On Poston & Doughtery’s objection to the Divine Hiddeness Argument

October 23, 2010 - 2 Responses

This is a reply to T. Poston & T. Dougherty (2007), Divine hiddenness and the nature of belief, Religious Studies 43, 1-16.

Firstly, for brevity’s sake, I’ll use “God” or sometimes “loving God” as shorthand for “a perfectly loving God”.

P&D’s restatement of Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness argument:

(1) If there is a God, He is perfectly loving.
(2) If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable non-belief does not occur.
(3) Reasonable non-belief does occur.
Thus,
(4) No perfectly loving God exists.
So,
(5) There is no God.

P&D say:

In order for (2) to be true the reading of ‘reasonable non-belief’ would have to be so strong that we have no reason to believe the reinterpreted (3). But any kind of reasonable non-belief we have reason to think is exemplified is not incompatible with the will of a loving God, thus rendering (2) without warrant.

In other words, they argue that the existence of God only rules out the most ‘super-reasonable’ types of non-belief…there may be lesser types of “reasonable” non-belief with which the existence of God is compatible.
AND, they argue that this most completely ‘super-reasonable ‘ non-belief does not in fact occur. Lesser types of ‘reasonable’ non-belief may occur, which is consistent with the existence of a loving God.

It seems to me that this is partly an empirical claim. Nevertheless, there is more philosophical work which can be done with regard to these distinctions:

1) Why are all other, ‘lesser’ kinds of ‘reasonable’ non-belief compatible with the existence of God?
2) Why do they think that this ‘super-reasonable’ non-belief does not occur?

P&D then construct a justification for P2, “If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable non-belief does not occur.”
That goes like this:

(6) If a perfectly loving God exists, He will provide access to the benefits of a relationship with Him to all who are willing.
(7) If God provides access to the benefits of a relationship with Him to all who are willing, then reasonable7 non-belief will not occur.

I’m not sure if this is the strongest possible justification for P2. One might reasonably assert,

(6′) If a perfectly loving God exists, He will ensure that all who are willing to accept the benefits of a relationship with Him do actually have them.
(7′) If God ensures all who are willing to accept the benefits of a relationship with Him do actually have them, then reasonable7 non-belief will not occur.

I’ll leave it to my theistic opponents to scrutinise the plausibility this alternate P6 and P7, but substituting P6 for P6′ and P7 for P7′ is alone enough to make Poston & Dougherty’s objection irrelevant. P6′ and P7′ seem to be completely plausible assertions, and in my view better reflect the Divine Hiddenness argument. To be blunt, I think P&D are not assessing the strongest possible version of the DH argument.

P&D continue: Disambiguating “belief”
1) distinguish between “de dicto” and “de re” belief. de dicto is “the endorsement of some proposition preceded by a that-clause” so if S believes that P, then S believes-de-dicto P ; “belief de re is belief of a thing or individual that it has some feature even if the de re believer does not recognise the subject under some specific description”. There seem to be TWO differences here – first, de re belief refers specifically to beliefs about a property the belief-object has; and second, de re belief is implicitly transitive, so we can say if S believes-de re that P has property R, and P=Q but S is not aware P=Q, then S believes-de-re that Q has property R.
2) Distinguish between categorical belief and degrees of belief. This recognises a distinction in the way that “belief” is thought of: degrees of belief are quantifiable from 0 to 100% belief; categories of belief is a binary thing, where any degree of belief less than 1 is considered =0.
3) Makes a synchronic/diachronic distinction. Though Schellenberg avows a stronger version of the argument, that God would ensure at all times reasonable-non-belief will not occur, I think DH argument will work fine with the weaker 7b God will ensure at some time will reasonable non-belief will not occur – so long as that time gives every individual who is willing an opportunity to make a decision. P&D seem to agree with me on this caveat (P&D, 2007, p7).

Don’t like Wainwrights parallel argument – (3) is false, I think. More to the point, I think that “flourish” is a vague term which cannot be understood as something a human is doing or not doing in a moment of time; “flourishing” is something which only happens, or not, over time.
I agree with P&D that complete belief is not required for a personal relationship with God. Their example of a prisoner in solitary confinement developing a relationship with a person in the next cell, through wall-tapping, without being certain that person exists, is a good one. On a personal note, I myself have experienced a personal relationship with God where I’d say my belief-de dicto that God has the property of existence is even considerably less than 0.5. (Such belief can be maintained even if confidence level is very low, perhaps a level like 0.1, IMO, which BTW answers an objection to Pascal’s Wager – P&D point this out too, p10. And of course, I don’t think the experience of a relationship with God implies God actually exists, any more than, say, our prisoner’s experience of a relationship with a fellow prisoner implies that the tapping he hears is actually a fellow prisoner, rather than, say, a broken air conditioner).

