Sunday, August 13, 2006

Michael Novak doesn't understand atheists

Michael Novak, longtime Catholic writer & commentator, tries to get inside the atheist mindset in this post from the FirstThings blog:

Writers who call themselves atheists have often surprised me by their reasons for not believing in God. In the long history of humanity, of course, their unbelief is an anomaly, a distinctly minority position. Even Clarence Darrow once said that he certainly did not believe in the Jewish or Christian God, but any damn fool knows there is a force and an intelligence that has shaped the universe we live in. But a few others, oddly, do not even believe that much.

I remember once reading a book about atheism by an atheist, who after considerable study of the situation in the United States wrote that (I forget the exact number) something like 70 percent of those who call themselves atheists do actually believe in a force or energy or ordering intelligence within the natural order. If that is what “God” is, they believe in God. They say “atheist,” it seems, to distinguish themselves from being Christians or Jews.

For a similar reason, some call themselves “naturalists,” as if Christianity and Judaism mean “supernaturalist.”


"A force or intelligence" does not equate to the word "God". That's equivalent to saying "I believe that there's something out there that does something which causes things to be as they are". A computer has intelligence. You could say that an ant colony is intelligent. The question which must be answered in the affirmative to equate that force or intelligence with God is "is it a personal, singular intelligence". That rules out collective or non-personal intelligence.

You can confuse the God question in any number of ways. You can define "God" so broadly as to make it impossible for anyone not to believe in it. By doing so you will have emptied the word of any meaningful content. To me the most salient dividing line between belief and nonbelief is to consider whether the acknowledgement of this entity makes any real difference in how the believer lives his or her life. Does his God demand any personal recognition, worship or due? Does his conception of God change the way he would live his life from the way he would without that conception of God. Does his God "matter"?

One reason I have often encountered for not believing in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus runs like this: As long as there is even one orphaned child, who uncomprehendingly sobs alone in the dark, I will not accept a God who permits such a world to exist. I refuse.

Another reason I have heard is this: Any God who would throw human beings into unmitigated torture in hell for all eternity, just because of a minor infraction of some silly taboo, is a being to despise, not to accept.

Doubtless there are other reasons besides these two. A full inventory would make a marvelous anthropological study. Yet, the tribe of atheists worldwide is, after all, a small one. Check out the estimates for the religious beliefs of humankind published in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Despite the efforts of communist Russia and China to coerce people into atheism, the number and the proportion of atheists are still impressively small.

To return to the two reasons for unbelief given above: The first is a rather odd one. The inquirer assumes a position of moral superiority to God, as a person more intelligent, more pure, more noble, more compassionate. It suggests that the inquirer cares more about the child sobbing in the dark than that child’s Creator and Father does. That would certainly be odd.


It is not odd at all. It is just a recognition that the definition of what is good is separate from the definition of what God, or any other personal being, wills. This is where the religious, who pride themselves on the assertion of goodness and evil as objective, unchangeable truths, confuse their logic so thoroughly. If the good is whatever God wills, then either the good is subjective, or God is not a personal being. Conflating the two destroys the distinction between the two words. Either we focus on what God wants and ignore the question of whether He is good, since the word good has lost its meaning, or we focus on what is good, and not view God as a personal being, for He has become merely the manifestation of an objective truth, and thus has no "will", per se.

Caring about children sobbing in the dark, or more importantly about children dying senselessly, is either good or it is bad. Everyone with a conscience can agree on this, regardless of whether we are good enough to act upon it in the face of these realities. We recognize people who act in the face of the suffering of such children as good. If God is omnipotent we would expect him to act to prevent senseless suffering. If He does not He is either not good, or not in a position to act, therefore not omnipotent. Or doesn't exist. Logically you have to choose one of these three options.

The second objection, concerning hell, evinces a most primitive notion of hell, and also of what constitutes a sin. A sin, writes St. Thomas Aquinas, is an “aversio a Deo,” a turning away from God, a turning away from Light, a deliberate and fully considered turning away from the light, however dim, of one’s own conscience.

From this it follows that hell is the utter absence of God, made fully conscious to the unfortunate one who with full deliberation excluded God from his life. In his lifetime only dimly aware of the vastness of God’s love for and friendship toward humans, such a person recognizes too late that it is only by his own personal choice that he forever cut himself off from the presence of the Divine Lover. It was pride that led to his total isolation, cold and dark. Pride that led to a fully considered and deliberate choice to live as though there is no God.

No one can complain about being in hell. Hell cannot be entered inadvertently but must be deliberately chosen. The choice that constitutes it is to exclude deliberately the God of Love from one’s own heart. It is to push away the extended arms of the divine friendship.

Some choices, like diamonds, are forever.


This is nonsense on, as Skipper would say, stilts. This "primitive" notion of hell is the majority notion of Christians today. Novak is being obtuse in pretending that Christianity has risen beyond such primitive notions. As a writer on religious affairs he cannot be ignorant of the tremendous growth of evangelical Christianity both in the US and around the world in the last 30 years. Hell for disbelief is de-rigeur for the evangelical identity. Not just general disbelief, but disbelief in the very particular theological canon of the evangelical church. Novak himself is condemned to hell by this view.

But Novak's view is really just a way to have his sophistication and brimstone too. He makes it seem as if God's invitation to an embrace, or his mere existence, is a universally known reality, as obvious to every person as sunlight or air. I've not received any invitations whose source is obviously God. I've received many from mortal men with a notion that they speak for God. That doesn't cut it with me. How am I supposed to know which one really speaks for God, if any? I've not been presented with any choices to enter hell.

