What Are Christians to Make of Jordan Peterson?

Or you can watch the video on YouTube:

I should not that Jordan Peterson has identified as Christian, but in the same interview he said that he’s agnostic as to whether the resurrection happened (i.e. he neither affirms nor denies it), so while my statement in this episode isn’t perfectly accurate, I think it’s essentially accurate from a traditional Christian perspective. At mass every Sunday we say the Nicene Creed. And I think that Jordan Peterson himself would think what I said was fair from the perspective from which I was speaking.

This is All Wrong, Except Maybe “Jewish”

So I saw this recently on Twitter, and I’m in the mood to tear it apart:

Christianity:
The belief that some cosmic Jewish Zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

This is an entirely incorrect description of orthodox Christianity except for—depending what is meant—the “Jewish” part. Let’s go through it step by step, at least as long as I have the patience for it:

The belief

Christianity is a religion, not merely a belief. It is a way of fundamentally orienting one’s life. Christianity has beliefs, for example we Catholics recite many of the core ones every Sunday by saying the Nicene Creed. This isn’t merely nit-picking, because it borders too much on believe-or-burn nonsense. Christianity is about living in accordance with the truth, not merely knowing it.

that some cosmic

This makes it sound like Jesus is some sort of energy being like a marvel comic book character such as Galactus or Eternity or The Living Tribunal. Those are all contingent beings. Nope, wrong.

Jewish

As long as this means that he was a descendent of Abraham, etc. fine. If it is meant to deny that he was also a Christian, no.

zombie

A zombie is a dead body which has be animated by an evil spirit. Or if it’s a scientific zombie it’s a corpse which is walking around because the writers don’t know anything about science and have no idea how viruses/radiation/respiration/muscle activation/etc. work. This has nothing to do with a person who has come back to life.

can make you live forever

Eternal life refers to living to the full in eternity, not to never dying. This is opposed to being in hell—the “in” referring to being in a state, and the “hell” to the state of rejecting God/goodness/truth/beauty—in eternity. Not dying is, depending on what you mean by it (and how you understand the dormition of Mary), reserved for Mary and a few old testament figures. It has no relationship to the Christian faithful.

if you symbolically eat his flesh

The eucharist is not a symbol but in fact the real presence of Christ, and you really eat his flesh and drink his blood. They have the outward form of bread and wine. The Orthodox just say “it’s a mystery” while Catholics explain in somewhat more technical language that the substance of the bread and wine chance while the accidents (such as the atoms which composed the bread and wine) remain. Then we say it’s a mystery. But in both cases, we affirm that this is real and not a symbol, though its reality is not something you can detect with your eyes or tongue.

and telepathically

Prayer is not telepathy. That the one creating all things as they unfold knows everything that is happening has nothing to do with whatever sci-fi you’re thinking of with telepathy.

tell him

Nothing in Christianity depends on what you say to Jesus. This comes back to the first point; Christianity is about action. The content of faith is works; it is not everyone who says “Lord Lord” but the one who does the will of the father, etc. We accept the salvation which God freely gave to us out of his generosity by living in according with that salvation, and reject it by living as if it is not true. This is like any other gift; if someone gives you $20 for your birthday, you accept the gift by spending the money, and reject it by never spending the money.

you accept him as your master

Partially this is wrong because of the above; it’s not any pledge of allegiance that saves, but rather the living out of the acceptance of salvation. Further, this is not accepting a master in an earthly sense where one is property to another’s benefit, but rather living in according with the one who made us and therefore being ourselves to the maximum extent possible given the nature he gave us.

so he can remove

Salvation is positive, not negative. Sin is itself a privation, that is, a deprivation of part of our reality as a human being. Sin does not have a reality to itself; it is like a shadow. The act of salvation is the act of repairing us—of restoring to us that part of ourself which we have destroyed through sin.

an evil force

Sin—original or otherwise—is not an evil force. It is a diminishment of the person. It is a warping, a twisting, of that which is straight just like a broken arm is not something being added to the arm but something being removed from it. Original sin, specifically, is a hereditary problem in that one can’t give what one hasn’t got, and so a lack of perfection is passed on. This is often talked about in a positive way simply because our language works better that way; this is the same way we talk about the “shape” of a shadow despite the fact that it is the light around the shadow which has a shape, not the shadow itself.

from your soul

Again, salvation is the adding to you of that perfection which is missing, not a removal of something which was added.

that is present in humanity because a rib-woman

All women have ribs. I presume this is meant to refer to a literal reading of the book of Genesis as if it were a historical-biological textbook. It isn’t, stop doing that. It refers to God walking in the cool of the evening. God doesn’t have a body. It refers to God asking where Adam and Eve are. God knows everything. This is mythology, not a type of textbook that wouldn’t exist for thousands of years. It was describing important things, not irrelevant details. Our modern fixation on irrelevant details to the exclusion of wisdom produces nothing but misreadings when applied to anything written before several hundred years ago and many things written since. Limit your reading of books as if they are biology textbooks to actual biology textbooks.

was convinced by a talking snake

See above; the serpent is generally understood to represent spiritual powers that wish us harm, such as Satan.

to eat from a magical tree.

Magic has absolutely nothing to do with it. Again, reading the book of Genesis as if you are reading a modern biology textbook is just trying to misunderstand it. The tree in question is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Now, what happens when you eat something? It becomes a part of you. To make good and evil a part of you means that you are doing evil. Talking about “eating from a magic tree” is on the level of reading a cartoon book made for kindergarteners. The story of the fall of man in Genesis talks about how human beings chose evil over perfection when tempted by powers which deceived them. It’s a richly complex story the exegesis of which takes many pages, but to talk about “a magical tree” is to utterly and completely misunderstand it, worse than to think that evolution is about “survival of the fittest” as if that means “everything gets bigger, smarter, faster, and stronger all the time”. It’s a complete misunderstanding on the level of a children’s cartoon book. If you can read this blog post, you can do better than that.

Why Is Determinism Attractive?

I used to assume that people believed in determinism (that human beings do not have free will) merely as a consequence to materialism, and that they weren’t really invested in it. More recently, however, I’ve come to suspect that it is determinism which they are primarily attracted to, and atheism is a way to achieve that determinism. (Not so explicitly, of course.)

One strong reason I suspect this is that we have direct, unequivocal experience of free will. If there wasn’t a strong attraction to determinism, this experience would render anything which contradicted free will simply unbelievable. (And for many people, it does just that.) So there must be some deeply compelling reason to want to disbelieve in free will. What can it be?

Before I answer that question, I want to note that there are several belief systems which denied free will, since there is a hint to the answer of this question in that fact. Hinduism is varied, but at least according to the hindu philosophers the monism of everything being God leaves no room for individual free will. Free will implies the existence of sin, but since everything is God nothing can be sin. (Ordinary hindus probably do believe in free will, I should note.) Buddhism does not believe in free will, which is just one of its many contradictions. (By Buddhism I mean the original Buddhism of Siddhartha Gautama which was a reaction against his failure to achieve happiness as a hindu yogi; I’m not talking about more modern, often syncretic Buddhisms.) And very interestingly, Martin Luther didn’t believe in free will either. In fact he wrote a whole book about how there’s no such thing as free will. (On the Bondage of the Will. It’s a terrible book.)

Now, what do all these things have in common, and what do they have in common with materialism? They are all reductionist systems. They all posit that reality is less than it seems, in some manner or other. But curiously only two of them are atheistic; the other two are theistic. This suggests that what people really object to is not God, but other people. And indeed, that makes sense in reductionist systems. People are messy. There are so many of them, and if they’re free they’re not explicable by a small number of easily understood rules.

To be content with understanding the universe but not being able to comprehend it (that is, to stand in right intellectual relationship to it but not to be able to fit it inside of one’s head) requires humility, and more than anything it requires trust. Trusting God, specifically (which seems to me to have been Martin Luther’s big hangup). So I suspect something like the following rule is the case:

Those who cannot trust God cannot deal with the existence of their fellow men, and will seek some philosophical means of getting rid of their fellow men as important.

In practice, the really thorny part of one’s fellow human beings is their free will. Thus to any such creature who finds trust in God to be impossible, determinism will have a huge appeal.

(As a post-script, I should note that reducing men to their base instincts is merely a less rigorous way of accomplishing the same denial of free will; wherever you find a man who reduces all men’s actions to greed or lust, you have found a man who doesn’t trust God.)

Review: The Rage Against God

I just finished reading Peter Hitchens’ book, The Rage Against God. It’s an interesting book—and I do recommend it—but it’s very much not what I expected. For one thing, it’s a far more personal book than I expected. Which may well speak more to my expectations than to the book; the subtitle is “how atheism led me to faith.” But what I think I was more legitimately surprised about was how much the book was about culture.

The Rage Against God is divided into three parts:

  1. A Personal Journey Through Atheism
  2. Addressing the Three Failed Arguments of Atheism
  3. The League of the Militant Godless

Chapters 1-5 are about England’s (I suppose technically I should say Brittain’s, but I’m not sure) declining society, and how much Christianity was woven into England’s culture so that as people became disillusioned with their culture they threw Christianity out as well. In many ways in these chapters the eponymous rage against God seems to be primarily a displaced rage against parents. In fact Mr. Hitchens mentions something I’ve seen noted by many other rebels born in the generation he was: they never expected to get away with it. And they seem to carry with them a deep sense of betrayal that the adults let them get away with their rebellion. In essence, they are angry at the authority figures in their young lives for being so small. This is very specific to England, but while America did not suffer the decline of its status as a once-great power, it did suffer from the realization of how awful racism is that had a very similar effect in undermining authority, and at approximately the same time. And I’m told that other european countries had their own losses in confidence because of the authority figures who led them into devastating wars.

None of this is something I can relate to; having grown up in the 1980s there was no longer anyone left to respect so it was not possible to lose my respect for them, and I think that this is true of others of my generation as well. It is an interesting window into the atheism of an older generation, though.

Interestingly the three arguments which Hitchens addresses in part 2 are largely cultural ones:

  • “Are conflicts fought in the name of religion conflicts about religion?”
  • “Is it possible to determine what is right and what is wrong without God?”
  • “Are atheist states not actually atheist?”

The second question need not be cultural, but his answer is largely cultural, in that he draws the answers from failed societies. Which is, of a course, a legitimate and persuasive answer, but it is a social answer rather than a personal one.

