Good blasphemy?

One movie that I liked well enough to add to my small collection is a slightly odd mockumentary called Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999). It satirises beauty pageants and the abuses related to that industry.

One particular scene has always stuck in my mind, mostly because as a Christian, I am sensitive about blasphemy and this pushes it a bit far. Watch it here:

denise

In the clip, we see the ‘talent show’ part of the beauty pageant competition, in which the beauty queen finalists all have to show off some sort of talent to prove that they are more than just a pretty face. The woman introducing the next contestant (Gladys) is the organiser and judge of the competition, as well as the mother of the next contestant, who is called Becky. Both of them are dishonest, evil characters who will stop at nothing to win. Gladys introduces her daughter as follows:

“Now, it’s with overwhelming pride that I introduce contestant number six, who is also the president of her class – two years running – an honor roll student and the new President of the Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club – Ladies and Gentlemen, Rebecca Ann Leeman!”

Becky sits on stage with the spotlight on her and says,

“You know what? The rumours are true. I do have a special fella in my life. And if nobody minds, I’d like to sing a little song, just for him.”

She proceeds to sing ‘I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, and as the chorus begins and the ‘special fella’ emerges from the wings to do the dance routine, we discover that this ‘fella’ is a ridiculous Jesus mannequin pinned to a cross on wheels. Becky takes his outstretched arms and begins an up-tempo dance with him.

Now this is clearly meant to be blasphemous and therefore to offend the Christian audience. If the movie were any bigger or happened to appear at any more momentous an occasion than its setting in 1999, I imagine that it could have precipitated the proverbial dung storm (in the parlance of our times).

Nevertheless, I decided to use this clip for a lesson on satire at GWC, the Bible college at which I teach. While it’s not normally the sort of place in which blasphemy is appreciated, it was a calculated risk that I thought important. Why? Because Christian leaders are particularly bad at responding to media in general, and to public acts of blasphemy in particular. How does this movie scene help? Well, consider what satire is for.

If you’ll pardon the source, Wikipedia’s article called ‘Satire’ (accessed 8 Oct 2013) says:

Satire is a genre of literature [etc.]… in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, and society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.

A common feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm—”in satire, irony is militant”… This “militant” irony or sarcasm often professes to approve of (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack. (Emphasis mine)

Wiki adds that exaggeration is a common technique in satire.

In short, satire is a form of criticism that aims at shaming people into changing their bad behaviour. We expect it to mimic that bad behaviour in ironic and exaggerated ways so that the wrongness of the behaviour is both clear and embarrassing. When the recipient fully feels this embarrassment, the hope is that it will provoke change. Often the offence is all that is felt, and this is why satire is subject to more misunderstanding, criticism, and controversy than perhaps any other genre.

Even though Drop Dead Gorgeous is surely being blasphemous, consider how this scene fulfils each of the requirements of satire:

  1. Exaggeration:  Dancing with a crucifix is clearly preposterous, but most of the crowd more-or-less laps it up.
  2. Seems to approve of the bad behaviour: Although the film-maker seems to be blaspheming in this scene, the ‘straight character’ (Ellen Barkin), who represents the film-maker’s opinion of the clear thinker on this matter, reacts to this dance with shock and ridicule. The film-maker knows that it is unacceptable.
  3. Uses shock to shame the abuser: This is the key issue. Who or what is this ‘bad behaviour’ supposed to be shaming?

If you can take a step back from the offence of this scene and consider its purpose, you should notice a few things. Firstly, the scene in no way is criticising Christianity, or saying anything good or bad about Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus is not really there—he’s a mannequin—and he is consequently passive in the scene. He is acted upon, and not an active participant. Rather, the criticism is being directed primarily against people who use Christ’s name as a tool of audience manipulation. When the popular vote is needed, Jesus is trundled out to be paraded in front of the unthinking Christian audience. It doesn’t matter how wicked some people are behind the scenes, as long as they pay lip-service to Christianity, they have public trust.

Now think about what the Bible says about blasphemy. The Bible obviously acknowledges that unbelievers are blasphemers in their own way, but the strongest criticisms for blasphemy are actually levelled against those who are supposedly God’s people. Take for example St Paul’s summary reading of the Old Testament material on this subject:

Romans 2:23-24
23 You who boast in the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’

[See also Isaiah 52:4-5, Ezekiel 20:27-28, and Ezekiel 36:16-23 for more examples.]

The main sort of blasphemy that God prohibits is not the sort perpetuated by His enemies, but the sullying of His reputation at the hands of His own supposed representatives. This film clip seems to me to be making a similar point: those who claim to be representing Christ are often doing so only for appearance’ sake, whereas they actually blaspheme Jesus by their lifestyle and by their hypocritical public use of his name.

So while I would not usually condone blasphemy, satire is a medium that fights fire with fire. We get offended by a movie character dancing with a crucifix, but we don’t get offended when politicians stab one another in the back and dedicate the knife to Jesus? Perhaps we are the bigger blasphemers.

The second contribution of this scene is the attack on offensive Christian sentimentality. Becky addresses Jesus in terms associated with a boyfriend. In the original script, a dance move was supposed to cause Jesus’ loin cloth to slip, and in order to prevent it falling off, Becky was supposed to be left holding Jesus by the crotch. Even the film-makers seem to have decided that this would be going too far, and so there is no such scene in the film itself. Nevertheless, it does aim a slap at the incongruity of using ‘in-love’ language of Jesus (and other superficially romantic ways of speaking about faith). However much you might be able to drum up butterflies in the tummy about your relationship with Jesus, the Bible actively promotes the idea that our relationship now is partial and in a waiting period, not complete and immediate. For example:

1Corinthians 13:9-12

9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears… 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (See also 2Corinthians 5:6-7)

So by all means be excited about being forgiven, and being adopted into the family and the very being of God. Just don’t be fake and sentimental and showy about it. As Drop Dead Gorgeous points out, overdoing how close you claim to feel to Jesus can just come off as obscene. A bit more realism and a lot more sincerity would probably do the public face of Christianity a lot of good.

Satire Side-bar!

Satire is a very ancient genre and may well have found its way into scripture. Sections of Daniel, for example, seem to be ridiculing the Babylonian emperors who had taken Daniel and his compatriots into exile. The book of Jonah also casts the prophet in an exceptionally bad light: for the whole book he represents an attitude of unforgiveness towards Gentiles and disregard for their lives that stands in direct contrast to the attitude of God that the book teaches. This too might be intended as a satire of Jerusalem’s ‘pious’ people who have none of the love and mercy that their God does.

The Resurrection and Christopher Hitchens

Today is Easter, the celebration of the day on which Jesus was supposed to have been resurrected, an event upon which the entirety of biblical Christian faith rests. As St Paul once wrote,

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1Corinthians 15:17-19)

While many Christians have disagreed with Paul and have tried to find ways of distancing Jesus from such ‘embarrassing’ claims, the resurrection of Jesus is still the place in which I find my doubts most often stilled, and where proselytising atheists would do well to aim their attacks. In tandem with the incarnation (God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus), this is the central miracle of all the biblical miracles.

Christopher Hitchens was a much-loved atheist who sadly died of cancer recently, and he was one such opponent of the resurrection and the miraculous in general. Here is a clip that encapsulates many of his arguments that I’ve heard:

hitch

In the clip, he argues that the definition of ‘miracle’ is the ‘suspension of the natural order’. There may be some minor quibbles with the wording (Hitchens’ opponent in the video, for example, tries to insist on the word ‘intervention’), but it is basically good. Hitch then goes on to present David Hume’s old argument: Which is more likely? That a suspension of the natural order occurred in your favour, or that you’ve made a mistake?

Continue reading

Freethought and Bullying

There is a popular website called Freethought Blogs — a meeting point for secular thinkers — that is currently embroiled in a bullying row.

The mudslinging seems to have arisen out of a post or two about sexism within the atheist movement, which in turn prompted certain commentators to disagree that the specific problem was as broad or as bad as key figures on the site made out. This led such commentators to be villified, insulted, expelled, even seriously threatened. Respected secularist figures such as PZ Myers became involved, incurring criticism for abusive language, pulling rank, being arrogant, choosing sides, being irrational, and so on. It seems to be that for some time, popular writers on the site have constructed a status quo, and dissenters from it have been shouted down. This bullying behaviour is now being outed. You can google the subject for more information.

I know I shouldn’t find it funny, but I do.

Firstly, it’s obviously amusingly ironic when a place that names itself ‘Freethought Blogs’ decends into virtual riots over what people are allowed to think or say, and how ‘lesser thinkers’ should be treated. Such a title was always asking for trouble, I suppose.

In any event, I think this all demonstrates that no-one’s thinking (no-one worth listening to anyway) is ever really free; you can be free from one set of norms and restrictions, but you merely adopt another. We think in obedience to different masters. It’s an open question whether your master is better than mine.

Secondly, atheists (rightly) catalogue the hypocrisies of the religious when they behave badly towards unbelievers, so much so that I think they may have started to believe that atheism is a step of evolution beyond ‘less enlightened’ religious folk. It’s nice to see occasional demonstrations that even greats such as PZ Myers can be just as idiotic as the rest of us.

Finally, the truth is probably that both sides have a point, and both sides have reason to claim the moral high-ground when it comes to the the thing that they’re defending (whether anti-sexism or anti-bullying). But it is wonderful to watch the world’s cleverest people injuring themselves in an attempt to learn the principle, ‘The ends don’t justify the means.’

…………………

EDIT: Perhaps worth pointing out that I have no idea who is ultimately right, whether or not PZ Myers, for example, is the good guy or the bad guy, whether he is justifiably harsh, whether party x or y is lying or not. But clearly even clever people can have wisdom failure, being nasty tends to make things worse, and apologising is hard.

EDIT 2: Spelled Myers as Meyers before. Sorry. I think Austin Powers 2&3 broke the part of my brain that likes to spell that surname that way.

Response to Tauriq Moosa on Defending Morality with Religion

A friend of mine, Tauriq Moosa, wrote recently arguing on the basis of Euthyphro’s dilemma that it is indefensible for theists to claim their theism as a basis for ethics (‘The Flaws in Defending Morality With Religion‘). There was at least one blog offering a ‘Christian response’ that did neither side any justice, so I thought I’d have a go.

The dilemma as he put it is:

 “(1) Is conduct right because the gods command it (voluntarism), or (2) do the gods command it because it is right? (objectivism)”

It is derived from one of Socrates’ dialogues, and both Tauriq and Plato favour the second option, finding that the voluntarist option fails and renders the input of the gods redundant.

Although I discovered in the middle of writing this that what I’m about to say (or something similar) was succinctly argued by Augustine 1700 years ago (‘God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather His very nature is the standard for value.’), perhaps I can put it in a novel way.

The major problem with the dilemma is that it seems only to work if you conceive of the world as Plato did.

Plato’s world versus the Christian one

In Plato’s world the gods were part of the universe, not beyond it, and the universe itself was seen as infinite and uncreated. The gods were spiritual powers within the same system that we inhabit. In his view, we either source our morality in the wishes of the gods, or we source it in an independent principle (reason, for example). In his worldview, the gods could be in disagreement about what was right, so divine commands that were binding upon people would have to be limited to what could be agreed upon. If even the gods disagree about what is right, its means that they are also subject to a principle of rightness external to them; this of course makes their opinion on the matter largely redundant. Furthermore, the fact that the universe itself was thought to be eternal and governed by absolute principles would have lent moral reasoning (which taps into those principles) considerable authority for someone like Plato.

However, if God is the Creator of the system and outside the system, it radically changes the game board. The dilemma treats God as divorced from the universe, so that the two can be conceived of separately. Plato could reasonably do so because his ‘gods’ were separate in this way, but Christian theism is not so structured, and accordingly the dilemma seems not to hold. The universe is not eternal, and God is not a resident of it. The universe is His creation and dependent upon Him.

Everything that exists has its existence (according to Christianity) because of the ongoing command of God. In other words, God’s command does not merely govern moral imperatives, but also the patterns and structures and functioning of the universe too. Any system according to which we would measure rightness (be it reason, logic, whatever) would at the same time be a function of the mind of God who set the system up in the first place. The moral commands that He has given (taken for granted that there is a set of these that are identifiably from Him) would also be a function of that same mind. If God exists in the Biblical way, He is both the author of moral command and moral reasoning, both of which are a function of His mind and character.

So conduct is not right because God commands it but because it is fittingly related to His character. Conduct is not commanded by God because it is right either, but it is commanded because it is fittingly related to His character. Whether we learn of that relatedness and that character by means of command or by good moral reasoning is  irrelevant. God doesn’t merely give His blessing to something that is ‘good in itself’; His is the mind that made the rules and framework by which it can be recognised as such.

Objection: Following commands destroys moral freedom

“Whether god or the Bible, you are not making a proper moral decision if someone else is telling you what to do: it is not a decision, it is a command being obeyed. To be able to reason morally, you must be able to engage freely… Furthermore, [voluntarism] makes ethics a useless subject since we need only consult the gods.”

The complaint that command destroys free moral decision-making would perhaps be true if God dispensed command like a sergeant major. This is not how Christianity works.

Let’s hypothetically accept that the commands/laws in scripture are indeed from God’s mouth. These laws are surprisingly few, not exhaustive, given in a context, and intended to be applied and recontextualised very broadly. Over and over, the Bible models the idea that obedience to the letter of the law is insufficient and misses the point of it.

The law conveys a snapshot of Godlike character that needs to be investigated, expanded, understood, and embodied. Clearly even obedience to God’s command requires the careful application of wisdom (which connects us again to the domain of moral reasoning).

So God’s commands require His followers to be as competent as anyone else at moral reasoning, because without it, command is bound to be misunderstood and misapplied. Biblical commands cannot function to ‘tell us what to do’ because they’re not structured in this way. So one cannot solve moral problems merely by consulting the scriptures (hence the disagreement among even followers of the Bible that Tauriq mentions). Moral reasoning, albeit of a dependent kind, is still required of Christians.

Additionally, it is certainly not the case that on moral issues one can merely ‘consult the gods’ directly. Given that the structure of God’s command is not to have a constant stream of orders from heaven, there is no expectation for Christians that God will provide fresh, specific commands for daily eventualities. His commands in scripture are expressions of underlying guiding principles, which (once laid down) are there for our study and application. This means that God’s commands are not as open to change or subjectivity or arbitrariness as you might think.

Objection: God is redundant

“…the gods are useless, since if the action is right, why do we need the gods to recognise it? We are already using another standard…”

From my earlier argument, it should be clear that God is not separable from the standard of right; God is not lending approval to ‘another standard’, He is actually foundational to morality and to the reasoning by which we attempt to gain access to it. He is the one who speaks the language of reason according to which the universe has been programmed.

But why the need to provide commands? Doesn’t moral reasoning at least make His intervention redundant?

Christians argue no, because it is basic Christian belief that humanity does not by nature have direct access to God, because sin separates us from knowing God, which means that our moral reasoning is left to its own devices. Because people have limited capacity and we’re generally unable to foresee the consequences of our moral decision-making, we do not have the faculties and the vantage point to see what is truly moral behaviour. In Christian terms, we are supposed to be aware that we are dependent creatures, not autonomous.

God does not experience such failings, and so ours can be partially overcome if God reveals His character in a more decisive way, and this makes command desirable. This is why Christians will tend to revert to the Biblical basis for morality that Tauriq’s article complains about. If God exists and if He has spoken, His words would necessarily be a primary moral resource. (Again, this assumes that we have a body of God’s revelation. I understand that this is questionable, but it is for now a separate issue than whether revelation/command would trump human reason.)

As Tauriq says: “One may appeal to reasons made by smarter people, but then you are engaging in their reasoning which any other free agent can assess and dispute”. God is the ultimate ‘smarter person’, and He does, surprisingly enough, frequently supply some of His reasons for moral commands. It is entirely reasonable to appeal to His thoughts, if we have them.

Another important reason why it is preferable to prioritise command is that Biblical religion is about restoring people to a relationship of dependence upon God, rather than autonomy. Having come to believe that God has commanded something, it is anti-relational to behave as though one knows better than Him how His creation works.

Objection: Third way makes God equivalent to goodness a priori

Tauriq’s article mentions a third way (besides the two raised by Plato), which makes rightness something internal to God. This is much the same as what I’m arguing, so I must answer the related objection. Tauriq says:

“We can’t simply be saying ‘god is good’ before the conversation on what constitutes good has even begun: because then it would render the discussions circular. Equating God with good doesn’t answer the question of what constitutes good, it just redefines God.”

I’m not sure that anyone is spared from his objection here, because everybody must eventually say what it is that constitutes good, and I don’t see how we can avoid doing so without describing a set of principal characteristics. By what criterion we say they’re ‘right’ thereafter presumably is circular for everyone.

When Christians say ‘God is good’, we do not leave God or goodness undefined, as if our idea of God could be redefined to suit any moral standard (which seems to me to be a modification of voluntarism). When we say God is good, we mean that goodness is based on His characteristics, not something external to Him (whether His commands or moral universals).

So this is why morality is ‘being fittingly related to His character’. Take for example what Jesus calls the founding principles underlying all law: love for God and love for neighbour. We are saying that love (as it is exemplified in scripture, especially the crucifixion) is not an eternal principle that God likes, it is who He is, and so it is hardwired into His command and His creation.

There are two related objections that I’ll answer far too briefly: Firstly, some would say that if God existed prior to the creation of anything, then how could he have been moral (loving, for example) before there was anything that required the exercise of morality (love is other-person-centeredness; there needs to be others for it to exist)?

Ignoring the fact that we know nothing about eternity or things before the universe came to be, this objection is answered by the evidence in scripture that God is ‘Trinity’: a pluriform being, for want of a better term. God thus eternally practices other-person-centeredness by nature within his own being. So morality can be a set of particular characteristics, without also having to be external to God.

The second related objection is that God commands things that seem to us to be evil. I have written about the problem of evil before, so I’ll merely summarise. Firstly, for the greater good God opts not to bring evil (and thus all mankind) to an end, but rather works within a corrupted system to bring about ultimate good.

Secondly, there are direct divine commands (e.g. to annihilate) that are distasteful. Yet they are in line with the otherwise-obvious fact that God takes every life. Even those that die peacefully in their old age are nevertheless put to death by God, because as He says in the third chapter of the entire Bible, those who rebel will be put to death. He’s never really hidden that part away. Meting out judgement is not actually in direct conflict with God’s love. What is in conflict with God’s love is human hatred and rebellion, and so God either cures it or removes it.

Seeing as this still makes people unhappy, I would add to the above something that I have not argued on this subject before: It is a remarkable feature of God’s work in the world that He doesn’t mind bearing the accusation that He is evil. In working for the ultimate Good, God never seems to labour too hard to clear His own name.

Take the example of Jesus. His family line includes famous ancestors born out of prostitution, incest, adultery, and non-Jewish lineage. He was conceived out of wedlock inviting the assumption that he was a bastard. He worked as a manual labourer, not a scholar or priest. He hung around with traitors and hookers. He broke cultural interpretations of God’s law. He was condemned as a blasphemer. He died like the lowest of slaves. Nothing that he did was particularly aimed at protecting his reputation, and yet his shameful birth and death is all directed towards curing the evil and rebellion in those people who killed him.

So although the rightness of God’s actions are not always apparent to us, He seems not to mind the loss of reputation, even if it turns out that He was all the while doing good.

Risk and Jesus’ Revolution

People seem naturally to prefer life in high contrast: things must be black and white, goodies and baddies, easily categorised. Unfortunately, having a category for something usually ends any further thought on the subject. This happens all to often with goodies and baddies in scripture, especially the Pharisees. We know they’re the enemy, and so we usually avoid to identifying ourselves with them in any way.

Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, and our preacher helpfully sketched a clearer picture of what was actually going on when Jesus was being welcomed into Jerusalem with such optimism (the waving of palms thing). [I'm stealing all his best info, which he in turn wishes to credit to that excellent book on Jesus, The King of God's Kingdom (which you should read/buy if you haven't, and even if you're one of those skeptical types).]

In the first instance, the waving of palms was a politically charged action: a few decades later, when Jerusalem minted its own currency in defiance of Rome (shortly before being utterly obliterated by them), they chose the palm leaf as the image on the coin.

Secondly, the pilgrims arriving for the festival knew about Jesus’ miracles, and were now making a bid for him to declare himself king. They began using the acclamation, ‘Hosanna’. This isn’t a word like ‘Yay!’ or even ‘Praise God’. It means ‘Save!’ (or ‘Save now!’), and it’s from Psalm 118, a song that has to do with God (and His king) cutting off the nations that threaten them, rescuing His people against impossible odds.

So the crowd had become convinced that Jesus was the king that God would use to throw off the yoke of Roman occupation. He was supposed to lead them into a golden age, even if the task seemed impossible. The festival crowd – perhaps as much as two million strong — was being stirred up with revolution songs, and was readying to enthrone the rebel leader in the city of the King. It’s safe to say that things were a little tenser than the Sunday School version allows.

There was good reason for tension. The last time someone had tried to mount a resistance to Rome, at around the time of Jesus’ birth, things had gone very, very badly. The Romans came to meet the uprising, by some accounts flattening the town from which it originated, and selling all its inhabitants into slavery. Except, that is, for the 2,000 rebels that the Roman governor crucified as a warning to others. The people who were meant to take warning were those people now in power: the Pharisees and the Chief Priests.

We’re accustomed to treating them like whatever Darth Vader’s team is called on Star Wars — and surely some of them must have been typical power-hungry politicians who deserve our scorn — but we recognise too infrequently how much of a point they had. How many of us reasonable folk, when in a position of responsibility, would have done differently?

  • They knew that their scriptures promised a new king, but they also knew that Rome was deeply intolerant of pretenders to the throne and would not be as forgiving as the last time (marching to Palestine tended to leech all of the Pax out of the Romana). Lives depended on them backing the genuine article.
  • They knew that the Messiah that was promised was supposed to come from David’s family and David’s town. Jesus was Galilean, as far as they knew. He couldn’t be the one.
  • Jesus didn’t look like much of a king. He was an artisan, an itinerant teacher from the school of no one, hailing from the town of nowhere. He had no military credentials whatsoever. He did amazing things, but he was cavalier with some of the cherished Torah (breaking the Sabbath and so on), and he hung out with cheats and prostitutes and scum on the Roman payroll.

The people were all so impressed with his magic, but they didn’t know their theology. They didn’t know that he should be disqualified. He didn’t have the credentials, and his power might come from the Devil for all anyone knew. Supporting this guy against the Romans was too much of a risk.

This explains some of their behaviour earlier in the gospels. In John 11:47-50, the baddies say:

So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”

In other words, Jesus is making too many waves; the Romans are going to notice. The utilitarian equation therefore determines that it’s better to kill the one man, rather than starting a war on his account.

And then shortly after the optimistic welcome in the city, when in a game of brinkmanship, the rulers are able to prove that he’s not the Messiah (by having the Roman overlords kill him), they say:

“Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” (John 19:15)

It’s an ironic indictment upon them in the context of John’s Gospel, but they say such things in order to reassure the Roman governor that they are not attempting to throw off the rule of Rome. There is no need for any further Roman intervention: the revolution dies with one madman.

Risk

All of this has me thinking: what should the leaders have done? They behaved according to God’s plan, of course, in one sense, but surely the right thing to do would have been to take the risk and support Jesus. Who knows what the outcome would have been if they had?

I certainly would not want to have been in their position.

And yet in one sense, each of us does take a similar risk in believing in God and, specifically, following Jesus. There isn’t indisputable evidence in His favour; beliefs are passed on through the experience and example of flawed (sometimes idiotic) believers; following Jesus involves a degree of hardship and sacrifice (indeed it even costs many their lives each year). People today are fond of demanding proof that God exists or that Jesus is who he said he was, but not even the people who saw his miracles were satisfied that he was the one. Maybe there can simply never be enough proof for something like this. Either way, you’re required to take a risk, whether it be the ‘reasonable’ Pharisees’ move to stick with the Devil you know (in the hope that redemption of a safer type lies just over the horizon), or the more uncertain move to join ranks behind the One who says He’s your King.

Don’t be a Dawk about it

Richard feeling grumpy after an embarrassing radio interview

Richard Dawkins recently published the results of a survey into the level of religious belief in Britain. Among the more shocking revelations was that only one in three Christians could correctly answer a four-option multiple choice question asking them to identify the first book of the New Testament.

Rev Giles Fraser made a risky comeback, asking Dawkins whether he could give the full title of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Dawkins went blank on it, stumbled around for a while, but eventually got it mostly right.

Fraser used this lapse to say,

‘If you ask people who believe in evolution that question, and you came back and said 2 per cent got it right, it would be terribly easy for me to say they don’t believe it after all.’ (Source: Daily Mail)

As a result, there has been a fair bit of ridicule and triumphalism bandied about on the net by Christians or other Dawkins-dislikers.

This is unfortunate for more reasons than Dawkins gives (i.e. that the question he had to answer was disproportionately difficult, compared with the Matthew multiple-choice).

Firstly, Fraser’s retort seems to suggest that Christian belief without even the most basic awareness of Christian content is somehow acceptable. Yet on the contrary, even the most rudimentary acquaintance with Jesus’ teachings makes it clear that Jesus rests everything on hearing, keeping, and obeying his teaching, and following his example, such as:

  • Lk. 14:27 “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
  • Jn. 8:31 “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.”
  • Jn. 15:14 “You are my friends if you do what I command.” (See also Matt. 7:26-27; John 8:47,51; 15:10)

Dawkins is probably right, therefore, that the majority of Britons who identify themselves as Christians actually have no functioning religious belief whatsoever.

Secondly, Fraser’s superficial victory has drawn Christian attention away from these rather alarming revelations from Dawkins’ research. Instead of hearing what Dawkins said, Christians have majored on his (understandable) memory lapse. Yet these are some of the conclusions of his research (taken also from AndrewCopson.net):

  • 17% of Christians have never read the Bible
  • 28% of census Christians believe in Christian teachings
  • 6% had attended a church in the last week
  • 65% said they were not religious
  • 48% believe Jesus was a real person who was the son of God, died and came back to life
  • 10% say they seek most guidance on questions of right and wrong from religious teachings or beliefs
  • 60% hadn’t read the Bible in the last year
  • 28% say that it is a belief in the teachings of Christianity that makes them tick the Christian census-box

Dawkins is surely right, therefore, that the majority of British Christians are functionally atheistic. And how can Fraser be correct that the statistics do not fairly describe belief in Christianity when the stats show that ‘Christians’ are not acquainted with Christian writings, do not concern themselves all that much with Christian morality, do not identify with Christian beliefs, and do not attend church? Is there something more basic than belief and practice that defines the Christian religion? There isn’t according to Christian texts and church history, but maybe these days the enjoyment of cake and warm handshakes is sufficient (although diabetics and the arthritic are also more than welcome).

Dawkins also wrong

Having said all that, let me not give the impression that I think Dawkins’ point stretches any further. His motivation for presenting this research is to say that even though the census reveals that almost 70% call themselves Christian, tax money should not be allocated to the benefit of Christian organisations or religious ends of any kind, because the people are not really Christian.

The object of the poll , carried out by Ipsos Mori for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, appears to have been to discredit the use of census data to justify Christian practices such as government funding for faith schools and bishops having seats in the House of Lords. (Source: The Week)

The obvious response is that Dawkins’ findings will matter for nominal Christians on Judgement Day, should there prove to be one. Where they don’t matter is in the realm of politics. Government ought to be distributing some of its funds (taken from the taxpayer) according to the will of the taxpayer. If people wish for government to spend money on environmental preservation, it doesn’t really matter how many of those people have Range Rovers and don’t recycle. It remains their will. Similarly, if census respondents identify themselves with Christian things, it is right for government to spend accordingly, irrespective of how devout those people turn out to be, or how consistent their beliefs are. Charges of hypocrisy are unfortunately not relevant, Mr Dawkins.

Prayer and Politics

Jack Bloom, the Democratic Alliance leader in the Gauteng legislature, recently published an opinion piece encouraging prayer as a means of moral regeneration that perhaps had the power to galvanise people to action in a way that politicians could not. Drawing anecdotally upon prayer-led regenerative movements in history and some of the changes that they had a role in shaping, he rounds off with the suggestion that conservative religious institutions should perhaps return to a position of greater moral and social authority. You can read his piece at http://bit.ly/wKjMmh.

A friend of mine, Jacques Rousseau, took issue with him, pointing out that anecdotal evidence of the sort presented does not actually prove any connection between prayer, religious revivals, and especially the change that has supposedly resulted from them. Any number of factors might have had a far greater role in, say, abolition of slavery, than religious movements. Jacques also gives evidence that secular countries tend to have a better ethical record than religious ones. You can read his riposte at http://bit.ly/yQ4x3E.

[Jack has since responded (http://bit.ly/Ar9BC9) arguing among other things that good secularism is still trading upon religious moral capital. This is a common retort, and one about which we'll have to wait and see, I suppose. I personally doubt it is as simple as that. Anyway, the exchange is interesting and worth following.]

I would like to add a couple of points to the debate, perhaps we’ll call it one for each side.

Firstly, as an endorsement of Jack Bloom’s sentiments, I think that prayer can play an important role. Of course, much depends on addressing the true God and in the right manner, which is by no means a guarantee, but even from a purely pragmatic (virtually secular) perspective, it can be important. The reason for this is that prayer has a good chance of promoting humility. It is perfectly possible in the hands of the worst sort of people for prayer to be one more tool in service of hubris (take for example Jesus’ caricature of that Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers…” [Luke 18:11]). Yet prayer is per definition an act of casting oneself upon what one believes to be a higher power. This ought to breed a sense of perspective.

Humility is certainly something that is needed in this country, from the top down. In fact, Jim Collins, a researcher of organisational change, has written identifying hubris as the first of five steps that successful companies take on the road to utter failure. Restoration of humility and renouncing of complacency are the only cure (http://amzn.to/UctDR). If prayer can play a role in growing humility, I say advocate it. If people end up praying earnestly to the right God who then turns out to exist and care, all the better.

Secondly, as a caution to Jack Bloom, in particular concerning his opinion that religions should wield more social and moral clout, I would be concerned that it makes all the difference who those religious are. The good sort are great, but the bad can be really bad. I would hate to be taking cues from the frequently confused type, but taking moral guidance from some of them would be hell on earth. Some confuse Sharia law for morality, or the ‘God inspired’ hatred of gays.

The Greek philosophers rated monarchy as the best system of government, if the king were good and noble, but had the potential to be the worst if the king were wicked (democracy, in their view was the least desirable because it had the least potential for going wrong, or for getting anything worthwhile done — hopefully they would like what we’ve done with it). Handing moral responsibility over to the religious could have good effect if they were wise, benevolent, principled, and selfless. But I don’t fancy the chances.

Paul Movie (the alien, not the saint)

Paul MovieSimon Pegg and Nick Frost have been responsible for some entertaining stuff. Their breakthrough series, Spaced, was excellent and their movies have been pretty good too. The video store box of Paul promised that this was not only a must-see, but also a must-own. So I took a shot.

My expectations were pretty low, and Frost and Pegg just about managed to live up to them. There were a fair number of laughs (‘No, Boomer, it is forbidden’ was a high point) and it was watchable enough from start to finish. They had also secured a very respectable supporting cast. However the film obviously developed out of a gist of an idea (“What if some sci-fi nerds actually run in to the original Roswell alien and have to help him get home?”) rather than a fully formed story, and so translating it into 90 minutes of film unfortunately led them to cut-and-paste their handful of good ideas into a cliched and predictable format. The humour relies far too often on people saying naughty words or trundling through standard situational set-pieces. If you’ve seen more than one movie in your life, you know how it’s going to end.

What irked the most, however, was the polemic against Christianity. I don’t mind atheist anti-religious commentary per se, and in a film about two good-natured Brits adrift in the American Mid-West (I think?), I suppose religious themes were an obvious choice. It’s just that the way it was done was an insult to intelligence.

The three characters on the poster arrive in a caravan park that happens to be owned by a fanatical right-wing Christian—complete with rifle, pictures of Jesus in his house, and repeated calls to Bible study—and his beautiful-but-one-eyed daughter. Through circumstance, she has to come along with them. Somehow evolution comes up, leading to the daughter babbling about the world being 4,000 years old, etc. etc (I think even the most young-earthiest Christians argue for 50% longer than that). At this point, Paul the alien comes out of hiding, downloads all of his knowledge about the universe into her head, and frees her from her religious ignorance. She discovers with relief that she can now curse (hence the reliance on swearing humour), fornicate and so on. They generously claim that Paul’s existence doesn’t disprove all notions of god, just the Judeo-Christian ideas. Paul also uses his special alien powers to take her eye deformity upon himself and conquer it, healing her and thereby showing that she has received full ‘sight’ (and probably that you, like Paul, can be good without God. Or something).

I appreciate the attempt at padding deepening the storyline with social commentary. But what’s so especially irritating about all of this is that they construct the straw-manniest of Christian opponents and then proceed to knock it over and ridicule it and draw moral conclusions from it on the basis of science-fiction. ‘My alien says your religion is stupid’.

Headscratch

*blink*

There are so many interesting and funny and true things that could be said about religion in the West, or in favour of atheism, or even just in exploration of the consequences of having found aliens. Instead they went lazy and cheap, as they did with rest of the story, and it utterly ruins whatever good ideas provoked them to start writing in the first place.

You made me wish I’d rented Captain America or Harry Potter 8, Pegg and Frost. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

Possible Worlds

Passing judgement is taboo in many circles these days, with many denying that we have the right or the ability to tell others what they ought to do or think. Two thousand year old wisdom lends some (limited) support to this view, saying ‘Judge not lest you be judged’.

The reason for this perspective is not hard to understand. Someone is only equipped to be a judge if they have sufficient knowledge and experience to know what are the relevant facts, and if they have keen enough insight / foresight to know what is the correct verdict. We allow judges to preside over courtrooms because they know the law better than anyone else, they have served with distinction for a long enough period, and because we don’t have a better alternative. Judgement requires superior knowledge and perspective, and while professional judges may do well enough in their limited field, most people do not possess these qualities about most things. So we rightly give them flak when they presume to try.

It is all the more remarkable to me, therefore, that the same species that produces Jerry Springer and MacDonald’s and automatically flushing toilets feels capable of judging God. I don’t mean that we’re always critical of God—sometimes we pass judgement with the best of intentions—I just mean that we somehow imagine that we have the brain-power to crunch the numbers involved in such a judgement, or the platform from which to gain the proper perspective.

God Should Choose Everyone
For example—and those who don’t know or care about Calvinism can skip ahead here—I was having a discussion with my wife earlier in the week about the age-old complaint that if God is the one who chooses whom He will save (rather than we being the ones who decisively choose Him), then why doesn’t He just save everyone (the implication being that God should save everyone if it’s just up Him).

Romans 9 has some answers to that objection that I’m not going to go into here, but that chapter also includes the following line, which seems at first blush to be the desperate retort of an authoritarian who doesn’t like the way that the conversation is going:

You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? (Romans 9:19f)

However, Paul’s response is not a dismissive ‘because I said so’. He’s merely pointing out that the things under discussion require from us a capacity that we can never possess. So consider the objection that God should save everyone if He is able. This requires of us the ability to correctly imagine a world history in which everyone becomes a genuine believer. What are the implications for freedom, faith, discipleship? Would there be adversity? Would testing be experienced as genuine? Would we become the kind of creatures that we should? Would we learn to know the things about God that are most important (‘mercy’ in Romans 9 thinking)? We may guess at the answers to such questions, but we simply cannot construct a world in our minds in which we can fully grasp and correctly judge the effect of changing so crucial a variable. Even time travellers in the stories only find out the effect of their changes on history once they go back to the future; who has the power to predict such things? Who are we to answer back indeed?

Universe-sized Number-crunching
I find this sort of judgement to be especially prevalent in atheist rhetoric. I’ve heard it argued on many occasions that a world presided over by Zeus or Ra or Yahweh would look markedly different from our own. I have no quibble with the idea that ruling powers of different character would produce worlds of different kinds, but I have significant problems with the idea that people are able to imagine these worlds in any sort of helpful way. The idea that anyone is capable of fully capturing in their minds a picture of the ‘world as it is’ and another picture of ‘the world as it would be’ if there were an interventionist God (or whatever) in charge is absurd (not forgetting that these pictures also require a complete comprehension of the deity in question). Satisfying yourself that God doesn’t exist because you know how things would be if He did is a self-deceit that would be best abandoned sooner rather than later.

Show Thyself
If you do insist upon trying to reimagine the universe in this way, turning the ‘god variables’ on and off to see what happens, I would humbly suggest the following for your consideration, as I believe that this is one misunderstanding of how God (if He exists) operates / ought to operate in our world (if He does). People object that if God is there, why does He hide himself? Why not schedule coffee with me next Tuesday, God, and settle this existence thing once and for all? Perhaps make a TV appearance on Jerry Springer? [That show has to be cancelled by now, but I'm not going to check].

Of course there’s a sense in which this is a valid complaint, and must be partially true. If the Bible is in any way historical, then God has made some miraculous shows of power to people in the past, and could do so for the cameras (although would we really believe our eyes?). On the other hand, maybe He’s not so much hidden as we are blind to his presence. Or let me put it another way.

We conceive of the world as ‘natural’ and God as ‘supernatural’. The world gets on with things by itself, and God is somewhere nearby looking in, tinkering now and then, and just generally keeping out of sight to see what we’ll do. We conceive of the ‘natural world’ as an environment in which we (for the sake of argument) demand that God appears. I do not think that this is remotely correct. The world is more like a tool than an environment. The universe is not a stage on which God should appear; theologically, God is the environment in which the universe exists.

What this means practically is that the ordinary, day-to-day operation of the ‘natural world’ is the normal tool that God uses to get His work done; the miraculous is not. Miracles serve a significant purpose of their own, but God gets His work done without them. The book of Esther is dominated by this theme, that ordinary schemes and coincidences produce a remarkable deliverance—God’s bidding is done even though His name, His voice, and His supernature are never once invoked in Esther’s pages.

Likewise, today we call the conversion of an unbeliever to Christianity a ‘miracle’ and it is, but it rarely comes about through means other than ordinary people talking to each other and one of them changing his mind. In my childhood we had many occasions in which we had no food, and our prayers were answered by friends giving us some of theirs. It was an amazing answer to prayer on one hand, but as ordinary as you like on the other.

So perhaps God is disinclined to make a miraculous show of His existence to every skeptic, and His reasons for that are known to Him. But perhaps the search for God is being undertaken by people who are expecting to find Him hidden in the environment, rather than seeing His daily use of the ‘ordinary world’ as a tool. It’s not that He’s hard to see; it’s just that the blind are pretty bad at spotting much of anything.

‘Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes’: Bit of a Joke

Book coverI bought a book lately called ‘Plato and Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes’ by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. It’s quite a fun read, although as sympathetic to my evangelical convictions as you’d expect from two Harvard grads from New England. In spite of anticipating some light-hearted hostility, I was nevertheless a little surprised by the ‘Philosophy of Religion’ section. Not because it is surprisingly offensive — it isn’t — but more because it is surprisingly inaccurate.

Pascal’s Wager

The first quibble I had with the book had to do with Pascal’s Wager, about which I have written before (when Dawkins got it wrong). Cathcart and Klein say the following:

‘The seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that deciding whether or not to believe in God is essentially a wager. If we choose to behave as if there is a God and we get to the end and it turns out there isn’t, it’s not such a big deal. Well, maybe we’ve lost the ability to thoroughly enjoy the Seven Deadly Sins, but that’s small potatoes compared to the alternative. If we bet there isn’t a God, and get to the end only to find out there is a God, we’ve lost the Big Enchilada, eternal bliss. Therefore, according to Pascal, it is a better strategy to live as if there is a God. This is known to academics as “Pascal’s Wager.” To the rest of us, it’s known as hedging your bets.’ (Pg 100)

Calling the idea represented above ‘Pascal’s Wager’ is a bit like calling Hamlet a book about whether or not to commit suicide. As I tried to point out in my post about Dawkins’ objection to it, Pascal’s Wager does have to do with betting on belief in God as the best strategy, but Pascal himself immediately warns that it is not possible to fake it, which brings him to the actual content of his wager.

God is not likely to be fooled by bet-hedging faith based entirely on greed. You have to throw in your lot wholeheartedly one way or another, and reason, says Pascal, has no solution to the problem of whether or not God and His promises are true. This is why Pascal’s discourse on the subject rather aims at urging people to experience the Christian life to see whether it is worth committing to. He is actually wagering that living as a Christian (as a sort of a trial period) — though it seems like a terrible life of restriction and sacrifice — will prove it to be the better bet even in the here and now, which removes a significant obstacle to wholehearted conversion. Perhaps the wager is more like trying to convince Cadillac drivers to buy an electric car (which promises to be rubbish but ends up being fantastic to drive, if only you’ll get behind the wheel).

Apples with Apples

My next issue with the book arose out of a Sam Harris quote, which is as follows:

‘Tell a devout Christian his wife is cheating on him, or a frozen yoghurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anybody else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book that he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity that will punish him by fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.’ (Pg 99-100)

Harris has made a living out of publishing clever jibes against religion for a popularist atheist movement, and I suppose (if I’m being generous) this quote is important to the extent that it captures the unfortunate mindlessness exhibited by some Christians. However, I think this quote is actually deeply unfair if applied to Christianity in general, and not on the grounds that some might give, i.e. that other Christian groups have abandoned the Bible’s ‘incredible claims’.

It is unfair because it obscures the fact that different types of belief require different types of evidence. Belief in superpowered dessert treats requires paradigm-shifting empirical evidence. Belief that my wife loves me probably requires some evidence (or at least absence of evidence to the contrary), but some  non-evidential trust. The belief that I love my wife while we’re fighting requires still different ratios of evidence, trust and conviction on my part.

Belief in Jesus is not a matter of swallowing a series of fantastical stories without questioning. Our faith — as we make no end of prostesting — is a matter of relationship. It comes about through being convinced that the Biblical view of the world is true; through being convinced that the historical evidence for the life and resurrection of Jesus is plausible enough; and through no small measure of belief that one has had the subjective experience of being met and called by God Himself. There is no evidence for this latter belief, although it forms the most significant part of conversion. So consider the following as an alternative analogy to frozen yoghurt:

Jane gets to know a family in her neighbourhood whose son is away at war. She learns about the son from his parents, she sees pictures, hears of his past and so on. Eventually Jane decides to write to him. He writes back, and in time they embark on a long-distance relationship. Although there are many risks involved, they decide that they love each other, and get engaged. His letters include remarkable tales of bravery and selflessness, and promises of a happy life together once the war is over. The end.

On the basis of this story, I’d like to ask Samharrisites a few questions:

  • What evidence does Jane have that they have fallen in love other than that she has personal experience of it and assurances from him? What proof should she demand? Is her trust in their relationship a fiction because they’ve never met?
  • Is it OK for her to base her trust in his character on the testimony of his family and his writings? Or is she mindlessly swallowing invisibility yoghurt by doing so?
  • If the news is quiet about the war and no tales of valour are being reported from other sources, should she believe his ‘remarkable tales’ or should she doubt him just because naysayers in her home town haven’t seen anything comparable with their own eyes?
  • If he’s long in coming home and the other boys start asking Jane out, should she break her engagement and settle for something immediate with a person she doesn’t love so well?
  • If he never comes home at all and Jane dies a spinster, in love with some dusty old letters, does she become a tragic figure and a wasted life? Or is her love and lifelong faithfulness a worthy enough existence?

Christianity is much more like the long-distance relationship and not at all like the evidence-demanding frozen yoghurt. We believe on the basis of God’s character, His actions in history and subjective relational experiences — a basis that cannot (like it or not) fruitfully be subjected to much scientific testing.

Jane’s story is not beyond belief. I’m sure people like her have existed in human history. We accept it readily enough without demanding proof, because we can relate it to our own experiences and to a long history of similar events. Yet real-life Janes have only one life. She does not have the luxury of assurances that things will work out or any ‘do-overs’ if they don’t. In the same way, this is our only life and this is the one-and-only human history. We don’t have the luxury of multiple worlds in which we can observe God’s track record or the likelihood of incarnations and resurrections. These things have happened in our history or not. Their uniqueness in history doesn’t make them more or less possible. So we take God at His word and wait patiently. If the naysayers are right and our faith and calling are illusions, then perhaps we’re pityable, but with Jane and with Pascal I’m convinced that even if all we have at the end is a life lived in hope and good character is was not a waste.