Novak, of course, is using the language of the heart. Since I don't feel the same in my heart as he does, then obviously I am deserving of hell. This is the real danger of religion - the reification of feelings. Not of feelings related to common experience, but spiritual feelings. I have plenty of room in my heart for my fellow human beings, none for imaginary beings. Religion places the love for imaginary beings above the love for real people. It is a brutal truth at the bottom of every religious impulse, which no amount of feigned sophistication can obscure.

55 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Nobly said.

Not only does Novak not understand atheists, he doesn't understand even Catholicism. The version I was raised in did, indeed, emphasis that Heaven was the eternal enjoyment of the presence of God, and Hell the eternal absence. Hell fire was not emphasized although not denied, either.

But it was absolutely true that you could get there by failing to adhere to some ridiculous taboo.

As for Sartre trying to eliminate most of his cultural heritage from his personal culture, he was a silly man in almost every respect, except, perhaps, courage. I have no problem adopting good ideas if they seem to have good results. One wonders if Novak outs sugar in his coffee.

August 13, 2006 9:58 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

"Yet, the tribe of atheists worldwide is, after all, a small one."

Only if you define 'atheist' in the strictest sense of 'positively believe there is no God.'. If you define atheist as 'not a consistent believer in religious doctrine' then the tribe includes nearly everybody.

My grandmother went to CofE services off and on for some 8 decades. When she was about 87 my father once asked her: "Do you ever think you'll see Dad (ie. her deceased husband) again in Heaven." Her eventual reply was "No, it doesn't seem very likely, does it?"

(It's true that he wasn't a very virtuous grandad, but that wasn't what she meant.)

I feel sorry for people like Novak. Their lives must be a daily battle to justify the yawning chasm between their philosophical musings on 'God' (it is not impossible that there is some sort of force or intelligence which I could define thus...") and the absurdly specific doctrine to which they nominally subscribe (Catholicism).

August 14, 2006 2:08 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Can't make head nor tail out of what you guys are going on about now, but I thoroughly enjoyed the ad this thread pulled up and linked us to. The Lord does indeed work in mysterious ways and seems to be getting full value for His $1.47.

August 14, 2006 2:38 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

"My grandmother went to CofE services off and on for some 8 decades. When she was about 87 my father once asked her: "Do you ever think you'll see Dad (ie. her deceased husband) again in Heaven." Her eventual reply was "No, it doesn't seem very likely, does it?"

That reminds me of the Spitting Image joke.

August 14, 2006 3:13 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Perhaps your confusion is a consequence of what Novak is getting on about, which is indeed as garbled a load of compost as one can find that still manages complete sentences.

Perhaps he isn't helped by, or has failed to take on board the problematic nature, of the term "atheist." There are very few concepts having a special term for their nullity. No one is an aclausist, for instance. Nor, if proof is needed that evolution does not constitute a religion, is there such a thing as an adarwinist.

But even more mystifying, as Brit mentions, is Novak's complete inability to contemplate his own atheism. With regard to Allah, Vishnu, etc, Novak is an atheist just as thoroughly as those he claims he can't understand. Adding conundrum to this mystery, he wholeheartedly discards these faith traditions for precisely the same reason as atheists. The only difference is that atheists see Novak's disbelief, and raise him one.

It must be admitted, though, that many "atheists" are guilty of muddying their own waters. In most, if not all, cases, their disbelief (and, often, ire) is directed at the instantiations of God represented by the plethora of faith traditions. It is entirely possible to take a decided position on the objective and subjective truths of religion, while completely foregoing any attempt to even ask the question as to whether any God, or even we, actually exist.

The former question is materially decidable, the latter are simply a waste of time.

Some portions of Novak's piece I couldn't help but notice:

In the long history of humanity, of course, their unbelief is an anomaly, a distinctly minority position.

So what? Do you have a point here that is at all related to anything? Surely, if you are going to raise it, as a matter of balance it is surely worth noting the bill one would pay, until very recently, for claiming the clergy were a flock of fantasists.

Whereupon follows several variations of the theodicy problem, but cherry picking (where not outright inventing) atheist objections:

One reason I have often encountered for not believing in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus runs like this: As long as there is even one orphaned child, who uncomprehendingly sobs alone in the dark, I will not accept a God who permits such a world to exist. I refuse.

Let's leave human agency out of this, and discuss those sources of human suffering completely beyond free will. Such as: wisdom teeth, the appendix, a clear preference for the survival of animals over humans*, and the peculiar habit of being both very picky about fealty, and geographically specific about whom to reveal the proper fealty (never mind the divine command -- universal to monotheistic religions -- to kill those exhibiting incorrectly revealed fealty). All while invoking a loving God instead of a moral monster more akin to a 10 year old boy with a magnifying glass and a sunny day.

Despite the efforts of communist Russia and China to coerce people into atheism, the number and the proportion of atheists are still impressively small.

What isn't impressively small is his ability to avoid the obvious: Communism was atheistic in precisely the same way all other religions are. Communism is just as much a religion as Islam, with a holy text just as proscriptive as the Q'uran. It never fails to astonish me how religionists almost universally fail to ascertain the almost complete parallels between their faith traditions and Communism.

Finally:

The inquirer assumes a position of moral superiority to God, as a person more intelligent, more pure, more noble, more compassionate.

This is distilled nonsense on stilts (Full disclosure. I have a nearly pitch perfect ear for phrases that completely and economically convey an idea, but am completely incapable of inventing them on my own. I stole that from Brit.)

Sorry, Mr. Novak, but all the "inquirers" with whom I am acquainted find the claims of moral superiority attending religion to be textually risible and historically empty.

Even as we debate, there is a theocracy determined to exterminate Jews and rule the world. Their revealed text beats Mein Kampf hands down in the incitement to mayhem category. But religionists give that a bye, while accusing those hoping to limit illegal immigration as aiming for applied Darwinism. All without a hint of irony.

