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Saturday, 2 January 2010

Is Christianity A Mild Form Of Atheism?

My Christmas Day blogpost prompted a civilised and interesting discussion about the nature of atheism.

Particularly interesting contributions came from Woolly Minded Liberal and these provoked me into the following thoughts.

Atheism does not so much mean disbelief in any particular god but disbelief in gods generally.

Here I note my copy of Encyclopedia of Gods states that it lists over 2,500 deities.

These include, almost at random, Lupurcus the Roman god of wolves, Gobineau the Irish beer god, and Kades, a Canaanite fertility goddess depicted as naked carrying a snake and usually standing on a lion.

It is with some reluctance that I do not believe in such fine-sounding deities.

But, as an atheist, I disbelieve in these gods and all the other ones listed in my book. And so, with only one exception, will a Christian.

Moreover, a Christian will disbelieve in all these gods even though there can be arguments and evidences from design or from revelation which are remarkably similar to the ones which the Christians readily deploy for their own god.

In terms of sheer quantity of disbelieved-in gods, there is no significant difference between a Christian and an atheist. In terms of quality, the atheist is at least consistent in not accepting arguments and evidences for just one god which he or she dismisses in hundreds or thousands of others.

In fact, Christianity is a fairly recent religion in the context of human history, a mere two thousand years against a far longer period of (arguably) discernible evidence of human beliefs in afterlife and beliefs in distinctive deities. It is also a very local religion, limited in human terms to the Mediterranean basin and Europe for most of its brief history, even though humans had already spread to every continent (except Antarctica) before it was even developed.

There is no good reason why Christianity should be accorded some inherent priority over any other religion in debates about the merits of atheism; atheism is simply not about denying the Christian god directly.

However, a Christian dismisses (invariably without any inspection or reflection) thousands of other gods but often seems aghast and defensive when a full atheist goes that one slight step further and dismisses their god too. But the Christian position is not logically defensible.

Atheists should ask of Christians why they accept such a mild - and imperfect - form of atheism.

And when doing so, Christians should then be invited to take that one final step and become complete and satisfied atheists.



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54 comments:

ceebs said...

that reminds me of the quote

"I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
...Stephen F Roberts

Zeno said...

Nicely put.

If I did want to believe in a god, I think Gobineau would be top of the list!

MTPT said...

By this logic, wouldn't anyone who did not believe in all possible gods be a mild atheist?

After all, the number of *possible* gods is finite but exceptionally large, and the number of gods any one person can actually believe in (allowing for the limits of human understanding, conflicts between different belief systems, and so on) is going to be a much smaller number.

Steve Wheeler said...

Nice trym but I'm not sure your theory holds a lot of water. Most Christians agree that there is but one God, but that He has three aspects - we worship Him as Father, Son and as Holy Spirit. The other gods you list are indeed gods we acknowledge to exist, but they are not gods we will ever worship. Yous see, they are in the view of Christians demonic gods - what are referred to in the Scriptures as powers and principalities in high places. They are in the Christian tradition known as fallen angels - created beings who are less than God, but who in trying to attain a similar place to God, failed and were cast down. That's why Satan is known as the 'desolate one'. So you can see, Christians acknowledge that there are indeed many 'gods', but only one True God, the Creator, who can and should be worshipped. I wonder where you go from here with your theory?

Joe D said...

nice work, Steve W -- JoK's post looks ridiculous in light of your clarification.

oh, wait...

James I said...

I came to the conclusion that Christians were hypocritical by outright denying (nay laughing off in some cases) the possible existence of multiple deities when I was around 12 in an RE class, but I was unable to word it in such a succint and efficient manner.

Edd said...

Is it possible to believe in a negative number of gods? I'm all for oneupmanship, but this form of onedownmanship has caught my imagination!

Tracy King said...

Ha ha - Christians are atheists rounded down.

JRevell said...

I believe that the Romans used the word 'atheos' (which they borrowed from the Greeks) to condemn the early Christians. After all, they wouldn't make sacrifices to the gods!

Obviously, the term has come to be slightly more narrowly defined since...

Rebellionkid said...

Steve, I'm interested by your idea. I'm somewhat confused by your description of it as Christian though. I was raised Christian and have spent many many years in many churches and church-run groups talking to Christians about their beliefs, and not one of them described other gods as you have. If anything this sounds more like Hinduism than Christianity. I know very few Catholics so is that the reason? Is this the belief of a particular denomination that I just haven't spent enough time round?

I would also suggest that believing in many gods can be made consistent, but believing in all possible gods cannot. This would mean that JoK's point can be re-phrased as every theist being atheistic about the majority of all possible gods.

The reason I suggest this is that (to pick an arbitrary example) one cannot constantly believe in both Thor and Zeus. Zeus is the direct cause of every single bolt of lightning, and Thor is the direct cause of every single bolt of lighting. To believe that both of these statements reflect distinct real entities is, I would suggest, inconsistent. One could believe in either god on his own, but to believe in both leaves the question of "who caused that bolt of lightning" with two inconsistent answers.

