Thursday, June 29, 2006

Will there be cavemen in heaven?

or: Further defining ‘Dunnoism’

Although The Simpsons is much funnier than anything in the Bible except the Story of Lot, it shares with that Good Book the useful feature whereby carefully-selected excerpts can be used to support absolutely any argument.

Thus, I invite you to Springfield’s Sunday School, where Bart and Milhouse are plaguing their teacher with all manner of vexing questions….

Milhouse: Will there be cavemen in heaven?
Sunday School Teacher: Certainly not!
Bart: Uh, ma'am? What if you're a really good person, but you get into a really, really bad fight and your leg gets gangrene and it has to be amputated. Will it be waiting for you in heaven?
Sunday School Teacher: For the last time, Bart, yes!

[etc etc – until some time later…]

Sunday School Teacher: [very tired]...the ventriloquist goes to heaven but the dummy doesn't.
Bart: What about a robot with a human brain?
Sunday School Teacher: [at the breaking point] I don't know! All these questions! Is a little blind faith too much to ask!?!


Theology essentially amounts to lifelong attempts by all sorts of very clever and venerable people to formulate answers to questions which first occurred to them when they were eight years old.

Sure, you can put a hat on it and call it a fancy name, like ‘the problem of pain’ or ‘the Euthryphro Dilemma’, but the great thing about most of the really challenging theological questions is that they are very simple, and thus the simple way that children state them is usually the best:

Why does God let babies be born handicapped? Why are there so many other religions and how come people are always the same religion as their parents? Why did God make mosquitoes and man-eating sharks? Why did God allow Hitler to kill so many people? Why did God create the dinosaurs? (Great answer to that one here, by the way) Will there be cavemen in heaven?

Despite the utter failure of countless generations of Sunday School teachers, university theologians and Popes to come up with even remotely comprehensible answers to any of the great childish questions, surprisingly few are prepared to admit that they simply ‘dunno’, and, as we have discussed elsewhere, instead prefer to articulate their cluelessness with the “Mysterious Ways” get-out card.

The plain fact is that no religious doctrine can withstand a good barrage of childish questions without serious cracks appearing. Fortunately for religious continuity, very few people lead examined lives after the age of eight.

But those who do lead examined lives tend to split at a childish age into two camps: those who think there must be something wrong with the questions, and thus become publicly staunch but privately doubt-riddled Defenders of the Faith (or at least of some particular idiosyncratic sect of the Faith); and those who think there must be something wrong with the doctrine.

Materialists fall into the latter camp almost to a man. For the materialist, the childish questions about cavemen and dinosaurs and children killed in tsunamis are easy to answer. In the time and space scales of the universe, the believer’s preoccupations with homocentricity and what might ‘happen’ to ‘him’ after his death appear not so much outrageously hubristic as pathetically optimistic.

However, the believer does have one advantage over his heathen brother:

When it comes to the really big question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’, he has an answer (admittedly, he has to invoke Causa Sui to answer the follow-up question, “Then where did God come from?”).

‘Why is there not nothing?’ is the head-spinning, scrotumtightening, three-o’clock-in-the-morning Nausea-inducing unanswerable question par excellence.

Some materialists prefer to assert that since existence is the ultimate brute fact, the very question is meaningless. Others prefer a good, honest ‘dunno’.

22 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

All true, but it is also true that 8-year-olds are relentless moral entrepreneurs, so that whatever the Sunday School teacher says is the rule, their immediate intellectual goal is to find a loophole.

As time passes, they still look for the loopholes but they stop being honest with themselves (or anybody else) about doing so.

I've never met anybody of any 'faith' who behaved as if he believed what he said he believed.

On the other hand, we faithless materialists find it easy to live in the Universe we say we believe in. In fact, impossible not to, isn't it?

