Saturday, January 31, 2009
Vic, thanks loads for your reply. I do not think that we have a theory that shows that most people would believe in the Judeo-Christian God. I don't know of any theory, except maybe Plantinga's sensus divinitatis, that says that belief in God is hardwired. However, there is much evidence that belief in a god or gods is. Here is a sample of recent books adducing such evidence: The "God" Part of the Brain by Matthew Alper, Faces in the Clouds, by Stewart Guthrie, Darwin's Cathedral by David Sloan Wilson, In Gods we Trust, by Scott Atran, The Evolution of Morality and Religion, by Donald M. Broom, Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer, and Breaking the Spell, by Daniel Dennett (We are a LONG way beyond the old Freudian and Marxist explanations). Each of the theories presented in these books is what I call a Biological Belief Theory (BBT). Each BBT adduces vast amounts of information from neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and anthropology to argue that humans have a natural proclivity towards belief in gods. No BBT holds that belief in a specific god, Zeus, Marduk, or Yahweh, for instance, is "hardwired." All of these writers recognize that specific gods are social constructs, the products of particular cultures and historical contingencies and subject to historical development. But they argue that culture does not write on a blank slate. God myths are avidly invented, promulgated, and believed because they satisfy a natural yearning and give a specific shape to innate but inchoate urgings. Vic, you say that explaining God is a tougher case than Hobbits. We know how Hobbits were made up, but we cannot say so clearly how God was made up. But it seems that we can. Karen Armstrong's A History of God recounts in considerable detail how a small-time, truculent tribal god of a minor pastoral people became the one universal God of the later prophets, and then the triune God of Christianity, and then the ferociously unitary Allah of Islam, and, eventually, the watchmaker God of the Enlightenment. Armstrong explains cogently how these evolving concepts of God were responses to the spiritual needs and cultural exegincies of particular times and places. Of course, just one person thought up Hobbits (though, of course, Tolkien was drawing upon a vast history of folklore about "little people"), and no one person made up God. But the principle is the same. If we know that an idea was a product of myth and folklore(and, prima face, this seems to be the case with Yahweh just as much as for Zeus, Odin, or Quetzalcoatl), and if we know that people will be inclined to invent, promulgate, and believe such myths whether they are true or not, then, absent compelling contrary evidence, it is rational to discount such ideas. Further, as I argued, such discounting does not commit the genetic fallacy.Vic, you say that wanting to believe in God was for you a major obstacle to belief. Knowing you as a person of exceptional honesty and intellectual integrity, I'll take you at your word. However, I also know how easy it is for our introspective self-reports to be wrong, however honest our self-scrutiny is. For instance, over the years I have heard many people preface a statement of belief (in God, ESP, UFO's, conspiracy theories, monsters, or what have you) with the claim that they started off as skeptics but were brought around by "overwhelming evidence." Then, when you look at the evidence, and find it to be very underwhelming, you have to conclude that their initial skepticism did not run nearly so deep as it subjectively seemed to them. So, we can easily be wrong about what we perceive as our real, deep-down desires and motivations. Tell me, do you really think that, had you been born Vijay instead of Victor, and if you were from Bangalore rather than Phoenix, AZ, that you would not now be as devoted to Brahma as you are to God?
Keith: First of all, I think the Hobbit example is flawed because almost no Tolkien readers have the slightest inclination to be realists about hobbits, since the words “fantasy fiction” are right on the cover of the book. Maybe the case of Tim, who sees snakes in his room after a long drinking binge, might be better. We have good reason to suppose that his room contains no snakes, and we can explain how someone having consumed as much alcohol as he has consumed would come to hold such beliefs. Here, however, you are typically going to find people in the room who see no snakes, etc. In short there will be a body of evidence undermining the claim that there are snakes in Tim’s bedroom.
Do we have anything like this with respect to religious beliefs? I think it is difficult. Now IF we have assessed the overall evidence for theism as pretty poor, in much the way that the others of us in Tim’s room who see no snakes assess the evidence negatively, then we might try to figure out how Tim got his belief that there were snakes in the room. But presumably you are offering these psychological explanations as a piece of atheological evidence itself, as a reason to reject belief in God that stands independent of such arguments as the argument from evil. Now I do suppose that if we knew enough about alcohol and its effects on the brain we could dismiss claims of that sort even in the absence of evidence against the claim itself, simply on the grounds that it was produced by an unreliable belief-producing mechanism.
