Intelligent design, eternal torment and the restoration of everything: an interview with Kevin Miller

I had the immense privilege to interview the great and incredibly gifted movie maker Kevin Miller. He is a unique person in many respects and an outstanding Christian having left behind a great part of his conservative Evangelical baggage.

Bild

Leaving Conservative Evangelicalism

Lotharson: Hello Kevin, I’m very glad you accepted to give me this interview. Could you please sum up your personal and religious background for the benefit of our readers?

Kevin Miller: I was raised in a theologically liberal but morally conservative home. My grandfather was actually a minister in the United Church of Canada, which is probably one of the most liberal Christian denominations in the country. However, at age 9, I had a “born again” experience at an evangelical Christian Bible camp. I pretty much kept that experience a secret though b/c my parents were pretty antagonistic toward that way of thinking. In my teens though, both of my parents underwent a similar experience, and we wound up attending an evangelical Mennonite Church. From there, I attended a Bible College, eventually earning a degree in youth ministry. After college, I spent 8 months in Kenya doing missionary work. Then I came back to Canada and went to university. That’s when my life and faith sort of imploded. I didn’t have any real Christian community around me, and all of the stuff I had been suppressing all those years came out. So I spent a few years wrestling with a lot of demons before finally emerging from the wilderness due to a reencounter with some friend from Bible college–and also a powerful reencounter with God. I felt like the prodigal son who had finally come home. But I still only had one foot inside the circle, so to speak, b/c I felt that somehow I’d been brainwashed or indoctrinated during my time spent in the evangelical world, and I didn’t know how to move forward. Thankfully, some good mentors came into my life around that time and started to provide me with a framework in which to analyze my experience.
Kevin Miller: I’ve always been a pretty analytical person, constantly questioning things. It’s probably some sort of unhealthy coping mechanism, b/c it makes it pretty difficult to buy into a particular theological system or faith community. I always tend to find myself on the boundary. I think that’s where I feel most comfortable.

Academic persecutions against intelligent design?

Lotharson: This is quite a fascinating story and helps better understanding your works and creations. My next question would be about your thoughts on intelligent design (ID). You wrote the script for the movie “Expelled” describing the academic intolerance towards ID. What did motivate you to do this?

220px-Expelled_logo

Kevin Miller: I was recruited for that project following the release of my first film, “After…,” a psychological thriller that takes place in the subterranean world beneath Moscow. How that goes together with the battle between Darwinian evolution and Intelligent Design I’ll never know. Originally, I was called in to attend some development meetings about what was then a hypothetical film about Intelligent design starring Ben Stein. I was really passionate about the topic (it appeals to the frustrated academic in me). But I actually told the producers not to hire me, b/c I didn’t think I had the sense of humor the project required. However, a few days later I got the call, and I was on the job. I had never worked on a documentary before and I had no idea what I was doing. Thankfully some of the other people around me did. So what motivated me? An intense interest in the topic as well as the opportunity to work on another film and to stretch myself creatively. Oddly enough, that set me on a path I had never anticipated in terms of documentary films, to the point where that’s what I’m best known for now.

Lotharson: Okay. Do you personally believe there’s a real academic persecution against ID?

Kevin Miller: I would call it more of a bias against Intelligent Design as a viable explanation for the origin, complexity and diversity of life and the origin of the universe. One one level, many people see ID as merely a Trojan Horse for some form of biblical creationism. I disagree. While most proponents of ID are people of faith, the brightest lights amongst them are truly seeking to engage in a scientific enterprise, particularly in the area of information theory, for example. The question is, what is the best explanation for the information we find in DNA? Ideally, scientists will always infer to the best explanation, follow the evidence wherever it leads. However, how do we define “best”? This is where the rule of parsimony kicks in. The best explanation is always the simplest explanation, the one that requires the fewest number of unverifiable assumptions. As Richard Dawkins likes to point out, God is pretty must the most complicated explanation someone can offer, because now you have to explain where God comes from. Even so, as Dawkins admits in the film, the idea that some form of intelligence may be responsible for the universe and everything in it is neither inherently religious nor unscientific, even though it may be friendly to a theistic worldview. But scientists are not philosophers. They are observing, measuring, experimenting, etc. If you watch Sean Carroll ‘s recent debate with William Lane Craig, for example, you can see that many non-scientist ID proponents are simply speaking a completely different language than cosmologists, biologists, and other scientists who are on the front lines running the numbers. They’re trying to solve complex equations, to explain mechanisms according to physical laws, not philosophize about how those mechanisms and laws came to be.
All that to say, I don’t think there is any more persecution against ID than there is against astrology or leprechauns. If anyone from any of these communities came to the table with a viable model to explain a natural phenomenon, people would pay attention.
I remember asking Michael Behe how science would be different if ID was the prevalent theoretical model. He had no answer. That troubled me. No surprise his interview didn’t make it into the film.

IntelligentDesign

Universal salvation

Lotharson: Thanks! I agree to a large extent with what you’ve said. Ironically enough, you were yourself “expelled” by the same conservative Evangelicals complaining about this alleged state of affairs. Could you please tell us more about this?

Kevin Miller: I wasn’t exactly expelled. I was just prohibited from teaching a course on documentary filmmaking at Trinity Western University (located in Langley, BC, Canada) due to my views on hell. Ironically, I was allowed to screen “Hellbound?” there several months earlier, and a few months after being barred from teaching on campus, I was invited to present a paper at a philosophy event DEFENDING my views on hell. So go figure. It’s a strange world. I will say, however, that my views on many subjects have shifted substantially over the past decade, thanks in large part to my extensive interaction with the atheist community re: “Expelled.”

Lotharson: How did your views evolve?

Kevin Miller: Well, you can’t undergo the sort of scathing criticism I faced as a result of “Expelled” without it affecting you. I made a point of trying to engage our critics in a meaningful way, and I took their criticisms of our film and my own views seriously. Through discussion and debate, you get to see things from a number of different sides. And I came to see many of the things I felt quite certain about didn’t quite merit that level of certainty. I guess you could say that’s when the serious deconstruction of my belief system began, and it’s been an ongoing project ever since. My departure from traditional evangelical beliefs about hell is just a small part of that process.

Culture war and bigotry

Lotharson: I guess that criticism from atheists and other non-Christians can be quite a help for reaching more reasonable views. The problem I have with ANTI-atheists is that they constantly resort to mockery and emotional bullying, in an useless and oftentimes counter-productive way. Did you experience that too?

religionisrape

Kevin Miller: Mockery and bullying is present on all sides. That’s something that disillusioned me during “Expelled.” I found that many people on all sides were more concerned with scoring points against their opponents than seeking the truth through meaningful dialogue. It’s an understandable occupational hazard though, b/c you can only go around the Mulberry bush so many times before you get frustrated at your opponents’ seeming inability to grasp the obvious truth to which you have committed your life. However, as Jonathan Haidt points out in “The Righteous Mind,” most of us arrive at our philosophical/theological positions via an emotional rather than a rational process. So until we have some kind of transformational emotional experience, we remain rather impervious to rational arguments launched against our views. So we shouldn’t be surprised to see emotions running high. Emotion is at the heart of everything. So is identity. We don’t respond well when our identity is threatened.

Lotharson: Precisely! Jon Haidt is quite an outstanding scholar and I greatly appreciate his efforts to overcome the culture war. Now I’d be interested to know more about your views of hell.
Who were the authors who influenced you the most as you were considering the possibility of universal reconciliation?

Defense of Christian universalism

Kevin Miller: It all started with Brad Jersak, author of “Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell and the New Jerusalem.” I edited the book for him back in the fall of 2008. That experience is what convinced me I had to make a documentary on this topic, although I wasn’t in a position to begin pursuing it until nearly three years later.

The thing that struck me about Brad’s book was how little what I was taught about hell was actually in the Bible. He also introduced me to the various streams of interpretation regarding final things throughout the history of the church. I should have known this stuff (I’d been to seminary after all) but it was all new to me. I should also note that I was well prepped for this mind-shift due to another book I had edited for Wayne Northey. It’s a novel called “Chrysalis Crucible.” It really got me questioning the connection between God and violence.

Another book, coedited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, called “Stricken by God?” faced this question head-on, arguing that the atonement and nothing to do with God punishing Jesus for our sins. Once you start to think along those lines, the idea of hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment pretty much falls to the wayside. In terms of universalism, some key influences were Thomas Talbott, Robin Parry, Richard Beck, Brian McLaren, Eric Reitan, Sharon Baker and Julie Ferwerda. They showed me that a viable case could be made for a non-retributive view of God and hell. Of course, Michael Hardin is also front and center throughout. So is his “rabbi,” Rene Girard.

Lotharson: The following passage is widely seen as extremely problematic for universal reconciliation. Matthew 25:46 (NET) “And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Most Conservative Evangelicals use the following syllogism:
1. We know that the saved will live eternally in bliss
2. The damned will be punished in the same way the elects are rewarded
3. Thus the damned will suffer eternally.
What’s your take on this text?

sHEEPGoats
Kevin Miller: This isn’t nearly as problematic as it appears. It all comes down to the word translated as “eternal.” In Greek, the term is “aionios,” an adjective that means “of an age” or “age-long” rather than “never-ending.” So it can be interpreted as either qualitative or quantitative, or perhaps both. At any rate, in this parable, the righteous will receive a reward in keeping with the age to come and the wicked will receive a punishment in keeping with the age to come.

There is no reason to assume the reward or punishment will last forever. Furthermore, the intent of this parable isn’t to provide a systematic theology of the afterlife but to emphasize how strongly Jesus identifies with “the least of these.”

The other thing I chuckle at when people try to use this to establish a belief in hell as eternal torment is that the qualification for avoiding hell has nothing to do with faith. In fact, the sheep had no idea they were doing anything that merited a reward. Works is the deciding factor here, in particular how we treat the poor. So if proponents of eternal torment want to use this parable to bolster their case, they’ll also have to concede that faith doesn’t enter the equation.

The only thing that matters is righteous action–at least if you read this parable in isolation. And if you want to combine it with other parables and verses that emphasize faith, you’re sort of stuck in a contradiction. Unless, of course, you want to say the good works are the fruit of faith. But then I’ll remind you that the sheep had no idea they were serving God by helping the poor. So once again, it’s problematic.

sheep-goat-salvation-works

On inerrancy and picking and choosing

Lotharson: These are good points! I also find it quite stunning that Evangelicals PICK and CHOOSE which parts of the passage they take at face value and which parts they allegorize for avoiding “salvation by work”. Do you agree with me that there are conflicting voices in the Bible, so that inerrantists INEVITABLY have to cherry-pick things?

CherryPicking
Kevin Miller: Everyone cherry-picks. You have to. Even Paul and, dare I say it, Jesus cherry-picked! If you look at how Paul uses the Old Testament, for example, he pays virtually no attention to the original context of many of the verses he quotes.

Peter Enns does a great job in “The Evolution of Adam” of explaining how Paul’s view of Adam’s role in human sinfulness is completely absent from the Old Testament. He adapts Scriptures and theological ideas for his own purposes. In doing so, he was merely in keeping with his times. Many of his contemporaries did exactly the same thing. And how often does Jesus pluck a verse here or there and then completely revolutionize the traditional interpretation?

All that to say, circumstances shift constantly. Therefore, so does our perspective on the Bible. All of us suffer from confirmation bias–the tendency or perhaps the temptation to pick and choose passage of Scripture that support what we already believe. That’s the thing that struck me about Jersak’s book when I edited it. Speaking back to the evangelical world in which he had spent most of his career, he said if we are going to be biblical about hell, let’s be biblical.

That is, let’s listen to everything the Bible says about final things, not just the parts that support what we already believe. That’s a highly problematic approach for someone who desires a hermetically sealed theology, but it’s the only approach that is in keeping with integrity. All that to say, we all tend to take parts of the Bible literally and allegorize other parts as it suits us. The key is to be aware of this tendency and to work consciously against it. This is where peer review can play a key role–as long as the entire peer review process isn’t biased in the same direction!
Speaking of which, I have a bit of a pet peeve re: peer review. Academics like to hold it up as the golden standard, an almost infallible means of achieving truth. The thing we often fail to consider is how the entire peer review process can be just as biased–perhaps more heavily invested in a bias–than individual academics. So if the peer review process holds individuals in check, what holds the process in check? I’m sure you wouldn’t put much stock in an astrologist’s insistence that his or her conclusions were correct because they had been peer-reviewed by other astrologists. 🙂

 

Hell and cognitive dissonances

Lotharson: Yeah, this is why Conservative Evangelicals and militant atheists peer-reviewing their own community are truly laughable 🙂
Conservative Evangelicals often argue that atheists cannot live consistently with their assumption that they and their loved ones are insignificant molecular machines. While I largely agree with this, I am convinced that the cognitive dissonances they are facing are FAR WORSE.
For they believe that most people will eternally suffer as a punishment for sins they could not have avoided, having been cursed with a sinful nature by the almighty Himself. Do you agree with this assessment?

hell2
Kevin Miller: Here’s the thing: Theists argue that unless there’s a creator, everything is meaningless, and our attempts to create meaning absurd, because if God or some sort of equivalent being (or race of beings) doesn’t exist, the only determining factors in the universe (or multiverse) are chance and necessity. We are nothing but stardust come to life for a brief moment, so to speak. Atheists counter this assertion by saying we don’t need an ultimate being to give our lives mean. We can assign our own proximate meaning to other people, objects, events, locations, rituals, etc. If theists are completely honest, they’ll have to admit that’s pretty much what they’re doing anyway.

As Richard Dawkins points out, challenge a Christian with horrific commands from the Old Testament (such as the stoning of adulterers), and they’ll say those rules don’t apply anymore. As we noted above, we all pick and choose which parts of the Bible to take literally and which to ignore. So as Dawkins points out, even though people like to say the Bible or God is the ultimate authority, we are still applying some sort of standard that actually supersedes the Bible. In fact, the only reason we believe the Bible has any authority in our lives is because we have become convinced of his validity or inspiration. And even in this case, it’s the arguments in favour of the Bible’s authenticity that are our true authority. So when it comes to ultimate meaning versus proximate meaning, I think the atheists are onto something.
As for cognitive dissonance, this is certainly one of the key problems facing Christians who believe in a God who violently punished his son on the cross and then threatens to punish the wicked forever in hell. This runs smack into cherished beliefs about God loving his enemies, love keeping no record of wrongs, etc.

Think about it: If God is perfectly loving, and if our own love is perfected in heaven, how could we possibly tolerate people suffering forever in hell? Our compassion would grow in proportion to our awareness of their suffering. Therefore, if anyone winds up in hell, I can’t see how we all wouldn’t be there, with the “righteous” ministering to those who are suffering. The only way around this is for God to either render us unaware of the suffering of our loved ones or for God’s love to be revealed as something completely different than what Christ taught.

 

Fundamentalism and child abuse?

Lotharson: I once stated that folks STRESSING the doctrine of eternal torment too much to their kids are abusing them. This made many of my readers angry and I regretted having written the sentence since it gives the impression that all people teaching Eternal Conscious Torment are abusive. This is not what I meant since my secular Catholic parents taught me that (concerning evildoers) and I never felt abused at all.
That said, I still believe that fundamentalists terrorizing their children in the hope they will “make a decision for Christ” are abusing them. Do you think this is the case and that this can really cause them deep psychological wounds?

hell_forever_and_ever_thumb
Kevin Miller: If it’s abuse, it’s unintentional. I was “saved” through a gospel presentation that included a threat of hell. And I believe it affected me psychologically in such a way that it essentially derailed the next two decades of my life. But the people who presented that version of the gospel to me were some of the most loving people you will ever meet. Years later I was at a function where I witnessed a kindly old Mennonite lady making a similar presentation to my own young children–who had never heard of hell–and I was horrified. I didn’t want to see them inflicted with such a horrific view of God. There’s a meme going around where God or Jesus says, “Let me save you… from what I’m going to do if you don’t let me save you.” I think that gets right to the bedrock on this one. Think of a parent saying that about him or herself to a young child. It would be considered abusive or at the very least highly coercive.

Calvinism and predestination to eternal torment

Lotharson: I agree it is almost always unintentional. Calvinists are arguably the most vocal opponents of universalism. They believe that God created evil and caused Adam and Eve to fall because He needs to SHOW OFF his punitive wrath. Without eternal torments, he would be unable to maximize his glory and his undeserved grace. What’s your opinion on this?
Kevin Miller: I have to quote Michael Hardin here and say that Calvinism or Reformed Christianity is nothing but paganism dressed up in Christian clothing. The God who would do such a think in no way resembles the Jesus of the gospels, who was a friend–not an enemy–of sinners.
When I say “paganism,” BTW, I mean no affront to modern day pagans. What I mean is they have basically taken the old, sacrificial view of God of pre-Christian religions and made him the center of the Christian faith–which I see as an apologetic against exactly this sort of God. Jesus never demanded sacrifice. Rather, he sacrificed himself. So I would say Calvinism is 180 degrees away from Christ.
At least my interpretation of Jesus. 🙂

calvinism
Lotharson: 🙂 Some Calvinists I talked too agree that (according to all criterion of human justice and love) the god they worship is a fiend. But they went on saying that we cannot judge God by our own morality and that He defines what is good and bad. What is your response to this?
Kevin Miller: I would agree. God does define morality. And, playing by their own rules, if Jesus is God, he defines morality in ways that utterly defy their theological system. So it seems to me they have two choices:

1) admit that Jesus was lying or

2) admit that God has a double standard–one form of morality for humans, another for himself. Either way, the results aren’t pretty. Either love never fails, never keeps a record of wrongs, always hopes, always perseveres (cf. 1 Corinthians 13) or it doesn’t. Calvinists are saying it doesn’t. So not only are they contradicting Jesus’ teaching that what makes us perfect like God is love of enemy (Matthew 5), they are also contradicting the clear teaching of Paul.
Lotharson: Most Calvinists I know are nice people. But what could occur if they began imitating the behavior and attitude of the God they profess to believe and trust upon?
Kevin Miller: Exactly. As Frank Schaeffer likes to point out, most people who believe in such a punitive view of God live above their theology. They’re far nicer than the God they worship. And thank God for that! But on a meta-level, I believe our entire society reflects a version of the Calvinist God, b/c our entire justice system is based primarily on retribution. Not only our justice system but our prison system, our economic system, our theological systems, our war machines, even the way many people discipline their children is a shadow version of the punitive God who demands sacrifice in order to achieve peace. This is one of the key insights of Rene Girard and Michael Hardin, who have had a huge influence on me over the past few years. Our entire society is based on scapegoating and sacrifice. It’s how we create culture. This is why Michael says toward the end of “Hellbound?” that the entire church is missing the gospel. That’s because the gospel isn’t divine sanctification of our sacrificial machinery; it’s the antidote to it, it’s the foundation for a new kind of community–call it he Kingdom of God–based on self-sacrifice instead. In this regard, I think we have completely missed the radically subversive message of Christ. It undercuts everything.

 

Libertarian free will?

Lotharson: It seems to me that you agree with Calvinists that there is no such thing as libertarian free will, am I right? Is everything determined by God?
Kevin Miller: Wrong. I believe we are co-determining–at our core, humans are imitators. We look to others to see what we should desire. And then we compete with each other for these objects of desire or states of being, thinking it will give us the sense of identity or immortality we seek, anything to transcend the fear of death that gnaws at our insides, the feeling that we are insignificant. I tend not to look at people as individuals but as members of a herd. The “self illusion” is one of the most problematic illusions we face right now. Alongside it is the notion of free will. We are pack animals for the most part, and our powers of volition are much weaker than we imagine. I’ll go back to Jonathan Haidt (“The Righteous Mind“) on this one. Also Bruce Hood (“The Self Illusion”), Ernest Becker (“The Denial of Death”), Richard Beck (“The Slaver of Death”) and Rene Girard (“Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World”) on this one. All of these writers and many others point to a similar conclusion.
Lotharson: Okay, thanks for the correction. I didn’t know you believe in libertarian freedom. You once said that freedom is just a mean to the end of our salvation. But what if freedom is an end in itself? What if God’s main purpose in creating us was that we develop a good personality naturally desiring Him, so that those lacking it won’t inherit eternal life but BE NO MORE? Is it not conceivable as well?
Kevin Miller: I would hope the end game is self-actualization, that we all become the ultimate fulfillment of our potential. Exactly how that is achieved doesn’t concern me all that much.

 

Palestine and Christian sionism

Lotharson: Okay. I have a last question. Many Evangelicals support unconditionally the state of Israel. A young pastor once told me that the modern Palestinians are the descendants of a people that Israel refused to annihilate during Joshua’s conquest, and that the struggles of modern Israelis can be traced back to this ancestral “sin”: they should have left nothing which breathes alive. What are your thoughts on this issue?

PalestiniansKids
Kevin Miller: Despite having co-written “With God on Our Side,” which criticizes extreme forms of Christian Zionism, I’m not sure if I know enough about the situation to comment on it. However, I will say this: I don’t believe God ever told the Israelites to annihilate anyone in the Old Testament. Second, many evangelicals fail to distinguish between the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Israel is a secular state created in 1948. Within that state are Jews, Palestinians and all sorts of other people. No Christian should ever support any secular state uncritically. So how the State of Israel treats the Palestinians living within its territory (as well as the Gaza Strip and the West Bank) is a completely separate issue in my mind from historical/theological concerns going back to Joshua’s purported conquests of Canaan.
What we can say for sure is that treating anyone as a second-class citizen is wrong. So are acts of terrorism. Whenever theological ideas are used to justify either action, they go against the clear teachings of Christ.

Lotharson: Okay Kevin, this marks the end of our discussion.Thank you for all the time you’ve granted me! I wish you all the best for your ongoing projects.

 

 

Thematic list of ALL posts on this blog (regularly updated)

My other blog on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)

 

Die Größe des Apostels Paulus

English version: the greatness of the apostle Paul.

 

 Image

Für die Kritiker des Christentums hat der Apostel Paulus einen ziemlich schlechten Ruf.

Während nicht wenige von ihnen anerkennen, dass Jesus eine außerordentlich hohe Ethik (zumindest für seine Zeit) hatte, wird generell Paulus als ein Bösewicht angesehen, der irgendwie die Botschaft seines Meisters verdorben hat.

Während ich selber ganz bestimmt denke, daß Paulus mehrere kulturbedingten falschen Glauben (wie über Frauen und Homosexuellen) hatte, bin ich überzeugt, dass er ein Mann voller unglaublicher Liebe und Altruismus war.

 

Um das zu bemerken gibt es keine bessere Stelle als den Anfang von Römer 9:

 

1 Ich sage in Christus die Wahrheit und lüge nicht und mein Gewissen bezeugt es mir im Heiligen Geist: 2 Ich bin voll Trauer, unablässig leidet mein Herz.  3 Ja, ich möchte selber verflucht und von Christus getrennt sein um meiner Brüder willen, die der Abstammung nach mit mir verbunden sind

 

Um seinen jüdischen Artgenossen Willen war Paulus bereit, sein eigenes Leben nicht nur in dieser Welt sondern auch für immer aufzuopfern. Um die Größe dieser altruistischen Liebe zu begreifen brauchen Sie sich nur zu fragen, wie es für Sie aussehen würde, Ihr ewiges Leben zum Vorteil anderer Menschen aufzugeben.

Aber dieser Text ist auch sehr herausfordernd für unser Verständnis des Opfertods Christi. Denn das vom Paulus beabsichtigte Opfer erscheint viel größer zu sein als die Qual, die Jesus bereit war, zu erleiden, bevor er auferweckt wurde.

 

 

Thematic list of ALL posts on this blog (regularly updated)

My other blog on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)

 

Genocides in the Bible? An interview with Matt Flannagan.

Bild

Regular readers of my blog know that I’m no big fan of Biblical inerrancy and think that while there is much beauty to admire in the Bible, you’re going to find heinous things too.

 

Still, I want to give a fair hearing to people I disagree with. Therefore I was delighted to have had the opportunity to interview Conservative Evangelical theologian Matt Flannagan from New Zealand about this topic.

Bild

In the following interview, we touched on a number of issues while exploring the morality of the conquest of Canaan as described in the Old Testament.

 

DailyMotion version: Click here.

 

Since this is my very first audio-interview, the quality of the sound is far from being optimal. So I hope you can forgive me that, along my lack of professionalism and terrible accent.

 

If a sufficient number of people find that really unbearable, I’ll start out painstakingly writing down the whole dialog.

You can complain at lotharson57@gmail.com or even write a comment here (if you want to have the satisfaction to publicly humiliate me 🙂   ).

 

A small personal tip: I generally listen such long interviews while having to accomplish repetitive tasks besides.

 

Jesus and political involvement

Deutsche Version: Jesus und das politische Engagement

 

Yesterday evening, I participated in an interesting inter-religious dialog about how one’s faith shapes one’s political views.

Bild

In America, the Religious Right (mainly constituted of Conservative Evangelicals) considers that the Good is defined by an inerrant Bible they venerate (and sometimes almost worship), regardless of all empirical evidence.

I consider such an approach extremely misguided. The Bible speaks with conflicting voices on many topics, and Conservative Evangelicals have always to pick and choose which verses to take at face value, which in turns determines the set of contradictory verses whose meaning has to be distorted.

Bild

My regular readers know that I very often criticize the New Atheists and their claim that Religion is the worst poison of the world which ought to be wholly blotted out.

I think that they too are utterly misguided and fail to recognize that the main cause of religious atrocities and evil is not a supernatural belief in and of itself BUT the concept that whatever God (or the gods) allegedly decrees is good and ought to be meticulously applied, regardless of the horrors it might involve, a point stressed by no one less the last Pope Benedict.

 

To my mind, religious atrocities would rapidly cease if all believers seriously took the thought that God is morally perfect, that is far more loving and just than the best human being who has ever lived.

 

During His earthly ministry, Jesus made it clear that all laws exist for the well-being of mankind and are not arbitrary in any way.

Bild

“And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” Mark 2:27 

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

 

This is why a Conservative Christian opposing homosexuality is not being faithful to Jesus if he just states “Homosexuality is wrong because God decided so according to His good pleasure.”

No, IF homosexuality is wrong, then it is wrong because it is harmful for the individual and society and get in the way of becoming a loving and caring person. They should provide us with empirical evidence backing this up.

 

All political decisions from a Christian standpoint should aim at promoting the well being of one’s neighbors (that is the whole mankind), alleviating their suffering and encouraging them to become loving people.

But we live in an extremely complex world and it is often pretty hard to figure out which sets of laws would really be useful and which should be avoided. People starting with different presuppositions will reach in good conscience conflicting convictions, and we should all withstand the self-righteous temptation to view them as either dumb, ill-informed, irrational or wicked, a point well developed by progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser in his book “You’re Not As Crazy As I Think: Dialogue in a World of Loud Voices and Hardened Opinions”.

Bild

 

 

 

Fostering communion and unity with committed Calvinists?

 

Zack Hunt (The American Jesus) just wrote a thought-provoking article about the implications of Calvinism (also called Reformed Theology). It is a fictional letter to John Calvin.

Bild

 

Dear John,

Ok, first off I know, “Dear John” letters are usually written between former lovers and we were never even friends. But, John, I tried. I really, really did.

I’ve heard for so long that my frustrations with Calvinism were really due to your Neo-Calvinist followers giving you a bad name. That made sense to me. After all, I couldn’t believe some of the rephrensible and callous things being said and taught today would be derived directly from someone of your theological prowess. So, I wanted to give you a chance at redemption in my eyes.

Since you’ve been, um, not present in the body for the past 450 years, I thought the best way to get acquainted with the real Calvin would be to read the work you are most famous for. I’m talking, of course, about your Institutes of the Christian Religion.

In my effort to get to know you better I spent my last semester at Yale in a class devoted entirely to the reading and discussion of your epic work. I admit we didn’t make it through every single chapter (forgive us John, but the book is nearly 1,000 pages long and we needed time to discuss what we read each week), but we did make it through almost all of it (we mostly skipped a few chapter at the end about church polity). And even with those handful of overlooked chapters, I’m still willing to bet we made it through more of the Institutes than many of your followers today have read. (I say this as a Wesleyan, who has read far far too little of what Wesley actually wrote.)

I have to admit, John, you’re a brilliant guy and a great writer. Your passion and honesty were obvious from page one and at times refreshing given the way we so often dance around what we really think in the church today. I really admire your conviction and willingness to say what you believe to be true even if it wasn’t the popular thing to say. Without a doubt, you had some great things to say and, at times, I even found myself close to shouting “Amen!” Like the time you called out those who want to believe in the absurd notion that God can predestine some to heaven while not necessarily also predestined everyone else to hell, ”This they do so ignorantly and childishly since there could be no election without its opposite reprobation.” (3.23.1)

hell2

Ok, maybe, that amen wasn’t exactly for the reason you would like, but still, it counts for something, right?

Anyway, class is now over, our reading of your monumental achievement complete, and I’ve had some time to process everything you said.

So, can I be totally honest with you, John?

You crushed my hope for reconciliation.

I found your theology to be every bit as appalling – and maybe even more so – than your followers.

To be blunt, as a Christian, I don’t recognize your God and I have no clue what the good news is in the Institutes. That some people are saved no matter what? I guess that’s good for them. But you’re clear that God also creates people for eternal damnation,

By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, other to eternal damnation; and accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestined to life or to death. (3.21.5)

And you also say that God tricks some of those same people he dooms to hell into thinking He loves them by “instilling into their minds such a sense of his goodness as can be felt without the Spirit of adoption” simply so he “better convince them.” (3.2.11) John, what kind of perverse and manipulative God would do that?

But it gets worse.

Much worse.

For, according to you, God ordains every single horrific act of evil that has or ever will occur.

As you explain over,

Scripture, moreover, the better to show that every thing done in the world is according to his decree, declares that the things which seem most fortuitous are subject to him. For what seems more attributable to chance than the branch which falls from a tree, and kills the passing traveler? But the Lord sees very differently, and declares that he delivered him into the hand of the slayer. (1.16.6)

And over,

As all contingencies whatsoever depend on it, therefore, neither thefts, nor adulteries, nor murders, are perpetrated without an interposition of the divine will. (1.17.1)

And over,

Let us suppose, for example, that a merchant, after entering a forest in company with trust-worthy individuals, imprudently strays from his companions and wanders bewildered till he falls into a den of robbers and is murdered. His death was not only foreseen by the eye of God, but had been fixed by his decree. (1.16.9)

And over again, God is behind every act of evil that ever takes places,

I concede more – that thieves and murderers, and other evil-doers, are instruments of divine providence, being employed by the Lord himself to execute the judgments which he has resolved to inflict. (1.17.5)

In other words, if a child is raped, a family murdered in their sleep, or an entire population of people sent off to the gas chambers, that wasn’t just the act of evil men. It was the will of God.

And, of course, God doesn’t just have it out for us in this life; God has it out for some people for eternity too because as you say, “Those whom the Lord favors not with the direction of his Spirit, he, by a righteous judgment, consigns to the agency of Satan.” (2.4.1)

You say all of this wrath is due to our depravity. Ignoring Paul’s words affirming the complete opposite, you say ”wherever sin is, there also are the wrath and vengeance of God” (3.11.2) And as if to drive your point home at just how much God hates us, you claim that it’s not just adults that God despises, but infants too because they ”cannot but be odious and abominable to God.” (2.1.8) John, you go to great lengths to establish the total depravity of man, and I agree that we are indeed sinful people. But in the end, based on your own argument, the one looking the most depraved is God. For it is God, not humanity, who ordains evil and institutes eternal torture regardless of act or decision.

Yes, John, you’re right. All of these quotes and points are lacking in their immediate context, but they’re not random thoughts. They are, as you demonstrate so well, the logical conclusions of your theology of divine sovereignty and, therefore, at the very heart of what you believe about God. Worse, this isn’t a case of you overstating without thinking through the conclusions. You’re clear that this sort of God who ordains genocide, murder, rape, children abuse, and every other conceivable horrendous act is the God you worship.

Not surprisingly, you say that we should fear this God, not just honor and revere Him, but actually be terrified of Him. (3.2.26) I suppose on that point we are in at least partial agreement. If this is a God who arbitrarily ordains the death of children and the torment of people before they’re even born, then of course we should fear this God.

Which is why, John, I’ve got to be brutally honest with you.

I think your God is a monster.

I don’t say that casually or based on a handful of random one liners. I say it based on the foundation of your theological project and your insitence on a God who both ordains evil and creates people simply to torment them for eternity. John, this is not the God I find in the Bible, nor is it a God I think is worthy of worship. It’s a God who can only be feared for His arbitrary, callous, and evil ways, and pitied for his enslavement to wrath.

To me, John, your God looks nothing like Jesus of Nazareth. And, for me, that’s a big problem.

Now, John, it wouldn’t be a good breakup letter if I wasn’t clear about why I don’t like you like that anymore (or I guess ever did). I’m know a lot of those reasons are obvious already, but in the spirit of your Institutes, I don’t want to leave any room for doubt as to why we need to go our separate ways.

First, John, as awed as I am by your intellect, you’re way way way overcommitted to your theological system. I know your methodology and meticulousness are derivative of your training as a lawyer, and while those can be great qualities in a person, in your Institutes your utter devotion to your theological system creates an unbelievable callousness that is totally foreign to the Jesus I meet in the gospels. Experience, reason, compassion, and even huge chunks of scripture are sacrificed on the altar of your theological system. Relationships require compassion, humility, and at a times a bit of flexibility. John, we’ve all got some work to do in those areas, but that’s especially true for you.

You also have a tendency to talk about of both sides of your mouth. This isn’t good for a relationship because it means I can never really trust what you’re saying. F0r instance, in order to acknowledge the obvious reality of freewill while defending your hardcore understanding of divine sovereignty, you try to create a make believe difference between compulsion and necessity, as if just because we necessarily have to act in a certain way because God has ordained it so, we’re not actually compelled to do that. (2.3.5) John, that makes no sense. Likewise, you argue that even though everything is determined by God long before we even exist, we’re still responsible for out actions. (1.17.5)

Look, I get it, you’ve got a system to maintain and you need to make sense of sin and guilt. But, John, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Either we freely choose to sin and are therefore responsible, or God causes us by divine decree to sin and, therefore God is ultimately responsible. Which leads us to the worst doublespeak of all in your book. You make is clear that God ordains evil, but isn’t the author of it. John, buddy, as you heard throughout your lifetime, if God is the source of and the one who ordains evil acts, then God is the author of evil. Which means your God isn’t really as loving and good as you would have us believe. In fact, your God is pretty stinking evil.

Which is why, John, it’s hard not to conclude that Calvinism is a sustained exercise in the defense against the obvious. By which I mean you’re constantly on the defense against the obvious conclusions of your claims. To your credit you offer up an exhaustive defense, it just runs counter to basic logic. There’s just no way around the fact that you’ve simultaneously created a God who is the author of evil while rendering the Christian life irrelevant because if our eternal fate is already sealed, there is absolutely no point in bothering to live in any particular way.

Also, John, and I’m not trying to be mean here, but your use of Scripture is just awful. I know, I know, I know. Who am I to criticize the great John Calvin’s exegesis? But buddy you cherry pick scripture like it’s your spiritual gift. You completely ignore the context of the verses you pick. And, with only a few exceptions, either ignore or dismiss out of hand any and all passages that contradict your position. But, John, I’m not sure that’s the even the worst part of it for me.

As a fellow Christian I know this might be a little hard to hear, but you deal surprisingly little with what Jesus himself actually had to say. Sure, you talk about his role in salvation plenty, but when it comes to supporting your various claims, you seem to quote everybody but Jesus. In fact, I’m pretty sure you quoted the entire book of Romans. And yet the words of Jesus himself were few and far between. Knowing your bravado, I’m sure this wasn’t the case but it was almost as if you intentionally ignored him because some of the things he threw a huge wrench your system that could bring the whole thing crashing down on itself, like that pesky John 3:16-17 loving the whole world and not just the elect nonsense or that stuff in Matthew 25 or James 2 where salvation by faith alone seems to be an unwelcome guest.

But, John, I think the ultimate problem between you and me is the starting point in your grand theological endeavor. For you, everything begins and ends with the glory of God. I wholeheartedly agree that giving glory to God is an important thing. But John, I don’t know what Bible you’re reading if you think that receiving glory is God’s primary interest in and purpose for mankind. If anything, the Bible is a sustained account of God’s disinterest in glory. It’s the story of a God who desires above all to be in a loving relationship with His people and God’s willingness to do anything to make that happen, including abandoning all sense of glory even to that point of death on a cross.

But perhaps the most ironic point in your emphasis on glory is that in your attempt to glorify God you destroy that very glory through your understanding of divine sovereignty and election. For if God ordains murder, rape, and abuse, while creating some people – maybe most people – for eternal torment, then that God is not worthy of glory. Period.

Now, I know your followers today will tell me I’m “misreading” you and don’t understand what you’re “really” trying to say. I heard a lot of that this semester as we tried to reconcile the words on the page with their practical implications. But this letter isn’t about the 450 years of interpretation and reinterpretation that have followed in your wake. I’m responding to the words you yourself wrote. And, for me, what you wrote was far too often abhorrent.

And can I tell you something else, John? I don’t think your followers today are nearly as comfortable with your theology as you are. At least, not a lot of them. Don’t get me wrong. You’re on an incredibly high pedestal for them, but time and time again I see them jumping through hoops and doing mental gymnastics to avoid or at least soften the very clear claims you’re making. And I see others rejecting out of hand some of the things you said, while trying to hold on to the rest.

But I get that. We all want to defend our heroes. The bigger issue I have, John, is that you have a tendency (cause I’ll be the first to admit they’re not all like this) to create incredibly arrogant and sometimes hateful followers who are just a cold, calculating, and callous in their theology and selective in their use of scripture as you are. Just like you, too many of your prominent followers today denounce their critics as heretics while praising God for a whole host of evil things that happen in the world from earthquakes and tornadoes to the marginalization, oppression, and destruction of people made in the image of God.

John, I don’t know how to say it any other way – you’ve got a bad habit of making disciples that aren’t very christlike in their love, mercy, compassion, and grace towards others.

Now, I know if you were still around to respond, you would probably tell me like you did so many of your opponents, that I’m “virulent dog” (3.23.2) or maybe a satellite of Satan (3.17.1) because in my “rebellious spirit” (3.21.4) I have the audacity to question your understanding of God, God’s sovereignty, and election which I should never do (3.21.1-2) because by doing so I ”assail the justice of God.” (3.21.7)

Maybe you’re right.

Maybe I am an agent of Satan lost in my own heresy and sin and I just don’t realize it.

But John, I don’t think I am. Like the millions of Christians that came before you and billions that have come after, I believe in a God who confronts sin with grace, defeats evil with love, and offers redemption to all.

Which is why, John, it’s not going to work out between the two of us.

Maybe when I see you in heaven and we both see things a bit clearer, we can try this relationship thing again.

But for now, I think you would agree, we need to go our separate ways.

It’s what’s best for the both of us.

 

Grace and Peace,

Zack Hunt

 

Here follows my answer.
This is truly a wonderful post which expresses what many people think silently.

My first experiences with Calvinists (link) were kind of traumatic. There is one thing I didn’t mention in the above link: I also read a German reformed pastor stating that Hitler was God’s tool for punishing the Jewish people for having rejecting His son (forgetting to mention they rejected Him because God Himself predetermined it) and that this should be a strong reason for us to warn this sinful world, because God is going to do something far worse at the end of times.

holocaust

I (try to) love my Calvinists as fellow human beings, but I cannot view consistent ones as my fellow believers because they worship an evil demon they call God.

They uphold their belief system by resorting to countless fallacies and absurdities, and if you expose their errors, they will inevitably quote:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55.8)

But there is a big irony here. Reading the verse in its immediate context shows it is all about reconciliation, that God invites all evildoers to give up their wicked ways and come back to Him. This verse seems rather to indicate that God is much more loving, much more forgiving than any man can be and even than any man could ever imagine to be.
For reformed theologians, this verse means than God is probably more vicious than the worst criminal who has ever lived.

They say that people deserve to be eternally tortured because they constantly commit misdeeds. But they almost never mention (at least in public) that:

1) God predetermined the fall of Adam and Eve and cursed us with a sinful nature (link)

2) God predetermined every one of our evil actions (link)

calvinistfreewill

The most crazy aspect is that God does all these things for SHOWING OFF His glory by pouring off his unquenchable wrath on those who were not elected before their birth .

Consistent Calvinism is a horrendous blasphemy and a very sophisticated form of devil’s worship . I’m sorry but I cannot be honest to God without putting it this way. I don’t find it pleasant at all to have to say this, and it is my hope that these people will moderate their views in such a way I’ll no longer have to see them in that manner. I don’t like conflicts for the own sake of feeling right and would largely prefer to peacefully coexist with them, were their mistakes not so egregious.

calvinistgod

I don’t seek communion with (consistent) Calvinists, only confrontation but always in a spirit of love (at least that’s what I’m aiming at), reminding myself that they are valuable, wonderful creatures, their horrible ideas notwithstanding.

Finally, you say that Calvinists misinterpret many Biblical verses. I agree that it’s the case, but for honesty’s sake we should recognize that the Bible itself also contains odious stuff (link), such as praying God to dash the children of one’s foes to the ground.
The Bible (along books of C.S. Lewis, Ellen White, John Wesley…) contains the human experiences of people with God, perhaps even the reports of genuine miracles but a careful and intellectually honest study of its content and context forbids us to view it as the voice of the Almighty directly talking down to us.

Unlike the opinion of militant atheists (link), you can find lots of wonderful things within its pages (when properly interpreted in their historical and cultural context) but unlike the convictions of Conservative Evangelicals, it also encompasses heinous things (link).
The basis of our theology cannot be a composite document speaking with conflicting voices but God’s perfect love and justice (as exemplified in Christ), which is necessarily far greater than that of the best (purely) human being having ever lived.

 

Edit: I’ve been harshly criticized for having said that consistent Calvinists worship an evil demon. Should I perhaps not become more moderate and consider them as Christians who are really wrong in some respects? The fact is: I don’t know and my views will perhaps evolve in the future. I don’t hate these folks and would be glad to view them as siblings in Christ. But (at least in the cases mentioned in this post and in the links) it seems really hard.

 

 

Becoming a new Atheist?

Jonny Scaramanga (whom I once interviewed) is a former Christian fundamentalist who left behind his faith after having realized that the “education” he had received was nothing more than a brain washing.

First of all, I want to say I really like him and his generally respectful attitude towards people not sharing his current worldview.

So I was somewhat troubled after having read his last blog post.

Some of my Christian readers like me because, they say, I am an atheist but not a New Atheist. I appreciate their support, but I think I might actually be one of those nasty Gnu Atheists. I think I should clarify my position.

I’m thinking about all this because I’ve been asked to review a book called Godbuster: Banishes all known gods. I haven’t read it yet, and I’ll reserve judgement until I have, but at first glance, I’m not sure how a book like this is going to be useful.

When I stopped being a Christian, I was not happy about it. There are a great many Christian tropes about atheists: they’re just too proud to submit to God; they’re just angry at God; they’re just too selfish to stop sinning; they hate God. None of those were true of me at the time. My heart was not “hardened against God”. I really wanted to believe. I just couldn’t.

Photo by David Shankbone. Source: Wikimedia Commons

That’s not the case anymore. I like the universe without God in it a lot more than I liked it when I thought there was an Almighty watching over it. I don’t think there is a God (or gods, or godesses), and I’m glad about that. The idea of worship now seems servile and unpleasant to me. But I’m happy for those who want to engage in it to do so.

 

Overall, I think religion is a net source of harm in the world. If religion were wiped from the planet, it would be no loss. If there are good reasons to be moral (and I think there are) then we don’t need religion to tell us what to do. There are thousands of people who find meaning in life without religion, and I do not think that’s because we are better or more intelligent than religious people. I’m confident anyone can find meaning without religion. I think the truth claims of religion are false, and that the benefits of religion can also be achieved without a religious framework. Religion is unnecessary.

I freely concede, however, that for many individual adherents faith is a net positive. Here I disagree with those atheists who think that religion is bad for everybody, and those who consider their private faith a positive thing are simply delusional. I think there are many people of faith who gain a great deal from their religion without it doing them or those around them much harm. The atheist counter-argument is that belief in God is necessarily irrational, and behaving irrationally is always harmful. I’m not so sure about this.  One of the lessons of psychology is that we pretty much all hold some irrational beliefs, and some of them do us some good. For another, I’m not sure all religious belief is irrational. The kind of religion criticised on this blog is irrational, and to the extent that religion is irrational, it must be opposed. But there are religious believers who accept the findings of science, who behave logically and rationally, and who simply think that religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria. I don’t accept their arguments, but that’s fine. They’re not forcing me to share their faith. Fundamentalism, of course, makes empirical, scientifically testable truth claims all the time: miracles happen; prayers are answered; the universe is <10,000 years old; a catastrophic flood ca. 4,000 years ago destroyed almost all life. These empirical falsehoods are used to bolster a belief system which does harm to its adherents and those around them. But that’s not true of all Christianity, much less all religion.

Indeed, Dawkins and Sam Harris, et al, don’t really take on these more intellectually defensible forms of Christianity in their books, partly because their arguments are much less easy to dismiss than the ludicrous claims of fundamentalists. Sam Harris comes closest, by arguing that liberal Christians don’t do enough to oppose fundamentalists, and that by sharing some beliefs with the fundamentalists, they lend some legitimacy to the harmful beliefs of the extremists. This is a pretty lousy argument. It’s true that far too many Christians and Muslims are too quiet about the extremists in their midst, but it’s not true of all of them. In an epic post called “Why young-Earth creationism needs to be killed with fire“, the Christian Fred Clark absolutely storms into the problems of fundamentalism. The best feminist blogs I read are written by Christians too.

As for the latter part of the argument (that liberal religion shares beliefs with fundamentalism), well, I too share many beliefs with fundamentalists. I think that the world is round, that drinking water is a good idea, that North America is a continent, and that murder is bad. Sure, these aren’t religious beliefs, but I have significant overlap with the crazies on matters of reality, of philosophy, and even morality, and this does not make it difficult for me to part ways with them where they head off into the land of the unbelievable. The fact that the mainstream believers share some beliefs with the dangerous ones is not necessarily a problem.

So while at the moment I think religion does more harm than good, I don’t think that’s a necessary truth. And, obviously, a world with no religion in it could easily be a terrible place. I think religion can be reformed so the harmful parts are removed. This is where I part ways with many New Atheists. I also think this is much more likely to succeed (especially in the short term) than getting rid of religion altogether. Asking people to reject religion wholesale is asking them to make a radical transformation in their worldview and identity. Not many people are willing to do this. On the other hand, convincing them that it’s perfectly possible to be a believer who accepts science, embraces LGBT people, and actively pursues social justice is comparatively realistic (lots of people already do it).

So why Godbuster? I suspect I’ll agree with it, because I don’t find the gods of any religion plausible. But so what? I don’t care what people think about Allah, Yahweh, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, or any other deity. I care that all humans have equal rights, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, or geographical location. I care that we pursue policies that reduce social inequality. I care that we do everything we can to halt climate change. I care that children have the access to education that will empower them to make good, informed choices about how to live their lives. If people feel inspired to pursue these things because of their faith, that’s fine by me.

Do you disagree with this post? Good, I’m still working out my thoughts on this subject. I composed it last week, and re-reading it before posting, I find that I’m already mentally writing a counter-argument. I think I’ll add to these thoughts next time.

 

The horrors of a fundamentalist universe

 

To begin my response by something positive, I must say I admire Jonny’s humility and his acceptance of being possibly wrong.

I completely share Jonny’s indignation against Christians despising atheists and homosexuals, and this is what pushed me to write the parable of the “Good Godless Gay” where I used pretty much the same picture he showed towards the top of his post.

I agree that there are many atheists who leave Conservative Evangelical Christianity because they are basically good person and can no longer worship a being who will eternally torture billions of his creatures, for sins he himself bounded to commit, having cursed them with a sinful nature.

So I am sure that a nice and respectful atheist honorably defending his or her intellectual views is far closer to Christ than a nasty fundamentalist defending his “truth” in a heinous way.

 

Likewise, I entirely sympathize with Jonny viewing a godless universe far more optimistic and joyful than a fundamentalist universe where most humans will be eternally tortured for sins the Almighty Himself doomed them to commit.

hell

In another post, I explained why the cognitive dissonance faced by Conservative Evangelicals is far greater than that hardcore materialists are facing.

 

What is the “harmfulness” of religion?

 

Jonny further wrote:

Overall, I think religion is a net source of harm in the world. If religion were wiped from the planet, it would be no loss. If there are good reasons to be moral (and I think there are) then we don’t need religion to tell us what to do. There are thousands of people who find meaning in life without religion, and I do not think that’s because we are better or more intelligent than religious people. I’m confident anyone can find meaning without religion. I think the truth claims of religion are false, and that the benefits of religion can also be achieved without a religious framework. Religion is unnecessary.

 

But what is this sentence supposed to mean? That 100% of all religions are harmful and ought to disappear? I’m sure this is certainly not what Jonny thinks about that matter. What he probably means is that the majority (perhaps more than 80%) of religious movements have (by and large) a harmful influence of society and if ALL religious were to be blotted out, the world would be a better place.

But if it WERE true, and social engineering were morally permissible, why should we not just combat the 80% harmful religions and leave the remaining 20% alone?

 

The only argument of the New Atheists is that tolerating them would inevitably lead to condone heinous fundamentalism. But Jonny himself doesn’t buy this argument:

Sam Harris comes closest, by arguing that liberal Christians don’t do enough to oppose fundamentalists, and that by sharing some beliefs with the fundamentalists, they lend some legitimacy to the harmful beliefs of the extremists. This is a pretty lousy argument. It’s true that far too many Christians and Muslims are too quiet about the extremists in their midst, but it’s not true of all of them. In an epic post called “Why young-Earth creationism needs to be killed with fire“, the Christian Fred Clark absolutely storms into the problems of fundamentalism. The best feminist blogs I read are written by Christians too.

So it would be great if Jonny and his fellow secularists (I am not employing this word in a negative sense) began to distinguish between the diverse religious movements with respect to their harm and benefits.

Perhaps the world would be better off with NO religion at all, but it would be EVEN better off with only tolerant and progressive religions preaching a compassion grounded in transcendence.

 

The grounding of morality in a purely material cosmos

 

The following sentence is particularly interesting.

I think the truth claims of religion are false, and that the benefits of religion can also be achieved without a religious framework. Religion is unnecessary.

IF we already know that there are basic moral values such as “maximizing the pleasure and minimizing the pain of the greatest number”, I agree we don’t necessarily need religion for achieving this, even though I believe that humanist and humanitarian religions (yes, this is not an oxymoron 🙂 ) can achieve an enormous contribution to this goal.

But why should we believe in the existence of objective moral facts identical to increasing happiness and diminishing suffering?
To paraphrase the great enlightenment philosopher David Hume, how can we derive the moral “ought” from the factual “is” without begging the question?
Of course, theism has also problems regarding the foundation of morality, such as the famous Euthyphron-Dilemma: “is rape bad because the gods disapprove of it, or do they disapprove of it because it is wrong?”.

While it would be foolish for me to try to answer this age-old problem in some sentences, I think that Reductive Materialism (RM) faces an even more formidable challenge. According to RM, everything which exists is identical to a bunch of energetic particles in interaction. But to what clusters of atoms or molecules with a precise location in space and time the moral value “It is always wrong to rape a woman.” can be identified to?

306_DNA

I don’t see how you can do that without completely distorting the meaning of the moral sentence. Thus yes, you don’t need to be a theist to be a good person striving for the Good. But you can run into serious problems if you try to justify this moral goodness in an objectively mindless universe.

Even if they have their own sets of problems, worldviews such as Theism and Platonism provide us with a world where objective morality (moral laws not followed by “if…”) are much more at home than in a thoughtless clump of stuff.

 

None of my arguments are uncontroversial, of course, but they should lead the New Atheists to a much deeper intellectual humility while criticizing the opinions of their opponents.

 

Progressing religion

Finally, Jonny wrote a fantastic sentence I want to emphasize.

So while at the moment I think religion does more harm than good, I don’t think that’s a necessary truth. And, obviously, a world with no religion in it could easily be a terrible place. I think religion can be reformed so the harmful parts are removed. This is where I part ways with many New Atheists.

 

Actually, progressive Catholic theologian Hans Küng wrote something very similar several years ago: religion can cause violence, injustice and oppression but it DOES not have to.

As a Christian, I certainly believe that a religion grounded on the message of Jesus can only have positive repercussions on society, if you seriously take the thought that every human being is unconditionally loved by a Heavenly Father.

jesus-social-justice2

While the Religious Right is utterly obsessed by homosexuality, they completely lose of sight that it was only condemned by very few verses in the Bible, so even by presupposing Biblical inerrancy, their priorities are inexcusable.

 

Conclusion: upholding a tolerant and open society.

 

I am well aware that by having written what I did, I am going to infuriate quite a few Conservatives and liberals alike.

Yet my intention is not to provoke a heroic battle of epic proportions, but to push people in both camps to reflect more profoundly about their own assumptions and start realizing that the others are not as crazy as they thought, to paraphrase the title of a great book of progressive Evagelical theologian Randal Rauser.

Evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt gave us also important insights into why and how the culture war is maintained, along with its lovelessness.

It is my true hope we could all (a bit) contribute to build up a society where one’s political opponents are no longer view as loathsome foes but as people we happen to disagree with on various grounds.

I’m infinitely far from being inerrant and know all too well that many of my ideas are worthy of being criticized. But if I can only positively inspire four persons reading that, I would have achieved my goal.

 

 

Invisible burden of proof

Progressive Evangelical apologist Randal Rauser has just written a fascinating post about the way professional Skeptics systematically deny a claim they deem extraordinary.

 

I’ve talked about God and the burden of proof in the past. (See, for example, “God’s existence: where does the burden of proof lie?” and “Atheist, meet Burden of Proof. Burden of Proof, meet Atheist.”) Today we’ll return to the question beginning with a humorous cartoon.

Religion cartoon

This cartoon appears to be doing several things. But the point I want to focus on is a particular assumption about the nature of burden of proof. The assumption seems to be this:

Burden of Proof Assumption (BoPA): The person who makes a positive existential claim (i.e. who makes a claim that some thing exists) has a burden of proof to provide evidence to sustain that positive existential claim.

Two Types of Burden of Proof

Admittedly, it isn’t entirely clear how exactly BoPA is to be  understood. So far as I can see, there are two immediate interpretations which we can call the strong and weak interpretations. According to the strong interpretation, BoPA claims that assent to a positive existential claim is only rational if it is based on evidence. In other words, for a person to believe rationally that anything at all exists, one must have evidence for that claim. I call this a “strong” interpretation because it proposes a very high evidential demand on rational belief.

The “weak” interpretation of BoPA refrains from extending the evidential demand to every positive existential claim a person accepts. Instead, it restricts it to every positive existential claim a person proposes to another person.

To illustrate the difference, let’s call the stickmen in the cartoon Jones and Chan. Jones claims he has the baseball, and Chan is enquiring into his evidence for believing this. A strong interpretation of BoPA would render the issue like this: for Jones to be rational in believing that he has a baseball (i.e. that a baseball exists in his possession), Jones must have evidence of this claim.

A weak interpretation of BoPA shifts the focus away from Jones’ internal rationality for believing he has a baseball and on to the rationality that Chan has for accepting Jones’ claim. According to this reading, Chan cannot rationally accept Jones’ testimony unless Jones can provide evidence for it, irrespective of whether Jones himself is rational to believe the claim.

So it seems to me that the cartoon is ambiguous between the weak and strong claims. Moreover, it is clear that each claim carries different epistemological issues in its train.

Does a theist have a special burden of proof?

Regardless, let’s set that aside and focus in on the core claim shared by both the weak and strong interpretations which is stated above in BoPA. In the cartoon a leap is made from belief about baseballs to belief about religious doctrines. The assumption is thus that BoPA is a claim that extends to any positive existential claim.

I have two reasons for rejecting BoPA as stated. First, there are innumerable examples where rational people recognize that it is not the acceptance of an existential claim which requires evidence. Indeed, in many cases the opposite is the case: it is the denial of an existential claim which requires evidence.

Consider, for example, belief in a physical world which exists external to and independent of human minds. This view (often called “realism”) makes a positive existential claim above and beyond the alternative of idealism. (Idealism is the view that only minds and their experiences exist.) Regardless, when presented with the two positions of realism and idealism, the vast majority of people will recognize that if there is a burden of proof in this question, it is borne by the idealist who denies a positive existential claim.

Second, BoPA runs afoul of the fact that one person’s existential denial is another person’s existential affirmation. The idealist may deny the existence of a world external to the mind. But by doing so, the idealist affirms the existence of a wholly mental world. So while the idealist may seem at first blush to be making a mere denial, from another perspective she is making a positive existential claim.

With that in mind, think about the famous mid-twentieth century debate between Father Copleston (Christian theist) and Lord Russell (atheist) on the existence of God. Copleston defended a cosmological argument according to which God was invoked to explain the origin of the universe. Russell retorted: “I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all.” With that claim, Russell is not simply denying a positive existential claim (i.e. “God exists”), but he is also making a positive existential claim not made by Copleston (i.e. “the universe is just there, and that’s all”).

In conclusion, the atheist makes novel positive existential claims as surely as the theist. And so it  follows that if the latter has a burden to defend her positive existential claim that God does exist, then the former has an equal burden to defend her positive existential claim that the universe is just there and that’s all.

Here is was my response.
This is another of your excellent posts, Randal!

Unlike most Evangelical apologists, you’re a true philosopher of religion and don’t seem to be ideology driven like John Loftus (for instance) obviously is. This makes it always a delight to read your new insights,

I think that when one is confronted with an uncertain claim, there are three possible attitudes:

1) believing it (beyond any reasonable doubt)
2) believing its negation (without the shadow of a doubt).
3) not knowing what to think.

Most professional Skeptics automatically assume that if your opponent cannot prove his position (1), he or she is automatically wrong (2), thereby utterly disregarding option 3).

skeptik

All these stances can be moderated by probabilities, but since I believe that only events have probabilities, I don’t think one can apply a probabilistic reasoning to God’s existence and to the reality of moral values.

While assessing a worldview, my method consists of comparing its predictions with the data of the real world. And if it makes no prediction at all (such as Deism), agnosticism is the most reasonable position unless you can develop cogent reasons for favoring another worldview.

Anyway, the complexity of reality and the tremendous influence of one’s cultural and personal presuppositions on reality make it very unlikely to know the truth with a rational warrant, and should force us to adopt a profound intellectual humility.

This is why I define faith as HOPE in the face of insufficient evidence.
I believe we have normal, decent (albeit not extraordinarily) evidence for the existence of transcendent beings. These clues would be deemed conclusive in mundane domain of inquiries such as drug trafficking or military espionage.
But many people consider the existence of a realm (or beings) out of the ordinary to be extremely unlikely to begin with.
This is why debates between true believers and hardcore deniers tend to be extraordinarily counter-productive and loveless.

The evidence are the same but Skeptics consider a coincidence of hallucinations, illusions and radar deficits to be astronomical more plausible than visitors from another planet, universe, realm, or something else completely unknown.

magonia

In the future, I’ll argue that there are really a SMALL number of UFOs out there (if you stick to the definition “UNKNOWN Flying Objects” instead of a starship populated by gray aliens)

Of course, the same thing can be said about (a little number of) miraculous miracles.