P&D go on to say It may be that God is under some obligation to provide evidence sufficient for the kind of belief necessary for a personal relationship with Him. But, given the tapping case, this may only be evidence that makes for partial belief.
Given what  I said in the previous section, I would tend to agree that “God can achieve (a person’s) access to the benefits of a relationship with Him by partial belief.“(p9).
I think that a loving God would provide more than merely this kind of evidence. I assert that a loving God would provide enough evidence not just to facilitate some kind of provisional relationship with him, divorced from any epistemic certainty, but also enough evidence that a reasonable person would believe-de-dicto that He exists. The only alternative to this is that God expects his children to unreasonably believe in Him. That has a number of problems, but if anyone would like to endorse this alternative, I could address the issue in more detail. I believe this has been discussed before in the philosophical discussion between Schellenberg and one of his opponents?
Note that doesn’t include the assertion that full belief is required for belief in God. What I’m asserting instead, could be constructed like:

P11)    A loving God would not want people to act unreasonably (against reason).
P12)    Practising a relationship with God, while having reasonable non-belief-de dicto, is acting unreasonably.
P13)    Therefore, if God “provides access” to the benefits of a relationship with Him, this includes ensuring that reasonable non-belief-de dicto does not occur.

Their argument on p11 includes the assertion “We all receive some benefits in this life, and if we are ever grateful for them it seems that we are grateful for their source, so to speak. God is in fact the benefactor of all, so whoever expresses gratitude to the benefactor in fact expresses gratitude to God and is to that extent in a relationship with Him.” They go on to say that therefore, P7d cannot be used. This is fine, if this limited conception of a relationship with God is all that a loving God would want to provide his children with. But this doesn’t fit with the conception of a relationship with God which is endorsed by many theists. In this scheme, even a noted atheists like Richard Dawkins or agnostics like Carl Sagan could be said to be in a relationship with God, when they express wonder at the amazing intricacies of the natural world.

TO BE CONTINUED….

A few comments on ‘Glenn Peoples on arguments from morality’

September 7, 2010 - Leave a Response

Yesterday (6 September 2010) Glenn Peoples presented his argument from morality for the existence of God to the Reason and Science Society at Auckland University. A video of the presentation is avaiable here. I couldn’t come, but I watched the video and made notes! These are below, along with some comments on some problems I have both with Glenn’s main argument and some of the supplementary points he makes.

First argument.

  1. If God does not exist, there would be no moral facts.
  2. There are moral facts.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

In other words

  1. If ~A then ~B.
  2. B
  3. Therefore ~(~A).

Second Argument

  1. If there are moral facts, then their basis is either natural or supernatural.
  2. The basis of moral facts is not natural.
  3. Therefore if there are moral facts then their basis is supernatural.
  4. The most plausible way to think of the supernatural basis of moral facts is in terms of a supernatural person who brings moral facts about.
  5. Therefore if there are moral facts then the most plausible way to think of the supernatural basis of moral facts is in terms of a supernatural person who brings moral facts about.

Or…

  1. If A then B or C.
  2. ~B.
  3. Therefore, A implies C.
  4. C implies D.
  5. Therefore, A implies D.

As Glenn says, both arguments are certainly valid. But are the premises true?
Question: Does “not natural” imply “supernatural”? I’m not sure that it does… What about ‘subnatural’?

“Most atheists also believe that some things are morally wrong as a matter of fact”. – maybe…
“we tend to think that these acts are things that ought not to be done, no matter what culture you come from” – but cultural universalism doesn’t imply universal.  Possibly the rule against torture and child molestation apply just to us, and anyone somewhat like us. In this context, “somewhat like us” can apply to all human cultures, and perhaps even non-human cultures, but the rule is still not necessarily anything objective and universal.
Although, you could still make an argument that atheists still want to believe in moral facts, even if it’s just the utilitarian moral fact that “pleasure is good, suffering is bad”.

Premise 4: Glenn makes poor arguments against Plato’s impersonal conception of morality. Why is “intentionality” important, and why does it require a person? A computer is not a person, yet it can have goal states and form rules which help to achieve those goal states – isn’t this intentionality, according to the description Glenn gives of it? Even if a person is required for “intentionality”, I’m not sure why intentionality is required for the base of objective morality.

Interesting analysis “ such acts are utterly wicked! the thought that an atheist is taking away our basis for saying so is therefore psychologically unbearable!”. I have an alternative explanation for the psychological problem we have with what Glenn says, which I’ll allude to below.

Re: Old Testament: “if we were to agree that the God of the OT did some pretty shady things, we’d still have to conclude that atheism is false”. Yes, but as Glenn says, we’d still have to deal with the claim that “God exists, but the OT doesn’t correctly describe God”. Or, perhaps, “the OT does correctly describe a god, but a different one to the one who created moral law”.
Also, it’s not true that an atheist can’t complain about the bad things the OT god did. An atheist might not appeal to objective moral facts to judge the OT god as “immoral”, but rather appeal to attributes that god supposedly has. For instance, if the OT god orders a genocide, this could plausibly be described as “callous”, “heartless“, or “condoning torture”, which is plausibly in conflict with other Biblical descriptions of God (e.g. “God is love”), and so an atheist can complain that the Biblical view of God is incoherent.
Perhaps the atheist cannot complain that the OT God is objectively immoral. The atheist hasn’t proven that “loving” is in fact moral, and “unloving” is immoral. But are theists really ready to claim that it is moral to be callous, heartless, and to condone torture?  We all know those things are immoral, as surely as we know that there are moral facts.  The actions of the OT God, I would argue, are so far removed from our intuitive sense of what is moral (the same sense that Glenn uses to argue for objective morality) that we can know that if there are objectively immoral acts, then the actions of the OT God are objectively immoral.

Jesus and Me? Why I am not a Christian: The Long Story. Part 2: 2006-2008.

