02/10/14

Thoughts on a live debate over the existence of God…

Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 4.32.16 PM I attended a debate on Friday put on by the Secular Student Alliance at Boise State entitled “Does God Exist?” To my surprise, the room was packed, with about three hundred people in attendance. The debaters were Dan Barker, a former evangelical pastor and founder of Freedom from Religion, and Bill Pubols, a director of Athletes in Action, a “community striving to see Christ-followers on every team, every sport, every nation.” I’ve never attended a debate like this before, but I’ve heard about Dan Barker for some time and wanted to see the type of arguments each side trotted out.

I will say up front that Pubols (who valiantly came in as a last minute replacement for Matt Slick) was inexperienced and outmatched by the veteran Barker. However, the arguments he brought forth were similar to those of more experienced debaters, albeit not deployed as skillfully or confidently. For his part, Barker was not as charitable as I would have liked in his characterization of Christians, though I agreed with nearly all of his points.

While the constructing and dismantling of arguments was interesting, I noticed a distinct change in tactics on Pubols’ part over the course of the debate. He began with the Kalam cosmological argument, made arguments from universal moral principles, and contended for the validity of the New Testament based on its historical accuracy. Barker in turn dismissed the cosmological argument for making a category error (assuming that the universe itself obeys the same laws of things within the universe), denied that morality had to be universal to be valuable, and suggested a number of irreconcilable contradictions in the Biblical text.

As the debate continued though, Barker retained the same approach while Pubols shifted from making arguments to using anecdotal evidence and making emotional appeals. I recognized both the rhetoric and the tone of his altered argument from time spent listening to innumerable sermons on Sunday mornings.

I sensed that Pubols was more comfortable with anecdotes and emotional appeals than philosophical arguments, and rightly so. Christianity situates the individual within a narrative that spans both time and eternity. Seen from within, this narrative creates purpose and meaning, but as Jean-Francois Lyotard notes in The Postmodern Condition, this grand narrative is incompatible with scientific knowledge. Lyotard concludes that “it is…impossible to judge the existence or validity of narrative knowledge on the basis of scientific knowledge or vice versa: the relevant criteria are different” (26). The two epistemologies speak a different language, and this became apparent during the debate.

(One might argue then, as many have, that religion and science just occupy mutually exclusive registers of reality. But Lyotard’s point is that narratival justification is no longer possible in the postmodern world, and the best we can do is little narratives that make no claim at universality. In a sense we know too much for the grand narratives to continue to function. And if it were true that religious or scientific beliefs were held in a vacuum, their potential conflict would be inconsequential. In our world, though, they vie for position in politics and culture. This is one reason I can’t buy the argument that freethinkers should just leave believers alone if their belief gives them comfort. It’s not that simple.)

Both men made appeals to scientific knowledge, and I’m curious to know whether a scientific argument is appealing to other folks when arguing over religion. Pubols told of the unimaginable improbability of the universe being constructed so as to support life–which for him points to a knowing creator–but Barker was well-versed in scientific jargon to support other examples in the universe of order coming from chaos. Those arguments did little to convince me on either side. It may be because my deconversion was initiated from a more practical and social standpoint. I was more convinced by the arguments from morality and the problem of evil.

The case of morality is particularly interesting because the believer is sincerely convinced that life is not meaningful without ultimate purpose (think Rick Warren and the Purpose Driven Life here), and the freethinker is just as sincerely convinced that life can (and must) be meaningful without ultimate purpose because there is none. This suggests that understanding how individuals pass from one paradigm to another is critically important to understand.

The problem of evil is much more straightforward, and it remains difficult to understand how one can employ notions of the goodness of God, or divine love, in the face of the human condition. As Barker noted, if God is whimsical or bad, he would be more convinced of his existence, but the insistence that God is good in the face of good and bad acts in the world requires a redefinition of linguistic terms that is only possible when one starts with the answer. To use a crude but applicable example, if a friend or partner beats you and then tells you he loves you, others would recognize it as manipulation or abuse. On the global scale and when talking about the divine, many religious folk are comfortable with calling it love.

