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Simon - T1

(Text as at 22/08/2007 00:15:50)

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Apologies for the very delayed response. Your carefully-crafted email raises so many issues that I hardly know where to start. I think I’ll try not to deal with everything in one go, and just provide pointers for further correspondence.

Firstly, I’m sure you’re aware there are worse things that can happen to a 16-year-old than “finding Christianity”. My wife Julie remains a staunch Christian, but my children don’t seem to have caught on. I think they belong in varying degrees to the confused and non-committal in this regard. So much for Sunday School and a house-full of books; my fault, no doubt. Depending on the stripe, there are many more unwholesome isms for one’s children to embrace. I think a yearning for finding out “how it all hangs together” is what I’d have liked my children to catch on to, and a first step can be for them to latch on to some package deal. Then one hopes there’ll be a serious investigation into whether this “solution” really works, followed by a realization that package-deals aren’t likely to be the whole truth. Of course, you have to be careful of saying this to your children lest they suspect you of being patronizing.

Sadly, Christians often seem to have a very flimsy grip on what it is they’re supposed to believe, and why it should seem reasonable, but have instilled in them a massive urge to pass this flimsy notion on to others. It’s usually bolstered by a feeling either that someone else has worked out all the details, or that such details don’t matter, as we’ll be let into all the secrets “in heaven”. This begs quite a few questions in my view.

You doubt whether people ought to want to “believe in something”. I presume you’re thinking of the package deal here (whether it be Theism, Marxism or Republicanism). But isn’t a dispassionate search for truth one of the things that makes life worth living?

As for me, I’ve not pulled a 360-degree turn recently (or even a 180-degree one). However, because most of my closest friends, and most of my wife’s friends, are Christians of one sort or another, the issue is rarely out of my mind. I have been re-considering the matter yet again of late, though I wonder whether it’s a bit of a waste of effort.

Returning to the big issue, my opinion remains pretty much as it was. Again, depending on the stripe, Christian beliefs seem to me to be either too insubstantial to be worth bothering with, or else most likely false. I usually find that reading anything by radical theists inclines me towards atheism, while reading the radical atheists makes me more sympathetic towards theism. This is symptomatic of a universal 2 x 2 matrix:-

  1. Arguments in favour of one’s own position
  2. Arguments by your opponents against your opinion
  3. Arguments by your opponents in favour of their position
  4. Arguments by those in favour of your position against your opponents’ position
In our case, we have the opposition of naturalist versus supernaturalist worldviews.

Case (1) is important but involves the whole of scientific knowledge, and much else besides, so can only really be addressed in response to case (2).

Case (2) usually involves arguments against “scientism” or “science falsely so-called”. I’m currently reading a bunch of books on this debate. The waters are muddied somewhat by disputes as to whether there’s a conflict between science and religion, and if there is, what the key issues are. Darwinism seems to be a favourite turning point. Some Christians seem to think evolution “leaves God with nothing to do”, and are therefore against it. Others think it just explains how God did it. There’s a similar divide amongst atheists as to the importance of the issue with respect to theism.

As to the books, firstly there’s a rather annoying "Strobel (Lee) - The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God". This seems to latch on to Darwinism as the root of all evil, and polls a selection of sympathetic scientists in an attempt to debunk the theory. My objections, other than to the journalistic style, are firstly that any claim to objectivity goes out of the window when you only select people who agree with you, and then claim this as a consensus. Secondly, that even if the Darwinian theory (of evolution by natural selection) turned out to be incorrect, evolution itself might still be a fact. After all, any scientific theory is subject to revision and improvement or replacement as new knowledge or insights come along. The second book is "Alexander (Denis) - Rebuilding the Matrix: Science and Faith in the 21st Century". Any connection with the film (as suggested by the cover) is a complete con, but otherwise it seems a reasonable book, Alexander being a respected scientist - chairman of the program of molecular immunology at the Abraham Institute and a fellow of St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge. It takes a more eirenic approach of avoiding any conflict between science and religion at least on the issue of origins. Incidentally, there’s "Gould (Stephen Jay) - Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life". Though an atheist and evolutionist, Gould is an advocate of the “No conflict” view; he calls it NOMA (Non-Overlapping MAgisteria). It’s still in my queue, but I don’t expect to be impressed. If we take the no-conflict view too far, religion has nothing substantive to say except some vague hand-waving at a remote prime-mover, which isn’t the God of the Christians.

