theodicy

Top Christian William Lane Craig is on his UK tour, and recently had a debate with the atheist philosopher Stephen Law. Premier Christian Radio seems to be organising the tour, and they’ve posted the audio of the debate.

I listened to the debate. A short summary is below, with a longer one underneath the cut.

The debate topic was “Does God exist?”. Craig ran some of his standard arguments

  • The Kalam Cosmological argument, a First Cause argument which avoids the usual “who made God?” riposte by only claiming that “everything that begins to exist has a cause”.
  • The moral argument.
  • An argument based on the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus.

Law relied heavily on the evidential argument from evil, and his own variant of that, the one from his paper The Evil God Challenge, which Luke Muehlhauser has previously summarised here. Law has summarised his main argument in the debate on his own blog.

If you want to see my notes on the whole thing, read on, otherwise, skip to the end for my thoughts on how both of them did, and how atheists might do better.

Unequally Yoked: Guestblogging Challenge: Take the Ideological Turing Test!

A suggestion: if you want to show that you understand the other side's position, test whether you can be distinguished from a genuine advocate of that position in a suitably anonymous test.
(tags: philosophy debate turing)

Theodicy: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

Nice metaphor for "solutions" to the Problem of Evil.
(tags: theodicy philosophy comic religion)

Distinguish – Butterflies and Wheels

Ophelia Benson on the Geert Wilders thing: "Nobody should be required to love Islam."
(tags: islam geert-wilders religion)

A field guide to bullshit – opinion – 13 June 2011 – New Scientist

"How do people defend their beliefs in bizarre conspiracy theories or the power of crystals? Philosopher Stephen Law has tips for spotting their strategies." A bit similar to my Bad Arguments stuff: Law has "everything is based on faith" as the so-called "nuclear option". An interesting article, might buy the book he's plugging.
(tags: religion science empiricism sceptism philosophy new-age)

Who is Ray Preaching To? | Unreasonable Faith

Unreasonable Faith, via Jesus Needs New PR, present the standard evangelical gospel, "God has made you sick and commands you to be well", presentation from Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron (as a commenter on JNNPR says, Jesus likes C-list celebs, L Ron Hubbard has the A-listers). Vorjack notes Ray is utterly unconvincing wonders who Ray's talking to: my guess is cultural Christians who vaguely accept Ray's premises. Even so "Have you ever told a lie? What does that make you?" invites the response "Have you ever told the truth? What does that make you?", I suppose… Perhaps Ray needs a Bad Arguments post of his own.
(tags: evangelicalism evangelism ray-comfort kirk-cameron christianity religion sin)

On What God Would Do

A popular response to arguments which say that suffering and evil in the world is evidence that God does not exist is to say that we're not in a position to know that God doesn't have good reasons for allowing the evil/suffering. In "On What God Would Do", Rob Lovering shows that that sort of response to the problem of evil ends up creating problems for arguments in favour of God's existence, since they generally rely on claims about what God would do. Hume got there first, as usual, but Lovering makes it rigourous.
(tags: philosophy religion theodicy evil rob-lovering)

5 Amazing Things Invented by Donald Duck (Seriously) | Cracked.com

Donald Duck invented the plot to Inception and a method of raising sunken ships using ping pong balls, apparently.
(tags: comics cracked cartoons inception disney duck)

… since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. — St Paul, Epistle to the Romans

Suppose the existence and fine-tuning of the universe are best explained by a creator. Well, OK, but what sort of creator? Looking for the best explanation for things is clearly a reliable way to proceed: once we’ve settled the question of design by this method, we had better follow where it leads.

For if the Law was not ordained by the perfect God himself, as we have already taught you, nor by the devil, a statement one cannot possibly make, the legislator must be some one other than these two. In fact, he is the demiurge and maker of this universe and everything in it; and because he is essentially different from these two and is between them, he is rightly given the name, intermediate. — Ptolemy’s Letter to Flora

What goes for the Law goes for the world too: it’s a mixed up sort of place, containing both good things and bad things. While other explanations are possible (just as, say, it is possible, though of course unlikely, that the universe somehow arose without a creator), Ptolemy‘s explanation seems the best one: the creator is not perfect. Not evil either, though, just… middle of the road. Doing the best they can, perhaps.

Is it impossible for someone to create universes if they aren’t perfectly good? Could even a very technically skilled person be a bit of a dick? It seems odd, then, to suppose that the creator has the traditional attributes of omnipotence, perfect goodness, and so on.