Andy said...

Steve W: just to clarify, are you saying Christians really do believe thunder is caused by Thor and that Helios drags the sun across the sky in a chariot - but they don't think these tasks worthy of worship?

Can you list any gods Christians don't believe in?

elbuho said...

As an atheist and former charismatic evangelical Christian I can clarify what Steve said for Andy: evangelicals have thought up a very handy way to explain away their atheism - they claim that all the gods worshipped through history - other than jesusgod - are in fact demons who still populate the earth. They don't believe they control thunder, etc., as Rebellionkid suggests, but they do believe they are connected to places, such as cities or buildings. Usually they don't attach specific names to these demons, although you can find examples of pastors who do so on the internet. When evangelical and charismatic groups do outreach/evangelism, they will often pray beforehand that jesusgod 'bind the powers over this town', and will even send teams out to walk through the streets, speaking directly to the demon(s), saying things like 'We bind you in Jesus name, you have no power over this place', etc. etc. So next time you see a bunch of fresh-faced teenagers wandering around muttering to themselves, you know what's going on.

Steve said...

@Steve W

Perhaps you should look into what the Bible actually says. There are references to other gods within the OT and the Ugaritic tablets list Yahweh as a member of the god El's pantheon. El of course becomes merged eith Yahweh but not before Yahweh steals El's wife for a while :) Its really fascinating social human history.

Bill Hilton said...

Oh [insert name of deity here]!

Lots of interesting stuff to comment on here, but I'm spending half my time engaged in intellectual wrestling with WML on t'other thread. if this continues into next week, I'll have neither money nor girlfriend.

The one point I would make (and, to reiterate, I'm not a Christian) is that many enlightened, liberal Christians would argue that their faith is one way of approaching the divine. The worship of other gods - they might contend - is another way of achieving the same result.

I must say I rather like the sound of Gobineau.

Jourdemayne said...

You forgot to mention Notlotl - the Aztec god of celibacy ;-)


Pascal Boyer tells how he was once dicussing the beliefs of the Fang people at a dinner party; the Fang believe in witches who have an extra internal organ which helps them to ruin other people's crops or poison their blood.

A person whom Boyer calls "a prominent Catholic theologian" said:
"That what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe in such nonsense".

Boyer said he was left "dumfounded".

I suppose humans are selective and inconsistent in which improbabilities we choose to take to our hearts!

Warhelmet said...

Try "theothanatology". And there is such a thing as Christian atheism - places primacy on the teachings of Jesus and rejects existance of God.

Stephen Moss said...

Is this a mathematical argument, ie, when n is very large, then n is almost identical to n + 1? This is fine if you assume all 'constituent items' to carry equal weight, but I dare say most Christians would argue that their God, who can count creating the Universe among His many achievements, comfortably trumps hundreds or even thousands of lesser deities involved in the likes of beer-making or riding lions.

More worryingly, since Christianity may be viewed by atheists as a 'mild form of insanity', one is led via the syllogistic route, to conclude that atheism = insanity. I hope that can't be right?

Steve said...

@Bill,

Some Christians may believe that, but it is not what their scripture says. Also reconcilling some of the more wierd and unpleasant gods that we have created also causes problems and finally if you take away the specifics of any god, what are you left with?

Its fine to say that "god" is an aspect of the divine, but what is your divine then? An undefinable and unprovable contruct i propose - and if not unprovable then certainly not interventionalist or gives a fig about humanity in any way!

The Heresiarch said...

1) Steve's argument isn't just "a handy way thought up by evangelicals" to explain away other religions. Paul clearly believed something like that - his Epistles are full of references to powers and the like. In the ancient world, the visible presence of so many pagan gods was something that urgently needed explanation for monotheists, and the story of the Fallen Angels was the most logical one going (although in earlier Judaism, there was an idea that Yahweh was much like other gods, only better - all those stories about Ba'al show an inferior god being defeated by the stronger, more virile Yahweh. As the pagan gods faded away, belief that they were demons faded with it, though never entirely: it crops up in Paradise Lost, for example, and Cortes informed Montezuma to his face that he was a demon-worshipper (a remark that didn't go down well, though given that Montezuma was showing him a large dish containing human hearts, one can see the conquistador's point).

2) Sorry, JoK, but this article is based on a major fallacy. One can no more be a "mild atheist" than one can be slightly a virgin. The big divide is between those who believe that the universe is fundamentally spiritual and the product of transcendent creator, and those who believe that it is natural and material in origin.

