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 – RichardDawkins.net

“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 – NYTimes.com

“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)

What is faith?

Prompted by Rowan Williams saying that neo-atheist fundamentalists aren’t attacking the religion ++Rowan actually believes in, the Barefoot Bum has a good bit on the role of the term “faith” in discussions with believers.

Getting killed on the next zebra crossing

The argument goes something like this: religious faith is sometimes taken by atheists to mean “belief without evidence” (Dawkins says as much in The God Delusion, for example). “Ah, no,” say believers, “that’s not what faith means, our belief is based on the evidence”. There follows an interlude for examination of this evidence, which turns out not to be so impressive. “Did we say based on? We meant compatible with,” say the believers. “That’s not good enough”, says the Bum, “all sorts of things are compatible with the evidence if you’re prepared to add ad hoc stuff to shore up the core beliefs you really don’t want to get rid of, but then those core beliefs are held without regard to evidence”. “But,” say believers, “you yourself have some core beliefs you hold without regard to evidence”. “Well,” says the Bum, “I don’t think so, but anyway, you’ve just conceded that I was right about faith, haven’t you?” “Oh dear,” say the believers, “we hadn’t thought of that”, and promptly disappear in a puff of logic.

Six impossible things before breakfast

The believers’ final attempt to parry the Bum is similar to an apologetic argument I’ve seen, whereby the believer says “If you have an unevidenced belief that your senses aren’t under the control of the Matrix or of a cartesiandaemon, why not round it off by believing in my religion?” This is an odd argument: the believer mentions beliefs you might doubt if you’re a radical sceptic (you’ll recall that you risk becoming a radical sceptic if you’re a university-educated Catholic), but which most people accept because it’s impractical not to. It turns out that belief in gods is something we can get by without. (On a related note, the folks over at Iron Chariots have a reasonable article on the proposition that atheism is based on faith).

Edited: Chris Hallquist puts it better than I did, when he says that “belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threatened by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions. That kind of response is very hard to reject without special pleading on behalf of Christianity, and doesn’t involve commitment to any potentially troublesome epistemic principles.”

Three parts of faith

There’s another thing missing from the popular atheist definition of faith. At least for Christians, faith has an element of trust as well as acceptance of facts. After all, even the demons believe.

Over at Parchment and Pen, C. Michael Patton separates faith into three parts: content (faith in what?), assent (affirmation that the content is true) and trust (the part that the demons lack). Patton blames the lack of assent (which requires an examination of the evidence) for the loss of faith of the ex-Christians he’s encountered. He goes so far as to say that the statement “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart” is stupid. Patton seems quite different from other Christians, who say that the main reason they believe is the internal feeling of God’s presence, what they call the witness of the Holy Spirit. One can perhaps forgive atheists for using “faith” in a way Christians don’t like if the Christians themselves aren’t sure what it’s about.

The virtue of faith

A thought which should occur to anyone who reads Less Wrong: you can make people reluctant to give up religious faith by making them think that having faith is virtuous. And this is what we find: in Christian philosophy, the theological virtue of “faith” is holding on to belief in the face of doubt. But hang on, where is the virtue in this? Chopping and changing all the time would be impractical, but it’s hard to see why it’s wrong. I suppose that conceiving of a religion as a relationship with God makes faith seem virtuous, because then we apply our notions of faithfulness within a human relationship. But these notions do not apply to facts about the world (even the demons believe), and to think that they do is to fall victim to a cognitive trick (since if the facts of religion are not correct, maybe there’s no-one to have a relationship with). Rather, say:

If the sky is blue
I desire to believe “the sky is blue”.
If the sky is not blue
I desire to believe “the sky is not blue”.

Linkdump: Ehrman, divine hiddenness, morality, gays

Time to close some browser tabs by writing about what’s in them:

Ehrman not out to destroy Christianity

Bart Ehrman has a new book out. Jesus, Interrupted aims to make stuff about the Bible that Christian ministers are taught in seminaries available to the public. Ehrman was interviewed at Salon. Despite Ehrman’s adoption by the neo-atheist fundamentalist secularists, he seems pretty mild-mannered about religion. In the Washington Post, Ehrman says he’s not out to destroy Christianity, although he hopes that his book will show up the problems with an evangelical approach to the Bible.

Why is God hidden?

There’s a good post from Jeffrey at Failing the Insider Test on the problem of why God is hidden if he wants people to know him. In previous discussions here, apologists say there’s no evidence that God being more obvious would make people come into a loving relationship with him. They say the Bible contains examples of people who saw miracles and didn’t believe, and as the Epistle of James says, even the demons believe (and tremble). Yet even granted the premise that the Bible’s account is accurate (which seems to be generalising from fictional evidence), Jeffrey points out that the Bible itself contains examples of people who believe on evidence from God. Jesus complains that if Sodom had seen his miracles, it would have repented, unlike the towns he’s been visiting. While compelling evidence doesn’t reliably produce the relationship Christians say God wants, it can hardly make it less likely.