… as this goodness is not antecedently established, but must be inferred from the phenomena, there can be no grounds for such an inference, while there are so many ills in the universe, and while these ills might so easily have been remedied, as far as human understanding can be allowed to judge on such a subject. I am Sceptic enough to allow, that the bad appearances, notwithstanding all my reasonings, may be compatible with such attributes as you suppose; but surely they can never prove these attributes. — Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume

There’s an argument, which you may occasionally hear made by William Lane Craig, that we’re not a position to know that the creator doesn’t have sufficiently good reasons for allowing bad stuff to happen: he (according to Craig, the creator is a “he”) is said to move in mysterious ways, after all. Unfortunately, as John D relates, this makes it hard to see why we should intervene if we see someone suffering: who are we to say what good may come of it? Moreover, if our understanding of bad and good outcomes is so suspect, how are we then in a position to know that the creator is good?

He may be fully convinced of the narrow limits of his understanding; but this will not help him in forming an inference concerning the goodness of superior powers, since he must form that inference from what he knows, not from what he is ignorant of. The more you exaggerate his weakness and ignorance, the more diffident you render him, and give him the greater suspicion that such subjects are beyond the reach of his faculties. — Dialogues, again

Perhaps someone could appeal to a sacred book to show that the creator is good. Still, these things seem open to interpretation: we’d best leave Craig and Ptolemy to argue about the details of their shared scriptures. In any case, we’d need convincing that the book was a reliable source on the subject.

Perhaps, in the absence of external evidence, someone could come to a strong inner conviction that the creator is perfectly good. But it seems this sort of confidence can cut both ways. As Chris Hallquist writes, “If there is any actual case where we are confident that divine inaction is incompatible with perfection, then we must conclude that God does not exist.” (It seems that “God does not exist” might be a little hasty here, but we’d best leave Hallquist to argue with Ptolemy on that score).

Given all this, it seems odd to me that so many people confidently assert that the creator is good. We rightly prefer to believe that our instruments are broken than that we have disproved the Law of Gravitation, but it’s interesting to test our limits: if you are such a person, is there any such case you can imagine which would convince you to change your position? If not, why do you trouble yourself with evidence about the creator’s moral character either way? It would seem better to just accept that some people have one conviction about the creator, and some another. On the other hand, if we do look to the evidence, it seems that what we observe is best explained by a creator who is imperfect, and possibly indifferent.

Elsewhere on the web, people are having to suffer my attempts at philosophy:

Belief in electrons

Over at Debunking Christianity, there’s an interesting dialogue about science. John W. Loftus has some guest postings from Kenneth J. Howell, a Catholic who wrote a book about the relationship between religion and early science. Howell’s been asking interesting questions about what atheists think of unobservable things (like electrons) in scientific theories, and later, on different kinds of evidence and whether all fields of inquiry should use the same standards. Armed with the Kasser lectures (you too can become an expert in the philosophy of science in just 21 days!) and some stuff I vaguely remember from my degree, I had a go at some responses: here, on electrons; and here, on standards of evidence, reductionism and all that jazz. There are some good comments there, although there’s also an awful lot off-topic wibbling.

Sleeping through earthquakes

Over on the Premier Radio forums, they’re wondering where God was in Haiti. Somewhat mischievously (but in a fine Biblical tradition), I’ve suggested he was asleep. I also linked to Stephen Law’s God of Eth (soon to be published as The Evil God Challenge) where Law argues that most arguments from Christians defending God’s goodness, despite the fact there’s so much evil in the world, can be turned into defences of an evil god’s evilness, despite the fact that there’s so much good in the world. A chap called Nick disagreed with the God of Eth argument and has been trying to paint me into some sort of corner involving Aquinas and Augustine, but unfortunately he seems to have gone away before getting around to telling me what his argument was. We’d got as far as arguing about whether all pleasures are good. Anyone have any idea where he might have been going with it?

