Agreeing with some advice Jonathan Chait offered about political discourse and argumentation, Ta-Nehisi Coates said political commentators — I think he would probably extend this to all opinion writers — should increasingly take on intellectual giants, rather than go after mental featherweights such as Sarah Palin and Michelle Malkin:
Write about something other than current politics. Do not limit yourself to fighting with people who are alive. Fight with some of the intellectual greats. Fight with historians, scientists, and academics. And then after you fight with them, have the decency to admit when they’ve kicked your ass. Do not use your platform to act like they didn’t. Getting your ass kicked is an essential part of growing your intellectual muscle.
I agree to a degree, insofar as it helps the person doing the writing. In Christian apologetics, for instance, it would be more beneficial to the intellectual growth of the writer to argue against some of the best thinkers apologetics has to offer — William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas or Ravi Zacharias, for instance, rather than charlatans like Pat Robertson or James Dobson. That’s not to say the “best thinkers” in apologetics offer a compelling case for belief. I just mean that these “thinkers” — and I used the term loosely — sometimes hold more nuanced views on faith than less erudite pastors and priests who simply quote scripture and assume that’s going to convince us of anything. A person, then, is better equipped to argue from a position of nonbelief when she has anticipated all the ways believers jump through rhetorical hoops attempting to defend faith.
A quote from Omar Khyyam seems apt here:
The Koran! Well, come put me to the test — Lovely old book in hideous error drest. Believe me, I can quote the Koran too. The unbeliever knows his Koran best.
That’s Rhetoric 101. Know your opponents, and anticipate their arguments. So, in this regard providing commentary on the brightest thinkers from any field of inquiry, rather than the most asinine, continues a pattern of learning that, as Coates argues, should not stop once a person gets a college degree.
What Coates doesn’t address is the flip side to this. Does pointing out stupidity benefit readers or does it just needlessly proliferate garbage and give people like Malkin more “air time” than they deserve? Media Matters, of course, has more or less built an empire on pointing out stupidity that takes place on FOX News on a daily basis, and I could crash this server writing about the latest antics of people like Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and their ilk. While I criticize them on here occasionally, would it be helpful to the larger and probably never-ending debate about which ideology, liberal or conservative, is the best one for leading a nation? Probably not.
But I think pointing out stupidity accomplishes at least two important goals. Deservedly, it marginalizes people like Beck and Malkin and their ultra-religious counterparts to the sidelines. Second, and more importantly, it shines a bright light on just how far the political and religious message in America has gone off the rails and how far the GOP spectrum has shifted, and making light of this could hopefully result in more moderate approaches, even among conservatives. Fringe ideology in either direction, left or right, will get us nowhere fast.
This post stems from a conversation over at Bunch about biblical contradictions, particularly related to the creation story and man’s fall from grace in Genesis.
For simplicity’s sake, I am mostly going to be speaking here of the Judeo-Christian conception of God, known as Yahweh in the Old Testament and God the Father in the New Testament, but a good portion of this will apply to the God of Islam or any other deity that man has created with certain transcendent, otherworldy characteristics, such as omniscience.
The following is the first definition of “god” from the Merriam Webster:
capitalized: the supreme or ultimate reality: as
the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe.
I would wager that because of our general acceptance of religion in society, “goodness” continues to be part of our working definition of what we mean when we say God. But does this necessarily have to be the case? The ancient Greeks completely understood that although humans might label a being as a god does not mean that this being is actually good just because he commands powers that might appear mystical to us. Indeed, the Greek gods were in some cases capricious, childish and downright vile in some of their dealings with humans and each other. Take the rape of Europa, for instance (see illustration).
Yahweh, likewise, is certainly capricious, jealous — by his own admission — and overbearing, and thus, not much different than his Greek counterparts in being wholly a human creation.
In any case, let’s briefly take the Bible’s word for it and assume for argument’s sake that the Judeo-Christian god is basically good. The Bible directly tells us in many places that God is good, not the least of which are Psalm 100:5, “For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations” and Psalm 107:1, “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; for His loving kindness is everlasting” and Matthew 19:17, “And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? (there is) none good but one, (that is), God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.”