But the challenge for this argument is going to be daunting. You have to remember, first, that if the Christian God really does exist, it is highly likely that God would make us in such a way that our true needs are met by a knowledge of, and relation to him.
And let’s look at what we have to explain. First of all, you must explain the proclivity to think in terms of deities, and to produce religious explanations. Then you have to explain how a society moved from polytheism to monotheism. Then you have to explain how, right from the midst of a people whose whole history had been a battle for monotheism, someone came along who claimed to be the Incarnate God and got a significant enough following to spread belief in him throughout the Roman Empire, resulting in a monotheistic God that is nevertheless triune. And then you have to explain the fact that people at the highest levels in science and philosophy still think the evidence sufficient for belief in this triune God. These are four separate steps, and they all need to be accounted for.
For the sake of this discussion, I will grant that if naturalism is true human beings can be expected to produce supernaturalist beliefs. When we get to the second and third steps, I think the naturalist is going to run into problems. Parsons writes:
Karen Armstrong's A History of God recounts in considerable detail how a small-time, truculent tribal god of a minor pastoral people became the one universal God of the later prophets, and then the triune God of Christianity, and then the ferociously unitary Allah of Islam, and, eventually, the watchmaker God of the Enlightenment. Armstrong explains cogently how these evolving concepts of God were responses to the spiritual needs and cultural exigencies of particular times and places.
Really now! I haven’t read Armstrong, but let me point out that this job is a going to be a tough one. Let me present an analogy. The Arizona Cardinals are about to play in their first Super Bowl tomorrow. I do not know whether they will win, as I hope, or whether the Pittsburgh Steelers will win, as Keith hopes. But let’s concern ourselves with how we might explain the Cardinals’ playoff victories to date, the three triumphs over the Atlanta Falcons, the Carolina Panthers, and the Philadelphia Eagles. Now you can talk, if you want, about the stellar passing of Kurt Warner, the opportunistic defense and the enormously positive turnover ratio, the almost superhuman catches of Larry Fitzgerald, the resurgence of the Cardinals’ running game, and their enormous success in shutting down some pretty effective running backs. But if you take all of these things and say that, with them, they were the inevitable NFC Champions, you would be overlooking the fact that this franchise had been NFL doormats since the mid 1970s, that they had lost several games toward the end of the season, some by large margins, and that they were not favored to win any of the playoff games they eventually did win. In short, you have to take seriously what the Cardinals were up against in this playoff run if your explanation of their success is to have any credibility. That is why Cardinal fans who say they knew all year that this would happen are, well, blowing hot air out of some undignified places.
What does this have to do with the explanation of religious belief? Surely I am not following the example of our quarterback in explaining these victories theologically. No, all I am saying is that if you are going to explain the emergence of such developments as Western theism, you had better be aware of the forces arrayed against this development.
If it were perfectly natural for polytheists to turn to monotheism, why didn’t it happen in Greece, in Rome, in Moab, in Babylonia, in Assyria, in Syria, amongst the Hittites, or the Scythians, or in India (where there was some development, but not classical monotheism) in China, or in Egypt? No, your explanation has to explain how it happened in Israel and why it didn’t happen elsewhere. And if we look at the history of Israel, we find that the supporters of Hebrew monotheism had to fight a battle for it against what seemed like the forces of gravity dragging them back in to the polytheism of the other nations. The Golden Calf, Baal, and a host of other deities beckoned the ancient Hebrews away from Yahweh, and for the most part that gravitational power sucked them in. All of the kings of Israel and most of the kings of Judah were idol-worshippers. Remember any military defeat in that time was typically explained as the god of the victorious nation beating the god of the defeated nation. Seeing how Yahwism could hang on in that kind of an atmosphere is tougher than seeing how the Cardinals pulled off three straight playoff upsets and made it to the Super Bowl. The religion of Yahweh was tougher and more demanding, and did not promise the worshipper any magical power over his deity. If there had been no Babylonian captivity followed by an opportunity for those who held on to monotheism in the face of captivity (amazing given what I said about beliefs regarding military defeats) to return to the homeland, the belief in the Hebrew God would have died out as surely as belief in the gods of Moab did, or the gods of Assyria and Babylonia.
And Egypt? Remember King Tut? He succeeded Pharaoh Iknaton, the innovative Pharaoh who introduced monotheism. But only for his reign. Young King Tut brought the force of gravity back to Egypt, he reinstituted the ancient Egyptian polytheistic God and got rid of Iknaton's little experiment with monotheism.