In the end, although the arguments Pubols first employed were attempts to justify his belief on the basis of philosophy or science, they weren’t the foundation for his belief, nor are they (I think) for most Christians. They certainly weren’t for me as a believer. Christianity was true because I was part of a narrative, one that plotted me in the course of human history and guaranteed my righteousness for eternity. Thus, when his attempts at reasonable justification were thwarted, Pubols resorted to the familiar tactic of narrative, the means by which he and others have been sincerely convinced. He referred to, among other things, the “knowledge” of the heart, the “Truth” of Jesus’ statements such as “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and the felt “need” we all have for ultimate meaning.

According to the anonymous entrance poll, the majority of audience members were Christian, and there was about a four percent shift toward the nonexistence of God by the exit poll. I came away entertained but wondering if the debate format was worth the effort if the aim is to sway the opposition. Changing the question from the existence of God to the validity of faith would likely have improved the discussion, but lessened the draw to the debate. Overall, it seemed akin to the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Hamm (which I didn’t see). One commenter summed it up by saying that the only thing that would change Nye’s mind is evidence, and the only thing that would change Hamm’s mind is…nothing. But people do change, somehow. If I could only figure out how…

01/6/14

The Last Line of Defense?

Caravaggio - Sacrifice of Isaac (Wikipedia)

Caravaggio – Sacrifice of Isaac (Wikipedia)

Up until the last couple years, I have prided myself on not allowing my worldviews to sway discussion in the classroom. To oversimplify a bit—and speaking primarily of the humanistic disciplines—I thought the university was divided between “activist” professors, those who can’t help but betray their investment in the issues they discuss, energizing some students and alienating others, and “neutral” professors, those who keep their views hidden so as not to abuse their power and give a balanced presentation on all issues discussed. I was ambivalent about the first model, but I aspired to be the second model, perhaps because of humility, perhaps because of timidity.

I was reminded of how conflicted I now am about the latter model in when reading an article on religion and violence by Hector Avalos. Avalos is a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Iowa. He’s also a former Pentecostal preacher and an outspoken critic of religion. He is something of an enigma in being a professor of religion who is openly critical of not only his former tradition, but religion in general. He’s written a book calling for the end of his own discipline of Biblical Studies because it attempts to perpetuate as a living text a book that he argues is fundamentally incompatible with the modern world. There are certainly others within Religious Studies that are critical of some religion, but not many like Avalos. I’d like to hear about his deconversion some day.

But back to the article, which is entitled “Religion and Scarcity: A New Theory for the Role of Religion in Violence,” a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence. The article is a riff on his 2005 book Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence. The point of the article—and the earlier book I presume, though I haven’t read it yet—is that violence is caused by a scarcity of resources, real or imagined, and religion is particularly dangerous because the source of justification for the scarce resources it centers around are intangible, and thus unverifiable in any way. For example, because of the belief that a supernatural being, God, condemns homosexuality, many Christians believe that traditional values (i.e., their values) are under attack with the increase of same sex relationships, and it is consequently their duty to correct the situation, with violence if need be. Sacred space is another example Avalos gives. All the monotheistic traditions want a piece of the action in Jerusalem because each is under the impression that its God has imbued the land with sacred significance for them. One does not need to know much history to know how much violence this belief has caused.

After citing examples of scarcity, Avalos gives a critique of the ethics of religious violence with the following syllogism:

  1. What exists is worth more than what does not exist.
  2. Life exists.
  3. Therefore, life is worth more than what does not exist.

Although I wouldn’t say I disagree, there are certainly more convincing ways to delegitimize religious violence, including the historical examples above. His point, however, is that this violence is taking place on the basis of empirically unverifiable claims. Not land or oil or wealth—although these all can be implicated as well—but faith.

What I appreciated was the candidness with which he made his conclusion. Given the immorality of religious violence, there are two conclusions, Avalos contends. One would be to modify religion so that it does not manufacture scarcities, and the other would be to remove religion completely. The latter would not remove all violence, but would remove one source of purely immoral violence. He doesn’t make a strong case for the first option, partly because I don’t think there’s a strong one to be made. Postmodern Christianity is certainly fighting for this approach, and from an individual perspective, I understand it. It’s one I tried to pursue for some time and have some lingering sympathies for. However, I think that this approach only hides the symbolic violence that religion can still contribute to in other spheres. I’d call this the Pontius Pilate approach. I’ll wash my hands of the whole thing, and if people happen to get hurt, it’s not my fault.

