bookmark_borderPressure on secularism

I don’t know if secularism was ever as much a consensus position as we sometimes think. But I do think it’s weaker today. Consider some recent examples of conservative religious pushback against even rather mild secularist political positions.

First, the United States. Take a look, if you can, at “In Defense of Religious Freedom A Statement by Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” There’s an awful lot of theological blather in it about justifying “religious freedom,” which tries to make it to be an obvious order of God, setting aside the history of Christianity as a religion notoriously intolerant of the freedom of non-Christians. But they still don’t subscribe to the same notion of religious freedom as secular liberals, as paragraphs like the following make clear:

While the Supreme Court has protected the right to determine religious leaders, the capacity of religious believers to form and sustain distinctive institutions is threatened today. The United States Department of Health and Human Services has proposed “preventive services” regulations that require provision of FDA-approved contraceptives, including abortifacients like Ella, and sterilization. These regulations threaten the religious freedom of insurers, employers, schools, and other religious enterprises that conscientiously oppose contraception and abortion. Limiting conscience protections to those in religious institutions that serve only their own members, as some have proposed, criminalizes the public witness of religious organizations such as Catholic universities and other religious social welfare institutions.

Administrative and regulatory policies pose further threats to religious freedom. Christian doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health-care providers are being put at professional risk by policies that compel all health-care workers to undertake procedures and provide prescription drugs that many of them regard as immoral.

We also note that the attempt to redefine marriage through coercive state power has already brought pressure to bear on Christian ministers, despite exceptions provided in legislation. Further, in no state where the redefinition of marriage has passed the legislature has the religious institution exception provided all the religious freedom protections needed for individuals and groups that oppose the legalization of same-sex unions in those states.

Such statements suggest that “religious freedom” as understood by conservative Christians should be interpreted as protecting their ability to impose their views about morality on a large scale, including where many people who do not belong to their religious tradition are involved. Public policy, in other words, should be solicitous of conservative Christian notions of moral purity, otherwise the freedom of Christian communities to live fully according to their religious conscience will be violated.

This is not entirely implausible—people who identify first and foremost with their religious community or institution will naturally be concerned when a broadly applied public policy fails to align with church-supported views. It may even be true that if they don’t get their way, their purity of religious living will be compromised. (Treating the hell-bound equally has a way of doing that.) But at the least, this notion of “religious freedom” conservative Christians are defending is then something quite different from an individual freedom of conscience. It seems closer to a desire for religious communities or institutions to be free of constraints that derive from secular public policy.

Here are a couple of Islamic examples as well.

In Egypt, there’s a minor crisis going on while drafting a new constitution. The secularist minority in the relevant commission is boycotting the Islamist-led process which is leading toward a stricter application of Islamic law. Some Islamists now accuse the boycotting liberals of attempting to impose a Western liberal ideal on a Muslim country—charging them with a tyranny of the minority. Many conservative Muslims genuinely feel that their religious freedom is violated by secular policies, as it interferes with their ability to fully live in compliance with Islamic ideals as a community. Hence, according to their concept of religious freedom, it is secularist interference with their ability to impose their moral ideals through public policy that constitutes a violation of religious freedom.

Meanwhile, in Turkey, conservative Muslims in power see provision of religious education in state schools as a duty. Fatma Şahin, the Minister of Family and Social Policies, says that an elective course on  the Quran and the Holy Prophet is appropriate, since “humans don’t just have material and physical needs; they are material and spiritual wholes.” Apparently “a social state [their watered-down notion of a welfare state] has the duty to meet humans needs in order that they live happily and in peace,” and this includes meeting spiritual needs as understood by a dominant majority of the population.

Secularists typically confine legitimate public policy to meeting the worldly needs of citizens. But then, why should not a democratically affirmed religious government not recognize “spiritual needs,” declaring that the strict separation of material and spiritual needs is an artificial imposition?

