A.J. Jacobs, academia, autobiography, Christopher Hitchens, Hebrew Bible, Mao Zedong, pedagogy, Richard Dawkins, Richard Swinburne, Stonehill College, theodicy
I started writing this blog while I was teaching at Stonehill College, which hired me for a one-year visiting position and took me on shortly after that. A Catholic school, Stonehill requires all its students to take an introductory course in religion, and a third-year course in “moral inquiry”; faculty learn rapidly that these are the bread and butter of their teaching. In my time at Stonehill I taught one elective in Hindu tradition; the other eleven course sections were all the religion requirements.
Teaching students who did not want to be there was not always a joy. The wonderful advantage of teaching Stonehill’s required courses, though, was that there was almost no restriction on content. My love of big cross-cultural questions does not play well with the specialization taught in grad school and encouraged in academic publishing, where one must learn one thing and nothing else. But I could design these courses the way I wanted. The religion department had decided it wanted one common reference point that upper-year students could turn back to, and it had decided on the book of Exodus. But as long as you taught Exodus, the rest of the course was all up to you.
And so one semester I decided I wanted to learn more about Western monotheisms, and entitled my intro religion course “God in the West.” All that Buddhism and “Hinduism” I’d studied in grad school – never mind that. Because that was stuff I already knew pretty well. One of the things I hoped to impart to my students was a love of learning; and so I decided I would teach them a subject I wanted to learn about myself.
And learn I did. The course gave me a chance to really think with the monotheisms, especially Christianity – and in so doing I moved considerably closer to atheism. For I’d wanted to challenge my students’ complacent, mellow, liberal moralistic-therapeutic deism by showing it criticized from both sides: both the severe conservatism of an Augustine, calling for more Christian piety, and the problem of suffering, which effectively calls for less.
Until I taught that course, I had never really paid much attention to the problem of suffering. I thought it didn’t really matter, since I didn’t believe in an omnipotent omnibenevolent God in the first place; I hadn’t been raised with such a belief and never saw a reason to adopt it. But in teaching Christianity I attempted to think with it, in its terms, and I saw just how serious a problem this is. Until that point I had seen myself as vaguely theist; I believed in a capital-T Truth like the Platonic Good, a universal which seemed a lot like God. But as I saw my students grapple with theodicy, it hit home for me that this “philosopher’s God” really has little to do with what most people understand God to be. For them, God is there actively moving the universe along; things are the way they are because God wants them to be. But given the vast and terrible suffering in the universe – including all the suffering that has nothing to do with human free will – it seems like a cruel joke to describe such a God as omnibenevolent, universally good. An omnibenevolent and omnipotent God was really nowhere even close to anything I believed in.
I tried to teach a few theologians who would defend God, but their justifications seemed enormously unsatisfying. The best I could find was Richard Swinburne‘s case for a “half-finished universe,” extending the free-will defence so that it is our job to perfect the world and end suffering. Putting aside the question of whether this is even possible (as with similar questions one could ask of Buddhists), it still hardly seems an adequate resolution. How can this be fair to all the people whose lives are cruelly, brutally sacrificed in pursuit of this perfection? They don’t get to see the perfect world to come. Swinburne seems to advocate an oddly Maoist God, who can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs; this celestial utopian scarcely seems better than the earthly utopians like Mao and Stalin, whom we rightly judge today as murderers.
In some respects my students’ answer seemed better than Swinburne’s: it could all be made worthwhile and redeemed by the ultimate promise of an afterlife in heaven. Within the system that seems more consistent to me; but one still would need to find evidence for the existence of this heavenly afterlife, and I’ve never heard of any.
In short, having attempted to take the Christian God seriously for the length of a course, I came out much more predisposed against him. I would be reluctant to say, though, that teaching the course made me an atheist. For the word “atheist” is usually claimed today by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, sneering know-nothings who thrive on contempt and disdain for anything alien to their worldview. It’s an attitude I already disliked, and if anything I came out of the very same course disliking it more.
For while I ended up thinking less of God, I also ended up thinking more of that much-maligned text attributed to him, the Hebrew Bible. Though I do think it’s ultimately philosophically inconsistent, I came to admire the book of Ecclesiastes not only for its poetic beauty, but also its attempt to reflect on the harsh world we live in, in which the righteous so often suffer and the wicked thrive. Ecclesiastes is an admirable early attempt to face this world with open eyes.
Perhaps more importantly, I also had my students read A.J. Jacobs’s highly enjoyable The Year of Living Biblically, which is exactly what it sounds like. Jacobs, a secular New York Jew, decided he’d one-up all the fundamentalists by trying his best to follow all the Bible’s commandments to the best of his ability. The original idea was to remind people how ridiculous the Bible commandments really are. And yet Jacobs found his life improving by following several of the commands – and not just the popular ones like loving your neighbour. Obeying the injunction to wear only white, he found himself becoming more cheerful, having a sunny disposition; refusing to use swear words, he found himself watching his emotions and avoiding trivial anger. These turned out not to be ridiculous after all – even when he didn’t have to do so for his book, Jacobs continued wearing white and saying prayers of thanksgiving.
Biblical commands, like the injunctions in dharmaśāstra, are not ethics; they are not philosophy. There is little reasoning or argument given there; one is merely ordered to do this and not do that. And yet Jacobs’s experience helps remind us that someone wrote those texts, and put those commands in there for a reason. Many of those reasons may have lost their force today; but some of them haven’t. Following those commands worked for a lot of people for a long time; it would take a truly heroic leap of cynicism to believe millions of people followed them for thousands of years entirely out of stupidity or gullibility. We cannot and should not swallow the ideas and practices of history’s traditions in their entirety; but we ignore or casually dismiss them at our peril.
“Jacobs, a secular New York Jew, decided he’d one-up all the fundamentalists by trying his best to follow all the Bible’s commandments to the best of his ability.The original idea was to remind people how ridiculous the Bible commandments really are. And yet Jacobs found his life improving by following several of the commands – and not just the popular ones like loving your neighbour.”
This sort of an appeal, particularly in the context of the advocacy of religious beliefs and “ethics”, to “Once I condemned X, but it did wonders for me. So, I now wholeheartedly believe in X.” must be approached with circumspection. This appeal has a great deal of psychological force or impact and is probably adopted as a tool of manipulation for exactly that reason. It is a stock-in-trade appeal of converts, born-again believers, evangelical crusades, conversion campaigns, and so on.
