25 November 2006

New Look

Yes, you're in the right spot, folks! Here's what we used to look like:

The Theist has now (finally) been added as a contributor here, and he's gone and abused his administrator priviledge by changing the look and feel to something he thought was more readable. Is the new look an improvement?

The Theist is busy with his family, professoring, miscellaneous geeking, and his other online gig. But he'll jump into the discussion here now and again as time permits.

24 November 2006

Faith, Self-Interest, and Belief in God

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 21, 2006

Many theists claim to rest their belief in God on faith. A person believes something on the basis of faith when he believes in it on the basis of what he knows to be inadequate evidence.

But consider how we normally react to the unsupported belief. Imagine you are in a bar and a biker sitting near you tells you that he is a white supremacist. You ask why and he explains that he while he doesn’t have a good argument for his views, but he nonetheless believes it strongly. In fact, he says, he takes it as a matter of faith. You would consider him to be sad and not just because his beliefs are destructive. Arguably, the opposition of some Catholic groups to free markets and birth control is similarly destructive. Rather your contempt will be based in part on the fact that the biker firmly holds beliefs that he can’t defend. Consistency requires that you take the same view of faith-based religious belief.

Recognizing this failure creates the logical space for Blaise Pascal’s wager. In the 17th century, Pascal argued that it is a good bet to believe in God. His argument makes three assumptions. First, Pascal asserts that while reason can’t tell us whether God exists, we know that he either does or doesn’t exist. Second, Pascal assumes that if God exists, he will send believers to heaven (an eternity of happiness) and will either annihilate non-believers or send them to hell (an eternity of suffering). Third, Pascal assumes that we can decide whether to believe in God and act accordingly.

Pascal argues that if we believe in God, we risk losing out on a few earthly pleasures but gain the chance of gaining an infinite reward. Okay, we’ll lose out on our chance to enjoy mushrooms while watching Martin Scorsese films and the occasional threesome, but these are small losses in the grand scheme of things. If we don’t believe in God then we can sleep late on Sundays and enjoy our sinful ways, but we risk being annihilated or, worse, eternal damnation. Pascal argues that it is irrational to risk an infinite loss just to secure a small gain. This is analogous to the way in which it is irrational to avoid other minor precautions (for example, wearing a seatbelt) that protect against catastrophic loss.

Pascal’s argument survives the usual criticisms that are leveled against it. Some critics argue that God wouldn’t reward someone who merely hedges his bet for self-interested reasons. However, Pascal would likely argue that he is talking about persons having a real commitment to God, which can occur even if the initial motivation to do so was a cynical appeal to self-interest. Other critics argue that the evidence against God’s existence is overwhelming and we are running the risk of shaping our life around a falsity. Even so, Pascal would likely respond, we can’t be sure that God doesn’t exist, any more than we can be certain about other arguments in math and science, and we can’t take the chance of a catastrophic outcome even when it is unlikely to occur. Still other critics argue that a just and loving being like God wouldn’t, and perhaps can’t, annihilate non-believers or send them to hell. Again, while this is likely true since reason suggests as much, the question remains whether we can afford to take this risk. We can’t.

The real reason this argument fails is that it doesn’t take into account all the outcomes that we can’t rule out with certainty. As mentioned above, these outcomes include scenarios where God exists and ones where neither God nor a similar being exists. However, they also include the case where an anti-Christian (or, perhaps, anti-theist) all-powerful god exists. This god hates believers since they annoy him with their constant prayers the way the paparazzi used to infuriate Sean Penn. This god sends believers to hell and all others to heaven. After all, what does he care? It doesn’t cost him anything to send someone to heaven and non-believers haven’t annoyed him. If this is correct, then believing in God poses a tremendous risk. The logic (and underlying mathematical calculation of self-interest) is identical and cancels out the risk one takes by not believing in God.

Pascal’s wager sinks and drags down with it the best case for faith-based religious belief. Faith and self-interest don’t shield believers from the onslaught of science and philosophy. And when we add beliefs about angels, the devil, magical spectacles, and bread being changed into the body of Christ, the need for faith intensifies and we’re moving in the wrong direction.


