphrases Plantinga, but nobody bites. Summing up, Myers says that religion is superfluous not just in science, but in the rest of life also. Alexander says that science isn’t the only dimension to life, and that his personal relationship with Jesus makes his science work part of his worship.

I think I’d’ve been a bit less eager to attribute the human need for purpose to evolution, although Myers backed off that a bit when he talked about a cultural idea of purpose. Rather, I’d question the notional that an absolute, eternal purpose is the only real sort of purpose, just as I’d question the same assertion about morality.

I’d also question Alexander’s claim that Christians are applying inference to the best explanation in a similar way to scientists. According to philosophers of science, that inference should only be applied when an explanation is clearly better than the alternatives. The idea that a specific sort of god did it doesn’t seem clearly better, as Hume could have told you (unless by “better” we mean “in agreement with my religion”, I suppose).

Myers and Alexander spent a lot of time talking past each other when they were trying to work out what Myers’s objections were. Myers was wise to talk about methodology rather than disagreement about specific facts, on the grounds that science is a set of tools rather than a static body of knowledge. But Alexander is right that there are other legitimate ways to gain knowledge.

Perhaps we should talk about things that those legitimate ways have in common. As Eliezer says, if I’m told by my friend Inspector Morse that Wulky Wilkinsen runs the local crime syndicate, I’d be a fool to annoy Wulky. My belief is not established scientifically, but I’ve got some strong evidence, because Morse is much more likely to tell me that if Wilkinsen really is a shady character than if he isn’t. As Myers argues, reliance on holy books doesn’t work, but not because it’s not science. Rather, because a report of a miracle in a holy book may occur with or without the actual miracle having happened, with at least even odds (to see this, consider how one religion views another’s book, and note that if God wanted us to have a holy book, it would bear the 5 marks of a true holy book). As we saw last time, that your theory is compatible with the observation is not good enough. Rather, say, “Is this observation more likely if my idea is true than if it is not?”

More Ehrman: God’s Problem: why do we suffer?

Bart Ehrman’s been on Unbelievable again, this time talking about the Problem of Evil: if God is good and all-powerful, why is there so much suffering in the world? His opposite number this time was Richard Swinburne, a Christian philosopher. Both of them have written books on the subject. I’ve read Ehrman’s God’s Problem but not Swinburne’s Providence and the Problem of Evil.

The programme consisted of them both trying to get the arguments from their books into an hour long discussion. There’s an MP3 of the programme available on Premier’s site. If you get annoyed with people posting links to audio and video without summaries, you could read my notes, below the cut, or skip to the conclusion.

<lj-cut text=”What was said”>Free will

Ehrman mentions Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book When bad things happen to good people (summarised here), in which Kushner says God is not all-powerful. Swinburne points out that being all-powerful doesn’t include being able to do something logically contradictory. His argument is that there are good states which can’t occur without allowing for the possibility of suffering. For example, you can’t give people free choice (a good thing) to people without allowing them to chose evil. Responsibility for others is a good, but we can’t really be responsible for them unless their well-being depends on our actions. God, as our creator, has the right to allow us to experience suffering if it’s ultimately for our own good.

Ehrman responds that free will doesn’t explain why many people suffer and don’t receive benefit from it. A child dies of starvation every 5 seconds, and it’s hard to argue that the child benefits from it. Christians think there will be no suffering in heaven, and yet there will, presumably, be free will in heaven. Hence there is no logical inconsistency between free will and the absence of suffering.

Natural evil

Justin Brierley (the presenter) mentions natural disasters. Swinburne says that if the only suffering we experienced was from other people, some of us would barely suffer at all. He thinks this would in some ways be a bad thing. Natural evils (earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts) allow us opportunities to practice being cheerful in the face of suffering, to make significant decisions, and to help others. Making good choices improves our character. Deciding the kind of person we’re to be is a good, but only serious situations allow those choices.

Ehrman is unconvinced by this. The 700 children who starved to death in the course of the programme did not have the choice to be cheerful about it, nor does it seem right to excuse the suffering of others (the starving) by saying it gives us an opportunity to make moral choices.