The third part is a more in-depth look at what the viciously atheist regime of the Soviet Union was like, and the degree to which modern atheists seem to be calling for exactly what was done there, though without being willing to admit that it’s what they’re calling for. This is a problem I’ve encountered with atheists myself. They’re generally quite unwilling to think through their ideas and more infuriatingly often pat themselves on the back for being unwilling to do so, though usually with some sort of positive spin. But Mr. Hitchens brings up, if obliquely, a very pressing problem in a democracy, or really anywhere with changing demographics: how people behave when a minority may have no predictive value whatsoever as to how they will behave if they are in the majority. And as any even casual student of history knows, every regime requires an executive branch—whatever it is named—and that executive branch will be staffed not by the general population but by people who desire power. The question, therefore, is not what the average person will do if given power, but what they will tolerate a co-believer with power doing.

God’s Blessings on February 27, 2017

God’s blessings on this the twenty seventh day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

So, I’m clearly not very good at keeping up the daily blogging. I did get a video out over the weekend, though:

It’s some commentary on Bishop Barron’s video on prayer, which is much better:

Still, he didn’t say it, so it might be worth saying.

I also put up a few videos recently about a debate challenge which I got from Deconverted Man and why I don’t debate atheists. Both drew a fair number of comments from people who, shall we say, do not appear to be rocket surgeons. (I like mixing metaphors to spice things up.) The most noticeable sort are from people who can’t seem to get that I am not trying to debate anyone in those videos. The first is me making fun of a ridiculous debate challenge (which was absurdly specific about things which needed no specificity and absurdly under-specified in the things which did). Specifically, making fun of a debate challenge from a fellow who criticized a previous video of mine as being irrational. The other is an explanation of why I, personally, don’t debate atheists at this point in my life. Very explicitly so; I say that in the first minute. And yet I got comments from people critiquing it as if it were one side of a debate.

I also got a tweet from “Mr Oz Atheist” snarking,

Wouldn’t have thought it takes a video 32 minutes long to say ‘Because I have no valid arguments’

I’ve dealt with him before and he’s not exactly the sharpest light bulb in the picnic basket, if you know what I mean. But the really curious thing is that I then got a comment on my video:

Let me help you out and shorten your video. You don’t, because you can’t provide good evidence, just logical leaps and fallacies.

Now, I have no proof that he’s one of Mr. Oz Atheist’s followers, but the timing and the phrasing is suggestive. Which raises an interesting question, even if it didn’t happen in this particular case: why do people go to following links in order to leave comments on things they haven’t watched? Unless the comments are original thoughts derived from the title (and hence won’t be very original since most everyone sees the same possibilities in titles), they have to be just parroting whatever it was they read about the video. Why would a human being think that’s valuable? Is it that their Dear Leader’s thoughts are so wonderful they must be shared, and Dear Leader has too little time to leave comments on every video he comes across? Are they hoping that they’ll be noticed by Dear Leader and get praised? Is this purely a pack instinct to attack anything perceived as an enemy? There must be some explanation, but at present I’m at a loss to understand it.

Incidentally, what is this odd obsession atheists have with valid arguments? There are valid arguments for everything. They’re the easiest things in the world to construct. Just take modus ponens:

p→q
p
∴ q

Where q is the conclusion you want and put anything at all for p. Here, with p being 2+2=5 and q being God exists:

If 2+2 = 5, then God exists.
2+2 = 5
Therefore, God exists.

It’s perfectly valid, as an argument. If the premises are true, the conclusion certainly follows from them. What it’s not is a sound argument. (A sound argument is a valid argument with true premises.) More colloquially, what it is not is a good argument.

Sometimes I’m tempted to thank these atheists for making atheism look so bad. But the thing is, all this idiocy doesn’t make me angry, it makes me sad. These poor creatures should be taken care of by people more able to think than they are; the strong should protect the weak. But these poor people have fallen into the clutches of atheists who are typically only a little bit smarter than they are and not really any better educated (as opposed to schooled) and they’re suffering from it. Pray for them with me, if you will.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 16, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the seventeenth of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

Last night I did a hangout with Max of the Escaping Atheism project on YouTube, if you’re interested you can watch it here:

We spoke about the style of talking with Atheists (primarily what I call kakangelical atheists—atheists who want to spread the bad news), and how there are different styles and a place for Escaping Atheism’s blunt, combative style.

To give a brief summary of why, especially on the internet there are a lot of kakangelical atheists whose approach is to be very confident and very aggressive to believers, asserting in very forceful tones that they’re delusional idiots for believing in a magic sky fairy with no evidence! Etc. And I think that there is value to some people equally forcefully responding, “no, you’re the delusional idiot for thinking God is like a magic sky fairy, for asserting that there is no evidence in plain contradiction of simple fact, and for not having bothered to learn anything before spouting off about it.”

It’s not that this will convince anyone that they’re wrong, but curiously it will sometimes convince people to go do some studying, not because they are inspired to better themselves, but because having done no studying they have no reply, and so may go do some studying just to procure some better rhetorical weapons. Along the way, they may end up learning something. That said, the real important part of this is that it neutralizes what amounts to bullying. Powerfully presented confidence is intimidating; to see it on both sides reduces its effect, giving space for reason to operate. This is especially important for the young; as I mentioned in the video that forceful approach shook me a lot when I was a teenager. Now that I’m getting close to forty I tend to just reply with equal confidence and move on, occasionally amused at the names I get called for doing what the other guy just did (that is, asserting that I was right and the other guy wrong). I don’t think I’ll ever understand thin-skinned people who lead with insults. Thick-skinned people who open with insults make sense to me, but how have the thin-skinned ones not learned to moderate their approach in pure self-defense?

Now, it might be brought up that one catches far more flies with a tablespoon of honey than with a gallon of vinegar. It’s a great saying, and in certain situations very true. I’m not sure of the literal fact behind the metaphor, though; I’ve seen a lot of dead flies in a bowl of apple cider vinegar which was accidentally left open. That being said, if you want to find people who responded with mild language in the face of blasphemy, I suggest you read something other than the bible. As the meme goes:

what-would-jesus-do-having-actually-read-the-bible

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 13, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the thirteenth day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

There’s an interesting phenomena going on right now in the “skeptic community” which is very approximately the branch of the online atheist community who dislikes identity politics. An extremely brief summary of it is that some prominent members of the skeptic community gave paid endorsements to a company promoting an app/social media site called Candid. (I’m not being coy, by the way, I haven’t followed enough to know who they all are. I suspect it’s public knowledge, but it’s not relevant here.) A less prominent member of the community (going by the name Harmful Opinions) then called Candid into question as being, far from a dedicated to free speech, seeming to use an AI in order to police speech more stringently than it has been before. The truth of the accusations I don’t know; I’ve seen some evidence presented by Harmful Opinions in a video, but without tracking down original sources that’s not really different from ignorance. It’s not really relevant to me since I’ve never heard of the social media platform makes it sound like I’d never try it, so it’s just not relevant to my life.

What is relevant is that a rift in the skeptic community where prominent skeptics are being taken down a peg certainly seems like good news to those of us who are on the receiving end of their followers blind faith in the sufficiency of atheism as a worldview. And to be explicit, I believe that one part (not the whole) of the confidence that many slow-witted atheists have that atheism has all of the answers to life’s questions which are necessary to live a good life is because they see more intelligent, charismatic people like the prominent skeptics being (apparently) content living the atheist life and take their confidence from that.

So I think that there is a hopeful pleasure to be seen in this which can be distinguished from simple schadenfreude (“shameful joy”) at bad things happening one one’s enemies. I say to “one’s enemies” but they’re not really my enemies; if they’re anyone’s enemies they are the enemies of those they are leading astray. They’re not really doing anything to me. (Also I run far too small a channel for them to even know I exist, so none of them have ever mentioned me or anything like that.)

This is also something which touches on the issue of “atheists can be just as moral as Christians” which comes up less these days than it did decades ago, I think, but it still comes up because it is true that a given atheist can be personally better than a given Christian. Which is to say that the best atheist is better than the worst Christian. But as it becoming ever clearer, that’s mostly a theoretical statement. The rate at which atheists are degenerating is startling to the point of being scary. Of course, they are degenerating in the sense of coming to believe that if God is dead all things are permitted, not that if God is dead, you can get away with everything. Which is to say that they are considering worse and worse things to be perfectly moral. So if you want to murder your child in the womb after a three day cocaine bender/orgy with married people, that’s your own business and doesn’t make you any less moral than anyone else.

What’s going to be really bad is the people who are raised this way, by the way. People who were raised with morals but then overthrew them still have most of the inhibitions of their youth, at least for a few decades and often for the rest of their life. People who were raised with the idea that they can do anything they want so long as everyone consents—whatever that means given that they also don’t believe free will exists—will act very differently. It’s not likely to be pretty. Be that as it may, there may be some effect of this for the intermediate people who still have some scruples against lying (does anyone consent to be lied to? But being hung up on telling the truth is a Christian hang-up; I suppose the usual atheist approach is to not think about it). Seeing that many of the prominent atheists they look up to as living a good atheist life are in fact willing to lie and sell out their followers for money may shake some people’s confidence that atheism is in fact a viable path to a good life. So I think that greeting this scandal in the skeptic community with glee is defensible on this ground.

Though I think it’s important for Christians to be careful here; this sort of thing can very easily turn into gossiping. But that does not mean that tarnishing the good name of a villain is wrong; to uphold the reputation of a liar is to be complicit with his lies. So while great care is warranted, I do think that there is a legitimate way of receiving this news with mixed pleasure. Of course, no sin can properly be the occasion of pleasure, so it cannot be a pure pleasure in hearing this, but that truth may finally be revealed to those who have been in darkness is worth celebrating.

(And if anyone wants to draw a false equivalence between this and misdeeds by priests or pastors, the key distinction is this: no one can actually convict the atheists of having done anything wrong on atheist principles. About the most you can convict them of doing is possibly acting sub-optimally from a species-benefit perspective. Or possibly being incompetent in their self-interest. When a priest does something immoral, he can be convicted by the Christian morality he himself acknowledges. In short, the key difference is that if the prominent skeptics acted badly, they cannot be charged with being hypocrites. Which is a far greater condemnation of them.)

If you can, say a prayer for all of the members of the skeptic community, prominent and anonymous alike. They sure as hell need it.

Glory to God in the highest.

George Orwell on Penny Dreadfuls

Via a blog post by Brian Niemeier I found this essay by George Orwell. It’s mostly about the penny dreadfuls which are popular in England at the time of writing, which appears to be 1939. It’s a curious read for the snapshot of history it gives, but the whole thing is tinged with a bit of disapproval, which finally comes out in the end. It turns out that this essay was written during Orwell’s socialist phase, before he became disillusioned with socialism (I heard in the wake of the Spanish civil war). And his point in writing the whole thing was to note how conservative penny dreadfuls were, and since they were read primarily by children in the range of 10-16 years old, that his was probably very influential. So, he concluded, there should be penny dreadfuls written by socialists to promote socialism.

