Monday, December 31, 2007

Jackpot, Baby!

Surfing the web. Found a question re: Plantinga’s EAAN on the Rational Responders site. Question asked by responder Insidium Profundis:


"The evolutionary argument against naturalism states:

Since the probability of natural selection having favored minds that would possess true metaphysical beliefs (such as naturalism) is inscrutable or very low, then believing in evolution and naturalism is self-defeating.

(I probably have not done full justice to these arguments, but you get the idea)"


(As an aside, why did he state that he "probably" hasn't done full justice to the argument? I think it's a safe bet that if you take an argument that is developed in hundreds of pages, boil it down to a sentence, you haven't "done it justice." Anywho...)

Question answered by responder todangst:


"Even if we take this as true, the fact that the probability is low would not mean that it is impossible.

So as long as evolution remains the best viable theory, this argument fails.

And then we can move on to attacking his claim that the odds are 'low'.... which you can bet is equally misguided and flawed as his other arguments."


Translation: Oh yeah Plantinga, well I believe we hit the evolutionary jackpot, baby! Waitress, bring me another double Jack & Coke.

This approach was used here once before, I'll copy and paste the answer I gave in the meta:


I Started Off: We're not talking about epistemic rights, Mr. X. Anyway, the fact that you continute to believe in the reliability of your cognitive faculties R does not entail that R is the case.

Of course proper function would demand continued belief in R, but this is not because this portion of your cognitive faculties are aimed at truth, but, rather, at the avoidance of cognitive disaster. A person S may be in a situation - say, lost in a snow storm on top of a mountain - and S may see a ridge that S thinks could be leaped to. Based on perception, this belief is basic to S. But, S would not have thought this if S were not in this survival situation. So S maintains this belief that the chasm is able to be jumped. Proper function requires this belief to be maintained. The optimistic overrider has kicked in. But the faculties governing this have some other virtue in mind - survival rather than true belief. In normal, reflective situations, S would not form said belief.

Or, suppose S ingests agent XX, a hallucinate drug, producing hallucinations in 90% of those who take XX. Proper function would require assuming R so as to avoid cognitive disaster. So, S has powerful inclinations to continue on in belief in R, even though S has come to believe that P(R / XX) is low or inscrutable, and S may take it in a basic way, but of course these powerful inclinations don't count as evidence for R. S would have this inclination whether she was in or out of the lucky 10%.

An Atheist Said: "Let’s say this is the case, i.e., that our moral and religious beliefs are completely determined by our genetic makeup, and by when and where we are born. It still doesn’t follow that what I believe is false. I may be lucky and just happened to get it right."

My Response: My argument isn't that your beliefs *are* false (though there's a good probability that they are;-). My argument, rather, is that R is defeated. There is no reason, according to what you admit, to believe R.

Now, you may say that we "got lucky" and attained R via evolution. You hit the evolutionary jackpot. The problem here is that this can be used to defeat a paradigm case of defeat. If the defeater defeats a paradigm case of defeat, the defeater isn't really a defeater.

The lotto belief doesn't seem to work. Suppose that your friend F ingests XX, but you notice R holds for him for the 5 years you've known him. You then find out that F ingested XX 5 years ago. You then find out that XX causes hallucinations in 90% of the cases. You could then say that he "won the XX lottery." But apply this to yourself. With F, you were an objective observer, but XX specified to yourself, there is no objective observer. Say you believe you ingest XX, and you also believe that it causes hallucinations in 90% of the cases, it would thus appear that "I won the XX lottery" is not a defeater-defeater or a defeater-deflector for you.

To say that R is reliable begs the question (see reply to Bergmann). I don't think it can be conditionalized upon, and seems to fall under T. Reid's objection that "If a man's testimony were called into question, it would be ridiculous to refer to the man's own word as to whether he was honest or not."

Why could not the lotto comeback be used to defeat any defeater for a low or inscrutable probability of X? Say S believes that the existence of evil E makes the existence God G low or inscrutable, then S believes in G&E. So P(G/E) is low or inscrutable, but S replies, "well, I guess we won the divinity lottery." Do you seriously consider that a defeater-defeater? If not here, why there?


So, we can see that the 'lil responder hasn't even come close to interacting (and, even "getting") the argument from Plantinga. Also, it's not that evolution is true or false, it's that the conjunction of evolution and naturalism are what provide the defeater. Also, it's not that the probability is simply low, it's at best inscrutable.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

TBlog Special Report...Pope Commissions Exorcism Squads

Film at 11.

Word is already spreading.

On the West Coast of the US:

Ten years ago, a crack commando unit was sent to the dungeon by the Inquisition for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the pontificate, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you are demon possessed, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... The X-Team.

As for the East Coast:

Who ya gonna call?

HT: Turretinfan

Update: John Bugay in comments has informed TBlog News Service that the Vatican has denied the story. (Actually, it would be more accurate to say part of the story). This is good news for the X-Squad and the Demonbusters. They'll not have to compete with the crop of crack Vatican stormtroopers with their holy water and crucifixes.

That said, they have not, to our knowledge, denied this story.

We at TBlogNS hope that X-Team and Demonbusters have received their certification from the Vatican.

Shallow Skepticism

I recently wrote a post in response to some claims John Loftus has made about Jesus' birthplace. Loftus responded in the comments section:

As I look at the prophecies supposedly fulfilled in the life and death of Jesus I've concluded they were taken out of context. I've also concluded based on philosophical grounds that there is no basis for God to be able to foresee future human continguent actions, even if he exists....

When I examine Matthew's fulfilled prophecies concerning the events surrounding Jesus' birth they all fail. The method of Midrash and pesher was quite common in Matthew's day but fundamentally flawed. There isn't even any expectation that Matthew's prophecies should be taken as a literal fulfillment unless we first discuss this issue.

The difference between us can be summed up in that I judge things in the Bible by modern, more rigourous standards, whereas you do not.

I responded to Loftus' arguments regarding Micah 5 and Jesus' birthplace. I cited an article I had written about Micah 5 and further treatment of the subject by Glenn Miller and Bruce Waltke. Waltke's commentary is one of the most recently published on the book of Micah, by a highly qualified Old Testament scholar, and that commentary has several dozen pages on that chapter of Micah. I also linked to a five-part series I had done on Jesus' birthplace, in which I discussed the Biblical and extra-Biblical evidence in depth. Where has John Loftus discussed the extra-Biblical data, such as what the early enemies of Christianity said about Jesus' birthplace? How much of the relevant patristic literature has Loftus read? Does Loftus think he's being "more rigorous" when he quotes the nearly naked assertions of scholars like Robin Lane Fox and E.P. Sanders? Or when his posts ignore the large majority of the evidence relevant to making a judgment about this issue?

He tells us that we need to address "Matthew's fulfilled prophecies concerning the events surrounding Jesus' birth". Why? Matthew isn't Micah. And Matthew can appeal to more than one type of prophecy fulfillment. It can't be assumed that every fulfillment would be of the nature of Matthew's view of Hosea 11:1, for example. The fact that Matthew sometimes appeals to prophecies of a more typological nature doesn't lead us to the conclusion that Micah 5:2 must be such a prophecy. Does Loftus think that the quality of Micah's prophecy is determined by the quality of other prophecies cited by Matthew when discussing Jesus' childhood? How does Loftus connect those dots? And why is Matthew the relevant source here? Other ancient Jewish and Christian sources discussed Micah 5 as a prophecy as well. Why are we supposed to think that Loftus' arguments represent "modern, more rigorous standards"? Because he asserts it?

Where are the ancient sources who held Loftus' position regarding Jesus' birthplace? Where is Loftus' interaction with my arguments regarding Micah 5, Miller's arguments, Waltke's arguments, etc.? Where has Loftus interacted with the objections to his arguments that I've documented from some of the sources that he himself cites (Raymond Brown and Richard Carrier)?

Why does John Loftus behave this way so often? There must not be much to his skepticism.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ron D. Meets That Triabloguer

Fellow Italian and Reformed Christian, Ron Di Giacomo, commented on an old post of mine on Vincent Cheung. His post is called: "Vincent Cheung Meets The Triabloguer." Possibly "A" Triabloguer would have been better than "The" Triabloguer? Everyone knows that Steve Hays is "The" Triabloguer. The rest of us are "A" Triabloguers. In fact, I might be lower than "A" Triabloguer. It might be more accurate to refer to me as "That" Triabloger. As in, "That Triabloguer who always posts stupid posts." Or, "That Triabloguer who gets PWNED by atheists." Or, "That Triabloguer who is a big meany."

I find that his post forgets the context of dialogue. It strays off the path it was meant to be on. There is background info not taken into account. This makes for a largely irrelevant post, whatever the merits (good or bad) of his post. I'll just quote his text in italicized red; I'll then respond.

"About a year ago, Triabloguer Paul Manata tried to take Vincent Cheung to task for asserting that God immediately and directly causes people to believe everything they believe. In spite of the fact that Vincent Cheung states that God causes men to know in this way; I do not find in the quotes provided by Manata that Cheung believes that God causes men in this way to believe all they believe. In other words, when knowledge is gained, Cheung is quoted as asserting God acts immediately and directly upon the mind. Yet, as Cheung knows, not all beliefs constitute knowledge; so without further evidence I cannot take Cheung to mean that God acts immediately and directly when one believes that which he does not know. Cheung may believe that but I do not believe that he does, which does not mean I disbelieve that he does. I have no basis for either belief."

