bookmark_borderBooks Like This Should be a Warning Signal to Inerrantists

I just saw an announcement of a new book by Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan. Copan and Flannagan are good guys, but some of the positions they have to defend (because of their commitment to Biblical inerrancy) are not.  I’m embarrassed for inerrantists. Just look at the publisher’s description (presumably written by one or both of the authors).

Reconciling a violent Old Testament God with a loving Jesus
Would a good, kind, and loving deity ever command the wholesale slaughter of nations? We often avoid reading difficult Old Testament passages that make us squeamish and quickly jump to the enemy-loving, forgiving Jesus of the New Testament. And yet, the question remains.
In the tradition of his popular Is God a Moral Monster?, Paul Copan teams up with Matthew Flannagan to tackle some of the most confusing and uncomfortable passages of Scripture. Together they help the Christian and nonbeliever alike understand the biblical, theological, philosophical, and ethical implications of Old Testament warfare passages.

So they admit that the relevant passages are among “the most confusing and uncomfortable passages of Scripture,” passages which make even hardened inerrantists like Copan and Flannagan “squeamish.” But, being the faithful believers that they are, Copan and Flannagan will argue that, yes, a “good, kind, and loving deity” would command (and, in fact, has commanded) “the wholesale slaughter of nations.” How will they reconcile God’s goodness, kindness, and love with genocide? The book’s subtitle suggests that they will argue that “justice” is the answer.
The fundamental problem with books like this is that they fly in the face of what seems obvious to everyone else who doesn’t already hold the a priori belief that everything the Bible says must be true, just because the Bible says it. To paraphrase something Nick Trakakis wrote in another context, “Defenses of genocidal behavior by the OT god turn a blind eye to what seem clear and obvious to everyone else — that such behavior makes a mockery out of what any person would consider morally justifiable behavior.”[1]
[1] N.N. Trakakis, “Antitheodicy,” The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil, 364. Trakakis was talking about theodicies in general, not disturbing passages in the OT.

bookmark_borderGetting back to the “Fundamentals” in Texas Education
Texas is great. Sure, the weather is hot, and you might have to dodge some tornadoes, and you had better like Tex-Mex and chicken fried steak (actually, I do). But it is never boring. The fundamentalists keep it interesting. The State Board of Indoctrination, er, Education, which is dominated by fundamentalists, wants to make sure that Texas students are fed th’ God-fearin’, Bible believin’, pickup-truck drivin’, cowboy boot wearin’, Confederate flag dislpayin’  version of history. Yee haw!!! According to that view, white Christian heroes evicted Mexican communists who were illegally occupying land they stole from the white people. Also, slavery was fun. Also, the U.S. Constitution was based on the Bible. Also, Also…Gig ’em Aggies!!!
Fortunately, Texas also has lots of smart, insightful people like Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network. In reality, the “yahoo” element in Texas is now in the minority. Unfortunately, due to gerrymandering and other causes, they still run things.

bookmark_border“But is it Art?!” Family resemblance concepts’ (Wittgenstein) explained simply (from my The Philosophy Gym)

9. But is it Art?

From my book The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking.
I mean they’d gone and fucking installed the work without me even being here. That’s just not on. This is my bed. If someone else installs it, it’s just dirty linen. If I do it, it’s art. Tracey Emin (artist), Evening Standard, 12/9/00.
Today it seems almost anything can be classified as a work of art: Damien Hirst’s pickled shark or Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, for example. But what is art, exactly? What is it that Macbeth, a piece of tribal sculpture, The Nutcracker Suite, the roof of the Cistene Chapel and Emin’s bed all have in common? What is the common denominator that makes each one of these things art? This is an extremely difficult question to answer. This chapter explains one of the leading theories, taking in one of Wittgenstein’s (1889-1951) most important insights along the way.

What is a work of art?