But it seems these passages belie God’s actual actions if we look at the Jewish and Christian narratives in totality, which in turn, make the strong case, once again, that the Bible is wrought with inconsistencies. First, let’s take the Jewish tradition from the Old Testament. Since there doesn’t seem to be a coherent consensus in Judaism about the afterlife, and particularly, heaven and hell, we can just look at the behavior of Yahweh toward his “chosen” people. Although the argument that God is good may be up for debate, as I argue here, the notion that he is omniscient and all-powerful are not, otherwise, we must change what we mean when we utter this three-letter construction.
If God is omniscient, he would have known there in the black chaos before speaking anything into existence that man would be seduced by the serpent and ultimately fall from grace. He would also know, in his omniscience, the precise time and place that Satan would tempt Eve to eat the fruit. He knew there in the black chaos that man would be exiled from the Garden as a result of the fall (and his seeming lack of concern that Satan infiltrated Eden) and would be relegated to a life of toil and birth pains. He knew there in the black chaos that man would soon after the fall become wicked in his sight. He knew he would have to flood the entire earth, kill untold numbers and preserve only one pious man and his family. He knew there in the black chaos that his “chosen” people, Israel, would betray him time and time again by falling into idol worship. He knew his beloved Israel would become slaves in Egypt. He knew of the wandering, the despair and the bloodlust on display against rival tribes in his name. He knew there in the black chaos that someone claiming proprietary knowledge would advocate the burning of random women believed to be witches and of stoning gay people. He knew of the impending Inquisitions; he knew there in the black chaos that Hitler, wanting to purge the world of his own “chosen” people, would maim, starve and slaughter 6 million Jews.
Moving beyond the Old Testament into Christianity, God knew that he would one day send his son for the atonement of man. He knew of the intense suffering that Jesus would endure. He knew of the intense suffering and persecution that early Christians would endure. He knew that one day, he would have to watch as millions, exercising their “god-given” reasoning capabilities, would not be able to believe in the historicity of Jesus or accept his gift of salvation and thus be cast down to perdition to burn forever and ever.
Regardless of whether any of this is true in reality and if we take these stories at face value, God saw the misery, the suffering, the despair, the waste of life and loss that would ensue once he spoke creation into being. He saw it all in the beginning. His mind’s eye envisioned this vale of woe in the chaos, and with a poker player’s blank stare, he went about the business of creation anyway. This alone, notwithstanding any arguments we might make about unnecessary suffering and an all-loving deity, renders God evil at best and sadistic at worst.
One of the most thoughtful objections to modern feminism and gender studies that you are likely to find, and intellectually, this towers above any arguments for feminism coming from Richard Carrier and his ilk, and by the way, it comes from a woman who actually understands the true implications of gender equality:
Believers often make the assertion, as I briefly alluded to in a recent post, that God exists in some realm outside of time and space, and because of this, he is not bound by the laws of physics that may, under different circumstances, preclude him from performing some of the miracles in this world or raising people from the dead (i.e. Lazarus, Jesus). They also trot out this eye-rubbing piece of faux logic to rule out the possibility that we small-minded creatures could ever conclusively prove or disprove his existence since, they say, he exists outside of our observable view.
Notwithstanding the fact that this train of thought could be used to believe or imagine any possibility whatsoever, from sugar plumb fairies dancing on the ether to Apollo playing soccer with Zeus in the shadows of Mount Olympus, simply separating God from space and time doesn’t make him more believable. So, let’s work through the implications of both scenarios and see if God comes out looking any better either way.
First, let’s say that God exists inside space and time. The argument from belief is that, as I briefly mentioned, if he is part of our universe, he might be bound by the hindered by the laws of nature and as such, may not able to perform the powers attributed to him. But why would this necessarily be the case for an omnipotent being? Mountains don’t move, at least not in any sense that we can observe with the naked eye in real time, but the Bible claims that faith can move mountains. And who but God is behind the power that could make a feat happen in the physical world? Thus, here is a theoretical example — since it has never been observed in practice — of God’s ability to act against what science tells us is impossible (moving large objects out of sheer will of mind in the absence of energy).
While this would not necessarily prohibit his ability to perform miracles, since an all-powerful god, by definition, does not cease being God just because is part of the universe, rather than outside it. It does mean, however, that if he is operating inside space and time then he too must have been formed by some force or process that predates himself, which ultimately means that, while he may be indeed supernatural and powerful beyond our comprehension or be endowed with some characteristics that, to us, approach the divine, he is not the source of own existence, and thus, not the supreme progenitor of everything.