Most who accept the former will be members of a particular religion, and this may lead them to believe that the gods and stories of their religion are true, and those of other religions aren't true. Pointing out the vast number of different religions, and how accidental it is that they happen to believe in one and not another, is a valid way of arguing against their particular religious narratives. And I don't think they have a good answer to it - unless they are prepared to abandon literal beliefs about the resurrection or the divine authorship of the Koran, as may be. But it's a different sort of objection to the one that says, there is no God.

David Farbey said...

This is a mildly amusing post, and it is bound to annoy believers from many different faiths. My understanding is that although Christians believe only in one God, they accept the existence of other supernatural beings or forces (for example the Powers and Principalities of Milton's paradise Lost.
There is an evangelical church near my home which puts up posters every October warning about the dangers of allowing children to celebrate Halloween by dressing up as witches. "Evil exists", they say, by which they appear to mean "malicious supernatural beings exist" who (or which) are in competition with the benevolent supernatural beings worshipped in Christianity. A rationalist would argue that all observable phenomena can be explained by scientific enquiry, even though in many cases we have not yet found the complete explanation, without the need to postulate supernatural forces. Religious belief, by allowing for one sort of supernatural being, necessarily allows for many. So the Christian who believes in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, far from being a "mild atheist" may find it difficult to disbelieve in Mephistopheles and Lucifer, and is in fact a believer in the existence of a pantheon of spirits.

Bo said...

Most Christians agree that there is but one God, but that He has three *aspects* - we worship Him as Father, Son and as Holy Spirit. [my emphasis]

Whoops! Let's play 'watch the Christian fall into the marvelllous heresy of Sabellian modalism...'!

The persons of the Trinity are (according to Christian theology) definitely NOT mere 'aspects' of God. They are Persons, which is not the same----not three hats that as it were 'God' puts on as he pleases, but a tri-unity of infinitely loving mutually-in-dwelling Persons. What precisely a 'Person' might be in this context has never been clear: Aquinas said 'the Persons are the very relationships between them': that is, God the Father is the father because he begets the Son and 'spirates' the Holy Spirit, God the Son is the Son because he is begotten of the Father and is rested-upon by the Spirit, and the Spirit is the Spirit because he is spirated by the Father (and the Son, to Catholics) and/or rests upon the Son.

Total load of old bollocks, of course, but that is what they supposedly believe.

Anyway, thanks for a wonderful post!

PS Your Gobineau is actually spelled 'Goibniu' btw. Sorry to be pedantic.

ThePhantomReporter said...

It is through faith, not logic, that I worship the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the three-in-one, the Holy Trinity.

But Jack, as usual your blog was thought-provoking and if I were approaching the God thing from a purely logical standpoint, i.e. without faith, you'd win the day.

Father Daniel Beegan S.T.D. D.D.(h.c.)

UNRR said...

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 1/3/2010, at The Unreligious Right

Bailey said...

Very similar to Richard Herring's routine, in which he states that he believes that all religions are right. In that they believe that all other religions are wrong. They're so close to getting it right!

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

2) Sorry, JoK, but this article is based on a major fallacy. One can no more be a "mild atheist" than one can be slightly a virgin. The big divide is between those who believe that the universe is fundamentally spiritual and the product of transcendent creator, and those who believe that it is natural and material in origin.

If it is a major fallacy then it is certainly a widely spread one with some fairly bright adherents like Richard Dawkins who defines a scale of atheism.

1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung, 'I do not believe, I know.'

2. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. De facto theist. 'I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.'

3. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism. 'I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.'

4. Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic. 'God's existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.'

5. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism. 'I do not know whether God exists but I'm inclined to be sceptical.'

6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. 'I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.'

7. Strong atheist. 'I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung "knows" there is one.'

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

I wish more people still believed in Atum. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atum

His Creation Story is deeply moving and spiritual, far more so than the rather dull lists in the Old Testament. He really should be taught in RE.

Zeno said...

Considering the anachronistic blasphemy law that came into force in Ireland two days ago, I'm all for joining the Church of Dermotology, named after the man responsible for the law, Dermot Ahern.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

MTPT said...
After all, the number of *possible* gods is finite but exceptionally large

Sorry to split hairs, but out of interest why is it not infinite? Since there are I believe no restrictions on putative supernatural entities I can see no limits to the set. There is a limit to the total information in the Universe I assume but even that cannot express all possible information.

Nick Sharratt said...

if asked to solve Sum(Gods)=n then I can see 3 logical positions for n, no gods, one god, or many gods.

Until there is evidence for something, it's pragmatic to assume it doesn't exist as the number of possible things is infinate.

Once evidence for something exists in a set of possible things, it's pragmatic to assume the set is infinate as a simpler case than requiring the infinate (-1) cases to be ruled out by some set of rules.

The exception would be if one rule can be defined which divides the set into a single instance as existing and everything else being excluded.