March 21, 2010 - 4 Responses

(Part 1 is available here)

It was probably 2005 that I also discovered, possibly through Sophie’s World, Immanuel Kant.  This philosopher, among many other things, said that although we didn’t know whether there was a God beyond and behind the physical universe, we should believe in one for morality and society’s sake.  Kant was a quintessential conservative!  And it was funny I needed a philosopher to say that – certainly many people I knew would have said something similar…but I guess I felt it had more credibility when Kant said it!
Anyway, 2006, I started off at Waikato University, studying, as it turned out, psychology and computer science and philosophy.  I guess, at this point, I was still mostly sure about God.  We had the books of the New Testament, reliably preserved from the early days, which passed down the recorded history of Christ’s death and resurrection.  Even if the Bible wasn’t entirely inerrant, it seemed be a fairly reliable record of occurrences in those days of healings and miracles and martyrs.
In 2006, I was still very much busy with church things.  I served in youth group, I even taught Bible in Schools at Rotokauri School for 1 semester!
Life was interesting, this year.  Living at Student Village at Waikato University was a great experience.  I got involved with Student Life at Waikato Uni, kinda reluctantly, really, but I did.  I guess it was here where I started questioning Christian sex ethics more than ever before.  I was pretty convinced that Christian ethics could be reduced to just two commands, “Love God”, and “love others”, and since God loved man, even these two worked out to be pretty much different ways of putting the same command.  At the time I still had a lot of respect for ideas thrown around by the likes of Joshua Harris, who suggested that young Christian couples might even like to consider waiting until marriage before they….kissed!  Because, you know, kissing leads to touching, touching leads to fucking….or something.  Perhaps that was the theory.  Or because any sexual desire outside of a marriage relationship…even if it was, say, within an engagement, was just branded as ‘lust’ and to be avoided.
But if all this had to be reduced to those two commands of love, how could it work?  Possibly it was out of love for your future spouse that you abstained from sex now.  But I considered that.  Would I prefer to have some fun now, knowing my future spouse would be doing the same, and get married later on…or would I prefer to be completely ‘pure’ now, knowing that it was worth it because my future spouse would be saving herself too?  The first option seemed eminently preferable; I wasn’t so petty as to let jealousy get in the way of a good time now.  Besides which, my then-girlfriend was rather annoyed I wasn’t going to so much as kiss her.  Fair enough!
So, I began to really struggle with Christian ethics.  They didn’t seem to make sense of be consistent with themselves.  Although, to be fair, what I found there as “Christian” really was just the opinions of a small minority of particularly conservative Christians.  I know now and perhaps knew then that Christianity wasn’t at all necessarily restricted like that.  And I could still have faith that God knew what he was doing.
That year 2006 was a big experience.  I can’t think of many intellectual discoveries I made, like in the previous two years.  I did continue to look for God in those Pentecostal churches which so far life had not given me the opportunity to check out.  I went to a really crazy one in Hamilton, which I won’t name here, that was really into telling people that if God didn’t cure them of their cancer, it was basically their fault for not having enough faith.  Or perhaps not “really into” telling people that, “not enough faith” did seem to be their one answer to the question of why God didn’t heal sick people.  And I was looking for miracles there, but it was then I noticed something many other sceptics have noticed in churches, that with each social degree of separation the miracles grew more spectacular.  It was over in those 3rd-world countries where the blind could see and the dead were raised.  I did hear a story of some guy in Auckland whose broken leg had healed overnight by the power of God.  Back in the church in Hamilton, the greatest miracle seemed to be the miraculous disappearance of chronic back pain or a particularly annoying cold.  That really raised my suspicion!  If flamboyant show-churches like these were the sources of the miracle stories I’d been hearing about, I felt, possibly incorrectly, that this was real cause for concern. “DT” has pointed out a problem with concluding from this observation that miracle stories can’t be trusted, as this observation is exactly what you’d see if “small miracles” occur frequently and “large miracles” occur infrequently. See DT’s comment at end of the post, and my reply.
But more importantly, I had to work out what many people might think was something of a conflict.  I really enjoyed worshipping, communing with God in church and out of it.  At church there was often a band, playing soft music, or loud music with drums, as suited, with worship leaders calling on the congregations to surrender to God, which worked out in a very direct, emotional way that felt amazing.  And it was often said that the love, or peace, or conviction that you felt during these times was the Spirit moving within you, God speaking directly to your heart.  Many Christians, devout or not, can relate, in different ways, to directly experiencing God and His love.  Yet I knew from psychology, or perhaps just common sense, that getting into a crowd and having soft music played, or sitting down in a quiet spot and meditating on life for extended periods of time, was bound to give me these feelings of love and peace and conviction even if there wasn’t a God to inspire it.
Other ways of personally experiencing God are familiar with Christians, too.  We could pray to God, and he’d hear and sometimes answer.  Maybe someone would be healed of an illness, be kept safe while travelling…of course, sometimes these things ‘just happen’ without any special intervention by a divine power.
You didn’t need God to be present to experience Him; you only needed to believe He was there.  So I could have been conflicted between liking this experience of God, and ‘seeing through’ it. But, as the Bible said “all good things come from God”.  Can’t God can work to accomplish his purposes by natural processes, through ‘natural’ healing or bring us closer to him through the leadership of a Godly worship leader?  He was to be thanked for these experiences and healings….but I understood quite clearly that these weren’t proof that He was actually there.  That would take a special, unusual kind of miracle, yeah?
In 2007, I found myself up in Auckland, transferring my degree.  I moved into International House hostel, and met a number of cool people there.  As at uni in Waikato, I had a very definite intention of spreading the gospel and telling people about the good news of Jesus whenever I got the chance.  And I met at IH quite a few other Christians who felt the same, and I eventually started a dubiously successful Bible study group to try and spread the good news.  After flitting between a couple of churches for a while, I settled on going along to the church the others at my hostel were going to, a charismatic, apostolic bunch called Equippers Church.  The other good thing about this church was that I’d have a really good chance to see the Pentecostal church experience which I’d watched from a distance for so long.  Maybe it’d be different from that crazy Hamilton church!
But that year, I definitely began to feel like I didn’t really have any idea whether what I believed was true or not. The more I looked into it, searched, the more I found that there was no clear answer to whether or not it was true.  And although I was still running my Bible study, I definitely was changing my attitude toward sharing the gospel.  Before I would have agreed with the more fundamentalist attitude that I must tell others about God, so that they’d experience eternal salvation.  Now I was just presenting something that was helpful to me and might be helpful to people.  This was when the label “agnostic Christian,” which I used to describe my beliefs, really started to suit me.  I read a Dietric Bonhoeffer book on faith; I explained my new attitude toward sharing the gospel with my mate Peter, who said something like “yeah….that’s all I ever thought it was”.
I’d been trying, and failing, since high school, to find rational, empirical grounds on which to justify my faith.  I failed.  Although what I believed ultimately had to be true or false (“Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven” and “Jesus died a normal death and people made up stories about him later” could not both be true), the fact that I couldn’t justify it meant it was only a personal choice.  I chose to believe because it made me a better person.  Because I liked and enjoyed serving God, being part of the church.  Ultimately, because I loved God – and what better reason is there than that?  And y’know what…the Bible does teach “no one comes to the Father” except through Jesus.  But who said you had to be a Christian for Jesus’s sacrifice to cover you?  If a pagan (whatever that is) worshipped God in his or her own way in Hinduism or Buddhism or something else, then they’re believing in God, and serving Him, and I had no reason to think that Jesus’s free gift of salvation wasn’t also given to them.  “Emergent church” groups, Brian McLaren and Rob Bell types, started to make a lot of sense.
