The recent death of Christopher Hitchens reminded me of how often I thought that he and so many others, in their critiques of Christianity, displayed such appalling ignorance of our religion. It's so easy to defeat straw men, and Hitchens was a gallant knight when it came to doing so. Same with Richard Dawkins, who never seems to learn from the rebuttals he's received through the years. We've even seen the same in some of the discussions that go on here: the mischaracterization of Christian beliefs, especially Catholicism.
Today I came across this quote that sums it all up:
Let me share a few random thoughts that I had written elsewhere. It was in a reply to another post, but the context is fairly clear, I think:
And it is clear, as Phil said, that Hitchens typically argued using nothing more than weak strawman arguments. It's okay to disagree about religion. Who really knows for sure about all this? I certainly don't. But Hitchens did not argue honestly. Nor was his metaphysics much more than Kindergarten-level stuff.
A few more random thoughts culled from elsewhere:
Nice going, Brad. I don't know where you had initially posted those thoughts, but I hope others read and considered them.
Hitchens is just one example of what I'm talking about, here. One could add lots of other names: my college biology professors, for example, a few cousins, Bill Maher, Steve Jobs, etc. They've all been cued in to some of the silly and even reprehensible things Christian teachers have said and done, but it's not at all obvious that they've looked very deeply into why the religion has evoked the faith and devotion of billions of people through the ages. Mostly likely, they think we're all mindless sheep who just don't know any better . . .
This is well said. I can see where atheists and agnostics are coming from, particularly with the "problem of pain", but there's simply much too much that I'd have to willfully ignore to be an atheist--for me,the beauty and goodness I can't ignore confounds my doubts even more than any Christian apologetic effort.
One could conceivably be well informed about Christianity and other religions and still be an atheist. I do not doubt that, and it wouldn't bother me as much as Dawkins-like straw-man arguments against Christianity and other religions.
That said, atheism is, in the end, every bit as much a faith stance as theism. Why? Because one cannot prove that there is no God. Neither can a Christian or anyone from any other religion prove that God exists, or that if God does exist, then God must be good, loving, eternal, etc. One can suggest reasons that persuade one way or another. Once one takes the leap of faith to opening oneself to be influenced by God, then proofs matter very little as the evidence for God bears witness in one's mind and heart. The problem with blabber-mouth ignoramuses is that they discourage people from religious faith while offering nothing better to take its place.
Some time ago, I read on the Vatican website an address given by one of the leaders of the Eastern churches. (I wish I could find it again, but I can't.) His critique of the Western church was that Christianity in the West has become far too closely allied with rationalism. In this respect he saw Protestantism and Catholicism as merely two sides of the same coin.
I have to say I agree with his criticism. Christianity is so often reduced to a set of propositions -- hence these interminable arguments with atheists.
A much better starting point, I believe, would be the fallen condition of humanity.
Ouch! That hits pretty close to home.
I was talking to an atheist/agnostic friend today on Facebook. (I forget what he considers himself.) He's living proof that one can have decent values and not be religious. And I realize this isn't the question on the table at the moment. But I just thought I'd point out that he's not a hard left atheist. Because he's a traditional conservative in his values, this gave me an opportunity to, well, basically soliloquy (as usual) without having to beat down straw man arguments or bad faith arguments. And let me first off start by saying, I know that I said a lot and yet said nothing. There is no reasoning oneself to God or out of agnosticism (or out of atheism, I suppose).
But maybe some will find this exchange (slightly revised and clarified) interesting in places. It's presented with the idea that, if religion is good and right (maybe it is or is not, but I'm quite sure the opposite is wrong), there may be some remedial-type work that is necessary given just how indoctrinated many people are in the leftist-secular culture which is typically haunted with radical skepticism and the sort of hardened beliefs that have been adopted from the Dawkins types. (And I wouldn't underestimate how widespread those ideas are.)
“in talking about Christopher Hitchens ideas on God, were you talking specifically about his anti-God perspective, or anti-God perspectives in general, when you said that being anti-God "simply dooms one to forever following one's ego or perhaps making self-esteem the be-all end-all of a man's existence.”
To answer your specific question, I think Hitchens’ atheistic ideas are the template for most atheists — along with those of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, of course. It’s all based on the same philosophy: If your morals are based on anything having to do with anything that cannot be proven scientifically, they are therefore inherently suspect. It is a basic tenet of atheists that to hold religious ideas addles the brain.
On the other hand (in what I think is a more reasonable or at least all-encompassing approach), Dennis Prager argues that God doesn’t care about our theology. He cares about our values. This is a notion lost on most atheists who seem to not see "thou shalt not covet" as a profoundly good idea and simply dismiss it because it is associated with religion. This is where Prager is coming from when he talks ecumenically about values rather than theology.