Apologies for the rant, but the combination of Hizbollah and apocolyptic mullahs (along with their evangelical counterparts) has been very rantworthy.

Mr. Novak needs to read The Intelligent Person's Guide to Atheism by Daniel Harbour. I doubt he would touch it with a barge pole, though.



*Many animals survived the 2004 tsunami because they could sense the low frequency vibrations in the Earth's crust, and took off for high ground -- a gift prohibited to humans.

August 14, 2006 4:36 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I dunno if I'm morally superior to any conceivable deity, but no question my behavior is a vast improvement over the behavior of the one I read about in the Bible.

August 14, 2006 5:13 PM  
Blogger M Ali said...

Communism had its' dogmas, fanatics, prophets and holy texts but it didn't have any concept of an afterlife where the virtuous would be rewarded, and the wicked punished.

No concept of a transcendent order according to which man would be judged for his actions. That's what mostly keeps it ranked as an atheistic philosophy.

It's also why atheists get a cool reception from believers since they're effectively saying what the Big Spook says is proper behaviour doesn't apply to them.

August 14, 2006 6:50 PM  
Blogger M Ali said...

"
Even as we debate, there is a theocracy determined to exterminate Jews and rule the world. Their revealed text beats Mein Kampf hands down in the incitement to mayhem category. But religionists give that a bye, while accusing those hoping to limit illegal immigration as aiming for applied Darwinism."

Well, I suppose that depends on the context you read it in.

August 14, 2006 6:54 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

I don't think your trichotomy about the sobbing child follows. It may that God is logically prevented from acting because doing so would increase the overall misery of the world. Or, at least, I don't automatically consider those who act in such a situation "good", as they may well (and often do) make a bad situation worse. Just consider what kind of children you get if you, the parent, never allow them to be in a situation that leaves them sobbing. Are the parents who act in such a situation really doing good?

One can of course argue whether a God bound by logical consistency is omnipotent, but I don't think I'll be touching that.

August 14, 2006 7:15 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

M Ali:

Communism had its' dogmas, fanatics, prophets and holy texts but it didn't have any concept of an afterlife where the virtuous would be rewarded, and the wicked punished.

You are aware, of course, that there are Christian sects -- the Jehovah's Witnesses come to mind -- where virtue is not necessarily rewarded.

Additionally, while I am far from an expert here, I'm not entirely sure the concept of an afterlife is organic to Judaism.

Communism had all the hallmarks of a religion except for invoking a supernatural godhead. It acted and functioned like a religion. Calling it atheistic is to miss the point entire. Marx, Lenin, and Engels filled the trinity role quite well.

It's also why atheists get a cool reception from believers since they're effectively saying what the Big Spook says is proper behaviour doesn't apply to them.

Ummm. Not quite. As Brit outlined in The Story of the Moral, the whole concept of divine morality is fundamentally flawed. Perhaps it is more accurate to say atheists get a cool reception for pointing out the emporer's clothes.

Well, I suppose that depends on the context you read it in.

What possible context could negate the clear words on the page?

I should note, BTW, that the Bible is scarcely any less awful. The difference being that it is extremely difficult to find Christians any more who have not elided, whether through ignorance or strained apologetics, those passages.

Besides, one would never insist the bad parts of Mein Kampf were dependent upon context. Why does the Q'uran get a bye?

Susan's Husband:

That was Novak's trichotomy, not mine.

August 14, 2006 8:41 PM  
Blogger M Ali said...

"Communism had all the hallmarks of a religion except for invoking a supernatural godhead."

But surely it's the invocation of a supernatural godhead that classifies a particular group as a religious one? Otherwise whole ranges of human activity - like sports fanhood - could be put in that category.

"The dilemma can be posed to the divine command theorist like this: “Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God?”

The divine command theorist must reject the first horn immediately, since if God only decrees that x is wrong because it is wrong, then there must be something inherently wrong about x. So we don’t need God for x to be wrong, morals don’t come solely from God, and divine command theory is incorrect.
"

That seems a little narrowly defined. I'd say a godhead facilitates the propagation of good moral behaviour a lot easier than by things like social contracts etc. There was a good essay by Douglas Adams on the topic in his last book.

http://www.biota.org/people/douglasadams/

"What possible context could negate the clear words on the page?"

The broadsides against pagans and Jews regarded Prophet Muhammad's political opponents at the time. A Muslim with a basic awareness of Islamic history would realise that.

August 15, 2006 2:41 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Skipper:

This is distilled nonsense on stilts (Full disclosure. I have a nearly pitch perfect ear for phrases that completely and economically convey an idea, but am completely incapable of inventing them on my own. I stole that from Brit.)

That's ok, I stole it from Jeremy Bentham.

August 15, 2006 3:44 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

M Ali:

Haven't you got it straight yet? Everything Skipper doesn't believe in is a religion. Everything he does isn't. Skipper likes sports.

August 15, 2006 5:13 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

SH:

I get 10% of the first $1.47.

August 15, 2006 5:15 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

M Ali:

The passage you quoted from my Story of the Moral post is specifically addressing divine command theory.

It might be that a God promoting things that are in themselves morally good is (a) true; and/or (b) the best way of maintaining morality.

But that wouldn't be divine command theory, since the theory states that morals come only from God. If he merely promotes and enforces pre-existing moral rules, that's not 'DCT'.

August 15, 2006 5:26 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

Brit:

I'm not sure how poking DCT with a logic stick proves the whole concept of divine morality is fundamentally flawed.

My eyes tend to glaze over when you and the rest debate Peter B on religion\morality\ethics so put it in terms a thicko would understand.

