Book Review: I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist – Interlude

I just started a new job and right now, I’m too preoccupied to give the question of evidence for Jesus sufficient attention. I was starting to write about chapter 9, but didn’t have the attention span for it. Lest anyone be thinking of the proper Christian reply – that it’s shortsighted and arrogant for an atheist to decide that she doesn’t have time to consider the evidence for Jesus; and that if I died today, the explanation that I had put it off would be insufficient, I will note that I have yet to see any new material and if there’s one thing that I can’t be accused of, it’s unfamiliarity with Christianity.
What I did want to start the new section with ended up being more of an interlude than a review or a response anyway:

Finally, we can start talking about Jesus. It occurs to me that I’ve gotten too bogged down in criticisms of the author’s writing style, and that I need to get back to talking about whether I find the arguments convincing for me, whether they’re explained well or not. My initial thoughts are about the knowledge of Jesus or any other member of the Trinity as a personal god. I’ve heard it preached many times that the members of the godhead are persons rather than impersonal forces, and that God can be known. Christians often say that they experience God’s presence in some way. My mother says that the Holy Spirit gives her peace about certain things, although she has claimed in the past to have had peace about things that did not work out in a positive way. As I stated before, I thought that I was a Christian for most of my childhood. I prayed to God with all sincerity. But I never had any personal experience of God in any form or manifestation. It seems to me that the experience of God should have been sufficient testimony.

When Jesus is asked to show the disciples the Father, he replies that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father. Moreover, he says that the Spirit will live in them and will teach them all things (John 14:8-26). Later, Peter preaches at Pentecost that the gift of the Holy Spirit is for all believers and their children and all who are far off (Acts 2: 38-39). I would say to anyone trying to convince me that we have testimony about Jesus that if the Holy Spirit truly lives in them, they should be able to give me living testimony and not just apologetics. It is as if you talked to me all the time about your friend Jesus, who you claimed was a living person; he even lived in your own house. Yet when I asked to meet Jesus, you gave me a ghost-written autobiography of his life, and told me that the book along with your enthusiasm for him should be proof to me that he is real. This is a poor sort of introduction to someone who lives with you. Maybe you tell me that if I read the autobiography and try to talk to Jesus, I will meet him, but when I have done all that with great supplication and he doesn’t appear, what else is there to do? Pray harder? Try harder? Obey better? You tell me that I cannot meet him through my own works, so what is there remaining? In place of the meeting, you give me some books that attempt to convince me that all the things Jesus claimed in his autobiography are true. But of what use to me are books when I want to meet him? Can you blame me for doubting that he lives here with you?

It’s the same thing, always.

In other review related news, I would like to recommend a response to I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist that is much shorter, much funnier, and much more clever than mine: http://www.philvaz.com/apologetics/p98.htm I’m not associated with either the author or the website – I found it via the magic of Google. I’m not sure that I buy every one of his arguments – I feel that he throws around the term “other dimensions” too much without giving it a rigorous and static definition, but otherwise he brings up a lot of good points without going on and on the way that I do!

Have you, possibly non-existent reader, seen The Sunset Limited on HBO? http://www.hbo.com/movies/sunset-limited/index.html# It’s a play by Cormac McCarthy with Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. That should be enough reason to watch it. I was nervous at the beginning. Nervous that it seemed to be shaping into religious truth vs. bitter nihilistic symbol of atheism with a little bit of magical Negro thrown in. There might be people who agree with that first assessment. What really stood out to me was the idea of experiential truth and the idea that a character needn’t be a symbol or a representation. It’s good that McCarthy doesn’t go into speech writing for televangelists. I don’t know his own beliefs, although I sincerely doubt that he’s a born again, but he and Samuel L. captured something in experiential Christianity that to me is missing in what I’ve seen of actual Christianity (although I was reminded a bit of Wayne, an ex-homeless man who now runs a soup kitchen in my hometown). It was convincing because I wanted to be convinced – but conversely, it was made-up and acted, maybe observed and idealized, and how could someone else’s experience be trusted when experience can be generated as art?