I don’t understand how he could even try to follow “ALL” of the Biblical “commandments”, or prescriptions and prohibitions, given their number, and most importantly, the mass of conflicting ones. If he has in mind only the ten commandments, they don’t mention anything about wearing only white.
Observe the fallacy of observational selection which runs amok in Jacobs’ account.
He selects, among a large set of Biblical prescriptions and prohibitions, a small number of prescriptions or prohibitions to follow whose largely, but not exclusively, benign effects are entirely predictable.
Why does he select just those prescriptions which predictably have largely benign effects and ignore the horrid mass of Biblical prescription and prohibition involving condemnation of homosexuals, “witches”, and adulteresses to death, condemnation of children who disobey parents to death, or inflicting severe punishments on them, intolerance of other faiths or the worship of other gods, exorcism, animal sacrifices, absurd dietary prescriptions, etc?
The obvious answer is that he already anticipates, and common sense supports his anticipation, that those prescriptions and prohibitions will produce largely beneficial effects. If he has already anticipated this, then he has “rigged the game” to start with and it is but a gigantic farce of an “experiment with the Biblical Commandments.
“And yet Jacobs found his life improving by following several of the commands – and not just the popular ones like loving your neighbour.”
Ok, so what about the ones not included in these “several of the commands”? Since he tried to follow “all” of the commands and found that only “several” of those commands improved his life, what happened to his efforts to follow the other commands? What were the effects? Does he talk about them at all?
Did he follow these prescriptions?
GE 3:16, CO 11:3-9, EP 5:22-24, CN 3:18, TS 2:5, 1PE 3:1-6 The husband is to rule over his wife.
GE 3:16 Women should suffer pain during childbirth. (Note: This verse was used by the Church to oppose the use of anesthesia during childbirth.)
Never mind! He would be in jail, or dead, if he had tried to follow some of the other Biblical commandments including GE 3:16!
I recommend the following webpages to get a good understanding of the sorts of conflicting prescriptions and prohibitions we find in the Bible:
Amod Lele said:
Thill, I think it should be quite apparent merely from the content of my post (or any review of the book, let alone actually reading the book itself) that Jacobs was not merely trying to follow the Ten Commandments, or just the commandments he likes or agrees with – that was the entire point of the whole exercise. He was trying to show Biblical literalists up by proving that they weren’t actually taking the text as seriously as they claim. The beneficial effects came as a surprise. In short, the stuff you make it sound like he didn’t think of was merely his starting point. He avoids wearing clothes made from mixed fibers (and has a Jewish expert come to his house to tell him which clothes are and aren’t); he doesn’t eat fruit from trees planted less than five years ago; he finds a mother pigeon with an egg under her so he can take the egg and not the pigeon (Deuteronomy 22:6). He does make an exception to avoid anything that will break secular law, but tries to make that the only exception he will allow himself, and even there tries to find ways to follow the prescriptions and the law as well. For example, he does indeed stone an adulterer – he finds a man in Central Park who declares himself (somewhat angrily, even) to be an adulterer, and gently tosses a few pebbles at him even though he fears getting beaten up as a result. As for childbirth, he specifically mentions that verse as an example when he discusses the fact that he’s relying on the Bible’s literal word and not on commentary. The Bible just says that women will be in pain during childbirth, and I think any woman can tell you that that still happens even with anesthesia. (Even so, he doesn’t hold her hand for a week after the birth, because the Bible says she’s impure!)
If one could somehow get A.J. Jacobs in the same room as the staff of evilbible.com for a Bible knowledge contest, I would wager good money on Jacobs.
There is gigantic fallacy in his account, and any account which supports his claims, of relying on a single anecdotal evidence to justify adherence to the Biblical prescriptions he has selected. If he wants to persuade others that these prescriptions are beneficial and surprisingly so, he needs more than just appeals such as “It worked for me and I didn’t expect it.” or “It produced benefit x for me and I was surprised.”
“He does make an exception to avoid anything that will break secular law, but tries to make that the only exception he will allow himself”
Ok, so he did use a principle of selection as to which Biblical prescriptions he would follow!
Well, this principle of agreement with secular law removes a whole lot of ghastly prescriptions with not merely a less than salutary effect, e.g., putting adulteresses, homosexuals, children who disobey their parents, to death.
Why did he give primacy to secular law over the Bible? Does he really appreciate the long struggle against the nightmare of Biblical irrationality and cruelty in the West which paved the way for a society based on secular law?
“For example, he does indeed stone an adulterer – he finds a man in Central Park who declares himself (somewhat angrily, even) to be an adulterer, and gently tosses a few pebbles at him even though he fears getting beaten up as a result”
Did he try playing this silly game of pebbles with Bill Clinton? Some of these prescriptions are not about playing silly games throwing pebbles. They about throwing rocks at the heads of people to cruelly and viciously kill them for their transgressions of the alleged commandments of God!
“The beneficial effects came as a surprise.”
What was the the surprising beneficial element in following the prescription to take the egg from the pigeon without killing it?
“Obeying the injunction to wear only white, he found himself becoming more cheerful, having a sunny disposition;” Is this supposed to be evidence for the claim that wearing white produces a sunny disposition? While there is evidence that some colors can temporarily affect moods, one would need more than Jacobs’ testimony to accept any kind of causal connection between wearing white and having a “sunny disposition”.
“he doesn’t eat fruit from trees planted less than five years ago;” Why? What was the alleged benefit?
“As for childbirth, he specifically mentions that verse as an example when he discusses the fact that he’s relying on the Bible’s literal word and not on commentary. The Bible just says that women will be in pain during childbirth, and I think any woman can tell you that that still happens even with anesthesia.”
It is cruel Mr. Yahweh saying that he will make the woman suffer at childbirth. And given the assumption that one should not undo what he has done or ordained, it follows that it we ought not to lighten the pangs and pains of childbirth. this has been the traditional approach in Judaism and Christianity.
What about the explicit Biblical affirmation that husbands, and men generally, should rule over wives, or women generally? Did he follow that prescription? Did he go around telling women in supervisory positions to take heed of that? Why didn’t he try to advocate that? Because the effects would have been entirely predictable and run contrary to his agenda.