June 29, 2006 12:08 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

The Crash Test Dummys, in a, to my ears, singularly attractive song entitled "God Shuffled His Feet" had this to say:


After seven days
He was quite tired so God said:
"Let there be a day
Just for picnics, with wine and bread"
He gathered up some people he had made
Created blanket and laid back in the shade

The people sipped their wine
And what with God there, they asked him questions
Like: do you have to eat
Or get your hair cut in heaven?
And if your eye got poked out in this life
Would it be waiting up in heaven with your wife?

God shuffled his feet and glanced around at them;
The people cleared their throats and stared right back at him

So he said:"Once there was a boy
Who woke up with blue hair
To him it was a joy
Until he ran out into the warm air
He thought of how his friend would come to see;
And would they laugh, or had he got some strange disease?

God shuffled his feet and glanced around at them;
The people cleared their throats and stared right back at him

The people sat waiting
Out on their blankets in the garden
But God said nothing
So someone asked him:"I beg your pardon:
I'm not quite clear about what you just spoke
Whas that a parable, or a very subtle joke?"

God shuffled his feet and glanced around at them;
The people cleared their throats and stared right back at him

June 29, 2006 1:20 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

‘Why is there not nothing?’

I don't think you can have 'nothing' without 'something' given that 'nothing' is the lack of 'something'. There is, of course, 'nothing' in between the 'somethings' but the 'nothing' couldn't be there without 'something' to be around. Thus, you can't have just 'nothing'.

My favorite question from my children so far (though not of a religious nature): "Is infinity odd or even". It was asked by my daughter at age 6. She was thinking of countably infinite sets.

June 29, 2006 2:43 PM  
Blogger RCHAMMER said...

Does anyone want aswers to soem of these questions? I mean, for abortion and stuff it's only for GOD to know, but in the end, HE turns it into a good thing. But all good Christians know that. We shouldn't spend are time asking and questioning and testing HIM, but actually going out into the world and doing something for HIM. Like saving people, for example. I mean, millions of people don't know the truth or hate it and it's almost like a million people about to run of a clift because we all know where they are going. True Christians should go out and save people, not question and test. And 8 year olds or any year olds should be taught this. If you would like to see my blog, it's
http://
theflippingsweetblog.
blogspot.
com.
Leave comments. Thanks!
Hammer out.

RC Hammer

June 29, 2006 2:58 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Only for god to know, but you'll tell us what he thinks, eh?

So Brit left a couple of questions off his list: Why should we believe people who say they know better than us what god thinks? If two people both claim to speak for god, but say contradictory things, who's right?

June 29, 2006 4:28 PM  
Blogger jwd said...

Harry, you posed a couple excellent questions, in particular: If two people both claim to speak for god, but say contradictory things, who's right?

I think Duck's Quantum Theology post was interesting. It reminded me of one of my favorite words - anthropomorphism. I believe the Bible to be an example of this - trying to explain the holy God to men who are altogether unlike Him. Like parents trying to explain "grown-up" things to their toddlers, but multiply it by infinity.

We aren't able to explain God in completely accurate terms, because we lack the understanding. But I do believe the Bible helps us to get good glimpses of God in ways we can understand. And although I'm well aware, as Brit pointed out, that people have long been making a habit of taking "carefully-selected excerpts ... to support absolutely any argument", I don't think that's what the Bible was intended for. I don't think it was intended to tell lots of little stories and teach lots of little lessons, but to put together a single story of God's relation to and redemption of mankind. If you have any interest, I would recommend checking out Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands A Verdict. I've recently been reading through some of the original edition. It's laid out in outline form, so it's fairly easy to skim and stop and read in depth what pops out. I've enjoyed reading through some of the fulfilled prophecies, and the textual criticism of the Bible.

June 29, 2006 7:35 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I'll take a look at that, but I am not optimistic. I listen to To Every Man an Answer frequently, a Christian apologetics radio ministry of Fundamentalist/evangelical character (Calvary Chapel).

The preachers often talk about fulfilled prophecies, but so far every example has been:

1. ex post facto (no evidence the prophecy preceded the event)

2. vague

3. dubious

4. dependent on non-obvious interpretations

An interesting (to me anyway) reading of the Bible is 'The Unauthorized Version' by the atheist R.L. Fox. Fox is a classicist (a very good one) but he does not know OT languages. On the other hand, he is a superb analyst of ancient documents (especially inscriptions, see his 'Pagans and Christians').

