Online Reading (June 23, 2015)

tullian-tchividjian1Avoiding Scandal: Marvin Olasky at World Magazine comments on a rule made by Billy Graham that may have saved Tullian Tchividjian from the present scandal. At some point I’ll need to reflect on grace in light of this.

Intellectualism: An older article at the Atlantic deals with the ongoing odd assumption that intellectual rigor leads inexorably to atheism.

Mass Media: Despite their chronicling of media missing the concept of religion, GetReligion has some optimism after some mainstream media grasp the spirituality of forgiveness.

Apologetics: Is it too intellectual an endeavour to be Christian? Why “It’s intellectual” is not the same thing as saying it isn’t Christian.

Watermelon on the Brain (or why Atheism is NOT a lack of belief in God)

*This is a cross-post with Truth seekers, where I am also known to post from time to time*

So. Someone tells me they are an atheist, and I say they need to back up the positive claim that God does not exist, and then they tell me “oh, I’m a weak atheist, I just lack the belief in God… I haven’t seen enough reason to say that God exists.”


The above statement assumes that the epistemic default is disbelief in God, when in fact the default is a lack of knowledge. We have a name for that, but it isn’t atheism (weak or otherwise); it’s agnosticism.

Allow me an example. If I say that my head is a watermelon, you can do one of three things with that information. i) You can believe me, ii) you can disbelieve me, or iii) you can suspend judgement. This is true whether the assertion I make is a believable one or a largely dubious  one (like say, my head is a watermelon). Once the statement is made, there are only 3 possible responses to the truth of that statement.

If you choose to believe me, because I’m a nice guy and the picture on this blog is of a guy with a watermelon for a head, then you are assenting. We can call you a “watermelonist”. You need to get out more.

If you choose to suspend judgement, believing that you do not have the information to make a decision, then you are agnostic (you literally don’t know). You also may need to spend some time away from your computer.

You can also believe that since people do not usually have watermelons for heads, and I have provided scant evidence that I am the exception to that rule, my head is not in fact a watermelon. You are an “awatermelonist”. You think that it is

more rational to believe that my head is NOT in fact, a watermelon. While most of your support for that belief doesn’t need to be enunciated (few will challenge you on the truth claim you’re making), there does need to be support.

“your head is not a watermelon” is a positive statement. You are saying that I am incorrect, you are not saying that my belief in the watermelony goodness of my cerebellum is “unfounded” or “lacks evidence” alone (that is agnosticism). You are saying that because my claim is unfounded and lacks evidence, it is only reasonable to believe that it is false. This may

be a well founded belief (that my claim of having a watermelon for a head is false), but it is a positive one (statement X, where X is “Steve’s head is a watermelon”, is not true, because I have no reason to believe it is and many reasons to believe it is not), and as such, needs every bit as much support as the claim that I have watermelon rind for brains. That support

may be easier to find, but it is still necessary.

The same is true of “weak” atheism. It is a statement that the claims of theists lack support, and that as a result the assumption of atheism is more rational. This is NOT an absence of belief in God, but a statement of the disbelief in God. It is a positive statement, and like all statements, must be supported if challenged.

Is it really beautiful?

One of the problems I’ve tended to have with materialism is how it seems to place into my own (subjective) mind (actually brain… and hence render them largely delusional as it relate to the universe itself). This isn’t only the case with my religious ideas, but also the ideas I have of good and evil, and even the idea of me.

How do I get there? After all, I don’t doubt that some materialists have every bit as high a moral code that they live by as I do, and even arch-materialists can work to do great things in the social sphere based on what they seem to think is a call to justice that is demanded of all of us. Heck, when Christopher Hitchens subtitles his book “How Religion Poisons Everything”, I think he is claiming that religion is, objectively and independent of subjective opinions on the matter, a bad thing.

The problem is, ironically, best exemplified by the use of Occam’s razor in materialism to deny the supernatural. Occam’s razor (which nicely trims Plato’s beard) is the principle that, all things being equal, the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is most likely the correct one. The result is that since science is more than capable of coming up with material explanations for most things, that it is rational to assume that science will come up with material explanations for all things.

