Showing posts with label God. Show all posts
Showing posts with label God. Show all posts

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Reflection: "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins

Disclaimer: this reflection will sometimes be very one-sided, since I decided to omit quoting Dawkins extensively. Many sections will make little sense without having read the book, for instance, the part on Gasking's parallel argument refutation of the ontological argument, where I say I reject all premises except perhaps the first, makes no sense unless one is familiar with his argument.

I got given "The God Delusion" in 2012 by a family member for Christmas, and I finally got round to reading it at the beginning of 2014.

For the strange person who is unfamiliar with Richard Dawkins or the movement of which he is part, some of which take this book as a manifesto, Dawkins is one of the so-called "New Atheists", which seems to be a 21st century popularization of atheism by Christopher Hitchens (now deceased), Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and, of course, Richard Dawkins. Some have added, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Stephen Hawking to the list (which I would reject) and Lawrence Krauss (who seems apt for the role), Victor Stegner, Michael Shermer, Jerry Coyne... Exactly who is a new atheist and who is just a "plain atheist" is quite irrelevant to my thoughts on this particular book.

I would preface my comments by saying I enjoyed reading the book, for the most part. Its rhetoric is engaging, and even when he seems to claim to be on track, he is largely riding his pet steed Tangent (p. 198), so I feel quite comfortable with my theism, moreover, my Catholic Christianity, even whilst reading most of the book. His anecdotes were interesting, the fan and hate mail he has received and now recounts is insightful, and his forays into evolutionary biology are certainly to be read, because at the end of the day, Dawkins is a scientist, and an award-winning evolutionary biology popularizing one at that. So I can agree with the large number of endorsements (largely, it seems, from newspaper reviews) that describe "The God Delusion" as readable, spirited, passionate, clever. Even, with due qualification, "intelligence and truth-telling" (from Claire Tomalin) at some points in the book. The idea that the new atheist literature is moronic certainly needs to be either rejected or nuanced for it to be taken seriously.

What claims does he make? The very well ordered book seems to have ten points to make, about one per chapter: 

1. He is not concerned with Einstein's God, or the religion based on the scientific awe of nature - he aims to debunk religions with personal gods, in particular the Abrahamic ones. These are undeserving of the pedestal of respect allegedly given to them.
2. The existence of God is a scientific question, which, whether difficult to answer or not, can only be addressed by scientific or empirical means.
3. All arguments advanced for the existence of God fail, most of them quite miserably.
4. God almost certainly does not exist - he advances a standard "who designed the designer?" objection.
5. Religion is a natural phenomena that can be explained by reference to our evolutionary past.
6. We are not good because we obey precepts, models or commands given in any form of holy book, our goodness has evolutionary roots and explanation, and there are secular theories of ethics.
7. We would not follow any holy books nowadays anyway without being very selective, presumably referring to some extra-textual standard of morality, which just goes to show that morality was not derived from the books anyway. Our morality changes, mostly for the better, as society advances.
8. Religion is not only irrational, it is not benign, either. It is anti-rational, particularly unscientific, lends itself to wrongful opposition to homosexuality and abortion, and even moderate forms of religion are the basis for fanaticism. 
9. Religion is abusive to children, it leads to physical and mental abuse (particularly the latter), to backward thinking - although, holy books have cultural impacts, and so their literary merit is to be conserved.
10. Religion may fill gaps in the human psyche, but it does not make it more true, and a rational scientific perspective may even be grander and more emancipated.

Allow me to briefly take his theses in turn by merely expressing my thoughts and reactions to some of the major points:

1. Dawkins quotes Carl Sagan saying that religions do not expand their wonder with the amazing discoveries of the universe, instead "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way." Since this is the god that Dawkins is concerned with rebutting, it seems clear that he is talking about the wrong god, not a god recognizable to Christian theology, at least none of the stuff I have been reading. To think, as some people seem to suggest to me occasionally (and Dawkins seeks to imply) that the God of Christianity, said to be omnipotent and omniscient, is somehow threatened by the magnitude of the universe, is an odd claim indeed.

The first chapter of Dawkin's book is more to explain that Einstein's God is not being talked about here - not the mathematician God of Paul Davies, either, as he would say to John Lennox in a related debate. Somehow, Dawkins has let it slip under his capable mind's radar that, when I profess belief in "one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; of all things visible and invisible" (the opening of the Nicene creed), I happen to mean what I say, and now that we know that the universe is billions of years old, that the universe is mindbogglingly big, I am not led to question that belief.

His other point in this chapter, that religions are accorded a strange amount of respect, seems accurate. There is a tentativeness to talking about religion, as if political beliefs could be shouted at, but religious ones had to be politely nodded at. Living in the generation that I do, in the social circles in which I am, at a secular university studying both science and philosophy, I am rarely ever accorded that politeness (other than to avoid the issue completely) - but I do acknowledge its persistence in wider culture, and agree with its strangeness from a truth-concerned point of view, in part because one religion can be correct, at best.

2. It is actually a doctrine of the Church that the existence of God can be known from natural reason, so since Dawkins often conflates science and reason more generally, I might agree with him. His argument for it seems plausible at first: a universe with God would be different to a universe without God. Except, that arguments falls flat if one is a theist: if God exists, then it is so by necessity, and therefore there is no such thing as a universe without God - it is incoherent. On the other hand, taking the atheist point of view, if God does not exist, it is necessarily so, and therefore testing the hypothesis against the God-universe hypothesis is to test it against something else which is, at some level, incoherent.