I'm not too sure how familiar Ron is with Cheung's "works." His austere, robust, extreme, and mistaken view of God's sovereignty commits him, logically, to the belief that God directly causes all things - of which beliefs are then a subset. For example, on p.38 of "Ultimate Question" we read, "Therefore, it is correct to say that [God] alone is the cause of all things" (emphasis supplied). Therefore, if God is "alone" the cause of all things, and if beliefs are things, then God is "alone" the cause of "all" beliefs.

Next, we can read Cheung himself, "Yes, God causes people to believe lies as he wishes (and as Scripture teaches)," SOURCE.

Now, it is important to note what beliefs are being referred to here. The context in Cheung's blog post is that two men, John and Tim, believe different things about the world. For instance, such mundane beliefs as: "I believe there is a bee on the rose," and "I believe that there are X number of ants in my backyard." Thus God causes men to believe heresy (see # 7 here) as well as causing them to believe propositions about bugs on flowers and amounts of bugs in your backyard. So, it looks like every one of our beliefs are directly caused by God. Unless, of course, Cheung (and Ron) believe that God only causes our theological, heretical, arthropodical, and botanical beliefs?

Cheung's view of God's sovereignty has God as the direct cause of everything. Even sin: "But the answer does not deny that God is the direct cause of sin; instead, it boldly says that God has a right to make whatever he wants and do whatever he wants." (SOURCE)

As far as "immediacy." Cheung states that God is in control of all things (as indeed he is, but not in Cheung's hyper-sovereignty sense). How is this "control" brought to bear on man's mind? "Scripture teaches that God not only exercise immediate control over man's mind....", according to Cheung (SOURCE, emphasis supplied).

So, putting it all together. God is the only cause of all things. God directly causes all things. As far as man's mind, God immediately controls it. So, God directly and immediately causes all men's beliefs.

I thus take it that I have provided sufficient evidence to undermine Ron's false belief about Cheung (which God caused, btw :-).

Next, I should note that my taking on Cheung is not the only effort by a T-blogger. Here is a page where Archetypal T-blogger Steve Hays, as well as guest T-blogger, the brilliant and prolific Aquascum, have "tried to take on Vincent Cheung:"



So, I'm not "the" Triabloguer, and Cheung has "met" other Triabloguers before and after my post.


"Nonetheless, let us assume with Mr. Manata that when Cheung says that "God causes people to believe lies as he wishes (and as Scripture teaches)..." that Cheung means that God does so immediately and directly."

I think we've shown that that's a safe assumption.

Moving along...

"Now for Manata's criticism of Cheung's epistemology:"

He then quotes me:

"God immediately and directly causes people to believe everything they believe. Lie or truth. At this point I would like to know how Cheung knows anything? How does he know that God is not deceiving Cheung? If he replies that he has deductively valid arguments, deduced from scriptural premises, he doesn't escape. This is because the argument is only good if the premises are true. Cheung takes his understanding of verses and this understanding he has was immediately conveyed to his mind by God. Could God be deceiving Cheung? How would Cheung know?... So, when those divines who argued for an infralapsarian position, from the texts of Scripture, their understanding of those texts was wrong, according to Cheung, and their understanding, according to Cheung, was immediately conveyed by God on the occasion that they read those texts. Is Cheung better than those men? ...Cheung would need to show in a non-question begging manor that he was not deceived in this instance..."

"For Cheung, sufficient and necessary conditions for knowledge are justified true belief, where justification is maximal warrant and, therefore, excludes inductive inference."

A bit misleading. Let's read Cheung:

"Scripture is the first principle of the Christian worldview, so that true knowledge consists of only what is directly stated in Scripture and what is validly deducible from Scripture; all other propositions amount to unjustified opinion at best. This biblical epistemology necessarily follows from biblical metaphysics. Any other epistemology is indefensible, and unavoidably collapses into self-contradictory skepticism." (p. 43; cf. “Systematic Theology,” p. 18 para. 4, p. 22 para. 5, p. 41 fn. 42, emphasis supplied)

Cheung also holds to an internalist and an infallibilist constraint on knowledge. Thus Cheung:

"However, unless he constructs his claims upon an objective and infallible foundation, then if he can claim to know..." (SOURCE)

For a analysis of how Cheung is an internalist, see here (sec. 3.2).

So, for Cheung,

(*) For one to know that P, (i) P must be Scripture, or deductively deduced from Scripture, (ii) one cannot be mistaken that P, and (iii) one must have access to how one knows that P. All else is "unjustified opinion at best."

Unfortunately for Cheung, one can't deduce (*) from Scripture. (See link above for a complete demonstration of Cheung's affirmation of (*).)

"What is not being considered in the above criticism of Vincent Cheung’s epistemology is that although God can cause one to believe a lie; God cannot cause one to know a lie."

Where did I ever say that God could cause someone to "know" a "lie"? If God has caused Cheung to believe falsehoods, e.g., his occasionalism, his internalism, his infallibilism, namely, (*), then Cheung doesn't know those things. And, if Cheung knew those things, he'd have to show how he knows them according to the strictures laid out in (*). That is, Cheung can't pass his own test. The combination of Cheung's epistemological constraints is a volatile combination that explodes in the face of any who try and use it.

"Accordingly, Cheung, like Paul Manata or anyone else, can have reason to believe false propositions but such false beliefs can never entail the same confirmation that accompanies knowledge, since by the nature of the case what is falsely believed is contrary to truth and, therefore, the consistency that accompanies knowledge."

Yes, we can have reasons to believe falsehoods. I never denied such. But for Cheung, if what you believe is not directly stated in Scripture, or deducible from Scripture, or anything else contained in (*), then it is "unjustified opinion at best." But notice that Ron states that one can believe P for reasons, and hence be justified in believing P. Thus Ron isn't defending Cheung here. And, he's not critiquing me, either. I agree. Cheung wouldn't.

"How does Cheung know anything? Well, by the same way anyone else knows anything – by possessing true belief due to maximal warrant, which does not occur when one believes anything false (like a lie)."

And this simply fails to take into account the context of dialogue. I was offering an internal critique of Cheung. Though I don't know what Ron means by "maximal warrant," I'm not sure I agree with him on the particulars here, but that's fine, because Ron's views aren't at issue here. Besides any debate between us, I agree that Cheung can have knowledge of propositions that don't meet the criteria laid out in (*) above. So, I'm not saying that Cheung can't know anything, point blank. I'm asking how can Cheung know most of what he claims, if all the other things he claims about knowledge were true? Thus Ron is blogging just to blog. His comments are irrelevant to my critique of Cheung.


Ron quotes me asking, "How does he know that God is not deceiving Cheung?"

And replies,

"One cannot be deceived into knowing something false."

Right. But the truth of Cheung's assertions are at issue here. One can't just assert that they are true. Furthermore, I'm asking how Cheung can know that God is not deceiving Cheung. Since occasionalism grants the fact that billions of false beliefs are produced, then it is not an "infallible" method of attaining knowledge. Just as Cheung might admit that someone's intuitions might grant them a true belief, they don't know their belief since intuition is a fallible belief producing process.


"Accordingly, our query need not be limited to how one knows he is not being deceived but rather can be expanded to: how one knows that he knows. In other words, how can men who can believe falsely know anything and know that they know?"

Here it seems as if Ron adheres to internalism, viz., "know that you know." I deny this constraint. For just one devastating critique of internalism, Bergman's book can be consulted:

And, according to Cheung, our "query" can be limited to the question of deception. Cheung himself uses this tactic quite frequently on his interlocutors (see here, for example). If an atheist can't know, and show how he knows, that he is not being deceived (by dream, demon, senses, &c), then he cannot know what he claims to know. Thus, again, Ron is simply ignoring the context of discussion. According to how Cheung has framed the debate, my points were/are quite relevant indeed.

"However, if one is deceived about the truth of premises, he doesn’t have maximal warrant. The only question at this juncture is whether God when deceiving men through a lying spirit or “immediately” gives men the same confirmation as when he grants men maximal warrant. Manata seems to think that Cheung thinks so. I, however, do not assume that since it is not deducible from what I have read in Cheung."

Um, Cheung having maximal warrant is what's in question here. And, I don't think Cheung would appreciate this appeal to "confirmation." How could Cheung tell if his "confirmation" was a feeling or belief caused by God for purposes of deception? And, can Cheung deduce all that Ron said from Scripture? How would he know if his beliefs were not false ones implanted by God. Since God implants trillions and trillions of false beliefs, what are the odds that Cheung's are true? And, how would he know it? Could he deduce that his beliefs were true, from Scripture? How so?

[P1] I [Cheung] believe X.

[P2] Scripture teaches X.

[C1] Therefore, Scripture teaches what I [Cheung] believe.

Sorry, where is [P1] in Scripture? I never saw "Cheung believes X" in the Bible. Is "Cheung" deducible from the Bible? Cheung can't even know that he is a male, let alone know that he believes what he believes! Also, how would Cheung know that Scripture teaches X (P2)?