August 15, 2006 8:02 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Haven't you got it straight yet? Everything Skipper doesn't believe in is a religion.

M Ali recommended to me "The Triumph of Western Civilization" because he thought I was giving short shrift to the role Christianity played.

That's as may be.

But the author, who was promoting the role of religion, specifically termed Communism and Nazism as religions. See also "The Road to Serfdom," among many, many, others.

August 15, 2006 8:09 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

M Ali:

My eyes tend to glaze over when you and the rest debate Peter B on religion\morality\ethics so put it in terms a thicko would understand.

How about a 'please'?

Seriously, I doubt I have the ability to write it much better than I did in 'The Story of the Moral' and I certainly don't have the willpower.

The point about DCT is that most religious types do assert it, but without considering what it means.

August 15, 2006 8:28 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

Argh. I had a please in the post I was doing before the browser crashed.

August 15, 2006 9:30 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I think the trichotomy SH was referring to was mine: If God is omnipotent we would expect him to act to prevent senseless suffering. If He does not He is either not good, or not in a position to act, therefore not omnipotent. Or doesn't exist. Logically you have to choose one of these three options.

Your point about sobbing is well taken, but the analogy falls apart when you look at more extreme instances of senseless suffering and tragedy, like innocent children being killed. I've once heard God's role compared to that of a coach who must force his players to undergo painful training regimens to make them perform at their peak. Again, the analogy breaks down in comparison to what God allows to happen in real life. What coach trains his players so hard that they die in practice?

If God plays by a different set of moral rules where killing your son is the good thing to do, then that just means that we can't consider him to be a personal being. Personal beings must be judged by personal morality. By the rules of personal morality killing your son is evil. So either god is an evil personal being, or he is an alien, non-personal being whose rules of morality shouldn't concern us. God may be able to do without morality, but humans need morality, and we shouldn't confuse what is good for us with what some mythical being might or might not think is right for us to do.

August 15, 2006 10:56 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

M. Ali sez, 'atheists get a cool reception from believers since they're effectively saying what the Big Spook says is proper behaviour doesn't apply to them.'

Sometimes -- virtually all the time before secularism reared its ugly head -- the reception was pretty hot.

However, I take your point. That's what Ronald Reagan used to say. A person could not be moral if he did not believe in the Big Spook.

The evidence contradicting that belief is overwhelming, but evidence has never counted for anything with religious believers.

But I think the disdain/fear of atheists goes deeper than that, at least among monotheists. If you reject the one, true god, then you've rejected everything important. It takes very little more to use that to justify throwing the rejector out of society altogether.

Not only are there no atheists in foxholes, there are no atheists in Pakistan, and up until de la Mettrie, none in France, either.

August 15, 2006 11:42 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

August 15, 2006 12:12 PM  
Blogger M Ali said...

"The evidence contradicting that belief is overwhelming, but evidence has never counted for anything with religious believers."

Heh. That is true to an extent.

I'd have to disagree about the last as my best friend's grandad was chairman of Pakistan's Communist party.

August 15, 2006 12:20 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Duck:

You guys persist in believing that you have fatally skewered religion by showing that incidents of what everyone agrees is illogical and irrational (Creation)cannot be explained rationally and logically.

Of course the problem is with your statement: "Everyone with a conscience can agree on this, regardless of whether we are good enough to act upon it in the face of these realities. We recognize people who act in the face of the suffering of such children as good. I don't think everybody does at all, but let's allow you that point for argument's sake. Why do we, Duck? You see a lot of that in nature, do you? We are hard-wired by evolution to yearn and mourn a dead child on the other side of the world? To be angry by an inexplicably sick child in Africa? Confers decided survival advantages, does it?

However, let's forget Evolution and stick with philosophy. Let us try to imagine what a world created by a deity that was up to Duckian standards would look like. Obviously there would be no "senseless suffering" by children. So, no deaths by tsunamis or earthquakes, etc, and presumably no fatal or excruciatingly painful illnesses. But, if you all have trouble believing in a deity that allows death by natural disaster, I can't conceive of one who would say: "Right, total protection from natural calamities for children, but as to beasts and humans, they are on their own and take their chances." Thus, there would be also be no cases of lions eating children, no child rape-murders, no collateral damage in war and no genocide.

In fact, if senseless suffering is your disqualification, there would be none at all, because even a little bit would appear intolerable if that was all we knew (I assume you agree that "there is too much senseless suffering" is not much of an argument for your side). But even if children had some kind of total insurance, would you accept "senseless suffering" by adults? Presumably not. So, no deaths in childbirth, deaths by drunken drivers, murder, breast cancer, etc. But then, why would a god who protected all humanity from senseless suffering allow the beasts to suffer? I trust you agree that a god whose compassion and goodness guaranteed the protection of humans from mudslides would hardly sit back unmoved as a herd of cattle went under for no reason. That's senseless.

And, of course, there would have to be universal agreement as to what constituted "senseless suffering" or the whole thing falls apart when placed under the microscope of man's rational judgment. But, actually, there would not so much be universal agreement as universal ignorance of what senseless suffering even was. Never having experienced it, we could no more conceive of it than we could a seventh sense or ninth dimension. Maybe we would all be happy or just find something else to whine about, I don't know. Same with justice and injustice. Surely an omnipotent all-loving deity would never tolerate injustice, but man, having only experienced perfect justice, would no more be able to conceive of injustice than a man whose belly is perpetually full can conceive of hunger.

Now, unless you want to argue that you can conceive of a deity that would allow little bits of senseless suffering, but not a lot, which I presume you don't, your whole principle would have to be extended. Not only no deaths in tsunamis, but no unfair firings, stolen candy, school bullies, adultery, spousal abuse or vicious pets. In fact, no hate, avarice, jealousy or any of the other emotions which cause us to make others suffer. And, as there wouldn't be any of those things, there would be no conception of such things.