That illustrates the first major issue I have with the idea of God as a scientific hypothesis: that science deals with contingencies, and whether God exists or not, it is not contingent. The second problem I have, is that hypotheses make predictions - but what sort of predictions does the God hypothesis make? It seems to me that the core God of theism is a hard hypothesis to extract predictions from in the first place. How would such universes be different, even in principle? One would think, following Stephen Law's article in the journal Religious Studies ("The evil-god challenge", 2010), that the God hypothesis (presumably, the good God hypothesis) could be tested by reference to the evidential problem of evil. Instead, Dawkins tries to venture down the "prayer does not work" line by reference to the widely-disowned (before and after the experiment) study by the Templeton Foundation. Swinburne's response seems perfectly acceptable to me, and Dawkins fails to respond to the critique levelled Swinburne other than to caricature his response to what he should have raised in the first place, the problem of evil.

This chapter also involves a rejection of Gould's NOMA theory ("Non-Overlapping Magisteria", the idea that science and religion talk about different things), and an attempt to explain away why it seems favoured among many atheist scientists. I lean towards agreeing with the rejection of NOMA, and replacing it with some principle of “somewhat, but not very, overlapping magisteria” – I can see why SBNVOM has not taken off yet, however.

3. His discussion of first mover and cosmological arguments is so bad, I hardly feel I can mention it, since it occupies a scant two and a half pages of a 420 page long book. Dawkins must surely have straw in his eyes, from such an enormous, yet vacuous, strawman that he erects in place of the rather long and serious discussion given to just the cosmological argument by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Even though I disagree with some of the ideas inherent in ontological arguments,[1] his rejection of St Anselm's without reference to the history and development of the argument, let alone his inability to understand it, is laughable. He does make hand waving reference to refutations (Kant's is suitable for rejecting Anselm's, as well as the clearer adaptation by Descartes), but Douglas Gasking's parallel argument is an absurd rebuttal, not least because of the implausibility of all the premises (except perhaps premise 2, even though I reject it regardless, but even then, there is a false equivocation that appears in premise 3 - merit and impressiveness are hardly the same quality).

The rest of the arguments are ones I find relatively un-compelling anyway, even though his peculiar rejection of Lewis' "Liar, Lunatic or Lord" argument (which Tim Keller pointed out should be amended to "Legend, Liar, Lunatic or Lord") on the basis that Jesus may simply have been honestly mistaken about his divinity is yelling to be placed in the "lunatic" category - what sort of sane person is honestly mistaken about actually being God incarnate? The rest of the section might be considered a discussion of the "legend" category, but I find his biblical scholarship very poor.

4. Dawkins labels God the "ultimate Boeing 747", in reference to Fred Hoyle's oft quoted statement that living beings are as improbable as a hurricane passing through a scrapyard and assembling a Boeing 747 aeroplane. In essence, his argument is that God is far too complicated to postulate as a designer, because then one would have to explain who or what designed God.

Dawkins agrees that chance is an absurd explanation of life, but he says that evolution by means of natural selection is a perfectly sensible alternative, and that this "consciousness-raiser" should alert everyone to the possibility of finding similar mechanisms for the explanation of design, or apparent design, in other fields. I think his discussion of cosmology is tainted by an overly-biological perspective, but I cannot claim to be very much of an expert on cosmology regardless, and so I must let that pass. What taints the whole chapter (other than the biology bits, which are very interesting) is his over reliance on natural selection qua consciousness raiser: I am perfectly happy to accept that evolutionary biology has the correct principles for explaining apparent design in life, and I would pursue my research in physics perfectly happy to accept similar principles to refute cosmological fine-tuning arguments - I find them unconvincing anyway. What I find overstated is the idea that, since principles to explain something previously unexplained have been discovered in the past, one is never warranted to consider that other principles will not arise to explain, for instance, cosmic fine tuning. Like I said, I suspect they will be found, but consider for a moment the inverse argument:

"Certainly, science seems to point to atheism at the moment. But just like when it was discovered that the universe had an absolute space-time boundary, a beginning, and people could make more convincing cosmological arguments, I suspect that science will discover other means of proving the existence of God, even if right now it looks like science is atheistic."

See the inversion? The big bang theory could be claimed by the theist, in much the same way as Dawkins claims natural selection can be taken, as a consciousness raiser, something that shows us that the unexplained can be explained. Once again, both lines of thought seem implausible to me - but they also appear rather symmetric.

Chapter 4 contained, as he says (p. 187), his central argument. On the face of it, the argument may appear to be a rejection of the argument from design - which I rejected before I read the book - but in actual fact, the argument is intended to run deeper: by claiming that God is far too complex to be the explanation of the design in the universe, he is also trying to undermine the God hypothesis as a conceivable reality at all, since God is presumably "irreducibly complex." Leaving aside the strange idea that God might have arisen out of natural processes - surely a complete misunderstanding of the God of any of the monotheistic religions - the argument must still be dealt with somehow. Here is my brief response:

Dawkins has not really shown that God is complex at all. Classical theism has always held that God is simple - God is made of one, indivisible substance, after all, and since it makes no sense to speak of "half God", Dawkins is wrong that God must be complex. He asserts it many times, but provides no justification for his mere assertion. Another explanation could be given, generously granting that God is internally complex, but pointing out that God is a necessary being, and so requires no explanation.

The very keen eye will note, as did Lloyd Strickland ("The “who designed the designer?” objection to design arguments", International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, August 2013) that I have "helped myself" to the attributes of God from classical theism. Strickland's critique is only suitable if I were trying to prove the existence of God from design arguments; currently, I am merely defending the possibility of God's existence from the Dawkins argument, which claimed to provide more than a refutation of the design argument (we might agree, for different reasons) but a refutation of the existence of God, or nearly so: he dealt with arguments for the existence of God in chapter 3, this chapter was titled "Why There Almost Certainly is No God." Hence, in a defence of God, I can rely on the attributes of God. 

5. This chapter was by far my favourite: in average popular attacks on religion, explanations are given for religion which make very little evolutionary sense, so I was chuffed to have a defence of "religion as a natural phenomenon" from an evolutionary biologist.[2] If I were to presuppose naturalism, then I would have to explain away religion, and I find Dawkins' account decisively plausible, on face value.