Michael Shermer equates a being that develops in this way to an extraterrestrial:
God is typically described by Western religions as omniscient and omnipotent. Because we are far from possessing these traits, how can we possibly distinguish a God who has them absolutely from an ETI who merely has them copiously relative to us? We can’t. But if God were only relatively more knowing and powerful than we are, then by definition the deity would be an ETI!
This is not quite what I had in mind, but it’s close. Jerry Coyne, a professor at the University of Chicago, more accurately describes the view that if God developed via evolution like every other being inside space and time, he would remain unseen, perhaps, but still be able to impact natural elements in a scientifically observable way:
The being might not be demonstrable, but the actions of that being might well be. In that sense there can be natural evidence for a supernatural god. We can’t see electrons, either, but we can see their actions, and hence infer that they exist.
This is the position Richard Dawkins takes in his book, “The God Delusion.” But here’s the problem for believers in this scenario. While he can still be all-powerful, or what we may define as such, omnipotence does not make him eternal and immune from incremental development since he resides inside space and time and is subject to time itself. The implication here is that, whatever form or process might have created God, God as we know him, like every being that exists inside the universe must have evolved from a simpler, not more complex form, which runs directly counter to the accepted notion of God from the Bible and the other two major monotheistic religions.
Thus, the “theory,” and I mean that in the nonscientific sense, that apologists float, and indeed must adopt, is that God exists outside of spacetime where the laws of the universe do not apply, and that he exists in the “spiritual,” not the physical realm. Sophisticated apologists like William Lane Craig support this using the Kalam cosmological argument to suggest that because the universe began to exist (since here we are), it thus requires a prime mover, on whom Craig, presumably out of thin air, bestows the following traits. This creator is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful and intelligent. Less sophisticated believers, on the other hand, simply cite biblical passages like 2 Peter 3:9 and Revelation 1:8.
I don’t think it’s necessarily to contemplate multiverses or whether Craig’s eternal God could possibly exist in another physical realm different than our own, since even if God exists in another universe and even if science one day discovers that we live in a multiverse, believers, I think, would still need to argue for a God outside of spacetime for their position to remain even remotely intelligible.
Here are the negative implications that believers must face when contemplating God outside space and time:
- If God resides in a spiritual realm or is somehow removed from space and time, how can they possibly claim to know anything about him? Their unsatisfying answer, of course, is that God has an inexplicable ability to communicate to believers through the Holy Spirit. But this means that he must necessarily enter our physical world millions of times per day speaking with believers across the world. Pew reports that the globe contained about 2.18 billion Christians in 2011. Let’s say God communicates with each believer just once per day for a year. That would mean that the Holy Spirit has been issuing a whopping 7,957,700,000,000 statements to Christians every single year for 2,000 years. That’s 1.59154e+16 revelations! Now, with that much information coming from heaven, three implications follow. First, the record from the Bible suggests that God was once intimately interested in human events. Why would God living in some spiritual region give two farthings about mortals in the first place? Second, one would think that with that much information coming from God himself, we humans would have a better understanding of the universe itself, our purpose within it and more intelligible information about the authenticity of the Bible. Further, would it too much to ask, since he is all-loving, after all, that God might pass along a definitive cure for cancer or HIV/AIDs to someone somewhere? Or, perhaps, he could tell Catholic officials that it is, indeed, evil to deny people contraception in poverty stricken regions in Africa or that feeding people and improving the lives of conscious creatures might be a shade more important than the construction of sprawling Taj Mahal-esque multimillion dollar church compounds? Third, the existence of all those revelations might mean that God is indeed spending more time here on Earth than in this supposed other realm, and as a consequence, he theoretically exists in both worlds simultaneously. This is exactly the message of Psalms 139: 7-12. So, wherever else he might spend his time, he and his descendants would at least be, in part, subject to change inherent in the notion of evolution from simple to complex forms. Since the Bible argues that God is the same yesterday, today and forever, the argument supporting God’s ability to communicate with man seems self-defeating.
- Related to this, Craig describes God as “changeless” and “timeless” to support the idea that God was the prime mover and stands outside of spacetime, but as John Loftus and others have argued, it’s just plain bizarre to suggest that God never changes. In his book, “Why I Became an Atheist,” Loftus quotes William Hasker, who noted that “… when God began to create the universe, he changed, beginning to do something that previously he had not done.” Or, as Loftus himself put it in, “The whole notion that God doesn’t change seems to imply that God never has a new thought, or idea, since everything is an eternal NOW, and there is nothing he can learn. This is woodenly static. God would not be a person, but a block of ice, a thing.”