But there was a problem, which he noted and proposed a solution. First, the problem:

This raises the question, why is there no such thing as a left-wing boys’ paper? At first glance such an idea merely makes one slightly sick. It is so horribly easy to imagine what a left-wing boys’ paper would be like, if it existed. I remember in 1920 or 1921 some optimistic person handing round Communist tracts among a crowd of public-school boys. The tract I received was of the question-and-answer kind:

Q,. ‘Can a Boy Communist be a Boy Scout, Comrade?’

A. ‘No, Comrade.’

Q,. ‘Why, Comrade?’

A. ‘Because, Comrade, a Boy Scout must salute the Union Jack, which is the symbol of tyranny and oppression.’ Etc., etc.

Now suppose that at this moment somebody started a left-wing paper deliberately aimed at boys of twelve or fourteen. I do not suggest that the whole of its contents would be exactly like the tract I have quoted above, but does anyone doubt that they would be something like it? Inevitably such a paper would either consist of dreary up-lift or it would be under Communist influence and given over to adulation of Soviet Russia; in either case no normal boy would ever look at it.

I think that this is a fairly good description of the problem with socialists writing, well, anything. Their philosophy is so inhuman that it can’t be made appealing. But Mr. Orwell has a solution:

But it does not follow that it is impossible. There is no clear reason why every adventure story should necessarily be mixed up with snobbishness and gutter patriotism. For, after all, the stories in the Hotspur and the Modern Boy are not Conservative tracts; they are merely adventure stories with a Conservative bias. It is fairly easy to imagine the process being reversed. It is possible, for instance, to imagine a paper as thrilling and lively as the Hotspur, but with subject-matter and ‘ideology’ a little more up to date… If, for instance, a story described police pursuing anarchists through the mountains, it would be from the point of view of the anarchist and not of the police. An example nearer to hand is the Soviet film Chapaiev, which has been shown a number of times in London. Technically, by the standards of the time when it was made, Chapaiev is a first-rate film, but mentally, in spite of the unfamiliar Russian background, it is not so very remote from Hollywood… All the usual paraphernalia is there — heroic fight against odds, escape at the last moment, shots of galloping horses, love interest, comic relief. The film is in fact a fairly ordinary one, except that its tendency is ‘left’. In a Hollywood film of the Russian Civil War the Whites would probably be angels and the Reds demons. In the Russian version the Reds are angels and the Whites demons.

To put his solution more bluntly, he proposes lying. Since the philosophy of socialism is too inhuman to communicate to ordinary people, he suggests trying to make it more palatable by showing you the people who have been duped by it, who are still at least mostly human, and not the inhuman philosophy to which they have been duped. And moreover he’s talking about showing the dupes at the moment when they are least typical of the philosophy of their side. Anarchists being chased through the mountains by police are romantic because a group of people working together to avoid death in a harsh environment is romantic. But anarchy is not a group of people working together, it is at its most typical the strong preying upon the weak. (Until such time as a strong man starts protecting the weak in exchange for their supporting him, and government starts once again. To paraphrase Chesterton talking about paganism, if society ever dissolves into anarchy, it will end as all anarchy does. I do not mean it will end in death. I mean that it will end in society.)

And in fact Orwell does have some intuition of this, I think. Because the next sentence after the quote above is this:

That is also a lie, but, taking the long view, it is a less pernicious lie than the other.

This sort of lying in fiction is a phenomenon we are all familiar with, I think. I suspect most people are familiar with the leftist version of it, but I’ve seen quite a lot of it from atheists, as well, where they depict atheists doing all of the bold and daring things that men who believe in something greater than themselves do, except without the believing in anything greater. (I’m speaking of western materialist atheists, here.) Unlike Orwell, whose purpose was recruiting people into a cause, I suspect that atheists tell these lies primarily to themselves, as a form of comfort.  They like to think about what they’ve given up, as if they haven’t given it up.

God’s Blessings on January 17, 2017

God’s blessing to you on this the seventeenth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I’m thinking about doing a video about the topic of the burden of proof. This is something of a pet peeve for my friend Eve Keneinan, who has a hilarious post on The Burden of Proof Fairy and the You Have To Believe Everything Monster. The topic under consideration is usually phrased, “the person making the claim has the burden of proof”. Which, as Eve rightly points out, is a claim, so she immediately invites the claimant to abide by their own principle and shoulder the burden of proof for that claim. For some reason she attracts a lot of stupid atheists on twitter so the results can be funny. The best are the people who add “this is not a claim” to the end of their claims, as if they’re children saying, “no tag-backs” in a game of tag.

I’m not sure what direction I want to go in my video. I’m thinking of starting out talking about the burden of proof in law, which is where one man (the prosecution) claims the right to punish another man (the defendant). The prosecution must meet some threshold of evidence for his claim to be granted, while the defense may try to poke holes in the prosecution’s attempt to demonstrate this. The thing is, the threshold for what evidence the prosecution must bring varies widely. In some places merely alleging the guilt of the defendant is meeting it, and the defendant must work very hard to show that the prosecution is in error. In other places, at least in theory, the prosecution must work hard to show that he’s correct beyond a reasonable doubt, while the defense does not need to prove the prosecution mistaken, only to cast doubt that the prosecution is correct. Whoever has the harder job is said to have the burden of proof, though in truth the prosecution always must meet some threshold in order to prosecute, and a defense which merely rested without saying anything will virtually never win.

Now, ordinarily no fool ever thought that courts of law provided epistemological certainty. I think many people—possibly not just fools—thought courts generally reliable. But no one ever thought the courts infallible. I’m not sure who ever thought to try to make this practical principle an epistemological one, but certainly one meets people who try to establish it as such.  (Epistemology is the study of knowledge.) Of course, no one consistently applies this as an epistemological principle. I’ve yet to hear of the man who replied to, “Hi, my name is Brian” with “Prove it.” Or, “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” with “Where’s your evidence that it’s a nice day?” No, in general the burden-of-proofers will just look up, investigate the natural world for themselves, come to their own conclusion, and then share it. That is, they’ll say, “yes it is” or possibly, “for now, but it looks like it’s going to rain”.

Of course what’s going on is that this isn’t a principle at all, it’s more of a heuristic. When it isn’t just an excuse to get out of thinking, that is. I wrote about that in We Are All Beasts of Burden. And that is really my main critique of the concept of the burden of proof as it is commonly used. It’s an attempt to avoid thinking while retaining the respect accorded to one who thinks. That’s almost a theme of the modern world. What is divorce but the attempt to retain the respectability of marriage while breaking the vows of marriage? As Chesterton said, our world is one wild divorce court, divorcing all things from each other but pretending not to.

And it’s that last part that I think is so especially troubling. A society which is pretending it is doing something other than it is doing is very far from recovery. On the other hand this is just restating the truism that the first step in solving your problem is admitting that you have a problem.

In any event, it is amusing to ask somebody who states the burden of proof is on the person making the claim if they have any evidence that they’re not a moron. In my experience the will stutter and be outraged that you would transgress the social norm of assuming that they’re not. It’s always amusing when people are angry with you for following their principles.

Glory to God in the highest.

The Probability of Theology

This is the script to my video, The Probability of Theology:

As always, it was written (by me) for me to read aloud, but it should be pretty readable.

Today I’m going to be answering a question I got from the nephew of a friend of mine from the local Chesterton society. He’s a bright young man who was (I believe) raised without any religion, and has been introduced by his aunt to some real, adult, theology, and has the intellectual integrity to seriously consider it until he can see how it’s either true or definitely wrong. Here’s his question:

I am an atheist, mostly due to a few primary objections I have with religion in general, the most prominent of which is that since there are infinite possible theologies, all with the same likelihood of being true, the probability of one single man-made theology such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam being true is approximately zero. My aunt … is quite convinced that you can prove this idea false [and] we are both hoping that you could make a … video about this on your channel, if possible. We will be eagerly awaiting your response.

This is an excellent example of how it’s possible to ask in a few words a question which takes many pages to answer. I will attempt to be brief, but there’s a lot to unpack here, so buckle up, because it’s going to be quite a ride.

The first thing I think we need to look at is the idea of a man-made theology. And in fact there are two very distinct ideas in this, which we need to address separately. First is the concept of knowledge, which as I’ve alluded to in previous videos was hacked into an almost unrecognizable form in the Enlightenment. Originally, knowledge meant the conformity of the mind to reality, and though in no small part mediated by the senses, none the less, knowledge was understood to be a relatively direct thing. In knowledge, the mind genuinely came in contact with the world. All this changed in the aftermath of Modern Philosophy. It would take too long to give a history of it so the short version is: blame Descartes and Kant. But the upshot is that the modern conception of knowledge is at best indirect and at worst nothing at all; knowledge—to the degree it’s even thought possible—is supposed to consist of creating mental models with one’s imagination and trying to find out whether they correlate with reality and if so, to what degree. Thus there is, in the modern concept of “knowledge”—the scare quotes are essential—a complete disconnect between the mind and the world. The mind is trapped inside of the skull and cannot get out; it can only look through some dirty windows and make guesses.

This approach of making guesses and attempting (where practical) to verify them has worked well in the physical sciences, though both the degree to which it has worked and the degree to which this is even how physical science is typically carried on, is somewhat exaggerated. But outside of the physical sciences it has largely proved a failure. One need only look at the “soft sciences” to see that this is often just story-telling that borrows authority by dressing up like physicists. It is an unmitigated disaster if it’s ever applied to ordinary life; to friends and family, to listening to music and telling jokes.

There have been a few theologies which have been man-made in this modern sense; that is, created out of someone’s imagination then compared against reality—the deism that conceives of God as winding a clock and letting it go comes to mind—but this is quite atypical, and really only exists as a degeneration of a previous theology. Most theologies describe reality in the older sense; descriptively, not creatively. It is true that many of them use stories which are not literally true in order to convey important but difficult truths narratively. This is because anyone who wants to be understood—by more than a few gifted philosophers—communicates important truths as narratives. Comparatively speaking, it doesn’t matter at all whether George Washington admitted to cutting down a cherry tree because he could not tell a lie; the story conveys the idea that telling the truth is a better thing than avoiding the consequences of one’s actions, and that lesson is very true. It may well be that there was never a boy who cried “wolf!” for fun until people didn’t believe him; it’s quite possible no one was ever eaten by a wolf because he had sounded too many false alarms to be believed when he sounded a real one. But none of that matters, because it is very true that it is a terrible idea to sound false alarms, and that sounding false alarms makes true alarms less likely to be believed. None of these are theories someone made up then tested; they are knowledge of real life which is communicated through stories which are made up for the sake of clarity. And so it is with the mythology of religions. Even where they are not literally true, they are describing something true which people have encountered. I am not, of course, saying that this is what all religion is, but all religions do have this as an element, because all religions attempt to make deep truths known to simple people. So when considering anything from any religion, the first and most important question to ask about it is: what do the adherents mean by it. This is where fundamentalists of all stripes—theistic and atheistic alike—go wrong. They only ever ask what they themselves mean by what the adherents of a religion say.