And then, once that is in place, we now have to tell the story of Jesus. How in the world does someone arise in the very bastion of monotheism who claims to be God incarnate, and who ends up being regarded as the second person of a Triune but still monotheistic God? First, someone has to make some remarkable claims about himself while at the same time having the kind of profound moral insight sufficient to provide him with a following. I think this is where the Liar, Lunatic or Lord argument has its proper place. I think this is difficult to explain. But that’s not all. Then Jesus has to be crucified, dead, buried, and resurrection claims now have to emerge. Did the disciples hallucinate? And then who else had to hallucinate? Saul of Tarsus? Without him the message of Jesus never makes it out to the Gentiles. I’m not exactly saying that it’s too all too improbable to be false (well, I actually do think this), but the idea that this is all easy to explain in terms of human needs and psychological impulses is crazier than saying that the Cardinals were inevitable NFC champions from the first snap of the 2008 season.
And then we have to explain how people like Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Robert Adams, Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, etc. come to look at the reasons for believing in the Christian God and find it good. Oh yeah, then there’s that Reppert guy, too. Now apart form actually refuting their arguments, I don’t see how you can criticize their beliefs. Yes, these people could have misevaluated the evidence. But I don’t see how a psychological explanation can possibly be a good argument against their convictions. Yes, there are possible psychological explanations, but that is all I will grant. I could give, just as easily, possible psychological explanation for the unbelief of Keith Parsons or any other atheist. Paul Vitz offers psychological explanations for atheism. I don’t think any psychological theory is deep enough and complex enough to be complete, in the absence of independent reasons to accept or reject religious belief.
I conclude, therefore, that the psychological explanation of religious belief fails to constitue a reason to reject religious belief.
Suppose . . . that on next Tuesday morning, just after breakfast, all of us in this one world are knocked to our knees by a percussive and ear-shattering thunderclap. Snow swirls; leaves drop from trees; the earth heaves and buckles; buildings topple and towers tumble; the sky is ablaze with an eerie silvery light. Just then, as all the people of the earth look up, the heavens open - the clouds pull apart - revealing an unbelievably immense and radiant Zeus-like figure, towering above us like a hundred Everests. He frowns darkly as lightening plays across the features of his Michelangeloid face. He then points down - at me! - and exclaims for every man, woman, and child to hear, " I have had quite enough of your too-clever logic-chopping and word-watching in matters of theology. Be assured Richard Dawkins, that I do most certainly exist!"
Friday, January 30, 2009
I. The argument from Implied Practice
1. If ethics is subjective, then we should expect people to recognize that actions which they are inclined to think of as "wrong" are only wrong from their point of view.
2. But invariably, people view wrongs against themselves as actions that are really wrong.
3. Therefore moral values are objective and not subjective.
II. The argument from Underlying Moral Consensus:
1. If morality were a subjective matter, we would expect to find sizable differences of fundamental principles amongst moral codes.
2. But there is, in general, agreement concerning fundamental principles amongst moral codes.
3. Therefore, morality is objective rather than subjective.
III. The argument from reformers:
1. If moral values are subjective, then moral codes cannot improve, since there is no objective standard by which to judge one code better than another.
2. But the work of people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks shows that moral codes can be made more just.
3. Therefore, moral values are objective rather than subjective.
IV. The argument from clear cases
1. If moral values are subjective, then even in clear cases of wrongness, we have to say that it is neither true nor false that an action was wrong.
2. But consider the case of someone inviting another person over for dinner, shoving that person into the oven, and then eating them as dinner. (Or the Holocaust, etc.)
3. Therefore, moral values are objective rather than subjective.
V. The argument from human rights.
1. If moral values are subjective, then there are no inalienable human rights. (A right in a moral obligation on the part of someone not to do something to you. If I have the right to free speech, that means someone has the obligation not to forcibly shut me up).
2. There are inalienable human rights.
3. Therefore, moral values are objective and not subjective.
Any missing argument here?
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Some people like to quote the Hebrews passage, "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Without further explanation, that doesn't do much for us.
Let me quote C. S. Lewis: "I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it. That is not the point at which faith comes in."
So what is faith, and what is the point where it does come in?
Monday, January 26, 2009
A redated post. The link it to a philosophy of religion information site.
Suppose you have been trying to decide whether to believe in God or not and you can't figure it out. The philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that we are all in that situation. Kant argued that we must then choose the beliefs that will best facilitate our efforts to be moral persons, and he argued that a world-view with an infinite future ahead of us, a world-view where our choices are really up to us, and a world-view that sees the world governed by a moral God is preferable from that standpoint that a world-view where we die and rot, where the scales of justice are not balanced in the end. So if our goal is to be moral, then given a choice, we should believe in God.