Morality again

John W Loftus mentioned a debate between William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan of Yale. You can listen here. Kagan does well against Craig, thus proving that it is possible to beat him.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the moral argument for the existence of God is pretty unclear to me: some people just seem to feel that if there’s no God, there can’t be “real” morality. Kagan talks about what rational agents would do and the idea of a veil of ignorance. Craig doesn’t see how being moral matters if the universe will die a Heat Death. Kagan says that there is significance even if this significance is not eternal, and that eternal significance is not needed for morality.

I’m being oppressed

Slacktivist talks about that awful video which the National Organization for Marriage made, and the tendency of American evangelicals to believe both that they are, and should be, in a Chrisitan nation and that Christians are horribly persecuted.

I suspect that American evangelicals’ persecution complex is an inevitable side effect of sectarian hegemony. Once you believe that your faith requires cultural dominance, and that it deserves it, then any threat to that dominance — even just the unwelcome reminder of the existence of alternative points of view — is perceived as a threat, as a kind of persecution.

The NOM video has spawned many parodies, of which A Gaythering Storm is perhaps the best. NOM were even advertising here on LJ until LJ’s staff booted them. Well done, LJ.

Richard Carrier: God is Silent

In a conversation with a Christian (edited: who was actually robhu, as Rob’s given me permission to say) recently, I asked my usual question on personal relationships with God: why do all these people who claim to have one end up disagreeing? How do we know who to believe? To paraphrase their arguments:

<lj-cut>Some “Christians” aren’t true Christians. Which is fair enough, I think, if my question is specifically why Christians disagree. There’s a more general point though, of which more later.

God chooses to interact with humans in a human way, as exemplified by Jesus. He never promised to give people a way to tell who was right. A quick read of the Bible shows that God didn’t always interact in this way. Even in the New Testament, we’re promised there will be signs accompanying those who believe, some of which I’d find pretty convincing if I saw them: I’d certainly respect the religious claims of people doing that stuff more than people who don’t, because they’re showing they can do something inexplicable which is at least worth investigating. Any Christians volunteering to drink poison? 😉 Edited to add: robhu rightly points out that textual critics say this passage has doubtful provenance. Evangelicals generally say the Bible is inerrant “as originally given”, which raises some other questions, since there’s scholarly debate about what was in original manuscripts. Edited to further add: John 14:11-13 promises that whoever has faith in Jesus will do even greater miracles than him, so the odd amputee healing doesn’t seem too much to ask of Christians.

What is noticeable is that God seems to do special effects less and less as we get closer to the present time. Edward Current argues that God’s ability to hide shows how powerful God is, and that God is testing our faith, but, despite his obvious sincerity, I’m not convinced. I think there might be a simpler explanation.

God wants people to know him rather than treating him as an encyclopedia. I suppose the objection to treating God as an encyclopedia must be that it is impersonal, rather than an argument that having access to correct information actually impedes learning. So let’s imagine a world in which God was not an encyclopedia but a teacher of Christians, a good sort of teacher who made the lessons interesting but didn’t let fights break out in the classroom. Does that world look like this one?

Aren’t you just asking why God doesn’t announce his presence? I suppose I am. Annoyingly, someone has got to that question before me and made my arguments better than I can. The brilliant Richard Carrier’s essay Why I am not a Christian (not to be confused with Bertrand Russell’s essay of the same name) contains a section called God is Silent which points out the contradiction between what Christians say God is like and how he acts. Go read it.

My arguments about Christians and their relationship with God are, as my correspondent rightly says, a special case of the general argument that God is silent. Talking about Christians specifically negates one of the common defences against that argument, namely that if God were too obvious, it would do away with free will. But Carrier points out that such defences are ad hoc: who thought to mention that God values free will above almost everything else before people started debating the problems of silence and of evil? What is the evidence for this? If you’re evangelical, where does the Bible say that God values free will so highly? Christians can’t even agree that people have it, let alone that God values it.

God’s silence, and his entrusting of what we’re told is a very important rescue mission to a bunch of people who are pretty bad it, are pretty powerful arguments that he’s not there. If I saw any amputees miraculously healed, though, I’d certainly reconsider.

God and testosterone

It’s rather late, and I’m sat up listening to Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable programme. I’ve been following their podcasts since I was on the programme a while back. The chap on the latest programme (MP3 link), Jonathan Castro, believes in Christianity but doesn’t have the relationship with God which he’s been expecting, and sounds a bit fed up about it.