Britain in 2010: More tolerant, more Conservative, but less likely to vote | Society | The Guardian

British attitudes getting more socially liberal but more economically right wing.
(tags: politics survey economnics society labour conservatives)

BBC – Mark Easton’s UK: Conservative estimates on violence

Is the UK really broken?
(tags: badscience society politics statistics crime violence murder knife)

LRB · Anne Enright · Diary

Iris Robinson, madness, corruption and Protestantism. Anne Enright's stark, evocative article on the latest turn in Northern Irish politics.
(tags: psychology corruption politics depression religion ireland iris-robinson)

Suffering and the vain quest for significance – Paula Kirby

Haiti and theodicy: "The idea that any of this has anything at all to do with us, that it was created with us in mind, or that our 'sinfulness' has had any effect whatsoever on the majestic, monumental and utterly indifferent laws of physics, is egotism of the highest order."
(tags: haiti theodicy religion suffering earthquake christianity)

Substance dualism

QualiaSoup has a new video up, a short argument against substance dualism (the idea that consciousness arises from separate kind of mental substance outside the physical world).
(tags: consciousness philosophy dualism qualia)

Theodicy III: Primo Levi versus Francis Collins

Jerry Coyne has been reading Francis Collins's "The Language of God" as well as Levi's works on Auschwitz. Not surprisingly, he doesn't find Collins's theodicy very convincing.
(tags: theology religion jerry-coyne francis-collins)

Rowan Williams’ choice | Andrew Brown | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk

Andrew Brown kicks some righteous ass: "Under Williams, the church that marries two women who love each other is to be thrown out of the Anglican Communion. The church that would jail them both for life, and would revile and persecute their defenders, stays snugly in his bosom. Not even the Archbishop's remarkable gift for obfuscation can conceal these facts forever."
(tags: homosexuality politics uganda uk religion christianity anglicanism rowan-williams)

Discovery Institute: The Mask Falls Away

The IDers at the DI go bonkers about the Climategate emails: "A cabal of leading scientists, politicians, and media concubines have conspired to lie about global warming. The reasons are obvious: power and money. … I’m not sure that the scientific community can or will respond to this debacle in a courageous or ethical way. The ID-Darwinism debate clearly demonstrates that venality and shameless self-interest, as well as a toxic leftist-atheist ideology, runs very deep in the scientific community." I'm adding "toxic" to my standard "neo-sceptical strident fundamentalist neo-atheist" spiel.
(tags: lolxians climate global-warming intelligent-design discovery-institute)

The Punchtape Letters

"My Dear Malware,

Thank you for your latest news. I agree that your bombarding of on-line programming sites with questions about “cascading style sheets” (whatever they may be) and “rounded corners” (as if anyone cared) will irritate and annoy a certain number (possibly even a large number) of programmers, but it seems a lot of effort to go to."
(tags: funny programming computers c.s.-lewis parody screwtape c++)

Creating God in one’s own image

Research in the psychology of religion shows that people tend to think God thinks what they think: "People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want. The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God's beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing."
(tags: religion psychology science politics god morality)

Atheism: Proving The Negative: Encyclopedia Entry: Atheism

Matt McCormick's draft of an encyclopedia entry on various arguments for and against atheism.
(tags: atheism religion matt-mccormick theodicy design kalam)

In the Pipeline: Things I Won’t Work With

Derek Lowe, a medicinal chemist, has a section of his blog on the subject of really nasty chemicals. Light hearted yet terrifying.
(tags: science funny humour smell chemistry dangerous explosives)

Troy Jollimore on Karen Armstrong’s ‘The Case for God’ – Book Review

"Armstrong may perhaps make a plausible claim in asserting that faith, as understood by mainstream religious traditions before the advent of modernity, involved more than “mere” belief in the modern sense; but if the problem with religious life is that it encourages false, absurd, unjustified beliefs, showing that it does other things as well is not sufficient."
(tags: religion philosophy atheism karen-armstrong apophatic christianity)

The talk to CUAAS was surprisingly well attended, given I spoke at the same time as Jo Brand, who I met on my way to the loos (we exchanged nods, as one speaker at the Cambridge Union does to another: it is not the done thing to make much of these things). I’m not sure how many CICCU people turned up, since they didn’t make themselves known to me (apparently one woman was frantically making notes during my sermon, a well known evangelical habit, so I suspect there were a few). I spoke too fast, but people in Cambridge hear fast, so that’s probably OK.

Below, you can find my notes, with some hyperlinks to expand on the things I said.

“The Truth about CICCU”?