"Manata reasons by false disjunction. That one can believe he knows something that is false, does not imply that one cannot know that he knows when he knows."

Ron reasons by false attribution. He falsely attributes positions to me I never implied, and he doesn't even interact with my actual arguments. So, we can add ignoratio elenchi onto the charges.

Moving forward...

Ron quotes me,

"So, when those divines who argued for an infralapsarian position, from the texts of Scripture, their understanding of those texts was wrong, according to Cheung, and their understanding, according to Cheung, was immediately conveyed by God on the occasion that they read those texts. Is Cheung better than those men?"

And replied,

"If correct doctrine means “better than those men,” then yes, the high-Cavlinists were better. Cheung can know that infralapsarianism is false and that his position is true yet while believing he knows things he doesn’t."

My question was, what makes Cheung better than the divines in that God wouldn't deceive him but would deceive them?


Ron quotes me,

"Cheung would need to show in a non-question begging manor that he was not deceived in this instance."

And responds,

"Why must Cheung be able to persuade someone else that he knows something in order to know something? Moreover, that Cheung can be wrong does not mean he cannot know he knows. It only means that he is capable of believing he knows when he does not know. Either Manata must consign himself to skepticism or claim perfect knowledge if he doesn’t allow for fallible men to know while being capable of being deceived."

Again, Ron can't keep the broader context in view, here. First, I never asked to be "persuaded". Ron commits the intentional fallacy (add that to the pile). Second, I am applying Cheung's own standards of proof to him. This is called an internal critique. For example, here Cheung responds to someone by saying,

"Yes, but unless you can show how you know at any given instance whether that particular sensation is reliable or not, then you can’t show how you could trust any given instance of sensation.

So, even if some instances of sensation are reliable, and that in these instances, what you sense really corresponds to what is there to be sensed, unless you can show which instances of sensation are reliable and which instances are unreliable, it makes no difference -- you still can’t trust any of them, since you have no way of knowing when your sensations are right and when they are wrong."

So, Ron could ask Cheung, rather than me (I'm an externalist!), his question: "Why must [your interlocutor] be able to persuade [you, Cheung] that he knows something in order to know something?"

And, yes, I fully agree that the possibility of being wrong doesn't preclude knowledge (I'm not an infallibilist!). But here's the part Ron has missed throughout his entire response to me. That helpful piece of information is: CHEUNG DOES! So, Ron is simply proving the validity of my response to Cheung.

"Finally, I would argue that one can know that God would never deceive him, which is not to say that God does not deceive men; He does."

I agree too. Which is more evidence that Ron has totally jumped into a situation without knowing the shots.

I point out that I'm not an infallibilist or an internalist here.

Here as well.

And I argue against infallibilism, internalism, and the like, here as well.

I also address the argument that we can't know that God isn't deceiving us here.

So, Ron simply missed the boat on this one... sorry to say.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Tiger rights

Isn't there something in the Geneva Conventions about tiger rights? Was the tiger Mirandized before it was taken into custody?


Editor - It's time to close down the San Francisco Animal Detention Center, euphemistically known as "the Zoo." The most unfortunate and tragic tiger attack reminds us that Siberian tigers belong in ... Siberia.

Since their abduction, detained animals have no legal recourse and suffer privations of limited space and insufficient species company. From a city whose majority opposes our government's conduct at Guantanamo, I expect nothing less than dismantling and repatriation.


Mountain View

Thursday, December 27, 2007

"Does Opposition to Mitt Amount to Bigotry?"

"Does failure to support Mitt Romney’s presidential bid qualify an individual as an anti-Mormon bigot?"

The Surge

Critics of the Iraq war originally predicted that the Surge would fail. In fairness to the critics, there was reason to be skeptical. We had tried many other things to no effect. So there was no way of predicting the outcome of the Surge, although that’s a reason to reserve judgment rather than forecast failure. It would have been more prudent of the critics to withhold judgment. To wait and see.

However, even the critics now admit that the Surge has been surprisingly successful. This hasn’t caused them to oppose the Iraq war. They have simply changed their argument. Their revised objection is that even though we’re making military progress, there has been no corresponding political progress. So the Surge is still a failure.

And it may be the case that the effort to democratize Iraq will fail. That remains to be seen. Would this mean that we lost the war?

That all depends on how you define winning and losing. It’s true that Bush set the bar pretty high. But I’m not a spokesman for Bush, so I’m not bound by his definition.

I would say, rather, that if we defeat our enemies militarily, then we have won. That’s the best message we can send to our enemies. If you attack us, you will lose. We will beat you on your own turf. You may start it, but we will finish it. To pick a fight with the American military is a losing proposition.

Gen. Petraeus has been achieving results under the most disadvantageous circumstances imaginable. That sends a very impressive message to the militants and wannabes. Force is all they understand. Jihadis live by the sword. That’s how they measure success or failure.

So if we do withdraw from Iraq without having established a working democracy, I don’t regard that as a lost cause. Even if democracy is a lost cause, that doesn’t mean the war was a lost cause.

And this is irrespective of whether you think we should have gone into Iraq in the first place. There’s a sense in which the outcome is all the more impressive if it was predicated on a miscalculation. Despite the odds, one great General with the greatest military on earth was able to turn what was—at best—a stalemate or war of attrition, and—at worst—a losing battle, into a victorious strategy. If we can best the enemy on those terms, then we can best the enemy on any terms.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Micah Referred To A Messianic Birthplace, And Jesus Was Born There

As we've noted many times in the past, John Loftus has a tendency to repeat bad arguments against Christianity that he's already seen refuted, without even attempting to interact with the counterarguments. His post yesterday on the Bethlehem prophecy and its fulfillment is more of the same.

Compare his material on the subject to mine here and here. Notice that some of my comments on this subject (here and here) were written directly in response to John Loftus. He participated in the second thread just linked, but he didn't make much of an effort to interact with what I had written in that segment of my series or in the other segments, and he left the thread without responding to my last reply.

In his latest post on the Bethlehem issue, he links to a previous post in which he argued that the Bethlehem of Micah 5 is a clan, not a city. That's a ridiculous argument, for reasons such as the ones I explain here. Notice that the post I just linked to and the material by Glenn Miller that I reference there give multiple reasons for rejecting Loftus' conclusion. It's not just that Loftus has overlooked one factor. Rather, he's misjudging several lines of evidence that run contrary to his conclusion.

My material on Micah's prophecy was written in 2005. Since then, Bruce Waltke has published a commentary on Micah that gives the best treatment of the Bethlehem prophecy that I've seen (A Commentary On Micah [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007]). For example, he discusses many details in the text that allude to passages about David elsewhere in scripture, which underlines the Davidic, Messianic nature of the passage. David is associated with the city of Bethlehem. Waltke addresses many other relevant issues as well. Again, compare Waltke's arguments to the arguments used by Loftus.

Loftus' material on whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem is similarly weak. He tells us that "Jesus was probably born in Nazareth." He provides no supporting argumentation, and his previous article on the subject, which he links to, repeats some bad arguments that have already been refuted and wouldn't lead to his conclusion anyway. If the Lukan account of how Joseph and Mary got to Bethlehem is erroneous, for example, it doesn't therefore follow that Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem. Loftus also repeats some objections that were refuted more than a year ago in another thread that he left.

Notice that, in the article Loftus links, he quotes scholars like Robin Lane Fox and E.P. Sanders asserting that Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem, but the reasons they give for that conclusion are weak. Telling us that somebody like Fox or Sanders doubts Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, or that they doubt it because it would fulfill prophecy, doesn't give us much reason to doubt His birth there. Why does Loftus think that it's so significant to quote somebody like Fox or Sanders making such an assertion? I can cite scholars like Jerome Murphy-O'Connor and Craig Keener asserting that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The difference is that scholars like Murphy-O'Connor and Keener have far better argumentation supporting their conclusion, as I've demonstrated in previous posts, including in threads that John Loftus participated in.

Life, death, and the life everlasting

Society is pretty callous about death. To some extent this is obviously exacerbated by the loss of Christian values. Abortion, euthanasia.

But at a more subtle and general level, society distinguishes between death by natural causes and death by unnatural causes. If you lose a loved one by unnatural causes, like an accident or murder, then society is very sympathetic. Even if you loved one dies in a natural disaster, society classifies that causality as an unnatural death. It makes allowance for the fact that survivors may be shattered for life by this experience. The sudden, premature separation.

If, however, you lose a loved one by natural causes, you’re allowed a decent time to grieve, but after that you’re expected to bounce back and get on with life. Put away the Kleenex.

And that’s because death by natural causes is considered to be normal. Ordinary. Everyone loses someone they love by natural causes. This is a universal experience. And because it’s so ordinary and commonplace, society takes it for granted. Like wisdom teeth.

Yet whether you lose a loved one by natural or unnatural causes, the loss is identical. Just as real. And since the loss is identical, the sense of loss is identical. It feels exactly the same whether you lose a loved one by natural causes or the downing of the Titanic.

In this respect, we’re all survivors. We’re in the same emotional and psychological state as those who lost their loved ones from a tornado or drug overdose or drive-by shooting or traffic accident or industrial explosion.