There was some discussion of what the relationship Castro expected was. One caller blamed the excesses of the charismatic movement (check out the responses for some other musical variants) for the expectation that the relationship would be an intense emotional experience. The Christians in the studio disagreed that this was what Castro expected. They thought the sort of relationship he meant was like a relationship with a spouse, which has emotional component without usually giving you the full Benny Hinn thing. Christians like the spousal analogy, but I think it’s pretty hopeless: they’re using a special meaning of the word relationship which encompasses warm feelings without any communication from the object of desire. I think it’d probably be more appropriate to describe Christians as God’s stalkers.

Listening to the programme, I wonder why Castro’s still going to all this trouble. In the comments on this exchristian.net article from 2007 he sounds like he’s already given up, but he turns up on Premier sounding like he hasn’t quite let go. If I were him there’s one obvious conclusion I’d’ve come to about whether a there’s a God who wants a relationship with me. I wanted to yell this spoiler at him.

Still, he has gone to the trouble, so I’ll add to the standard questions I usually ask of people who say they have a relationship with God: what of Castro and people like him, the earnest seekers who don’t find?

One of Castro’s criticisms of the churches he attended was that they were too emasculating. He turns up in the comments on the BBC’s article about Geezers for Jesus (“to the geezers, I become as a geezer, init”, as St Paul might have said), mentioning charismatic worship songs. Interestingly, Matt Redman, perpetrator of many of the “Jesus is my boyfriend” choruses familiar to anyone who’s been to Soul Survivor, agrees that worship songs aren’t for the blokes.

There seems to have been a reaction against this emasculation of the church, with Americans writing books about how Jesus wants Christian men to be Iron John. robhu recently wrote a scathing review of one of them, John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart. I’ve talked about my own experiences as a nerdy CU bloke in the comments.

Personal relationship with God

You might not have realised this, but Christianity is not a religion or a set of beliefs. It is a relationship with God. Or at least, a lot of Christians will tell you it is. I’ve been talking to some of them on uk.religion.christian recently.

The assertion that “Christianity is a relationship” is, at its most basic, a part of an apologetic or evangelistic technique. When talking to people who think that religion is a bad thing, the Christian attempts to convince the listener that Christianity is not like other religions, in fact, it’s so different that it’s not really a religion at all (one can presume that we were saved from claims that Christianity is “religion 2.0” by the fact that there was no Internet when people were thinking this stuff up). It’s the religious equivalent of the spammer’s claim that spam is that which we don’t do. robhu ran into this sort of claim recently. Not all Christians go along with this sort of word-game: hurrah for woodpijn, who is happy to admit that Christianity is in fact a religion.

It’s more interesting to hear people talking of a “personal relationship with God”. I think it means that the Christian relates to God in prayer a bit like they’d relate to humans by talking and listening (God being a person with whom such a relationship is possible, albeit a vastly superior sort of person). This gets you into trouble straight away. If, for example, all the people who claim have they such a relationship really did, they would all agree with each other because when the question of what God thought about something arose, they could just ask him. I’ve mentioned this in the past, but the most recent thread was started off when the Christians on uk.r.c told an atheist that he’d misunderstood Christianity by taking it as a set of beliefs, because in fact (you guessed it) “it’s a relationship with God”. I made my usual point that God doesn’t seem to have his story straight when talking to different people. A couple of posters responded that this was a simplistic view of a relationship, and that the things about which Christians disagree on uk.r.c weren’t very important to God. You can see my response to that.

Mark Goodge responded differently, by saying that he’d meant “relationship” in the sense that someone just is someone else’s son or daughter, regardless of how often they actually speak. Christians are God’s adopted children, even if they believe wildly different things.

As I said in my reply, I can see his point (after all, I thought liberals Christians were real Christians when I was an evangelical). But I wonder how that theology works: who is adopted, and how? Is everyone who claims to be a Christian adopted, including the extreme liberals, the Mormons, and so on? It’ll be interesting to see what Mark’s argument is here.

All the responses still leave the question of just how important believing stuff is to God, in the view of these Christians. The Christian church likes to have schisms on the very issues that the uk.r.christians spend a lot of time debating, so it seems these issues are pretty serious. I’ve certainly run into Christians who thought you cannot be an actively gay Christian, a Catholic Christian, a Christian who doesn’t believe that Jesus was God, or a Christian who doesn’t believe that God exists at all. If these things really are important to God, though, you’d have thought he’d tell his children his views. We must conclude that what God considers important is the stuff that everyone who is a Christian agrees on, namely that you should be nice to people, that Jesus was probably a good bloke, and that it’s important to gather with your friends every so often and sing songs (although not with musical accompaniment, obviously: Christians must be like popular 80s beat combo The Flying Pickets). On this basis, I think I could be a Christian after all.