The Holocaust

Swinburne talks of soldiers who die in just wars. We regard it as a good thing for them that they give up their lives for the good of others (to save their country from tyranny, say). The starving children are starving because our governments aren’t doing enough about it, and neither are we as individuals, but Swinburne seems to be arguing that the starving children or murdered Jews (he explicitly mentions the Holocaust at this point) give something good to others, just as the soldiers who die defending their country do. The good here is the opportunity for people to make decisions that matter. Swinburne realises this sounds callous, but thinks we have to step back from our emotional response to the problem.

Ehrman thinks the Swinburne’s cool detached approach to the Holocaust isn’t good enough.

What The Bible Says

The programme moves on to the Bible’s attitude to suffering. As he does in God’s problem, Ehrman says that the Bible doesn’t tend to give modern philosophically based answers, but its authors have a range of answers of their own. The prophets in the Hebrew Bible often say that suffering is punishment for Israel’s sins. In some places, suffering is caused by the actions of other people (the closest the Bible gets to the free will argument, though it doesn’t ever mention the argument explicitly). In other places, suffering is redemptive, so that people suffer to bring salvation (Jesus in the NT). Some Biblical authors attribute suffering to supernatural powers who work against God, and believe God will sort the baddies out at the end of time. Others (one of the authors of Job) think that it’s wrong to even question God about this. Finally, Ecclesiastes (summarised by scribb1e here) says that life, including suffering, just doesn’t make sense sometimes, so we may as well be happy as best we can.

Justin Brierley quotes Ehrman’s God’s Problem, where Ehrman describes sitting in a church near Cambridge (he has family locally) in a Christmas service, being moved by the intecessory prayers for God to come into the darkness. Ehrman says that the story of Jesus is that God does intervene, but looking around the world, this doesn’t seem to make a difference now.

Swinburne agrees that the Bible has a number of different answers to why people suffer, because there are number of reasons that God might allow suffering. He adds some that Ehrman hasn’t mentioned: Hebrews 12 talks suffering as character formation, John 9 talks of a man born blind so that Jesus could show something by healing him.

Ehrman thinks that some of the understandings in the Bible contradict each other, for example, the apocalyptic understanding where suffering is caused by the powers of darkness disagrees with the prophetic understanding where suffering is caused by God. Swinburne says that apocalyptic teaching says that the powers of evil are ultimately allowed by God. He talks about how God suffered himself in the person of Jesus.

Ehrman says that Swinburne’s views are not the views of the Biblical authors, but rather theological views derived from the Bible (Ehrman sounds a bit evangelical here, arguing with Swinburne’s view that the church has authority over the Bible). The earliest Christians believed that God would soon bring an end to suffering, with the return of Jesus. Jesus didn’t arrive, what arrived was the church. These days, God is inert. Swinburne doesn’t quite disagree with Ehrman’s assertion on when early Christians expected the world to end (because he’s presumably not an inerrantist), but starts to go into the standard rationalisations on this point when Brierley asks for a summing up from each of them.

Summing up

Ehrman agrees with Brierley that the Bible isn’t trying to come up with a philosophical explanation of suffering, but that the authors have various answers to what God’s doing about it. Ehrman thinks the most important thing is that we should do something about it.

Swinburne says we are privileged to be allowed to do something about suffering. He says a world without suffering would be a world without resonsibility for each other. There’s a hurried digression about free will in heaven, and parable about how it’s better to suffer for the greater good than to live a live of bliss.

Stiff upper lips

Swinburne’s theodicy is that of the public school games master, telling the boys that cross-country runs, cold showers and being made to play rugby against the masters will build character, however unpleasant these things are at the time. By contrast, in God’s problem, Ehrman tells us he has his students read Elie Wiesel’s Night. Ehrman’s book quotes Primo Levi’s Auschwitz Report, as well as the memoirs of Rudolf Hoss, written shortly before he was hanged by the Poles near the crematorium of the death camp over which he presided. In the face of sort of thing, Swinburne sounds like Pangloss (5 points to anyone who can write an “Objection: What about Nazis?” verse expounding Swinburnism: the lyrics to the existing ones about snakes and war are here, so you can get the metre).