“It makes the most sense to me that there is not a God, certainly not a God as described in the Bible. “
J, P wrote something in this thread that directly connects with a central critique of theism. P said:
“I believe Dennis says this from time to time, every one is an agnostic, whether it is .0001% to 99.9999%, there is no one alive today that knows with 100% certainty of either side of the argument, 100% that God does exist or that he does not.”
The typical atheistic dismissal of the idea of god is framed in terms of “Saying there is either a god or not a god is the same thing as saying either there is a dragon in my garage or there is not.” [This is one of atheist Carl Sagan’s techniques.]
And in regards to dragons and garages, it’s obviously a useless assertion to say “Either there is a dragon in my garage or there is not.” And there is no logical or principled backing to those who want to believe in the dragon because “Either it is real or is not, and I prefer to belief that it is real.” Such an idea is quite obviously absurd.
But it would not be absurd to say something such as, “My garage was either built by a construction company or spontaneously built itself out of nothing, so I tend to believe that someone built the garage.”
This is THE central tenet of theism. The garage is built and existing. (Our universe.) And it is not a made-up syllogism to suppose it was either purposely built or not.
Granted, my own inclination is to nuance religious doctrine (such as the Bible) a bit and fall back on a somewhat famous quote (possibly somewhat paraphrased) from J.B.S. Haldane: “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” I’m more of the mind that our effable religions point us — however inexactly or analogously — to the ineffable reality of the Cause of all that is.
Is this Cause person-like? Well, if one holds a strictly materialist metaphysics, no. All that exists is only dumb particles that bounce around and, through chance, (somehow) create amazing things such as life and consciousness. But I think a much more valid metaphysics is to see life, consciousness, purpose, and meaning as subsets or shadows of something greater; attributes that are inherent to existence itself. Even if this is not true, I think it is clearly at least as reasonable of a metaphysics as the purely materialistic metaphysics that cannot even explain the mind of the metaphysician.
“But then from what you said above, it makes me wonder if you think the only way a person can reach a conclusion like that is because his ego is too large. I have long considered the descriptions in the Bible about God and what he is what he does, and they hint of arrogance to me. “
Aldous Huxley wrote a book titled “The Perennial Philosophy.” I’ve read bits and pieces of it. It could basically be called a compendium of “natural theology” or natural philosophy. One of the core ideas of the ages (and that pertains to nearly every religion, or parts of existing religions) is the idea that in order to gain higher knowledge or a higher perspective, mankind must move beyond the ego.
Granted — whether inside of or outside of religion — it’s a natural propensity to want to focus on and enlarge our egos, so you’ll find no shortage of people who use religion simply so that they can think themselves “better than thou.” No question about it. And there is great power in doing so. One could understand the narcissism of Obama as that of a highly inflated ego, and one that has the ability to sway the opinions of other people. In short, Obama (or anyone whose main appeal is personality) has power, in part, because others share in their "visions" and gain a stronger sense of self by identifying with their large ego. (This is one of the roots of fascism, for instance.)
Certainly our egos are one of our “senses,” if you will. It’s one method to glimpse reality and to deal with it. But I’m not of the same mind as Buddhists (or others) who believe that the point of living is to transcend the ego. I mean, for goodness sake, then why do we have one in the first place? It never made sense to me to want to dispense with it altogether.
But….if one does — and there are reliable reports of those who have come very close to just that — it is not hell that is glimpsed but more of a heaven. What empirical human experience has tended to suggest is that we indeed do become closer to god (or something) the more we dispense with our egos. And from a purely logical standpoint, this makes sense. This notion will scare the hell out of Objectivists who think the be-all, end-all of mankind is their strong sense of personal self-esteem. But if there is indeed a great mind (or reality) of some sort — particularly one that, in some way, gave rise to ours — it would make sense that as our ego (our experience of a unique and separate self) abated, that something else might indeed come rushing in.
"God created man in his image." and God created man to rule the Earth above all other animals. This proclamation that God put us here on earth to exert our dominance over everything in and of itself seems highly arrogant.”
Well, if you’re god, you must be one of the most arrogant SOB’s of all time. I mean, He took it upon Himself to cast us all into this web of suffering. Yes, there are many joys as well. But I lack the arrogance (as I’ve noted before) even to force people (if I were in Congress) to buy one sort of light bulb rather than another. Who am I do declare such a thing?