Again, I should emphasize that views that demand recognition for the “rights” and “needs” of people in the context of religious communities they are attached to do not merely coopt secular liberal language about religious freedom and so forth. Religious conservatives have developed, under the influence of liberal political language, partly overlapping but also partly rival and incompatible notions of freedom. Those of us who prefer secular, liberal, and individual conceptions of rights and needs have a significantly different view about religious freedom.

None of these notions of freedom are necessarily more genuine—we have, I think, to take this seriously as a political rivalry. If the political environment I live in recognizes and protects my version of liberty, this will be at least in part at the expense of conservative religious people who will not be able to fully live their religious commitments as a cohesive community. And in an environment that favors their version of religious freedom, people like me will be more easily pushed around by religious institutions.

bookmark_borderMessianic Prophecy – Update

On my own blog, I have begun examining eight alleged Messianic prophecies, presented by Peter Stoner in his book Science Speaks. I have reached a conclusion about the first of the prophecies and will share that here. For supporting arguments and details, you can read the posts at my blog.

According to Peter Stoner, Micah 5:2 should be interpreted as making a specific prediction:

(1) The correct interpretation of Micah 5:2 is that it predicts that ‘The Messiah will be born in the town of Bethlehem.’

Stoner also claims that Jesus fulfilled this prediction:

(2) Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem.

So, Stoner asserts a conjunctive claim:

(3) The correct interpretation of Micah 5:2 is that it predicts that ‘The Messiah will be born in the town of Bethlehem’, AND Jesus was in fact born in the town of Bethlehem.

I argue that the probability that Stoner’s interpretation of Micah 5:2 is correct is about .2 (two chances in ten), and that the probability that Jesus was in fact born in the town of Bethlehem is about .2 (two chances in ten).

Setting aside the (question-begging) assumption that Micah 5:2 was inspired by an omniscient deity, we should view these two claims as independent, as having no causal (or logical) connection. So, the probability of (3) can be determined by use of the simple multiplication rule: .2 x .2 = .04.


The probability that Stoner’s conjunctive claim about Micah 5:2 is correct is less than .1 (less than one chance in ten).

bookmark_borderConservative anti-science

Chris Mooney has an interesting post, citing recent research by Gordon Gauchat that shows a noticeable decline in trust in science among political conservatives in the United States, over the past few decades.

There isn’t much that I know of in this sort of research that would help me estimate what the contribution of conservative religiosity is to the lack of trust in science. It could be interesting to disentangle, say, a supernaturalist reaction against the naturalistic tendency of modern science, and a right-wing libertarian worship of capitalism and consequent anti-environmentalist thinking. (Though it’s also interesting how many conservatives seamlessly combine the two.)

Does anyone know of any research relevant to such a question?

bookmark_borderSwinburne’s Case for God – Part 4

Does the utterance of the words ‘God exists’ amount to a meaningful utterance? Does this utterance express a statement?  Two considerations support the claim that this is a meaningful utterance:
1. ‘God exists’ is a grammatical sentence.
2. The word ‘exists’ has an established meaning.

The main question to consider is whether the word ‘God’ has a meaning.

Many utterances of the form ‘X exists’ are obviously meaningful utterances that express a statement:

  • Chickens exist.
  • The Earth exists.
  • Oxygen exists.

Plenty of false and implausible statements are of this form:

  • Unicorns exist.
  • Ghosts exist.
  • ESP exists.

But such false and implausible assertions, are still utterances of meaningful sentences.  In fact, we can know such assertions to be false or implausible only because we understand what they mean.

But what about the word ‘God’? Does this word have an established meaning? 

No doubt the word ‘God’ is a bit unclear apart from some context.  There are a diversity of views and beliefs about ‘God’ and about religion among human beings.  But if the assertion ‘God exists’ is placed in the context of traditional Jewish or Christian religious belief and theology, then that narrows the possible meanings considerably.

There is a core concept behind the term ‘God’ that provides an initial clarification of this term:

Definition 1:  Something is God if and only if it is the only perfect person.

This definition is somewhat unclear, but it seems to me to be clear enough to show that the utterance of the words ‘God exists’ in the context of traditional Jewish or Christian belief/theology is a meaningful utterance that expresses a statement.