The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 21, 2006

Seventeenth century French genius Blaise Pascal assumed that in religious matters, nothing at all can be known. Still, in a passage now referred to as “Pascal’s Wager” he argued that one ought to believe in God--not because there is adequate evidence that God exists, but rather because it is prudent, that is, in one’s best interest.

Why? There are four possibilities, and in the absence of evidence, I must hold them to be equally likely. These are: (1) mistaken theism, (2) correct theism, (3) mistaken atheism, and (4) correct atheism. If I believe in God, I either lose little (1), or win infinite gain (2). If I disbelieve, I risk infinite loss (3), or a not-too-significant loss (4). How to bet? Clearly, believing in God is the safer bet; Pascal’s logic seems impeccable.

Despite the fact that Pascal was a mathematical genius, his logic is not impeccable. In fact, The Objectivist kicks a big hole in it. The problem is that if we know nothing at all in matters of religion, then how can we say that there are precisely four options (the numbered ones above)? We can’t. As The Objectivist points out, we’d have to consider anything which is conceivable, such as the scenario of the god who punishes only religious believers. We wouldn’t even be able to use his method of reasoning to decide what’s in our interest to believe, as the options would be infinite, and no human could go through such an endless train of reasoning.

What now? We can, like The Objectivist, reject Pascal’s way of reasoning altogether. But I’ll argue that the right response is to question his assumption that we know nothing in matters of religion. To the contrary, we do know that some religious claims are false, and moreover, everyone should agree that not all religions are equally plausible.

Some founders of religions (big and small) appear clearly in the historical record as power-, sex-, and money-hungry manipulators, and it is rational to trust them much less than founders who come off like genuine friends of God and humankind. Scientology was founded by a science fiction writer as a shameless money-making operation. This religion puts its adherents through a long, expensive, pseudo-scientific therapy, only after many years revealing to them L. Ron Hubbard’s ridiculous story of what’s wrong with the human race. (Search online for the word “Xenu” for this.) Other religions, such as some kinds of Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, cut strongly against common sense, holding that the world we (seem to) see around us in an illusion, there really being just one indescribable thing (“Brahman”). Other religions, such as the “Ghost Dance” religion which swept through certain Native American tribes in the late 19th century, make predictions which turn out to be false. Tragically, one such prediction was that magical garments (“Ghost Shirts”) would repel even the white man’s bullets. You can guess how that claim was refuted. Similarly, there’s an endless parade of Christian sects which (sometimes repeatedly) unsuccessfully forecast the Second Coming of Christ.

Is it hard to grade some religions as more likely to be true than others? Sometimes. Is it rude? It can be. Will it spoil your Thanksgiving dinner if you bring this up? Probably. But if you’re interested in having true beliefs about religion, you have to think about these things. Pascal is too skeptical. There’s a boatload of testimonial evidence from sane, sober, and smart people, in favor of religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There’s no evidence of any kind for belief in the believer-hating god.

There are two “world views” which predominate right now. First, there’s what I’d call Abrahamic theism--belief in the one God of Abraham (see Genesis 12-25). Second, there’s the world view which is currently dominant around the world, at least in the more educated segment of societies--what philosophers call “naturalism” (roughly: atheism plus the view that all there is is the realm investigated by empirical science). For most thoughtful people nowadays (though by no means all), these are by far the top two contenders for belief--not the only conceivable options, but the only two ones we can imagine actually believing. If you’re in that category, then you’re deciding between naturalism and belief in one perfect personal God, who treats us seriously enough to allow us to reject him completely and permanently (he refuses to force himself on us).

If you’re such a person, it turns out you really should take a cue from Pascal, because you face the four numbered options above. The prudent bet? Believe in God. Pascal himself realized that one can’t simply "believe on command," even when one judges belief to be in one’s best interest. His advice? Take practical steps, such as associating with believers, sending up hope-fueled prayers, and participating in religious rituals. Such a lifestyle will probably, over time, incline one to actually believe.