The scene: an art gallery. Fox, an artist, is peering intently at a Rothko. O’Corky tries to engage him in conversation.
Continue reading ““But is it Art?!” Family resemblance concepts’ (Wittgenstein) explained simply (from my The Philosophy Gym)”

bookmark_borderThe Historian’s Job and Christian Apologetics

I am currently writing a work of history. My co-author and I are investigating the nuclear tests conducted in the Marshall Islands by the U.S. from 1946 to 1958. During that period, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests (including some duds) on or near Bikini and Eniwetok atolls in the Marshall Islands. These tests produced a total combined yield of 108 megatons, the equivalent of one Hiroshima bomb (.015 MT) exploded daily for over nineteen years. Needless to say, unleashing this amount of nuclear force on small coral atolls had a devastating effect, turning them into radiological disaster zones. Bikini had been inhabited by Micronesian people for over 2000 years prior to their evacuation (eviction, really) in 1946. It remains uninhabited to this day. The largest of these tests was Castle Bravo, March 1 (local date), 1954. It was predicted to yield 6 MT, but actually yielded 15 MT, 1000 times the force of the Little Boy bomb that killed 70,000 in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Intensely radioactive fallout rained down on inhabited islands and the crew of the ironically-named Japanese tuna boat, the Lucky Dragon.
Whenever I do any historical research, I am always impressed and often frustrated by how difficult it is to get a straight account of the facts. Some sources say one thing and some say another. Accounts are often fragmentary, leaving the historian to try to piece together a connected narrative. Archival sources are often conflicting and confusing. Politics and ideology enter in at every level. If you rely on government reports, they tend to be written, at least in part, to justify the actions of the agencies and individuals involved. If, on the other hand, you read critics of the government, they obviously are grinding their own axes, and are too credulous with testimony that supports their agendas and too hastily dismiss official claims and arguments. Even scientific or medical reports are often unreliable in one way or another. For instance, it may be that instances of miscarriages and stillbirths among Marshallese women exposed to radiation were underreported to American doctors because of communication problems.
Eyewitnesses are always biased, or at least limited by their own perspectives. With big, complex events, no one witness can give you more than a piece of the story. Besides, eyewitnesses notoriously see what they expect to see rather than what really happened. Also, memories fade over time, and, as has been shown again and again, false “memories” are easily implanted. When controversial claims or issues are involved, all sorts of problems crop up. Conspiracy theories sprout like weeds and cast their shadows over everything. All sources have some problem or other. Some are sketchy just where you need them to be precise. Sometimes you are hotly pursuing something that would be an exciting discovery, only to find that the trail runs cold and crucial facts are missing and unrecoverable. Finally, and essentially, as a historian you have to find ways to constrain your own bias and expectations. Sometimes you are gobsmacked by evidence completely contrary to what you want to say, and you have to have the integrity to deal with it honestly. In short, on a variation of the Gilbert and Sullivan song, the historian’s lot is not an ‘appy one.
Obviously, the above jeremiad is leading up to something: Whenever I hear Christian apologists going on confidently about what happened in and around Jerusalem 2000 years ago, I am simply amazed. With respect to any significant set of historical events, finding out exactly what happened is appallingly difficult, even when, as with my topic, you are writing about events that happened in living memory. Actually, I have many advantages over any historian attempting to reconstruct the events in Palestine circa 30 CE. The events I am studying were meticulously and copiously documented. Whole archives exist with the relevant material. These events were recorded on many different kinds of scientific instruments, were filmed from many angles and locations, and were subjected to minute scientific analysis. Many clearly-identified persons left eyewitness accounts from known locales. Extensive reports were written by observers and participants in the events. For instance, Ōishi Matashichi, one of the unfortunate fishermen irradiated by fallout from Castle Bravo, has recently published his memoirs, The Day the Sun Rose in the West (2011, The University of Hawai’i Press). The events I am writing about were conducted by a society not only literate but scientifically sophisticated and committed to the obsessive documentation of everything. Indeed, the main problem with writing about such a topic is the sheer volume of possible evidence. Yet even with all these advantages, it can be devilishly difficult for the historian of recent events to get all the facts straight.
In contrast, a historian writing about the events surrounding the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth has to deal with evidence that is much scantier and less complete. To take just one of many difficulties, even where hints of eyewitness confirmation exist, details often are completely lacking. In the famous passage from I Corinthians, Chapter 15 Paul mentions the “500” who allegedly saw the risen Jesus. This claim is often adduced as central to the apologists’ case. Paul assures us that some of these 500 are still, alive, implying that you can look them up and ask them about it.  However, what for the modern historian would be crucial information is just not available in Paul’s account. Who were these persons? What were their names? Where did they live? What, exactly, did they see? Did each one know Jesus well so that he could not have been mistaken that it was Jesus he saw? When Jesus appeared before them, was he on a stage or standing on a hill where they could see him clearly? Was it daylight? Did Jesus say anything to authenticate his identity? Why were they gathered together? Had they been told to expect to see the risen Jesus, or did it come as a complete surprise? 500 is a pretty big crowd. Did everybody get close enough for a good look? Can we rule out any possibility here of mass delusion or the “madness of crowds?” Where did Paul get this story? Did he, personally, talk to any of the “500,” or did he hear about them second- or third-hand? Did any leave written accounts of what they experienced? How can we rule out that the whole story of the “500” is not a fabrication or hoax?
Many intelligent and highly educated people (e.g. Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli) have accepted and repeated the story about the “500,” without asking the above questions, or at least not taking them seriously enough. This fact is highly indicative of the difference between approaching historical evidence as an apologist and approaching it as a historian. Historians should not be afraid to draw conclusions—but, especially when dealing with obscure events in obscure places long, long ago—they should evince a large degree of humility or (“humble” not being possible for most academics) at least caution. Historians have to follow the evidence—really. If not because they want to, then because they know that other historians will excoriate them if they do not.
Speaking personally (and as close to “humbly” as I can get), I would never presume to think that I knew what events led to the founding of Christianity. Naturally, I could rank some scenarios as more likely than others, but even the most probable of the lot could not be taken as very probable. It was just too long ago, the evidence is too meager, and the imponderables predominate. What happened between the time of Jesus’s crucifixion and the public proclamations that he had risen by the earliest Christians? From my experience of trying to find out exactly what happened a mere 60 years ago, I conclude that nailing down what happened 2000 years ago at the founding of Christianity is not possible. We can guess, we can speculate, we can propose and dispose of scenarios, we can conjecture, we can debate and indulge our imaginations. We cannot know.