What then of ideas and concepts that do not seem to be solely material, such as the existence of subjects other than me, or transcendent morality, aesthetics, or even the idea of “me”? Materialism would claim that all of these are simply the result of material processes in the brain reacting to external stimuli. ie. whatever these things are, they exist only in brains, and any seeming transcendence is simply the commonality of human experience.

This means that a painting is not itself beautiful, but instead makes me feel good (whatever “me” is). It means that torture is not independently wrong, but simply something that I find abhorrent. It also means that my most directly experienced object, since it cannot be materially experienced (namely the “I”), is simply something “I” mistake for a person when in fact it is noting more than the collocation of atoms. (at this point, if “you’re” following me, you might be giggling, as “I” am…”I”‘m guessing most people rightly find this silly).

In any case, not taking it all the way, and assuming “I” exist, which is a properly basic idea if ever there was one. The

materialist conception seems to eliminate transcendent morality and beauty because those concepts exist only in human brains.

and were human minds to cease to be, so would those concepts. The result is that nothing is evil in itself, and nothing is in itself beautiful. There is no contrast in reality between the beautiful and the ugly (just personal psychology) or between the good and the evil (just personal taste).

Thus we come to a statement someone recently used on me to try to claim the rationality of his belief structure:

“Can’t we just say the garden is beautiful, without attributing faeries to it?”

He apparently wanted to mean that there was no need to credit a ground to the beauty of the garden, just the bare fact of it. But my response is that he has already appealed to “faeries” in claiming that beauty is a proper descriptor of the garden rather than simply his experiences of the garden. That I choose to think about that ground, and indeed have a name for it (God), has already been assumed in the statement.

Of course, no one needs to take my route. Maybe morality, beauty, subjectivity (and if you think about it, logic, mathematics, reason and even knowledge itself) really are just modes of human thought that are not true of the universe itself, but only categories we humans find useful. Maybe Occam’s razor really should be used as a law of reason, rather

than simply a priciple. Humanity has had large groups already in that camp (many forms of Zen Budddhism for example).

Such a route seems unlikely to further science or society, however, since the simplest explanation of the universe is still (as it was in first year philosophy) solipsism. In this case Occam’s razor seems to be instead a guillotine.

In the end, I think that our experiences should only be attributed wholly to delusion with evidence that it is, in fact, delusional.

It is for that reason that I would say that Handel’s “Messiah” really is beautiful, that evil really is fundamentally wrong, that reason really talks about the universe and not simply the categories of data that enters my sense receptors, and that there is real good in the world (not just things that are good on opinion).

A Word on Using Logic

One of the main topics dealt with on this blog is Religion, and especially Christianity. Now, I do not expect all (or even most) of my readers to agree with me on this topic. It’s a highly debated one. That said, I have noticed a disturbing trend when it comes to this topic as its debated on the internet.

Among some factions, it has become almost axiomatic that religious people are irrational. From this assumption, they then leap to the (unfounded) conclusion that because they are not religious, they are automatically more rational than a religious person. This further leads to a further unfounded leap that such means that an irreligious person thus automatically understands both formal and informal logic better than a religious person, and especially a conservative Christian religious person. This leads these same people to lecture them on how their arguments are illogical using logical terms of art, often incorrectly.

Now, I am not saying that irreligious people always do this, but it is clear that some irreligious people do, and for some reason I seem to usually get them writing me posts about how I am falling into a “no true scotsman fallacy” or how my argument is “non-sequential” at 6:30 in the morning when I haven’t had my coffee, and am already irritable.

This is the reason for the rule that you explain yourself when you use a term of art (and I consider logic terms, terms of art because in normal conversation eyes glaze over when I use the terms). This serves two major purposes. 1) It keeps all reasonably educated readers in the loop of the conversation even if they haven’t taken a course in logic and 2) it keeps misuses of the terms to a minimum.