But God had no problem creating all that is, which inherently included great suffering. That’s some major chutzpah this guy has. And mothers and fathers bring their children into this world knowing that they will suffer and grow old and eventually die. But they do it anyway. There’s something about it all that must be worth it. Maybe it’s highly arrogant of parents to do so. And maybe what we call “arrogance” isn’t arrogance but simply the impulse TO BE.
As for being created in His image, that’s certainly a worthy analogy. I mean, if we thinking, feeling, moral (on our good days) creatures don’t reflect SOMETHING deep about the nature of reality, it would indeed be a very strange thing.
As for having dominion over animals, I believe that He saw the excesses of PETA coming and threw that line in there as a preventative. But, seriously, I see vegetarianism as a superior moral position. I don’t have a problem with being kind to animals (or eating meat, for that matter). And I don’t get hung up on the language of having dominion over animals. We can just hope that any aliens who might ever come to earth will be at least as nice to us as we are to Rover. Or, hopefully (considering the millions sitting in animal shelters), perhaps a bit better.
Really good stuff, Brad et al!
A Tyranomartian Rex left footprints in a nightmare I once had.
Everyone's come back for the holidays and filled with spirit!
Will you tolerate a Merry Christmas, from me?
Nice that that cat finally let go of your tongue, animal lover.
I don’t know, pop-pop. Isn’t saying “Merry Christmas” a bit controversial? Truth be told, nothing leaves me feeling less ebullient than hearing “Winter Festival.” I nearly drove off the road a couple weeks ago when I heard an ad on the radio (perhaps from the city of Redmond, Washington…although I don’t remember which city it was exactly) advertising something like, “Stop by Friday, December whatever, and take part in the lighting of the city’s Diversity Tree.”
It goes without saying that I don’t do “Diversity Tree” and have no clue as to what a “Winter Festival” is.
So, yeah, MERRY CHRISTMAS, a hundred . . . nay, a thousand times over.
I am St. Agnosis. Yeah…that’s what you can call me. Phil and JB have, for years, fed me good and true principles but I remain who I am. St. Agnosis. But I try to preach in my own way to my fellow brothers and sisters who mostly live in the land of Agnostia or Atheopolis. My apologia, for example, regarding Santa Claus:
One of the most profound editorials — and one that certainly keeps alive my hopes at being an essayist — is the one from 1897 by “The Sun” editor, Francis Pharcellus Church. It was in reply to a letter sent in by Virginia O’Hanlon at the prompting of her father who assured her “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” [And then you should read this great editorial by Church.]
What’s amazing about Mr. Church’s answer is that he has willingly cast himself in the role of religious apologist. Defending “the unseen” was certainly becoming uncool or suspect in his time, and things have only gotten worse in our time as “reason” is understood as a state of being or moral system rather than as a method.
As I remind people, there is nothing reasonable about existence. It is neither logical nor expected. There surely are “reasons” that a rainbow has the colors that it does, but the very existence of anything at all is not a function of logic. Existence itself, strictly speaking, is most unreasonable.
And this reality is reflected in mankind’s artistic, poetic, religious, and metaphorical relationship with reality — a reality that gives no “reason” other than “I am that I am.”
Although Mr. Church is certainly talking to this little girl, and all the parents of such little girls as Virginia, he is also speaking in a much larger context. His metaphysics in this editorial are, frankly, superb. My favorite part is this:
“You tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, or even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernatural beauty and glory beyond.”
Such language will make the minds of the literalists and atheists come to a boil, for such “mysticism,” they would likely argue, always leads to bad things. It is “reason” we must cling to, they would say. And maybe I’ll re-write my own essay on the fallacy of “reason” that I have written several times before.
But suffice it to say that “reason” is not quite the same thing as “reasonableness," “moderation,” or “equanimity.” Hitler, for example, used the application of reason to run a quite tight ship in regards to sending Jews off to death camps. It was a triumph of reason — a reason based on foul or evil premises, for sure. But “reason” is not a moral system. It is a method.
And so how we relate to reality is inherently “unreasonable” in the sense that there is no literal and inevitable path that is set in the stone of logic or “reason” that we must take. Ours is inherently a poetic dance with reality. Sometimes the poetry is glad, and sometimes tragic. But our ability to think, feel, and be self-aware guarantees that faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, and more, will be a part of our experience….and should be.
So literalists will demand, and always demand, a real, live Santa Claus. But as Mr. Church understood so well — and he was not just dissembling — “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to our life its highest beauty and joy.”
The dimension of goodness in our world is not something we created. It existed before us. And it is not in need of a long white beard and red hat in order to be real, although it may be lovingly and usefully caricatured as such.
I love the tone and tenor of this post with your prose and poetry intermingled, Brad, mon ami.