My points are really simple:
1. The Bible contains a seething mass of inconsistent prescriptions or inconsistent claims from which prescriptions are derived.
2. There are prescriptions in the Bible which have beneficial or salutary effects (obviously if it didn’t contain such prescriptions, no social group could have used them!).
3. But identifying these beneficial prescriptions to follow requires independent ethical and other criteria of selection.
4. So, what provides a justification of these prescriptions has nothing to do with the fact that they are in the Bible!
To pretend otherwise, as Jacobs seems to do, is indicative of an agenda of religious propaganda.
“Biblical commands, like the injunctions in dharmaśāstra, are not ethics; they are not philosophy.”
Someone should feel free to correct me if they know better, but in my understanding, this point has been lost (or more neutrally, “moved away from”) by Christianity and the New Testament, but remains a tenet of Judaism. Christianity is ultimately about what you believe- most importantly, whether you embrace the saving grace of Jesus. Judaism, conversely, is about what you do: a good life is defined by carrying out the mitzvot (usually translated as “commandments”). The Old Testament is generally concerned with practice rather than belief. This continues to the (accurate!) modern aphorism that being a good Jew does not actually require a belief in God.
As Thill points out, it’s indeed not true that these injunctions are universally good in any way, even if one can find value in some of them. But it’s a bit disingenuous to assault the whole biblical tradition over the harshness of its text. Not even ancient Jews followed the Hebrew bible’s harsh rules: there’s plentiful evidence that by the first century CE they interpreted the laws to effectively forbid carrying out the death penalty.
There’s a good summary of this at the start of the Wikipedia page:
And if it was in any way unclear, my comment was intended to agree with and expand upon the line I quoted, not argue against it!
Amod Lele said:
Ben, this is a point that Jacobs finds out and expands upon in the book. The first eight months of his year are spend living only the Hebrew Bible; in the last four, he tries to live the New. And he notices that the strict Christians he encounters are often quite less receptive to his projects than the strict Jews. Orthodox rabbis are delighted to see him living the Torah in this way; fundamentalist Christians, however, are a little befuddled by it. “Well, I suppose that’s better than nothing,” their reply comes down to, “but all this rule-following really doesn’t amount to much if you don’t have Jesus in your heart.”
That said, Ramachandra1008 is quite right to point out below that the contrast can be overdrawn. Maimonides’s understanding of Judaism was a pretty important one, in which belief does matter a whole lot. On the Christian side, a lot of the early debates were about just this point: Marcion wanted to throw out the commandments of the Hebrew Bible entirely, where his Ebionite opponents wanted to keep them all.
“Biblical commands, like the injunctions in dharmaśāstra, are not ethics; they are not philosophy. There is little reasoning or argument given there; one is merely ordered to do this and not do that.”
The notion that these commands are God’s commands and that they ought be followed solely for that reason (of which the madness of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son is a stark example)has been the traditional philosophical justification for them. Thus, although they may not have recognized or identified these as philosophical claims they do underlie the adherence to the commands:
1. God exists.
2. God has issued commandments.
3. We can know what these commandments are.
4. The Bible gives us these commandments of God.
5. They ought to be obeyed because they are commandments of God.
6. Further, God severely punishes those who don’t follow his commandments.
7. So, we should follow his commandments.
Ethan Mills said:
Amod, are you familiar with John Hick’s idea of a “soul-making theodicy”? It’s just about the closest to being convincing of any theodicy I’m familiar with. I’ve used Hick for the problem of evil/suffering quite a bit in Philosophy 101 and it works pretty well in showing them that this is a problem Christians should take seriously. I find it an honest, although not ultimately convincing, attempt at a theodicy.
The view that evil is necessary for the development of moral virtues is central to Hick’s “soul-making theodicy”. This has not only the absurd implication that some people ought to be doing evil so that others can develop virtues, but also the absurd implication that such people who do evil to help others develop virtues ought to be praised!
Ethan Mills said:
I agree that Hick’s proposal is not actually convincing. I just think that of the attempts to do something that’s probably impossible, i.e., answer the problem of evil, it seems to be better thought-out than most others I’ve seen, certainly more so than the typical student responses – “you just have faith” or “God works in mysterious ways” or (one that never ceases to puzzle me or convince most people) “you need the bad to recognize the good.” Another thing I think neither Hick nor anybody else has ever been very convincing about is why there would be SO MUCH evil/suffering in the world. I personally think the problem of suffering is an excellent reason not to believe in an Abrahamic God, but as a philosophy teacher and as someone who realizes most people realistically aren’t going to give up that belief, I just want people to think about it a little bit, which someone as smart (although wrong) as Hick can encourage.
“Christianity is ultimately about what you believe- most importantly, whether you embrace the saving grace of Jesus. Judaism, conversely, is about what you do: a good life is defined by carrying out the mitzvot (usually translated as “commandments”).”
This is a false contrast and one which seeks to make Judaism look better in comparison to Christianity. Christianity also has a long tradition of emphasizing “good works” and Judaism has its fundamental articles of faith.
Maimonides identified 13 articles of faith in Judaism:
God is one and unique
God is incorporeal
God is eternal
Prayer is to God only.
The prophets spoke truth.
Moses was the greatest of the prophets.
The Written and Oral Torah were given to Moses.
There will be no other Torah.
God knows the thoughts and deeds of men.
God will reward the good and punish the wicked.
The Messiah will come.
The dead will be resurrected.
LE 27:30-32 A tithe, a tenth of everything, is to be given to the Lord.
Did Jacobs follow this prescription and deliver it to the Lord’s residence on Wall Street?
elisa freschi said:
I might be wrong, but I understand Swinburne as maintaining that suffering is needed for the sake of free will. Free will is worth the risk. For cases such as the ones mentioned by you (i.e., the broken eggs, like abused children), Swinburne suggests that the afterlife would settle things correctly and that the abused children will rejoice there.
Amod Lele said:
Elisa, as my earlier post noted, I would say free will isn’t nearly good enough as a defence. Every year we hear more tales of horrible suffering not caused by free will: tsunamis, earthquakes, malaria, take your pick. We didn’t cause that suffering. God did.