bookmark_borderSecular Humanism: why it’s a strategic mistake to define as requiring naturalism

What does secular humanism (or, as we say in the UK, humanism) involve? In Humanism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2011) I suggest that most of those who sign up to secular humanism sign up to following:
Continue reading “Secular Humanism: why it’s a strategic mistake to define as requiring naturalism”

bookmark_borderCritical Thinking and Skepticism – Part 2

Based on a quick review of Michael Shermer’s key statements about skepticism (A Brief Introduction, and  A Skeptical Manifesto)  there appear to be at least two general principles of rational skepticism:
GP1. Be open-minded, not closed-minded or dogmatic.
GP2. Be discriminating about believing claims, theories, and viewpoints, not gullible and credulous.
In my previous post on this subject (Critical Thinking and Skepticism), I argued that Critical Thinking provides a necessary framework and some helpful guidance that provides more details and specifics about what these general principles mean and how one can actually put these principles into practice.
But Shermer also provides more specifics about rational skepticism, points that go beyond the above two general principles.  So, to get a better and clearer understanding of the relationship of Critical Thinking and Rational Skepticism, it would be worthwhile to take a look at some of the more specific points Shermer makes concerning rational skepticism.  Shermer spells out ten key questions that rational skeptics should ask in the Baloney Detection Kit:
1. How reliable is the source of the claim? (example: bias of global warming skeptics)
2. Does the source make similar claims? (example: new age supporters believe all of the various superstitious new age claims).
3. Have the claims been verified by somebody else? (example: cold fusion flop – others failed to replicate same results)
4. Does this fit with the way the world works? (example: Nigerian email scam)
5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim? (comment: eventually critics will look for problems with the claim, and might find good reasons or evidence against it)
6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point? (example: creationists focus on a few alleged problems with evolution, but ignore the huge pile of evidence supporting it)
7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science? (using logic, reason, and empirical evidence, and testing and corroboration, or just trying to build a case for one viewpoint? Example: UFO proponents compared to SETI scientists).
8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence? (or just denying evidence for an opposing theory? Example: UFO evidence is allegedly covered up by govt.)
9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory? (example: crackpot theories of physics fail to explain most of what current theories explain)
10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim? (are the personal beliefs, ideology, or worldview of person making the claim driving the belief? – problem of confirmation bias – example: global warming issue has been politicized)
Although questions (6), (7), and (10) have implications concerning (GP1), all ten points are primarily aimed at supporting (GP2); the whole list is focused on helping a person to be discriminating in what claims, theories, or points of view they believe.  The whole list is focused on helping people to avoid being gullible and credulous.  Given that the title of this presentation is the “Baloney Detection Kit”, it is not a surprise that the emphasis is on avoiding gullibility and credulity.
There are some themes in these ten points.  One theme is concerned with bias.  Another theme is concerned with the credibility of the source.  Other points are more focused on logic or evaluation of evidence.  Points (1), (2), (7), (8), and (10) are related to determining the credibility of the source of a claim.  Points (1), (2), (6), (7), (8), and(10) are related to the problem of bias.  Points (3), (4), (5), (8) and (9) are related to logic or the proper use of evidence.
What does this imply about the relationship of rational skepticism to critical thinking?  Consider the following claims about what is involved in being a critical thinker:
A critical thinker is inclined to, and able to:

  • make careful and reasonable evaluations of the CREDIBILITY of the source of a claim.
  • make careful and reasonable evaluations about actual or potential BIAS in a particular instance of thinking (either in his/her own thinking or in the thinking of another person).
  • make careful and reasonable evaluations of the LOGICALNESS or  the USE OF EVIDENCE in a particular instance of thinking (either in his/her own thinking or in the thinking of another person).

A person who was not inclined to or not able to make any such evaluations would NOT be a critical thinker.  A person who was inclined to and able to make such evaluations in all three areas is PROBABLY a critical thinker, because these seem to be important aspects of critical thinking.  These three conditions do  not constitute a sufficient condition for being a critical thinker, but someone who satisfies all three conditions would be at least partially a critical thinker, and would probably be more of a critical thinker than the average person on the street.
It is absurd to expect that just one course in critical thinking taken by a person in college, after graduating from high school, would be able to take an uncritical thinker and turn him or her into a critical thinker.  Critical thinking ought to be an integral part of education from kindergarten through 12th grade, so that by the time a person shows up at a college campus, he or she has already developed some significant critical thinking skills and some  inclinations and habits of thought that support the frequent and fairminded application of the principles of critical thinking.  Math, science, social studies, and language arts should all include references to, and use of critical thinking skills and concepts and principles.
Some critical thinking courses offered at some colleges might not cover topics related to evaluation of BIAS, or to evaluation of CREDIBILITY.  Most will deal with topics related to evaluations of LOGICALNESS and EVALUATION OF EVIDENCE.   But clearly, if a critical thinking course skips over concepts and issues related to evaluations of BIAS or evaluations of CREDIBILITY, then that is a serious deficiency in that course, given that one can hardly be a critical thinker apart from having an inclination and ability to make careful and reasonable evaluations of BIAS and CREDIBILITY in particular instances of thinking.
So, some college-level critical thinking courses might not fully support all aspects of rational skepticism as outlined by Shermer in the Baloney Detection Kit.  However, to the extent that a course in critical thinking fails to deal with the topics of BIAS and CREDIBILITY and fails to help students learn to make careful and reasonable evaluations of the credibility of the source of a claim, or to make careful and reasonable evaluations of bias in particular instances of thinking, then that course would also fail to be a good and full course on critical thinking.  In other words, a good and full course on critical thinking would cover all three of the aspects of critical thinking that are emphasized in Shermer’s list of ten points.    So, a good and full course on critical thinking would provide significant help and encouragement towards getting students to become rational skeptics.
Although I have not discussed the specifics of each of the ten points in the Baloney Detection Kit, a quick glance over them suggests that they are precisely the sorts of points that one would expect a good course in critical thinking to touch upon when covering the topics of BIAS, CREDIBILITY, and LOGICALNESS and the proper USE OF EVIDENCE.