Is Kant right about this?
I suppose there are some Christian apologists who calculate the apologetic impact of what they say before saying it. But what seems to be going on here is a canard. Since the idea is to defend a particular belief, it must be dishonest, because the goal has got to be that of advancing the cause of Christianity rather than seeking the truth. But if so, atheist apologetics (and what the hell would you call all that stuff on Internet Infidels, not to mention what comes from Richard Dawkins, if it isn't atheist apologetics) is in the same boat.
As an apologist, all I am doing is saying "I have been following the argument where it leads as best I can for years now, this is where it has led me, let me tell you why I came to believe what I do and what holds my beliefs in place." I don't use arguments I think are bad in order to get people to become Christians.
I'm afraid this is an ad hominem attack on Christian apologetics. Last time I taught logic, that was a fallacy.
Given the fact that our only sources for Jesus say that he did and said all sorts of things that imply that he was claiming to be God, the idea that he was just a great moral teacher but not God is does seem absurd. Either he was right about all that (in which case he would be God), or he was lying about who he was (in which case he would not be anyone people would want to follow) or he was nuts. If you can't accept him as God, then you can't follow him as a moral teacher. As Lewis put it:
"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God."
Now you can back out of these claims by saying that the Scriptures aren't reliable historical records and that Jesus never did or said anything to suggest that he was anything more than a Jewish carpenter with a call to preach. But if the Scriptures are highly unreliable about who he claimed to be, how could they be reliable when it comes to identifying what he taught?
We can call the argument against the "great moral teacher" hypothesis the modest trilemma. In other words, we might ask if the argument is successful against the "nice-guy Jesus" that is often part of popular culture. The ambitious trilemma tries to get you to conclude, instead, that Jesus was God. Defending the modest trilemma will certainly be easier than defending the ambitious trilemma.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
What's missing from the Griswold case, of course, is the presence of a fetus whose rights, arguably, merit protection. My view is that if you take the fetus out of the equation, Roe was correct, just as if you take the right of the Negro slave to liberty out of the equation in Dred Scott, then Dred turns out to be right.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
I was in some abortion discussions on another blog in which it was contended that no matter where you stood on the other issues, you nevertheless ought to vote for the Republicans because they take the right position the "transcendent" issue of the day, which is abortion. I tried to give people a sense of what they were asking me to do by asking me to do, since it was clear that this person probably would vote Republican even if the abortion issue didn't exist. On the other hand, I would have to vote against my convictions in virtually all other ways, in order to support candidates who at least have abortion right.
(I once said to a class of students that I thought that logically, Republicans should be pro-choice and Democrats should be pro-life, and got the enthustiasic support of a Republican student.)
So I suggested this scenario: suppose you had someone who is pro-life but a liberal Democrat on other issues, running against a pro-choice Republican. Who do you choose?
His answer was that so long as the Democrat was willing to nominate strict constructionist judges who would overturn Roe, that he would vote for the Democrat. The assumption is that the strict constructionist will overturn Roe, the "activist" will uphold it. One one blog I read that it was almost true by definition that a strict constructionist judge will be anti-Roe. Republicans like "strict constructionist" legal philosophies more than Democrats do, so that would make it highly unlikely that he would feel obligated to vote Democrat because of abortion.
But does it work that way really? Let's look at the Dred Scott case, to which pro-lifers love to compare Roe. If you set aside the idea that a Negro slave is a person with a right to liberty under the Constitution, the court came to exactly the right decision. Property rights are property rights, and to say that one's property is no longer one's property when it crosses state lines is ludicrous.
It seems to me that there is nothing especially strict constructionist about saying that the fetus does have a right to life. But just as, if you take the slave's right to liberty out of the equation, Dred Scott comes up right, if you take the fetus's right to life out of the equation, it seems to me that Roe is spot on. Pro-lifers like to argue that the Supreme Court "invented" a right to privacy, but could we tolerate a law invading our medical privacy if it concerned contraception, or vasectomies, or face-lifts? In other words, there is only one "strict constructionist" argument against Roe, and it seems to me to be a bad one.
Further, isn't it a little weird that you are upholding a fetus's right to life by denying rights to the pregnant mother instead of affirming the rights of the fetus? Why would anyone oppose abortion for any reason other than the right of the fetus to life?