Duck, imagine I continue this train for a few more long comments and you will see that soon I would arrive at the point where I suggest your logic will lead you to conclude no loving, omnipotent god would create humans, at least none that resemble the ones we know. Nor animals. In fact, it is incomprehensible how such a god could have created life at all.

That's it! Your objection isn't about senseless slaughter at all. It is about life itself.

August 15, 2006 12:22 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

You guys persist in believing that you have fatally skewered religion by showing that incidents of what everyone agrees is illogical and irrational (Creation)cannot be explained rationally and logically.

I should use this as a retort to anyone arguing for an Intelligent Designer based on the inherent order and purpose of the Universe. Deep down we all know that it is senseless.

Peter, if a good person were building a universe he would not include senseless suffering, because senseless suffering is anathema to the good side of our nature. Now maybe the suffering of mankind serves some other purpose having nothing to do with mankind. But if a person designed a universe in which beings like himself suffered for no good purpose, he would be a sadist. The only way to absolve this creator of the sadist charge would be to make him ignorant or indifferent to the reality of human suffering - which is to say that the creator is not personal - he cannot relate to us as moral equals. In that case we need not try to relate to him on that basis either.

Now the primitive pagans had no illusions about god's nature. Based on an evaluation of is works, the world, they naturally assumed he was a cruel tyrant and based their relationship with him accordingly. ie. human sacrifice and such. I doubt that they held out any hope for his goodness or kindness, it was strictly a transactional relationship. Give him what he wants and he might just do you something in kind.

When we try to justify god's morality we just end up justifying tyranny and cruelty.

August 15, 2006 1:23 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I am not trying to convert you, Duck. I'm just arguing that your non-belief isn't really grounded in moral outrage about innocent children, but rather that you can't logically square life, or at least human existence, with any deity you can conceive of. I can't square it with the absence of one. The only difference is that I think non-believers are wrong and you know believers are stupid.

I might just as well argue that a compassionate, benevolent deity wouldn't force us to work for a living, permit disobediant children, invent poison ivy or allow hiccups. But you will at some point have to come back to the origin of those perceptions of suffering, injustice, etc that animate you so. Starting off with phrases like: "Everyone with a conscience will agree that senseless suffering..." just begs questions.

August 15, 2006 1:49 PM  
Blogger David said...

I don't want to discourage anyone, but the ad that Google has chosen for the top of this page on my visit here is for "Intestinal Cleansing."

I didn't click.

August 15, 2006 2:05 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Are they saying that we're full of something?

August 15, 2006 2:18 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

As a materialist and evolutionist, I don't have any objection to senseless suffering as such.

Nor do I think there couldn't be a God who set up, even -- according to the Scriptures I've read -- reveled in suffering for suffering's sake; though I would never worship him under any circumstances.

I do object to telling people they should enjoy it.

++++

M. Ali, well I guess I can amend that to no open atheists in Pakistan. How much time did he spend in prison?

August 15, 2006 2:29 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

BTW, Brit:

I feel sorry for people like Novak. Their lives must be a daily battle to justify the yawning chasm between their philosophical musings on 'God' (it is not impossible that there is some sort of force or intelligence which I could define thus...") and the absurdly specific doctrine to which they nominally subscribe (Catholicism).

Then, dear friend, you may be suffering from a serious lack of imagination:

If I were rich, I'd have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray.
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall.
And I'd discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day.
That would be the sweetest thing of all.


--Fiddler on the Roof

August 15, 2006 3:14 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Funny thing about context. You never know for sure whether you're in or out.

And then there are the short, pithy statements that do not seem to leave much room for interpretation: 'Death to America,' for example.

I have been scolded, more than once, for thinking this means 'death to America.' I am just a simple, poorly educated redneck. Can't figure out how to interpret that one to mean something else.

I do get how 'some of best friends are Jews' usually means 'I despise Jews.' But I've never heard anybody say 'I hate the Jews' and concluded that he really meant 'Jews are just like me, only different.'

This context thing is tough. Maybe it's a one-way filter?

August 15, 2006 10:30 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

To add to what Peter is saying, whether suffering is "needless" or not depends entirely on perspective - which, as Harry notes, is often completely unintelligible to the "out" groups.

Duck wonders why coach God would train his players so hard that they die in practice. The answer is that, in at least the Abrahamic, Buddhist, and Hindu religions, (which include most of the religious people on Earth), carnal death isn't an end, but merely a transition.
Now, the named religions disagree quite a bit about where one transitions to, but they all agree that to view our carnal selves as all that there is, and ever will be, is to miss the forest for the trees.

August 15, 2006 10:51 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

re Fiddler, I'm the last person to condemn idle philosophising in a shady spot by the Eastern wall, especially if there's nothing on the telly.

The snag with the Bible is that if it's all true, it's not a parlour game and you've got to take it seriously. But it's very hard to do that and remain sane, so hardly anybody does.

August 16, 2006 1:44 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

"M. Ali, well I guess I can amend that to no open atheists in Pakistan. How much time did he spend in prison?"

I didn't get around to asking him. At the time I was more concerned with flying kites and watching cartoons.

His name was C R Aslam in case you want to do some digging.

August 16, 2006 1:57 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Brit:

Well, that is true, at least in the sense that I think you mean by "true" (i.e. literal, objectively historical and factual, and written by God), which is why most Christians don't believe that. I must say I have a very hard time figuring out whether the Duckian target is faith, Christianity, radical fundamentalism or ultramontane Catholicism.

