bookmark_borderThe Faith

I just went through Charles Colson and Harold Fickett’s The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters.

It’s mostly basic conservative Christian doctrine and apologetics, laced with Colson’s personal stories to show that Jesus saves etc. etc. Nothing complicated or remarkable as far as that goes. There were a couple of noteworthy aspects of the book, however.

First, it’s very ecumenical in the context of conservative Christianity. The political convergence of conservative Catholicism and Protestantism in the past few decades here also takes a popular apologetic shape. There’s a lot of emphasis in the book about the disagreements between conservative Protestants and Catholics and Orthodox being about inessential details. Their core beliefs—the faith given once and for all—are supposedly the same. All conservative Christianities are legitimate expressions of the same faith.

This desire for unity is reflected in a second notable aspect of the book. The best way to unify people is to give them a common enemy. Colson gives them two: Islam and atheism.

The Islamophobia is standard-issue. Conservative Christianity is, apparently, the only force able to resist an aggressive and wicked religion. “Millions of fascist-influenced jihadists, feeding on revivalist teachings as a counter to Western decadence, seek death for infidels and global rule for Islam” (page 27). Europe is being overrun, collapsing due to its secularism. And so forth. Islam-bashing isn’t a major theme, but it regularly appears as a reminder of why the true faith matters. If Christians don’t hold fast to the faith, those evil Muslims will triumph.

Colson and Fickett also set up the “new atheism” as a contrast. It’s interesting how they refer to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris with great frequency, throughout the book. There isn’t much substance in their response to atheism; following the typically poor scholarship found in popular apologetics, they often misrepresent and demonize opposing points of view. Still, it is interesting to see a prominent Christian writer and leader like Colson regularly attack atheism in a book not written specifically for that purpose. It is, perhaps, a sign that some conservative Christians think that the new atheism has had some influence even within their subculture.

bookmark_borderDawkins’ Definition of “God” – Part 3

Dilemma for Dawkins
Proof of the existence of Zeus would either verify the claim that “God exists” or it would not. It is not immediately obvious which side of this dilemma Dawkins would choose. If he granted that proof of the existence of Zeus would verify the claim that “God exists”, then he would have to toss out his definition of “God” (as being too narrow). On the other hand, if he denied that proof of the existence of Zeus would verify the claim that “God exists”, then his conclusion that “God almost certainly does not exist.” (p. 189), would fail to rule out the existence of Zeus and Satan, and perhaps dozens of other gods.

Ambiguous Conclusion

Another way of putting this point, is that the main conclusion that Dawkins puts forward at the end of Chapter 4 is ambiguous between a weaker and a stronger claim:

(W) It is almost certain that there is no god who is responsible for creating this universe and everything in it.
(S) It is almost certain that there is no god whatsoever.
Proving the weaker conclusion (W) would not establish atheism, because it leaves belief in non-creator gods (such as Zeus and Satan) untouched.

Proving the stronger conclusion (S) would establish atheism, because it eliminates not only the God of traditional theism (an all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good person), but also eliminates other lesser gods, such as Zeus, Baal, Wotan, and Satan.

There is a third possible interpretation of Dawkins’ conclusion as well. We could simply ignore his somewhat confused attempts to clarify the word “God”, and interpret his conclusion in terms of a more standard definition:

X is God if and only if
(a) X is all-powerful,
(b) X is all-knowing,
and
(c) X is a perfectly good person.

Note, however, that this definition includes a normative condition: “X is a perfectly good person”. So, this meaning or sense of the word “God” runs contrary to Dawkins’ assertion that the question “Does God exist?” is a scientific question. Since science has no capacity for resolving normative issues (e.g. “Is Jesus a perfectly good person?”), science alone cannot answer the question “Does God exist?” if we use normative categories to define the word “God”.

Nevertheless, since the above definition is closer to the standard meaning or use of the word “God” (among theologians and philosophers in Western thought) than the definition that Dawkins puts forward, it is reasonable to ask whether Dawkins’ argument establishes his conclusion on this interpretation:

(N) It is almost certain that there is no all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good person.
Since it is more difficult to prove a stronger claim, I will first consider the possibility that Dawkins intends to only make the weaker claim (W) at the end of Chapter 4. If his argument supports the weaker claim, that will still be a worthwhile philosophical accomplishment (Dawkins would say: “scientific accomplishment”). If his argument does not support the weaker claim, then it certainly does not support the stronger claim (S) either, for the stronger claim implies the weaker one. Finally, I will consider whether Dawkins’ argument supports claim (N).

bookmark_borderLobbying

I’ve spent today lobbying Congress. Strange experience.

I was part of a group of scientists and economists involved with The Union of Concerned Scientists, delivering U.S. Scientists and Economists’ Call for Swift and Deep Cuts in Greenhouse Gas Emissions to the offices of Senators and Representatives, and meeting with their staff.

I don’t know how much good it will do; the present bill (Lieberman-Warner) being debated in the Senate will almost certainly not pass with the required supermajority. Our legislative system in the US seems designed for stalling, and things seem bound to get bogged down in the usual short-term fights between interest groups.

It’s impressive how responsive Congresspeople are to constituent pressures and local business concerns. If you can mobilize a large number of people to make demands, keep pressure on Congress to respond to these demands, and can deliver votes to punish or reward Congress in elections, things can happen. But on an issue such as climate change, our public education has not been as successful as it needed to have been. Congress appears reactive; you need to build up pressure from the outside. But for many Americans, climate change isn’t a front-burner issue, even though we’re all facing a strong likelihood of serious trouble down the road.

This reiterates why the influence of Christian conservatives in past couple of decades is no surprise. They’ve been mobilized in the right way. Indeed, they’ve been the most significant grassroots democratic movement on the American scene.

Yet, even with this responsiveness to mobilized constituencies, I hesitate to say that democracy is in a healthy state in this country. If we think of democracy as popular participation in decisions that affect us all, and especially democracy as a deliberative process, all is not good. The mobilized constituencies that we get do not often fit that picture of people who deliberate and participate. Unfortunately, we have an electorate that is overworked and zoned out on TV (and does, in fact, let their vote be strongly influenced by mindless TV advertising and propaganda) and religion. Which may be just fine for those who enjoy the most power and wealth. Sigh.