It’s good to know Swinburne mentions the afterlife as well; such a belief (however unsupported) seems necessary to any attempt at a logically consistent theodicy. But even allowing for the afterlife, it strains my credulity to believe that tuberculosis or hurricanes or ALS make the world any better, even on the assumption of Swinburne’s “half-finished universe” that they are opportunities for us to use our free will to improve the world. We have plenty such opportunities through other people exercising their free will badly.
michael reidy said:
Whereas Jacob’s year may have been a thoroughly good gimmick for a book, it was a surprise for him when it turned out to be valid as a practice. Blaise Pascal urged a would-be believer a similar strategy:
(Pensees: 233 /The Wager)
This would be something like fideist feedback – go through the motions and it will become true. Could there be something to it? In yoga doing the breathing of a calm, centred person will make you such. You are an unhappy person, so practice hard at laughter. What is desolate chirping at first will become bacchic mirth. Geraniums will revive and arhats faint.
In our dualist way we are inclined to think that the procession is from the subtle to the gross, from the form to the matter. Bergson in his Matter and Mind writes of the way that rote nervous reaction once damaged by lesion injury can by that very fact inhibit the expression of the consciousness that would be expressed through it. Domasio in The feeling of what happens assures us that locked-in syndrome is not as horrific as we might imagine because of the lack of feeling in the body.
“Whereas Jacob’s year may have been a thoroughly good gimmick for a book…”
I had the same thought. He is no contemporary “Kierkegaard of New York” agonizing over Biblical prescriptions. Nor is he a contemporary “Big Apple Gandhi” deadly earnest in his “experiments with truth”.
Interesting. I think there is something to what you say.
It is easy to accept when the body is learning (dance or atheletics, for example) that practice and repetition at something that is awkward will result in accomplishment. However, with our minds we may feel that something that we don’t have an immediate affinity for is “not natural” and reject it. I think this may be an example of wanting to protect our vision of ourselves, wanting to feel that we are in control, not wanting to let go, wanting to witness our own enlightenment.
How does the (delusive) prospect of heaven in the afterlife justify the starvation of a child in this life? Since the Judeo-Christian-Islamic dogma rules out past life and karma, it is saddled with the intractable problem of explaining what connection or relation there could possibly be between the child’s starvation here and now and the (delusive) prospect of heaven in the afterlife?
1. Either the child’s starvation in this life is necessary for entry into heaven in the afterlife or it is not.
2.There is no conceivable good reason for the child to starve in this life in order to enter heaven in the afterlife.
3. Hence, the child’s starvation in this life is not necessary for entry into heaven in the afterlife.
4. If the child’s starvation in this life is mot necessary for entry into heaven in the afterlife, and given that no earthly good can be achieved by the child from starving to death, it is a completely avoidable maximal evil (starvation is the worst form of suffering).
5. If there is an omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent God, she would prevent any completely avoidable maximal evil which does not produce any good.
6. But innumerable children have starved to death on this planet.
7. Therefore, there is no omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent God.
What sort of a grotesque “moral” and “spiritual” principle is it which requires a child to starve to death in this world in order to enter heaven in the afterlife? How contemptible and unworthy of respect is the author and being who follows that principle!
1. If God exists, then she cannot be an irrational being.
2. God is the creator of everything.
3. It is irrational for any creator to create something of great value and then permit it to be destroyed, particularly if no good of greater value can come from this destruction.
4. The death of children by starvation is not a means to any good of higher value.
5. So, to create a child and then to allow it to starve to death is highly irrational.
6. Innumerable children have starved to death on earth.
7. So, God is a highly irrational being.
8. Therefore, God does not exist. (from 1 and 7)
I don’t follow your first point in two respects.
First, how do you define existence in the context of a concept of something that has no beginning or end? Isn’t it a little like a fish trying to conceive of the concept of water — something so ubiquitous that there is no negation on the basis of which it can be defined. Couldn’t the concept of existence of god be an imperfect attempt at describing in words what cannot be conceived of?
Second, why of all qualities, must god necessarily be rational?
1. I have assumed that it is intelligible to talk of God’s existence. However, the coherence or intelligibility of the notion of existence in the context of God’s properties is an important issue for those interested in theism.
Given that God is incorporeal and omnipresent, by which criteria could we identify and distinguish God from the world and its objects?
All that the theist can say is that to claim that God exists is to claim that she is real. It is to claim that the properties of omniscience, omnipotence, etc., are instantiated in an actual being.
Some theistic mystics have described God’s existence or being in terms of an all-aware, all-encompassing, and unearthly light. But this seems to conflict with the notion that God is incorporeal.
2. If we understand rationality in terms of intelligence and, therefore, in terms of absence of foolishness, it follows that an omniscient and omnibenevolent being cannot be foolish, or act foolishly, either from lack of knowledge or from the presence of malice. Hence, an omniscient and omnibenevolent being must also be a rational being.
One could also take a Kantian approach and say that a being with a maximal good will must be a rational being or a being with a consistently right motive. It would then follow from God’s omnibenevolence that she must also be a rational being in the Kantian sense.
“Couldn’t the concept of existence of god be an imperfect attempt at describing in words what cannot be conceived of?”
That’s logically possible, but this is not saying much.
What’s the basis for your assumption that there is “something there” which eludes our attempts to conceptualize and describe it?
One approach is to look at logic itself. Concepts are an overlay on our experience. Words do not accurately describe our experience — any experience. When the concepts are quite far off base, we all recognize the distinction between thought and experience. So, if someone is deluded and fancies that they are a great writer or singer — it is easy to see both the difference between concept and experience and the pain that attachment to the concept causes. When the concept accurately describes characteristics of an experience, it is easier to be mistaken, to confuse the concept with the experience and to view the experience as unchanging. So, we think we come home to the same house every night. In fact, the house is not the same — it is changing. And one day the house will be gone.
Accurate concepts work pretty well — they help us to pick out ripe melons in the supermarket and to decide that our habit of putting off preparing our tax return until the last minute is not a good idea. What is harder to see is how we function in a way that doesn’t often allow us to penetrate to the actual wordless experience of the world. And when the world does penetrate our conceptual overlay, we may experience it as pain because we have become attached to our concepts; seeing the world in a fresh way can be disturbing. This is why on cancer blogs you can read about the pain people are experiencing but also sometimes an insight that cancer itself has made the cancer victim experience life in an immediate and real way.