  • Not my tabloid headline, blame your committee 🙂
  • No toe-curling tales of secret rituals, alas.
  • In fact, none of this stuff is a secret.
  • But if you’re not a Christian, you might be curious about just what “those people” get up to, and why.
  • And if you’re a here as CICCU person wondering what I’m going to say, you’ll find out some stuff I wish I’d known as a CICCU member.
    • Not just that God isn’t real, either 🙂

Who I am:

  • Came up in 94, Churchill, NatSci (physics) for 4 years.
    • That means I’m incredibly old and all this stuff could be out of date
    • But I had a look at the CICCU website and things sound familiar, so…
  • Lived and worked in Cambridge after that, going to the church I went to as a student.
    • Gradually lost my faith during 2002.
    • Still interested in talking about religion and trying to understand it.
      • As well as taking the mickey occasionally.

How I got in

  • Parents sent me to a church school because of the “ethos”.
  • Followed a friend to Christian Union meetings there.
  • Read the entire New Testament as a sixth former, decided it sounded true.
  • So, I came up Christian already, but didn’t have a church.
  • Went to CU meetings at Churchill because a “Christian Union” sounded like a good thing to be in, just like the ones at school and sixth form were.

What it was like

  • I have my old emails. Everyone should keep theirs. So….
  • Initially, I just went to the college CU meetings, not the central ones in town.
  • College CUs got together, sang songs, prayed, read the Bible.
    • Though CICCU appointed the college reps, the individual CUs were friendlier to non-CICCU Christians than the central meetings.
  • Also got into a “prayer triplet”: meeting up with a couple of other guys to pray for each other and discuss what was often quite personal stuff. Nearest thing to a confessional in the evangelical world.
  • Everyone was friendly but over the course of the first year I began to feel that CICCU weren’t where I was:
    • I had gay friends and I knew CICCU disapproved of homosexuality (though not of being friends with gay people: how else to evangelise?)
  • Prayer triplet wanted me to go to one of the churches in Cambridge and stick with it. I was a bit shy of churches, but started going to St Andrew the Great.
    • St Andrew the Great is one of the churches in Cambridge that gets lots of students.
    • It’s Church of England, but conservative evangelical:
      • Evangelical: not just “in favour of converting people” (though that too): Bible inerrancy, personal response to God, substitutionary atonement (Jesus died in our place, paying the penalty for sins). See the CICCU Doctrinal Basis.
      • Conservative: not politically (necessarily) but not given to things like speaking in tongues, prophesy in the church and so on. Emphasis on finding what God wants through Bible reading and prayer.
    • I thought StAG was good
      • Preaching was, and is, more interesting than sermons at middle of the road churches
    • But more “fundamentalist” than I was.
      • They’re not fundamentalist really, they’re evangelical, but I wasn’t very theologically sophisticated at that point.

  • Turning point: at the end of the first long vacation, went to CU “House party” in Derbyshire. (Churchill plus a couple of nearby colleges)
    • Mix of God stuff and walking, playing games and stuff.
    • The Bible stuff was impressive: the guest preacher had done a lot of thinking about the book we were reading.
    • The people were also impressive: I wanted to me more like them.
  • Decided to start reading the Bible by myself regularly, and praying.
  • Generally felt more committed to Christianity (and gradually became more evangelical).
  • Started going to the central meetings in town.
    • CICCU is a big name in some Christian circles, so they got people whose books I’d read and who were good speakers.
  • Briefly stopped worrying about how to get women to like me, which is tricky for a first year NatSci.
    • Then started worrying about how to get Christian women to like me.
  • Someone obviously noticed I’d got serious, because I was asked to lead Bible studies for my college’s CU in my third year.
    • Met other UCCF staff worker and study leaders to study the passage ourselves, went back to college and lead the group.
    • The “right answers” from the UCCF guy tend to win out because it’s hard to get anyone else to say anything at all (they’re shy), not because no other answers were tolerated.
  • CICCU missions
    • Happen in Lent term.
    • There’s a mini-mission on off years, and a big one every 3 years so every undergrad gets at least one big one.
    • Have always caused a bit of controversy, some years more than others.
    • Usually someone says something stupid about gay people, or someone gets offended by finding a gospel in their pigeon hole.
      • Handing out copies of a gospel to your friends is incredibly nerve wracking. Personally I don’t see the need to get offended by that: it’s a free book.
      • On the other hand, as an atheist I’d press them on the stuff about gays as hard as possible: it’s not nice (unlike the “permanently nice” image Christians have), and it’s not even what all Christians think. I get the impression a lot of evangelicals are secretly embarrassed about it.
    • I dragged friends to a few of the events, but none of them converted, fortunately.
  • Strategy varies: either “gospel is magic” or trying to look at “worldviews” (one CICCU mission when I was an undergrad was even called Paradigm Shift).
    • CICCUs current web pages suggest “gospel is magic” is fashionable again. Also, flares are in this season.
    • Note that Christians who believe Romans 1 often think that philosophical or theological arguments are a smoke screen for people who don’t want to admit that God exists and they should worship him.