Now maybe this doesn't matter to some people. Maybe it doesn't matter whether Roe is struck down for a bad reason, so long as it's struck down. Any port in a storm. But that just doesn't seem to me to be very honest. If you could prevent abortions by telling women lies about the psychological effects of abortion, should you do so?
Further, legal precedents have far-reaching implications. I am inclined to oppose outcome-based jurisprudence, accepting judicial principles that get the conclusions we like, whether they are sound across the board or not.
It seems to me the only honest way of arguing against Roe is to argue that the fetus at least possibly has the right to life, and that that right is of greater significance and importance than the right of privacy and medical autonomy that ought to hold sway on other medical matters.
It may be that strict constructionists judges may be demographically more inclined to rule against abortion, but there is no good logical pathway from strict constructionism to the overturning of Roe.
This of course can run in two directions.
1. If physicalism is true, then there can be no moral facts.
2. Physicalism is true.
3. Therefore, there are no moral facts.
1. If physicalism is true, then there can be no moral facts.
2. There are moral facts.
3. Therefore physicalism is false.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Why didn't God create us with wings on our backs to fly? This is the question John Loftus asks. I can imagine various reasons why God did not choose to do this; I am not at all sure that making humans more powerful would be at all good for nature as a whole, or even for humans in the final analysis. But be that as it may, let me grant, for the sake of argument, that I can't think of any good reason why God couldn't have given us all wings. Exactly what does that buy the atheist? Why is this any different from the argument that says "There are gaps in the fossil record, I can't see how evolution could have make these transition, therefore there is no naturalistic explanation for these transitions and a creator must exist." If I were to present an argument like that over at Debunking Christianity, what would they say, do you think? They would say that there may be an explanation for this particular gap in the fossil record that we haven't figured out. Yet, when atheists are using the argument from evil, they use a gap in our understanding as to why God would permit such and such as a basis for rejecting theism. Why?
Let's take a humbler example. Many Monopoly players try to make the game more fun by collecting all the payments to the bank from various sources and putting them on Free Parking. Then when someone lands on Free Parking, they get all that money. And there is nothing wrong with changing the rules in that way. However, there is a reason why the game itself doesn't do that, which was explained in The Monopoly Book. Monopoly games tend to be long, but the game ends when all but one player goes bankrupt. Taking money that would otherwise have gone into that bank and putting it back into the hands of players slows down this process and makes the game even longer.
Now, I had never thought of that. What looked like an improvement to the game of Monopoly had a downside I didn't realize until it was pointed out to me. So what about my suggestions for improving the universe. The makers of Monopoly are mere mortals. What about a being of infinite intelligence? Is it not at least possible that from the point of view of Omniscience our proposed improvements for the universe really might not turn out to be improvements after all. Think about that next time your opponent lands on Park Place when you have a monopoly there.
Monday, January 19, 2009
Whether you think such "outside help" is available or not, do you think his idea of a moral law that is really tough for humans, in their natural condition, to follow, is a justified concept?
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Friday, January 16, 2009
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
When we call an action selfish, I think what we have in mind is where people do something in their own interest when the interests of others could and should have been considered. Consider someone who hogs the ball and attempts to maximize their own scoring statistics when presumably they could pass the ball and improve their team's chances thereby. Here you have one course of action (hog the ball and shoot when you can) and another course (pass it to help the team) and you choose the selfish action.
If this kind of contrast is present every time we use the word selfish, the it looks like we aren't ever going to come up with a defensible theory that makes all actions "really" selfish. What could that possibly mean?
My favorite Trinity story came from Eldridge Cleaver (not related to Wally and Beaver). He went to a class on religion in which the nuns asked him to give his understanding of the Trinity. The idea was supposed to be to show that no one could truly understand the Trinity. Only, he thought he did understand it. It was like Three-In-One Oil.
Mt: 23: 15 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell[f] you yourselves are!
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Steve Hays, in the linked post, argues that the divine hiddenness argument and Hume-style objections to miracles don't mix. If God couldn't make himself obvious, then it can't be an objection to theism to point out that he ought to have made himself obvious. I make a similar point in an essay I wrote on Infidels on miracles:
Bertrand Russell was reportedly once asked what he would say to God if he were to find himself confronted by the Almighty about why he had not believed in God's existence. He said that he would tell God "Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!" But perhaps, if God failed to give Russell enough evidence, it was not God's fault. We are inclined to suppose that God could satisfy Russell by performing a spectacular miracle for Russell's benefit. But if the reasoning in David Hume's epistemological argument against belief in miracles  is correct, then no matter how hard God tries, God cannot give Russell an evidentially justified belief in Himself by performing miracles. According to Hume, no matter what miracles God performs, it is always more reasonable to believe that the event in question has a natural cause and is not miraculous. Hence, if Russell needs a miracle to believe reasonably in God, then Russell is out of luck. Russell cannot complain about God's failure to provide evidence, since none would be sufficient. But God cannot complain about Russell's failure to believe.