Since I do not assume naturalism, I think I am entitled, as a theist, to remain in my belief that human beings, as definitively religious animals, are manifesting their own awareness of being in the image of God, and an awareness of the divine. But, that interpretation flows from my Catholic theism, and I find it perfectly natural that Dawkins and Dennett disagree with me.

6-7. I combine these chapters because their thesis is similar: that evolution explains our moral sentiments, that real morality is secular, that morality progresses as societies develop, and that it would be horrible for people to follow holy books anyway. I disagree on all three latter points.

I agree that many of our moral sentiments are due to our evolutionary past, and, as Dawkins says, that our more generalized moral feelings are more likely to be mis-firings of natural selection, now that we are not in the same sort of habitat as before. Sure - but that does not justify them, for the same reason that Dawkins was so clear to point out when he spoke of mis-firings of evolution to produce religion, as a by-product of some other evolved tendency, this does not justify our moral sentiments.

I can agree to the possibility of secular morality, and many theories have been proposed: from Kant, to Mill, to Rawls, and so on. At one point in the book, he suggests that Kant may have been right, since it makes Kantian categorical imperatives make sense of our moral feelings in the case of the trolley problem. Later on, (ch. 8) he favours a consequentialist point of view, saying that abortion could not be wrong since the child has no nervous system at first, as opposed to the mother, which certainly does. The contradiction annoyed me - yes, Kant does accord with our moral feelings in the trolley problem, but he would be opposed to abortion, because the pre-born human is not being treated as an end in itself. Yes, consequentialism may well accept the possible rightness of abortion in many cases, but it would disagree with our moral feelings in the case of the trolley problem. Dawkins is free to, if rationally compelled by it, accept a secular theory of ethics. But he cannot accept contradictory ones and expect to be taken seriously.

This illustrates why I do not think that real morality is secular. If by real one means the morality that is generally practiced, then real morality is not secular or religious, it seems to be some form of moral sentimentalism. People may be Kantian when given the trolley problem (or its many corollaries), but they are not Kantian when it comes to other activities. People may be consequentialists in some cases, but they are not universally so. Real morality is, therefore, neither Kantian nor consequentialist - or Rawlsian, or Aristotelian, etc...

Does the moral Zeitgeist, the developing morality of societies, provide a better foundation? It is entirely unclear whether that is an objective standard: one thinks current morality is better than previous morality, surely in part because one adopts the current morality, and rejects the previous one. Even beyond that, I object the the deification of personal choice above the common good, which is a firm part of our contemporary morality, and other similar trends - I hardly think current rape culture is superior even to hyper-Puritan values, either. Which way the trend is going is unclear.

Surely, it is better than the myths of holy books, right? I must now speak as a Christian, for I am not familiar with Islamic jurisprudence and developing ethics, or with Jewish Rabbinic texts, both of which would shed light on their original holy books. As a Christian, I hold up Jesus as the ultimate revelation of God. Supposing, as is usually done, that God does not change, and whatever God is, that God is supremely good: it is absurd to say that Jesus is now "outdated", that we should move on. That would be the Christian perspective.

"But he is outdated", Dawkins might reply, and he cites John Hartung to the effect that Jesus was about in-group morality as much as Joshua was. Though it is amusing to find someone who appears to think that apostle Paul is an improvement over Jesus, I find his claim astonishing. If one takes the gospels as simple historical re-tellings of the life of Jesus, then the idea that Jesus was about in-group morality is ridiculous. Be it the Good Samaritan, the Great Comission, the missionary sending at the beginning of Acts and the end of Luke, or the numerous encounters between Jesus and non-Jews, Jesus seems to be firmly about both the in-group and the out-group.

If he means that, after some historical Jesus studies, it turns out that Jesus was actually about the in-group, then I would like to see that analysis. Of the reputable, academic published literature I have come across, the closest  to that I have seen is commenting on the passage in Matthew 15, or perhaps John Meier's A Marginal Jews, which comes close only in the sense that he argues that Jesus was fully hallakhic, and so would be rupturing less from Jewish law than is sometimes said. Even these considerations hardly get one to more extreme claim made be Dawkins and Hartung. Our neighbour is anyone who we encounter in need, as Jesus says to the teacher of the Law, and we are to love them, even at our own expense. This rule has never been outdated.

8. I do not have much to say about chapter 8. Yes, wrongful religion can lead to bad science. It does not have to, but in some cases it does. I can't help but remember the times atheism leads to bad philosophy, but they are few, and there is nothing inherent in atheism that makes it anti-philosophical. The discussion of abortion is not very comprehensive, but he does adopt a consequentialist point of view near the end, so it seems that he rejects any inherent value in human life, other than its capacity to be happy (where happiness is seen basically as a property of the sentient being, again, nothing inherent in the being itself).

Moderation can lead to fanaticism, too. Fanaticism is not always a bad thing - a fanatic philanthropist does a great deal more good than a moderate philanthropist, in general. But many times it is, and that is a problem. Quite clearly, fanaticism can arise out of non-religious beliefs too - nationalism, some political ideology, racial boundaries, class conflict, an ethical theory... What if someone became convinced that the ratio of pain to pleasure in the world was such that, in a utilitarian framework, everything should be destroyed? Maybe that person would be right, but they would be labelled a fanatic. So fanaticism can arise in many contexts, most of which will probably always be present.

9. I find this chapter hard to take too seriously. Yes, he points out some horrible things. But I have met people whose experience is the opposite, who felt abused by feminist language (exactly how, I cannot fathom, but that is what she said), by the pitiless indifference of the world, and so forth. Dawkins would probably claim that, sure, certain naturalist doctrines like the indifference of the universe to human beings could be uncomfortable, but what matters is that they are true. I would only say "ditto." Sure, some people might find it hard to come out as an atheist to their families - but I know people who have found it hard to come out Christian to their atheist parents. Is atheism child abuse? It does not follow.