M Ali

If you are still there, don't you think it's a gas that many of the same people who complain that moderate Muslims don't speak out enough against extremists also insist moderate Christians are confused hypocrites who don't follow their beliefs to their extreme conclusions?

August 16, 2006 4:00 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Oro,
The afterlife is just a fudge factor to make the equation balance. It's just a form of denial. With the afterlife every coach is a winner. Wasn't Hitler just sending the Jews to their reward all the sooner? He's a hero, then, right?

The afterlife erases the necessity for morality. It really just says "nothing matters". It is a form of nihilism.

August 16, 2006 6:06 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Moderate Christians are confused hypocrites, and so are moderate Muslims.

But that's ok, since they're human, sane and constitute the vast majority; and hypocrisy is infintely preferable to the consistent lunacy that genuine belief would require.

I do try to limit my attacks on moderate religious hypocrisy and nonsense to appropriate occasions: eg. in philosophical debates when they insist that morals can only from God, or perhaps when they insist that I and various people of whom I'm fond are going to spend eternity in Hell unless I join them in holding their half-arsed confused semi-beliefs. I'm sure I don't always succeed in limiting myself thus, but then I don't exempt myself from the hypocrisy charge.

August 16, 2006 6:13 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

My goodness, Brit, I do detect a smidgeon of cranky wisdom in that last comment, although I had no idea that having your tea and biscuits interrupted by rude believers telling you that you are going to Hell was such a big problem in your life. Give me their names and I'll have a word with them.

But sadly, it's too little, too late. I certainly have no views on whether you are going to Hell, but you are going to court. I must advise I have instructed my lawyer to commence a constitutional application against the Duckians in Dover PA to keep you guys from injecting geometry into religion class. Or religion into geometry class. Whatever.

August 16, 2006 7:25 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

I had no idea that having your tea and biscuits interrupted by rude believers telling you that you are going to Hell was such a big problem in your life.

It's entirely self-inflicted - I read too many American blogs.

Same reason I keep reading the Guardian's editorial pages, or watching England play football, and I'm assuming it's the same reason you read the Daily Duck, old boy.

August 16, 2006 7:50 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

M Ali:

But surely it's the invocation of a supernatural godhead that classifies a particular group as a religious one? Otherwise whole ranges of human activity - like sports fanhood - could be put in that category.

No, they can't. Religions have revealed texts, make universalistic "ought" claims, and form exclusionary moral communities. Sports fanhood does none of these things.

You recommended to me some time back "The Triumph of Western Civilization," because you thought it would be a good corrective to my underestimation of the role Christianity played. It is indeed a very good book, whose author is fully inclined, not without reason, to give full credit to the role religion played.

He also calls Communism a "major religion." As well, F.A. Hayek, in "The Road to Serfdom" refers to both Communism and Nazism as religions.

Surely, you must agree that when combined with the cults of personality that invariably accompanied Communism, that the contrast with a supernatural god is a distinction nearly without difference. See, in particular, North Korea, where there is no longer any difference at all.

The broadsides against pagans and Jews regarded Prophet Muhammad's political opponents at the time. A Muslim with a basic awareness of Islamic history would realise that.

That may have been the existential context, but the literary context elides that completely. But even more importantly, the Q'uran, like any good religion, portrays Islamic domination of the world as Allah's will. That means pagans and Jews, and indeed any non-Muslim who is not willing to join the dhimmitude still constitutes political opposition to Allah's will.

I have no doubt that a large majority of Muslims are perfectly happy to live and let live. But there are still a significant number who are not. Selectively ignoring explicit tracts of the Q'uran gives cover to extremists while pitching the whole idea of divine objective morality into the dumpster.

Why does the Q'uran get a pass when Mein Kampf does not?

August 16, 2006 8:58 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Duck:

Only if we assume that our afterlife is entirely unaffected by our terrestrial lives.
Since most religious people believe in some form of Hades or karma, and since those concepts explicitly link carnal behavior to the afterlife, what's the thought behind "the afterlife erases the necessity for morality. It really just says 'nothing matters'" ?

August 16, 2006 9:10 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Ooops. Apologies for being semi-repititous, as my browser completely failed to update the last couple days.

Peter:

you can't logically square life, or at least human existence, with any deity you can conceive of.

Actually, I can. It is easy (as David pointed out to me some time ago, making a distinction I had failed to take on board) to imagine God creating a universe with unavoidable constraints. There is nothing evil about tsunamis, or cancer, for life without either is impossible.

That is all well and good. Unfortunately, that is not the real problem, which I am surprised Duck did not mention. The Bible, as an example, is full of dietary restrictions, health considerations being the alleged reason.

Yet not one word about boiling water, or providing wide separation between human waste and said water. No constraint there, and lots of completely random, senseless, suffering.

Which wasn't alleviated until materialism came along. Go figure.

Religion, simply by claiming a godhead, puts itself above criticism for the evils inspired texts contain and encourage.

I can easily understand the desire to fill the gaping emptiness that accompanies the absence of religious belief. What I can't understand is the resolute refusal to confront the evil embodied in scripture.

Well, maybe it isn't so hard to understand. It is very difficult to yank the rug out of one part of the edifice without bringing the whole thing crashing down.

August 16, 2006 9:24 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

I'm sorry, but you really have lost me. Are you asking me to explain how a benevolent deity could conceal germ theory?

August 16, 2006 10:58 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Aslam. Hmmm. Any relation, I wonder, to the gorgeous foreign minister of Pakistan? I think that was her title. Just saw her briefly as I passed by the telly last night. My wife was watching McNeil or Lehrer (whichever is still alive, I forget) News Hour.

++++

Context is, unfortunately, arbitrary, which would not in itself be a problem, but becomes one if you're dealing with the revealed word of god.