bookmark_borderReligion and Violence

I hope that Victor Reppert will not feel that I am baiting him. In a recent post I said some mean things about C.S. Lewis, which with Victor is generally like humming “Hail to the Victors Valiant” around an Ohio State fan. Here I begin with a paragraph he recently wrote for his Dangerous Idea blog:
“The ‘religion leads to violence’ idea is based on a profound confusion. ANYTHING can lead to violence. But the idea that non-religious people have “nothing to kill or die for” while religious people do have something to kill or die for, is absurd. Some atheists believe that the progress of civilization depends on whether we “outgrow” religion or not. Why would people who believe that eschew the use of force to accomplish so important a goal, if the opportunity presented itself? OK, it doesn’t involve anyone’s eternal destiny, but the progress or regression of civilization? Important enough, for at least some, to use ridicule and peer pressure on its behalf.”
Is it true that ANYTHING can lead to violence? Well, you do sometimes see violent confrontations arise from seemingly trivial incidents. A married couple may get into a huge fight seemingly over an offhand remark, but, of course, there will be a long history of building resentments before the particular remark. I saw a “real crime” TV program in which a young man was killed after initiating a confrontation with another young man. The confrontation was apparently provoked when one thought that the other was giving him a funny look. A perceived funny look leads to one guy dead and another going to prison. Again, though, there is more to the story. You have some young guys, fueled with beer and testosterone, maybe out looking for trouble, and coming maybe from a subculture that regards any obvious sign of disrespect as a serious matter.
If Victor means that any stimulus, however minor, may spark a potentially violent confrontation in a situation that is ripe for violence, then he is right. Surely, though, there are some things that more easily stir us to anger and possibly violence than other things. Obviously, the things that promote violence are things that provoke strong emotional responses, things that “push all our buttons.” Even a positive bond, like love, can fuel violent rage when that feeling is betrayed or abused. I would therefore modify Victor’s claim slightly and say that anything that stirs deep and powerful emotions within us has a dangerous side, even good things like love of family or allegedly good things like religious devotion.
Religion clearly has the power to stir potentially violent emotions. Of course, some people profess religion but do not take it seriously. When I used to go to church I was struck by how many seemed to be distracted, apathetic, or impatient for the service to be over. I have known many people, especially men of older generations, who would profess all the “right” things, attend church every Sunday, say grace before each meal, etc. but for whom the impact of religion on their daily lives appeared to be nil. Religion only becomes a potentially dangerous force when people take it seriously. People take religion seriously when it meets a deep and strong need. What does religion do for people?  What deep needs does it meet?  Several come to mind:
1) Religion gives a sense of communal identity.  Culture and religion are closely bound. Culture is grounded in traditional practices, and tradition is both reinforced and validated by religion. If a child asks “Why do we do this?” he or she is told a story that often involves a religious occurrence or sanction. The song “Tradition” that opens Fiddler on the Roof shows the various roles of the papa, the mama, the son, and the daughter. Each has a distinct set of expectations and duties, and these roles are backed by religion. One of the saddest scenes in the movie is when the rabbi removes the scrolls of the Torah, because you know that once the Torah is gone, the community is gone.
2) Religion gives coherence and unity to a society. This, of course, is closely related to the former. Social stratification, which exists in every society, is always a potential source of conflict. Those with less status are naturally envious of those who enjoy higher prestige, and those with higher status want to hang on to it. Religion, however, can tell us that our roles and stations are right and correct, and that any injustice or inconvenience suffered now will be put right in the future. The poor man at his gate can be less resentful of the rich man in his castle if he is assured that God has made people high or low and ordered their estate. The concept of caste in Hinduism served a similar purpose.
3) Religion gives individuals a sense of meaning or validation. Ever since humans became the least reflective, the fear of personal extinction and meaninglessness has been felt. We see that nonhuman animals come and go and that things continue on as before. The lives of individual animals do not seem to matter at all in the larger scheme of things. We naturally fear that we do not matter either—certainly not in the long run or in the big picture. As Paul Robeson magnificently sang in Showboat: “He don’t plant taters; he don’t plant cotton; them that do are soon forgotten. But Old Man River, he just keeps rollin’ along.” After seventy or eighty years we stop rollin’ along and fear that we too will be quickly forgotten. Religion can give each person a sense of cosmic significance, a sense that, even in the largest context, we matter. There is more to life than birth, copulation, and death.