The second approach, the one Avalos spends more space discussing, is to rid the world of religion. How so? With education. By exposing religious thinking to the same process of rational thought and empirical evidence that governs other spheres of inquiry. He ends with the following: “Even if it can never be achieved, the most ethical mission of academic religious studies may be to help humanity move beyond religious thinking.”

I cannot vouch for the ethos of other religion scholars, but this is definitely not how I learned to teach religion. The religious studies scholar’s role in the twenty-first century seems to be to defend religion. This role seems to have been accelerated after 9/11, when many Americans had little difficulty believing that Islam existed only for violent ends. (Indeed, many still do.) Religion scholars have perpetually mounted a concerted defense of religion, usually by denouncing acts of violence as not religious in their very nature or making some sort of separation between good and bad religion. I wrote about that in the case of the Boston Marathon bombing last year. While the intention of many was likely good, attempting to halt the proliferation of violence upon violence, it seems to have furthered the role of the religion scholar as the defender of religion. One doesn’t need to defend religion on its own merit in order to denounce violence against those who are religious, and it has produced some unthinking scholarship.

It is abundantly clear that religious traditions have had and do have intimate associations with violence, in physical, symbolic, and systemic forms. I suppose the charitable question would be the following: If, as any sincere religious believer would have to think, eliminating religion is not the best option, and assuming one wants to minimize violence, how can one remove the violence and keep the religion? (Hint: the answer is not to dissociate violent acts done in the name of religion from religion. That just offloads the problem.) I think this second approach may actually be the more difficult one.

08/14/13

Elysium: Everybody Loves a Good Death

Don’t worry. I won’t spoil it (all), although you already know the story. I actually enjoyed the movie, even if the preview made the plot look more nuanced than it actually was. You could make a number of criticisms that are not unique to Elysium. They are the hallmark of any action movie. Any action movie that takes on something larger than mano-a-mano combat still has to has that combat to bring about the ultimate resolution. Zizek said as much of The Fugitive years ago, the same was true of The InternationalElysium_Poster (which I watched mostly because of the Istanbul shots over the grand bazaar, but now everyone does that), and it is true of Elysium. Apparently, structural and societal changes are made when people get together and punch each other in the face.

Hey, I watch them frequently, so there’s obviously something appealing to me—and many others—about these scenarios, but I’m probably fooling myself if I think the movie is a deft critique of the growing discrepancy between rich and poor. Certainly it aims to be, but the scenario in which the critique is portrayed allows us to think that social and economic polarization is only due to a handful of clearly insane power-hungry monsters rather than embedded in the Joe Shmoes of society like you and I.

Okay, so this part is a bit of a spoiler. The president of Elysium represents the kind of “let die” response to those living on Earth. We won’t do anything to help them, but we won’t do anything to harm them either, and then we don’t have to feel bad about others’ lack in the midst of our safety and security. That would be a realistic—and certainly more common—representation of how most of us deal with the world. But then comes along the Defense Secretary of Elysium, the tyrant who is delusional with dreams of controlling everything, and we think that it’s evil people that corrupt an otherwise decent system. Yet every person on Elysium knows of the millions who don’t have access to the same level of care and live in relative squalor, eking out an existence.

Oppression isn’t just tyranny. As Iris Young notes in “Five Faces of Oppression,” it “refers to the vast and deep injustices some groups suffer as a consequence of often unconscious assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions…the normal processes of everyday life.” It’s not as if we’re talking about a warning for “our” future. For many or most, this is right now.

And like all dramatic tales, how does Elysium make us care in a way that life does not? Through the portrayal of death. But not just any death, and not anonymous death, and not mass death. Singular, important death. As is common in action movies, many who the protagonist considers friends will die. We see his pain, but we think, at least he is still alive. And of course many countless others must die in the terrible conditions we see portrayed, but their deaths are left unnamed and implied. We are made to care about the deaths of the very good, and the very bad, those for whom we are given a narrative, a story.