The other thing that I dealt with was not being sensitive toward having myself misrepresented, because every other atheist is not myself. Archetypes are different from representatives. There are bitter nihilistic atheists and I’m not one of them. I’m a happy nihilist. I’m happy that when I die, I’ll be part of the universe in the trees and earth and stars and other things, other people. Make no mistake, I don’t think there’s a larger purpose to it. It’s enough that it happens. I did hear echoes of other McCarthy when White started talking about the progression of time. The beginning made me think that I should reevaluate Blood Meridian. But I hope the movie never gets made. Because I can’t see it being anything but a disaster, no matter who directs and who acts.

Advertisements

Book Review: I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist – Ch 8.2

8: MIRACLES: SIGNS OF GOD OR GULLIBILITY? (PART 2)

I stopped in the middle of chapter eight for a long time because I was annoyed and tired. I thought that we were finally getting to Biblical claims, but instead, it was more magic hand-waving tricks. The rest of the chapter can be finished out fairly quickly. The author wants to define for us what is and isn’t a miracle. He says, fairly enough, that for an act of God to be an unmistakable sign from God, it must be distinguished from any other unusual event (p 210). He defines these to be an instantaneous beginning of a powerful act, intelligent design and purpose, and the promotion of good or right behavior (p 211). He does not consider events that can be explained by natural laws to be miraculous. However, he brushes over the issue of Satanic signs. I don’t have the inclination to address the arguments about dualism, but I’ll point out that again the author makes facile points and declares an absolute conclusion. Moreover, he declares that Satan can only produce limited counterfeit miracles that are often associated with immoral behavior. He says that only God can create life, with the example of Pharaoh’s magicians being unable to create life in the form of lice in the third plague, although they were able to imitate the first two. This makes absolutely no sense, because the second plague was frogs, another living creature. So somehow imitating frogs with magic tricks is possible, but lice are impossible to imitate and must be created? I don’t even know where that argument is going.

Moreover, Evangelicals will generally see fit to denounce the kind of miracles that Jesus appeared to accept in Mark 9. Jesus says No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.

Lastly, there are excuses for why we don’t see Biblical miracles today. The author says that miracles were rare and only performed during the times that God was confirming new truth (p 216). But then why talk about miracles at all at this point? In fact, we’re offered with no valid criteria to evaluate whether a miracle happened or not, because there is nothing that we can point to, within the chapter at least, that is both miraculous and witnessed. Even the plagues in the aforementioned examples, if we had any way of confirming that they happened at all, are not clearly miraculous, since anomalies are ruled out from being miraculous. Frogs, lice, boils, hail, darkness, death of children… these are all things that can occur naturally, and predictive powers aren’t addressed in the category of miracles here. Again, these kind of definitions lack meaning without having anything to evaluate. So far, it seems that a miracle is anything that the author labels as a miracle, so that a swarm of lice from an ancient text qualifies, but anything purportedly done in the name of any other god does not.

Book Review: I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist – Ch 8.1

8: MIRACLES: SIGNS OF GOD OR GULLIBILITY? (PART 1)

The beginning of the chapter summarizes the points made thus far, but includes this non sequiter: From the Moral Argument we know that God is absolutely morally pure… This standard includes infinite justice and infinite love. The moral law argument attempts to show that there is a law giver, but even if this were so, infinite justice and infinite love remain to be proven. This is one of the main issues bothering me about the way that this book was written. The author will make a point that relates to general theism in one chapter, and in the next chapter, will claim that he has proven something specific to Christianity. Note also that he has been using the singular masculine declension to talk about god, although he has not logically established anywhere in the book that there is only one creator or that such a creator has masculine properties. He then claims that the theistic God we have discovered is consistent with the God of the Bible, but we have discovered him without use of the Bible (p 198). Have we been reading the same book?

Even more confusingly, the author claims that only the monotheistic religions can be true, while grouping pantheistic and polytheistic religions as nontheistic (p 198). He claims that the existence of a theistic God disproves polytheism because God is infinite and there cannot be more than one infinite being (p 199). He claims that this follows from the cosmological argument because god is outside time, space, and matter. It appears that he’s using his own definitions of what outside space-time might mean, because he has not presented any argument that the beginning of the universe having a cause has a direct relationship to having one infinite creator. This is a prime example of why I am frustrated with this book: the author will bring up a new statement and claim that it is proven by a previous point, when in fact it is not trivial.