We’ve simply learned to suppress our grief. Cover up our feelings. Act as if it never happened. It’s like an open wound that we keep bandaged and discreetly concealed. As if it were shameful.

Society is impatient with the inconsolable, so we play our role. Act Stoical. We may even imagine that this is our duty. It happens to everyone, right? I’ve read that in Sweden, graves are paved over after 10 years.

That’s secularism for you. A human being is just a temporary and peculiar organization of matter, like a chair or TV set. When a TV is busted, you toss it in the dumpster.

In secularism, human beings are replaceable and disposable. No one grieves over the loss of a broken appliance. You throw it away and buy a new one.

But mourning is a lifelong process. I often go to the local cemetery to pray. There I see a handful of widows, widowers, and grown children who visit the gravesite of their departed loved ones every week. They change the flowers. Water the grounds. Do a bit of weeding. Say a prayer. Have a conversation their departed father or mother, husband or wife.

Of course, their loved ones aren’t really there, but the gravesite is their only earthly point of contact with the departed. A memorial. A little beachhead against the torrent of time.

But, in Scripture, there is no distinction between death by natural causes and death by unnatural causes. In Scripture, every death of every man, woman, and child is due to unnatural causes. Due, directly or indirectly, to sin. To Adam’s sin.

The first man to die didn’t die of old age, or even disease. He died in his prime. The victim of homicide. Worse than homicide—fratricide.

So Adam and Eve had to morn the loss of two sons—one by murder, the other by banishment. And they, too, lived in exile. Denied the tree of life.

And that was a mercy. Immortality in a fallen world would be hell on earth.

Every birth ends in death. Today we celebrate the birth of another mortal. Another fatality. Another actuarial statistic. Indeed, he was born to die.

Ironically, this is the only person who ever lived and died, but never deserved to die. Who came to redeem the undeserving.

There is no healing in time, but only in hope.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

good is not Great: How Morality Poisons Everything

Below is a edited portion of Ethane Wist's new book, good is not Great: How Morality Poisons Everything. I hope you enjoy it.


good is not Great

How Morality Poisons Everything

Chapter 1 - To Put it Gingerly

THOSE READERS WHO may wish to bemoan the conclusion of this essay must remember that they cavil against our dear sweet Mother Nature for making me this way. Not only that, they sully the reputation of a fine 5th grade Earth Science teacher - Ms. Fluggler.

Ms. Fluggler was a kind woman. She had thick grey hair, which she didn’t seem to mind whether it was fiered or not. Her face was worn by the elements, all that time living with gorillas in the Congo had been unkind to her. But she knew her science. That was all that mattered.

Her lessons were coruscating for the agog student. She knew her way around frog anatomy like, pardon the reference to a barbaric and uncouth “sport,” Jeff Gordon knows his way around a race car.

My memory isn’t terribly clear, but for the most part what I report is fairly accurate. I can recall a field trip Ms. Fluggler took our class on. We went to the tide pools in La Jolla California. As we held the various sea creatures I remember how sanguine I was. I wanted to grow up and be just like Ms. Fluggler, without the minstrel cycles, of course. But that day was one that I will remember forever.

Ms. Fluggler was in a particularly rancorous mood that day, as I recall. She was up-in-arms over the recent oil spill that had occurred off the coast of Alaska. The lagniappe hunting off our coast which had claimed the lives of countless sea cucumbers caught in various traps intended for other sea-faring denizens of the deep. The trash and sewage that was discarded in our oceans so that people could have “necessities” such as toilettes. Apparently these travesties were caused by corporations that simply used the earth and other people as mere means, not as ends in themselves.

As we listened intently to our abecedary, she mentioned something that caught me quite off-guard. She said that these people were guilty of “immoralities.” That they had violated invariant moral laws. That they were “guilty” of ethical misconduct. They didn’t act how they “ought” to have acted. It was at this moment that I felt embarrassed for my beloved teacher. She was so naïve. An idealist. A modern day Platonist. Or perhaps a modern day Aristotelian. A moral prophet. I didn’t know these philosophies then, of course. But then again, I didn’t need to. I had been schooled in the ways of science. I didn’t need to be familiar with all of this, though. I simply knew that Ms. Fluggler had managed to get everything wrong in a couple of paragraphs. What she had instilled in us came rushing to the defense of my frontal lobe (or, is it my occipital lobe? I can never keep them straight.). What we knew about nature, man, how we know anything, and free-thinking cried out against her invocations of magical terms and queer entities.

What I knew then was that there couldn’t be any true moral rules. Today I can express that same childish propositions as an affirmation of moral nihilism. Let me tell you about moral nihilists. We are your neighbors. Your teachers. Your sports heroes. Your children and your parents. Not many of us call a jail cell our home - as the studies confirm. In fact, it is fair to say that we are more “moral” (to use your terminology) than many of those who believe in ethical truths (whether subjectivists, relativists, or realists). We do not molest children - that is for those who say they believe in morals. We do not believe in moral laws or moral guilt - yet no statistic will ever find that without these banishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed or violence that the faithful adherents to moral authority. We know that those moralists have, in fact, been the ones guilty of violating the very laws they say exist.

Most of the apologetic literature the moralists put forth is laughable. The arguments are simply dusted off relics of primitive ages. Ancient, stupid peoples believed in “moral rules” and gave arguments for their existence much the same as we read today. But how many needless assumptions must be made? How much contortion is required? Why must new books be printed in light of new scientific findings so that “moral theories” can “fit” with the findings of science? These moral laws have caused guilt, self-loathing, and wars. But it is all for naught.

The mildest criticism of morality is also the most radical and the most devastating one. Morality is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their maestros, redeemers, reformers or gurus say ethical theory is. But still these people claim to “know.” Not just know that moral rules exist, but that they demand certain things of our diet and sexual preferences. But like religion is man made, that does not mean that people should believe in its precepts. Same with morality.

If you met me in a pub, you wouldn’t know this was my view. I have probably sat up later and longer with the moral teachers that most adherents of morality. Moral faith (belief) is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable. It will never die out, not at least until we get over our need for “order” and “rules” imposed on us eons ago by tribal leaders who wanted to secure their place in the hierarchy of the clan. For this reason, I do not prohibit you from your beliefs. Very generous, you say? But will you grant me this same tolerance? As you read these words, people of varying moral beliefs are planning our destruction. They may use religious or political facades to give their moral beliefs force, but the fact is that their moralities aim for your destruction, and the destruction of all hard-won human attainments. Morality poisons everything.

Chapter 2 - Morality Kills

IN THE GOTHIC grandeur of Washington National Cathedral George W. Bush made clear that his high-minded beliefs in the existence of a morality would dictate his actions in response to the terrorist (or, freedom fighter, it’s a matter of perspective) attacks of September 11th. On Sept. 14, 2001 ''Just three days removed from these events,'' Bush phonated, ''Americans do not yet have ‘the distance of history.’ But our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.'' Oh, those 4 little letters, e-v-i-l, along with their dichotomous partners in crime, g-o-o-d, have been the cause for so much turmoil and misery.

They call them “moral rules.” Well, let us imagine, for a moment that they exist. They have the purpose of allowing humans to flourish. Imagine that if we obey these rules we will have guilt-free, sleepless nights. We will qualify for that honorific title “virtuous character,” or “saint.” I do not envy you this belief (because it seems to me that you wish for a form of impersonal or personal dictatorship), but I do have a sincere question. Why does such a belief not make its adherents happy? It must seem to them that they have come into possession of a marvelous secret, of the sort they could cling to in moments of the most extreme “moral” dilemma.

Superficially, this does seem the case sometimes. I have been outside courtrooms where a guilty verdict has been handed down and I heard whoops of absolution and vociferations for the great display of justice. And this is countered with somber feelings of guilt for violations of “moral law.” But what is most interesting is that no matter how the intensity fluctuates, there is one simple truth, morality does not, and in the long run cannot, be content with its own marvelous claims to sublime assurance. It must seek to interfere with the lives of nihilists, non-cognitivists, and other non-believers. This is to be expected, after all, morality is only man-made. It does not have the confidence in its own teachings to let dissenters live in peace.

Countries have wars waged against others for violations of moral law. For “committing atrocities.” Humans are put in jails, caged like animals, all for not living up to the moral codes of a society. Children at schools are shunned for having “different” ideas. For being “different.” The “virtuous person,” it is claimed, “shouldn’t be socially awkward.” People are then ostracized for violations of “eudemonia.” Others impose moralities on others. They are told, as if we believed in some kind of telos, or purpose, to reality, that they “shouldn’t” be that way. These “moral impositions” are set down as a burden on the “effete.” Those who lay down these burdens are religious clergy, secularists, naturalists, scientists, and even the high school football players. That is to say, having a “morality” spans across various ideologies.

I can anamnesis the time I was on a popular moralists radio show. He challenged me to answer a yes/no question. I gladly and haughtily accepted his challenge. In his typically magniloquent way, he said, “Alright, very well then.” I was to imagine myself with the ability to live in either one of two places. One was a country with a dictator who believed in morality, the other was a country whose dictator was a moral nihilist. I could see very easily that this wasn’t a yes/no question. But, being number five on a list of Britain’s top 100 intellectuals, I forged on in my typically august way. Okay, let’s just start with the decade of my birth - the 1940s - I can say that I would gladly choose the country with a moral nihilist for a dictator.