09 November 2006

A Debate Over Hell

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 6, 2006

Some religious doctrines are competitors in the absurdity sweepstakes. Among the contenders is the doctrine of the trinity, which asserts that there are three divine persons each of whom appears to have a separate mind and yet they are still one in some mysterious sense. However, the leader is probably the notion that God sends persons to hell or annihilates them. Hell is an eternity of suffering that God imposes on persons, usually because they are evil or didn’t believe in him.

Hell is just only if persons deserve an infinite punishment. But finite beings, like human beings, can’t deserve infinite punishments. We often think that a person deserves to be punished in a way that is proportional to his wrongdoing. For example, a thief doesn’t deserve ten years in prison for stealing Paris Hilton’s lunch. In general, human beings can’t do acts that are infinitely wrong because they can’t cause infinite harm to others. At most, via torture and killing they can cause significant but finite harm. They might cause infinite harm if they send or help to send a person to hell, but this creates a bootstrap problem since it requires that hell already exist. That is, God would need a reason independent of human desert to create hell.

Because God is invulnerable, he can be at most indirectly harmed. We normally don’t think that punishment is deserved for indirect harm. For example, we punish murderers and rapists for what they did to their victims, not for what they did to the victim’s families and friends. For example, a man who rapes a homeless teenager who lacks family and friends should be punished as severely as someone who rapes a mother of three or a CEO on whom shareholders depend.

The notion that failure to believe in God justifies an eternity in hell is silly. First, the evidence for God’s existence is anything but clear and it is cruel to punish persons for drawing reasonable conclusions from the evidence before them. Second, a person shouldn’t be punished merely for having false beliefs. The feminists can breathe easy on this one. Third, severely punishing persons for not believing in you is something we would expect of very insecure persons. That is, on this view of God he is remarkably similar to Donald Trump, minus the bad hair.

Even if persons deserve to suffer based on having an evil character rather than having done evil, this still doesn’t establish that anyone’s character is bad enough to deserve hell. Persons simply don’t have enough evil thoughts or thoughts of sufficient intensity to warrant infinite suffering. In fact, it’s an odd view to think that persons deserve to suffer for their thoughts. This is good news for the sea of persons who have meaningful lives but who regularly enjoy violent movies and internet porn. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, “internet porn, mmm....”

In fact, it’s hard to see why God even has the right to punish others. We usually think that victims have a right to punish their victimizers and that the state gains this right because citizens contract it out to the state (that is, they outsource it). If this weren’t the case, then the state would be like a vigilante. In many cases, individuals haven’t transferred their right to punish to God. I haven’t done so and neither has the Rock.

Even annihilating persons is just plain mean-spirited. We normally think that if one individual can give a benefit to a second without any cost or inconvenience to himself and doesn’t do so, then he is rotten. For example, imagine I’m sitting at a train station with three Hostess cupcakes that I can’t eat because I’m allergic to the chocolate. I can give them to nearby starving children or throw them away. Even though the children don’t have a right to the cupcakes, there’s something wrong with me if I toss them. God can give people an eternal life of ecstasy as easy as I can give out the cupcakes. If you believe that he doesn’t do so, you don’t think much of him. Given his overreaction to not believing in him, this strikes as more dangerous than being near a Kennedy behind the wheel.

The notion of hell also has ridiculous implications. For example, if it were true, abortion and infanticide would be loving acts since they would guarantee that one’s infant doesn’t go to hell. Like going without insurance, this is not a risk that a loving parent would ever take.

In the end, the notion of hell and annihilation makes about as much sense as a meth-using gay preacher who spends his time fighting for traditional values.


The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 6, 2006

It’s popular to assume that the notion of hell can be dismissed as an implausible and morally perverse fantasy of hate-mongers. But by far the person most responsible for promoting the idea of Hell was Jesus, the most admired man in the history of the world, beloved far beyond the bounds of Christianity. This alone should give scoffers pause.

Consider the “logic” of hell. Suppose that God exists, and that he’ll eventually prevail, so that in contrast to the present, his will will be regularly done in all the earth. Suppose also that he wants people to freely cooperate with him. And add that he takes our freedom so seriously that he’ll allow us to permanently reject him. It follows that God needs some kind of “trash dump"--some place to put those who refuse his love--people for whom he no longer has any use.