The most notorious example I know is the Marriage Feast at Cana in the NT.

One of the unremarked (except by me) scandals of Jesus's teachings is that he never said anything positive about marriage. (He said at least one neutral thing, but most of what he said about marriage was disparaging.)

Nevertheless, the Catholics (at least) needed some divine sanction for matrimony, and they read context into the story of Cana to find that Jesus had sanctified marriage.

No problem so far, but then come the Baptists (and others) who want Jesus to endorse teetotalism. On a straight reading of Cana, this would seem to be a pretty difficult task, but people invent context as easily as they invent gods.

So reading Holy Writ in context is dubious on two grounds.

First, it is intellectually unjustifiable. If a deity cannot express himself at least as clearly as a provincial newspaper reporter of limited education, then omnipotence claims (at least) have to be abandoned.

Second, on a practical level, if Holy Writ is salvationist and universalizing, then there will always be purists who read it literally, and if you don't, they are likely to feel obliged to torture and kill you.

August 16, 2006 10:58 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

No, they can't. Religions have revealed texts, make universalistic "ought" claims, and form exclusionary moral communities. Sports fanhood does none of these things.

Sports fans have their cathedrals, chants, rituals, clannishness, icons, regular invocations to deities and - at least here - regular calls of "Judas! Traitor!" when a good player decamps to the other side.

Roberts and Hayek wrote great books but I'd disagree with them about calling communism and Nazism religions. They share a lot of the same qualities of religions which is something Eric Hoffer brought up in True Believer and something that seems quite reasonable.

I suppose what I'm saying is that bats and duckbill playtpuses are both mammals but they're not the same species.

Surely, you must agree that when combined with the cults of personality that invariably accompanied Communism, that the contrast with a supernatural god is a distinction nearly without difference. See, in particular, North Korea, where there is no longer any difference at all.

Well yeah, but those don't last beyond the deaths of whichever terror is currently in charge. Plus it hardly applies to all Communist regimes like the post-Stalin USSR. Their leaders had their pictures plastered everywhere, but guys like Honeckher didn't claim they could cure your bunions.

That may have been the existential context, but the literary context elides that completely.

Well, that's the way it was recited\written. The text doesn't come with footnotes.


But even more importantly, the Q'uran, like any good religion, portrays Islamic domination of the world as Allah's will. That means pagans and Jews, and indeed any non-Muslim who is not willing to join the dhimmitude still constitutes political opposition to Allah's will.


Well, it goes like:

1) Convert to Islam and join the club

2) Keep your old religion and pay higher taxes

3) Leave


Why does the Q'uran get a pass when Mein Kampf does not?


Anyone regardless of origin can become a Muslim. Getting a passport that says Nordic Aryan is a little tougher. Plus Sephardic Jews lasted a little longer in the Muslim world than they did in Nazi-occupied Eurasia.

August 16, 2006 11:17 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

M Ali:

Anyone regardless of origin can become a Muslim. Getting a passport that says Nordic Aryan is a little tougher. Plus Sephardic Jews lasted a little longer in the Muslim world than they did in Nazi-occupied Eurasia.

That is the one thing that separates Nazism from all the other 'isms, unless one is to include Shintoism. Which one probably should.


1) Convert to Islam and join the club

2) Keep your old religion and pay higher taxes

3) Leave


Well, since Allah intends Islam to rule the world, that pretty much keeps "leave" off the menu. As for 1 & 2, those unwilling to join the dhimmitude continue to constitute political opposition. I can't do 3, and decline 1 & 2. Now tell me why I shouldn't view the Q'uran with outright antagonism.

Roberts and Hayek wrote great books but I'd disagree with them about calling communism and Nazism religions.

You may disagree with them, but they are only the start of a long list of historians who view Communism and Nazism as religions. I can't remember who said it, but the phrase goes something like this: Good people do good things. Evil people do evil things. But to get a good person to do evil things requires religion.

In that regard, Communism and Nazism fully qualify, and considering them secular/atheistic is a category mistake.

Peter:

I'm sorry, but you really have lost me. Are you asking me to explain how a benevolent deity could conceal germ theory?

Apologies, I was addressing Novak's assertion about why atheists choose to disbelieve in his God: As long as there is even one orphaned child, who uncomprehendingly sobs alone in the dark, I will not accept a God who permits such a world to exist. I refuse.

Phrased, that way, it is a silly justification; child's play for even a scarcely accomplished apologetic. Unfortunately, he misses the far more difficult to handle objection. Waterborne diseases have caused untold amounts of suffering, which could have been easily avoided, within the context of human nature, had God spent a fraction as much time on sanitation as He did on fussy dietary practices.

But He didn't. And untold millions, perhaps most of them children, died agonizing deaths as a result.

Why?

August 16, 2006 10:40 PM  
Blogger M Ali said...

But He didn't. And untold millions, perhaps most of them children, died agonizing deaths as a result.

Why?


If you go by the religious explanation, humanity got kicked out of somewhere where it wouldn't have to worry about war, strife and disease.

Earth was not intended to an easy place to live in.

August 17, 2006 4:02 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

You may disagree with them, but they are only the start of a long list of historians who view Communism and Nazism as religions. I can't remember who said it, but the phrase goes something like this: Good people do good things. Evil people do evil things. But to get a good person to do evil things requires religion.

But what about forces like nationalism\tribalism and simple demand for land? I don't think religious differences were what prompted the Hutu-Tutsi genocide or World War 1 or the Mongol irruptions.

August 17, 2006 4:11 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

skipper:

Don't ask me. I'm still trying to figure out why He didn't give us 360 degree peripheral vision. That would have avoided a whole bunch of senseless suffering. I keep inquiring, but I'm always put on hold.