This concept of God is somewhat unclear and problematic because the word ‘perfect’ is a normative term, and given the diversity of norms and values among human beings, it is less than obvious what would constitute a perfect person.  However, the unclarity and ambiguity here is not so extreme that we have no idea what the phrase ‘perfect person’ means.

In any case, in the context of traditional Jewish and Christian belief, we have a pretty good idea of some of the implications of the idea of a ‘perfect person’ and can cash out this concept in somewhat less problematic terms:

Definition 2: Something is God if and only if it is the only person who has unlimited knowledge, unlimited power, and unlimited freedom.

This definition contains the divine attributes that Swinburne sees as the core divine attributes.  Other divine attributes are inferred from these core attributes. 

These core divine attributes are not perfectly clear; each of these attributes is itself in need of careful definition, if one is to think clearly about the existence or nature of God.  But  one does not need to acheive the crystal clear conception of a philosopher of religion in order to understand the meaning of ‘God exists’.  Clarification is an iterative process, and a learning process that requires time and effort.  One must start somewhere, and it seems to me that Definition 2 provides a good starting point for thinking about ‘God’ and the assertion ‘God exists’.

If one does not buy Swinburne’s attempt to derive the divine attribute of perfect goodness from the three divine attributes in Definition 2, then we can just modify the definition to specify this other attribute:

Definition 3: Something is God if and only if it is the only person who has unlimited knowledge, unlimited power, unlimited freedom, and is perfectly good.

There is enough meaning and clarity here to start engaging in intellectual enquiry into the question ‘Does God exist?’, and that implies that the words ‘God exists’ make a meaningful sentence that expresses a claim or statement, an idea that is true or false, accurate or inaccurate, probable or improbable, supported by available evidence or not supported by available evidence.

The divine attribute of ‘perfect goodness’ brings back the issue of normative concepts (i.e. moral goodness).  Human beings hold a diversity of beliefs and values concerning morality and ethics, so the attribute of  ‘perfect goodness’ brings some unclarity and ambiguity into the concept of ‘God’.  One can choose, like Dawkins does, to simply cut out the normative aspect of the concept, and define ‘God’ in purely descriptive terms (e.g. as the creator or cause of the universe), but this is a significant departure from the concept of God in traditional Jewish and Christian religious belief and theology.  So, I prefer to maintain the normative aspect of the concept, and to remain cautious and aware of the problematic and ambiguous nature of general normative concepts like ‘moral goodness’.

Perhaps it is best to think about the assertion that ‘God exists’ as a mixed claim that makes both a descriptive claim, and a normative one:

Definition 4:  Something is God if and only if
(a) it is the only person who has who has unlimited knowledge, unlimited power, and unlimited freedom, AND
(b) that person is also perfectly good.

This definition might not be satisfactory as a technical definition for professional philosophers, but it is sufficient to show that the utterance of the words ‘God exists’ constitute a meaningful sentence that expresses a statement.

bookmark_borderArgument Against the Resurrection of Jesus – Part 19

One of the major alleged wounds inflicted upon Jesus during the crucifixion is a deep spear wound:

DSW = On Friday of Passover week, just before the first Easter Sunday, Jesus received a deep spear wound to his chest (i.e. the tip of the spear penetrated at least 3” deep, measured perpendicular to the surface where the spear entered his chest).

This claim is based on a couple of passages from the Fourth Gospel.  One passage concerns the Doubting Thomas story, that I previously argued was fictional or at least historically unreliable in its details.  The other passage is specifically about the infliction of the spear wound:

Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity.  So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed.  Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him.  But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.  Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.
(John 19:31-34, NRSV)

In part 17 of this series, I gave reasons for viewing the Fourth Gospel as historically unreliable, and I also briefly mentioned some specific problems with the passage quoted above. 

Before I say anything more about this specific passage, I would like to take a closer look at Chapter 19, where the spear wound story is found.  If Chapter 19 is as questionable and problematic as the Fourth Gospel in general, then we would have additional good reasons for doubting the historicity or reliability of the spear-wound story from that Chapter. 