I believe that when god is invoked — it is sometimes as a way to describe this immediate experience of the world. Sometimes the experience has an element of sadness, as we feel when viewing a beautiful sunset that is fading even as we watch and completely ungraspable. That feeling of sadness is an experience that is not logical. It is an experience that it is not completely accurate to characterize as pleasure or pain. There is a sense that the experience is good — but not in the sense of good as the opposite of bad.
I have a lot of affection for the theists. For one thing, there are so many different types! Although at the end of the day, I have to part ways with them on some fundamental points — there is a lot of beauty and truth in many of the rituals and practices. Imagine what the effect is on your heart and mind to pray to god each morning for thirty years to develop greater compassion. Or to give up ambition for worldly success for a life of service. And the concept of god as external tends to undercut pride in spiritual accomplishment.
That’s why I find it somewhat uninteresting to read a logical argument as to whether or not god “exists” — particularly when at the end of the argument the conclusion is that if the concept or belief in a god is flawed that an entire thousand year tradition, including methods of spiritual growth and concepts of compassion and charity can be discarded as a waste of time.
Sentimentalism and romanticism apart, have you tried to participate in a religious ritual or ceremony regularly for any significant length of time?
I do Tibetan Buddhist practice. If religious ritual were football, Tibetan Buddhists would be the starting team and Catholics would be the junior varsity.
It is not rational to ignore or reject an argument merely on the grounds that its conclusion is incompatible with your assumptions or beliefs. Nor is it rational to consider or accept an argument merely because its conclusion is compatible with your assumptions or beliefs.
The mind tends to do both because once it forms a belief, attachment to the belief develops, and the belief becomes an element of your own identity. Confirmation bias is the further result: paying attention to argument or evidence which supports your belief and ignoring or marginalizing argument or evidence which undermines it.
All these factors get exacerbated the more important the belief is to your self-identity and/or the more vested interests, e.g., livelihood, reputation, organizational affiliation, etc., the belief is functional for or invoked to legitimize.
If you’ll pardon the pun, Amod, I’m not sure your experiment is Christian thinking was done ‘in good faith.’ Surely it wouldn’t take a term’s study to see that Christianity won’t meet the standards of validity required by empiricism or rationalism. Saint Paul knew it: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles…”
Plus ça change, right?
Amod Lele said:
Welcome back, Topher! My question to you is: if Christianity in your opinion won’t accept the standards of validity of empiricism and rationalism, what standards does it accept, and why do they differ? And, moreover, what reason does one have to accept those different Christian standards in the first place? It seems to me that a Christian cannot merely say “there is no reason,” that the justification is purely internal to Christianity; for a Christian is called to witness, to spread the gospel to others, to persuade. One does that poorly if one’s best response to “Why should I give over my life to the service of your Lord?” boils down to “Just ’cause.”
All that Amod needs to do to understand Christian “thinking” in practice in America is to look at the Republicans in this country! That’s why we need the antidote offered by the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins!
@Neocarvaka– Your great thirst for justice will not be slaked by Dawkins et al; they’ll disappoint you just as party politics have done. Put aside your computer, humble your spirit, and get to church.
“Put aside your computer, humble your spirit, and get to church.”
@Topher- get out of that stuffy and nauseating church, throw away your Bible, straighten your back, lift up your head, open your mind, prepare to think, and read
The Anti-Christ by Nietzsche
Amod Lele said:
Ah, the Antichrist. One of my favourite of Nietzsche’s great works – mostly because of the beauty of its prose. I love the completely unrestrained bile of the last few paragraphs; few before or since have expressed their hatred in so eloquent a manner. I’m less impressed with the substance of the argument. I’ve long noted that those wonderful last lines are empty enough of actual content that one can turn many of them with relatively little modification on almost any foe one wishes, with enjoyable results. “With this I am at the end and I pronounce my judgement. I condemn the Black Eyed Peas. I raise against Fergie’s band the most terrible of all accusations that any accuser ever uttered. It is to me the highest of all conceivable corruptions.” &c.
Nietzsche’s penultimate works – The Twilight of the Gods and The Anti-Christ – contain some very insightful sketches of devastating arguments and criticisms of Christianity and many forms of religious life and thinking – probably some of the best in his writings. Here is a sample from The Anti-Christ, # 50:
“…there exists among Christians a kind of criterion of truth called “proof by potency”. “Belief makes blessed: therefore it is true.”
One might here object straightaway that this making-blessed itself is not proved but only promised: blessedness conditional upon “believing” – one shall become blessed because one believes….
But that what the priest promises the believer for a “Beyond” inaccessible to any control actually occurs, how could that be proved?
The alleged “proof by potency” is therefore at bottom only a further belief that the effect which one promises oneself from the belief will not fail to appear.
In a formula: “I believe that belief makes blessed – consequently it is true.” But with that we have already reached the end of the argument.
This “consequently” would be the absurdum itself as a criterion of the truth.
…would blessedness – more technically, pleasure – ever be a proof of truth?…it provides ..at any rate the strongest suspicion against “truth” when feelings of pleasure enter into the answer to the question “what is true?”.
The proof by “pleasure” is a proof of pleasure – that is all; when on earth was it established that true judgements give more enjoyment than false ones and, in accordance with a predetermined harmony, necessarily bring pleasant feelings in their train?
The experience of all severe, all profound intellects teaches the reverse. Truth has had to be fought for every step of the way, almost everything else dear to our hearts, on which our love and our trust in life depend, has had to be sacrificed for it. Greatness of soul is needed for it: the service of truth is the hardest service.
Belief makes blessed: consequently it lies…”
(Penguin Classics, Trans. R.J. Hollingdale)
After Nietzsche’s critique, which sweeps away at one stroke the cobwebs of many “pragmatic” justifications of religious belief and experience, how anyone can still glibly proffer arguments of the form “Belief X has great (promised or hoped for?) benefits. So, belief X is true.” beats me, but oddly enough many philosophers and theologians are peculiarly more resistant than other folks to the force of counter-argument and criticism once they have espoused a belief or theory!
I meant the “The Twilight of the Idols” not “The Twilight of the Gods”!
It must be my love of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung! Sorry, Nietzsche! I won’t say R.I.P , but L.I.E – Live in Ecstasy!)
They say that a rich man can have everything but poverty.
Maybe also a philosopher can address all arguments except arguments that require blind belief.