I agree that the fear of death is odd, and I would echo Mark Twain, as Dawkins does. But some people find the idea horrifying, so is the doctrine of no-afterlife child abuse? Again, it does not follow. Whatever is true is true independent of the psychological value of it. I am reminded of a story William Lane Craig once remarked, where he told about the findings of a survey of why college students were atheists. One girl said she became an atheist at least in part because she could not handle the idea of her abusive father still being alive. So even an afterlife with no hell would be scary for some people. Child abuse, then, to be a universalist? It does not follow.

10. Throughout the book, Dawkins has misunderstood aspects of theology. In response to Terry Eagleton's claim that he should understand a bit more about theology, about Aquinas and Scotus' differences on epistemology, Rahner on grace, etc., Dawkins said he did not need to be an expert in fashion to point out that the emperor was naked. The problem is that Dawkins was not even looking at the emperor. In the last chapter, where he rejects that truth can be affirmed merely because something would be comforting. Agreed. But his poor understanding of Christianity is never more apparent than when he talks about how theology works. The clearest instance is probably in this last chapter, where he misunderstands indulgences, how Christians think about death, purgatory, and in one of his bigger blunders, why Catholics believe in purgatory. He quotes the Catholic Encyclopedia saying that Catholics believe in purgatory because we pray for the dead. That is not a defence of purgatory as a meta-physical place for anyone, it is a defence from Scripture (probably defending against Protestants) in light of Judas Maccabeus, who prays for the dead. 


The day I finished the book I was asked whether the Church would have banned it in times past. I do not know. I have not had even the slightest inclination to change a single of my previously held beliefs in light of this book, but apparently, other people have. So maybe its poor arguments are dangerous, because people will think they are good. I might add that I would not want books banned, now or in the past, even if I do see a certain logic to it: parents should not allow their children hard pornography books or magazines. Mother Church should not allow her children spiritually harmful books. I have learnt things by reading this book, but Dawkins has failed miserably at his aim, "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." If only I could say that this fairly large book contained the best offense that atheism could offer, and then the opposite would be true, I would have gone through the worst rational scrutiny possible, and emerged unscathed. Unfortunately, I know there are better atheists out there.

[1] Briefly: I concur with St Thomas Aquinas that there is no reason to think that the limit of God is on that which we can conceive – God is surely even greater than the greatest which can be conceived. Since I do not think anybody can conceive of God, the older versions of the argument fail. Newer versions, particularly modal variants, seem to fail because there is absolutely no reason I can think of why I would believe in possible worlds. I know of one world which is possible, and it is precisely that world in which the existence of God is contested. How am I to know if other possible worlds exist? Unlike other philosophers, I am relatively comfortable with the first premise, that a maximally great being can exist (I would be fine with that even if I was an atheist), it is the modal axioms which I see no good reason to accept, on atheism.

[2] I am aware that this is the subtitle to Daniel Dennett’s book, which is on my shelf though I will not have the time to read it until 2015. Nonetheless, I am somewhat familiar with his account, and I still find it lacks the rigour of an actual evolutionary biologist.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Effects of the Fall (Genesis 3:7-24)

Before we get to what happened after the first sin, I want to bring to mind something that was said when everything was still perfect:

"And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed"

"Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves."  (3:7 - directly after they eat of the fruit)

Sin is the violation of a command of God, and this is the working definition in the first books of Genesis. But sin and wrongdoing are not identical sets of actions: things can be wrong without being sin, it seems, because although the first thing (as we shall see) that the first pair does when they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is cover themselves up, because they thought it was wrong, they were naked beforehand. So it cannot be the case that what is wrong is necessarily sin, or it would have been sin to be naked. No no, sin requires there to be a law against it, as St Paul says in his epistle to the Romans (which will be commented on in about seven months).

 "They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the LORD God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’"(vv. 8-13)

This depiction of God is highly anthropomorphic, and I suggest that we are meant to consider this in an allegorical sense because of this - not robbing it of truth, but not sending out archaeologists to try and find "the God footprints" either.

When God asks where the man is, he answers with fear. Why is the man afraid? Part of this anthropomorphic nature of this depiction of God is that he does not strike fear into the hearts of humans, as happens in other sections of the Scriptures. The man was not afraid of God before he ate from the fruit - but now something has changed. Man is is afraid, because now, man is guilty. Man is guilty because now he feels shame at being naked - and this raises the question: "who told you you were naked?", or in other words "how did you find out it was wrong to be naked?" The next question asked by God is not completely rhetorical, in that I think God is asking the man with some degree of sincerity - but the important bit is how then the man responds, and it illustrates one of the more common themes of sin in human history: blaming someone else. In my opinion, there are few things that separate us from God quite as much as our inability to accept that our wrongdoings really are ours. Objections to Christian doctrines that take the form "how can God blame me for this?" or "if God had done this for me, I would not have done that wrong" have root in the same problem, which is our recurring inability to say "I did wrong - and perhaps there were some factors involved that did not help, but I am at fault here."These separate us from God because we cannot be reconciled without forgiveness, and we cannot accept forgiveness unless we admit that we require it.

This "blaming of other" is in its fullest form here, because the man blames God for giving the woman in saying "This woman whom you gave to be with me" (v. 12), and then the woman for being the active cause in saying "she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." (v. 12). Notice that the man does indeed admit that he ate - but he seems to try and exempt himself from guilt by pointing out that it was brought about by something over which he had no control, and so others are at fault, really. As I said, this lies at the heart of the problems that face us all in reconciliation.

Though that was said of the man, the woman did much the same, so I will not comment on it. Instead, I shall proceed to the more long-lasting consequences of their sin:

The Lord God said to the serpent,

‘Because you have done this,
    cursed are you among all animals
    and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
    and dust you shall eat
    all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
    and you will strike his heel.’