Monday, January 12, 2009
Saturday, January 10, 2009
This is a link to Erik Wielenberg's response to what is generally thought of as the main argument of Dawkins' The God Delusion. Wielenberg thinks, rightly I believe, that it is an inferior version of an argument that goes all the way back to Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Dr. Wielenberg is writing a book on Hume, Russell, and C. S. Lewis which promises to be an outstanding contribution. He asked for feedback on this section, so I'd like to hear from my commentator crew (who seem to have gotten quieter of late.
41 ‘Then He will say to those at His left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44 Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45 Then He will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
See, it's all about helping the poor, not about accepting Christ. No???
Friday, January 09, 2009
Mere Christianity, Book 2 Chapter 4
C. S. Lewis and the Atonement
Question: If you had just a few minutes to explain Christianity to someone, how would you explain it?
Liberal Theology focuses on what Jesus taught. The textbook for my History of World Religions class spends pages and pages on the personality and teachings of Jesus, and spends only one short paragraph on the crucifixion and resurrection.
I Cor. 15:14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
Lewis: And now, what was the purpose of it all? What did he come to do? Well, to teach, of course, but as soon as you look into the New Testament or any other Christian writing you will find that they are constantly talking about something different—about His death and His coming to life again. It is obvious that Christians think the chief point of the story lies here. They think the main thing He came to earth to do was to suffer and be killed.
But how does the Atonement work? Fundamentalism, the great opponent of Liberal theology, (and here I am referring to Fundamentalism as a set of doctrines, not as an epithet or an intellectual vice) affirmed Five Fundamentals:
1) The Verbal Inspiration of the Bible
2) The Virgin Birth of Christ
3) The Substitutionary Atonement
4) The Bodily Resurrection of Christ
5) The Second Coming of Christ
But what does it mean to call the atonement a substitutionary atonement? What it typically means (I heard this on the radio today), is that as sinners, we human beings face the wrath of God. Because of our sins, we deserve to suffer everlastingly in hell. But Christ on the cross suffers the punishment that we deserve to suffer, therefore it becomes possible for God to forgive us our sins and allow us to be saved. This site explains theory:
Many people believe this. But does it make sense? Does it follow from the fact that the being sinned against is infinite that the deserved punishment is also infinite? Back in the Middle Ages, it was thought that you deserved a greater punishment if you committed a crime against a greater person, so stealing something from the king is worse than stealing something from a peasant. Also, because the suffering is on the part of an infinite being, does that make the payment sufficient? Does a few hours of pain on the cross pay for what I would have to pay for in an eternity in hell?
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Lewis employs a picture which in theology is often called the Christus Victor model. Christ’s death, according to this picture, Christ’s death pays a ransom to Satan (the White Witch), who has a right to punish us. However, Christ escapes the clutches of Satan through resurrection. This view is defended by Charles Taliaferro and Rachel Traughber in “The Atonement in Narnia,” in the book Philosophy and the Chronicles of Narnia (Open Court, 2005).
In the traditional “substitutionary” picture God has an obligation, based on His own holiness, to punish humans; in the “Christus Victor/Narnian picture Satan (and/or the Witch) has the right to punish humans.
But what Lewis says in this chapter is interesting. His claim is the important thing is to accept Christ’s atonement, not to accept some theory about Christ’s atonement.
“On my view the theories are not what you are asked to accept. Many of you no doubt have read Jeans or Eddington. (Physicists who wrote for the general public-VR). What they do when they want to explain the atom, or something of that sort, is to give you a description out of which you can make a mental picture. But then they warn you that this picture is not what the scientists believe. What the scientists believe is a mathematical formula. The pictures are only there to help you understand the formula. They are not really true in the way that the formula is; they do not give you the real thing but only something more or less like it. They are only meant to help, and if they do not help you can drop them.” The thing itself cannot be pictured, it can only be expressed mathematically. We are in the same boat here. We believe that the death of Christ is just that point at which something absolutely unimaginable from outside shows through into our own world. And if we cannot picture even the atoms of which our own world is built, of course we are not going to be able to picture this. Indeed, if we found we could fully understand it, that very fact would show that it was not what it professes to be--the inconceivable, the uncreated, the thing from beyond nature, striking down into nature like lightning…A man may eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he as accepted it.”
