the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

some big old issues touched upon: contra Mark Bahnisch

some optimist's view of the past and future of religion

The comments thread on the Larvatus Prodeo critique of The God Delusion is too large to adequately cover here, so I've chosen to focus on the blog's principal contributor, Mark Bahnisch, a writer I usually find quite stimulating (in passing I note that Shaun Cronin has written another post contra Dawkins on the blog, but I doubt if I'll have time to analyse it).

In Mark's first comment, he describes Dawkins as 'a very bad advocate for atheism' and claims that there are many better. Unfortunately he provides no names of these better advocates, nor does he give any coherent examples of Dawkins' poor advocacy. Further down in the thread he repeats the same assertion but again provides no names of better advocates, nor does he give examples of faulty logic or bad argument, he merely complains about Dawkins' arrogance on a video he once watched.

In this first comment Mark follows up his contemptuous remarks about Dawkins with a paragraph I can only describe as extraordinary:

I have no idea why he would think that the philosophical arguments for the existence of God are of any interest whatsoever in this context. People get taught the holes in them in first year philosophy, or at least they did when I was doing first year philosophy. To “disprove” them is easy work, but proves nothing other than they’re weak arguments.

Does Mark really have no idea why a book devoted to arguing against the existence of God should bother with any of the historical arguments for the existence of God? Or is he just being preposterous for the sake of being preposterous?

As to the quality of these pro-God arguments, Mark contradicts himself badly through the use of quotation marks. He tells us [again without showing us] that the arguments are weak and full of holes, and that to 'disprove' them is easy work, but his use of quotation marks strongly suggests that the arguments haven't been disproved at all [otherwise why on earth would he use them?]. So maybe he doesn't believe they're all such weak arguments?

And what do you know – further down in the thread, Mark refers to the ontological argument as 'the hardest to refute', and points out that 'There are a lot of Wittgenstein’s disciples from Cambridge who claim it’s valid'. Presumably these were disciples who'd failed first year philosophy courses.

Having myself read a book of collected writings, from Anselm on down, on the ontological argument, I personally find Dawkins' commentary on it to be just about spot on. It's no more than a language trick, as Schopenhauer noted long ago, and it's hardly surprising that the language philosophers of the fifties got themselves entangled in it.

Mark claims that the philosophical arguments for God's existence are old hat and that it's unlikely anyone would use them nowadays. This may be true for the ontological argument [leaving aside a few weird Wittgensteinians], but my current reading – The God Factor: 40 scientists and academics explain why they believe in God – indicates that many of those old arguments are still trotted out.

By far the most common one is the argument from design. Clearly this is influenced by current trends, but the fact is that the argument from design, once called the teleological argument, is the oldest of all the theist arguments, going back at least as far as Aristotle.

The cosmological argument is also still used by educated Christians, though it's often confused with the teleological argument – the idea of a designer being confused with, or supplementing, the more narrow idea of a cause. The arguments may be weak but they're still employed, especially, it seems, by well-educated, science-trained Christians, who are clearly wanting a more rational argument to support the faith they've largely – indeed almost universally – inherited from their parents. It's only to be expected that Dawkins would address those arguments, though Mark Bahnisch, of all people, would surely forgive him for not spending too much time on them, and for treating them quite scathingly.

On a couple of occasions, Mark talks about Dawkins being dogmatic about matters of which he knows little, but he gves no examples of this dogmatism. He may be talking about Dawkins' scathing remarks about theology, which I'll deal with in another post.

Mark accuses Dawkins of alienating liberal Christians by polarizing the debate, and insufficiently acknowledging, for example, pro-scientific pronouncements emanating from the Catholic hierarchy.

This leads into a larger debate, of course, about the compatibility or otherwise of religious faith and scientific knowledge. Mark appears to be sympathetic to the Catholic Church's official position on this matter, whereas I suspect that their position is more politically expedient than philosophical. Again, though, this is a subject for another day.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

delusions of grandeur? dawkins' critics - larvatus prodeo (part one)

The God Delusion has not surprisingly received a lot of critical attention of late, much of it adverse. Instead of commenting on the threads of other blog posts [I always seem to arrive at these posts too late anyway] I've decided to tackle them on my own blog. Let then come to me, ho ho.

The first critique I looked at was on Larvatus Prodeo, where Shaun Cronin complained that Dawkins, in pointing out that much 'religious art' in earlier centuries was simply art commissioned by the richest patron in the neighbourhood, the [Catholic] Church, wasn't prepared to allow religion any positive role whatever, either in the arts or society. Cronin went on to cite the religious inspiration behind blues music, of which he's clearly a fan, as just such a positive influence.

Cronin accepts that the religious feelings of Michelangelo or Son House [a blues artist apparently] and the great work these artists created, at least partly because of these feelings, can in no way support the case for the existence of deities, but he's clearly miffed by Dawkins' dismissiveness – unlike me, who didn't notice it.

This is because I read Dawkins' point as nothing more than that Michelangelo and Raphael were creatures of their time, religious in an age when everyone was religious, circumscribed [without feeling themselves so circumscribed] by the inspirational subject matter available to that age, and funded by the Church as the great power of the age.

I think, on reflection, Dawkins was wrong in saying that the fact that Michelangelo and Raphael were Christians was 'almost [note the weasel word] incidental' to their art, but I also think that in admiring the works of these artists and their contemporaries we admire much more than the beauty of religion. These works are monuments not only to God, but to humanity, and to the individual artists themselves. Religiosity, humanism and egotism, and nobody knows in what proportion. The non-believer will tend to look back at these works and minimize the religious element, because that doesn't speak so much to her, but she'll find the work no less beautiful for that.