Now, I have never seen/experenced anything which for me in any objective logically consistent way indicates the existance of any supernatural deity (although lots of 'odd stuff' I can't necessarily catagorically explain), but I can accept that others may have and there may be some way in which such 'revelation' might be personal and individual, but surely it would need to include revelation of why catagorically all other possible deities are excluded? If so, would that be shareable? Has anyone?

In practice, what I've tended to find (annecdotal, no evidence) is that people who believe in a god, also tend to believe many other things. This can include 'believing' science as opposed to understanding that science is a process not a set of 'revelations'. It also leads such people to think that science is just another belief system.

David Gerard said...

I saw the headline and thought more of the joke from the TV series Shelley: "If the Church of England relied on Christians, it'd be sharing a room with the Flat Earth Society."

Bill Hilton said...

@Steve

Its fine to say that "god" is an aspect of the divine, but what is your divine then? An undefinable and unprovable contruct i propose - and if not unprovable then certainly not interventionalist or gives a fig about humanity in any way!

In those terms, there are plenty of things we cannot prove, yet have no less value as a result. If my other half tells me she loves me, I don't demand proof, and she would struggle to give any apart from restating what she said.

How do I "prove" Beethoven's quartets are stunning pieces of music? I can't, but I and plenty of others think they are.

You might reasonably and correctly say that love and music are subjective things. My point is that, for many people, so is God.

What you're talking about is the objective existence of God "out there". What I'm saying is that for many believers, God is "in here": not so much a "thing" as a way of viewing existence. For those individuals, The divine is no less valuable or profound for its "imaginary" status. Just ask a Quaker.

Steve said...

@Bill,

yes but what view does "he" give you and why?

Subjective likes and dislikes are products of our humanity. I like roast potatoes. It does not follow that there is a divine being on the basis of my subjective likes and dislikes.

I like roast potatoes /= God

---------------

@The Heresiarch etc

Its somewhat arrogant to assume that your god has precidence. The other gods that you wish to denigrate into lesser beings or fragments within the Christian mythology were in there time greater (or lesser) than yahweh, with their own devoted and faithful followers. They were by the usual definition gods. The problem with your argument is that you define God as Yahweh and then say therefore there are no other gods.

You need to apply an objective criteria as to what is a god. Surely if you're right it can't be that hard???

Stacia said...

Sorry if this has already been stated - there's a lot of comments here to read.

But if what you suggest about Christianity is true (which it is, though it is really an issue of semantics), then the same can be said of Islam and Judaism or Wicca or Hinduism, etc. Any and every religion believes that the others are mostly wrong. Sure, the Abrahamic religions share much in common, but they do not believe in each other's gods or prophets.

I don't think what you're saying is revolutionary at all -- it is stating the obvious for one sect based on a definition of one word.

Cosmic Navel Lint said...

You're correct in that 'atheism' has nowadays become a generic, one-size-fits-all tag which those whose would/should ordinarily refer to themselves as agnostics have assumed and adopted.

And in a comical reversal of roles, the other unavoidable irony is that the Dawkins Borg and associated brethren have, in their attempts to get us to 'believe', now also assumed the mantle and zeal of the targets of their ire: the Christian missionaries.

They say that if you live long enough, you get to witness most things - there would appear to be more than a grain of truth in that assertion...

Carla said...

May I contribute a 'funny'?
http://www.theonion.com/content/news/sumerians_look_on_in_confusion_as

Stephanie said...

While we're ruminating over the thought regarding Christianity, how do you feel about Judaism and Islam, both which worship the same single God? Are they not mildly atheistic as well?

I think my major problem with atheists (coming from an atheist herself) is they tend to attack the fallacies of Christianity, but they never seem to do the same for the equally similar religions (such as Islam or Judaism), let alone the vastly different ones like Hinduism or Shintoism.

Bill Hilton said...

@Steve

Subjective likes and dislikes are products of our humanity. I like roast potatoes. It does not follow that there is a divine being on the basis of my subjective likes and dislikes.

You are wholly correct. I, too, like roast potatoes, but would not predicate the existence of any sort of God on my enjoyment.

When I say divinity can be subjective, I mean it in this sense: that which I consider to be "God", you might consider to be mundane (in the literal, non-pejorative sense of the word), such as truth, or love, or conscience, or "the good", or some combination of those things.

If you want to have a go at divinity as it's understood by literalists, fundamentalists or evangelicals, I would support you entirely. The point I'm making is that it's wrong to imagine that all Christians (Muslims, Jews, whatever) see God in your terms, as an objective "divine being". I've mentioned Quakers, but Sufi Muslims are a similar case in point, as (I believe) are some more mystically-inclined Jews.

yes but what view does "he" give you and why?

My argument isn't really about me. My view is practically the same as that of all the atheists around here. The differences are that I don't call myself an atheist (it seems illogical and a touch hubristic); I take a rather more tolerant view of some forms of religious belief; and I approach texts like the Gospels without the common (and convenient) atheistical prejudice that their writers intended them to be understood literally.