Ah, another underhanded slam against atheists. If you’re beginning to find it obnoxious that I keep pointing these out, maybe that should make you think about how frequent they are. The communication of god can be easily ignored by those who freely decide that they don’t want to be bothered by God, eh? Not those who decide that the evidence doesn’t lead to the existence of god after serious study and thought, because in Geisler’s world, those people don’t seem to exist. Those who reject the Bible are characterized as those who don’t want to be bothered (p 201).

The author suggests that god doesn’t appear to each one of us because he doesn’t want to interfere with our free will (p 200). This is a significant departure from the reformed Christianity that my family believes and that I was taught by my family was the correct doctrine. I would like to see this speculation backed up by Biblical theology. The author goes on to say that miracles could be god’s way of authenticating his message. He gives another terrible analogy that would only work on someone completely unfamiliar with theism. The problem here is that we keep circling back around to things we covered earlier. He says that we know beyond a reasonable doubt that a theistic god exists (p 203), and I assert that he did not demonstrate that. I have now spent several pages raising reasonable doubts that he did not cover in his arguments.  Since this is the basis by which he establishes his argument for miracles, I must insist that the argument for miracles is baseless unless the points against the earlier argument are addressed sufficiently.

The author covers two objections against miracles. First, natural laws are immutable. He correctly points out that natural laws are descriptive rather than prescriptive (p 204), but fails to show any evidence for violations of natural law that have been observed and documented in any quantitative manner. Second, miracles are not credible. He addresses Hume’s argument and claims that he has several counterexamples of the evidence for the rare being greater than the evidence of the regular (p 206). He claims that the origin of the universe happened only once, but cannot show that there are no other universes similar to our own. He claims that the origin of life happened only once, but cannot show that there are no other lifeforms outside our own planet. He claims that the entire history of the world is comprised of rare, unrepeatable events. In this, he appears to be mistaking specificity for rarity, and comprised for composed.

The alleged flaws in Hume’s arguments are first that it confuses believability with possibility. Here, the author is being a bit disingenuous, since the argument against miracles addressed here is that they are not credible, and not that they are impossible. Second, Hume allegedly confuses probability with evidence. Didn’t the author previously use the improbability that the universe would have evolved to support life as an argument against natural evolution? No matter, the problem with this argument is that a miracle is not simply a rare event, but one that conflicts with observed natural laws. (See http://blog.evangelicalrealism.com/2008/06/27/xfiles-friday-the-one-legged-straw-man/ for a more complete discussion). Third, belief in miracles is ruled out in advance because Hume presupposes that there is uniform evidence against them. I will only observe that the Christian also supposes that there is uniform evidence against events that go against the laws of nature except where the Christian god is evoked, and sometimes not even then. If I were to go to an educated Christian and tell him that I have observed a man floating in the air, will he exclaim that it must be an event that has gone against the law of gravity, or will he believe that there is a natural reason that makes it appear as if a man is floating, or will he simply believe that I have observed incorrectly?

At this point, it would be more useful for the author to present us with the miracles that he wishes for us to accept. He has the advantage that it is impossible to prove a universal negative, although if no examples of laws of nature being miraculously broken can be shown, accepting that laws of nature are true universally is a good assumption based on the evidence that we have been able to observe.

Book review frustration

I’ve been having a hard time getting through chapter 8 because there are a Lot of things that I want to respond to but the topics are all over the place and not linked together very coherently. I.e. there are a lot of things that are making me want to bash my head against the wall. Not because I’ve realized that I was wrong and Christianity is right. And not even because I’ve become more certain that I’m right. Mostly because of the writing structure and the authors’ amazing ability to claim that they’ve proven conclusions that they didn’t even discuss thoroughly.

That had me thinking about apologetics in general. I’ve read several, mostly while I was still a Christian or attempting to be one. In most of them, there’s a large extent to which they’re preaching to the choir. They’re explaining things to Christians who aren’t clear on their theology, reassuring doubters, and answering questions for people who are inclined toward Christianity to begin with. I have yet to read anything that is truly persuasive toward those who are not inclined toward Christianity, and I must say that Geisler and Turek’s snide and condescending tone toward atheists as a general class has emotionally turned me off to their book, just as their incomplete presentation of complex arguments has turned me off intellectually. Even as a Christian, I was more of the mind that if the Bible is the word of god, it should speak for itself.