Case (3) represents the case for Christian supernaturalism. There are numerous attempts at this. I have a couple: "McDowell (Josh) - Evidence That Demands a Verdict - Historical Evidences For the Christian Faith: Volume 1" (2 Vols) and "Kreeft (Peter) & Tacelli (Ronald) - A Handbook of Christian Apologetics". These tend to be a bit smug, because they can’t admit to any issues. So, they tend to be more encouraging to the perceptive atheist than intended (though this perception has to be informed by reading around the subject, which atheists seldom want to do). That’s not to say there isn’t a case to be made (I wouldn’t be worrying about the issue if there wasn’t); it’s just that there’s more than one side to the story and these books are highly partisan, being for the support of the faithful.

Case (4), the case against supernaturalism, is good swashbuckling stuff, but tends to underestimate the opposition, and also to be rather ignorant of the issues. Hence, it can be accidentally supportive of theism. The latest offering is "Dawkins (Richard) - The God Delusion". If you check out the reviews on Amazon by the non-partisan, you’ll get an idea of its shortcomings. I’ve just ordered a pretort (since it came out first) "McGrath (Alister) - Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life" which seems interesting. Unfortunately, his actual retort (“The Dawkins Delusion”) seems to be a too-brief stinker. See also "Wolpert (Lewis) - Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief". For a critique of “Intelligent Design” see "Shanks (Niall), Dawkins (Richard) - God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory", though I’ve not read it yet.

You asked about ethics. It’s been known since Plato’s day that there’s the “Euthyphro problem” (from the dialogue of that name). Is God prior to the good? Ie. Are things good because God says they are, or is (a good) God himself bound by the good. Would boiling babies be good if God said it was? I doubt it. So positing God as the authority behind ethics doesn’t help.

A quotable quote: “So in saying that things are not good by any rule of goodness, but sheerly by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory. For why praise him for what he has done if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing exactly the contrary.” Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics.

I’m reading yet another book at the moment, entitled "Oderberg (David) & Laing (Jacqueline) - Human lives: Critical Essays on Consequentialist Bioethics". It’s ridiculously expensive, so I’ve only borrowed a copy, especially as I disagree with everything it says. It is arguing against consequentialism – basically, the seemingly obvious view that avoidable actions are good if their consequences are likely to be good, and bad otherwise (with loads of caveats). The anti-consequentialist line is that some things are wrong under any circumstances. Essay 2 “Is Anything Absolutely Wrong” takes this line, using the entertaining example of “buggering babies”. My view is that if the future of the planet depended on you doing this rather distasteful act (probably worse for you than the baby), then it would not only not be wrong, but a duty. And the same goes for boiling the wretched thing. It may sound a bit like Himmler encouraging the Einsatzgruppen, but in their case the ends did not in any sense justify the means because the ends were utterly mistaken. And almost always the ends don’t justify the means where the means are normally immoral, but in extreme cases they must. There’s no necessary slide from “anything goes sometime” to “anything goes anytime”. Anyway, the point of all this is that, while the authors of the papers in the book are (I either know or suspect) uniformly theists, the editors deny in the introduction that there is “something essentially religious about anti-consequentialist thinking”. So, there can be absolute prohibitions and commands that don’t involve divine sanction. Incidentally, if you read this book, skip the first essay, which is difficult and of only academic interest.

On proofs or disproofs of God’s existence, there seems to be a dispute amongst philosophers as to whether belief in God can legitimately be a “basic” belief – ie. one that doesn’t have to be justified on the basis of other beliefs. This has always struck me as a crazy idea. How could such a complex (and disputed) concept possibly be basic? It is interesting, though, that often one can get sucked in to justifying “unbelief”, when it’s really beliefs that need justifying.

I’ve just remembered another book that’s on hold at the moment. It’s "LePoidevin (Robin) - Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion". He’s an atheist and a good philosopher, and this is a cracker of a book (at least as far as I’ve read), and not too detailed. It’s probably the book for you. Unfortunately, if you want to get alongside your daughter, you might have to read a Bible. It’s mostly quite a good read.

I hope all this isn’t too simple-minded. I also feel I’ve not addressed all your questions. In fact, I didn’t understand the book-suggestion request, though I understand the tension that ought to be felt be Christians who believe their nearest and dearest are in for an eternal roasting. Of course, I never believed any such thing; one of my many heresies was “conditional immortality”. My studies in personal identity incline me to the belief that any sort of continued existence after death is logically impossible, though I may of course be wrong.

Theo (19th February 2007)

Simon’s Response1.

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Date Length Title
12/08/2007 10:17:46 10884 Simon - T1

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22/08/2007 00:15:50 396 (Simon - T1) Simon

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