To the woman he said,
‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.’
And to the man he said,
‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
    and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
    “You shall not eat of it”,
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 
 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.’
(vv. 14-19)

This has been commented on extensively, so I urge you readers to look up a commentary, specially one of a church father. I want to make a few points, but these will be more things to consider:

1. The traditionally Christian interpretation of the serpent as the devil is odd in this section, because in talking about the serpent's descendants, the implication is that the consequences will reach far beyond the death of the serpent. Even if we ignore this clear implication (it's also implied of the woman, which is true enough), then it is still unclear who exactly the descendants of the devil are. Are they demons? How were they conceived? And many more like these. It is furthermore unclear how the curse of going on the belly translates to the devil, as well as a few others.

2. The man's curses come from him listening to his wife. As a practical application, we are therefore divinely advised against this (I am joking on this point). I think this verse should be understood as listening to one's wife above and before God - which is a reasonable thing to be against.

3. These curses, to first degree and broadly speaking, can be thought of as the breakdown of relationships: between woman and nature, between man and nature, between woman and man, and between humans and the divine. There's more to it that that, and the childbearing one does not fit naturally into that categorization, but it is certainly of note that with sin, these relationships are broken.

"The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all who live. And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them." (vv. 20-21)

The naming is interesting here for a few reasons: man had already been naming things for a while now (it was his first job, whilst he searched for a companion), so it is curious that it took so long to find her a name (a proper name - ie, a personal one). Second, and perhaps to nuance that point, she was named before: "woman", in chapter 2. So why a second naming? Third, she is named mother of all who live, even though St Paul will say millennia later that Adam brought death[1]. This is not a contradiction, of course, but an interesting contrast between the supposed result of sin and the name "Eve", which sounds very similar to the Hebrew word for "living."[2] 
Leaving the issue of the naming, it is also interesting to see God's providence in the clothing of this couple. I may be horribly wrong, but I suspect there is some symbolic meaning to it which eludes me - could it be that "before they were clothed with glory, now they are clothed with skins", as some have said? Is it merely a symbol of God caring for even the banished sinners? I am not sure.

Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’ (v. 22)

The best I can muster right now to understand this verse, and it seems legitimate, is to say that God could not, in good conscience, give immortality to a flawed moral agent such as this first couple. He will be saving humanity - but he would only be damning humanity to eternal fallen-ness if he let them have life everlasting now.


Overall, I want to make renewed note of how formulaic this sin has been: it had all the key aspects to the temptation, it showcases the effects and it displays the behaviour that follows from the sin (which is similar but not the same as the more general term "effects of sin"). I think this is particularly fitting to how I interpret this passage in light of the whole of Genesis: the writer has to explain why the good world that God has created does not seem good, and the answer he gives is "humans sin". The role of this narrative is to explain why God cannot be blamed for the corruptness of creation, and we will see in weeks to come how other ancient near Eastern stories are going to be adapted to fit this theme, in particular, how Noah's flood explains natural catastrophe in terms of God's just anger with human evil - at least, a particular mega-flood of which there were many legends, many attributing it to capriciousness on behalf of the gods. The point of this section, therefore, is to explain how creation got bad when it was made good by a good God.

And to this effect, noting also how generic and general the committed sin is, I think that this man and woman are really symbols of us. Whether they were real people or not is, at this point, unclear, because the point can be made if they are figureheads of us or actual people. In terms of what the Bible says, how later writers of Scripture use Adam and Eve is going to shed far more light on the issue than this passage here. Nonetheless, we should think of this couple as if they were us, because if this story says anything, it says "the reason we can't have nice things is that humans commit wrongdoings," and insofar as we are humans, it is our fault that the world is the way it is. There is nobody else to blame.

[1] Adam is the word for man in Hebrew - the NRSV translators decided to use "man" throughout Genesis 2-3, but after many centuries this man is going to be spoken of as if he had a personal name "Adam." This usage is similar to saying Eve's name was "Woman."
[2] The writer of Genesis was brilliant both at naming his characters and subtly changing the names so that it only sounded like the thing being punned with.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Sin of the Fall (Genesis 3:1-7)

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. (vv. 1-6)

This passage raises a set of questions that is only explained years and years later, and that is, who is this serpent? Does he know what he is doing? Did God make him this way? Although I'm inconsistent with this rule, I'll avoid trying to make speculations right now, because the text does not give this information.

The serpent opens with a simple enough question as to what exactly it was God had commanded. Some translations add "really", and make it sound like this question is made to raise doubt - but although it is possible that this effect is produced, the text does not read that way. The doubt will come from the lie that the serpent tells the woman, enticing her to desire the fruit, since the question really only makes the woman reaffirm what was God said...roughly.

One thing interesting about the woman's response is that it is not quite right. She has given herself a rule that is stricter than what God actually said, as far as we know, that only prohibits eating. A pastoral note can be made from this, in advising people against taking the commands of God beyond their scope, in any way. For instance, though Jesus is clear that lust is equivalent to adultery of the heart, it does not follow that admiring the beauty of another is forbidden. There may be a fine line between admiring and then twisting that admiration to an inordinate desire of a sexual nature, but it is also the fine line between sin and not sin. It must be clear to us that every time one thinks of someone else "woah, they have great eyes!", one is by no means being unfaithful to one's spouse. It is only when one then goes on to desire that person for oneself that it has lustful overtones. This is crucial if we are to avoid despair, and indeed, retain confidence that God's sanctifying grace really is at work.