4) Religion offers answers. Life is confusing. It is hard to know what to believe. Maybe 30,000 years ago this was not a problem. People lived in small, tightly knit groups of hunter/gatherers, and, presumably, everybody believed pretty much the same thing. In modern, pluralistic society, we are awash in a babble of conflicting opinions on every subject. In the midst of epistemic chaos, religion seems to offer a steady light. People crave certainty on issues large and small, and religion seems to have the answers. Further, the answers that religion gives feel right to many people; those answers are comforting and intuitive. Religion offers people the “blessed assurance” that God sees things the way they do and even shares their likes and dislikes.
5) Religion offers salvation. John Hick notes that beginning in the Axial Age (circa 6th Century BCE), all major religious traditions have had a soteriological basis. Each offers some form of salvation. The salvation can be from sin or from samsara or from bondage to illusion, suffering, or self-centeredness. Each of the major religious traditions sees the pervasive condition of human life as one in need of fundamental change, a change that can be brought about only by religious commitment. To take the one most familiar to most of us: Christianity sees the human condition as one of being fallen, whether, like fundamentalists, that fall is seen as a datable occurrence or not. This is a situation of basic alienation from God, the ground of our being. We cannot know genuine happiness or freedom until that fundamental condition of alienation is overcome by the grace of God. That grace, whether dispensed through sacraments or poured out massively in a moment of redemption, is necessary for genuine felicity, both in this life and the next.
Of course, the above list is not exhaustive. Readers can probably add quite a few more items. I think, though, that enough has been said to see how religion can matter so very, very much to people—so much that they might be willing to torture and kill for it. It is easy to show that the flip side of the above perceived goods of religion can be resentment, hatred, and maybe violence:
1) When someone challenges your religion, they appear to denigrate your customs, traditions, community, history, and your whole way of living. It feels like they are being ethnocentric and condescending. If someone insults your religion, it can feel like they are insulting your family, and, in a sense, they are. The Apostle Paul spoke of fellow believers as his brothers and sisters in Christ, and the family metaphor is apt. A perceived insult to one’s biological or religious family can provoke a violent response.
2) Challenging religion can appear subversive, an attempt to dissolve the glue of society and sow discord. The low will be incited to indulge their envy of the high, and the high will be left with no means of preserving their position except by brutal repression. If you take away their pie in the sky, the lowly will fight to get it now by any means necessary, and the high will fight to hold on by any means necessary.
3) Anyone who questions your religion seems to be attempting to relegate you to insignificance. Nobody likes to be made to feel that they do not matter. If your religion is what gives you a sense of meaning in life, then, you will surely bitterly resent anyone who seemingly wants to deny you that comfort.
4) Unfortunately, biases are all too often among the beliefs that religion reinforces. Among the comforts that religion offers is the reassurance that God hates the same people you do. Indeed, if God hates, say, liberals, feminists, evolutionists, environmentalists, gays, lesbians, atheists, Democrats, and smarty-pants college professors, then you have a duty to hate them too. I have on my office door a hilarious picture of a horrid Phyllis Schlafly-type woman saying “God told me to hate you.” Religion did not create hatred, but it can make is so much easier and more fun to hate. It makes it easier and more fun by combining the pleasure of hating with the pleasure of self-righteousness.
5) As with every topic, St. Thomas Aquinas was impeccably logical when discussing heresy. In the 13th Century murderers were always and everywhere put to death. Yet, notes Aquinas, the murderer only destroys the body. The heretic does not destroy merely the mortal body, but leads the immortal soul into perdition. The heretic is therefore far more dangerous and despicable than the murderer, and far more worthy of being punished by death. If you accept Aquinas’s premises, this conclusion is inescapable. If eternal punishment is the consequence of departing from true belief, then must we not oppose the spread of false doctrine by any and all means? If you accept this conclusion, the stake and the rack cannot be far behind.
It appears, then, that Victor has understated the potential of religion to incite violence. In fact, as we see above, what makes the problem with religion and violence so intractable is that the qualities that make religion matter so much to people are the same ones that make it so dangerous.