When I say “explain yourself”, I mean that you should first define the term of art you’re using, and then show how the argument in question fits that definition. This makes it easier for us conservative Christian religious people to check the logic textbooks on our desks to see if we can learn something here. It also means that you will have to do the work of linking the argument to your accusation, and in my experience, not all accusations survive that process. As examples, I offer the following three terms of art, with an explanation:

“non sequiter” – Often best tested for by using the question “so what?”, it’s a fallacy involved in giving information or arguments unrelated to the argument being discussed. For example:  When pro-life advocates say that a foetus in the womb is a person deserving of full legal protection as such, the response that a woman has a right to choose what happens to her own body is a non-sequiter. The question is the moral status of the infant. After that point, the rights balancing can be done, but not before dealing with the claim at hand (that a foetus is a person deserving of legal protection).

“ad hominium” – This is a form of a non-sequiter. I also call this the “yeah, well, you have cooties” fallacy. It is frighteningly common in most debates, despite its illogicality. It is essentially when a person is attacked directly rather than attacking their arguments. An example is when an atheist makes the statement that there is no positive proof for the existence of God, and a theist responds with: yeah, but you atheists are immoral. Besides not necessarily being true, it really doesn’t speak to the claim being made. Now, this is not happening when the conversation moves to the moral (positive) argument for the existence of God, and the theist makes the different claim that atheism has no account for objective morality (a claim which does not impugn the atheists’ morals, just consistency of the underlying reason for those good morals).

“straw man” – This is the argumentative tactic of redefining your opponent’s position in such a way as to make it easier to attack when the redefinition does not actually express the ideas of the opponent. One example is when a person says that there is evidence for the existence for the Christian god, and an opponent begins to attack faith in a teapot orbiting the sun, flying spaghetti monsters, or invisible pink unicorns. The latter are far easier to attack, but they are conceptually different (none of the latter examples can be defended by the ontological argument, for instance).

In any event, the upshot is that when you want to use any of these things, think it through and do the hard work of applying your ideas.

What Christians are Not.

I know, I know, a big topic, and I’m being a little arrogant in claiming to understand the whole of one of the largest religious groupings in the world. Keep in mind that you’re reading a conservative protestant evangelical.

These are just some things I would like non-Christians to keep in mind when talking to me.

1) Christians, by definition, do not think they are better than you. If somebody seems to, you know that he is being a very bad Christian if he is one at all. We get saved by grace. The main point of the entire religion is that we are so seriously messed up that we couldn’t save ourselves and needed God to do it for us. That means we think WE are sinners.

2) Christians (remembering the above proviso) do not think that morality is adherence to a set of moral precepts contained in a code (even the rules contained in the Bible). Morality is a heart issue for Christians, it is about the character of the person performing the act, not the act in itself. Thus talking about moral actions is non-sequential to our faith structure. While actions may be evidence of moral character, Good actions in themselves are simply not sequential to the issue of being good.

3) That said, Christians (if they are being Christian) do have some actions that they should be doing. If the person that claims to be Christian does not do them, you have a right to question their claim to be Christian. If you do not like what they are doing because they are acting in accordance with Christian expectations, then you can say it’s a problem with Christianity.

4) Christians, like every other belief structure in the world, has adherents who have not thought about the implications of their beliefs, and people who have. Do not assume that Christians are all unthinking, because you only talk to the former. Similarly, some Christians are not very rational in their thinking, but some are.

5) There are bad Christians. This is not an amazing revelation that upsets my entire faith structure, nor should it. The actions of people are actually independant of the belief structure and are relevant insofar as the specific actions you find abhorrent fit the belief structure.

6) Christianity is a big religion. Do not assume that you understand what the specific Christian you are talking to believes. He is a different person from all the other Christians you have met. Indeed, given point 5, despite his claims, he might not actually be a Christian. If you want to know if a Christian believes something, ask him. You can attack a belief that he’s claimed to believe after he’s claimed to believe it, not before.

7) No Christian, not even fundamentalist Bible thumpers (save the most extreme groups which most other Christians think are nuts), think that you can understand the Bible’s teaching on ANYTHING by looking at isolated verses. So, God’s teaching on slavery is not completed by looking at Leviticus, the nature of God is not explained by looking at the genocides in Exodus, and our opinion about social concerns is not exhausted by John 3:16. We have to look at the whole of scripture (because scripture interprets scripture). You may think that’s a dodge, but it’s the way we actually roll.