I am also somewhat in sympathy with the views of Cosmic Navel Lint, above, albeit I think that characterizing contemporary atheists as "the Dawkins Borg" is perhaps a touch ungenerous..!

Ben Murphy said...

Let's start with what I see as being the core meaning of "God" or "god" or "goddess": an object of worship. Whoever was responsible for the Encyclopedia of Gods had to make a decision about which of the purported entities that people think exist deserve to be called 'gods'. Someone has to decide that Odin, Shiva, Kali, Olodumare etc. should be described in English as 'gods' or 'God', not simply as spirits or heroes. The decision is often difficult, and when studying some religions, it is necessary to try to forget about imposing the English word 'god' onto a different culture, and try instead to figure out what is meant by the word 'Orisha', for example. However, we do succeed in making these translations, and I suggest that one important criterion for using the word 'god' is worship. To 'worship' in turn, is to acknowledge something's worth, to see it as a source of meaning in life, that by which one is willing to live and die. So, my choice of entity to worship reveals something about my fundamental values. If I am a warrior, who lives to fight, I might worship Odin and hope to fight alongside him against the forces of cold and winter. Even if we lose, it will be worth it. That would make Odin my god. Odysseus worships Athene, goddess of 'wisdom' - that is of cunning and deceit. He lives and dies by his wits. And so on.

From a polytheistic perspective, there are many gods to choose from, but to choose one god might be to offend another. Paris worships Aphrodite, but cannot help offending Athene and Hera, for example. Polytheists have always been ready to recognise that one god or goddess can have different names and appearances in different places. If Zeus and Thor both send out thunderbolts, they are probably different names for the same being.

From a monotheistic perspective, all perfections have one source: the true set of values to live by can never conflict. When we value love and justice, for example, these are not two values that can be played off against each other. Richard Rorty, towards the end of his life, described himself as a polytheist.

I presume that what he meant by this was that he believed in the possibility of irreconcilable conflict between his values. If you read the early chapters of the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas moves gradually towards monotheism. His five ways prove (or purport to prove) the existence of 'what all men call god'. He then argues that whatever satisfies the five ways has to be simple - its goodness is its wisdom is its justice, etc. Then he argues that there could only be one such being.

If my worship is based on hatred, or pride, then it could be described as demonic - whether I call the object of my worship Zeus or Jesus. If God is love, and justice and wisdom, as Aquinas thought, then people who worship any of those are, ultimately, worshipping the one God, even though they might have some mistaken ideas.

The attitude that I am suggesting monotheists can take to polytheism is, in theological vocabulary, an inclusivist approach. C.S. Lewis, perhaps the most popular Christian theologian of the 20th Century, was an inclusivist (see The Last Battle) as was Karl Rahner, often described as the greatest Catholic theologian of his day.

Of course, inclusivism is not limited to 20th Century Christians. The Bhagavad Gita, for example, can be read as an inclusivist text.

John Collins said...

Personally I think it's a gross oversimplification to say that atheism is a belief in one less god than christianity. By the same token not being raped is not just being raped by one less person than a single rape as opposed to a gang rape.

To be a Christian you still have to believe in a supernatural god. You have to believe that the said supernatural god is interested in punishing humans for the errors they made because he didn't do his job properly creating them in the first place. So he (allegedly) sent part of himself to (allegedly) take the punishment for the alleged shortcomings caused by his alleged poor effort in creating them so that anyone who believes in it all (despite the singular lack of any meaningful evidence) can escape the punishment he's decided is due to his own creation for his own cockups.

The real issue I would have with Christians is that theirs is a belief that taking something as factual without any meaningful evidence is seen as the ultimate virtue.

The human race has learnt - maybe the hard way - that in law and in science - to name two important arenas - making conclusions based upon evidence is the way to make progress.

Yet somehow Christians would have us believe that eternal and everlasting punishment - the same in principle as for Hitler, Pol Pot or whoever you see as villans beyond the pale - awaits those who do not believe in things on the basis of no evidence of any substance whatsoever.

I do not see how the statement "This is wrong" is just a small step between Christianity and Atheism.

Zeno said...

I think Edd was on the right lines, but didn't quite get there.

Edd said...

"Is it possible to believe in a negative number of gods? I'm all for oneupmanship, but this form of onedownmanship has caught my imagination!"

Surely there are i number of gods?

(For those that can't remember their maths, i is an imaginary number being the square root of -1.)

The Heresiarch said...

@Steve

"The problem with your argument is that you define God as Yahweh and then say therefore there are no other gods."

I don't think that was my argument, or anyone's argument. My argument was that once you say "there is a God", then any god (or gods) you happen to believe in will be that God, and therefore to say "You're an atheist as far as Zeus is concerned" doesn't quite work. The Yahweh-worshipper will say that the Zeus-worshipper is correct in identifying that there is a god, but doesn't have the benefit of the divine revelation (in the Bible, or whatever) that identifies that transcendent deity with the personal god known as Yahweh.