If you can forget for a moment that the Bible may be inspired by a deity, and read it like any other fragmentary, obscure old document with many references to contemporary events we no longer get, then some of those prophecies look rather less impressive.

I keep an open mind about all sorts of prophetic documents, from Nostradamus to the IPCC. But I also maintain extremely stringent standards of proof.

June 29, 2006 9:11 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

If two people both claim to speak for god, but say contradictory things, who's right?

To return to The Simpsons, Homer put it even more pertinently for the believer when trying to wriggle out of going to church: "And what if we picked the wrong religion? Every week, we're just making God madder and madder!"

Jwd:

Part of the point of my post was to get at this business of what seems to me to be the fundamental dishonesty at the heart of theology.

Forgive me, but an argument that begins like this: "We aren't able to explain God in completely accurate terms, because we lack the understanding. But I do believe..." is a textbook example. Ok, we dunno anything, but nonetheless...

Bret:

I think the nothingness I'm referring to is the absence even of the meaning of the word 'nothing'. In other words, the question really amounts to a sense of the weirdness of stuff, of existence. But don't worry, I'm not expecting an answer: it's an unanswerable question.

June 30, 2006 1:51 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

What really boggles the mind is: "why is there something and nothing"?

June 30, 2006 7:24 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

Brit,

I'm saying that I personally would be equally surprised by 'nothingness' and this particular 'somethingness' we're experiencing (or at least I'm experiencing). Why do you think nothing at all (including the "absence even of the meaning of the word 'nothing") would be the default? I find it very hard to imagine that. Therefore, I've always assumed that somethingness is the more likely default position - and, sure enough, here we are!

June 30, 2006 10:08 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

So, Bret, you've got it all figured out, eh? Here are some further questions for you.

When you flip on the tv and there's nothing to watch, where did the programs go?

When a woman walks ino a closet full of clothes and there's nothing to wear, where did the clothes go?

June 30, 2006 10:30 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

"So, Bret, you've got it all figured out, eh?"

Yup.

"When you flip on the tv and there's nothing to watch, where did the programs go?"

I don't watch TV.

"When a woman walks ino a closet full of clothes and there's nothing to wear, where did the clothes go?"

She gained weight.

June 30, 2006 12:40 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Why is a raven like a writing desk?

June 30, 2006 1:09 PM  
Blogger jwd said...

Brit:

Part of the point of my post was to get at this business of what seems to me to be the fundamental dishonesty at the heart of theology.

Forgive me, but an argument that begins like this: "We aren't able to explain God in completely accurate terms, because we lack the understanding. But I do believe..." is a textbook example. Ok, we dunno anything, but nonetheless...


I understand your point, but then again, what's your point? I can't believe things I can't fully understand or explain? And how acceptible does my explanation have to be? Who gets to judge whether or not my explanation is valid, convincing, accurate, etc.?

I think we're all aware that the sheer existence of God cannot be proven 100% by human standards. Otherwise there would be no atheists. But come on, there are still people out there who think the Holocaust never happened, that man has never been on the moon, and that Elvis is still alive.

I'm not saying you have to agree with me, nor am I saying that I have it all figured out - I obviously don't. But I am saying that God may be so different from us that there is no way we can fully comprehend or explain Him in our limited minds.


Harry:

I appreciate your willingness to check out Evidence. I know I have trouble finding time to read the books I want to read myself, let alone suggestions from a stranger.

June 30, 2006 3:07 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

"Why is a raven like a writing desk?"

Poe wrote on both. (According to Sam Loyd)

June 30, 2006 4:05 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I've read McDowell's book. I'm not convinced. He offers oneargument he calls "Liar, Lunatic or Lord". jesus claimed that he was God, so he must either be lying, must be a lunatic (if he thinks he is God but really isn't) or he must be who he says he is. McDowell argues that if he were a liar or lunatic he wouldn't have been able to gather such a loyal and devoted following during his life.