  • Summer holiday camps
    • Run by Christian organisations, for churchy kids and friends.
    • Usually sort of activity holiday combined with telling the kids about God stuff.
    • Practically compulsory for CICCU members (“strongly encouraged”).
    • I found a programming/electronics one called LiveWires, which was great.
      • Not at all like “Jesus Camp”, if you’ve seen the film.

How it felt.

  • It can’t be all bad, or no-one would do it, right?
  • It feels good to be part of a group dedicated to what you think is a worthy cause.
    • To the extent that Christians evangelise, they’re acting in your interests, according to their beliefs.
  • Christians are not all stupid (just mistaken). CICCU’s brand of Christianity was intellectually satisfying (but closed, of which more later).
    • Seriously studying the Bible turns out to be interesting.
    • Being taught by big names at the top of their game, likewise.
    • CICCU’s version of inerrancy allows some parts of the Bible to be myth (in the technical sense) rather than reportage.
      • Did not require you to be a young earth creationist. I was a theistic evolutionist.
  • A lot of worries about whether you’re doing enough/your best.
    • The evangelical anthropology is deeply pessimistic about human nature.
    • You can find forgiveness, but only by admitting you’re basically bad.
    • Christians always think everyone else around them is a better Christian (or at least, I did).
  • Tension between piety and worldliness.
    • It would be possible to spend your entire social life doing Christian stuff (CICCU explicitly told us not to: how else to evangelise?).
    • Whether/how much to drink.
    • Fuss about trivia: Halloween formals.
    • Guilt about sex, inside and outside relationships.
      • Relationships with non-Christians are a big no-no, but people do it (usually the Christian women, much to my annoyance).
  • These are people trying to find their way in the world.
    • “Strident” pronouncements may hide insecurity.
      • Though sometimes people really mean them, so it’s best to engage with the arguments.
  • Most Christians doubt.
    • But exercise “faith” in the sense of “trust” in a person.
    • “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Why I got out

  • Real life comes as a shock for many student Christians. CICCU/StAG knows this. To graduands, they say:
    • Many of you will “fall away”. (Possibly apocryphal) UCCF surveys give numbers like 50% after 5 years. So…
    • Get into a “church where the Bible is taught”.
    • Don’t get into relationships with non-Christians.
  • Of course, I stayed at StAG and got into a relationship with a Christian woman.
  • But CICCU had taught me that the most important thing was whether Christianity was true, and I slowly became convinced that it wasn’t.
  • Christianity rests on facts: “facts, faith, feelings”
  • The truth shouldn’t depend on who you’re with.
    • Why is it that so many Christians give up if Christianity is so obviously true?
    • “The devil made me do it”: is he stronger than God?
    • Altemeyer, The Authoritarians, chapter 4:

      Their families will say it was Satan. But we thought, after interviewing dozens of “amazing apostates,” that (most ironically) their religious training had made them leave. Their church had told them it was God’s true religion. That’s what made it so right, so much better than all the others. It had the truth, it spoke the truth, it was The Truth. But that emphasis can create in some people a tremendous valuing of truth per se, especially among highly intelligent youth who have been rewarded all their lives for getting “the right answer.” [Is this sounding familiar?] So if the religion itself begins making less and less sense, it fails by the very criterion that it set up to show its superiority.

  • Here are my reasons. There are others, but these are the ones that did for me:

  • Evangelical morality is sensible in some places and horrible in others.
    • obvious: homosexuality
    • less obvious: anthropology that says everyone’s really bad and deserves Hell.

  • Is God really good? The OT is a problem, the NT perhaps (surprisingly) more so:

    “The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief-call it what you will-than any book ever written; it has emptied more churches than all the counterattractions of cinema, motor bicycle and golf course.” – A. A. Milne.

    In the hope of keeping him quiet for a few hours Freddy & I have bet Randolph 20[pounds sterling] that he cannot read the whole Bible in a fortnight. It would have been worth it at the price. Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud `I say I bet you didn’t know this came in the Bible “bring down my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave”‘ or merely slapping his side & chortling “God, isn’t God a shit!” – Evelyn Waugh, writing to Nancy Mitford. “Randolph” is Randolph Churchill.