Even so, the woman's response is roughly correct. Death is to follow from eating of the fruit, and here comes the lie: the serpent coaxes her in saying "there will be no punishment, it is no big deal. In fact, look how desirable it is! What gains it would bring if you ate! God only said that because he does not want the best for you." This mirrors temptation exactly, I think. In essence, we sin because we think that there will be no punishment, or not that big a punishment. We sin because we desire what is forbidden, and we think it will bring us something we lack and need. Finally, and here is the theological aspect to it, we sin because although we know that a good God would find it reprehensible, we become convinced that God is somehow withholding something from us, and that we would be better off disobeying. No sin is ever committed when we truly believe that we will be worse off when we sin, no sin is ever committed for something unappealing. Some have suggested that the essence of sin is mistrust of God, but though this is a useful generalization, these three aspects on which the serpent lie more fully spell out the root of all sin.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

The First Creation Narrative (Genesis 1)

I considered using the text of Genesis 1 to make my point about science-and-the-Bible (here), but upon reading it carefully, I decided against it. A thoughtful study of this text alone seems to indicate that the task of the writer is not so much to give an account of how stuff came about, since we are not really told what happened. Nor should we expect to find an ancient document concerned chiefly with material origins, because this is simply not the most prominent issue. The ancient near East has many examples of creation myths, so it is not quite right to say that "why there is something rather than nothing" is a completely irrelevant question - but nonetheless, the focus seems to be rather different. In this text, we have a story which tells more about God and his attributes, over and above something seemingly irrelevant to the text, such as "where was the light from if the sun is made on day three, but night and day are separated on the first day?", or "did Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, hit his head on the dome of verse 6?" These are very silly questions once we begin to realize the kind of things that the text tries to tell us - and conversely, those that it does not.

Genesis 1 was written in a time where the first listeners would have been versed in another creation story, the Babylonian "Enuma Elish". The highly memorable beginning of the first verse of Genesis 1, "In the beginning", echoes the beginning of the Enuma Elish, which opens similarly (with "enuma elish", from whence the story gets its name). The imagery and the motifs, the structure and expressions all find a parallel in the Enuma Elish. To some extent, this is where the similarities end, because the writer of Genesis 1 is going to take these ideals and apply them in a radically different way - this literary polemical tactic is going to inform us of what exactly the author is trying to say. I have read the Enuma Elish, and so am able to understand the incredible contrast that is made - within the same literary structures, just to make the point clearer.

With this in mind, let us begin, but first with the beginning to the Enuma Elish:

When the sky above was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsû, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being,
And none bore a name, and no destinies were ordained;
Then were created the gods in the midst of heaven.

This sounds a bit like the start to Genesis 1, which goes:

In the beginning when God created ["began to create"] the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God [or "while the Spirit of God"] swept over the face of the waters.

The first thing to say is, if we want to get a doctrine of creation ex nihilo, we better go somewhere else in the Bible, such as the epistle to the Hebrews. Genesis 1 reads more like it is saying "at the start", in the original language. The next thing which becomes very clear from this parallel reading is that God does not come into existence. The Enuma Elish has more of a theogony, a story of how the gods came into existence, with the created world around us being a side-product. But although Apsu and Tiamat are not gods, rather mere personifications of fresh water and salt water respectively, one might still wish to say that these stories are fundamentally similar, up until now. I think this is actually the point - we shall start from common ground, author and reader, storyteller and audience. From here on, the stories are going to diverge massively in theology.

In Genesis, God speaks, and things are made. In the Enuma Elish, the gods fight and things are produced. In Genesis, God makes purposefully, according to his good pleasure, and then he says as much in declaring it "good". In the Enuma Elish, violence is fundamental to creation, and reality is not really of a good or bad nature, it just is, and poor ones are those who get stuck in it!

Genesis 1 has a rhythmic nature, with every day having this structure of God speaking, it being so, God seeing that it was good - evening, morning, the nth day. It has a structure, of making and filling. As a polemic piece, its structure is both similar in terms of things being created in stages, but extremely different in regards to what happens in each one. 

But if we only got that out of Genesis 1, then we would have missed the biggest point. Yes, our ancient Israelite mindsets (since we are placing ourselves in their shoes) are being dramatically overthrown as our polytheistic conflict-beginnings are being replaced by a transcendent and ultimate one God, who speaks to make - no violence, no catastrophe, just a word, and it is so. Yet the most profound thing that is said in this piece is, in a sense, about us.

In the Enuma Elish, we humans also come in near the end, but we come in to serve the gods because they got lazy of doing all the work themselves. We are divinely made slaves to relieve the gods of their labours. In Genesis 1, even were all the sanctity, the purposefulness and the goodness of God's creation to be completely ignored, we would still learn something phenomenally new about ourselves: we were made for our own sake - God lacks nothing, yet makes us, and gives first not orders but blessings. Then, our task is not an arduous job, but some might argue another blessing: "be fruitful and increase in number." (v. 28) God makes provision for us, giving us "every seed-bearing plant which is on the face of the earth, and every tree that bears fruit with seed." (I do not think this means humans were made to be vegetarians, but such an interpretation is at least plausible.) God has made humankind in the image of God, endowing us with a sanctity and inviolable nature; this matter of fundamental importance, the image of God, is to be the reason why killing another human is wrong, "for in the image of God has God made mankind" (Genesis 9:6).

Here is the thing to take away from this: the way God wants things, is very good. We shall see why exactly it is not so now in the chapters to come.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Scientific Argument against the Bible

Much could be said about the Bible's lack of regard for how the world really works, how it really began and how many other things came to be. Some have said that the Bible has simply collected an array of folk legends, while others claim those legends to be true in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Does science give us a tool to point out the backwardness of the Bible?