Ben Murphy said...

John Collins: "The real issue I would have with Christians is that theirs is a belief that taking something as factual without any meaningful evidence is seen as the ultimate virtue."

Based on a misunderstanding.

I have argued, on another blog, that Sam Harris' book "The End of Faith" is one of the ten most important work of philosophy of religion in the last ten years, and this is more or less how he defines faith. But he is wrong.

He bases his definition on The Letter to the Hebrews, in which faith that God will help in the future is based on 'a cloud of witnesses' - alleged examples of how God has helped in the past.

He would have done better to base his definition on 1 Corinthians, where Paul argues that God's wisdom is 'foolishness to the Greeks'. However, in context, Paul is promoting faith in Christ crucified. He is not arguing that it takes a leap of faith to suppose Jesus really was crucified, but saying that if you worship someone defeated and humiliated, it makes no sense to compete for a high status based on social markers such as educational achievement.

The reason for having faith in Christ crucified, rather than any other random victim of crucifixion, is his resurrection, and in the same letter, Paul presents evidence for the truth of the resurrection.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that either 1 Corinthians or the Letter to the Hebrews presents anything that we today should see as 'meaningful evidence'. But in both cases, there is an awareness that claims require evidence, and an attempt to present evidence that seemed meaningful by standards shared by the author and the audience, and that would have seemed rational given their situation.

Sorry this is off the topic of the thread, but I thought it worth pointing out that your "real issue" with Christianity is based on a common misunderstanding.

Heresiarch - you've stated the main point of my previous post with far more economy.

John Collins said...

John Collins: "The real issue I would have with Christians is that theirs is a belief that taking something as factual without any meaningful evidence is seen as the ultimate virtue."

Based on a misunderstanding.

So forgive me but where is the misunderstanding?

Christians quote this verse:

Ephesians 2:8: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God

and this:

Hebrews 11:1: Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

What is this different from what I said?

Cosmic Navel Lint said...

Bill Hilton wrote: 'I am also somewhat in sympathy with the views of Cosmic Navel Lint, above, albeit I think that characterizing contemporary atheists as "the Dawkins Borg" is perhaps a touch ungenerous..!'

Appreciate that, Bill, and it's not that I'm unsympathetic to, or unconvinced by, the majority of what Dawkins preaches - and apologies if you felt "Borg" was a tad ungenerous - perhaps "Dawkins drones" might be more appropriate?

Being just as blinkered-by-choice as any fundamental Christian, what most zealot 'atheists' miss, and something which everyone from Charles Darwin himself, to the guy who has perhaps done most to take up his cudgels [Professor Steve Jones, UCL] has been at pains to remind us, that the The Theory of Evolution is meant to explain empirical science: NOT disprove the existence of any God or rubbish any theistic religion or faith - indeed, attempting to pour so much personal effort into the latter is where Dawkins loses the plot, and no small measure of gravitas. How anyone can insist, in one breath, that there is absolutely no proof of the existence of God, and then, by way of counter proof, comes out with the more than lame bus-side advertising slogan "There's probably no such thing as God..." What happened? Did irony take a holiday that day? Since when did 'probably' enter the canon of empirical science?

Steve Jones opined the need to keep our eye on the prize of the discovery and explanations offered by properly studied and applied science - and not get side-tracked and diverted in to the crusade of some pet-zealot-projects, à la Dawkins's God Delusion.

Put yourself in Dawkins's position: how do you disprove something which you maintain does not exist? More importantly, why would/should you waste the time in trying to do so?

Faith is called faith for a reason: it demands that tenets and teachings are taken on precisely that, faith. Science, as we all know, has observably more rigid criteria for persuasion than faith, so Dawkins only sullies his excellent work, and hard-gained reputation, by making it his personal crusade to rubbish those who believe in articles of faith.

Surely he might be better employed furthering Darwin's work to the betterment of all Mankind, and leave the saving of souls to the clerics? Dawkins, his followers and acolytes are too proscriptive in their 'there is no God' shtick: in something as vast (infinite?) as the Universe, perhaps there's room for both faith and science? Why would/should one need to cancel or kill the other?

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Cosmic Navel Lint wrote : Faith is called faith for a reason: it demands that tenets and teachings are taken on precisely that, faith.

No, that is BLIND faith. There are other and far superior forms of faith that are based upon reason and evidence such as faith in engineering, faith in doctors and medicine, faith in one's partner.

People have faith in their friends and lovers because they are faithful and have a track record of fidelity.

Religious, or blind irrational, faith isn't really faith at all.

Ben Murphy said...