    • Evangelicals think the OT massacres are history, and that the Bible accurately records God commanding them, and even telling Israelites off for not finishing the job properly.
    • The other nations around Israel were brutal too, but can an omnipotent God do no better than to have armies slaughter men women and children?
    • The NT is popularly seen as fluffier, but Jesus talks a lot about Hell, as does Paul. As for the book of Revelation…
      • Some respected evangelicals (John Stott) believe that non-believers will be destroyed rather than punished eternally.
      • Some (C.S. Lewis) have adopted a Buddhist idea where “the doors of hell are barred from the inside”. But this seems to conflict with the judicial model of substitutionary atonement. Does God judge us or not?
      • If you push evangelicals, they’ll tell you you’re going to hell, though they might fall back on one of these ideas.
      • Hell makes God seem vindictive (since failing to worship him is the biggest sin), arbitrary (since some people get better evidence than others), and incompetent (since he relies on fallible humans, who do a bad job of evangelism).
  • Problem of suffering
    • Freedom of action is a good thing, but we all recognise limits.
    • Some suffering just seems gratuitous: diseases, natural disasters.
    • Christians don’t have any good answers, they just have a “possibly, therefore probably” argument: God could possibly have a reason, and that’ll do for us.
  • How do I know what’s good without God? Well, how do you know with God (Christians disagree, as do other theists)?
    • Everyone has the problem of where you start from when deciding what is moral, and this includes Christians, whatever they may tell you. Unnecessary suffering seems pretty bad to most people.
    • Assume C.S. Lewis is right and that our moral sense somehow does come from God. But we think it is immoral not to lift a finger to help someone, especially when doing so would have little or no cost to us. Contradiction: either Lewis is wrong, or God isn’t good.

  • Where’s God?
  • Conservative evangelicalism tells you not to expect too many supernatural experiences, the Bible is sufficient.
    • But why not? Can argue about “free will”, but does God care less for your salvation than for the Apostle Paul’s?
  • Evangelicals hate the term “religion” to be applied to their beliefs. True (that is, evangelical) Christianity is a relationship with God, not a religion (by which evangelicals mean “empty rituals trying to earn God’s favour”).
    • But this “relationship” is odd. One party doesn’t talk much, and when he does, the people he’s talked to disagree radically about what he said. As Carrier says, this is not what we’d expect if God really wanted a relationship with us.
    • “Free will” doesn’t work here: Christians actively want some communication from God (especially in the painful throes of doubt).

  • In the end, during an on-line debate with another Christian about some point on the Bible, I realised we were debating about a book, and God either wasn’t there or didn’t care. I stopped going to church in early 2002.
  • It took me over a year to get from there to the point where I’d call myself an atheist.
    • Leaving is hard: sometimes you still want there to be a God.
    • You have told friends you’re a Christian.
    • You’ve even got Christian friends. And girlfriends…
      • That relationship didn’t last (partly because my faith was waning), and when it was over, I realised there was nothing keeping me from admitting my position any more.
  • So here I am.

What I wish I’d known

  • Some of this stuff is blindingly obvious now, and yet…

  • I got in because I read the NT and it sort of made sense to me, so:
    • Don’t believe everything you read.
    • Ask yourself why you feel something is right.
    • The NT has pretty good manuscripts. Most variations are insignificant, but the mere fact of variations ought to give inerrantists pause (see Bart Ehrman‘s books), plus some stuff does seem important: the earliest gospel account of the Resurrection is textually doubtful.
    • Even if a book describes some things accurately, it has not necessarily got all of them right.
    • Evangelicals like to accuse non-Christians of treating the Bible differently from other ancient literature. Herodotus writes history and has dragons in it. Should be believe in dragons?
    • Evangelicals like to say that the origins of Christianity are best explained by the Resurrection, so we cannot treat such accounts differently from other history without begging the question (that is, assuming what we want to prove, namely, that there was no Resurrection). Lessing and the ugly broad ditch:

      “We all believe that an Alexander lived who in a short time conquered almost all Asia. But who, on the basis of this belief, would risk anything of great permanent worth, the loss of which would be irreparable? Who, in consequence of this belief, would forswear forever all knowledge that conflicted with this belief? Certainly not I.”

      This, then, “is the ugly broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap.” “Since the truth of these miracles has completely ceased to be demonstrable by miracles still happening now, since they are no more than reports of miracles, I deny that they should bind me in the least to a faith in the other teachings of Christ.”