Crucially, in that year I met some people who contradicted my preconceptions about life outside Christianity.  Although I’m sure I’d used some selective thinking, generally speaking, people who seemed really opposed to what I saw as the Christian life – people doing a lot of drugs and alcohol – in Hamilton, well, I found they were generally dickheads.  And generally kinda stupid.  But in Auckland I met a lot of intelligent, nice people who didn’t believe, and druggies who were good people, and smart, too.  My belief that Christianity made people better started to unravel.  Actually, these really un-Christian lifestyles (or what I’d been taught to believe was the antithesis of Christianity – I don’t know if I ever really believed it) weren’t bad, at least not according to that ultimate standard of morality in Christianity, loving God and loving others.
Although I don’t remember particularly well, I must have been doing a lot of research into belief and stuff that year, because I remember coming up, I think independently of anyone else, with an argument which absolutely seemed to disprove orthodox Christianity altogether.  I shared this with Nick, the evolution guy from church, but he was pretty unimpressed.  (He was doing searching of his own at the time.  He felt Protestantism and Catholicism were inconsistent, illogical systems, and if there was a true Christianity, it was the Eastern Orthodox Church.)  But this was a crucial step in giving me the confidence to walk away from my faith.  When I later did a philosophy paper on religion, I did it on this argument.
It goes something like this.  Christianity seems to be true or false.  It’s hard to say; there’s just not enough evidence to confirm or deny it.  But…the Bible claims that “what can be known about God is plain” (Romans 1:19).  Atheists are “fools” (somewhere in the Psalms).  But after years of searching, if I knew anything, it was that Christianity is not obviously and plainly true, even if it is true in the end.  It’s also true that God is a loving God.  Wouldn’t a loving father want to make Himself known to His creation?  Maybe….maybe not.  But if their eternal salvation depends on it, then we know for certain He will make Himself known.  It couldn’t possibly be loving to let people walk down the path to destruction, when intervention would help them believe.  So either there is no loving God, or He’s not too bothered by the fact that many of his beloved creation go through life without really believing in Him, and somehow, His silence will work out for the best in the end.
In 2008, I switched churches to St Pauls Church in Auckland, SP’s weren’t really weird about tithing like Equippers.  At Equippers, if you were to serve, they explained you were expected to be Christian, be leading a Godly life, and tithe.  The services at SP seemed to be aimed an audience with an IQ at least 20 points higher than the sermons at Equippers, and the whole place seemed to be filled with Christians who were somewhat jaded with normal evangelical Christianity and the perverse things that it can do to people.  That was cool.  There was real obvious passion there for serving God, like evangelical churches, but also a levelheadedness that I otherwise only found in more liberal churches.
I moved in with a couple of guys who were heavily involved with the ‘Campus Ministry’/Student Club Student Life.  Cool guys, but a funny move, really, given my intellectual journey was moving away from traditional Christianity.  That year some talks to a girl named Jessie from my old hostel really got me thinking.  She showed me a great video by Sir Lloyd Geering on Christianity.  Sir Lloyd is an old heretical theologian from the Presbyterian church in Dunedin.  In the video he explained a way in which Christianity could have been formed, without Jesus’s resurrection; without any miracles at all.  It sounded very plausible, and to be honest, much more likely than the story I’d believed to-date.
Now, even at the relatively liberal St Pauls church, no-one seemed at all interested in a Christianity which was uncertain, where we admitted we had no idea if was true, and chose to believe anyway.  Perhaps, actually, a lot of Christians are like that…but I don’t know how many are ready to admit that they actually don’t know. Not many, I think.  Maybe with the emerging church movement things in that dept will change, somewhat.  Maybe it’s not as radical a movement as I’d like.
So, as 2008 went by I was Christian, yeah, I talked to God, tried to serve Him, went to church, even shared my faith…actually, I talked to a friend early that year from a class, and discussed religion with him, including the student life practice of walking around campus doing “surveys” (pretty deceptive practise really).  “How can you go around telling people this is the only right way?” he said.  My only answer was, I couldn’t – I don’t know if it is even *a* right way – so I couldn’t.  I think I stopped after that.  I’d all but rejected everything about Christian morality, except the “love your neighbour” bit, in theory if not in practice.  As a follower of Jesus, how could I do anything else?  It seemed wrong to even think that gay relationships were any less moral than straight ones – it’s certainly not loving!  I think Christianity seems to have a very nice, perhaps superior ethical code to the modern alternative, in some ways.  Sex as an exclusive toy for monogamous relationships seems a little outdated, but perhaps reasonable.  ‘Free love’ can be pretty messy.  But saying that the only good marriage is a heterosexual one?  Indefensible, really, and I feel like that issue is philosophical Christianity’s most obvious ethical problem.  Churches will either have to reinterpret the Bible and accept the GLBT crowd as their own, or else Christianity will be a become completely irrelevant to an entire sector of the population.
So it was that following Jesus required some difficult things of me.  To be truthful, I had to admit I saw some major problems with traditional Christianity.  I had to admit there may not be a god; that no-one knew whether or not Jesus was anything more than a good man.  To be loving, I had to reject the finer points of Christianity’s ethics code.
Somewhere through the second semester of 2008 I kinda knew I didn’t believe anymore.  Why?  Believing in the Bible as completely right was way out.  The early church…who knows what happened back in those days?  It seems wrong to say the only possibility is that there really was a Jesus who died and came to life three days later.  And God doesn’t really make himself known in contemporary life – everything runs according to orderly laws, quantum physics not withstanding; there is no discernible intervention from outside.  And far from making me a better person, traditional Christianity was only stopping me from rationally considering what was the best way to love people.  I put off any firm decisions in my mind until after exams in the second semester.  When they were finished, I decided, although I kept going to church until the end of the year.  I had no desire to reject God or Christianity; to the contrary, I was remaining faithful.
It’s amazing how quickly it stopped being emotionally real to me.  Church very suddenly looked just like people singing songs, not communion with God.  And it was such a relief to be intellectually free, to not feel trapped into defending the indefensible or having to work through convoluted theological arguments  based on a book that was out of date, to come to a conclusion I just knew instinctively.  I hate to leave the Church – I love it, and organised religion does some great things for society.  But the church doesn’t have much of a place for someone with beliefs like mine; really, I can only be a spectator.  Fortunately there are many other places to serve God (if there is one) and the greater good.
My impending trip to America was going to be a little of a chance to start over living another kind of life.  The trip never happened in the end, but I figured I could start over in Auckland as well as in America.  So I stopped going to church at the end of the year.  Funny how easy that was after so many years of being faithfully involved.
So, that’s where this chapter of the story ends.  My continued process of learning about the world is another story.  I trust that if God wants to get my attention, He will.  And I know that any God who can be described as a loving God will make Himself known to me, in His good time, especially if my eternal destiny is at stake.  And I suspect the very best way for me to serve Him now is to speak the truth, love others and myself, and stay open to any future guidance He might have.