Jesus calls the place were God sends his enemies “Gehenna,” which was in his day a smoldering trash dump outside the walls of Jerusalem. Some current thinkers hold that hell is primarily a place of retribution, wherein the wicked get what they deserve. Others hold what they call a “natural consequence” model of hell, where people, given their moral character, are put in the only place suitable for them--a place away from the presence of God and God’s friends. Such people, on this view, simply couldn’t be happy in heaven.

Again, some current thinkers hold that hell is (as the majority tradition in Christianity holds) an infinitely long existence characterized by conscious suffering. In contrast, annihilationists (a minority view within Christianity) hold that either immediately after death, or after some finite period of suffering, God literally destroys the wicked, so that they no longer exist. On any of these options, hell is a permanent, undesirable sentence.

One may object that as we live finite lives, it’s impossible for us to deserve an infinite punishment (either infinitely long suffering or annihilation). This objection may look impressive, but on further reflection, we don’t know that we can’t accrue infinite guilt. Suppose a sexual predator kidnaps, rapes, and murders a fifteen year old young woman. From a human perspective, he causes massive but perhaps finite harm: his victim suffers pain, and then loses of the rest of her natural life. He also deprives her community and family of her presence and love. Now add God into the equation. He loves the victim more than her parents. Being omnipresent and all-knowing, he’s more vividly aware of a murderer’s dastardly acts than any human eyewitness could be, and what’s more, he can’t forget a single gruesome detail. Further, he knows in perfect detail exactly how much human potential was squandered that day--her “line” has been permanently cut off. She might, like Abraham, have been the ancestor of a unique “nation” or people-group, some important “branch” on the tree of humanity--a branch continuing into the infinite future. How long does God bear these “scars”? Infinitely long. Endless suffering or annihilation start to look fair rather than excessive.

But, you may object, didn’t this kind murderer do his victim the service of sending her straight to heaven? In reply, he may have sent her there, but in so doing he prematurely took her from this realm of choice. She’d prefer the risk of hell to having her autonomy cut so short. We all would. That’s why it’s asinine to suggest that belief in heaven and hell legitimizes any homicide whatsoever. (“Just sending ‘em to heaven, Lord!”)

How could God send people to hell simply for not believing in him? He doesn’t. Rather, he sends them there because they deserve it, and/or because he doesn’t want to annihilate them but there’s nowhere else to put them. Would a hell-threatening God be insecure? Hardly--he takes the extreme risk of making people with the freedom to accept or reject him, and takes the latter seriously enough to let them have what they’ve chosen--a head-on collision with an omnipotent and just judge.

In sum, the question to ask isn’t “How could God send anyone to hell?” Rather, each should ask: “Why shouldn’t God send me there, what with my plethora of evil and destructive habits, my systematic rejection of God’s advances, and my ungrateful squandering of billions of his blessings, big and small?” Can I rule out that I’ve inflicted infinite losses on God many times over? If not, what can I do to avoid hell? I’d recommend consulting Jesus on that one.

The Theist: The Haggard Scandal

The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

Some of us are old enough to remember the sleezy boom days of televangelism in this country--Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Robert Tilton. How many sordid books were written and 15-minutes-of-fame careers were launched from the sordid tales of sexual and financial exploitation? If you're too young to remember, or old enough to have forgotten, count yourself blessed. For some of us, memories of those days were kindled by headlines last week about the fall of “evangelist” Ted Haggard. I wonder if some headline writers just assumed that any fallen Christian leader must be an “evangelist”; last time I checked, he wasn't an evangelist (i.e. a traveling, Billy Graham style harvester of souls), and has never been a televangelist, but rather a pastor, conference speaker, and head of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Before the scandal I'd seen Haggard a few times on television. First, I saw him interviewed by (the great theologian) Barbara Walters in an ABC special on the concept of heaven. Later, I saw him in a BBC series called The Root of All Evil, being interviewed (really, confronted) by famous biologist, author, and anti-religion campaigner Richard Dawkins. Both times, I was put off by Haggard--to Walters' questions, he seemed to duck and dodge, rather than giving a straight answer. And he ended up giving his assailant Dawkins a ridiculous lecture about the dangers of arrogance, before running him off his church's property. Haggard struck me as the opposite of a straight-shooter--someone always carefully managing the image he presents and who always thinks he can charm his way past tough questions, wielding that forced smile. He's not someone I'd like to see as a spokesman for Christianity, whatever his merits are as a preacher or pastor.