There are four sections in Chapter 19:

1. The conclusion of Jesus’s trial before Pilate (19:1-16)
2. The crucifixion of Jesus (19:17-30)
3. The spear-wound story (19:31-37)
4. The burial of Jesus (19:38-42)

There are grounds for reasonable doubts about the alleged facts presented in each one of these four sections, which in turn reinforces the general problem of the historical reliability of the Fourth Gospel, and casts further doubt on the spear-wound story.

Let’s start with the first section, and work our way slowly through Chapter 19 of the Fourth Gospel, verse-by-verse, section-by-section.

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.
(John 19:1)

The very first verse of Chapter 19 is problematic.  There is nothing unusual about a Roman governor having an accused person flogged.  However, the timing of the flogging of Jesus in the middle of the trial before Pilate is inconsistent with the other Gospels.

There is no flogging of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke; Pilate merely offers to have Jesus flogged and let him go, but “the chief priests, the leaders, and the people” refuse this offer and demand that Jesus be crucified (Luke 23:13-25).

In Mark, the earliest of the four Gospels, Pilate has Jesus flogged, but does so after giving in to the demand of “the crowd” to crucify Jesus:

So, Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. (Mark 15:15).

The Gospel of Matthew follows Mark on this point (Matt. 27:26).  In the Fourth Gospel, the flogging happens first, and then comes the demand of the crowd for the crucifixion of Jesus. 
Some conservative Evangelical scholars argue for two floggings, one prior to the demand of the crowd for Jesus to be crucified and one after Pilate gives in to the demand of the crowd.  But none of the four Gospels indicates that Jesus was flogged twice, and it seems more plausible that there would be just one flogging of Jesus prior to his crucifixion.

If as a matter of faith, one insists that there are no errors in any of the Gospel accounts, then one must postulate two floggings to reconcile the various accounts.  But we are not here assuming the inerrancy of the Gospels; we are treating them as ordinary historical documents.  In treating them as ordinary historical documents, the most likely scenario is that at least one of the accounts of the flogging of Jesus is incorrect (either Mark or John), and both might be incorrect (if there was no flogging of Jesus, as suggested by the gospel of Luke).
It might be the case that the Fourth Gospel is correct on this point, and that Mark and Matthew are wrong.  However, since Mark is the earliest of the Gospels, and since the Fourth Gospel is the last of the Gospels, and since the Fourth Gospel has significant general issues of reliability, we should favor Mark and Matthew over the Fourth Gospel, unless there is a good reason to doubt Mark on this specific point or to believe John on this point.  I’m not aware of such a good reason, so I conclude that it is probable that John 19:1 incorrectly places the flogging of Jesus prior to the demand of the crowd for Jesus to be crucified.  Jesus was probably either not flogged at all (as in Luke) or was flogged just prior to being crucified (as in Mark and Matthew). 

INDEX of Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus posts:

bookmark_borderSwinburne’s Case for God – Part 3

In the first of five phases of his case for God, Swinburne argues that the assertion ‘God exists’ makes a coherent factual statement.  What is a coherent factual statement?  More specifically, what is a statement? and when is a statement a coherent statement?

First, it is clear that when someone says ‘God exists’, that person is uttering a string of words.  In this case, two words: ‘God’ and ‘exists’.  But not every utterance of a string of words constitutes a meaningful utterance.  Some utterances of words fail to be meaningful because they do not constitute a grammatical sentence (or series of grammatical sentences).  To be a sentence, a string of words must conform to the rules of grammar.  Thus, uttering the following string of words fails to be a meaningful utterance, because this string of words is not a grammatical sentence (COT, p.2):

upon opens nervously Greece stone hope.

An utterance of a string of words can also fall short of being a meaningful utterance, because the words in the string do not have established meanings.  For example,  uttering these words does not constitute a meaningful utterance (COT, p.1):

Shouki blah nouki.