Jesus and Me? Why I am not a Christian: The Long Story. Part 1: 2003 – 2005.

March 18, 2010 - 3 Responses

Jesus and Me?  Why I am not a Christian: The Long Story. Part 1: 2003 – 2005.

Bertrand Russell gave an essay that name many many years ago, and I guess in his much more Christian society, he felt compelled to give an account as to why he didn’t believe.  These days, I think many people, including many thinking people, don’t really feel much of a need to give a reason for why they aren’t a Christian.  In today’s increasingly post-Christian society (I think that’s a much more accurate description of modern Western society than, say, non-Christian), answering the question, “Why aren’t you a Christian?” is about as necessary as answering the question, “Why aren’t you a socialist?” or “Why aren’t you a conservationist?”  They’re all kinda minority positions now….but enough about that.  I AM answering the question, because I have quite a few Christian friends around me who are interested in the answer.

Of course, that’s not the only reason that the question is quite relevant to me.  It’s mainly relevant because I was a Christian for, perhaps 13 years, from the first time I asked God to forgive me my sins until the time when finally admitted to myself that I didn’t believe; my parents are devout, borderline fundamentalist Christians and as long as I understood the concept of ‘God’ I believed in him.  So, it’s not only my Christian friends who are surprised I’m not longer a believer.