The problem with this argument is that history is replete with characters for which this argument applies. Joseph Smith, for one. He was able to gather a large following that was willing to trek into a hostile wilderness to found a new city to practice the religion he revealed. If you don't believe he was lying or a lunatic, then you should probably become a Mormon.

A Harvard psychologist, John Mack, floated a similar thesis as a result of his examination of people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. If you read some of the articles at the John E. Mack Institute you'll realize that some people are building what amounts to a new religion around alien abductions.

Another Harvard psychologist, Dr Susan Clancey puts the skeptical kibosh on Mack's credulity. It appears that some people are just prone to inventing experiences for themselves that never occured.

July 01, 2006 6:13 AM  
Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Duck, I haven't read McDowell's book, but I am aware of the kinds of arguments he uses. Perhaps the point is not so much that "if he were a liar or lunatic he wouldn't have been able to gather such a loyal and devoted following during his life" (after all, many liars and/or lunatics have become very popular), and more that in that case he wouldn't have been able to gather an even larger following after his life.

Just a few months after Jesus' death the Rabbi Gamaliel, who is also well known in Judaism, said of Jesus' first followers, "For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God." (Acts 5:38-39 TNIV). On that test, what has happened since? Although many rulers and individuals have tried to suppress Christianity, it has thrived almost everywhere. To Gamaliel, that was proof of its divine origin. You don't have to agree, but if you don't you have to account for its spread.

Yes, I suppose you could argue the same about other religions, but most have spread through military conquest or through money. Sometimes Christianity has, it is true, but very often it has won through despite all of this.

July 01, 2006 6:42 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

Why does God let babies be born handicapped? Why did God make mosquitoes and man-eating sharks? Why did God allow Hitler to kill so many people?

A long time ago there was a couple called Adam and Eve who f***ed up, and as a result of which humanity is stuck on Earth instead of living it up in Paradise. Their descendants have to show they're worthy of being let back in by surmounting a variety of trials etc.

Will there be cavemen in heaven?

Depends on God.

Why are there so many other religions and how come people are always the same religion as their parents?

Most of them boil down to the same thing: be a good person or else.


Why did God create the dinosaurs? (Great answer to that one here, by the way)


God likes to have fun just like anybody else.

Heh. That wasn't so hard.

July 01, 2006 8:17 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Peter Kirk, according to R.L. Fox ('Pagans and Christians,' already referred to), Christianity had made almost no penetration of the masses in its first couple centuries.

He estimates no more than 3, 4% of the rural population, which was almost everybody. And paganism was still thriving in the cities -- right up to the time that the Roman Army imposed Christianity on everybody.

The likelihood that this is correct is shown by how fast Christianity collapsed 4 centuries later.

July 01, 2006 10:40 AM  
Blogger jwd said...

Duck:

The problem with this argument [Liar, Lunatic, or Lord] is that history is replete with characters for which this argument applies.

I don't know why that is a "problem" for the argument. In particular for people claiming to be God, or a prophet, or the Messiah - people like Joseph Smith, as you mentioned, or Jim Jones, David Koresh, & Charles Manson. Obviously Mormons don't believe Smith to be a liar or luncatic, but I think most people now think the other three were some combination of the two. One big difference between people like them and Jesus is that Jesus predicted his death & resurrection - and it happened. There is an empty grave to be accounted for, among other things.

July 02, 2006 3:01 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Fox, in 'The Unauthorized Version,' has a great deal to say about the textual evidence for that tomb.

The story, as it has come to us, is fundamentally incoherent.

July 03, 2006 9:58 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

jwd

The written evidence of Jesus' life and death are second or third person accounts, and would be considered hearsay in any court today. The notion that the Liar, Lunatic or Lord phenomenon occurs so often in societies across time and geography just shows how receptive people are for a supernaturally endowed savior. This article from The Atlantic in 2002 (subscription required) shows what a fertile ground humanity continues to be for the development of new religious visions.

July 05, 2006 8:58 PM  

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