To answer that question, we shall need to examine exactly what it is which seems so out of sync with reality. We can grab the infamous creation story in Genesis 1 and the story of Noah's flood. There is undeniable evidence that the universe is many billions of years old, that the Earth is a few billions of years old (hence, that neither were created in short periods of hours or a week), as well as there being absolutely no reason to believe, from a scientific perspective, that there was ever a global flood that wiped out all the living creatures on the Earth, with the exception of some in a boat. Needless to say, we now know that the incredible diversity of life did not come about at some exact moment some half a dozen thousand years ago, but over a much longer time via processes described by biology. The argument would then be:

1.  Any person, collection of persons or document(s) that assert the aforementioned falsehoods is wrong and errant. (P implies Q - asserting these things implies the asserter is wrong)
2. The Bible asserts these things. (P: Scripture does indeed document those stories.)
3. Therefore, the Bible is wrong. (Q: therefore, by modus ponens, the Bible is wrong)
 Stripped of rhetoric and word play, this is what the argument is. Evidently, one can embellish the argument by calling the Bible "a collection of Bronze age myths", but really, the point Christopher Hitchens makes with that remark is that the Bible is old, it was written before humankind knew very much about how the world operates and therefore, people should move on from such nonsense.

Actually, even though I reject the second premise entirely, I would not be particularly distressed even if the conclusion was true. So what if we have an errant Bible? So what if it is wrong about cosmology and biology? Indeed, in the next entry when I discuss the historical argument against the Bible, this conclusion may well be inescapable. For this particular version of the argument, it seems to clearly fall down at premise 2.

Am I going to justify that statement? Nope! What I will instead do is cite this survey from the United States which indicates that most of the denominations of Christianity do not declare there to be any reason to believe that there is a conflict between the Scriptures and modern science, including cosmology, geology and evolution.
Some denominations look like "Pac-men", but I think the Roman Catholic Statement has it best:
"It is important to set proper limits to the understanding of Scripture, excluding any unreasonable interpretations which would make it mean something which it is not intended to mean."
And also the Church of England's:
"There is nothing here that contradicts Christian teaching. Jesus himself invited people to observe the world around them and to reason from what they saw to an understanding of the nature of God (Matthew 6:25-33)."
 Whether or not you agree with the Roman Catholic Church's dogmatic stances, they have a very prudent and un-dictatorial view of the Bible and science.

If you would like to know how I myself understand these passages (which are incredibly rich once you stop trying to get them to say something they do not), feel free to shoot me an email.

Monday, 18 February 2013

The Immoral Argument against the Old Testament

The core question of ethics, "what ought one do?" is one of the foundational questions of philosophy. Christianity seems to get ethics from the Bible, but is it really a good source? If one looks at the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, then it may seem very plausible. Yet the earliest gentile Christians realized that it was not quite so simple - they were going to have to contend with the seemingly abhorrent actions committed by Israel, codified into Mosaic Law and commanded by God. Can an argument from the immorality of the Hebrew Bible suffice to reject the Bible as authoritative on matters of morality?

Allow me first to bring up some of this "evidence". From things Israel committed, see Numbers 31
where Moses commands the Israelites (it can be reasonably argued from verse 7 that God was the one who really commanded, but it is possible that the brutality was not God's - in this instance) to destroy the Midianites, and then Moses complains further when the Israelites have not killed every woman. These Midianite women and the men (referred to as boys in the passage) are to be put to death. The virgins, however, are kept as plunder "for themselves".

If the ownership of women seems unlawful to you, then this only complicates matters, as the law of Moses clearly speaks of women as property[1], for instance, in Exodus 22:16-17. Christians can speak of Jesus abolishing this law all they like, but the gospel according to St Matthew is insistent on the fact that Jesus' role was fulfilment, not abolishment - and if the sinless man fulfils it, then the Mosaic law must be the standard of morality to judge sin by. Furthermore, if Christians are adamant that Jesus actions mean we can ignore the law of Moses, why does St Paul refer to it as good and holy? (see: Romans 7:12)

One final piece of evidence: God's own explicit commands. Where better than the genocide of Joshua, commanded in Deuteronomy 7? I take this last instance to be common enough knowledge, and if not, then Deuteronomy is clear enough.

Now comes the logic part. It seems to be the case that these have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus, about compassion on loving on another - but they do, for Jesus claims to be the son of the God of Israel and no other. The modus ponens argument I suggest is as follows:

1. To commit or command the actions listed above is immoral. (P implies Q - commanding these actions implies that the commander is immoral)
2. God commands the actions listed above. (P: God does indeed command these actions)
3. Therefore, God is immoral. (Q: therefore, by modus ponens, God is immoral)

The logic of this statement is valid, but one may also attack the truth of the premises. Some Christians reject the first premise, saying that it is not in all times, cultures and places immoral to kill others or enslave them. Some say that it may be for most, but not for God, because God can do whatever he likes. Phrased in a more sophisticated manner, God has no moral obligations, as nothing is above God to impose them.

Very well, but that neither seems biblical nor does it seem to bode well in philosophy, either. If God does not, by his very own righteous nature, impose standards on his own actions, then how does he impose standards on ours? Where does this standard come from in the Christian view, if not from God's own essence? Either we propose an authority above God from which morality emanates, thereby constraining God, or we reject this and propose that the standard is, in fact, from within God and then he must have moral obligations; to himself.

But the second premise can also be challenged. Is biblical infallibility a terribly out-dated doctrine that ought to be left aside? It would certainly be helpful to reject it at times like these! Or at least, do we really need to take things so literally, word-for-word true, leaving aside the human element inherent in it?

In fact, I would opt for something along the lines of the latter. There are however, problems with this view, and there exist tensions which I am not wise enough to solve. Succinctly, the most crucial is that the New Testament writers all valued the Old Testament very highly, if not as inerrant. For some more discussion on this topic, see Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away.