Later, in the comments thread, Cronin describes Dawkins supposed dismissiveness as bone-headed and simplistic, but I cannot agree. Dawkins often condenses his argument, which might make him seem insensitive to the finer feelings often engendered by religion, but his point, that religious art was, during the renaissance, the only art game in town, is a basically sound one. And he wasn't writing about blues. Katz, a little further down in the thread, expands on this, in terms of the cultural bonds that inevitably produced these types of representations, in a superb rebuttal of Cronin's critique.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Peterson's Paul: Romans 2 - yahweh goes global

new look yahweh emerges, embarks on western tour

I've decided to start all my posts with a quote, at least until I get bored with it. This one comes from Jamie Whyte, author of Crimes against logic: The moment someone declares some opinion to be a matter of faith you know what to think of it.

I've taken a look at the first chapter of Romans, so now it's onto chapter 2. Over Christmas, my step-daughter Rachel reminded me again of Luther's commentary on Romans, as if I'd be interested. However, some recently read remarks by Dawkins on Luther's rabid anti-Semitism and his animadversions against the life of reason have perversely piqued my interest, so I might just look it up.

Meanwhile, back to The Message. Romans 2 starts with some sensible advice, of the 'judge not lest you be judged' variety. Having calmed down from having slagged off at the Ephesians [or whoever], he then warns his Romans against passing judgment – something which, apparently, only Yahweh and Paul are allowed to do with impunity.

After all his judgmental, indeed condemnatory remarks of chapter 1, Paul informs his readers that judgmental talk is used to conceal their own faults. Peterson's Paul writes:

You didn't think, did you, that just by pointing your finger at others you would distract God from seeing all your misdoings and from coming down on you hard? Or did you think that because he's such a nice God, he'd let you off the hook? Better think this one through from the beginning. God is kind, but he's not soft.

Here we have again Paul reinventing Yahweh, presumably in his own image. I can't imagine anyone who has read the old testament [with open eyes] describing the god therein as kind. He just isn't. But Yahweh in the hands of Paul is kind, but not soft.

It's not, of course, much of a stretch. Yahweh does have moments of kindness – think of the even bigger family he gave to Job to make up for the family he slaughtered – but he could never be described as soft, so Paul's confident assertions about him are generally plausible.

Paul then goes on to talk about the final 'fiery and righteous' judgment, and takes the standard line that if you're with Yahweh you'll be fine, but if you're an independent, it's fire for you. He also claims, without much explanation, that turning your back on Yahweh means taking the path of least resistance. And the rhetoric blows on – you get splinters if you go against the grain [which presumably is the same as taking the path of least resistance, that's to say denying Yahweh, which makes no sense, but who cares?]

Peterson's Paul seems not to be clearly distinguishing, as we go along, between following Yahweh and doing the right thing. He no doubt believes they're identical activities, and anybody who thinks any of yahweh's acts of genocide and random cruelty are wrong is trying to get her own way, going against the grain, and taking the path of least resistance. And she's going to burn in hell forever. Paul's message here is illogical as well as immoral, but we're not meant to look too closely, we're meant to be swept away by the rhetoric.

Paul is of course addressing the already Yahweh-fearing. Very few of his audience would've questioned the god's morality. However, he's trying to extend his message beyond the Jews, claiming – he always of course speaks for Yahweh – that the god's indifferent to whether or not you're a Jew, just as long as you obey his commandments. This is really the creation of Christianity by Paul we're reading about, a religion no longer bound by the tribe but open to all. All you need to do is throw away your mind and follow Yahweh [who henceforth should be known simply as God, and is no longer the jealous tyrant of the OT but someone who so loved the world that he gave his only son, etc].

Next, though, Paul starts making concessions. 'If you sin without knowing what you're doing, God takes that into account', he writes. And what follows soon afterwards is probably quite important for Christian or Pauline theology:

When outsiders who have never heard of God's law follow it more or less by instinct, they confirm its truth by their obedience. They show that God's law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into the very fabric of our creation. There is something deep within them that echoes God's yes and no, right and wrong. Their response to God's yes and no will become public knowledge on the day god makes his final decision about every man and woman. The Message of God that I proclaim through Jesus Christ takes into account all these differences.

I'm guessing this is important because it expresses a surprising sympathy for those who've never heard of God's law and hints that you might just able to be 'saved' by works and lifestyle rather than through knowledge and acceptance of God. This has of course always been the most contentious of all theological issues.

Of course Paul's argument here, if it can be called such, is hopelessly weak. The obvious rejoinder is that outsiders follow God's law by instinct because God, or Yahweh or whoever, is an invention, as is his law. God's law is a human construct derived from human instincts, and so people will follow these so-called laws whether they've heard of them or not. The laws are true in that they were created with an eye to social survival and harmony, God being just an add-on.

The rest of chapter 2 seeks to undermine Jewish pride of place in a universalizing religion based on Judaism, so naturally it would have been highly controversial, and offensive to some Jews then and today. Circumcision in particular is focused on. Paul's view is that it's great if you follow God's law, but if you don't it's even worse than not being circumcised. This is of course illogical: Why would a circumcised person who doesn't follow God's law be worse than an uncircumcised person who doesn't follow God's law? I understand of course what Paul's driving at but it's still illogical, unless of course this is still a god who favours Jews, and who therefore considers their disobedience more heinous than that of non-Jews. Poor Yahweh, it's hard to get accustomed to impartial universality.