But it’s not just that we’re made to care about certain deaths. It’s that the death allows us to render a final judgement, to see the final tally and make a decision, since there will be no further evidence. In the case of the protagonist, we can usually decide that it was worth it for him or her to die. We make a martyr for a larger cause. With the adversaries, we grant that they got what they deserved. These deaths have meaning. What of the others, the countless extras and nobodies who perish along the way? They were at best plot vehicles, with no significant meaning of their own. Considering the question of their deaths opens up a question of meaning, and when we cannot encode labels such as hero, villain, or martyr, we must ignore the death, for it cannot but mean.

My takeaways (in no particular order):

  • Death is way more important to us than we like to let on. Plots and narratives are advanced in relation to death, and death is the given against which we make meaning.
  • Certain deaths “count,” and others do not, and our valorization of those who we give the ability to die “well” allows us to ignore the rest who are not afforded the opportunity.
  • Jodie Foster’s accent is…not good.

I am probably thinking of this in ethical terms since I am preparing to teach a course on ethics for undergraduates. My background in ethics was relatively poor until fairly recently, as is the ethical background of many who are given the answers early on. After all, why continue to look for other ways to frame the question when you already have the answers? I guess the question I am mulling over is what criteria we do, and should, use when determining the value of a life. The perhaps well-intentioned human rights approach, based on life’s inherent dignity or human self-consciousness, seems no more tractable than religious approaches. Although we think we do, I’m not sure we really want to solve the problem that Elysium fictionalizes in the first place.

08/5/13

Is science the key to morality?

81vhPlG1sNL._SL1500_The only one of the “New Atheists” I have ever read is Sam Harris. I recently finished his The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. I think it was the seeming audacity of the title that drew me to the work. As a student of religion (and the humanities more generally), I am reluctant to believe claims that science can directly replace the position that religions have traditionally held in society, even as I am a failure at religion myself. I have written on the topic before, as well as the relation of scientific knowledge to the senses.

After reading The Moral Landscape, I looked at my notes for the other Harris book I read back in 2007, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, which is the work that first put Harris on the map. Though the earlier work talks more specifically about religion, they both contain some of the same ideas, namely that religion is an illogical and insufficient guide for morality, and does more harm than good (or at least it does enough harm to outweigh the good). Even reading his book back then, as a Christian, I conceded that he did seem to have a genuine concern for the growing violence in the world and its connection with forms of religion. However, I had several general objections at the time, all of which I now consider insufficient (and all of which he anticipates in The Moral Landscape).

First, I objected that Harris criticizes faith for not being testable, when the very definition of faith—at least in one Pauline Christian interpretation—is belief in things unseen, belief despite lack of evidence. Harris also noted that the extent to which religious adherents are tolerant is the extent to which they don’t believe what their tradition tells them. I am much more inclined to agree with this statement now than I was as a Christian.

The other major objection I lodged is embarrassingly common among religious adherents. If you take away a person’s religion, what else will they have to give them a reason to live? It is easy to see that this is not an adequate defense of religion; it is simply a plea to allow people to continue believing something that cannot be proven. The frequent complaint lodged against atheists is that it is just mean to pick on someone’s beliefs if they aren’t hurting anyone and it gives the person comfort. One response is that it does hurt society for people who don’t existentially rely on religion to continue to affirm belief in it, both because of the systemic forms of intolerance and violence it can support, and the continued support it gives religion in general for those groups we would label as “fundamentalist.”

My conclusion in my review of End of Faith was that, despite good arguments that Harris made, science was simply not advanced enough to replace religion as a source of values. Religion has traditionally been that source, and that gives it a historical advantage. Looking back, that amounted to dragging my heels and applying a standard to science that I exempted religion from because of its lengthier history. My reading of the Moral Landscape affected me in a different way.