    • In fact, evangelicals have not explained why we should treat the Resurrection stories as true if we don’t also accept better attested miracle claims. (Fatima miracle of the Sun, 1917, accompanied by visions of Mary: should we become Catholics?).
  • I got further in because evangelicals had an impressive system for interpreting the Bible.
    • This method seems completely obvious to evangelicals. You probably won’t have much luck convincing them otherwise.
    • Satisfying but closed:
    • Evangelical Bible overviews (such as the one I taught) assume a unity in the Bible. This glosses over a lot of differences.
      • See liberal Christians or Ehrman again.
    • It’s anachronistic:
      • Not the way the church was doing it for many years (allegorical interpretation, see Karen Armstrong, despite her bad rep among atheists). When did true Christianity start again?
      • Not the way the NT writers interpret the OT (see Peter Enns).
    • It’s always possible to make inerrancy work (Quine), however odd it looks from the outside.
      • But it forces you to adopt some twisted interpretations. It’s ironic that people with so much reverence for the Bible end up doing it so much violence.
  • I stayed in because I thought it was right to trust God, that such trust was a virtue.
    • But this transplants our intuition that we should trust friends onto someone whose very existence is in question.
    • We should not change our minds for bad reasons. If we’re depressed, it may look as if God’s not there, and if we’re happy, we may think he is. But…
    • We change our minds less often than we think, because we see ourselves as fighting for our chosen side (atheists are not immune to this). Eliezer Yudkowsky:

      Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own. Beware lest you fight a rearguard retreat against the evidence, grudgingly conceding each foot of ground only when forced, feeling cheated. Surrender to the truth as quickly as you can. Do this the instant you realize what you are resisting; the instant you can see from which quarter the winds of evidence are blowing against you. Be faithless to your cause and betray it to a stronger enemy. If you regard evidence as a constraint and seek to free yourself, you sell yourself into the chains of your whims.

    • Yudkowsky is good. Read his stuff.
  • I stayed in because I didn’t know what was outside.
    • People who aren’t your friends if you leave weren’t your friends anyway.
      • Not that this is necessarily a failing on their part: we all have acquaintances we wouldn’t see if we didn’t do some particular activity.
    • Your world does not collapse into chaos if you leave.
      • Unless you’re prepared to really work at it by being stupid. So don’t do that then.
    • If there isn’t a God, then this, here, now, is what a world without a God looks like. Eugene Gendlin:

      What is true is already so.
      Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
      Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
      And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
      Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
      People can stand what is true,
      for they are already enduring it.

There was a question and answer session afterwards. I remember some questions along the lines of:<lj-cut>

Why didn’t you realise it was nonsense, you’re a scientist? What about carbon dating?

I wasn’t a young earth creationist, and neither the CU nor my church said I should be. In fact, YEC and ID weren’t particularly popular among Cambridge evangelicals back then (though some people did believe them). I don’t know whether British evangelicalism has changed under the influence of America in recent years.

The problem is not so much that intelligent Christians directly contradict science, but that they make up additions which aren’t backed by evidence.

Was it OK to have doubts as a CICCU person?

Yes. Churches and CUs expect it, things like prayer triplets provide an environment where such doubts can be expresssed. What they don’t really expect is for people to doubt successfully. At the end of it all, they should still come out an evangelical.

What’s the disagreement I’ve noticed between CICCU and college chapels?

It’s historical: CICCU got very evangelical in response to the SCM’s liberalism. College chaplains didn’t like CICCU because of demarcation. Still, it depends on who’s running the college CICCU group and who’s running the chapel that year: sometimes they get along just fine.

Would you agree now that Christianity isn’t intellectually satisfying?

Yes and no. Yes: borrowing from Kuhn again, evangelical Christianity is a paradigm in which it’s possible to get useful things done, according to the paradigm’s ideas of what is useful. Those things are satisfying: learning more about the Bible is intellectually satisfying, seeing people become Christians is emotionally satisfying, and so on.

No: because I wasn’t satisfied, and I’ve yet to be convinced that any Christian arguments hold up. (My questioner said he’d kept going to CICCU talks thinking this time he’d hear a good argument. I think I rashly praised Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, which caused a bit of a stir: maybe there weren’t that many CICCU people there after all).

On Craig: has someone won a debate if they’re wrong?

You can admit Craig wins debates without thereby being compelled to become a Christian. His opponents aren’t wrong (IMHO), they just fail to make their case (usually). As scribb1e said later, you don’t call something a proof in mathematics if it’s invalid, even if the result turns out to be true. Arguments are not soldiers, again.