Still, we ought to be careful of using the Holocaust as a sort of trump card in these debates, because it seems disrespectful of the dead, and also because it can be used as a tactic to imply that anyone who disagrees with you is automatically a bad person, which is the sort of thing that Christians might do, dammit (holding to a doctrine of total depravity is a big help with that sort of thing). So, what of Swinburne’s argument?

Why is this blog called “GCU Dancer on the Midway”, anyway?

I’ve mostly been ignoring Saunt Eliezer’s recent stuff on Fun Theory over at Overcoming Bias because it triggers my (badly evidenced and probably irrational) “transhumanism: phooey” reaction, but as he says, “if you can’t say how God could have better created the world without sliding into an antiseptic Wellsian Utopia, you can’t carry Epicurus’s argument“.

Luckily, I’ve had this argument before, and chose the Culture over my present existence. I think Swinburne is partly right, in that eliminating all possible causes of suffering actually does more harm than good. After all, one of those causes is other people making their choices, and other people who can make their own choices are interesting, even if the choices can lead to us ending up wearing the diaper (scroll down) from time to time. But why allow those choices to actually kill and maim people? Why aren’t there angels acting as slap drones? (Saunt Eliezer thinks there are problems with the Culture, but they also apply to Christianity. I’m sure he’ll tell us the right answer soon 🙂

There’s not much point getting angry with a fictional character, but on the off-chance we encounter God on judgement day, we ought to say that he could have done better.

Bart Ehrman on Premier Christian Radio

Bart Ehrman recently turned up on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable programme, talking to Peter Williams, Warden of Tyndale House. You can listen to the programme on Premier’s site.

The subject of the programme was Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus (which, confusingly, is also available in the UK as Whose Word Is It?), a book which we’ve discussed here before. Williams has written about the book over at (scroll to the bottom for more, including Williams interviewing Ehrman).

Ehrman the evangelical

What’s perhaps surprising is how much Williams and Ehrman agree on matters of fact, but disagree on interpretation. Williams describes himself as a “glass half full” person when it comes to the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. His most convincing argument is that an Ehrman-approved NT translation would differ very little from the ones used by most Christians, and, says Williams, would still be sufficient for God’s purposes. Ehrman himself says on the programme that, while some variants do alter the meaning of passages, he wouldn’t expect a theologian to change their mind as a result of those variants.

When robhu mentioned Ehrman a while back, we ended up concluding that Ehrman’s knowledge of the manuscript evidence is not so very different from that of evangelical scholars (see Article X and section E of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, for example). But Ehrman couldn’t carry on being an evangelical knowing what he did. So what’s going on here?

Obligatory dig at CICCU

At least part of it it seems to be bad communication from the evangelical scholars to evangelical flocks, as Williams says on his blog. Perhaps one of the evangelical churches or colleges Ehrman attended was unwise enough to ask him to assent to doctrinal statement which asserted “the divine inspiration and infallibility of Holy Scripture as originally given”, for example. Perhaps they were even silly enough to speak of verbal, plenary, inspiration, rather than of Williams’s ideas of the “immaterial text” which is encoded in the manuscripts as genes are in DNA (clearly one can’t say the word “meme” on a religious blog).

Making inerrancy pay rent

Ehrman questions just what Christians are claiming is inerrant, and how it got that way. He expected assertions of inerrancy to mean something definite about the Bible he was actually reading, both in terms of how it got into his hands and what it says. Manuscript errors and internal contradictions bothered him because they seem to cast doubt on the text in his hand, but the Section III, C of the Chicago Statement makes it clear that errors aren’t errors if they’re not things God meant to get right anyway, and any contradictions aren’t. Well, I’m convinced.