I went to a Christian school, and then did homeschool, from age 11 to the end of Year 11 at school.  In Year 12, 6th form, I entered Pukekohe high school.  I’ll still remember the irreverent British voice of Eric up the back of history class, yelling at the teacher in response to her instruction on the position of the church in Czarist Russia, “Wha’if you’re an eetheist?”  uhh huh.  I’d wanted to come to a public school; I felt a little useless in my Christian faith being sheltered away from non-Christians, which I pretty much was – how was I supposed to share the gospel with anyone?  But here on my first day in history class, an opportunity presented himself!

 And so next history class, I sat down next to Eric, and it didn’t take long for us to get in conversation about God.  He was one of those really opinionated atheists, not just the casual why-would-I-care type atheists, so we had a good time.  Proud to say he went through some strife that year too, briefly but seriously considering whether he should start believing in God…although I don’t know that I had anything to do with that.  Anyway, he asked a question probably the first day we argued up there in the back of history, namely, asking about free will and stuff, why was there bad stuff in the world?

The answer, of course, was that God wanted to give us free will and he had to let us choose to sin, otherwise there’d be no free will!  I told him so, but thought it my head that it wasn’t an entirely honest answer.  I also knew of what we called ‘predestination’, the idea that God chose who would come to Him, not the other way around.  And, how could we have free will, with regard to our dealings with God, if He decided “before the creation of the world”, as it says, who would believe in Him or not?

It was in this 6th form year that I made a commitment I successfully kept to study the Bible or spend time alone praying at least once a day.  So I got pretty familiar with it (OKOK, I know some of’yall probably don’t think that’s a lot.  But bear with me…)  And I did look into this question, and free will and predestination both seemed completely true, and I couldn’t work out how that was possible.  But I took it on faith.  I had good reason to, as well. The Bible had been proven repeatedly to be in harmony with secular history.  Science – real, honest, science, not that crazy evolutionary kind – actually confirmed the Bible’s description of a world that was just a few thousand years old.  And there was all the stories of miracles I would here from time to time, from those Pentecostal churches which my parents and church friends seemed to hate so much.  One genuine miracle would prove the existence of God!

Sooo….I went on to my final year in high school in 2004 with little doubt, although,  there were some other budding doubts surfacing.  My mate from church, who knows who he is, was in his first year of university and grappling with the concept of evolution.  He described what a solid concept it was, but I wasn’t convinced, yet.   We of course got along on most things, played in the church band together and had fun together in other places, so it was sweet.  But we did debate a lot about the church!  Also, Riette (I hope you don’t mind me naming you, and don’t really expect you’ll be reading this anyway…) introduced me to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which I quickly devoured and then hated with a passion.  I was quickly chuffed to find that the book grossly misrepresented the facts about the early church, a fact I knew, and still know now, even before I did any research on the topic.  When you know a lot about a topic, you can tell if someone doesn’t have a clue.  Like a n00b who refers to their computer as a “hard drive” or a congressman who complains that the “Internet’s tubes are clogged” or the American who asked if his friend had ever driven from Sydney to Auckland on the Auckland Harbour bridge, your vocabulary alone can easily give away your complete ignorance on a topic.  Suck it, Dan.

BUT, his book did provide one valuable service to me, and that was to pique my interest in church history.  Of course he was wrong, but the history that I assumed, that the Bible pretty much materialised in the pens of the disciples of Jesus within a few decades after his death, and was immediately recognised as divine truth, well, that wasn’t quite right either.  I won’t go into details because my views just slowly got more enlightened and more liberal (they don’t have to be the same thing, but I think that in this domain they do happen to be equivalent!), I can’t pin it down, but I basically found out that no-one really knew when the Christians first had the idea of the Bible as we do…or how many of them did, and when, and we can even legitimately question the assumed and claimed authorship of many of those hastily written New Testament epistles.

But in general I was a pretty convinced and devoted believer, generally.  I was at church every morning, playing in the band, and poured my heart & soul into the church youth group.  I wasn’t quite as committed with my time with God in 7th form as I was in 6th, but I came pretty close!  And something pretty shit happened February year, something that made me sadder (but not worse off) than any other time in my life before or since, which completely set the tone for the year.  I remember how much more passionate my church piano playing got.  I think good musicians probably have to have violent, turbulent lives, or at least exciting ones.  And I got even closer to God, that year.  I put my faith and trust in Him; I knew that He was in control, that He loved me and He could do great things through me.

So at the end of 7th form I had decided I was off to depend my relationship with God.  I knew I wanted to serve him in whatever way would impact the most people and help the most people come to know him.  I also knew that I really desired a more tangible relationship with God – I wanted some of the magic, some of the “Jesus visited me last night and sat on my bed and we had a chat” (no, really) type action that Christians I knew were reporting.  That would provide for me proof beyond all doubt, and not just this musty creationism church history proof; of course, with a living God it would be reasonable to expect something less intellectual, more personal as well!  With all that in mind, I headed off to Bible college, setting off to do a diploma in youth ministry down in Hamilton.