For the utterance of a string of words to constitute a meaningful utterance, it must consist of a grammatical sentence (or sentences), and the words in the sentence must have meanings (COT, p.1,2, and 11).  Clearly an utterance of the string of words ‘God exists’ constitutes a grammatical sentence, and thus meets at least one of the two criteria for being making a meaningful utterance.  The word ‘exists’ is clearly a meaningful word, so the main question remaining is whether the word ‘God’ is a word that has a meaning.  If so, then the utterance of the string of words ‘God exists’ would express a meaningful utterance.

Sentences must be distinguished from what is expressed by the utterance of a sentence, because different sentences can be used to express the same thing, and because the same sentence can be used to express different things on different occasions or when uttered by different persons (COT, p.11).

Some meaningful sentences express statements and others do not.  Questions, commands, and requests are expressed by means of meaningful sentences, but such meaningful sentences do not express statements (COT, p.2):

What time is it? [Question]
Sit down and shut up! [Command]
Please pass the salt. [Request]

A meaningful indicative sentence “normally expresses a claim about how things are.” (COT, p.11); that is, it expresses a statement.  However, some meaningful indicative sentences do not express statements, such as performatives (COT, p.12):

I now pronounce you man and wife.

According to Swinburne, the utterance of a meaningful indicative sentence should be presumed to express a statement, unless someone can provide a good reason to believe that a particular meaningful indicative sentence (or a particular subset of meaningful indicative sentences) fails to do so (COT, p.37).

So, the utterance of a string of words can, in some cases. be the utterance of a meaningful indicative sentence, and can express a statement, that is, express a claim about how things are.

The statements that are expressed by the utterance of meaningful indicative sentences can be coherent or incoherent.  According to Swinburne, a coherent statement is

…a statement such that we can conceive of it and any other statement entailed by it being true, in the sense that we can understand what it would be like for them to be true.
(COT, p.13)

The following are examples of meaningful indicative sentences that express coherent statements (COT, p.13):

All men are mortal.
The moon is made of green cheese.
I am now writing.

Although ‘The moon is made of green cheese.’ expresses a false statement, it also expresses a coherent statement, because we understand what it would be like for the moon to be made of green cheese.  We can conceive of it being the case that the moon is made of green cheese.

Some statements expressed by meaningful indicative sentences are incoherent statements, meaning that it is not the case that we can understand what it would be like for the statement to be true (COT,p.13):

Honesty weighs ten pounds.
Some squares have five sides.
Three is the square of one.

These are meaningful indicative sentences. They are grammatical sentences composed of words that have established meanings.  These sentences express statements; however, we do not understand what it would be like for the statement to be true.

Any statement that is a logical self-contradiction is an incoherent statement, because we cannot understand what it would be like for the statement to be true (COT, p.14):

It is Thursday, and it is not Thursday.

Not all incoherent statements contain such obvious self-contradictions.  But according to Swinburne, incoherent statements that do not contain obvious self-contradictions, do contain non-obvious contradictions.  That is to say, all incoherent statements are either self-contradictions or entail a self-contradiction (COT, p.38). So, the incoherence of statements is always based on logical self-contradiction.

For example, the following meaningful indicative sentence expresses an incoherent statement, but does not contain an obvious self-contradiction:

Honesty weighs ten pounds.

Honesty is not the sort of thing that can have a weight.  Honesty is not a physical object, and only physical objects can have a weight.  So, according to Swinburne, this sentence entails the following self-contradiction:

Honesty is a physical object, and honesty is not a physical object.

So, although there is no direct and obvious self-contradiction in the original statement, it entails a self-contradiction, which explains why we cannot understand what it would be like for honesty to weigh ten pounds (COT, p. 19-20).

bookmark_borderArgument Against the Resurrection of Jesus – Part 18

There are reasonable doubts about each of the major wounds allegedly inflicted upon Jesus. This in turn leads to reasonable doubt about the claim that Jesus died on the cross on the same day that he was crucified. 

Because the occurrence of each alleged major wound significantly increases the probability that Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified, the non-occurrence of each major wound significantly decreases the probability that Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified. 