I imagine a Christian might say that: (i) belief is an experience like opening a door to a house and entering — it is a process or an action, and (ii) the proof is discovered only by taking the action. In other words, a Christian might agree with you and Nietzsche that the existence of god is “not proved but only promised”.
As pleasurable as the experience of blessings might be, I expect that a Christian also might take issue with the equating of blessings with pleasure. And she might be on strong ground in asking what Nietzsche knows from blessings!
You are missing the point and force of N’s criticism.
A state of “blessedness” is assuredly one of joy, and, hence, pleasure. Heaven is the ultimate pleasure in Christianity.
N’s critique applies to arguments, such as the ones you have frequently used, which appeal to the (promised, hoped for) allegedly beneficial consequences of belief as grounds for the truth for the belief.
Joy, peace, delight, pleasure, ecstasy, happiness – if these don’t produce equal or greater pain or suffering in the future, they are fine.
But they have no necessary connection to truth or reality. Delusion is more pleasure-friendly, or joy-friendly, or happiness-friendly than apprehension of truth or reality.
So, the evocation of joy, peace, etc., as a consequence of belief, especially blind belief, is perfectly consistent with the fact that the belief is question is utterly delusive.
Why is the truth-value (truth or falsity) of a belief more important than its pleasure-value or comfort-value (its effects of comfort or pleasure)?
michael reidy said:
Thill et al:
The argument that you are proferring is a reductio or purports to be a reductio i.e. to show that a certain position leads to a contradiction and that therefore the position must be false. The privative account of evil is one that is espoused by Augustine and Aquinas but it obviously will have little traction with those who reject the metaphysical system within which it is intelligible.
A good account of it is to be found in The Christian Philosophy of St.Thomas Aquinas pp.154-8 by Etienne Gilson. I am not in the least sanguine that it will be found persuasive by most but I offer it to complete the picture.
The first position is that there is a hierarchy of being which proceeds from the fulness of being in God to that of creatures and on down into matter. The infinite perfection of God can only be reflected in the lesser perfection of creatures. “It is characteristic of creatures to be deficient in mode and degree of being……Creation is not only an exodus, it is also a descent.”
The perfection of each entity is challenged by its corruptible nature. The perfection of the being of teeth for instance is healthy teeth but of course they fall short of that perfection and in that sense are deficient in being. This deficiency in being or privation of being is a natural evil.
In short the answer to this is that evil is a negative reality and more a lack of being than an existent reality. “Evil is not a being; all good however is being.” So far it seems that there still is the connection between creator and creation that is the foundation of theodicy. In a sense the cause of evil is the good because evil only comes about through a good that is missing perfection.
How then is it possible to get over the fact the ultimate source of good, God, is not the source of evil? It is through a defect in the action of a being that evil results. This defect remains within the sphere of the being itself. Viewed as a whole however a totally static universe would not be perfect in that it was not in act or expressing its being. That action which implies a lack of perfection is as it should be. Freedom remains within things and thereby natural and moral evil. Being as such is good and truly exists. Evil is a lack.
extract from Augustine’s Enchiridion on evil as privative:
Michael & Co.,
“The first position is that there is a hierarchy of being which proceeds from the fulness of being in God to that of creatures and on down into matter.”
This is a misleading picture of a ladder of being. It is misleading because God is omnipresent. So, as Ramana Maharishi once quipped by way of annihilating all talk of “descent” of this or that:
Who is to descend to where and from where?
“The infinite perfection of God can only be reflected in the lesser perfection of creatures.”
No doubt the lesser perfection of the ignorance of creatures and their subjection to suffering is also a reflection of the “infinite perfection of God”!
“The perfection of each entity is challenged by its corruptible nature.”
More importantly, it is the perfection of God which is challenged by the corruption or imperfection of each entity. Remember the omnipresence of God? Well, that means these corruptions and imperfections of the creatures actually exist in God since the creatures themselves exist in God! (“All that lives exists and moves within His Being.” or something of that sort.)
“evil is a negative reality and more a lack of being than an existent reality.” What does this mean? What is “negative reality”?
If I lack food, how is this not an example of a “very existent reality”? If I am cruel and bereft of compassion, ask the victims of my cruelty whether my cruelty was an “existent reality”! Obviously, it is.
Common sense will tell you that pain is not merely absence of pleasure but a “positive reality” characterized by certain features.
If pain was nothing more than absence of pleasure, then every instance of absence of pleasure would be an instance of pain. But this is obviously false.
As Aurobindo, for one, has pointed out there is also a “neutral” normal state characterized by the absence of pain and pleasure. So, from the absence of pleasure, one can’t infer the existence of pain. Hence, pain is not just the absence of pleasure.
If pain is evil and pleasure is good, what I’ve just said refutes the thesis that evil is merely the absence of the good.
“Who is to descend to where and from where?”
Yes, even a moment’s cursory thought on this point will show the absurdity of Aurobindo’s notion of a descent of “Spirit” into “Matter” and such.
Nothing can “descend” or “ascend” to where it is already present! If “Spirit” is omnipresent, then “ascent” and “descent” become logically impossible for it!
michael reidy said:
The privative account of evil is one that is espoused by Augustine and Aquinas but it obviously will have little traction with those who reject the metaphysical system within which it is intelligible.
“The first position is that there is a hierarchy of being which proceeds from the fullness of being in God to that of creatures and on down into matter.”
This is a misleading picture of a ladder of being. It is misleading because God is omnipresent. So, as Ramana Maharishi once quipped by way of annihilating all talk of “descent” of this or that:
Who is to descend to where and from where?
Quite! On the one hand you have an hierarchical system with grades of being and on the other a monist with all-pervasive being so they will differ. Where does leading or misleading come into play?
“On the one hand you have an hierarchical system with grades of being”
Grades of whose being? God? That makes no sense! God’s being does not admit of any grades or degrees since God is perfect and “Poornam” or complete.
So, it must be “grades of the cosmos” or “grades of creation” or something like that. This is at least intelligible, but what is the criterion of hierarchy here?
My point is that even if it is intelligible to speak of the “grades of cosmos”, it is unintelligible to explain this in terms of any process of ascent or descent of God or the “Spirit”.
As pointed out in another comment, there is no “going up” or “going down” for the “Spirit” or God since it is omnipresent.