Here, then, is a brief summary of morally inspired cruelty of just two dictators of the 1940’s, Hitler and Stalin. As Vladimir Lenin once quipped, “Our ethics are an instrument for destroying the old society of exploiters; a struggle for the consolidation and the realization of Communism is the basis for communist ethics (V. Lenin, Collected Works, XXVI). In Richard Overy’s magisterial work, The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, we are greeted with “the one question that is seldom asked of the two dictatorships yet is fundamental to understanding how they could behave as they did towards the populations under their power: why did they think they were right?” (ibid, p.265). Overy points out that they did not think what they were doing was immoral. That it is doubtful that they spent sleepless night tortured by the thoughts of countless millions suffering at their commands. Why? “In each dictatorship a unique moral universe was constructed in order to justify and explain what appear otherwise to be the most sordid and arbitrary acts” (ibid, p. 265).

Many have dismissed the ethics of these men as mere rhetorical devices to justify their outrageous actions. But to do so, according to Overy, distorts the historical reality and undermines any attempt to understand these dictators on their own terms. Overy’s work has been called a masterpiece. It is the result of 30 years of hard thinking and research by an expert on dictatorship. Overy dismantles the idea that that Hitler and Stalin did what they did for Christian or religious reasons (cf. ibid, pp. 265-304). “Both regimes were driven by powerful moral imperatives that challenged and transcended the norms derived from the heritage of Roman antiquity and Christianity. … The most evident examples of this moral contest can be found in their attitudes to organized religion and the law. Both institutions were rooted in moral traditions that long pre-dated dictatorship; both institutions offered a moral sphere, or a moral reference point, for those who wanted to stand outside the predatory ideology of the systems. The moral plane of dictatorship was not an irrelevance, but a battleground between differing interpretations of justice and moral certainty” (ibid, p. 266).

“Communism was understood to be the most progressive and highly developed stage of history, and hence, by definition, ethically superior to all other forms of society” (ibid, p. 267). For Hitler, “Racial purity the highest law” (ibid, p.268). “[T]he German people, or ‘Aryan’ people, who had climbed the ‘endless ladder of human progress’, represented the pinnacle of historical achievement” (ibid, p . 268), and thus the highest ethic was their preservation. Therefore, “dictatorship was justified not by subjective factors (the ambition of powerful men, for example) but by objective laws of nature and history. The result was a moral displacement that relieved the regimes and their agents of direct responsibility for their actions” (ibid, p.268).

As I said, Overy utterly decimates any real connection between Hitler and Stalin and religion. Discussing his arguments, and offering his direct quotes from both Stalin and Hitler, will take us too far off target. I did provide the references and so any dissenters are free to check the detailed historical work presented by Overy. I say this not to justify religion, for that is just as man-made as is morality, but to show that morality poisons. Morality can do evil just as religious belief can. Thus Overy, “Protected by this warped moral armor, the perpetrators of state crime carried out orders whose fulfillment is otherwise incomprehensible. … The dictatorship used this moral distinction to win popular approval, to legitimize the otherwise illegitimate exercise of state power, to applaud the brutality and lawlessness that state power unleashed, but, above all, because both assumed that the imperatives of history made them right. … Neither the dictatorships not the behavior of the dictators can be understood without recognizing that it was essential for them to be viewed as the moral instruments of an irrepressible and redemptive historical movement” (ibid, p. 303).

And so, yes, give me the moral nihilist as the better of the two options!

Chapter 3 - The Metaphysical and Alethic Claims of the Moralist are False

THE CLAIMS OF the moralist are false. One must state it plainly. Morality comes from the period of human pre-history where nobody - not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms - had the smallest idea of what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as the comfort of praise and the self-righteous list to mete out blameworthy condemnations on others). Today the least educated of my children know more about the world than did any moralist: Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, &c. All attempts to reconcile morality with science are consigned to failure and ridicule for precisely these reasons. Sure, there are appeals to the naturalist for accounts of morality. But I immediately respond to such points by saying that if in the first place humanity had either (a) not tried to get others to do what they wanted and so proposed “moral rules,” or (b) had not been so weak and fearful that they had to make up an invisible “moral law” whereby they could hold their leaders lust for violence at bay, they would have had no need to invent such "moral laws."

The weapon we can use here comes from the making of a theologian and moralist who continues to speak eloquently across the ages: William Ockham; sometimes known as William of Ockham and presumably named after his native village in Surrey England. It was the moralist, Ockham, who leads us to an unwelcome (to him) conclusion. Fellow atheist, Christopher Hitchens, tells us about how Ockham is helpful in this discussion. “He devised a ‘principle of economy,’ popularly known as ‘Ockham’s razor,’ which relied for its effect on disposing of unnecessary assumptions and accepting the first sufficient explanation or cause. ‘Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.’ This principle extends itself. ‘Everything which is explained through positing something different from the act of understanding,’ he wrote, ‘can be explained without positing such a distinct thing’” (Hitchens, god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, p. 70).

We can use the razor to our benefit. The prophets of moralism have admitted that the razor is a weapon used against them. Atheistic moralist, Russ Shafer-Landau has admitted as much. “The basic reason for suspicion [regarding the existence of good and evil] stems from an application of Occam’s razor” (Shafer-Landau, Whatever Happened to Good and Evil, Oxford, p 92). Is moral realism or moral nihilism more simple? Again, the moralists help us out: “The skeptic has a simple, readily understandable story to tell about morality - we invented it all. … The objectivist view can’t be this simple, and has struck many as too mysterious to be believed. …[S]kepticism, though, offer[s] us a simpler picture of the ethical realm…” (ibid, p.12).

So the first line of attack uses the razor to show that the moral objectivists have an admittedly more complex theory. They posit strange entities. Thus Mackie, "If their were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe. Correspondingly, if we are aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty or moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing anything else" (J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, 1977, p.38). The moral realist thinks his positings explain certain facts about the world (just as theists think the positing of a deity explains why volcanoes happen). For example, “Hitler killed millions of Jews because he was morally depraved.” But it is doubtful whether the realists (there are realists who appeal to God to explain morality, but fellow Brights like Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens have dismantled this move) have adequately made a case for the explanatory necessity of moral facts.

A non-realist might tell this story about Hitler: “Hitler was a very bitter and angry person. Because of various false beliefs about the Jews (most importantly his belief that Jews were responsible for Germany’s defeat in World War I), he found hatred of the Jews to be a satisfying way of releasing his pent-up hostility and anger. His moral beliefs did not place any bounds of restraints on his expression of that hatred” (Thomas Carson, Value and the Good Life, Notre Dame Press, p.194). So, moral posits may, at best, be relevant to explain Hitler’s behavior, they have not been shown to be necessary to explain Hitler’s behavior. In other words, “Moral properties seem to be dispensable for explanatory purposes. Natural properties seem to be doing all the work in the explanations in question” (ibid, p. 98).

Some who believe in morality think they can escape the difficulties the razor applies to the above systems. They have not gone all the way to moral nihilism, full stop. They call themselves subjectivists or relativists. Their position is simpler - we make up our ethical mores. They try to give explanations for moral rules without positing the existence of weird and strange entities. But since all ethics are false, they fail like their more elaborate cousins. For starters, if an ethical claim is true because a cognitive subject or a society say it is, then we have a system which allows contradictions. If Tom says that it is true that X is moral, and Harry says that it is true that ~X is moral, and if both of these claims are said to be true, then we have a contradiction. The subjectivist then qualifies and says that X is moral is true, for him. But the problem, as I see it, is that all these people engage in loud, abrasive, and substantial debate over ethical issues. This is a problem because “true for me” just means “I believe it.” Thus all the subjectivist means when he says that X is immoral is that “I believe X is immoral.” If he reports his beliefs accurately, then what he says is true. Why would anyone debate true statements? Thus the charge of contradiction may be escaped, but the charge of internal irrationality is now brought forth. People don’t normally get involved in heated debates over true statements. These subjectivists do not get in heated debates over their friends claim that his favorite flavor of ice cream is strawberry. That they do so in ethical discussions shows that they are internally irrational. The moral nihilist is opposed to irrationalities and to claims that outrage reason. In fact, if these subjectivists teach their own children their moral system, and teach them to debate their friends who hold to opposing beliefs, then they are guilty of child abuse In fact, any parent who teaches their children about the existence of right and wrong is guilty of child abuse. To teach your children falsehoods is abusive. This is similar to those parents who teach their children that they are the special creation of a deity and not the product of billions of years of purposeless evolution.

Similar arguments could be brought to bear against the cultural relativist. The point is that moralists suffer either from Ockham’s razor, or myriad other irrationalities. As scientific peoples, as rational 21st century peoples, we must eschew the existence of moral rules, in any of their forms.

Chapter 4 - The Discordance of the Moralist

ONE OF THE strongest arguments fellow members of the New Atheism bring up against the faithful is the existence of myriad irreconcilable differences; both inter- and intra-religious. Same with morality.