I’ve continued to be busy with work because my company has been acquired by a much larger company. Although the amount of paperwork and new policies has been daunting, so far it has been exceedingly positive. There are a lot of learning resources, 401k matching and good benefits, and several other perks. My actual job duties haven’t changed though.

I’m also reading Neuromancer, by William Gibson, whose book signing I attended this week with the Denver BWB, and have completed about 1/3 of a small stained glass piece.

Book Review: I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist – Ch 7.2

I’ve spent a lot of time on un-deniability and reactions, and I’d like to go through the other points a little more quickly since I’m not even halfway through the book. The author Godwins the third point. LOL. I’m trying to take this reading seriously, but citing the Declaration of Independence and then using the Nazis as an unrelated example is not an argument. At any rate, this is the same point as the first point in different words. In fact, almost every further point is the same point as the first point, that we have intuitive knowledge about morality. However, all that this demonstrates is that people have an ethical sense. It does not prove that a god was necessary to create a system of ethics. Indeed, the term moral law goes generally undefined. A few examples of right and wrong are given, but no more rigorous definition emerges beyond what is known by people’s reactions. I cannot discuss the moral law in depth if the author does not define it!

Next, the author claims that morality appears relative because of failure to make proper distinctions (p 182). First up are absolute morals vs. changing behavior. He uses an example that is relevant to me, that of cohabitation and premarital sex. I feel that the author would probably direct me back to point eight, if there were no moral law, then we wouldn’t make excuses for violating it (p 181), but I am not attempting to defend myself or my behavior. I genuinely do not know why it is morally wrong to be in a committed relationship without getting married. It is not undeniably immoral as the harm in it may be debated, my reaction to it does not indicate that anyone is being harmed or treated unfairly, and it does not fall into any categories that I consider to be absolutely wrong. The author’s previous reasons for knowing that the moral law exists seem only to apply to those within a Christian environment, who will feel guilty for breaking the rules of their community.

The second distinction is that of changing perception of the facts (p 182). I am not sure of the point that the author is trying to make through his example. He says that in the late 1700s, witches were sentenced as murderers and now they are not. The perception was once that witches could murder people with curses, but that now people no longer believe that they can. However, the Bible says that one should not suffer a witch to live (Exodus 22:18). Is he claiming that those who practice Wicca should still be put to death by the unchanging absolute morals of the Bible? I am not seeing that reading in this paragraph. Using the examples that I’ve already given, it appears that many of the laws of the Bible were based upon perceptions that almost no modern person, including most Christians, now accepts. By what mechanism should we divide the unchanging moral values from the antiquated perception of the moral situation in the perfect law of the lord?

Third is the application to particular situations. All I want to say at this time is that these following sections are presented as opinion without rigorous proof. The author says that people may get morality wrong in complicated situations but not on the basics, and claims that truthfully answering a simple moral question such as whether murder is justified proves that at least one law of morality exists (p 184). I do not know how anyone could consider that a simple moral question, because the definition of murder is not universal, even among Christians. But what troubles me most is that he makes his last assertion completely without backing – if the moral law exists, then so does the Moral Law Giver (p 185). This is a weaselly way to present a case.

The fifth distinction, moral disagreements, is another appeal to un-deniability, and a dishonest one at that. He claims that most people know deep in their hearts that an unborn child is a human being (p 186), and I’m disgusted that he would attempt to discredit those he disagrees with in such a way. I am not talking about the issue of abortion, but about this tactic of claiming intellectual dishonesty and willfulness on the behalf of his opponents. It is no different than if I claimed that Geisler and Turek know deep in their hearts that there is no god, but suppress that knowledge as a matter of the will in order to justify how they have spent their lives. If the author and you truly believe that everyone who disagrees with them is deliberately fooling themselves, there is no point in continuing to pretend to have an honest conversation.