The gist of The Moral Landscape is that our brain, our consciousness, is the primary determinant of how we view, interact with, and understand our world. As that is the case, it is science that offers us the best method for understanding the way we operate, particularly the way we interact with the world and each other. We call the standards that guide us morals, and many think those are given by God or a religious tradition, but for Harris, we must look to science for keys to a more sustainable well-being than religion has offered.

At the beginning of the work, I found myself making the same critique: science doesn’t lay out an exact map of morality. I am much less confident than Harris in the ability of science to help solve moral quandaries, especially “science” in the generalized way he seems to be using it. His focus on the brain seems a little too cold and clinical at times. For example he explains that the chemicals oxycontin and vasopressin have to do with the way we emotionally bond to others. Children raised in orphanages do not experience the same surge of these chemicals when interacting with adoptive parents as other children do with biological parents. While to me, as with Harris, it is clear that this altered chemical makeup affects the emotional and psychological responses of these children, the implications of solving these problems on a chemical or biological level would look much different than solving them on a psychological one, and involve looking at the human in a different way. At the least, this shows that while our morality may depend in part on the human brain—and a complete picture of morality may not be possible without it—it does not depend solely on the brain.

However, the critiques that Harris makes of our current moral hang-ups are poignant, and offer experts in religion a significant challenge. He strongly criticizes the kind of moral and cultural relativism that seems to prevent any critique of a particular value system. The idea that we cannot criticize the head-to-toe veiling of women is preposterous, Harris argues, based on any system that would suppose to value societal well-being. He dismisses the response that these women may be happy with their situation by contending that even if this were the case, it is quite clear that we often do not know what is best for us.

This is dangerous territory for Harris, who might be accused of playing God, but no more or less so than the major religious traditions themselves do. What is overwhelmingly practical about his approach, however, is that it does not claim to have the right answers, although it certainly does admit to their possibility. Rather, Harris sets broad parameters and says it is clear that a world in which everyone’s well-being was maximized would surely be better than a world where everyone misery would be maximized. We know the direction to go, although we may not have the definitive answer to every moral dilemma. Maximizing well-being is good, maximizing misery is bad.

The study of religion, and that of morality in general, is heavily influenced by anthropology and its story of the noble savage, the cultures and tribes that we cannot judge since they are culturally independent. Who are we to say they are unhappy, even if they are sacrificing each other to appease bloodthirsty deities? This complex is in part rooted in a reaction to a past history of Western imperialism, to be sure. However, Harris suggests it is also connected to a confusion between ontology and epistemology. Our experiences are subjective, but this does not mean we can know nothing about them, particularly in a comparative sense. Harris seems to take this approach much farther than I can, seeming to claim that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality. In a conditional sense, I would agree. In a universal sense, I cannot, if only because I don’t see us being privileged with anything approaching that level of knowledge in the near future. However, this doesn’t and shouldn’t stop us from making moral judgements.

As I prepare to teach a class on ethics, Harris’s commitment to “changing people’s ethical commitments” resonates with me. Where we differ is that Harris thinks our ethical commitments can and should be grounded in science. We should be nice to one another because that rewards us with the highest level of such-and-such chemical in our brains, and the presence of such chemical is the highest indicator of subjective levels of happiness based on multiple experiments. I am skeptical that we can ever explicitly base our morality on this. As Harris seems to admit on some level, we may need a more elaborate story, some sort of Nietzschean tragedy to found our morality. I think, though, that we might be happier with founding our morality on the level of social construction, with the help of scientific insight of course. Brain chemicals just don’t make the same story that Joseph Campbell’s hero myth does. This doesn’t prevent criticizing the inadequacy of our current stories and searching for better ones, ones more inclusive of current culture.

In any case, there is much to recommend in Harris’s book and little to fear.

03/1/13

Theology and Politics: Two Sides to the Same Coin

My primary aim in teaching religion is to show the connections between religion and culture that usually go unnoticed, especially in a country founded on the ostensible separation of church and state. In the West, the bulk of this religious influence has been from Christianity. Thus, I’m interested to show Christians how much their practice is influenced by culture (usually in ways contrary to their belief), but also to show people of other traditions or no tradition how much their culture is influenced by Christianity. There are not many authors who discuss this connection on a broad scale, but Giorgio Agamben is one of them.