So Riette (again 😉 ) introduced me to a friend of hers in Hamilton studying philosophy by the name of Scott.  I haven’t heard from in a while, but he’s a pretty larger-than-life character; comes across as very opinionated and excessively confident about pretty much everything he says, nay, asserts.  He was in a flat in Hamilton someone told me was referred to as the ‘half-way house’, due to the fact that recently out, or perhaps yet-to-be out, gay people used to hang out there a lot!  It didn’t take long for me to get into battle with Scott, discussing God, philosophy, church history, and also my fighting off his conviction that I had a closet I had to come out of!  The gay world I saw there at the flat fascinated me and it didn’t take me long to start wondering what was so bad about it that you apparently couldn’t get into heaven (1 Corinthians 6:9, I believe…)

I hit the ground running at Bible college in 2005 and loved it.  I got to study Biblical interpretation, church history, and practical church youth ministry it was lots of fun!  I didn’t much like the place, Word of Life, where I was based doing the practical; though they were nice enough people, but they were very conservative and kinda old fashioned  (But they ticked all my dad’s theological boxes, which has a lot to do with why I ended up there rather than somewhere else).  But I got A+’s in church history and Biblical interpretation, and all my searching only depended my desire to explore that stuff.  I got a lot more confident to be able to read the Bible and understand it that year, and that’s when I started to feel pretty confident that some of the stuff I’d learned in church about what the Bible said, which had always bugged me, was not only annoying but also poor scholarship.

Also, in 2005, a couple of other developments.  Meeting Scott completely changed my university plans.  I knew I was smart, I knew I was a sharp logical thinker, and I felt like maybe I wanted to study philosophy too, instead of doing engineering.  Philosophy provided a place to discuss theological concepts in a rigorously rational way, and so it was a place where I could both strengthen my own concepts and ideas of God, as well as defend and advance the intellectual case for believing in Him.  I saw there was a need for that, and I felt confident that if I could go to academia and become a philosophy teacher I could become a powerful apologist for Him, not only by arguing the case for the Faith but also by showing the world what an intellectually respectable and intellectually unassailable evangelical Christian looked like! 

Also, my mate from Church leant me a book which I think was very simply called “God and Evolution”, which argued the case that evolution was possible both theologically and physically.  It was one paragraph in that book which convinced me it was completely possible to interpret Genesis 1 merely figuratively and not also literally.  Not that it couldn’t be a literal recording, hermeneutically speaking, but if science disproved the literal reading, that didn’t actually mean the text was wrong.  So I became a convinced Christian evolutionist. 

Finally, I read a book recommended to me by a lecturer at Bible college called Sophie’s World, which was a very accessible outline of the history of Western philosophy.  Highly recommended!  I was introduced to the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, the original and Christian existentialist, who argued that the fact we don’t *know* Christianity is true only opens up the way to take a leap to faith, and so it’s OK, and in fact necessary, if we don’t have hard proof.  That was nice for me, because it was then I stopped believing that I was sure Christianity was objectively true.  I thought it was probably true, and I was going to have faith and believe in it 100%, but I had to be honest and that meant if you asked me what I thought, distinct from what I believed, I’d have told you there’s no way to know for sure, even if the probability that Christ was God and all the rest of it was like 90% or something.  I mean, that was no big deal – you can’t know anything 100% except your own existence, anyway.

Another little note…it was that year I stopped believing in the human spirit as an entity distinct from the human body, and stopped believing that we all had immaterial spirits with free wills.  It’s quite simple, really.  Matter and energy is neither created nor destroyed; that’s the way the universe works, and if there’s a Creator, that’s the way He created the world.  Now, if the spirit is just a material part of the brain, or something that emerges from it, then it’s a part of the physical universe.  But if it’s immaterial, it couldn’t influence the material world – that would involve the creation of matter or energy!  So clearly, I don’t have an immaterial spirit, distinct from my body, which decides my body’s decisions.  When the Bible talks about a spirit or a soul, then, it’s simply a way of talking about our thoughts, emotions, and feelings.  The earliest Christians believed in the resurrection of the body, not only of the spirit, and if this is the way it works, there’s really no reason a Christian needs to believe in a separate, ‘spirit’.

Part 2: 2006-2008 is available here.

“When God Writes Your Love Story”, or, Why losing faith doesn’t mean starting over

February 5, 2009 - Leave a Response

So goes the title of Eric and Leslie Ludy’s radically quaint but touching story of courtship, engagement, and marriage.

A friend was reading it the other day.  I read it a few years ago, and was moved by its story.  I’m a romantic and found the couple’s love for one another to be inspirational.  Still, through some rather harsh life experiences as a teenager, I’ve grown to despise Joshua Harris‘s books and take on romance, sexual love, and marriage, and the Ludys come from a not dissimilar position.

But my friend said that the book’s main message was thought one must get one’s heart right with God before entering into a relationship, lest the relationship be based on something less than healthy.  Of course this got my defenses up a little bit, as I am indeed someone who, at least from a traditional evangelical perspective, certainly does not have a heart right before God at the moment.  We debated very briefly about the difference in divorce rates between Christians and non-Christians (see 1, 2) before I walked off.  I wasn’t really looking for an argument.  I just didn’t want my friend going down the road I went down.