There are realists, non realists, objectivists, subjectivists, and variations within all those categories. There are consequentiaists, deontologists, and virtue ethics. And within those there are differences. Take a popular form of consequentialism: Utilitarianism. There are qualitative and quantitative hedonists. Act and rule Utilitarians. Actual and practical consequence utilitarians. The are various forms of deontologism. And discord is sown between them. For example, some say that there are two categorical imperatives found in Kant. Other say that there is only one - humans are not to be treated as mere means, and the other one is not a standard but a decision-guide. That is, to figure out how to act in situations one must ask if the action could be universalized without contradiction. There are disagreements within the virtue theories too. And if this wasn’t enough, some hold to mixtures of the above, e.g., W.D Ross’ limited moral pluralism. There are particularists who deny that there are any foundational principles that can be applied as action-guides and each and every particular basis must be taken on a case by case basis.

All this to say, just as with various critiques proffered against religion, these massive dissimilitudes serve to show that ethics are man-made. That is not to say they should still be held on to. Just as with religion, they should be dropped. The moral nihilist doesn’t suffer from the problems of the realist or the subjectivist or the relativist. In other areas where we accept the reality of the subject, say, math, physics, etc., we do not see such differences. Sure, there may be some differences to be found within those disciples, but no where close to what we see with adherents of morality (and religion).

Not only that, but just like the claims made by fellow Bright, Christopher Hitchens, some of these systems are just to demanding. Hitchens rightly notes that the Ten Commandments are too demanding He rightly notes that this overdemandingness serves to show the man-made features of religion (Hitchens, p. 100). Well, what of, say, Utilitarianism. If the morality of every action is judged by its utility, and if I could produce more utility by serving at the shelter on Friday night rather than going to the movies, then I should serve T.V. dinners to the homeless. Shouldn’t I live right at the bare minimum I need to survive? I could eat Top Ramen noodles every night rather than chicken and steak. I could then pass on the savings to starving children in Africa. All these results would produce more utility than the actions I currently am engaged in. But this is too demanding! Sure proof that morality is man made.

Chapter 5 - There is No Eastern Solution

AS CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS says, “It can even be argued that Buddhism is not, in our sense of the word, a ‘religion’” (Hitchens, p.199). Again, I point this out not to disculpate religions, but to show that morality poisons everything.

There are some who feel that if all these Western moral systems have created problems in our world, we should look to Eastern moralities. But no hope is to be found there. Long before the modern-day terrorist attacks, the Buddhists had utilized the tactic of suicide murder. Indeed, a Buddhist priest murdered the first president of Sri-Lanka (ibid, p. 199). Hitchens points out that because of Buddhist moral beliefs, Japan advocated imperialism and mass murder (ibid, p.201). Hitchens cites the united Buddhist leadership speaking of its involvement with the Nazi/fascists: “In order to establish eternal peace in East Asia, arousing the great benevolence and compassion of Buddhism, we are sometimes accepting and sometimes forceful. We now have no choice but to exercise the benevolent forcefulness of ‘killing one in order that many may live’ (issatsu tasho). This is something which Mahayana Buddhism approves of only with the greatest of seriousness” (ibid, 203). That claim is dripping with moral terminology. Again, Hitchens indicts the Buddhists, “By the end of the dreadful conflict that Japan had started, it was Buddhist and Shinto priests who were recruiting and training suicide bombers, or Kamikaze…” (ibid, p. 203). Due to Buddhism’s (and many Japanese’s) moral beliefs, Japan “adopt[ed] a policy of prostration at the feet of a homicidal dictator” (ibid, p.203). This grisly case also helps to undergird my general case for considering “morality” a threat.

Chapter 6 - An Objection Considered

SOME MAY SAY that I have been inconsistent. That I am using morality to condemn morality. Holding to an ethic which lets me condemn ethics. I shall briefly respond. Two things can be said. The first is that if I am contradicting myself, so what? I may not have figured out a way to express myself since I have been conditioned by moralists. However, I can agree with fellow Bright, Christopher Hitchens, when he says, “…I am content to think that some contradictions will remain contradictory, some problems will never be resolved by the mammalian equipment of the human cerebral cortex, and some things are indefinitely unknowable” (Hitchens, p. 10). Secondly, I don’t think I have been offering moral condemnations. I have simply described the outcome moral belief has wrought to our world: countless deaths, massive guilt, irrational beliefs, unscientific beliefs, and an air of superiority over other peoples.

For example, if a moral belief is true because it is believed by a cognitive agent, or by a culture, then all moral beliefs, so long s they represent the sincere and genuine beliefs of said agent or culture, are incapable of being false. Thus subjectivism and relativism lead to an infallibility of your stock of moral beliefs. This satiates our god-like desire for infallibility. Our hankering after omniscience. Since I reject the imposition of the Judeo-Christian religion in my life, I likewise reject the instilled desire to “know right from wrong:”

Genesis 3

The Fall of Man

1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"

2 The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,

3 but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.' "

4 "You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman.

5 "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."

Accordingly, I have thus not engaged in moral condemnations. I have simply set forth the facts. You draw from it what you will. If you agree that morality is a great cause of immorality, and you also hold to morality, then you need to drop one of those beliefs. Free-thinking scienticism does not suffer internally irrational fools gladly. We place them, like Abraham did to Isaac, on the alter of reason, and sacrifice them to the god of this age - Unaided Reason. Unaided Reason thinks without the constraints of authorities. All authority is cast off. This includes religious and moral authority. So, that you picked up a moral condemnation of morality says more about you than it does me. If you have noted the immorality of morality (to use your terminology), then join me and other courageous free-thinkers in casting off its shackles.

Chapter - 7 A Coda: How Morality Ends

IF YOU ARE not convinced so far, perhaps a final barrage will do. As atheist David Livingstone Smith says in his book, The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War, “However, there is another, darker dimension of the relationship between war and morality. Aggressors are often inspired by moral feelings. They conceive of war primarily as a moral campaign… Consider Adolph Hitler. In the minds of many people, he represents the very model of evil. But Hitler did not set out to do evil, but to deliver the word from depravity. ‘Theater, art, literature, cinema, press, posters and window displays,’ he righteously declared, ‘must be cleaned of all manifestations of our rotting world and placed in the service of a moral, political and cultural idea’” (Smith, p. 130).

Dr. Smith goes on in his disquisition, “The Khmer Rouge purified Cambodia of nearly two million human beings in the 1970s. It was, according to Francois Ponchard, in his harrowing book Cambodia: Year Zero, ‘the translation into action of a particular vision of man: a person who had been spoiled by a corrupt regime cannot be reformed, he must be physically eliminated from the brotherhood of the pure.’ War is almost always conceived as a battle between good and evil (we are the good, they are the evil)…” (ibid, p.130). Noting cases like those above, and many others, Smith then asks, “Why is it that moral passions so often spawn terror, slaughter, destruction, and oppression?” (ibid, p.131).

Smith notes that moral objectivism seems to run contrary to our scientific notions. Moral objectivism “is difficult to square with a scientific conception of human nature” (ibid, p.131). In fact, morality is the spawn of entirely irrational passions. Thus, speaking of Twain’s observations, “Many philosophers from Plato to the present, have claimed that moral dilemmas are a struggle between reason and passion, and that morality triumphs only when reason gets the upper hand and pins passions to the mat. But Twain’s account tells a different story. His protagonist does not make a rational decision about the best thing to do. He does not experience a battle between cold reason and hot passion. Instead, his agonized deliberations are a matter of conflicting passions vying for the control of his behavior” (ibid, p. 133). Our moral passions rise up in us as irrational demons trying to get control of us. But evolution has programmed us to override these irrationalities. Just like we toss off the fetters of religion, so to must we pitch our moral chains into the abyss of better-to-be-forgotten days of yor. The dark ages of human history. We don’t believe with Thales that “everything is water,” and neither should we believe in a “right” or a “wrong.” Objectivism and subjectivism fail us here. As Smith notes, “However well-intentioned, the ‘general point of view’ turns out to be a pathetically fragile dam against the mighty tide of passion and prejudice that flows through the human affairs.

To morality the distinctive character of human warfare owes a great deal. “Chimpanzees recognize and attack other members of neighboring communities, but their behavior is never filtered through a web of beliefs about good and evil, pride, humiliation, friends, heroes, villains, and martyrs. No chimpanzee can dream of establishing a master race, of conquering a Holy Land, of seizing non-existent weapons of mass destruction, or of undertaking a kamikaze mission… There is no nonhuman equivalent of notions like manifest destiny … for there is nothing in the cognitive repertoire of any nonhuman species remotely like ‘right’” (ibid, p. 145). Thus morality has caused massive amounts of human suffering that would otherwise not have existed had it not been for such ethical principles.

We can tack on to the above stories about how morality has been the enemy of science. Many examples could be paraded out, but one will suffice. Scientific research was hindered by the fact that many scientists were sent to labor camps (including Lev Landau, later a Nobel Prize winner, who spent a year in prison in 1938–1939) or executed (e.g. Lev Shubnikov, shot in 1937). They were persecuted for their dissident views, not for their research. As we know from the above doccumentation, the Stalinist ideologies were moral ideologies based on beliefs about natural facts regarding the historical status of the communist machine. Moralty has been an enemy of science. Morality poisons everything.