John Collins - you quote the same passage from Hebrews that Harris did, and he also fails to place it in the context. In Hebrews 11, the author gives a long list of people who had faith in God, and describes how God kept his word to them, and concludes (at the start of Chapter 12) that we have 'a cloud of witnesses.' Because God has helped those who had faith in the past, we should believe that he will keep his promises.

Now of course, I don't expect you to accept the historicity of all the events that are used here as evidence. You are free to describe it as bogus, although I am sure that the author of Hebrews thought he was providing a plethora of evidence.

Ben Murphy said...

As for Ephesians 2v8, the full quotation (New American Bible) is as follows:
"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast."

If "works" were equivalent to "evidence" then this would support your point. But the two aren't equivalent. Similarly "not from you" does not mean "not based on evidence". One important reason for saying that is that Paul does appeal to evidence, e.g. in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. Again, I am not saying that we today can point at this passage and say "Here is overwhelming evidence for what Paul is saying", only that it sounds as though he wanted his original audience to think there was evidence to back up his claims. Another reason for saying that "works" are not the same as "evidence" is that we have examples of the kind of things Paul meant by works: practices such as circumcision. Yet another reason for supposing that faith does not mean taking something as factual without any meaningful evidence is the sheer implausibility that a religion would get started this way. Someone alluded above to the work of Pascal Boyer on cognitive science of religion. There is indeed a lot of work that's being done on what causes religious belief, and I'm not trying to say that Christianity gained a following simply because people responded rationally to the evidence after making a careful scientific evaluation. However, it is not plausible either that people would join the Christian religion simply because they decided it was virtuous to believe things without any evidence. (Selective choice of evidence, or a tendency to over-estimate the value of certain pieces of evidence are different matters). As has often been noted, "Believe without evidence" leads to arbitrary beliefs - in Russell's teapot, Nicole Kidman's undying love for me, or the spaghetti monster. But early Christian converts were not adopting arbitrary beliefs, they were responding to some quite specific claims. When Paul et al. invoked faith, they appealed with success to a deep-rooted instinct - and I don't think there is any deep-rooted instinct to believe things despite the evidence.

Of course, standards of evidence have shifted. It is no longer possible to believe that just because it is written that God guided the Israelites through the Red Sea, this really happened. The living eye-witnesses Paul appealed to have died. Good evidence for the truth of Christianity is harder to provide than it once was. One response to this situation is then to say that no evidence is required if you have faith - thus changing the concept of faith.

Consider the case of Christians who claim that their faith means they don't require any evidence. Why, you might ask, do they believe in Christianity and not in Russell's teapot or the gods of Asgard? The answer, in many cases, is probably tradition: they and their communities have made a long-term investment in Christianity. There are therefore Christians who would know equate proofs of the existence of God with the works of law that Paul condemns in the passage you cite from Ephesians. This form of fideism is particularly popular amongst Protestants, who do not like to say that they are impelled by a respect for tradition and maintenance of the status quo, but I am sure you will admit that this is a good explanation of why they believe what they do (in many cases). But this desire to maintain the status quo would hardly have applied to Paul and his early converts, who were not maintaining the status quo. The concept of faith has shifted.

Cosmic Navel Lint said...

WoollyMindedLiberal wrote: "No, that is BLIND faith. There are other and far superior forms of faith that are based upon reason and evidence such as faith in engineering, faith in doctors and medicine, faith in one's partner."

No, now you're mixing surety with faith: you have surety in engineering - something either works, or it doesn't; or it's experimental, and therefore unproven; until such time as it is proven or disproved. And you can 'have faith' in your engineering right up until the time that it is proven not to work. That is not to say that your faith was a waste of time, as in disproving the theory you add to the sum of engineering knowledge. Ditto medicine.

As to you other point, and we're skirting the fringes of the metaphysical here, a track record of fidelity within a relationship is not necessarily a guarantee that it is solid or will last (regardless how much 'faith' you've plied into it) - the most notable difference being that (within the relationship) you're dealing with aspects tangible and temporal, not the spiritual, on which religious faith is largely predicated. This is where Dawkins always drops the ball, by insisting that he sees no value with the spiritual as it can't measured or calibrated, and ergo is no use to him or Science. But whether that's the case or nor, it, religious belief, won't conveniently just go away, much as he'd like it to.

You also appear to be assuming that faith in a religion carries with it no faith in reason - when nothing could be further from the truth. I should say any sane person (how ever we define or measure that) would have faith in the tenet of 'do unto others as you'd be done unto...' without having much by way of burden of proof that it works. And why? Because, and without bell, book or candle, if generally adhered to, it is reasonable and makes sense; and because it appeals to our temporal sense of a desire for an easy life and general well-being. This is how communities start to be built.