Ah! Godwinned again! I have no interest in addressing the straw man Darwinist that the author attacks. I am not qualified to explain a Darwinian system of morality, since it is something that I know little about, and I do not have the time to read much about it right now, as I am currently embarked on a rather time consuming blogging project. I will attempt to address it at a later time, after this review is finished, as my purpose for writing this now is to react to a Christian apologetic and not to publish a scholarly work. Until then, I recommend the library at http://www.infidels.org for a collection of articles dealing with atheism and morality (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/nontheism/atheism/morality-and-atheism.html). The author claims that he has shown that if at least one thing is really morally wrong, then God exists (p 192). I assert that he has failed to show that, and in fact has not even tried to show it but has done a lot of hand waving with controversial topics and unproven blanket statements. He also claims that to be a consistent atheist, one has to believe that there is nothing wrong with any heinous act (p 193). Apparently, he will not consider any atheistic claim that humans are capable of authoring a moral system either through necessity or rational thought. That is coupled with the final interesting thing, on the very last page of the chapter, which is the statement that in Christian theology, the Moral Law is god’s nature (p 193). He did not address the Euthyphro dilemma, but from his other statements, it is obvious that he believes that any person can determine whether a course of action is good for reasons other than because god says it is. The moral atheist will claim that if these reasons are self-evident despite god’s existence, they can also be self-evident without god’s existence.

Book Review: I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist – Ch 7.1

7: MOTHER TERESA VS. HITLER

Oh the moral law argument. So far, nothing new has been presented in this book. Many evangelical apologetics attempt to establish these same arguments in the same order, and I’m disappointed not to see anything different here, as these are points that have been debated to death so that my observations are also nothing new. Furthermore, the level of reasoning in this book does not even come close to the level presented by William Lane Craig.

The author starts the argument by asserting that every law has a law giver, and ends by concluding that there is a Moral Law Giver, capitalized. He immediately assumes that such a law giver must be a personal entity and does not consider the possibility of a law given by the properties of the universe or by behavioral or communal evolution, by humans developing a sense of behaviors that benefit them by benefitting their community which allows them to have safety, to have boundaries, and to have secure reproduction.

The author claims that we know the moral law exists because it is undeniable. He goes on to say that the relativist’s claim of no absolute truth is irrational because it asserts an absolute truth (p 172). To describe my own beliefs about morality, I would not claim that there is no absolute truth or that one must not say always or never. I would say, rather, that it appears to me that there are general moral principles rather than rigorous moral laws, and that the right application of such principles varies according to the situation.

To use the author’s example, although almost all people appear to know that it is wrong to kill innocent human beings, there is not absolute agreement even among Christians about exactly what defines an innocent human being or about an undeniable hierarchy of moral actions. I am also suspicious, although perhaps unjustly, that the claim that the moral law is undeniable is masking a less savory claim – that anyone who disagrees with the author’s view of morality is suppressing what they know to be the truth. If there’s something that’s undeniable to me, it’s that people can look at an ethical situation, come to two different conclusions, but each be honestly and positively sure that they are supporting the correct ethical choice. I was recently reading about a Christian pro-life group’s stance that ectopic pregnancies did not justify abortion. It is undeniable to me that this violates reasonable moral principles. However, the moral principle of reducing harm to the greatest number of people is, in this case, based upon statistics that Vision Forums would find unacceptable. I am sure that it is undeniable to them that even if only one in sixty million fetuses will survive in a fallopian tube (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/443373.stm), that one is enough to avoid aborting.

The second reason is that we know the moral law by our reactions (p 172). Since the entire book is an apologetic for evangelical Christianity, I feel that it’s acceptable to assume that the moral law the author is arguing for is synonymous with the moral law presented in the Bible. Thus, when he says that the Moral Law is not always the standard by which we treat others, but it is nearly always the standard by which we expect others to treat us (p 175), I must conclude that the Bible can be evaluated in that context.