Haggard's weaselly nature manifested again when the accusations hit the news. In one carefully calculated statement, he said that he had never“had a gay relationship.” Well, that may be so, but the accusation was about repeatedly paying a gay prostitute for sex. In another, he tried to get away with admitting only paying for a massage, and offered a Clintonian claim that he'd bought meth but never used it. When I saw these statements, I thought, “he still thinks he can talk and manipulate his way out of this!” To no one's surprise, it didn't work.

There have been some ugly reactions from those happy to see Haggard go down. Some callously see the episode as no more than a benefit to progressive political efforts, or as simply a welcome humiliation for those evil, power-hungry, sanctimonious, Bush-voting religious conservatives. All I can say about such reactions is: look at what our nasty political culture has done to you.

More interesting is the widespread reaction that Haggard is a vile hypocrite, who enjoys gay sex while “bashing” gays from the pulpit. Better that he should have been “true to himself” and simply led a gay or bisexual lifestyle. In my view, there are several things wrong with this reaction. First, it isn't “gay-bashing” or homophobic to believe, and to publicly say, that gay sex is morally wrong. This moral claim is an entrenched part of nearly all the world's great religions (yes, even cool ones such as Tibetan Buddhism) and it must be distinguished clearly from various political positions about the legal status of gays and gay sex, as well as from hatred for gays.

Further, this moral belief is plainly compatible with loving and valuing one's gay neighbors as oneself. I'm not aware that Haggard has ever publicly expressed any sort of hatred for homosexuals, or cast them as sub-human, or played any of the cards of the true bigot. He's even spoken out in favor of civil union legislation. In general, I've found that evangelical Christians are less prone to the evils of anti-gay bigotry than the general populace. We should remember that respect, tolerance, and kindness don't require that people agree with all our moral judgments, or approve of all of our behavior.

Haggard admits that he has struggled all of his adult life with desires incompatible with married life. Does this mean that he's really gay, or bisexual, and that he ought to just play the part? Hardly. For one thing, the man is married with five children. Even if he should have chosen a different course before, from a moral standpoint that is irrelevant, given his current obligations to his wife. Further, just because I have a desire for X, doesn't mean that I must act on the desire for X or else be a hypocrite or a phony. Most men, at one time or another, with varying frequency, experience sexual desires for other men, for women other than their wives, and for various other people they ought not have sex with (e.g. stepdaughters, employees). It's one thing to say that it's permissible to follow any desire you may have, at least in cases where no one is obviously hurt by your action, but it's ridiculous to assert that anyone is obligated, on pain of being a phony, to act on a desire just because they have it, even when it is a strong and recurring desire. To the contrary, moral behavior is all about only acting on some, but not on other desires!

Is Haggard a hypocrite? Not exactly. He's someone (just like the rest of us) who had a habit of doing something he believed to be morally wrong, and then hiding it. In his own words, he's “a deceiver and a liar.” This seems a more fundamental and serious moral problem than his formerly hidden sexual practices. What's even more interesting is his remarkably thorough, excuse-free, abject, face in the mud repentance in his statement read to his (former) congregation on November 5. It's worth finding that online and reading it in full. How many of us are willing to adopt that posture, when appropriate?

The only proper response to the story is sadness--at a man, probably isolated and under pressure from many quarters, who failed to live up to his own beliefs about right and wrong, who gave into meaningless, immoral sex with a prostitute, and fell into a pattern of systematic deception of his wife and coreligionists. Anyone who's been addicted to any sort of bad behavior should feel their pain. Should he have adopted different beliefs? Should he have made better choices? However you answer, there's no cause for joy in this news.