I would only pick a nit to say that faith, or even different lacks thereof, can be, rather than unreasonable, what we call superreasonable. So often it is not, but ... you know what I mean. As Phil says: religion should transcend but include (science, philosophy, culture). Same as my mantra, really: beyond but not without.
JB.p, I’ll take the idea of the “superreasonable” on board. It makes sense to me.
But the main critique of religion (or, really, any philosophy that involves the intangibles) by typical atheism is often rooted in a hard understanding of “reason.” “Reason” becomes a religion and dogma unto itself. It’s just assumed that “reason” alone will always point us human beings toward the right thing to do as if there were one, and one only, correct thing to do in any situation. The assumption is that some general idea of "reason" (though this is rarely, if ever, defined beyond the general) will just naturally (like falling off a log) guide us there.
Well, that’s not how it works, as far as I’m concerned. There can be many good choices, and many involve simply a matter of preference. As for the Cosmic disposition of reason, yes, there certainly could be a transcendent reason for all that is, so that, at heart, reality isn’t technically “unreasonable.” But before building that fence, I have to put in the fence posts.
The problem with Hitler and other ideologues is that they split reason from ethics and made of it a servant of their ideology. That's un-natural, however, and a good example of what Lonergan called group bias. Reason naturally resonates with feeling, will, imagination, intuition, etc. and is supposed to operate in harmony with these to help us come to clarity concerning matters of truth, even Truth. So in Catholicism, at least, we believe that human reason is capable of coming to the affirmation of God's existence simply by following its own transcendental orientation to its logical conclusion: that the terminus of all truth must be Truth itself, just as the longing of the will for ultimate love suggests that Love itself must exist to assuage this desire -- else why would we have it in the first place?
Atheists and agnostics have these transcendental imperatives imbedded in their consciousness as well, of course. If they properly attended to them and allowed them to function without bias (see Lonergan's writings on three kinds of bias) they would surely come to the affirmation of some kind of absolute Terminus for truth, beauty, love and goodness.
Well, one could argue that the Nazis had their own brand of ethics. And one thing that the label of “reason” is used as is as a method to try to anoint one’s beliefs with superficially nice-sounding words. The left, in particular, has a long history of trying to sugar-coat and legitimize their beliefs by saying that they are “scientific.” Marx, for example, believed (or at least claimed) that his socialism was “scientific socialism” — something not based on mere opinion but objectively true. This continues today in the hysteria regarding supposedly man-made global warming where the left denounces as “deniers” those who actually practice the art (and science) of science and look at the data from both sides.
That is part of what one must machete through when so many (particularly atheists) use the word “reason.”
In terms of the word “reason” being understood as “careful deliberation,” “non-zealousness,” “equanimity,” “consideration of established and legitimate moral principles,” and “in harmony with thoughtful ideas of goodness,” I have no problem with that. But none of that is typically what is meant by the word “reason” when used by a Dawkins-style atheist.
As for imbedded transcendental imperatives (or what we might call a “conscience”), I would agree that said conscience exists, and that it can get really screwed up by years and years of propaganda.
I would say that, by affirmation, we would mean that they would, at least, live as if there were.
Yes indeed! It was precisely those years of ideological propaganda (group bias a la Lonergan) that distorted their conscience to the extent that it was numb to even the most basic and universal ethical principle, the golden rule. Stated in the negative -- do not do to others what you would not have them do unto you -- it's easy to see how far the Nazis had drifted from this principle. Who among them would have wanted to have their families split up, carted onto trains, housed in concentration camps, worked to the bone, then gassed? They could justify this in terms of their ideology, which highlights the evil principles that informed their thinking. This is by no means an indictment of reason, however. Allowed to function without the threat of torture and death, reasonable people could have effectively critiqued Naziism -- as, in fact, most of the rest of the world did, and even some within Germany. Likewise, most thinking people can easily critique the flawed thinking of ideological leftists and rightists today as well.
Phil, I agree entirely. Well said. And what strikes me about all this (and this is why I think humility is, in my opinion, a trait without which it will be difficult to ever follow Goodness) is how easily we humans can be confused (or confuse ourselves) about right and wrong.
One of the things I agree with in regards to my conservative Christian friends is that, in practice, it’s difficult to hold onto a firm grip of right and wrong without a notion of an Ultimate right and wrong (generally expressed as a belief in God). Certainly I think the 100 million deaths last century due to collectivist ethics (driven to a large degree by atheistic leaders) shows the truly bad kind of “situational ethics” or “moral equivalency” one can all too easily engage in without being anchored to something deeper than just one’s race or tribe — or transfixed by ideas that are more a function of fashion or fancy rather than being rooted in anything more substantial (or more substantial than just sheer, raw power).
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