And lastly, what about clitoridectomies? Also known as, female circumcision. In many countries the female sexual organs are mutilated for moral reasons. Men feel that doing this will lesson the chances of extra-marital affairs. Fathers think this will make their daughters less promiscuous. So, due to these moral reasons, women must suffer a lifetime of painful sexual encounters with men who care only about their own satisfaction. Morality poisons everything.

Not only have we seen the destructive and frightening nature of morality, its anti-scientific basis, where have we, in all the literature, seen the moral nihilist involved in these atrocities. Thus, pardon the paradoxical nature of my claim, it looks as if you don’t need morality to be moral. (I speak in your terms, again.) Just as we have left belief in elves, unicorns, alchemy, ghosts, and various tribal deities - of which the god of the Bible is but one member of - behind, so to it is time to leave belief in morals behind. Morality poisons everything.

About The Author

Ethane Wist is contributing editor to the popular magazine I'll Believe in a god when I Believe in a Teapot That Circles the Sun, the journal, I'll Believe in God When Religious Zealots Stop Flying Planes Into Buildings, and contributing writer for the If God Wanted Me to Believe Then He Would Have Written The Bible in the Sky, magazine. He is also a visiting professor of ethics at the University of Spitsbergen. He is the author of numerous books, including Thrasymachus Was a Moral Nihilist, and Stop The Abuse: Refusing to Teach Children Ethics. He was named, much to his merriment, number 5 on numerous lists of the "Top 100 Public Intellectuals."

Atheists And Agnostics Who Believe In The Virgin Birth

The Toledo Blade recently ran a story on a Barna survey regarding the religious beliefs of Americans. Here are some of the results:

"Three out of four people polled said they believe Jesus was born to a virgin as described in the Gospel narratives"

"There was little difference between Protestants and Catholics on this point, he said, but among evangelicals, the percentage who said they believe that the virgin birth was literally true was in 'the upper 90s,' Mr. Barna said. Except for atheists and agnostics, of whom just 15 percent took the virgin birth story as historically true, a majority of all other subgroups believed it to be factual."

"In addition, some subgroups in which a majority rejected the literal interpretation of other Bible stories broke the pattern in regard to the virgin birth, he said. For example, 60 percent of people who categorized themselves as 'mostly liberal on political and social issues' expressed a literal belief in the virgin birth."

"56 percent expressed literal belief in the Bible account of the devil, disguised a serpent, tempting Eve to eat forbidden fruit....49 percent accepted as accurate the Bible story of Samson losing his legendary strength when Delilah had his hair cut. Mr. Barna said more people are prone to believe New Testament stories as literally true than Old Testament writings, a result that was especially notable among Catholics."

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Worldliness Of A Church And Its Converts

"A [Vatican] spokesman said such an 'authoritative personality' [Tony Blair] choosing to join the Catholic Church 'could only give rise to joy and respect'." (BBC News)

"OUT OF office and out of danger of igniting a constitutional crisis, former prime minister Tony Blair, after years of worship as a closet Roman Catholic, has announced his formal conversion to the faith. During mass at the Archbishop's House in Westminster on Friday, Blair was received into the Church and given full communion. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, who led the service, said the new convert had been a regular at mass with his family and in recent months had been following a programme to prepare him for the 'reception into full communion'....Those close to him believe that even as far back as his student days at Oxford, when he first met his Catholic wife, Cherie, the decision to convert was put off to avoid political prejudices Blair came to believe could affect his career. Although Iain Duncan Smith and Charles Kennedy led the Tories and LibDems as Catholics, Blair kept his religious leanings quiet....Blair's contradiction is that he practised his faith in private, yet preached political boldness in public. As New Labour's leader, he ripped apart the traditions of the party, and maintained Labour were best at their boldest. Yet Blair, who once said he regarded Jesus 'as a moderniser', kept his faith quiet....Blair was first noticed at mass in Westminster Cathedral, both with his family and alone, in the years between becoming Labour leader in 1994 and winning the 1997 general election, but it is believed he had been attending mass since soon after his marriage in 1980. He became an MP in 1983, and a frontbench spokesman the following year. If he believed the top job in British politics would some day be his, did he decide open and public Catholicism would have to wait till he left office?...Before the 1997 election, Blair regularly took communion at his local Catholic church in Islington. Technically, though, he was breaking the rules. Being leader of the opposition did not constitute 'a grave and pressing spiritual need' - the exemption that allows non-Catholics to take part in mass. Blair was also doing much the same thing at Westminster Cathedral, and Cardinal Basil Hume even wrote to Blair to ask him to stop attending because he was not a Catholic....Blair, however, found a way to practise his Catholicism in private and regularly attended church when he was at Chequers. Father Michael Seed is said to have been the priest who regularly visited 10 Downing Street - but by the back door - as Blair's spiritual adviser. In public, and on the advice of Alastair Campbell, his communications chief, Blair 'didn't do God'. On the eve of the Iraq war, Blair wanted to end a broadcast with 'God bless', but Campbell persuaded him to stick to a secular message. On TV last year, Blair told Michael Parkinson he had prayed before sending British troops to Iraq. More recently, though, Blair said he avoided talking about his religious views while he was in office for fear of being labelled 'a nutter'." (Sunday Herald)

"But converting earlier could have been tricky, because of his [Tony Blair's] role in peace talks between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, his government's legislation on same-sex partnerships and his role appointing Church of England bishops. His former press chief, Alastair Campbell -- who once told journalists 'we don't do God' when Blair was asked about religion -- told BBC television: 'His faith does matter an awful lot to him as people who've worked with him, those who have known him, they've known that for some time. 'And it's something that I suspect he probably felt he couldn't do as prime minister, he's done it now.'...Some commentators suggest that Blair will struggle to reconcile his Catholic faith with certain political decisions taken by his government such as allowing same-sex couples to enter into legally recognised civil partnerships. Lawmaker Ann Widdecombe, from the main opposition Conservative Party, who became a Catholic in 1993, said being received into the faith meant stating publicly: 'I believe everything the church teaches to be revealed truth.' 'And that means if you previously had any problems with church teaching, as Tony Blair obviously did over abortion, as he did again over Sunday trading... you would have to say you changed your mind,' she told Sky News television. John Smeaton, head of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), said he would be writing to Blair to ask whether he has 'repented of the anti-life positions' he advocated during his political career. 'During his premiership Tony Blair became one of the world's most significant architects of the culture of death, promoting abortion, experimentation on unborn embryos, including cloned embryos, and euthanasia by neglect,' he added." (AFP)

Now that Blair is out of government, he can "do God" more than before. And Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams wishes him well:

"The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, wished Blair well in his spiritual journey. He added: 'A great Catholic writer of the last century said that the only reason for moving from one Christian family to another was to deepen one's relationship with God. I pray this will be the result of Tony Blair's decision in his personal life.'" (Sunday Herald)

Judging from Williams' comments, you wouldn't think that Blair had joined a denomination that contradicts Anglicanism on justification, the papacy, and so many other issues of such significance. Many Anglicans of past generations chose to die rather than convert to Roman Catholicism.

A Radically Liberal Christmas

I recently read an article about three books on Christmas that just came out. I have the book by Marcus Borg and John Crossan, and I'm about 100 pages into it. (See the endorsements for their book, by Brian McLaren and others, here.) I've ordered the other two books, but haven't received them yet.

Another recent article in the Boston Globe features the book by Borg and Crossan, and the author interviewed Borg. Notice Borg's comments on economics and the war in Iraq. His book, co-written with Crossan, has a lot to say about the political context of ancient Israel and its alleged implications for us today. They have little to say, though, about some of the other contexts of the infancy narratives, such as how the earliest Christians and their opponents interpreted the passages and what those sources said about the historicity of the accounts. On pages 27-28, we read:

"The issue of the factuality of the birth stories is recent, the product of the last few hundred years. In earlier centuries, their factuality was not a concern for Christians. Rather, the truth of these stories (including their factual truth) was taken for granted. Their truth, and the truth of the Bible as whole, was part of conventional wisdom in Christian areas of the world. It was part of 'what everybody knew.' Believing them to be true (including factually true) was effortless. Nobody worried about whether they were factually true. All of the interpretive focus was on their meaning....Premodern Christians saw them [other accounts in the Bible] as stories of the way things happened. There was no reason for them to think otherwise. It didn't take faith to believe in them, just as it didn't take faith to believe in the factuality of the nativity stories....Many of us have a childhood memory of hearing the birth stories this way. Most of us who grew up Christian took their factuality for granted when we were young children, just as people in the premodern Christian world did. We heard them in an early childhood state of mind known as 'precritical naivete.'...Whether the stories were factual was not an issue. Indeed, Marcus can remember as a child looking for the star of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, thinking that perhaps it appeared every year on the night of Jesus's birth....But this precritical way of seeing the birth stories has become impossible in the modern world, for Christians and non-Christians alike. The reason is the impact of the Enlightenment, which began in the seventeenth century with the emergence of modern science and scientific ways of knowing." (The First Christmas [New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007])

None of those assertions are documented. The entire book has eight endnotes, taking up only a portion of one page (p. 259).