Skipper, the problem of pain objection to faith is fascinating and there is a very rich history of debate on it. But the objection doesn't become any stronger simply by lengthening the list of examples of senseless suffering. Nor is the argument for faith bolstered by simply adding to the number of good and ordered things. It's not a basketball game decided by who has the higher score. One tsunami and one Polish peasant risking his and his family's life to shelter strange Jews from Nazis is all you need to keep you going.

August 17, 2006 5:43 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

I'm still trying to figure out why He didn't give us 360 degree peripheral vision. That would have avoided a whole bunch of senseless suffering. I keep inquiring, but I'm always put on hold.

Which would you rather be, prey or predator? Prey animals often have very wide fields of view, reaching 360 degrees. Compare an elk's field of view with a wolf's. If you wish to be a prey animal, detection is all important. If you are a predator, then accurate ranging, which requires binocular vision, which requires eyes on the front of the head, which constrains the field of view, is all important.

Skipper, the problem of pain objection to faith is fascinating and there is a very rich history of debate on it. But the objection doesn't become any stronger simply by lengthening the list of examples of senseless suffering.

See below. I am not lengthening the list of examples. Far from it: I am strictly limiting it to those examples that are truly senseless, in that they are easily avoidable within the constraints of existence and human nature. Those examples are very few, but crucial.

M Ali:

But what about forces like nationalism\tribalism and simple demand for land? I don't think religious differences were what prompted the Hutu-Tutsi genocide or World War 1 or the Mongol irruptions.

No, they weren't. Religion doesn't explain all conflicts. But all belief systems commonly recognized as religions have priests, sacred texts which prescribe behavior, and, thereby, form exclusionary communities. Oh, and one other thing: they all claim a God imprimatur.

Communism and Nazism do all these things. Indeed, in their elevation of, respectively Marx/Lenin/Engels/Mao/Dear Leader and Hitler to mythical status, they also claim a God imprimatur: argument from unassailable authority.



M Ali, Peter:

The specific point I am addressing is Novak's caricature of atheist's argument against God (which is really an argument against a religion's instantiation of God).

It boils down to the Theodicy problem. A great many theodicy objections are trivial, which is as far as Novak went. Given that God chose to create a universe that would sustain life, allowing humans with free agency, God faced constraints. In a sense God made a boulder so big God couldn't lift it.

What do I mean by this?

In order for Earth to sustain life, it must have a molten core, volcanoes, earthquakes. That these phenomena cause death and suffering does not mean God is evil; they simply are an inevitable part of the territory.

As so with, say, cancer. It causes unimaginable suffering. But it is an inevitable concomitant of the processes required for life.

If there is to be life, and human agency, then there are constraints not even God can make disappear.

So far, so good.

However, there are sources of immense random human suffering that are not the consequence of constraints and so trivial as to be easily solved by mere humans. Which is to say, such suffering is needless. This is the crucial theodicy problem. How is it not the sign of a truly evil God that He saw fit to lay out fussy dietary rules -- ostensibly for health reasons -- yet fail to provide the simplest possible advice: drink clean water.

One can take this a step further. Given that God faced constraints in allowing humans free agency, it certainly can't come as any mystery that a plethora of religions is superhighway to mayhem. God faces no constraints in providing global revelation. Instead, He chooses His revelation with such geographic specificity as to become essentially a tribal affair.

Instead of rigorously attempting understanding, Novak comforted himself with specious self generated arguments. In so doing he completely fails to take on board that for virtually all atheists, they are so for two reasons: religiously inspired savagery, and the refusal to bow to a God that, if He exists in any fashion at all meaningful to humans must be a monster of the very first order.

Yes, the world is unavoidably a difficult place in which to live. But how is it anything other than malevolent torture to make it worse than it need be?

I very much understand the yawning chasm greeting the areligious conclusion -- I face it every day. I can clearly understand why most people prefer a narrative that partially, or completely, fills that chasm. If this was as far as religion went, then atheism would be no more worthy of discussion than aclausism.

Unfortunately, religious claims to universality not only create patently offensive consequences, they lead the religious to create a what is probably the only category known by its nullity.

Michael Novak clearly doesn't understand atheism. No surprise there, as he has scarcely tried.

August 17, 2006 8:29 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

Skipper:

God did give us the brains to discover the germ theory.

What you describe as needless suffering I see as part and parcel of earthly existence.This isn't meant to be our optimal operating environment.

August 17, 2006 9:25 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

M:

Yes, God is a bastard is one of the options.

August 17, 2006 9:45 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'This isn't meant to be our optimal operating environment.'

That is a provocatively ambiguous statement.

As a good darwinian, I'd say there is no optimal environment. Even if there were, momentarily, we would degrade it by overbreeding, the way the oceans would fill up with oysters in a few years if all the spawn survived to spawn again.

It's difficult to imagine an evolved optimum operating environment, although easy enough to posit one if the environment were created (what communism was about, in one sense). But it sounds like another criticism of god, of the god as little boy and us as ants in an ant farm variety.

August 17, 2006 11:57 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

M Ali:

God did give us the brains to discover the germ theory.

True. But a couple cautionary notes until we were able to do figure out the why behind the what would have avoided and astonishing amount of needless suffering.

Since God gave us the brains to discover germ theory, does that mean I can use that brain to conclude He is a bastard no more worthy of worship than Hitler, provided He exists in any way meaningful to humans?

This is the question Novak completely failed to grapple.

August 17, 2006 12:07 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

While god gave us brains capable of figuring out the germ theory of disease, he made them even more congenial to the demonic possession theory of disease.

I suppose 10 times as many people favor demons as believe in germs.

August 18, 2006 11:53 AM  

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