But we don’t have certain knowledge on any of these claims about the major wounds/injuries allegedly suffered by Jesus, so a rational approach is to examine the evidence and it’s quality and make a probability assessment for each claim about an alleged major wound or injury.  Once we have assigned an estimated probability to each claim about an alleged major wound or injury, then we can attempt to draw some general conclusions about the probability that Jesus died on the cross on the same day that he was crucified.  

In the last post I argued for reasonable doubts about the Doubting Thomas story, which contains the only explicit reference in the Gospels to the use of nails in the crucifixion of Jesus.  Because there are good reasons to doubt the historicity and the historical reliability of the Doubting Thomas story, and because the use of ropes to attach victims to crosses was more common than the use of nails, there is reasonable doubt about the following assumption:

HAF = On Friday of Passover week, just before the first Easter Sunday, Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to a cross.

Because the Gospel evidence for HAF is weak and questionable, I would only bump up the probability of HAF a little bit more than what background information suggests. 

On the basis of background information only, I would estimate the probability that nails were not used at all in Jesus’ crucifixion to be .6 (six chances in ten), and thus the probability that nails were used would be .4 (four chances in ten).  But even if nails were used, they might not have been used to secure Jesus’ arms/hands and also his legs/feet.  There is a significant chance that nails were only used to secure his arms/hands and not his legs/feet, and there is a significant chance that nails were used to secure his legs/feet but not his arms/hands. Thus, on the basis of background information only, I would estimate the probability of HAF to be about .2 (two chances in ten).  Since there is some (weak and dubious) evidence for the use of nails in the crucifixion of Jesus, I will bump this estimate up a little, to .3 (three chances in ten).

Another significant alleged injury of Jesus is also mentioned only in the Fourth Gospel:

DSW = On Friday of Passover week, just before the first Easter Sunday, Jesus received a deep spear wound to his chest (i.e. the tip of the spear penetrated at least 3” deep, measured perpendicular to the surface where the spear entered his chest).

Part of the evidence for this event is the Doubting Thomas story, which I have previously shown to be of dubious historicity.  The second bit of Gospel evidence for this event is the description of the crucifixion in the Fourth Gospel.  I have already given a number of reasons to doubt the reliability of the Fourth Gospel, so in the next post I will focus on more specific problems with the account of the crucifixion given in the Fourth Gospel.

INDEX of Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus posts:

bookmark_borderMore secular (and obnoxious, and stupid) Millennials

I’ve been looking at some social psychology research concerning the so-called “Millennial” generation, in their twenties today. (I figure it doesn’t hurt to know more about my students.)

Often, the research finds that the Millennials are an obnoxious, shallow, and stupid bunch. (OK, that’s my take on it. But basically, reading the survey results, my usual reaction is that I hate most of them.)

But since Millennials tend towards self-centered consumerism and moral individualism (even more than the usual American norm), they also show up in surveys as a comparatively more secular lot.

So, there we have it. Apparently Americans are becoming less likely to act like morons because their brains are fried by Sunday sermons, but that is because they’re more likely to act like idiots because their brains are fried by advertising.


bookmark_borderSwinburne’s Case for God – Part 2

The purpose of the first of five phases of Swinburne’s case for God is to show that the statement ‘God exists’ makes a coherent factual (logically contingent) statement.  He thinks he has accomplished this in his book The Coherence of Theism (revised edition, hereafter: COT) for a somewhat pared-down concept of God, that he calls a ‘contingent God’.  A ‘contingent God’ is one that has most of the usual divine attributes, except for necessary being.