Borg and Crossan's claims above are highly misleading, whether that's a result of poor communication, ignorance on their part, or something else. As I've documented in the past (for example, here, here, and here), the early Christians and their opponents were interested in the historicity of the infancy narratives. The early Christians cite extra-Biblical evidence to corroborate the historicity of the accounts. The early enemies of Christianity question or deny some of what those accounts report. Etc. Many of the arguments that Borg and Crossan use in their book were used by critics of Christianity in the earliest centuries of church history, and Christians frequently interacted with those objections. Read Justin Martyr's Dialogue With Trypho, Julius Africanus' Letter To Aristides, Origen's Against Celsus, John Chrysostom's Homilies On Matthew, Augustine's Harmony Of The Gospels, etc. As Robert Wilken notes:

"The question of the mythological and legendary character of the Gospels did not first arise in modern times. The historical reliability of the accounts of Jesus' life was already an issue for Christian thinkers in the second century....What Porphyry wrote about Daniel [the late dating of Daniel that Borg and Crossan mention and utilize in their book] was so revolutionary, and so disturbing to Christian interpreters, that his critics sought to refute him in detail and at length....Pagan critics realized that the Christian claims about Jesus could not be based simply on the unexamined statements of Christians...The question of faith and history, so much a part of modern theological discourse since the Enlightenment, was also a significant part of the debate between pagans and Christians in the ancient world....Christians and pagans met each other on the same turf. No one can read Celsus's True Doctrine and Origen's Contra Celsum and come away with the impression that Celsus, a pagan philosopher, appealed to reason and argument, whereas Origen based his case on faith and authority....Pagan critics realized that the claims of the new movement [Christianity] rested upon a credible historical portrait of Jesus. Christian theologians in the early church, in contrast to medieval thinkers who began their investigations on the basis of what they received from authoritative tradition, were forced to defend the historical claims they made about the person of Jesus. What was said about Jesus could not be based solely on the memory of the Christian community or its own self-understanding." (The Christians As The Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], pp. 112, 138, 147, 200-201, 203)

These earliest centuries of church history, discussed by me and by Wilken above, are the most significant centuries we can consider in this context. The earliest Christians and their opponents didn't have the mindset Borg and Crossan suggest they had.

And even later generations surely wouldn't have had such a mindset. Christians of later centuries would have been reading Justin Martyr, Origen, Augustine, etc. They would have seen the citations of extra-Biblical evidence in such authors, and they would have seen those authors' interactions with the arguments of non-Christians. Borg and Crossan refer to what was believed in Christian parts of the world, but Christians of the Middle Ages, for example, would have sometimes interacted with people from non-Christian regions of the world. There were atheists and other skeptics in premodern times, even in parts of the world where Christianity was highly influential.

There are a lot of problems with Borg and Crossan's book. Their liberalism is so radical that they conclude:

"Thus, in our considered judgment, Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 contain, and were intended to contain, minimal historical information - probably just the three items that Jesus was a historical figure whose parents were Mary and Joseph and whose home was at Nazareth in Galilee." (p. 38)

That's an absurd conclusion, as we've argued at length elsewhere (see the links here and here). They claim:

"We are not concerned with the factuality of the birth stories. Though we comment on this issue and controversy in Chapter 2, our concern is neither to defend them as factual nor to trash them as nonfactual." (p. ix)

I'm about 100 pages into the book, and, so far, they comment on issues of factuality frequently. They often portray the infancy narratives and other portions of the Bible in a negative light without any supporting evidence, and sometimes they do so when it has little relevance to what they're discussing (for example, the speculative scenario on p. 78 in which Jesus' father dies around 4 B.C., which contradicts Luke 2:41-51; the allegation on p. 90 that Ruth "seduces" Boaz; etc.). It seems that Borg and Crossan want to put forward an image of kindness and a desire to avoid controversy, as if their disagreements with those who are more conservative don't concern them much, while, at the same time, acting otherwise.

But I agree with Borg and Crossan about the significance of the Christmas season:

"The stories of Jesus's birth are the foundation of the world's most widely observed holiday. Christmas is celebrated by the world's two billion Christians, a number about twice that of the next largest religion, Islam. Moreover, because of the cultural and commercial importance of Christmas in Western culture and beyond, it is observed by many non-Christians as well. Indeed, no other religious holiday is so widely commemorated by people who are outside of the tradition that originated it....Indeed, in contemporary Western culture and even for many Christians, the commemoration of Christmas exceeds the commemoration of Easter. Because of the importance of Christmas, how we understand the stories of Jeus's birth matters. What we think they're about - how we hear them, read them, interpret them - matters. They are often sentimentalized. And, of course, there is emotional power in them. They touch the deepest of human yearnings...Moreover, for many Christians, they are associated with their earliest memories of childhood. Christmas has emotional power....They [the infancy narratives] speak of personal and political transformation." (pp. vii-viii)

Why, then, aren't Evangelicals doing more to argue for and defend the historicity of the infancy narratives? Why don't we hear more about these issues in sermons, in Sunday school classes, from Evangelical blogs, radio programs, and books, etc.? The liberal media choose to focus on liberal scholars like Raymond Brown and more radical liberals like Borg and Crossan, but why haven't Evangelicals done more to offer an alternative? We don't control the media, but even if we did, what recent books would we have to offer in contrast to something like Brown's book, Borg and Crossan's, or Vermes'? How many Evangelical radio programs that you've listened to this Christmas season have had much to say about the historicity of the infancy narratives? When they address the subject, do they go into much depth? Do they recommend many, or any, good resources on the subject?

Friday, December 21, 2007

The religious test

A number of conservative pundits who ought to know better are admonishing evangelical voters that it would be unconstitutional of them to refrain from voting for Romney because he’s Mormon.

Let’s play along with this contention for the sake of argument. If this is true, then the logic is reversible. It would also be unconstitutional to vote for Romney because he’s Mormon.

Now, don’t you just suppose that Romney has a lot of Mormon supporters? Isn’t that his natural base? His core constituency? And don’t you just suppose that a whole lot of Mormons are going to vote for Romney because he is a fellow Mormon? One of them?

In that event, if the conservative pundits are being sincere, then all registered Mormon voters should be disqualified from voting in the 2008 presidential election since the standing presumption is that Mormon voters will vote for a Mormon candidate because of his religious affiliation.

Just for starters, we should temporarily suspend Utah from the Electoral College. After all, an unconstitutional vote is an unlawful vote. It’s a form of voter fraud. Only a lawful voter has the right to cast a lawful vote. Therefore, all Mormon voters should be barred from the polls come November. Otherwise, it’s like stuffing the ballot box with votes cast in the name of folks from the local cemetery.

It may be necessary to quarantine Mormons in temporary internment camps to prevent them from violating the Constitution. I’m sure that conservative pundits will lobby local officials to do whatever is necessary to safeguard the integrity of the electoral process.

"Torture" and Misplaced Distrust

“I'm not sure what the morbid fascination is.”

Well, Lee, I guess it goes something like this. The jihadis have declared war on America. In order to defend ourselves, we need counterintelligence. In order to obtain counterintelligence, we must sometimes interrogate those in the know for information.

Congress is trying to outlaw waterboarding. Therefore, the morality and utility of waterboarding becomes a pertinent topic of conversation.

“But the boys at Triablogue are still praising the use of torture.”

Please supply direct verbatim quotes where we praise the use of torture.

“I guess knowing that a suspected terrorist is being waterboarded (or worse) thousands of miles away.”

Where have we argued that distance is a factor one way or the other?

BTW, do you think that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is merely a “suspected” terrorist? Do you think that Abu Zubaida is merely a “suspected” terrorist?

“Somehow makes them feel safe.”

That may have something to do with the fact that I’ve cited cases in which the use of interrogation was said to yield information that allowed us to intercept terrorist attacks in the pipeline. What, exactly, are you taking issue with?

“Just remember this: the government you trust to protect you now.”

Where have I said that I “trust” the government to protect me? This is not a question of “trust.” I judge gov’t claims on a case-by-case basis.

I do happen to think we have some honorable men and women serving in gov’t. Do you think all our soldiers and CIA and NSA and FBI agents are untrustworthy? Gov’t is just a bunch of people. It is not something over and above the people who comprise it.

Do you think we should disband the American military and retreat into the Smokey Blue hills?

“Is the same government that was completely powerless to protect anyone on September 11, 2001.”

What makes you think our gov’t was “powerless” to protect us on 9/11? There are various things the gov’t could have done to prevent 9/11, like tightening up student visas or taking Bin Laden out of action, &c.

The fact that the gov’t failed to do its job in no way implies that it was powerless to do so.

“It's also the same government that saw to it that no one on board those planes could protect themselves.”

And what are you referring to, exactly? Are you saying that the flight crew and/or certain passengers (e.g. law enforcement officers, citizens with concealed weapons permits) should be allowed to carry firearms on board in order to defend themselves against a hijacking?

If so, I don’t object to your contention, but it’s a bit superficial to blame the ban on the gov’t, don’t you think? Why not blame the electorate? Voters could insist on arming the flight crew, &c.

So do you also distrust the electorate? What’s your alternative to representative democracy?

“Is that the kind of track record that warrants trust?”

Of course, that’s a non-sequitur. What does that have to do with waterboarding?