Lewis the offers a mental picture that is different from either of the two pictures presented above. Salvation requires a death to self and a surrender to God; the more sinful we are the more we need to repent and the more difficult it is for us to do that, Jesus as the God-man surrenders to the Father in a way that allows us to “buy into” it, thus enabling us to be saved. However, this is a picture designed to help, and is not simply one more “theory of the atonement” to go alongside the others that have been developed.
Imagine, further, that we didn't grow up as Christians, hearing this sort of thing in church all our lives. Would this make sense to us?
Thursday, January 08, 2009
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
"A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead with no clothes. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.' "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise." New International Version
Someone asks Jesus "Who is my neighbor" meaning "Is there a limit on the range of people to whom I have moral obligations?" So Jesus says "OK, imagine yourself having just been beaten up on the side of the road and left for dead. The Priest and the Levite, pillars of the community, walk on the other side. The Samaritan (religiously, racially, and probably morally in the "wrong" group), does help you. Now tell me that the people in the "right" group are your neighbor and the people in the "wrong" group are not your neighbor. All of a sudden the line between "us" and "them" starts to disappear, doesn't it?
Regardless of how you view Jesus theologically, you have to see this as a sheer stroke of moral brilliance.
As I said, fundamentalists.
By Martin Beckford and Urmee Khan Last Updated: 10:47AM BST 25 Oct 2008
Professor Richard Dawkins plans to find out if stories like Harry Potter have a "pernicious" effect on children
The prominent atheist is stepping down from his post at Oxford University to write a book aimed at youngsters in which he will warn them against believing in "anti-scientific" fairytales.
Prof Hawkins said: "The book I write next year will be a children's book on how to think about the world, science thinking contrasted with mythical thinking.
"I haven't read Harry Potter, I have read Pullman who is the other leading children's author that one might mention and I love his books. I don't know what to think about magic and fairy tales."
Prof Dawkins said he wanted to look at the effects of "bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards".
"I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don't know," he told More4 News.
"I think looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I'm not sure. Perhaps it's something for research."
But Prof Dawkins, the bestselling author of The God Delusion who this week agreed to fund a series of atheist adverts on London buses, added that his new book will also set out to demolish the "Judeo-Christian myth".
He went on: "I plan to look at mythical accounts of various things and also the scientific account of the same thing. And the mythical account that I look at will be several different myths, of which the Judeo-Christian one will just be one of many.
"And the scientific one will be substantiated, but appeal to children to think for themselves; to look at the evidence. Always look at the evidence."
Prof Dawkins is targeting children as the audience of his next project because he believes they are being "abused" by being taught about religion at school and labelled Christian, Jewish or Muslim from a young age.
Speaking recently at a conference of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, a group of Britons who have renounced Islam, Prof Dawkins said: "Do not ever call a child a Muslim child or a Christian child – that is a form of child abuse because a young child is too young to know what its views are about the cosmos or morality.
"It is evil to describe a child as a Muslim child or a Christian child. I think labelling children is child abuse and I think there is a very heavy issue, for example, about teaching about hell and torturing their minds with hell.
"It's a form of child abuse, even worse than physical child abuse. I wouldn't want to teach a young child, a terrifyingly young child, about hell when he dies, as it's as bad as many forms of physical abuse."
Saturday, January 03, 2009
I have nothing against advocating abstinence. But first, I doubt that the public school curriculum is the best place to do that. (People who won't give any other domestic job to "gummint" want to give this one to the government?) Further, the definition of an abstinence program seems to be one that denies contraceptive information to teenagers. If I were a rebellious teenager I certainly would resent the fact that important information was being withheld from me, that I wasn't being told the whole truth.
Sadly enough, if there are any guys out there like some of the ones I grew up with, wearing a chastity ring is tantamount to putting the logo of a certain discount store on one's back. The one with the red circles, you know.
Friday, January 02, 2009
Swinburne thinks this argument supports religious belief, but Michael Martin disagrees.
“I don’t”, said Scrooge.
“Why do you doubt your senses?”“
Because”, said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheat. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato…”
From ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens.