Consider yourself lucky you got out so young. Do you feel relieved? Do you miss it?

I miss aspects of it: the working towards a common cause already mentioned; the singing; the feeling that everything’s under control. But yes, I was very relieved not to have to struggle any more with it. I think I wasted an awful lot of time worrying about stuff which wasn’t worth worrying about. I’d hate anyone else to do the same: hence the web page.

Thanks to CUAAS for inviting me and giving me pizza. I had fun, and I hope my listeners did too.

Edited: Rave reviews continue to pour in. Well, William liked it, anyway, and has some observations on “atheist societies” to boot.

Richard Beck, an Associate Professor and experimental psychologist at Abilene Christian University, writes a blog called Experimental Theology. It’s full of his research and his reflections on the psychology of religion, and is well worth reading. Beck, a Christian himself, is happy to use psychological tools to study belief.

Beck recently finished a series of posts entitled The Varieties & Illusions of Religious Experience. In this series, he talks about two ideas of the psychological purpose of religion, those of Sigmund Freud and William James, and relates the results of some experiments he did to test these ideas.

Tell me about your mother

Freud wrote a book called The Future of an Illusion. In it, Freud argues that religion is a narcotic, not in the social sense of Marx’s famous saying, but rather, psychologically. Religion provides consolation in the face of uncertainity and death. In describing this psychological purpose, Freud does not argue that this means religion is necessarily false (see logical rudeness), but he says (and Beck agrees) that this consolation is suspicious: “We shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an after-life; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.”

James wrote a book called The Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he speaks of healthy-minded believers and of sick souls. The healthy-minded believer is an optimist, who lives by “averting one’s attention from evil, and living simply in the light of good”. There are good things to say about living like this, but ultimately, James thinks healthy-mindedness functions as an anaesthetic. In this, James’s view of the healthy-minded believer is similar to Freud’s view of all believers. But James doesn’t stop there. Sick souls, he says, don’t find consolation in religion and are convinced that “the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence, and that the world’s meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart”. For Beck, the laments found in some of the Psalms come from sick souls. Beck cites Mother Theresa, whose letters show she felt a spiritual emptiness for much of her life, as another example.

Is Freud right? Experiments done to investigate Terror Management Theory suggest he is. Christians were primed to think about their own deaths and then ask to evaluate essays they were told were written by a Christian and a Jew. They were significantly more likely to denigrate the Jewish author than Christians who evaluated the essays without the death priming. In the face of death, believers exhibit what the theorists call “worldview defence”.

It is not the healthy who need a doctor

But, says Beck, these experiments failed to distinguish the healthy and the sick believers. If James is right and the sick souls exist, they should be less likely to defend their worldviews when primed with thoughts of death. Beck came up with what he calls the Defensive Theology Scale, a set of questions designed to rate how much Christians think God gives special insight and protection, answers even mundane prayers, and guides events in their lives. People who have these consoling beliefs score highly, and are healthy-minded, in James’s terminlogy, or Summer Christians, in Beck’s. It turns out that when the death priming experiment was re-run, high DTS scores correlated with worldview defence in the face of death. The sick souls, those Beck calls the Winter Christians, did not react like their Summer counterparts: they didn’t feel the need to defend their worldview even when primed to think of death.

There’s much more in Beck’s essays (for example, the correlation between healthy-mindedness and belief in an active Satan), but you should read them for yourselves.

Worshipping tables

Reading Beck’s stuff, I’d classify my former belief as healthy-minded or Summery. It’s pretty hard for an evangelical to be anything else: sick souls don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus, and aren’t inclined to blame sin and Satan when things get tough in their faith. Perhaps there’s some lingering remnant of evangelicalism in me, because I can’t quite see the point of being a sick soul and still being part of a worshipping community, even if you’ve had a religious experience which leads you to think there’s a God. Terry Pratchett writes that witches don’t believe in gods in the same way that they don’t believe in, say, tables: they know they exist and have a purpose, but don’t feel the need to go around saying “O mighty table, without whom we are naught”. God seems inscrutable to Winter Christians, so, as Daniel Fincke asks, Why worship someone with mysterious motives? (in the posting, we also see the important contribution of Chef from South Park to defeating various Christian theodicies). I’ll have to read more of Beck’s old posts to see whether he addresses the question of what motivates Winter Christians.