So this is the first thing we must get clear: theologies are not man-made in the sense of having been created out of a man’s imagination. They are not all equally correct, of course; some theologies have far more truth in them than others, but all have some truth, and the real question about any religion is: what are the truths that it is trying to describe? Christianity describes far more truth than buddhism does, but buddhism is popular precisely because it does describe some truths: the world is not simply what it appears at first glance; the more we try to live according the world the more entangled in it we get and the worse off we are; and by learning to be detached from the world we can improve our lot. It is not the case—as many buddhisms hold—that we must reject the world outright; we need a proper relationship to it, which Saint Francis captured in his Canticle of the Sun. The world is our sibling, neither our master nor our slave. And so it goes with all religions: they are all right about at least something, because the only reason any of them existed at all was because somebody discovered something profoundly true about the world. (Pastafarianism being the exception which proves the rule; the flying spaghetti monster is a joke precisely because it was simply made up and does not embody anything true about the world. Even the Invisible Pink Unicorn falls short of this; it embodies the truth that some people don’t understand what mysteries actually are.)

The second thing we must address in the man-made part of “man-made theologies” is that—at least according to them—not all theologies are made by man, even in the more ancient sense of originating in human knowledge. The theology of Christianity originated with God, not with man. Christian theology is primarily the self-revelation of God to man. And we have every reason to believe that God would be entirely correct about Himself.

Now of course I can hear a throng of atheists screaming as one, “but how do you know that’s true?!? You didn’t hear God say it, all you’ve heard is people repeating what they say God said.” Actually, these days, they’re more likely to say, “where’s your evidence”, or accuse me of committing logical fallacies that I can’t be committing, and that they can’t even correctly define, but for the sake of time let’s pretend that only top-tier atheists watch my videos.

Oh what a nice world that would be.

Anyway, this gets to a mistake I’ve seen a lot of atheists make: evaluating religious claims on the assumption that they’re false. There’s a related example which is a bit clearer, so I’m going to give that example, then come back and show how the same thing applies here. There are people who question the validity of scripture on the basis of copying errors. “In two thousand years the texts were copied and recopied so many times we have no way of knowing what the originals said,” sums it up enough for the moment. This objection assumes that the rate of copying errors in the gospels is the same as for all other ancient documents. Actually, it also exaggerates the rate of copying errors on ancient documents, but that’s beside the point. It is reasonable enough to assume that the rate of copying errors in Christian scriptures does not greatly differ from that of other documents, if Christianity is false. Well, actually, even that is iffy since a document people hold in special reverence may get special care even if that reverence is mistaken, but forget about that for now. If Christianity is true, the gospels are not an ordinary document. They are an important part of God’s plan of salvation for us, which he entrusted to a church he personally founded and has carefully looked over throughout time, guarding it from error. In that circumstance, it would be absurd to suppose that copying errors would distort the meaning of the text despite the power of God preventing that from happening. Thus it is clear that the rate of copying errors is not a question which is independent of the truth of Christianity, and therefore a presumed rate of copying errors cannot be used as an argument against the truth of Christianity precisely because whatever rate is presumed will contain in it an assumption of the truth or falsehood of Christianity. (I should point out that what we would expect—and what the Church claims—is that God would safeguard the meaningful truth of revelation, not the insignificant details. That is, we would expect that if Christianity was true God would keep significant errors from predominating, not that he would turn scribes into photocopying machines—within Christianity God places a great deal of emphasis on free will and human cooperation. And as it happens, we have some very old copies of the gospels and while there have been the occasional copying errors, none of them have amounted to a doctrinally significant difference. Make of that what you will.)

So bringing this example back to the original point, whether Christian theology is man-made is not a question which is independent of the question of whether Christianity is true. If Christianity is false, then its theology is man-made. But if Christianity is true, then its theology is not man-made, but revealed. And as I said, while men often make mistakes, we can trust God to accurately describe himself.

So, to recap: theology is descriptive, not constructive, and in historically-based religions like Christianity, theology is revealed, not man-made. So now we can move onto the question of probabilities.

First, there is the issue that probability says nothing about one-offs. I covered this in my video The Problem with Probability, so I won’t go into that here, but since I’ve heard the objection that I only discussed the frequentist interpretation of probability, I will mention that if you want to go with a bayesian interpretation of probability, all you’re saying by assigning a probability of zero to an event is that it’s not part of your model. Now in the question we’re addressing, it’s not a probability of zero that’s being assigned but rather “approximately zero”. But the thing about the Bayesian interpretation is that probability is at least as much a description of the statistician as it is of the real world. It is, essentially, a way to quantify how little you know. Now, sometimes you have to make decisions and take actions with whatever knowledge you have at the moment, but often the correct thing to do is: learn. There is no interpretation of statistics which turns ignorance into knowledge, or in bayesian terms, the way to get better priors is outside of the scope of bayesian statistics.

But more importantly, this atomization of theologies is very misleading. Among all of the possible theologies, many of them have a great deal in common. They do not have everything important in common, obviously. There are some very substantial differences between, say, Greek Orthodoxy and say, Theravada Buddhism. But for all their differences, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Baha’i, Sikhism, and several others have quite a lot in common. They all worship the uncreated creator of all that is. That’s actually a pretty big thing, which is to say that it’s very important. An uncreated creator who transcends time and space has all sorts of implications on the coherency of contingent beings within time (such as ourselves), the existence of a transcendent meaning to life, and lots of other things. This is in contrast to things that don’t matter much, like whether there is an Angel who has a scroll with all of the names of the blessed written on it. Whether there is one or isn’t doesn’t really matter very much. Grouping those two distinctions together as if they were of equal importance is highly misleading. Now, granted, there are all too many people who take a tribalistic, all-or-nothing approach to religion where the key thing is to pick the right group to formally pledge allegiance to. But one of the things which follows from belief in an uncreated creator is that this primitive, tribalistic approach is a human invention which is not an accurate description of reality. An uncreated creator cannot need us nor benefit from us, so he must have created us for our own sake, and so our salvation must be primarily not about something superficial like a formal pledge of allegiance, but about truth and goodness. And by goodness I mean conformity of action to the fullness of truth. For more on this, I’ll link my video debunking Believe-or-Burn, but for the moment, suffice it to say that being fairly correct, theologically, must be of some greater-than-zero value under any coherent theology with an uncreated creator behind all that exists. The correct approach is not to give up if you can’t be be completely correct. It’s to try to be as correct as possible.

And in any event there is no default position. Atheism is as much a philosophical position as any theology is. Well, that’s not strictly true. There is a default position, which is that there is Nothing. But that’s clearly wrong, there is something, so the default position is out. And while in a dictionary sense atheism is nothing but the disbelief in God—or for the moment it doesn’t even matter if you’re too intellectually weak for that and want to define atheism as the mere lack of a belief in God—western atheists tend to believe in the existence of matter, at least, as well as immaterial things like forces and laws of nature. So each atheist has a belief system, even if some refuse to admit it. The only way to not have a belief system is to give yourself a lobotomy. But until you do, since you have a belief system, it is as capable of being wrong as any theology is. And does it seem plausible that, if Christianity is true, if the version of Christianity you’ve encountered is a little inaccurate, you’ll be better off as an atheist?

I think that nearly answers the question, but there is a final topic which I think may answer an implicit part of the question: while there are infinitely many theologies which are theoretically possible, in practice there haven’t actually been all that many. This is something I’m going to cover more in my upcoming video series which surveys the world’s religions, but while there certainly are more than just one religion in the world, there aren’t nearly as many as many modern western people seem to think that there are. Usually large numbers are arrived at by counting every pagan pantheon as being a different religion, but this is not in fact how the pagans themselves thought of things. I don’t have the time to go into it—I addressed this somewhat in my video on fundamentalists, and will address it more in the future—but actual pagans thought of themselves as sharing a religion; just having some different gods and some different names for the same gods, just like French and American zoos don’t have all the same animals, and don’t use the same names for the animals they do have in common. But they will certainly recognize the other as zoos. American zookeepers do not disbelieve in French “python réticulé”.

And so it goes with other differences; those who worship nature worship the same nature. All sun worshippers worship the same sun. Those who believe in an uncreated creator recognize that others who believe in an uncreated creator are talking about the same thing, and generally hold that he can be known to some degree through examination of his creation, so they will tend to understand others who believe in an uncreated creator as having stumbled into the same basic knowledge.

And this explains why minor religions tend to die out as small groups make contact with larger groups. Those religions which are more thoroughly developed—which present more truth in an intelligible way—will appeal to those who on their own only developed a very rudimentary recognition and expression of those truths. There has been conversion by the sword in history, though it is actually most associated with Islam and often exaggerated in other faiths, but it is not generally necessary. When people come into contact with a religion which has a fuller expression of truth than the one they grew up with, they usually want to convert, because people naturally want the truth, and are attracted to intelligible expressions of it. And the key point is that the expressions of truth in better developed religions are intelligible precisely because they are fuller expressions of truths already found in one’s native religion. And this is so because religions are founded for a reason. I know there’s a myth common that religion was invented as bad science, usually something to the effect that people invented gods of nature in order to make nature seem intelligible. The fact that this is exactly backwards from what personifying inanimate objects does should be a sufficient clue that this is not the origin of religion. Think about the objects in your own life that people personify: “the printer is touchy”, “the traffic light hates me”, “don’t let the plant hear that I said it’s doing well because it will die on me out of spite”. Mostly this is just giving voice to our bewilderment at how these things work, but if this affects how mysterious the things are in any way, it makes them more mysterious, not less. If you think the printer is picky about what it prints, you’ll wonder at great length what it is about your documents it disapproves of. If you think of it as a mere machine, you turn it off, take it apart, put it back together again, and turn it on. Or you call a repairman. But if you personify it, you’ll wrap your life up in the mystery of its preferences. And anyone with any great experience of human beings has seen this. Especially if you’ve ever been the repairman to whom the printer is just a machine.

It’s also, incidentally, why many atheists have developed a shadowy, mysterious thing called “religion” which desires to subjugate humanity.

People personify what they don’t understand to communicate that it is mysterious, not to make it less mysterious. And they do this because people—having free will—are inherently and irreducibly mysterious.

So if you look past the mere surface differences, you will find that religions have generally originated for very similar reasons. So much so that more than a few people who haven’t studied the world’s religions enough are tempted to claim that there is only one universal religion to all of mankind with all differences being mere surface appearance. That’s not true either, but that this mistake is possible at all, is significant. Religions are founded for a reason, and that’s why there aren’t infinitely many of them.

Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.

Good Day December 13, 2016

Good day on this the thirteenth day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.

I ran into an atheist on Twitter today who was repeating the talking point that if there were no people who believed in God, no one would call themselves atheists. This is a point as profound as saying that if human beings couldn’t produce the “b” sound, English would not use the word “blue” to name the color “blue”. Yeah, no kidding. I think it might have been news to the poor fellow that this point is barely fit for a kindergartener, and is a shameful waste of time when said to adults.

There are more than a few atheists on twitter who are:

  1. aggressive
  2. poorly educated
  3. not very bright

It’s hard to know what to do with such people. One wants to be kind, but on the other hand the kindest thing to do seems to be to point out that such people have nothing of value to say and be best off by far if they stopped talking and went and rectified numbers 1 and especially 2 and at least took number 3 into account since there’s not much they can do about it. Their lives are being based on a whole collection of lies, and it is in their best interest by far to throw the lies and out and rebuild on a solid foundation.

And I’m not just talking about repenting and believing in God. Learning what an argument is and how to make it would be a great idea. I had to explain to one atheist today that if he holds one of the premises of his argument to be unprovable, he can’t legitimately use it as a premise in his argument. (Specifically he claimed that he didn’t rape because of his empathy, and when I asked him for evidence of his claim he asked how he could be expected to prove a lack.) This is purely secular incompetence. I also had to explain to the same person that you can demonstrate you have understood somebody else’s point by explaining it in your own words to their satisfaction. He actually asked me how he could demonstrate he had understood my point! (I made that a condition of giving him an example of the rule I was quoted as saying which is why he was talking with me at all.) He made it all the way to being an adult without ever having encountered a technique for demonstrating that you’ve understood something!

It might be his fault for being badly educated—he might have attempted to assault all of his teachers until they gave up on him—but presumably it isn’t. And yet at the same time, he’s aggressively saying stupid things on the internet and acting as if he is competent at thinking and arguing when he obviously isn’t. That very incompetence means that one can’t use reasoned demonstrations of his incompetence to convince him—that would be like trying to demonstrate to a man with bad vision that he has bad vision using sharp pictures. The fault you’re trying to communicate inherently prevents that mode of communication. You can’t convince a man that he’s deaf by shouting at him.

There don’t seem to be many options open which have any plausible chance of working besides bluntly telling such a person that he should learn how to think and argue properly, and refusing all conversation and argumentation with him until he does. It’s not nice, but there doesn’t seem to be any other way to help such a man. Until he knows his current state is unacceptable, why would he change it? This is a most unpleasant conclusion, but I believe I’ve rediscovered excommunication. It’s almost like there was a reason for it in the first place.

God bless you.

Atheism is Not a Religion

This is the script to my video, Atheism is Not a Religion. As always, it was written to be listened to when I read it aloud, but it should be pretty readable as text, too.

Today we’re going to look at a topic which a casual survey of atheist youtube channels and twitter feeds suggests is of importance to many atheists: that atheism is not a religion. Now, since the one thing you can’t convict internet atheists of is originality, I assume that this is because there are Christians who claim that atheism is a religion. Of course what they probably mean by this that atheism entails a set of metaphysical beliefs. And this is true enough, at least as a practical assumption if some atheists will scream at you until they’re blue in the face that it’s not what they believe in theory. But merely having metaphysical beliefs does not make something a religion; it makes it a philosophy or in more modern terms, a world-view. But a religion is far more than merely a world-view or a set of beliefs. As Saint James noted, the demons believe in God.

The first and most obvious thing which atheism lacks is: worship. Atheists do not worship anything. I know that Auguste Comte tried to remedy this with his calendar of secular holidays, but that went nowhere and has been mostly forgotten except perhaps in a joke G. K. Chesterton made about it. A few atheists have made a half-hearted go of trying to worship science. And if that had any lasting power, Sunday services might include playing a clip from Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. But the would-be science worshippers haven’t gotten that far, and it is highly doubtful they ever will.

Secular Humanism is sometimes brought up as something like a religious substitute, but so far it only appears to be a name, a logo, some manifestos no one cares about, and the belief that maybe it’s possible to have morality without religion. And humanity is not a workable object of worship anyway. First, because it’s too amorphous to worship—as Chesterton noted, a god composed of seven billion persons neither dividing the substance nor confounding the persons is hard to believe in. The other reason is that worshipping humanity involves worshipping Hitler and Stalin and Mao and so forth.

Which brings us to Marxism, which is perhaps the closest thing to a secular religion so far devised. But while Marxism does focus the believer’s attention on a utopia which will someday arrive, and certainly gets people to be willing to shed an awful lot of innocent blood to make it happen sooner, I don’t think that this really constitutes worship. It’s a goal, and men will kill and die for goals, but they can’t really worship goals. Goals only really exist in the people who have them, and you can only worship what you believe actually exists.

It is sometimes argued that within a marxist utopia people worship the state, but while this is something put on propaganda posters, the people who lived in marxist nations don’t report anyone actually engaging in this sort of worship, at least not sincerely.

And I know that some people will say that atheists worship themselves—I suspect because almost all atheists define morality as nothing more than a personal preference—but, at least I’ve never seen that as anything more than a half-hearted attempt to answer the question of “what is the ground of morality”, rather than any sort of motivating belief. And in any event, it is inherently impossible to worship oneself. Worshipping something is recognizing something as above oneself, and it is not possible to place oneself above oneself. I think the physical metaphor suffices: if you are kneeling, you can’t look up and see your own feet. You might be able to see an image of yourself in a mirror, but that is not the same, and whatever fascination it might have is still not worship. So no, atheism does not worship anything.

The second reason why atheism is not a religion is that atheism gives you no one to pray to. Prayer is a very interesting phenomenon, and is much misunderstood by those who are not religious and, frankly, many who are, but it is, at its core, talking with someone who actually understands what is said. People do not ever truly understand each other because the mediation of words always strips some of the meaning away and the fact that every word means multiple things always introduces ambiguity. Like all good things in religion this reaches its crescendo in Christianity, but even in the public prayers said over pagan altars, there is the experience of real communication, in its etymological sense. Com—together unication—being one. It is in prayer—and only in prayer—that we are not alone. Atheists may decry this as talking with our imaginary friends if they like—and many of them certainly seem to like to—but in any event they are left where all men who are not praying are left: alone in the crowd of humanity, never really understood and so only ever loved very imperfectly at best. (I will note that this point will be lost on people who have never taken the trouble to find out what somebody else really means, and so assumes that everyone else means exactly the same things that he would mean by those words, and so assumes that all communication goes perfectly. You can usually identify such people by the way they think that everyone around them who doesn’t entirely agree with them is stupid. It’s the only conclusion left open to them.)

The third reason why atheism is not a religion is that it does not, in any way, serve the primary purpose of religion. The thing you find common to all religions—the thing at the center of all religions—is putting man into his proper relation with all that is; with the cosmos, in the Greek sense of the word. Anyone who looks at the world sees that there is a hierarchy of being; that plants are more than dust and beasts are more than plants and human beings are more than beasts. But if you spend any time with human beings—and I mean literally any time—you will immediately know that human beings are not the most that can be. All that we can see and hear and smell and taste and touch in this world forms an arrow which does not point at us but does run through us, pointing at something else. The primary purpose of a religion is to acknowledge that and to get it right. Of course various religions get it right to various degrees; those who understand that it points to an uncreated creator who loved the world in existence out of nothing get it far more right than those who merely believe in powerful intelligences which are beyond ours. Though if you look carefully, even those who apparently don’t, seem to often have their suspicions that here’s something important they don’t know about. But be that as it may, all religions know that there is something more than man, and give its adherents a way of putting themselves below what they are below; of standing in a right relation to that which is above them. In short, the primary purpose of all religion is humility.

And this, atheism most certainly does not have. It doesn’t matter whether you define atheism as a positive denial or a passive lack; either way atheism gives you absolutely no way to be in a right relationship to anything above you, because it doesn’t believe in anything above you. Even worse, atheism as a strong tendency, at least in the west, to collapse the hierarchy of being in the other direction, too. It is no accident that pets are acquiring human rights and there are some fringe groups trying to sue for the release of zoo animals under the theory of habeus corpus. Without someone who intended to make something out of the constituent particles which make us up, there is ultimately no reason why any particular configuration of quarks and electrons should mean anything more than any other one; human beings are simply the cleverest of the beasts that crawl the earth, and the beasts are simply the most active of the dust which is imprisoned on the earth.

We each have our preferences, of course, but anyone with any wide experience of human beings knows that we don’t all have the same preferences, and since the misanthropes are dangerous and have good reason to lie to us those who don’t look out for themselves quickly become the victims of those who do. Call it foreigners or racists or patriarchy or gynocentrism or rape culture or the disposable male or communism or capitalism or call it nature red in tooth and claw, if you want to be more poetic about it, but sooner or later you will find out that human beings, like the rest of the world, are dangerous.

Religious people know very well that other human beings are dangerous; there is no way in this world to get rid of temptation and sin. But religion gives the possibility of overcoming the collapsing in upon ourselves for which atheism gives no escape.

For some reason we always talk about pride puffing someone up, but this is almost the exact opposite of what it actually does. It’s an understandable mistake, but it is a mistake. Pride doesn’t puff the self up, it shrinks it down. It just shrinks the rest of the world down first.

In conclusion, I can see why my co-religionists would be tempted to say that atheism is a religion. There are atheist leaders who look for all the world like charismatic preachers and atheist organizations that serve no discernible secular purpose. Though not all atheists believe the same things, still, most believe such extremely similar things that they could identify on that basis. Individual atheists almost invariably hold unprovable dogmas with a blind certainty that makes the average Christian look like a skeptic. And so on; one could go on at length about how atheism looks like a religion. But all these are mere external trappings. Atheism is not a religion, which is a great pity because atheists would be far better off if it was.

Two Interesting Questions

On Twitter, @philomonty, who I believe is best described as an agnostic (he can’t tell whether nihilism or Catholicism is true), made two video requests. Here are the questions he gave me:

  1. If atheism is a cognitive defect, how may one relieve it?
  2. How can an atheist believe in Christ, when he does not know him? Not everyone has mystical experiences, so not everyone has a point of contact which establishes trust between persons, as seen in everyday life.

I suspect that I will tackle these in two separate videos, especially because the second is a question which applies to far more than just atheists. They’re also fairly big questions, so it will take me a while to work out how I want to answer them. 🙂

The first question is especially tricky because I believe there are several different kind of cognitive defects which can lead to atheism. Not everyone is a mystic, but if a person who isn’t demands mystical experience as the condition for belief, he will go very wrong. If a person who is a mystic has mystical experiences but denies them, he will go very wrong, but in a different way. There are also people who are far too trusting of the culture they’re in, thinking that fitting into it is the fullness of being human, so they will necessarily reject anything which makes it impossible or even just harder to fit in. These two will go very wrong, but in a different way from the previous ones.