I have tried to show that either way we view God’s existence, here in our universe or outside of it, the idea of an all-powerful, unchanging deity who created everything, yet somehow stands outside of everything, falls in on itself once specific implications are considered, and the argument for this deity carries no more validity than the alternative.
Obviously, the historical evidence for Jesus passing down parables and performing the many miracles attributed to him is slim to nil, so much less is the possibility that Jesus suffered a physical death and then on the third day ascended to the heavens to take his place (again) at the right hand of the father, thus becoming one of numerous figures in the Bible to break the laws of nature. This is, nonetheless, what believers claim, and they rationalize that Jesus’ ascension is theoretically possible, as Bowen points out, because God, after all, is all-powerful and can break the laws of physics if he chooses since he, believers so confidently argue, stands outside of time and space.
Bowen essentially argues that if we make two generous concessions, that an all-loving and omnipotent God exists and that Jesus was an unethical figure who did not eschew slavery, taught prayer healing, advocated sexism, supported faith-based decision making over reason and logic, among other questionable moral stances, that God, being perfectly good, would be opposed to Jesus’ resurrection and thus, Jesus did not ascend on the third day.
This is his main argument, which was preceded by some other points about Jesus as an unethical character:
Jesus was a false prophet because he taught his followers to pray to and worship a false god (i.e. Jehovah).
This one reason, it seems to me, is sufficient to show that the existence of God would be a strong reason for believing that Jesus did NOT rise from the dead.
And he concludes:
… an omniscient and perfectly good being would be opposed to the resurrection of Jesus, because the resurrection of Jesus would provide a divine stamp of approval upon: the worship of a false god, mass murder, slavery, sexism, cruelty, injustice, irrationality, superstition, sociocenrism (sic), pacifism (i.e. tolerance of oppression) and other evils.
Christian believers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. If there is no God, then the resurrection of Jesus would be unlikely because true resurrections are contrary to the laws of nature and thus require a supernatural intervention by God or a god-like being. If there is a God, then the resurrection of Jesus would be unlikely because God, an omniscient and perfectly good person, would be opposed to the resurrection of Jesus. Either way, the case for the resurrection fails.
This a peculiar argument, and one that is actually a novel one for me. Let me see if I can explain it more thoroughly and then supply some additional thoughts. First, Bowen seems to have made a correlation, implicitly or otherwise, between the hypothetical God to which he refers throughout the post and Jehovah, the Old Testament god and the father of Jesus. Yet, he uses Jehovah, or Yahweh, as an example of why his hypothetical God would not support Jesus’ resurrection. Because Jesus obviously teaches that believers should pray to Yahweh, this hypothetical God would conclude that Jesus was practicing idol worship.
But here’s the hang of it, and why this argument as a consequence seems to double back on itself. If this hypothetical God is not Yahweh but some other god, let’s call him Wutu the Almighty, it seems obvious that Wutu wouldn’t care two farthings about another supposed god named Jesus, just like Yahweh so readily dismissed Baal in the Old Testament. Gods tend to not like competition, after all. So, sure, Wutu would be opposed to the resurrected Christ on the grounds of worshiping a false god, Jehovah. But the entire notion of a resurrected Jesus relies on maintaining a link between Jesus and Jehovah, for without Jehovah’s story, we would have no resurrection story. This is why I said that Bowen must be referring to Jehovah when he mentions God. Otherwise, where is the point of reference?
Now, if Bowen actually is referring to the God of the Old Testament, the argument is dead on arrival since Jehovah would obviously not condemn Jesus as a false prophet for telling people to pray to himself, Jehovah. Having said all that, this does not take address the claims — for another day — that Jesus was a bad person or that God must necessarily fit into our idea of “good,” since Yahweh had no problem with slavery, stoning gay people and burning random women who might have been witches. For all the reasons not to believe in the resurrection — and there are many — this particular argument seems to suffer severely.