There are many examples that I could use, such as Deuteronomy 22:23-24, where a woman raped within the city should be stoned because she did not cry out so that someone could hear her. My reaction to this moral law is that it’s repugnant and misogynistic, and it is neither the way that I would desire to treat a rape victim, nor is it the way that I would want to be treated were I raped. I think that the best example of how moral reactions change according to culture and time period is the reaction to laws dealing with slavery. If one were to approach almost any modern Christian and tell them – I’m going to buy another human being as property and make them work for me – then that Christian would react with horror. Consider laws governing treatment of slaves, such as Exodus 21:2-6, in which a male slave is freed after seven years, but if he wants to stay with his slave wife and children, he will belong to his master forever, or Exodus 21:20-21, when a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished.  If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property. Some Christians assert that parts of the Bible were written for certain people in a certain culture in which slavery had a different meaning (for example, http://www.christian-thinktank.com/qnoslave.html), so that god was actually showing a great amount of mercy in making laws that made things less harsh for slaves. Is that not the ultimate expression of cultural moral relativity, when the reaction of a modern person toward the ownership of another person, no matter how non-violent, is one of disgust?

The reading continues – Chapter 7 preview

It is with shock and guilt that I realize that it’s been a month since I’ve posted last. My intention was to back off from posting while studying for the actuarial exam, but not to the point where I totally fail to keep updating. I’m not even that good at studying, although the stairs did get built after many trials and torments. I think that I was probably forewarned about home ownership. I pick up my CSA vegetables on Monday and go to track practice on Tuesday, at least until indoor soccer resumes. This weekend, I’m going to Leadville to run in the Heavy Half Marathon. When I signed up impulsively, I didn’t know that “Heavy” meant 15 miles. My regrets are also heavy. Every time I think about the huge climb and the inevitable oxygen debt, part of me thinks I’m going to die I’m going to die I’m going to die!

One thing that I wanted to mention was that I’m curious about the people who are reading this. I can see from my stats that most know me in some capacity, but if anyone wanted to leave a comment hinting at who they are, I’d appreciate it. Double that sentiment for the people who got here from my Facebook page. Many of my Facebook friends are Christians, since many are childhood friends. When I got divorced, a very small mix of concerned friends and intrusive busybodies had input for me, but I’d fallen out of regular touch with most people by the time that I was ready to discuss my deconversion with my family. Even if one happens to see an old friend while visiting the hometown, it’s a hard subject to bring up – oh hi Jim, how lovely to see you! You have a new job and a new kid, that’s great. Oh me? I’ve joined a soccer team and left Christianity… So in the end, the only people I ended up discussing it with were my father and a few groups of online friends who weren’t part of my childhood.

It still feels strange to me that I’m so publicly open online, where anyone can read my thoughts about an important subject, while almost never talking about these things in real life. I don’t care to become the sort of person who tweets about my bowel movements, and I do intend to send this entire missive (minus the interludes about stair building and studying) to my father when I finish. I guess that I started blogging about it because it was becoming internally weighty, and I didn’t want it to feel like a secret or something that I was hiding.

To be quite honest, not only other priorities but reluctance to deal with the next chapter has slowed me down. It might be best to just dive into it headfirst and write about my thoughts instead of trying to form organized rebuttals. I certainly am aware that I’m not the gold standard of anti-apologetics – I’ve just been writing down personal thoughts and research on the conclusions of more thoughtful people this entire time. Yet I feel that this next chapter starts dealing with the issues on which my non-belief hinges. Having to lay it out in a coherent manner scares me a little bit. I’ve read the chapter in advance, and I don’t feel that the arguments laid out are the best arguments or well-reasoned. But that doesn’t remove the problem of answering in a thoughtful way. Maybe it’s best to recognize that I will never be able to address all the issues surrounding the moral law argument, talk about a few things, and move on.

The thing that particularly blows me away about the moral law argument is that while it may seem valid as a stand-alone philosophical argument, the specific document of the Old Testament is one of the worst possible examples of its universality. The argument that the author seems to be building is that the moral law is intuitive and that we react instinctively against immorality (p 173). And I can think of specific examples in which I react instinctively against what I believe to be injustice. I recoil at the practices of condemning a woman to death for not yelling loudly enough to be heard when being raped in the city, of women being forced to drink a potion that could cause miscarriage if their husbands suspected them of adultery without evidence, or of a slave’s refusal to leave a wife and children in slavery resulting in him having to be a slave for life. The author says that moral values are practically undeniable (p 173). If I take him at face value, I can not help but conclude that the writer of the laws of the Old Testament is morally bankrupt.

Previous Older Entries