To some degree this is a reference to my friend Eve Keneinan’s view that atheism is primarily caused by some sort of cognitive defect, such as an inability to sense the numinous (basically, lacking a sensus divinitatus). Since I’ve never experienced that myself, I’m certain it can’t be the entire story, though to the degree that it is part of the story it would come under the category of non-mystics who demand mystical experience. Or, possibly, mystics who have been damaged by something, though I am very dubious about that possibility. God curtails the amount of evil possible in the world to what allows for good, after all, so while that is not a conclusive argument, it does seem likely to me that God would not permit anything to make it impossible for a person to believe in him.

Anyway, these are just some initial thoughts on the topic which I’ll be mulling over as I consider how to answer. Interesting questions.

Debunking Believe-or-Burn

This is the script from my video debunking believe-or-burn. It  was written to be read aloud, but it should be pretty readable. Or you could just listen to it.

Today we’re going to be looking at how abysmally wrong the idea of “believe or burn”, which I prefer to render as, “say the magic words or burn,” is. And to be clear, I mean wrong, not that I don’t like it or this isn’t my opinion. I’m Catholic, not evangelical, so I’m talking about how it contradicts the consistent teaching of the church since its inception 2000 years ago (and hence is also the position of the Eastern Orthodox, the Kopts, etc), and moreover how one can rationally see why “say the magic words or burn” cannot be true.

I’m not going to spend time explaining why non-Christian religions don’t believe you have to say the magic words or burn because for most of them, it’s not even relevant. In Hinduism, heavens and hells are related to your karma, not to your beliefs, and they’re all temporary anyway—as the story goes, the ants have all been Indra at some point. In Buddhism you’re trapped in the cycle of reincarnation and the whole point is to escape. To the degree that there even is a concept of hell in Buddhism, you’re there now and maybe you can get out. Many forms of paganism don’t even believe in an afterlife, and where they do—and what you do in life affects what happens to you in the afterlife—what happens to you is largely based on how virtuously you lived in society, not on worshipping any particular gods. Animistic religions are either often similar to pagan religions or they hold that the dead stick around as spirits and watch over the living. For the monotheistic religions, few of them have a well-defined theology on this point. Their attitude tends to be, “here is the way to be good, it’s bad to be evil, and for everyone else, well, that’s not a practical question.” For most of the world’s religions, “say the magic words or burn,” isn’t even wrong. And Islam is something of an exception to this, but I’m not going to get into Islam because the Quran doesn’t unambiguously answer this question and after Al Ghazali’s triumph over the philosophers in the 11th century, there really isn’t such thing as Islamic theology in the same sense that you have Christian theology. Christianity holds human reason, being finite, to be unable to comprehend God, but to be able to reason correctly about God within its limits. Since Al-Ghazali wrote The Incoherence of the Philosophers, the trend in Islam has been to deny human reason can say anything about God, past what he said about himself in the Quran. As such, any question not directly and unambiguously answered in the Quran—which, recall, is poetry—is not really something you can reason about. So as a matter of practicality I think Islam should be grouped with the other monotheisms who hold the question of what happens to non-believers acting in good faith to be impractical. And in any event there are hadith and a passage in the Quran which do talk about some Jews and Christians entering paradise, so make of that what you will.

There isn’t an official name for the doctrine of “say the magic words or burn”, but I think it’s best known because of fundamentalists who say that anyone who doesn’t believe will burn in hell. I think that the usual form is saying that everyone who isn’t a Christian will burn in hell, for some definition of Christian that excludes Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and anyone else who doesn’t think that the King James version of the bible was faxed down from heaven and is the sole authority in human affairs. You generally prove that you’re a Christian in this sense by saying, “Jesus Christ is my personal lord and savior”, but there’s no requirement that you understand what any of that means, so it functions exactly like a magical incantation.

As I discussed in my video on fundamentalists, when they demand people speak the magic words, what they’re asking for is not in any sense a real religious formulation, but actually a loyalty pledge to the dominant local culture. (Which is fundamentalist—all tribes have a way of pledging loyalty.) But the concept of “say the magic words or burn,” has a broader background than fundamentalists, going all the way back to the earliest Protestant reformers and being, more or less, a direct consequence of how Martin Luther and John Calvin meant the doctrine of Sola Fide.

Before I get into the origin of “say the magic words or burn”, let me give an overly brief explanation of what salvation actually means, to make sure we’re on the same page. And to do that, I have to start with what sin is: sin means that we have made ourselves less than what we are. For example, we were given language so that we could communicate truth. When we lie, not only do we fail in living up to the good we can do, we also damage our ability to tell the truth in the future. Lying (and all vices) all too easily become habits. We have hurt others and damaged ourselves. Happiness consists of being fully ourselves, and so in order to be happy we must be fixed. This is, over-simplified, what it means to say that we need salvation. Christianity holds that Jesus has done the work of that salvation, which after death we will be united with, if we accept God’s offer, and so we will become fixed, and thus being perfect, will be capable of eternal happiness. That’s salvation. Some amount of belief is obviously necessary to this, because if you don’t believe the world is good, you will not seek to be yourself. This is why nihilists like pickup artists are so miserable. They are human but trying to live life like some sort of sex-machine. They do lots of things that do them no good, and leave off doing lots of things that would do them good. Action follows belief, and so belief helps to live life well. We all have at least some sense of what is true, though, or in more classical language the natural law is written on all men’s hearts. It is thus possible for a person to do his best to be good, under the limitations of what he knows to be good. God desires the good of all of his creatures, and while we may not be able to see how a person doing some good, and some evil things under the misapprehension that they are good, can be saved, we have faith in God that he can do what men can’t. Besides, it doesn’t seem likely that God would permit errors to occur if they couldn’t be overcome. While we don’t know who will be saved, it is permissible to hope that all will be saved. As it says in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.”

OK, so given that, where did the evil and insane idea of “say the magic words or burn” come from? Well, Sola Fide originated with Martin Luther, who as legend has it was scrupulous and couldn’t see how he could ever be good enough to enter heaven (I say, “as legend has it” because this may be an overly sympathetic telling). For some reason he couldn’t do his best and trust God for the rest, so he needed some alternative to make himself feel better. Unfortunately being Christian he was stuck with the word faith, which in the context of Christianity means trusting God. Martin Luther’s solution was to redefine the word faith to mean—well, he wasn’t exactly consistent, but at least much of the time he used it to mean something to the effect of “a pledge of allegiance”—basically, a promise of loyalty. The problem with that is that pledging your allegiance is just words. There’s even a parable Jesus told about this very thing: a man had two sons and told them go to work in his fields. The one son said no, but later thought better of it and went to work in the fields. The other said, “yes, sir” but didn’t go. Which did his father’s will? And please note, I’m not citing that to proof-text that Martin Luther was wrong. One bible passage with no context proves nothing. No, Martin Luther was obviously wrong. I’m just mentioning this parable because it’s an excellent illustration of the point about actions versus words. But as a side-note, it’s also an excellent illustration of why mainline protestants often have relatively little in common with Martin Luther and why it was left to the fundamentalists to really go whole-hog on Martin Luther’s theology: it was a direct contradiction of what Jesus himself taught.

John Calvin also had a hand in “say the magic words or burn”, though it was a bit different from the influence of Martin Luther. Though Luther and Calvin did agree on many points, they tended to agree for different reasons. While Martin Luther simply repudiated free will and the efficacy of reason—more or less believing that they never existed—John Calvin denied them because of the fall of man. According to Calvin man was free and and his reason worked before the first sin, but all that was destroyed with the first sin, resulting in the total depravity of man. Whereas Martin Luther thought that free will was nonsensical even as a concept, John Calvin understood what it meant but merely denied it. Ironically, John Calvin’s doctrines being a little more moderate than Martin Luther’s probably resulted in them having a much larger impact on the world; you had to be basically crazy to agree with Martin Luther, while you only needed to be deeply pessimistic to agree with John Calvin. Luther held that God was the author of evil, while Calvin at least said that all of the evil was a just punishment for how bad the first sin was. If outsiders can’t readily tell the difference between Calvin’s idea of God and the orthodox idea of the devil, insiders can’t even tell the difference between them in Martin Luther’s theology. Luther literally said that he had more faith than anyone else because he could believe that God is good despite choosing to damn so many and save so few. The rest of us, who don’t even try to believe blatant logical contradictions about God, just didn’t measure up. In the history of the world, Martin Luther is truly something special.

However, since both Luther and Calvin denied that there was such a thing as free will these days, Sola Fide necessarily took on a very strange meaning. Even a pledge of allegiance can’t do anything if you’re not the one who made it. So faith ends up becoming, especially for Calvin, just a sign that you will be saved. The thing is, while this is logically consistent—I mean, it may contradict common sense, but it doesn’t contradict itself—it isn’t psychologically stable. No one takes determinism seriously. The closest idea which is at least a little psychologically stable is that God is really just a god, if a really powerful god, so pledging allegiance is like becoming a citizen of a powerful, wealthy country. You’ll probably be safe and rich, but if you commit a crime you might spend some time in jail or even be deported. I realize that’s not the typical metaphor, but it’s fairly apt, and anyone born in the last several hundred years doesn’t have an intuitive understanding for what a feudal overlord is. This understanding of Sola Fide can’t be reconciled with Christianity, the whole point of which is to take seriously that God is the creator of the entire world and thus stands apart from it and loves it all. But this understanding of Sola Fide can plug into our instinct to be part of a tribe, which is why if you don’t think about it, it can be a stable belief.

So we come again to the loyalty pledge to the group—in a sense we have to because that is all a statement of belief without underlying intellectual belief ever can be—but with this crucial difference: whereas the fundamentalist generally is demanding loyalty to the immediate secular culture, the calvinist-inspired person can be pledging loyalty to something which transcends the immediate culture. I don’t want to oversell this because every culture—specific enough that a person can live in it—is always a subculture in a larger culture. But even so the calvinist-inspired magic-words-or-burn approach is not necessarily local. It is possible to be the only person who is on the team in an entire city, just like it’s possible to be the only Frenchman in Detroit. As such this form of magic-words-or-burn can have a strong appeal to anyone who feels themselves an outsider.
And the two forms of magic-words-or-burn are not very far apart and can easily become the other as circumstances dictate. And it should be borne in mind that one of those circumstances is raising children, because a problem which every parent has is teaching their children to be a part of their culture. In this fallen world, no culture is fully human, and equally problematic is that no human is fully human, so the result is that child and culture will always conflict. Beatings work somewhat, but getting buy-in from the child is much easier on the arms and vocal cords, and in the hands of less-than-perfect parents, anything which can be used to tame their children probably will be.