I mentioned Agamben a few weeks back, having just read his short speech, The Church and the Kingdom. That by far was the most accessible of his works I’ve read. The latest work I tackled, The Kingdom and the Glory: Toward a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, is much less accessible, which is unfortunate because it aims to show just how influential Christian theology has been on Western politics. In fact, Agamben’s argument is that the core of the operation of Western government is based upon a theological relationship that was first established in early Christianity.

This kind of research is not commonly performed because it crosses the traditional fields of politics and religion, making specialists uncomfortable. It is important, however, because it shows that religion and politics, as Agamben argues, are two faces of the same power both vying to be the representative of universality, the representative of God.

His genealogy—what scholars call the tracing the conceptual history of a concept or idea—is animated by the juxtaposition of different pairs of terms: theology/economy, being/praxis (practice), providence/fate, transcendence/immanence, etc. As they relate to this topic, these pairings stem from a Christian attempt to articulate the relationship and distinction between god and Jesus over and against both Greco-Roman and Gnostic understandings of the divine. Early Christian apologists fought to preserve simultaneously the relationship and the distinction between the two aspects of the divine, and in the constant reiteration of this relationship, they created what we might call a gray area in between the way God is in himself, and the way he acts in the world. The being of God is preserved outside of or despite of his action. Don’t worry; I’m getting to why this is significant for secular government.

Agamben only mentions this briefly, but in the “triumph” of Christianity in the fourth century, it became a licit religion, and eventually the official religion of the Roman Empire. Consequently the emperor and his government became the representation of God’s action on Earth. However, as religious and governmental powers both grew and were often separate, they fought between each other over who was the true representative of God. Late Antique and medieval European history is animated by these conflicts between popes and kings.

The problem is that God cannot be seen to be acting in the world. From a theological perspective, this is to preserve his goodness and separation from the minutia of the daily administration of the world. Indeed, according to early apologists, a good ruler was one who appointed people under him to govern rather than attempt to administer everything himself. Yet, he did not leave the world to run on its own, as earlier Stoics or later deists would believe. Nonetheless, there is no way to evidence God’s existence in the world except through reference to things in the world.

In the Enlightenment, as previously explicit forms of religious government became secularized, they preserved the same way of justifying power, essentially a gesturing toward the way things ought to be with no objective evidence beyond our acceptance of its truth. This acceptance is what Agamben is calling glory, the acclamation of something for its own sake. We think that what we glorify (or honor, in a more secular term) preexists as something, but it is actually our glorification that creates it. It reminds me of the Wizard of Oz, in which what is behind the curtain is not what it seems. In this case, though, there is not even a man there, as some conspiracy theorists might want us to believe; there is simply nothing, because there can be nothing. For Christians, God cannot reveal himself in any externally verifiable and agreeable way. For advocates of democratic society, based for example on the universalization of freedoms or the Constitution, the result is a modicum of freedom for some based upon the “collateral damage” done to the rest.

Theology and politics are at odds, not because they are polar opposites, then, but because they are two faces of the same power, a power that has no demonstrable ultimate foundation and bases its power only on the consent of those who accept it. Agamben suggests no way forward other than a reference to recapturing a more original concept of messianic time, a time that lives “as if not,” suspending or rendering inoperative the paradigms by which we govern and are governed. How this will actually take place is difficult to see.

Agamben devotes little discussion to free will, as he sees it as a byproduct of the space created between God’s transcendence and immanence. God is all powerful but does not enforce his power in every earthly action; thus we have the freedom to align ourselves however we wish. Free will, too, in other words, is a theological construct. Even if that is the case, though, my understanding of self is the starting point for my alliance with or dissonance from the adulation of the status quo, the glorification of culture that is required to perpetuate institutional power. Consequently, the fact of my resistance is the creation of an alternative, and this individual perspective may be a viable starting point for a different future.

I’m convinced by the connection Agamben makes between theology and politics, then, but I’m as perplexed as he seems to be over the way forward. Any thoughts?