Note that this is about the implications of omnipresence and has nothing to do with “monism”.
michael reidy said:
Christian Cosmology, take a look at the Summa Theologica or The City of God, is different. Positions which are coherent within that system would be contrary to another system. Is that controversial? Does common sense say that there must be one right way even in this field? That’s another subject and not relevant to the OP.
How is your point relevant to my criticism? Simply reiterating a thesis as a piece of “Christian cosmology” and reiterating the truism that it is derived from some premises does not meet the criticism.
In fact, given that Christianity affirms the omnipresence of God, the notion of God’s ascent and descent makes no sense even in terms of its own assumptions.
P.S. It just occurred to me that the theory of Incarnation is inconsistent with the omnipresence of God. God is already present in and pervades the whole of creation. So, how is it intelligible to speak of this God “incarnating” anywhere?
Independent minds are too good for Catholic institutions or any religious institution for that matter. Having taught at a Catholic institution (never again!), I know that the people in them reveal their true colors only when you begin to question their dogmas!
Hume’s perceptive piece “A Note on the Profession of Priest” should be pasted on the entrance of all Catholic institutions and perhaps all other religious institutions, e.g., Tibetan Buddhism, in which the priests have a great deal of power or influence!
“And in order to support the veneration paid them by the multitude, they must not only keep a remarkable reserve, but must promote the spirit of superstition, by a continued grimace and hypocrisy. This dissimulation often destroys the candor and ingenuity of their temper, and makes an irreparable breach in their character.
Most men are ambitious; but the ambition of other men may commonly be satisfied, by excelling in their particular profession, and thereby promoting the interests of society. The ambition of the clergy can often be satisfied only by promoting ignorance and superstition and implicit faith and pious frauds.
Few men can bear contradiction with patience; but the clergy too often proceed even to a degree of fury on this head: Because all their credit and livelihood depend upon the belief which their opinions meet with; and they alone pretend to a divine and supernatural authority, or have any colour (credibility)for representing their antagonists as impious and prophane. The Odium Theologicum, or Theological Hatred, is noted even to a proverb, and means that degree of rancour, which is the most furious and implacable.”
(David Hume: Writings on Religion)
Amod Lele said:
I still get weirded out by people associating Catholic schools with Catholic dogma. Maybe some are still that way, but that was very, very far from my experience. To be sure, the students at Stonehill were often not comfortable with having their dogmas challenged. But theirs were not the dogmas of the Catholic hierarchy, but of mellow Massachusetts liberalism! Augustine’s traditionally Catholic doctrine that man is inherently sinful made them bristle just as much as attempts to challenge God through the problem of suffering. Hume’s critique is not really more relevant to that environment than to any other. The frequent narrow-mindedness I encountered came not from priests – I’m not sure how many of them even attended mass regularly – but from high-school teachers enforcing strict discipline whatever the subject. (And no, the teachers weren’t nuns. This isn’t the ’50s.)
Have you looked at the list of all-white priests of the Holy Cross who constitute the administration at Stonehill? Here they are:
Don’t tell me that they have nothing to do with Catholic dogma and make me die laughing!
Good for you if you haven’t done anything to provoke their odium theologicum!
Apparently, you have not had a “close encounter” with the Catholic Administrative hierarchy which runs a Catholic institution. If you had taught Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ, defended his views, had a few students lodge complaints about you, and you had refused to back down, you may have had that opportunity.
What I wrote was also based on the experiences of a few philosophy instructors I know.
Why are they called “Catholic schools” if they have no “association” with Catholic dogma?
Amod Lele said:
A good question, Neocarvaka, and many people ask it! But then one might as easily ask it of the student body itself: why do they, and so many other “Catholics” out there, call themselves Catholic when they don’t believe any of it? (Much like secular Jews, though Catholics rarely make the claim above that it’s about what you do and not what you believe.)
The religious top administration had quite little to do with the daily life of the school. The only way in which I ever heard about the priest-president intervening in the curriculum was his attempt to require a course in Catholic theology of the students, on top of the religion classes we taught… and faculty protested enough even about that that he changed it to a course in “the Catholic intellectual tradition,” so that you could teach medieval church architecture and have it count.
Overall, actually, I found the environment of a Catholic school much more of a free environment for teaching religious studies than would be an American public university, where Abington v. Schempp makes it difficult to introduce students sympathetically to any variety of theology. By comparison, there was a refreshing lack of dogma-based pressure in the Catholic school environment.
Amod: (Much like secular Jews, though Catholics rarely make the claim above that it’s about what you do and not what you believe.)
Well, you pointed out in an earlier post the absurdity of the criterion that if one “self-identifies” as a Buddhist, then one is a Buddhist.
Isn’t the criterion that “if one does X, then one is a Jew (or Catholic)” tainted by the same sort of absurdity?
Wouldn’t it imply the absurdity that anyone who abstains from killing is a Jew or the absurdity that anyone who helps the poor is a Catholic?
Hence, in just the way Maimonides did for Judaism, one needs to identify the core beliefs (and practices based on them) which identify and distinguish, say a Catholic, or a Buddhist, from each other.
Amod Lele said:
Well, no, I think you’ve made a logical leap here. There’s a big difference between defining tradition x in terms of self-identification and defining it in terms of practice – or even, for that matter, in terms of ethnic/cultural background. (If one is defending a certain group of people against persecution for their ethnic – whether Jews or blacks – it is that ethnic background, rather than beliefs, practices or self-identification, that is going to be most important for defining the group one tries to defend.)
I agree that defining a Jew in terms of, say, not killing other people is not satisfactory, not unless you are really willing to bite the bullet and say that the vast majority of people on the planet who do not kill others are Jews without really knowing it. But the definition of Judaism in terms of practice tends to have to do with very different actions – keeping a kosher diet, observing the Friday Sabbath rest and so on – which would seem very strange if undertaken by non-Jews.
I forgot to add that I was talking about using ethical precepts and their observance as a criterion of identification of a Jew or Catholic and so on. What I have said logically follows from this assumption and is not a “leap of logic” by any stretch.
“But the definition of Judaism in terms of practice tends to have to do with very different actions – keeping a kosher diet, observing the Friday Sabbath rest and so on – which would seem very strange if undertaken by non-Jews.”
These practices are based on beliefs. So, the espousal of those beliefs distinguishes the practitioner from others.