This would normally, I think, be a suitable conclusion to this video, but unfortunately it seems like salvation is a subject on which people are desperate to make some sort of error of exaggeration, so if we rule out the idea that beliefs are the only things that matter, many people will start running for the opposite side and try to jump off the cliff of beliefs not mattering at all. Or in other words, if salvation is possible to pagans, why should a Christian preach to them?

The short answer is that the truth is better for people than mistakes, even if mistakes aren’t deadly. This is because happiness consists in being maximally ourselves, and the only thing which allows us to do that is the truth. Silly examples are always clearer, so consider a man who thinks that he’s a tree and so stands outside with his bare feet in the dirt, arms outspread, motionless, trying to absorb water and nutrients through his toes and photosynthesize through his fingers. After a day or two, he will be very unhappy and a few days later he will die if he doesn’t repent of his mistake. Of course very few people make a mistake this stark—if nothing else anyone who does will die almost immediately, leaving only those who don’t make mistakes this extreme around. But the difference between this and thinking that life is about having sex with as many people as possible is a matter of degree, not of kind. You won’t die of thirst and starvation being a sex-maniac, and it will take you longer than a few days to become noticeably miserable, but it will happen with those who think they’re mindless sex machines as reliably as it will those who think they’re trees.

Pagans are in a similar situation to the pick-up-artists who think they’re mindless sex robots. Because paganism was a more widespread belief system that lasted much longer, it was more workable than pick-up-artistry, which is to say that it was nearer to the truth, but it was still wrong in ways that seriously affect human happiness. It varied with place and time, of course, but common mistakes were a focus on glory, the disposability of the individual, the inability of people to redeem themselves from errors, and so on. The same is true of other mistaken religions; they each have their mistakes, some more than others, and tend toward unhappiness to the degree that they’re wrong.

There is a second side to the importance of preaching Christianity to those who aren’t Christian, which is that life is real and salvation is about living life to the full, not skating by on the bare minimum. Far too many people think of this life as something unrelated to eternal life, as if once you make it to heaven you start over. What we are doing now is building creation up moment by moment. People who have been deceived will necessarily be getting things wrong and doing harm where they meant to help, and failing to help where they could have; it is not possible to be mistaken about reality and get everything right. That’s asking a person with vision problems to be an excellent marksman. A person who causes harm where they meant to help may not be morally culpable for the harm they do, but when all is made clear, they cannot be happy about the harm they did, while they will be able to be happy about the good they did. To give people the truth is to give them the opportunity to be happier. That is a duty precisely because we are supposed to love people and not merely tolerate them. Though I suppose I should also mention the balancing point that we’re supposed to give people the truth, not force it down their throats. Having given it to them, if they won’t take it, our job is done.

OK, I think I can conclude this video now. Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.

The Dishonesty of Defining Atheism as Lack of Belief in God

This is the script from a recent video of mine with the above title. It should be pretty readable, or you could just watch it.

Today we’re going to revisit the definition of atheism as a lack of belief in God, specifically to look at why it’s so controversial. As you may recall, Antony Flew first proposed changing the definition of atheism to lack of belief, from its traditional definition of “one who denies God,” in his 1976 essay, The Presumption of Atheism. By the way, you can see the traditional definition in the word’s etymology: atheos-ism, atheos meaning without God, and the -ism suffix denoting a belief system. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong in changing a definition – all definitions are just an agreement that a given symbol (in this case a word) should be used to point to a particular referent. That is, any word can mean anything we all agree it does. And if a person is willing to define their terms, they can define any word to mean anything they want, so long as they stick to their own definition within the essay or book or whatever where they defined the term. Words cannot be defined correctly or incorrectly. But they can be defined usefully or uselessly. And more to the point here, they can be defined in good faith—cleary, to aid mutual understanding—or in bad faith—cleverly, in order to disguise a rhetorical trick.

And that second one is the why atheism-as-lack-of-belief is so controversial. If atheism merely denoted a psychological state—which might in fact be common between the atheist and a dead rat—no one would much care. Unless, I suppose, one wanted to date the atheist or keep the rat as a pet. But merely lacking a belief isn’t what lack-of-belief atheists actually mean. They only talk about lacking a belief to distract from the positive assertion they’ve learned to say quickly and quietly: that in default of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, one should assume atheism in the old sense. That is, until one has been convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that God exists, one should assume that God does not exist. I’ll discuss how reasonable this is in a minute—spoiler alert: it’s not—but I’d first like to note the subtle move of people who have more or less explicitly adopted a controversial definition of atheism in order to cover for explicitly begging the question. I suspect that this is more accidental than intentional—somewhat evolutionary, where one lack-of-belief atheist did it and it worked and caught on by imitation—but it’s a highly effective rhetorical trick. Put all your effort into defending something not very important and people will ignore your real weakness. By the way, the phrase “beg the question” means that you’re assuming the answer to the question. It comes from the idea of asking that the question be given to you as settled without having to argue for it. But it’s not just assuming your conclusion, it’s asking for other people to assume your conclusion too, hence the “begging”. (“Asking for the initial point” would have been a better, if less colorful, translation of the latin “petitio principii”, itself a translation of the greek “τὸ ἐξ ἀρχῆς αἰτεῖν”. Pointing out how it’s not valid to do this goes back at least to Aristotle).

So, how reasonable is this assumption? The best argument I’ve ever heard for it is that in ordinary life we always assume things don’t exist until we have evidence for them. This is, properly speaking, something only idiots do. For example: oh look, here’s a hole in the ground. I’m going to assume it’s empty. It might be empty, of course, but in ordinary life only candidates for the Darwin Awards assume that. And in fact, taken to its logical conclusion, this default assumption would destroy all exploration. The only possible reason to try to find something is because you think it might be there. If you should act like planets in other solar systems don’t exist unless someone has already given you evidence for them, you wouldn’t point telescopes at them to see if they’re there. That’s not acting like they don’t exist; that’s acting like maybe they exist. In fact, scientific discovery is entirely predicated on the idea that you shouldn’t discount things until you’ve ruled them out. It’s also the entire reason you should control your experiments. You can’t just assume that other variables besides the one you’re studying had no effect on the outcome of your experiment unless somebody proves it to you, you’re supposed to assume that other variables do affect the outcome until you’ve proven that they don’t. This principle is literally backwards from good science.

Now, examples drawn from science will probably be lost on lack-of-belief atheists, who are in general impressively ignorant of how science actually works. But many of them probably own clothes. To buy clothes, one must first find clothes which fit. Until one gets to the clothing store, one doesn’t have evidence that they have clothes there, or that if they have clothes, that the clothes they have will fit. Properly speaking, one doesn’t even have evidence that the clothes that they sell there will have holes so the relevant parts of your body can stick out, like neck holes or leg holes. For all you know, they might lack holes of any kind, being just spheres of cloth. Do any of these atheists assume that the clothes at the clothing store lack holes? Because if they did, they’d stay home, since there’s no point in going to a store with clothes that can’t be worn.

Now, if one is trying to be clever, one could posit an atheist who goes to the store out of sheer boredom to see whether they have clothes or hippogriffs or whether the law of gravity even applies inside of the store. But they don’t, and we all know that they don’t. They reason from things that they know to infer other knowledge, then ignore their stupid principle and go buy clothes.

Now, if you were to point this out to a lack-of-belief atheist, their response would be some form of Special Pleading. Special Pleading is just the technical name for asking for different evidentiary standards for two things which aren’t different. You should have different evidentiary standards for the existence of a swan and for a law of mathematics, because those are two very different things. Sense experience is good evidence for a swan, but isn’t evidence at all for a law of mathematics, which must hold in all possible worlds. Special pleading is where you say that sense experience suffices for white swans but not for black swans. Or that one witness is enough to testify to the existence of a white swan, but three witnesses are required for a black swan. That’s the sort of thing special pleading is.

And this is what you will find immediately with lack-of-belief atheists. Their terminology varies, of course, but they will claim that God is in a special category which requires the default assumption of non-existence, unlike most of life. In my experience they won’t give any reason for why God is in this special category, presumably because there is none. But I think I know why they do it.

The special category of things they believe God is in is, roughly, the category of controversial ideas. Lack-of-belief atheists—all the ones I’ve met, at least—are remarkably unable to consider ideas they don’t believe. This is a mark, I think, of limited intellect, and people of limited intellect are remarkably screwed over by the modern world. Unable to evaluate the mess of competing ideas that our modern pluralistic environment presents to everyone, they could get by, by relying on a mentor: someone older and wiser who can tell them the correct answer until through experience they’ve learned how to navigate the world themselves. And please note that I don’t mean this in any way disparagingly. To be of limited intellect is like being short or weak or (like me) unable to tolerate capsaicin in food. It’s a limitation, but we’re all finite beings defined, to some degree, by our limits. God loves us all, and everyone’s limits are an opportunity for others to give to them. The strong can carry things for the weak, the tall can fetch things off of high shelves for the short, and people who can stand capsaicin can test the food and tell me if it’s safe. Limits are simply a part of the interdependence of creation. But the modern world with its mandatory state education and the commonality of working outside the home mean that children growing up have few—and commonly no—opportunities for mentors. Their teacher changes every year and their parents are tired from work when they are around. What are they to do when confronted with controversial ideas they’re unequipped to decide for themselves?

I strongly suspect that lack-of-belief atheism is one result. I’m not sure yet what other manifestations this situation has—given the incredible similarities between lack-of-belief atheism and Christian fundamentalism I strongly suspect that Christian fundamentalism is another result of this, but I haven’t looked into it yet.
This also suggests that the problem is not merely intellectual. That is, lack-of-belief atheists are probably not merely the victims of a bad idea. Having been deprived of the sort of stable role-models they should have had growing up, and not being able to find substitutes in great literature or make their way on their own through inspiration and native ability, they probably have also grown with what we might by analogy call a deformity in the organ of trust. They don’t know who to trust, or how to properly trust. Some will imprint on the wrong sort of thing—I think that this is what produces science-worshippers who know very little about science—but some of them simply become very mistrustful of everyone and everything.

Now, I don’t mean this as the only explanation of atheism, of course. For example, there are those who have so imprinted on the pleasure from a disordered activity that they can only see it as the one truly good thing in their life and so its incompatibility with God leads them to conclude God must not exist. There are the atheists Saint Thomas identified in the Summa Theologiae: those who disbelieve because of suffering and those who disbelieve because they think God is superfluous. But all these, I think, tend not to be lack-of-belief atheists and I’m only here talking about lack-of-belief atheists.