[1] It has come to my attention that the Roman Catholic Church actually (quite prudently in my opinion) has the decalogue (10 Commandments) arranged in a different way. These commandments are numbered 10, but there are in fact 13 "you shall not"s, and so it falls upon the translators to combine them to make 10. Catholics combine the "first two" and separate wives from property, avoiding this problem.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away

Two days ago I wrote some "fairly unorthodox" (among Christians) views on the Bible - I used it as it can undeniably be taken; a historical document. Unfortunately, although some early Christians (sometimes called Marcionites, after Marcion, who had this goal) tried to get rid of the Old Testament as distinctly human, if we are to grant Jesus authority, then we must grapple with how he uses the Old Testament. It cannot be ignored easily.

The most common argument however, is not from Jesus' use, but from St Paul's letter to Timothy. In it is the famous verse (2 Timothy 3:16-17): "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." It would perhaps be nice to say this includes the New Testament, but given the context of the preceding verses, it is clear Paul speaks of the Old Testament (the only sacred texts he would have been able to study in his childhood). We see that Paul and Jesus, as well as many others, have a high regard for the Hebrew Bible - but what use do they make of it? This is the crux of the matter. How should Christians today understand and apply these Jewish texts?

Although Jesus' regard for Scripture is often cited as evidence by literalists and inerrantists, Jesus does not seem to take the Hebrew Bible literally in the sense that it is used today. The people that are meant to be inspired by God to write the Biblical documents use it in an odd way. I shall cite some uses from the gospel according to St Matthew, because it is the most Jewish. They are not exhaustive, and I recognize that often the Old Testament is used as we would expect it to be.
  • Matthew 1:23. This is a quotation from Isaiah 7:14, and unless one looks up the source, it may seem convincing. But upon opening the book of Isaiah at chapter 7, we see that this does not appear, in context, to be about the coming of the Messiah. The Messianic prophecy does not come until later in that book. The writer of this gospel has taken clear poetic license to quote this verse.
  • Matthew 2:15. This is from Hosea 11:1, but in context, this again is a reference to something different. In Hosea, God personifies Ephraim (Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel) as his son. It does not seem to be the case that Hosea spoke of Jesus. The author has taken a liberty here.
  • Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Here Jesus takes it upon himself to deepen the severity of the Law, and in one section (5:38-48), he even overrides and changes it! The first case is with the so-called law of talion: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" - Jesus then says no! Do not resist an evil person (which is the same as saying, do not take his eye for yours, or his tooth for yours). If he strikes you on the cheek, do not strike back, but instead, offer the other! This change of the law may seem to be more moral or noble, but there is (almost) no denying it is a change.

    However, the next bit of law he changes is even more startling, because it appears far more clearly to be a contradiction: "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Now, the spirit of the idea of staying well away and uninvolved with enemies is clear from the surrounding passages of Leviticus 19, but "hate your enemy" is not stated verbatim there, whereas "love your neighbour" is.
  • Matthew 19. This passage on divorce uses Genesis, where the supposed "first couple" appear. It is used at times to prove Jesus took Genesis 1 as a literal account of history and science, as well as to verify the historicity of the figure of Adam. But Jesus does not, in fact, do any such thing. Jesus gives as the reason for not divorcing that "in the beginning they were made male and female" (which is a fact, as far as anyone can tell, since Homo Sapiens have always been divided by sex) and then continues "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh" (which is the quotation). Here note that this cannot be about Adam and Eve as a literalistic reading of the passage would give us. Adam and Eve had no parents, and they were one flesh quite literally, in that one was made from the other - they cannot, therefore, "become" one flesh. They already are.
I hope it is clear now that very often the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, is used in ways we do not expect. Yes, Jesus has the authority to add his own - but see how this is understood best as the finality of revelation in Jesus. The authors of the New Testament use the Old in ways that are unexpected - so above all, we must take humility in how we interpret it.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Why assume the Bible?

In the last entry, I just took the Christian tradition of thinking that the Bible is authoritative for granted. Most people raised Christian probably have a fairly easy time assuming Biblical authority, but I do not. So how do I understand the Bible?

Starting with the Old Testament, we see the ancient Israelites struggling to understand God. From Genesis, where ancient near Eastern myths were altered in light of the theological truths to be explored (monotheistic theology, a perfectly moral God, with omnipotence) it is clear that the Jews (not yet with this name) were having a very hard time coming to grips with how a perfect God could do any of the things that appear so readily, so abundant, but also quite decidedly bad. The beginning (well, Genesis 2-3, since Genesis 1 is about there being only one God, one Creator and all other things being simply created) shifts the blame from divine shoulders to human ones, and at the end, in Genesis 50, Joseph explains how the evils of being almost killed, then sold in to slavery, ultimately resulted in God's plan being fulfilled - "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."

On and on we see Israel gaining understanding of the divine. Yes, God does seem to play a large role in this, and a lot of the Old Testament, though not a majority, contains alleged quotations. Mixed in with all the divine revelation, however, is a very human tone, and very human passages. God's word? In part, but not the whole.

"Well, you can say that, but it just means you are becoming judge over Holy Scripture, keeping what you want and disregarding what you do not!", I hear some people exclaiming. This is a mostly baseless claim. If I were a Jew, then it would surely be a very pointed comment, but the Bible is about revealing God, and Christians understand the God was ultimately and with finality revealed in person, in the flesh. We now have the complete revelation without the noise of human revisionism.

The other side of the spectrum might then exclaim "Ah, but who knows whether Jesus actually said these things?", and the answer is simple. We do. Not because of some pragmatic "God would not leave us alone in the dark" argument, but because of the study of history, and how that shows beyond reasonable doubt that the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are quite reliable as historical documents at the very least. We can have great assurance that, for the most part, Jesus of Nazareth did say the things that are collected there, and if you are a Christian, then most likely you can join me in also believing that many of the miracles (though perhaps not all) were, indeed, done by Jesus, God the Son, whilst he walked the Earth.

 I may, at some time, address some popular arguments for Biblical inerrancy, but this at least is clear: as critical historians, we can figure out a lot of what Jesus said. And from there, if one is (or decides to become) a Christian, we can live our lives in light of that.