In December 2006, Christopher Hitchens wrote a column with the above headline in quotes, which included a sub-headline reading, “The pernicious effects of banning words.” He went on to describe a short-lived interview with Chris Matthews on MSNBC, in which he explained the evolution of the word “stupid” as it relates to politics, noting that John Stuart Mill once referred to the Tories as “generally stupid.” I couldn’t locate a reference to a quote from Mill that actually used these three words in this sequence — ”the stupid party” — so I’m not sure if Hitchens was paraphrasing or referring to an actual quote in some dusty volume.
In any case, the moniker apparently stuck, since eventually, the Tories actually began referring to their party in this way. The late Hitchens has proven himself prophetic beyond his years in this regard since in November 2012, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal challenged the prevailing anti-intellectualism that had run amok in his own party:
“… Stop being the stupid party. … It is no secret we had a number of Republicans damage our brand this year with offensive, bizarre comments — enough of that. It’s not going to be the last time anyone says something stupid within our party, but it can’t be tolerated within our party. We’ve also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism. We need to stop being simplistic, we need to trust the intelligence of the American people and we need to stop insulting the intelligence of the voters.
Near the end of his explanation on MSNBC, Hitchens sucked the air right out of the room when he dared suggest that the word “stupid” may have taken a similar evolutionary journey as other words like “nigger” and “queer,” “and I might have added faggot,” Hitchens informs us in parenthesis. For this insult to the sensibilities of the MSNBC staff, he was quickly hurried off camera and told that the interview was “extremely over.” Taking the case of the former word, he said that while white people have not been afforded the ability to use the word, “nigger,” in any context whatever, however benign, and must always defer to the cowardly N-word, black folks have turned the discriminatory and racist undertones of the word on its head:
If white people call black people niggers, they are doing their very best to hurt and insult them, as well as to remind them that their ancestors used to be property. If black people use the word, they are either uttering an obscenity or trying to detoxify a word and rob it of its power to wound them. Not quite the same thing.
Note the distinction that Hitchens makes in this essay between white people calling blacks derogatory names with the intent to harm versus using “nigger,” “queer” or “faggot” in an explanatory or historical context that I am doing right now.
This brings me to more recent news in which the Associated Press has announced that it will no longer use the words “illegal immigrant” to describe — clears throat — illegal immigrants, and it has for years advised journalists to avoid the borderline derogatory labels “illegals” and “aliens.” This step by the AP is one of numerous ways that it suggests people shy away from labels and focus more on behavior. Presumably, we must now refer to undocumented immigrants by the laborious “people who are living in a country illegally.”
Howard Kurtz today on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” called the change “a bit too politically correct.” I have to agree. While I have and do avoid “illegals” or “aliens” because of their derogatory connotations, banning “illegal immigrant” seems like splitting hairs to me, and while words that journalists use to describe immigrants carry nowhere near the malignant baggage of “spik,” “gook, or “nigger” or any other words racists have embraced to disparage our fellow human beings, AP’s change represents the latest example — add censorship on radio and TV to the mix — of language’s power over us rather than the other way around.
I said recently that I will “probably” take a break from talking about Atheism Plus, but I hope readers will appreciate the hint of uncertainty inherent in the word. I must, at least for a post or two, revisit this redundant “movement” that is really just secular humanism in disguise.
Richard Carrier recently gave a talk at the American Atheists Convention 2013 in Austin, Texas, and in the speech, he rightly credited Jen McCreight with coming up with the term, “Atheism Plus.” In the original post, McCreight, in her long-winded title, “How I Unwittingly Infiltrated the Boy’s Club & Why It’s Time for a New Wave of Atheism,” outlined the numerous humanitarian causes that she hoped would be attached to the term “atheism,” which as we are all well aware, caused a firestorm of controversy from the atheism “purists” who want atheism associated with nothing other than its dictionary definition.
My goal is not to argue all of that right now. My theory is this, and mind you, it’s just a theory: that many atheist activists and bloggers like Carrier (and others like P.Z. Myers, Adam Lee, etc.) have embraced Atheism Plus as something that is bewilderingly apart from secular humanism — no matter that they are pretty much one in the same — simply because these nonbelievers, most of them feminists, don’t want to come out in opposition to McCreight’s idea. Perish the thought, that prominent male atheists might have the audacity to disagree with a female nonbeliever.
Thus, Carrier, Myers and their ilk credit McCreight for branding the term Atheism Plus, yet when you boil it down to its base component, they are talking about nothing other than secular humanism.