So finally the question becomes, what to do about lack-of-belief atheists? That is, how do we help them? I think that arguing with them is unlikely to bear much fruit, since most of what they say isn’t what they mean, and what they do mean is largely unanswerable. “I don’t know who to trust,” or, “I won’t trust anyone or anything,” can only be answered by a very long time of being trustworthy, probably for multiple decades. What I suspect is likely to be a catastrophic failure is any attempt to be “welcoming” or accommodating or inclusive. What lack-of-belief atheists are looking for—and possibly think they found already in the wrong place—is someone trustworthy who knows what they’re talking about. A person who is accommodating or inclusive is someone who thinks that group bonds matter more than what they claim is true, which means they don’t really believe it. The problem with “welcoming” is the scare quotes. There’s nothing wrong with being genuinely welcoming, since anyone genuinely welcoming is quite ready to let someone leave if he doesn’t want to stay. When you add the scare quotes you’re talking about people who are faking an emotional bond which doesn’t exist yet in order to try to manipulate someone into staying. Lack-of-belief atheists don’t need emotional manipulation, because no one needs emotional manipulation. What they need are people who are uncompromisingly honest and independent. The lack-of-belief atheist is looking for someone to depend on, not someone who will depend on them.

The good news is the same as the bad news: the best way to do this is to be a saint.

Atheist Fundamentalists

Over on my youtube channel, I posted a video called Atheist Fundamentalists. Here is the script I wrote for it. It was meant to be read aloud (I wrote it for how I speak), but if you bear that in mind I believe it’s quite readable. The video has some illustrative graphics, but they’re not critical. Or you can just go to my youtube channel and watch the video. 🙂

Today we’re going to talk about Fundamentalist Atheists. At the end of my video about the rhetoric of defining atheism as a lack of belief in God, I said that many lack-of-belief atheists seem just like fundamentalists. I got a request for clarification on that point, which I’m going to do a whole video about because it’s an interesting—and fairly large—subject.

To explain what an atheist fundamentalist is, we must first ask the question, what is a Christian Fundamentalist? In theory they are people who stick to the “fundamentals” of Christianity, but to other Christians, and especially to Christians with a valid apostolic succession (mostly the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox), they don’t seem to know much about Christianity and are obsessed with things that aren’t at all fundamental.

They are probably best known for their supposedly literal interpretation of the bible and their young-earth creationism, but I think that these are red herrings. Epiphenomena, more properly. The bible is not in fact an idol that they worship, or more properly it literally is an idol which they worship exactly in the way that ancient pagans used to worship their idols. There has arisen a very strange idea that the primary relationship of ancient peoples to their gods was roughly the same as that of a bad scientist to his pet theory. That’s quite wrong. In fact it is doubtful whether explaining the actions of the physical world had anything at all to do with how ancient people related to their gods. The Romans are a particularly good example of this, because they had such a large number of gods. They had gods of everything. They had gods of doorways and of beds, of hearths and of wine. No one needed an explanation of these natural phenomena because they weren’t natural phenomena. There was a good chance that the Romans knew, personally, who built the particular ones they used. They did not have a god of wine because they didn’t know where wine came from.

The primary relationship which pagans had with their gods was one of control. The gods offered a way to control the natural world. You made sacrifices so things would turn out the way you wanted. The pagan gods needed these sacrifices, or at least they really wanted them, and so human beings had a bargaining chip with nature. But even more than this, since the gods were capricious and often didn’t do what you asked, it offered a way to organize society, and this part actually worked. Everyone took part in the public ceremonies, and the games, and the plays. By being dedicated to something more than the people, the people could work together and become great. The Romans did not worship the emperor as a god because they thought the emperor explained the rain or the wind or the rocks. They worshipped him because every Roman citizen worshipping the emperor made them one people.

And if you look at Christian fundamentalists, you’ll see something very similar. They insist that the bible is the literal word of God, but they don’t seem to mean by that, that it’s true. They don’t even seem to read very much of it. Something that happened to me a few years ago is aboth an amusing story and illustrates the point quite well. A fundamentalist I ran into was explaining his theory that the second creation story in the book of genesis is really just the first story told backwards—he didn’t explain in what sense this is a literal interpretation—and when he was done, instead of addressing this weird idea, I pointed out that if you’re going to take everything in the bible literally, then you have to conclude that God repented. His response was, “where does it say that?”

For those of you who’ve never read the book of Genesis, it says that in chapter seven. It’s right before the flood, before God called Noah, it says that God repented of having made man, for man’s works were evil from morning till night.

And it’s trivially easy to come up with other examples that fundamentalists don’t take literally. When Jesus said, of the eucharist, “this is my body,” of course for some reason the literal meaning of those words aren’t the literal meaning of those words. When Jesus said that unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the son of man, you will have no life in you, that’s purely symbolic… in some sort of literal sense. Examples abound; former fundamentalists are very fond of citing Leviticus, I believe.

And at this point a question which comes up, fairly frequently, from Atheists, I’ve found, is, “how do you know which parts not to take literally?” I even had one fellow ask for a list of non-literal passages, and he never really understood when I tried to explain that no such list exists because only a fundamentalist could ever think it useful. I tried to explain that orthodox Christians read the bible to learn, so whether a given book or passage is to be taken literally is something that would come up in commentary on that passage. A list of non-literal passages would be about as useful as a list of special effects in movies which defy physics. What would you do with that list? Go watch only those scenes? Would you keep this list handy when watching a movie to check every time you see a special effect?

Anyway, the answer to the question of how do we know what to not interpret literally is, first and foremost, the living interpretive tradition of how we are supposed to interpret the scriptures. This predates the apostles, of course. The Jews had a living interpretive tradition of what we now call the old testament, which was taken up by the Apostles since they were all Jews. But for simplicity’s sake I’m going to stick with just the new testament. In the four gospels, we see clear accounts that Jesus selected a group of men who he asked to follow him, which they did. Literally. They left their trades and ordinary lives and spent pretty much the next three years going with Jesus everywhere he went. He talked with them, all the time, and taught them things which he didn’t teach more generally. If you think of the apostles as being in an apprenticeship program, you won’t go too far off. And these apostles went on to become the first bishops, after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. And all bishops since have been successors to one of the apostles. They are men who were trained, formed, and selected by their predecessors to carry on the living tradition of the apostles. And this was how the church was organized: around the apostles, and later around their successors. Because these are the people who studied, in depth, what the faith means. The ending to the gospel of John summarizes it very succinctly: “There were many other things Jesus did. If they were all written down, the world itself, I suppose, would not be able to hold all the books which would have to be written.”

It is also the case that we have no record of Jesus having ever written anything down. That’s not quite true, as there is one story which mentions he was writing in the sand when people spoke to him, but there’s no mention of what he was writing.  Jesus didn’t write the bible, he founded the Church. The Church wrote the bible. And it also passed on how to understand it.

And if you don’t understand why it is that Jesus would train the apostles rather than write the gospels, ask anyone who has studied martial arts how effective it would be to learn martial arts from a manual, with no teacher. There’s a reason why basic training in the military is not a study-at-home course.

Now, all of this is rejected by fundamentalists, who literally pretend that you can learn everything you need to know about how to live well by reading the bible on your own with no context, or training. With nobody around who has any idea of how any of this is supposed to work in practice. Or what the people who wrote it, actually meant by the words they wrote down. In a letter to some monks who were arguing about free will versus grace, Saint Augustine, who was a bishop, mentioned a useful interpretive strategy: if your interpretation contradicts most of the bible or makes it really, really stupid, this is a bad interpretation. The particular case he was talking about was the denial of free will: because denying free will means that every time God said anything to man, this was pointless and stupid. Since God is not an idiot who engages in completely futile actions, determinism is, therefore, bad theology. But if you actually talk to fundamentalists, you’ll find they violate this common sense principle all the time. They will take a passage, or a verse, or a quarter of a verse, and will with rocklike certainty conclude they know exactly what it means and that this meaning does not need to be reconciled with any other verses, not even with the rest of the sentence from which they drew it.

This is not the action of somebody who believes that the bible contains truth. And this is just one example, if you spend any time with fundamentalists you will rapidly conclude they don’t want people to think that the bible is true. At least, not in the literal sense of those words. What they want is for everyone to worship the bible. It is true that part of that worship is to say that the bible is literally true, but like with sacrifices to the emperor, the point is for everyone to do it, not to believe it.

Having finally said what a Christian fundamentalist is, we can now look at what an atheist fundamentalist is. They are people who do the exact same thing, but with a different idol. The idol is often science, but it can also be political theories like Objectivism, Marxism, Feminism, Environmentalism, and so on. Of course there isn’t just one science book, or one objectivist book, or one marxist book, etc, so they can’t worship just one book. On the other hand, the bible is properly a small library of books, so in that sense Christian fundamentalists don’t worship just one book either.

And just as Christian fundamentalists don’t seem all that interested in what Christianity actually is, atheist fundamentalists are often shockingly ignorant of real science. And I don’t just mean science’s sins, like the flaws in the peer review system, the problem with publish-or-perish, the infrequency of trying to reproduce results, and so on. Nor do I mean science’s self imposed limitation to what is measurable and quantifiable. No, I mean that they’re often quite ignorant of science’s virtues, like interesting experimental results or what scientific theories actually are. It’s quite perplexing until you realize that they’re not interested in science as something true, but in science as an idol that everyone can worship to unify society. And you can see the same elsewhere, with environmentalists who know nothing about the environment but recycle religiously, or marxists who know next to nothing about actual marxism but always vote for democrats and have a Che Guevara poster on their wall.

And it is not uncommon for an atheist fundamentalist to have a few favorite scientific “facts” which mirror the favorite bible verses of the Christian fundamentalist. “Atoms are made of mostly empty space”, though that’s actually an outdated model of the atom. “Nothing happens in Quantum Mechanics until an observer looks at it”, but observer doesn’t actually mean a person in quantum mechanics. Evolution means that animals get smarter and faster and stronger over time—survival of the fittest—though the theory of evolution actually refers only to the change in allele frequency in a population over time, and as in blind cave fish, might mean animals get weaker or smaller or dumber if the environment favors that.

And perhaps the most notable characteristic of fundamentalists, whether christian or atheist, is their fierce tribalism. Being primarily concerned with group unity, they (rightly) view outsiders as a threat to the group. This leads them to be insular, but it  also leads them to be hostile to outsiders. Christian fundamentalists talk about how everyone else is damned and will burn in hell; atheist fundamentalists talk about how everyone else is irrational and should be locked up in lunatic asylums. Richard Dawkins has said that teaching one’s children religion should be considered child abuse.

It is not really surprising that those who value people over truth should not have much truth, but they very often have little in the way of people, either. Fundamentalists are notorious for driving people away. Truth is a jealous God; if you love truth more than people you may well end up with both, but if you love people more than truth, you will usually end up with neither.