Finally, and with sincere respect, with your last assertion ["Religious, or blind irrational, faith isn't really faith at all"] all you do is give nothing more than an unsupported personal opinion - and sorry, but to say that religious faith "isn't really faith at all" is palpable nonsense; as all you're doing is assuming that everyone treats/considers faith, and specifically religious faith, with the same apparently jaundiced view with which you view it, which is observably not the case; and this fact doesn't change dependent on whether you have faith in, recognise or agree with, their belief in that faith or not.

This is something Steve Jones goes to some efforts to maintain: Science may not hold with religious faith, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, certainly where [spiritual] faith is concerned; as the wealth of evidence for [religious] faith being a reality (tangible, if you like) is overwhelming, where the tangible evidence for the existence of God is not.

John Collins said...

In reply to Ben Murphy I still think we're talking at cross-purposes.

What is the issue you say is a common misunderstanding?

I don't believe in any god including the Christian one. I don't believe that most of the events recorded in the bible ever happened in the way they described if at all.

Presenting a list of alleged circumstances where alleged people allegedly trusted an alleged god is meaningless to me.

To convince me of the Christian faith, you have to start by finding convincing evidence to show that your god exists, that the bible is accurate and reliable and I should have any reason to believe in all of it and I should trust god for anything and what it will do for me.

The evidence I see is to the contrary. We have an alleged god who for example doesn't get off his allegedly omnipotent backside during the Tsunami 5 years ago.

We have a bible that, amid many inconsistencies and contradictions and things that are just plain wrong such as the creation account, can't get the details of the crucifixion and resurrection to be consistent across the 4 gospels - something that we learn from 1 Corinthians 15 is supposed to be the be-all and end-all of the Christian faith. It might be trivial, but even the two accounts of Judas' death don't agree.

So the evidence I see is to the contrary. And please don't tell me about "changed lives". The most dishonest guy I ever met in the whole of my life is a Christian. The second most is also a Christian. He was recently made an honorary fellow of my old Cambridge College which disgusted me sufficiently to make me resign from the Alumini.

So I come back to my original point. The Christian religion says I'm going to fry forever in hell along with the villains of history unless I believe and then put my trust in a god who seems to be making valiant efforts to make his existence unbelievable.

I think that there's a world of difference between that an atheism - don't you?

Ben Murphy said...

John Collins, yes, we are talking at cross purposes. You seem to think I'm trying to convert you to Christianity. I'm not. I'm sorry if that wasn't clear. Please bear that in mind, and what I'm saying will make more sense.

I was not trying to persuade you that Christianity is true, only to persuade you that the particular error that you singled out as your real problem with Christianity is not, in fact, essential to the Christian religion as it is found in the New Testament. Someone who believes things based on bad evidence, or who thinks something is meaningful evidence when it isn't has made a mistake. But someone who believes it is the "ultimate virtue" to believe take things as "factual without any meaningful evidence" has not only made a mistake, they are encouraging other people to make mistakes - and crazy mistakes at that.

If Paul and the author of Hebrews had believed that lack of evidence was a virtue, they would not even have made the attempt to offer evidence. But they did.

I did have more comments on Ephesians, buy my post was getting far too long, and I hope at least my general drift is now clear.

Jack of Kent said...

Hi John,

Ben is a very dear & old friend, & sparring partner, of mine (from the "other place" to you!), and I can confirm he is not seeking to convert you, or indeed anyone.

Indeed, any interest I have in the serious discussion of faith and religion I owe mainly to Ben. (In other words, blame him!)

Best wishes, Jack

Bill Hilton said...

Props to Ben for coming on-thread and giving us the benefit of some professional theological expertise - a big improvement on my dilettantish hackery.

For everyone's information, there's quite a good piece on CiF today about atheists engaging with theology rather than simply mocking it:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/jan/04/religion-atheism

simple simon said...

Untill today I never realized the hard work and endless hours of study required to be called an atheist to much for me so I will remain a non believer "easy"

Steve said...

@The Heresiarch

I don't know any Christians who believe that Zeus is a god - thus they are athiests to Zeus. Some may take a panthiestic approach but thats a different line that effectively removes any personal attributes from the gods. Yahweh has a set of very personal characteristics very much differnt and opposed to many other gods (including Zeus) made up by us.

---------------
How then do Christians reconcile the great pan mono theistic "God" with Yahweh - the Caannanite and quite petty wargod and still call themself Christian?

The answer is perhaps to view yahweh and all the other gods as part of a single divine, but what characteristics does this god then have? This step surely removes the holy texts as sources of knowledge as there are so many texts and so many contradictions between the texts?

What has the nebulous god ever done for us and how would we know? The panthiestic god lacks definable attributes.

(I should say at this point i don't actually care(mind) particuarly about other peoples beliefs, live and let live, enjoy your life - except when those beliefs are imposed on others.)

It all brings me back in my rather poorly argued fashion to Occams Razor. The Universe with all its stars and beetles operates just fine without the supernatural (even if we don't understand it all just now), so what need for the supernatural as an explanation for anything?