OK, so I’m taking the mickey, but there are some interesting bits of psychology in something like the Chicago Statement. According to this interesting article on the philosophy of science as it pertains to inerrancy (no, really), there’s a logical way to maintain any belief whatever evidence comes in. Simply calling inerrantists illogical or deluded won’t cut it, however tempting it may be. So, let’s say that Ehrman’s commitment was to a version of inerrancy which couldn’t fit in his web of belief alongside the problems he knew about. Williams’s version can fit, but is far less clear. Williams’s version pays less rent, that is, it’s closer to, if not the same as, saying nothing more than “The Bible has an attribute called ‘inerrancy'” (like saying “Wulky Wilkinsen is actually a ‘post-utopian'” in Eliezer’s example)


Next week on the programme, Ehrman is talking to Richard Swinburne about the Problem of Evil. I hope he’s learned something about Bayes Theorem by now, after the unfortunate events of his debate with William Lane Craig.

Morality again

There’s a popular evangelical Christian argument against atheism which involves morality somehow.

In the unsophisticated form it’s that atheism leads to immorality (like the caller on a radio talk show Dawkins was on in the US, who said that if he thought there wasn’t a God he probably would murder his neighbour). This isn’t really worth engaging with, because it’s not an argument that atheism is false.

In the more sophisticated form the argument is that atheism, if true, necessarily means that morality is an arbitrary personal opinion. But we strongly feel that some things are just wrong regardless of anyone’s opinion (in this argument, rape and the Nazis are the canonical examples of things that are just wrong). This contradicts atheism, so atheism must be false.

The latter form of the argument came up recently in an interview that Premier Christian Radio’s Justin Brierley did with Richard Dawkins after a debate Dawkins was in. Brierley wrote a piece about it on the UCCF‘s site. robhu has posted about it on his journal, and has a poll on what people think about the morality of very bad things. Some lively discussion has ensued there.
Edit: but unfortunately Rob deleted his LiveJournal a while back. Here’s what I said:

Although this “OMG you atheists can’t claim Hilter/rape is wrong” argument seems popular among evangelicals at the moment, I’m not sure what the argument against atheism actually is.

Most atheists demonstrably do claim that Hilter and rape are wrong, so the argument seems to be that such claims aren’t well-founded if atheism is true, so that atheism is inconsistent.

There are atheists who are moral realists, although I’ve not checked whether their arguments are any good. Still, there are some serious names in that Wikipedia article (and Ayn Rand), so I’d be reluctant to conclude that they’re inconsistent without looking into it.

Even if atheism is inconsistent with the existence of moral absolutes (note: I originally wrote “moral realism” here, but that’s not the topic), in the absence of evidence that there is such a thing as objective morality, this sort of argument does not seem to demonstrate that atheism is false, merely that if atheism is true, the universe is not as we’d like it to be (in the sense that we’d like it if there were moral absolutes). The objection to atheism on these grounds seems to be wishful thinking.

Personally, while I think there could be beings who thought that rape and Hitler were not wrong, most of us are not such beings and (crucially) do not want ourselves or others to become such beings. That is, arguments that these things are wrong can be recognised by most humans, but aren’t guaranteed by the universe/God/whatever.

I also responded to one of Rob’s objections:

You suggest that it’s wishful thinking if our deepest sense of what is true does not match up with your criteria for objective proof of that sense. Which I take to be a position where you say you have some strong inner sense that say the holocaust is wrong (even if everyone who disagrees is exterminated or brainwashed to believe otherwise), but because that doesn’t match with the worldview you have (that is there is no God, and so no objective morality) you say that it’s just wishful thinking. For those of us have the worldview that God is real, it makes a great of deal of sense.

So, if I understand what you’re saying, “our” is moral absolutists, “your” is me, right? So you’re saying I, pw201, have a strong sense that Bad Stuff is wrong (which is true), further, that I think it’ll be wrong even if everyone else disagrees (which is true). But I also think such a position (i.e. my own) is wishful thinking, which means I look a bit silly.

But in fact what I think is wishful thinking is the objection to atheism on the grounds that it would mean there are no moral absolutes, because the only grounds for that objection I’m aware of at the moment is that the objector would like it if there were moral absolutes, not that there actually are moral absolutes.

You might be saying that what I’ve said about Bad Stuff two paragraphs ago means I do accept that there are moral absolutes, but in fact all I’ve said is what I think, not that God/the Platonic Form of Moralty agrees with me.