Amod Lele said:
Well, no, they aren’t, not necessarily – not unless the belief in question is “one should undertake this set of practices found in a particular text,” in which case “these practices are based on beliefs” is a tautology that does nothing to help the inquiry.
Orthodox Jews follow these practices because they are commanded by God. Conservative and some Reform Jews follow them because they are a link to a past tradition they’re proud of, even though they may quite often not believe in God. Other Jews may follow them because they grew up with them and their family does them without really thinking about why.
Even Orthodox Jews who agree that God commanded a practice (say, not mixing meat and milk) will disagree as to why God commanded it. And non-believing Jews too will differ on the purpose of a practice. I know one secular Jewish family where one sister believes Passover is important because it is a link to Jewish tradition past, and another because it has a universal meaning for human liberation.
The beliefs differ. The practice is the same. It is the practice and not the beliefs that is most fundamental.
I really appreciate the Jesuits. I taught (just one year) remedial English and arithmetic at All Hallows School, an elementary school off Third Avenue in San Francisco. This school was a magnet for parents who paid tuition to get their kids out of underperforming public schools. Many of the parents and nearly all of the teachers were non-Catholic. The teachers worked for low pay in a difficult environment. I would be surprised if the work of this institution were replicated by modern corporate, for profit charter schools.
If the work of philosophy is to learn how to live wisely and well, you might ask why the teachings of some modern philosophers have not inspired similar institutions.
I am not a fan of dogma (religious or otherwise) but I appreciate the fact that Jesuit institutions also have a sense of themselves. It is possible to have strong institutional viewpoints but also to encourage debate. In fact, if there is something at stake in the debate, the exchange can be powerful. Catholic institutions struggle with issues of academic freedom. Mary Daly was a tenured professor at Boston College. She was a perennial irritant for the administration and she eventually was terminated after she refused to admit male students to some of her seminars. But I appreciate the fact that they gave her tenure in the first place.
San Francisco? Ah, the very town in which in 1815 at the Dolores Mission some Catholic priest-psychopaths (the Russians who wrote about it called them “Jesuits”) gruesomely tortured and killed Peter the Aleut (aka Cungagnaq) for refusing to renounce his Russian Orthodox Christian faith!
I would have been in favor of denial of tenure and termination of appointment for anyone who blatantly engages in reverse gender or other forms of discrimination. This is a discrimination issue and not one of academic freedom. Western academe is full of startling contradictions spawned by muddle-headed liberals!
In just the way religion and the state must be kept separate, religion and education must be kept separate. The perpetuation of religion largely depends on brainwashing the young (see Dawkins on the abuse of children involved in all this) in, and by means of, educational institutions with a religious mission.
Given the egregious falsehoods, superstitions, and irrational thinking which religion nurtures, depends on, and infects us with for an entire lifetime, it is unacceptable that the young are forced to imbibe all this as the price of an education which they may otherwise be unable to afford.
michael reidy said:
Would you on that account be in favour of hiring committed Christians or Buddhists as teachers in a secular setting like a university philosophy faculty. Should they be systematically excluded from access to the young and impressionable? They would appear to you and Thill to be radically challenged in the rational and common sense areas so that would be an valid reason to keep them out. What is your considered opinion?
Sure, if they are well-qualified for a position, but on the contractually specified condition that if they do teach courses involving treatment or discussion of Christianity or Buddhism, that they do not place any constraints on or penalize radical criticism, don’t engage in religious propaganda, and incorporate literature critical of the claims of those religions. A student ought to be able to get an A on grounds of showing requisite knowledge and acuity of argument even if he or she has systematically rejected the claims of Christianity or Buddhism.
We should in fact be inquiring into hiring practices at religious institutions or institutions with a stated religious mission, e.g., Catholic institutions. How many, if any, Non-Catholics are hired and tenured in these institutions in their religious studies departments? How many, if any, Non-Catholics have any administrative positions in these institutions?
Take a look at the Naropa Institute. How many, if any, Non-Buddhists are hired? How many, if any, Non-Buddhists have administrative positions in these institutions?
Another question: If it is permissible for these institutions to hire and fire on grounds of their avowed religious mission and its constitutive values, why is it not permissible for a secular institution to do so if a religious propagandist violates its secular values?
michael reidy said:
Question not very adroitly dodged. Your last sentence assumes that the teacher has already been hired. The question I asked you was whether a teacher who is a practicing Catholic or Buddhist should be hired in the first instance. The assumption that they would use their position as a pulpit is an insult to the very many teachers with religious faith. If a school is one which has a denominational ethos then what is the problem about favouring a prospective teacher who shares that ethos?
If you truly believe that people with religious convictions are deficient in common sense and rationality then it would be your duty to block their access to young and impressionable minds. Ask yourself when in doubt: What would Dawkins do?
You asked: “Would you on that account be in favour of hiring committed Christians or Buddhists as teachers in a secular setting like a university philosophy faculty.”
So your original question asked about hiring in the context of a “secular setting like a university philosophy faculty”. I answered that question by pointing out the need for conformity to the truisms of academic inquiry and freedom. But now you have changed your question and talk about a school which has a “denominational ethos”!
If hiring in accordance with a “denominational ethos” is fine, why isn’t hiring in accordance with a lack of any denominational ethos, i.e., secular setting, not acceptable?
Your feigned ignorance of the history of religion surprises me. Your “white wash” of religious irrationality will get you many votes from the believers, but flies against the facts.
Those who believe in “witches” flying around on broomsticks are paragons of common sense? Those believe that a human being can die and be resurrected and then vanish into thin air are embodiments of common sense? Those who believe that repeated mutterings of strange words can cure illnesses are exemplars of common sense? (Where was “faith healing” during the Black Plague?) Those who believe that there is an extremely malicious being who is out to get your “soul” are the paradigms of sanity and rationality? Those who believe that they identical to an incorporeal omnipresent being haven’t lost their senses?
Religious belief is inevitably a case of “cognitive dissonance”. You believe in things you know there isn’t any evidence for!
Our daily encounters with religious believers shows that a characteristic found in most people – double-mindedness – is present in exacerbated and pathological forms in the religious ones. If you believe that Satan is out to get you, why don’t you call an exorcist whenever things go wrong with appliances in your home or your car doesn’t start?
michael reidy said:
So I’ll take that as a ‘yes I would block those people from taking up positions in secular institutions if it was in my power to do so’.