The meat of COT is in Part II (Chapters 7-12), where Swinburne argues that ‘God exists’ makes a coherent factual statement, when we understand ‘God’ to be a ‘contingent God’.  Swinburne, like a good analytic philosopher, begins by analyzing the assertion ‘God exists’, breaking it down into bite-sized pieces, or to make the metaphor more accurate, into meal-sized pieces.  The assertion ‘God exists’ means:

…there exists eternally an omnipresent spirit, perfectly free, the creator of the universe, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and a source of moral obligation… 
(COT, p.241)

Swinburne breaks the concept of God down into various divine attributes, and then slowly re-assembles the concept, piece by piece.  He has two kinds of tasks to perform in doing this re-assembly.  First, he must show that each individual piece is coherent.  In other words, he must show that each of the following assertions makes a coherent statement:

(1) A spirit exists.
(2) An omnipresent person exists.
(3) A perfectly free person exists.
(4) A person who is the creator of the universe exists.
(5) An omnipotent person exists.
(6) An omniscient person exists.
(7) A perfectly good person exists.
(8) A person who is a source of moral obligation (for human beings) exists.
(9) A person who is eternal exists.

Showing that each of these assertions makes a coherent statement is not, however, sufficient to show that ‘God exists’ makes a coherent statement.  Even if each of these assertions is meaningful and coherent, the combination of two or more of these divine attributes in a single person might involve a logical contradiction, and if such a logical contradiction exists between two or more of these attributes, then the assertion ‘God exists’ would involve a self-contradiction.

For example, I mentioned in Part 1, that Swinburne significantly constricts the concept  of ‘omniscience’ in order to avoid a logical contradiction between ‘omniscience’ on the one hand and ‘perfect freedom’ on the other.  If God is perfectly free, then God cannot predict his own future choices, because perfectly free choices cannot be determined by what has happened in the past.  Thus, God does not have full and complete knowledge of the future, because God does not know in advance what choices he is going to make in the future. 

So, Swinburne slowly re-assembles the concept of God, adding divine attributes back into the mix, one (or two) at a time, showing at each step that the new combination of attributes is coherent.  By the end of Chapter 8, for example, Swinburne thinks he has shown that the following assertion makes a coherent statement:

…there exists an omnipresent spirit who has free will and is the creator of the universe…
(COT, p.129)

In other words, the first four of the above assertions about individual divine attributes are coherent, and the assertion of the existence of a person having all four of those divine attributes also makes a coherent statement.

By the end of Chapter 12, Swinburne thinks he has shown that the assertion that there is a person who has all nine of the above divine attributes makes a coherent statement, and thus that ‘God exists’ makes a coherent statement, if we understand ‘God’ in the pared-down sense of a ‘contingent God’.

Note: the attribute ‘eternal’ works a little differently than the other attributes.  It qualifies most of the other attributes.  For example, God is ‘eternally omnipotent’ and ‘eternally omniscient’ and ‘eternally perfectly good’.  God is not just omnipotent some days, and less than omnipotent on other days; God has always been omnipotent and always will be omnipotent.  Any being who is only omnipotent for a few days or a few years or a few centuries does not count as ‘God’ according to Swinburne’s analysis of this concept.

bookmark_borderSecular Scandinavia

Well, I’m back from my trip to Norway and Sweden, and when you add this to my previous trip to Denmark, I can now pretend to be an expert on all things Scandinavian.

Still, I did have a chance to ask locals (humanities and social science types, mostly) about whether the Scandinavian reputation for secularity and irrelevance of religion to much of the population is accurate. The answers I got were mostly yes. Some observed that newagey paranormal beliefs can be very popular, but it’s also true that this is no basis for an organized social presence of religion that can replace the older high-profile Christianity.

Norway is, interestingly, home to the strongest humanist organization in the world, the Human-Etisk Forbund. (The question arises: if they’re so secular, why do they have a need for a strong humanist presence?) Anyway, here’s a picture of me standing in front of their building in Oslo:

For good measure, here is a secularized church from Stockholm, Skeppsholmskyrkan.

Christianity is not completely dead, however. One Wednesday morning we walked into a church in central Stockholm that is off the standard tourist list, and ran into a Protestant congregation complete with preacher strumming an idiot guitar and the about twenty congregants producing a musically asinine hymn. (Catholics and high-church Protestants have much, much better music.)

Still, things are pretty secular overall. Here’s a funerary chapel converted to a bookstore on the Lund University campus: