Thursday, September 14, 2006

Who knew?

Evolution isn't incompatible with faith; human goodness is a result of natural selection; atheists are drastically outnumbered. All this and more in...

The New Naysayers

Atheists "are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public," according to a study by Penny Edgell, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota. In a recent NEWSWEEK Poll, Americans said they believed in God by a margin of 92 to 6—only 2 percent answered "don't know"—and only 37 percent said they'd be willing to vote for an atheist for president. (That's down from 49 percent in a 1999 Gallup poll—which also found that more Americans would vote for a homosexual than an atheist.) It is funny how atheists can cause such a fuss and yet be such a minority.

But its actually one of the responses to the article above that I find more interesting (or at least arguable) then the article itself....

Wordverter airs his grievances on atheist thinkers - here

(And, to make much sense of anything further past this point you'll probably want to go and read what he has to say first.)

Now, how to word this...

Let's just say I find it... funny when Christians (usually of the more liberal/moderate/academic sort [is that too wide a generalization?]) grow annoyed at the idea of anyone taking what the Bible has to say - heaven forbid - literally.

Its true that some books, not just the Bible, can be read on many levels and literalism is not the only way to interpret a text.

However, when most of us first pick up a text, the first time we read it we usually assume we should be reading it literally. Reading for symbolism or figurative meaning, etc - that comes later, usually after at least one read in which you (correctly or incorrectly) assume literalism.

And so when Wordverter says that choosing to take the Bible in a literal way "doesn't speak well" for Harris - he seems to be implying that no educated/informed(?) individual would read the Bible and do so. I'm not sure what that goes to say about a great many Christians who do accept the Bible's literalism, but I've grown to wonder why a book like the Bible is thought of by so many to require the assistance of numerous manuals just to be understood.

The fact of the matter is that the Bible is a... I'll just go with the word "mysterious"... a mysterious book that can be (mis)understood on any number of figurative or literal levels.

Because divine inspiration or not, its just not the most easily comprehensible book in the world.

Which is why so many different Christian denominations exist.

Which is why so many Christian academics exist - all with their different interpretations and translations.

Back to the point.

The point was - can you really pick on an atheist for taking the Bible... literally?

Moving right along...

Wordverter comments:

The same questions are posed [by the atheists in the article]. If there's a God, how can there be evil in the world? [Italics mine] Really, this question presupposes a lot; it's a loaded question, in fact, which is why I dislike it. Presumably God would not allow disasters, either natural or man-made, because He's so gosh-darn good. But because these do occur - well, how could there be a God? So goes the reasoning.

Well, actually that wasn't the question. What Harris asked was: "How can anyone believe in a
benevolent and omnipotent God who permits a tsunami to swallow 180,000 innocent people in a few hours?" (pg. 1, par. 4)

I personally think it's a reasonable question and I would think even the most stalwart believer must wonder about it at some point in their lives - particularly in the face of mass tragedy.

For Christians are told that "God is love" and takes no delight in evil and injustice. And yet still they exist all around us. Many (or most, should I say?) Christians take comfort in Christ and a Biblical promise that suffering and injustice are temporary.

But is it so impossible to accept that not everyone can find such comfort in the Christian ideal of Christ dying for our sins and redeeming us? Some cannot reconcile the idea of a loving god with ongoing human misery. Perhaps its just a trait of we imperfect humans to want instant solutions (and really this debate goes back as far as the Garden of Eden, doesn't it?), but just as Harris said - the idea of a loving, all-powerful god (which Wordverter himself may
not believe in but which many, many do) allowing humanity to suffer for whatever reason is abhorrent and unbelievable to some.

Wordverter goes on to give an illust
ration of a human parent, who possesses greater wisdom and foresight then their child and then says:
Now, if it's so easy to understand that fact, why isn't it so easy to see it in religious thinking? Maybe God knows something we don't? - what a concept! Maybe God doesn't have to play by our rules. Indeed, why should He? I'm not saying I can sit back and cheerfully watch all the hell on earth around us today, like some Dr. Pangloss, only that the combined intellect of those atheists - the combined intellect of the human species, for that matter - is pretty paltry when held up against the wisdom of God.
Of course its easy to see it in religious thinking.

But speaking of presupposing, this confidence in god's greater wisdom, greater knowledge, greater intelligence, etc. - all of these are suppositions based on faith.

Faith in a god that agnostics and atheists don't believe in. Faith grounded in a book that they see no reason to put any trust in. And so you can use the illustration of a wise parent all you like - its not going to sink in as anything more then a trite analogy that just doesn't make sense to some who are looking for a more satisfying answer then "Father knows best."

With that in mind should it really come as any surprise that Harris can acknowledge religious faith and belief but cannot understand it?

And here is where I start to wonder whether there is any point in addressing any of Wordverters' remarks because he, we, and the atheists are all coming from such different places. *

And as the wise Conciliator recently commented:
I'm not sure if ANY two people whose presuppositions differ can ever find a common reasoning ground! Isn't that one of the insights of postmodernism?
Wordverter himself has caught on to almost the same idea when he says in frustration...
What we find here, then, is a position that is unassailable - unbeatable because it refuses to fight. Walled itself up in its own circle of logic, it is impenetrable. Kind of like conspiracy theories.
... except that what he seems to forget is that the same can be said for both sides.

Both sides refuse to accept what the other holds as unassailable fact - and so how can there be understanding?

(No, really, I want to know. I'm taking Conflict Resolution this year and any attempts at an answer would be interesting. [smile])

As for the rest of Wordverter's post - I'm not going to bother with most of it as (I think) it really comes down to a matter of personal opinion (e.g. "What I find most striking about the so-called debate is how much religious thinkers have developed over the years, and how little the atheists have come along.")

However, I do want to respond to this one last comment:
I get the feeling that most arguments against the validity of the Bible come from people who are very uninformed about the Good Book, reading it selectively, partially, or not at all.
Speaking of tiresome conclusions, this is one I'm sure growing tired of - this somewhat arrogant assumption that anyone who misunderstands or chooses not to accept the Bible has simply never read it before. Or if they have read it, there comes the more insulting insinuation that they must have misunderstood it. Or read it with severe bias. Or any other number of things.

The point is, there exist individuals who have indeed read the "Good Book" cover to cover* and while they may have been intrigued and impressed by it as a marvelous work of some historicity and not a little literary worth, have not been moved to the point of faith or conversion.

I sure would be curious as to how many of those who identify themselves as Christians have read the Bible in full.

Because just going on what I remember from my earnest preaching days, I could make the (equally unfounded?) statement that what most Christians know of the Bible is acquired solely from sermon.

However, I won't make that statement because while it might be quite accurate, I can still hold out hope that it is not.

In summation, I agree with Wordverter (*gasp*) that there were some highly annoying parts to that MSNBC article.*

  • Harris' condescending statement "Tell a devout Christian... that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever."
  • Harris' (almost hopeful sounding) comment that "many readers will expect, or hope, to see him burning in hell." (As well as his hilarious request that "the name of his current university not be publicized" for his own protection.)
  • Dawkin's belief that "the impulse for generosity must have evolved while humans lived in small bands in which almost everyone was related, so that goodness became the default human aspiration."

* Even for my personal satisfaction, I mean. Ha.
* Of which I am proudly one.
* Which, in typical media fashion, ultimately takes no position whatsover but instead plays each side off the other, eschewing any attempt at harmonious relations, and instead glorifying happily in "highly inflammatory material."


ninja said...

hmmm, very interesting read.
:) i may even share some comments soon.


Elliot said...

I think Wordverter was quite right to criticize the atheist thinkers in the article mentioned (the negative case he made) - but perhaps his counter-arguments, or his positive case, were not so strong.

What I agree with is that the militant atheists in question almost invariably seem to argue their case against an imaginary fundamentalist opponent who takes everything completely literally and accepts the whole of religion on BLIND faith, not reasoned faith.
They are intelligent men, but they don't seem too willing to engage with the real intellectual systems of the various religions, and are content to bash a distorted straw men. For someone like Wordverter, who is a PhD student in philosphy, and who must spend most of his time thinking intensely about the world, being told that his religious beliefs are accepted blindly and are on par with believing in magic yogurt, must be very frustrating. Many people who attack religion seem to have only a Sunday-school level understanding of what it's all about.

At the same time, you approach the issue from a more knowledgeable viewpoint, and don't fall into that trap nearly as much. So it would be wrong to lump you in with them.

As for questions of theodicy, I've talked about them with you countless times, and either A) you never remember what I said and B) when you do you don't find them convincing, so C) I'm not sure there's any point in rehearsing those conversations.

Elliot said...

As for epistemology, what's your question? Can we have a reasonable common ground?

Surely we can, for many issues. But at some level our presuppositions will clash and that's all there is to it.

For many people, miracles or divine intervention are simply impossible. Case closed. So someone who thinks such things can and have occurred will seem crazy to them.

For some people, God's goodness and love means He would never permit evil or suffering of any sort, particularly not the kind that get on the nightly news. So anyone who says that perhaps God does not desire such evils but permits them for deeper purposes (which He knows better than us - father knows best, so to speak) is ruled as hedging or engaging in special pleading. For such thinkers Existence of evil=Atheism, end of story. What can be said from a Christian perspective? Not much.

Elliot said...

PS: I'm not saying those deeper purposes are entirely mysterious - religious philosophers have come with several, and the scriptures of various religions suggest some. But if you think that kind of philosophy is special pleading to begin with, well, they will be ruled out of court.

Elliot said...

PPS: I would vote for an atheist, or a homosexual, or both, if they were the right person for the job.

Anactoria said...

HA! An atheist, homosexual prime minister! That'll be the day!


(More later, in response to your good responses - thank you.)

Anonymous said...

Wordverter's post was reactionary, and not a good example at all. Right to criticize is one thing, which I agree with, but it was done so simply that it detracts from, rather than bolstering, his position.

When that occurs, it's as easy to dismiss them as it is for them to dismiss the counter arguments.

... and now, we're nowhere.

joliebelly said...

your blog posts are strong and open minded.

it's like you get your kicks AND pay the rent by stirring the proverbial pot!