8) Christian beliefs are pretty central to the lives of Christians. It is the way we see the world. To ask us to put aside Jesus for a second is like asking you to put aside your understanding of reality for a second.

9) Christians are not inherently opposed to science. I am not a scientist, so I usually recuse myself from such debates because I’m probably better to be listening at those points. This is not because I think that science is of the devil. The statement “Some anti-science people are Christian” is not a logically equivalent statement to “All Christians are anti-science”.

10)  Christians (at least of the type that I am) do not believe that forcing you to “become Christian” is even possible, much less permissible. In fact, in my experience the attempt is unbelieving and counter-productive. When I tell you what I believe, it is because a) I think what I believe is true and would benefit you or b) I feel the need to correct your erroneous understanding of what I believe. I would like you to believe, because I would like you to enjoy God as I do, but if you don’t, I can’t force you.

Online Reading (October 2008)

(sorry for the long Hiatus, I think I’m back, now…)

Rationality: An opinion piece from the WSJ collates evidence that evangelical Christianity may be less likely to lead to pseudoscience than is a lack of religious affliliation.

Private Health Care: The local paper tells me that private health care is bad (seeminly acting as the mouthpiece for a pro-public health care group).

Religious Violence: anti-Christian violence continues for week 5 in Orissa, India. Hindus continue to blame Dalit Christians for killing a controversial swami while the (definitely not Christian) Maoists continue to claim responsibility.

Politics: Apparently, an increase in Saturday Night Live’s ratings has something to do with making fun of Sarah Palin (though the story doesn’t really explain the headline), and this is news at the CBC.

Humility and Epistemology

This post is a result of several things, including a conversation with a friend and a post on John Stackhouse’s blog (found here).

The main reason for this post, though is not quite Stackhouse’s point (which I believe to be true), but an implication that I believe makes it far easier to remain truly Christian in the standard debates that surround being a Christian among thinking non-believers (by far my favorite kind of non-believers).

It is easy to get wrapped up in the certainty of our own faith (and don’t get me wrong, I am quite convinced that Jesus Christ really is the truth) so much that we come to believe that it is not Christ who saves people, but our own ideas of Christ that do. This is, to be frank, idolatry, and a fairly subtle form of it, made far more dangerous by its subtlety.

It is this idolatry that leaves Christians unable to actually hear the critiques brought against our faith, and in so doing be able to respond as Christ would have us respond, humbly and in the grace the Spirit provides. It is also dangerous because it has at its centre a resounding lie. One that can slowly eat away at the over-certain believer and leave their faith either rank hypocrisy, or non-existent (and provide a similarly overconfident disbelief). I mean, seriously, how does anyone with any experience of being incorrect ever assume that they cannot still be incorrect? I seem to remember the Magnificat having something to say about God scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

It is my contention that the faith a Christian is to have is less arrogant, but every bit as strong (perhaps stronger as it is not based on my own epistemic ability). We are called to point to the God that is truth, to seek that truth with all we are, with the full recognition that we are fallible, but trusting that God will lead us into truth if we are willing to see it. Indeed, God may be gracious to open our eyes where we have been blind to something till now.

Could I be wrong? Sure. Am I? Well, if I thought I was, I’d change my beliefs to something I think more closely accords to reality. The fact that we “could be wrong” does not prove that we in fact are, but leads us to remain on the path in seeking truth (as long as we don’t raise the “could be wrong” to “probably are”, the latter being as silly as unwarranted certainty in what we believe).
Most importantly, this allows us to see those who disagree with us as no more “foolish” than we see ourselves. It puts our knowledge as as much a function of grace as is our salvation, and it idiotic to pretend that what we are given by grace is a reason to deride another. Similarly, it allows us to speak, act, and preach what we have become convinced of.

Of course, as with everything, I stand ready to be corrected. :-)