Thursday, January 01, 2009
C. S. Lewis, "Man or Rabbit?" an Essay from God in the Dock
Christian philosopher Victor Reppert, admires Lewis's essay, "Man or Rabbit," and it was recently cited at his blog here and here. I read that essay ages ago along with all the rest in God in the Dock. But I wonder what Vic really thinks about the following paragraph from Lewis's essay:
"Honest rejection of Christ, however mistaken, will be forgiven and healedâ€”'Whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him.' But to evade the Son of Man, to look the other way, to pretend you havenâ€™t noticed, to become suddenly absorbed in something on the other side of the street, to leave the receiver off the telephone because it might be He who was ringing up, to leave unopened certain letters in a strange handwriting because they might be from Himâ€”this is a different matter. You may not be certain yet whether you ought to be a Christian; but you do know you ought to be a Man, not an ostrich, hiding its head in the sand."
Exactly how am I to take the above paragraph except as an altar call?
I say this because in my own journey I sought what I could know about Jesus, I did not ignore the question, because I was at the time a true believer, baptized Catholic, converted and born again Protestant, experienced the charismatic baptism of the holy spirit, read Lewis and Calvin, and hence I could not simply ignore everything I'd been taught about Jesus from birth and my initial reaction to the Gospels as moving literature, nor ignore the arguments I'd imbibed from Christian apologetic books. So I sought to learn about the "Son of Man," and found out to my great chagrin that my beliefs concerning a great number of Christian dogmas and beliefs grew less certain after long study.
So I do not fit Lewis's description of someone "ignoring" the "Son of Man" question. Far from it. But I understand of course from Lewis's perspective of being a convert, that he would write rhetorically in the manner that he does, rather than as I do, about Christianity.
As for those whom Lewis calls "ostriches" for refusing to get involved in the whole deal, and skirting the issue on the other side of the street, I think there's some wisdom in those who choose to skirt the issue, especially when Lewis is cry out at you from the other side of his essay, calling you an ostrich, even implying that you are a damned ostrich and God is sending you letters you are refusing to read.
Maybe Lewis was just peeved at rising rates of biblical illiteracy?
And what exactly is wrong with believing that God wouldn't eternally condemn someone honestly in error? Lewis presupposes the opposite, that God WILL condemn people for not taking HIS [Lewis's and God's] religion seriously enough.
Well then, I'd say to Lewis, prove it, prove the Bible is true when it speaks about God, his nature, his commands, his actions, and heaven and hell, salvation, damnation, soteriology, prophecy, et al. I doubt that Lewis has ever proven such a thing or that any Christian apologist has. That's my non-ostrich-like stance. Of course Lewis appreciates people like me moreso than biblical illiterates trying to avoid his favorite holy book entirely, and who believe if there's a God, they find it tough to imagine him not being able to forgive people if their beliefs are wrong. Such ostriches actually imagine that God if He exists might react as any sane normal person wishing to get along with his neighbor would today.
I say, again contra Lewis, that there is something to be said for the much maligned ostrich, keeping its head down when hot headed people shout in essays that there holy book and their "Son of Man" shall damn anyone with enough sense to try and stay out of some of the world's perpetual quarrels, namely over God and holy books, that continue even among the most highly educated religionists, historians, apostates and converts. Heavens!
posted by Edward T. Babinski @ 11/21/2006
At 10:37 AM, November 21, 2006, Victor Reppert said...
I think you have misunderstood Lewis. The point is a fairly simple one. Lewis's passage is not addressed to someone like yourself who has considered the claims of Christianity and considers them not to be true. It is addressed to people who show refuse to pose the question of whether Christianity is true or not, but instead are trying to figure out if they can live a good life without being a Christian. My posting a link to this essay was a follow-up to the previous post, in which I argued that a Christian apologist like Lewis or myself and an atheist like Parsons or Loftus has a great deal in common with one another, in that they both believe that Christianity can be true or false, both believe that the subject matter is important, and both believe that it's a subject about which arguments are relevant and can help us discover the truth. This strikes me as very interesting common ground between the believer and the unbeliever which often gets overlooked with the two sides go at it hammer and tongs about that what they disagree about. Parsons and I would agree that a postmodernist who thinks we can just avoid the question of what is true and only ask what "works for me" is refusing to face reality. The ostrich is the one who never takes the question of Christianity seriously, not the one who takes it seriously and decides the whole thing is false. That's what, he thinks, will be "forgiven and healed." It's one of the places where Lewis is accused of being too liberal. I'm sure that won't be accepted by the folks over at Triablogue, for example.