I thought about it later.  Is it such a ridiculous proposition?  Given that I believe the traditional Christian God does not exist, simplistically I might think it can’t be true that its important to be in a right place with that God before beginning a relationship.  But what if it’s more about finding one’s identity before entering into a relationship?  Certainly as a Christian, I found much of my identity in Christ.  It’s a very Biblical concept.  Christians are told that “whosoever gives his life up for My sake will find it“; that we should “be transformed by the renewing of your mind“, and  Paul wrote that “it is no longer I that liveth, but Christ that liveth in me” (I can still hear the bouncy old hymn we used to sing at church ).  For many Christians, this extends to finding one’s identity in Christ, as CS Lewis wrote, (paraphrased) “it’s only in finding Christ and becoming like Him that you gain your true identity; the one you were meant to have”.  Many people probably fine it repulsive that anyone lets themselves be defined by a religious figure; from experience I don’t think it’s so bad.  But that’s not where I want to go today.

In that vein, the advice in the book seems, if not indisputable, then at least wise and arguably correct.  There are many benefits to working out who you are before getting into a relationship.  Of course in my experience relationships both define us and help us to discover the us that already was, so it doesn’t always follow.  And if you wait until you have yourself completely sorted out, of course, you’ll be dead.  But there’s something in it.

And the relevance to philalethia?  Theist Christians and agnostic-atheist humanists like myself have more in common than many in either group would like to admit.  Although the Ludys, in their book, write about their advice about relationships from a certain Christian perspective, (and although they’d probably disagree with what I’m about to say) the message in their book remains valuable and applicable whether or not one is a Christian. They’re basically expressing the importance of having one’s own identity established before entering into a serious romantic relationship; they just also happen to think that that identity should be in Christ.  In the context of relationships, that latter point is arguably of little significance, but the former is something of which we can all take note.

And this is often the case with life wisdom.  I learned a lot in life, about my own identity as well as about the world, which I understood in Christian terms.  Contrary to my fears before my conversion from Christianity, having lost that Christan conviction, I find that with a little adjustment of language, all these things are still all very true and applicable.  I could go on about how this works for morality, personality, character, fulfillment, leadership, science, and even spirituality.

That’s why I don’t feel like, in having given up my faith, I need to start over again.

epiphany

January 31, 2009 - Leave a Response

I had a mini-epiphany last night while waiting for the bus.  Why does it so often seem to take me so long to realise the things everyone else seems to know?

But I am at this point in time searching to find something to replace the void in my life left by my erasing, no, lobotomizing, my God.  But what?  Ive been looking for some kind of alternate spirituality.  But why does it have to be that?  Scientists, especially the greats, like Einstein,  often have an almost religous sense of mystery assiciated with their search for truth.  But then, why just scientists?  Why not photographers, thrill-seekers, computer geeks, racers, and anyone whose pursuit of beauty and truth and excitement rewards them and urges them on further and further?

Hello World

January 30, 2009 - Leave a Response

Well…

Having been posting my thoughts on life, the universe, and everything onto my facebook account for a good while now, I thought I should probably cease inflicting my friends with the twisted considerations being deliberated and elaborated upon by myself in that forum. Yet I couldn’t tell noone, so I came here.  “Blogosphere” is an interesting term in that it implies that we’re all blogging to thin air.  That’s likely to be the case for this blog, but its got to start that way, I suppose.

I came up with the name  “philalethia” from the Greek words “philo”, meaning ‘love’, and “alethia”, meaning ‘truth‘.   I had used “philalethiac” for a long time as a username online, but I often wondered whether I was worthy of the name.  Did I really seek after truth as if I loved it?  Above all else?  And anyway, does anyone really do that fully?  Was I willing to set aside previously cherished beliefs if I found them to be true?  Maybe I have done that successfully, and am worthy of the name I’ve given myself.  But even if not, to be one who loves and seeks after truth is something I aspire to, even if it isn’t always me.  And it shall certainly be the stance of this blog.

This blog, then, is about one truth-lover’s search for truth.  And hopefully it’ll become an integral part of that search!  I’ll cover everything I fancy which is any way remotely associated with my search for truth of any kind, though particularly truth of the ultimate, absolute nature.

A bit about my background and a summary of my journey:

I gerw up in NZ, where I remain, with conservative Christian parents.  My dad held up to me the twin values of worshipping and following the God of the Bible, and honouring what is true. We follow Christ because Christianity is true was the sentiment, at least as far as I am concerned.  As I grew older I took these twin values to heart.  But I eventually found them to be in conflict with one another.  I couldn’t possibly abandon Jesus on a hunch – he was my Lord and Saviour whom I loved.  But neither could my faith in Him permit me to just believe what I wanted… Christ, according to the Bible, valued truth, so I had to look for it wherever I found it.

I ended up psychologically separating my faith in God from my knowledge of God.  So while I’d be involved in evangelism as an outworking of my faith,  I’d be openly questioning how the Bible came to be. I started with evolution. Contrary to my earlier days, I found it made a lot of sense.  This didn’t in any way seriously contradict my faith, but it did take away a major reason I had for believing it.  I then looked around to see if there was other evidence to support my faith.  I found some, but the more I looked, the less there seemed to be.  Eventually I decided that the whole God thing was pretty implausible.  That pretty much takes us to the present day, as far as my own history goes.

Of course the search for truth isn’t over.  Maybe I was wrong to reject the faith I once had.  And if not…what is there now?  If living for God isn’t the ultimate purpose in life, perhaps the ‘true’ meaning to life is found simply in savouring the lives we have.  The existentalists despaired that they had to create their own meaning.  I see it as a wonderful opportunity.  But that’s for another blog.