Thursday, November 28, 2013

Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist…” Chapter 21

Chapter 21: Would a Most Perfect Being Command Genocide?
Come to think of it, in the previous chapter Randal never addressed whether or not a Perfect being would require worship. Although it wasn’t his intention to address this point, it seems a viable question to ask, as a Perfect being technically couldn’t be considered perfect if it required worship from its followers, as the Christian God clearly requires. This in itself is a defeater to Randal’s presumption that the Christian God fits the definition of a perfect being.

Sheridan then quizzes Randal on whether or not a perfect God could command genocide, as Yahweh did when he ordered the death of all Amalekites, including hapless innocent children.

Randal reassures us he is sympathetic to the point, and goes on to say:

“Look, I’m not here to defend the ‘home team.’ I’m only trying to pursue the truth as best I can, just like you. There’s a lot of great stuff in apologetics these days on lots of topics like intelligent design, cosmic fine-tuning, the resurrection of Jesus and countless other topics. But it seems to me that the standard apologetic treatments of biblical violence and Old Testament genocide are very unconvincing by comparison.”

I find it amusing how Randal claims he’s not trying to defend the ‘home team’ then launches into a bald faced advertisement for all the great stuff in Christian apologetics. It’s a lot like saying that I’m not really trying to sell you a car, but look at these great cars over here, they’re on sale, and you can get cash back if you buy now!

What should stand out even more, however, is the fact that Randal has just endorsed Creationism (i.e., Intelligent Design—although he probably denies they are the same thing even though it has been legally verified that they are sponsored by the same types of religious organizations) and the fine-tuning argument. Both are poor arguments for the existence of God.

How so?

Intelligent design proponents constantly reveal an embarrassing level of ignorance with regard to modern biology and the theory of evolution. So much so that other Christians, who are trained in biology, have called them out on it.[1] Meanwhile, nearly all fine-tuning arguments also rest upon a misunderstanding of basic physics. Anyone who thinks both arguments are surefire signs of God simply reveal the fact that they need to pick up a science book and learn a thing or two about what the latest science and what scientific minds have to say on the matter—and scientists almost unanimously agree that ID and fine-tuning arguments do not count on the basis that they are unscientific.[2]

I should point out that Randal is not wrong about Christian apologists not having any adequate answers to address God’s capricious, often vindictive, nature as described by the Bible.

As for the claim about Jesus’ resurrection being evidence for God, I will let the Biblical historian Hector Avalos, and professor of religious studies as Iowa State University, speak on how we should approach historical claims.

If you assume your five senses and logic provide reliable data about the world, then: 

1.   “Knowledge refers only to those conclusions that have been verified directly by one or more of your five senses and/or logic. We regard “fact” as coterminous with “knowledge.”

2.   “Belief” refers to any conclusion not verified by one or more of the five senses and/or logic. There are two types of beliefs.

i.    Reasonable beliefs are those that, while not directly verified, are at minimum based on verifiable entities and phenomena.

ii.   Unreasonable beliefs are those that are not based on any verifiable entities or phenomena.[3]

Avalos then admits that even his criteria could be held to a higher standard and cites British philosopher and language theorist Alfred J. Ayer’s formula for what constitutes “knowledge” by citing epistemologist Robert K. Shopes rendition of it.

          “S” knows p if and only if:

             i.        P is true
           ii.        S is sure that p is true, and
          iii.        S has the right to be sure that p is true[4]

Our question, as skeptics, must be does the resurrection of Jesus Christ even come close to meeting any of these criteria? It seems, at most, it meets the definition of unreasonable belief. If this is the best we could say about the resurrection of Jesus, from a historical perspective, then the claim that the resurrection of Jesus somehow helps establish the existence of God is spurious at best.

As for the unconvincing nature of apologists, I would agree with Randal but with one addendum. It’s not just in the area of violence and genocide that Christian apologetics is underwhelming, rather it’s the whole of Christian apologetics that is underwhelming and, ultimately, unconvincing.

Randal follows Sheridan’s lead and offers some criticisms of Christian apologetics often poor approach in dealing with these issues. But we’ll skip the majority of it as Randal goes on at length on things like ‘just war theory’ simply to say it’s not a good enough response. Randal also mentions that the slaughter of all Canaanite people, including all babies, as a form of punishment for them having slaughtered some Canaanite babies doesn’t make logical sense. But I would go on to say much of the Bible doesn’t make logical sense, because it’s not a book written to be logical, nor was it written by logical minded people. It was written by simple minded people prone to superstitious thinking.

Sheridan then challenges Randal to provide reason for why he believes Yahweh is a perfect being despite these accounts of his imperfect character. Randal explains:

“Since I believe that Yahweh is the greatest possible being, I must conclude that he did not actually command these actions.”

That’s right, this is a case of selective bias. The Bible is just so shocking, and God’s commands revealed to be so awful, that Randal simply saves God by affirming it wasn’t God that commanded such acts, but the Israelites acting on the false assumption that God commanded them to enact such atrocities.

Earlier Sheridan accused Randal of grasping at straws, and that about describes it. Confirmation bias is something we all must be consciously aware of, since we all suffer from it, but selective bias—the actual bias you invoke in favor of cherry picking the good beliefs from your belief system while rejecting the beliefs that aren’t compatible with your current worldview—is an amazing feat of denial.

Randal is denying that the Biblical account is exactly as it says, and therefore he is also denying Biblical inerrancy, which he’s taken flack for by other Christian apologists in the past. But in Randal’s defense, it’s the only way one could approach the Bible and still hold the Biblical God as anything other than a man-made concept. So what does this say about Randal? That he’s too rational for his own good or not quite rational enough?

It’s a hard question to answer, since you’d have to be extremely rational to rationalize away all the parts of the Bible you didn’t like, but anyone doing that for the whole Bible simply to retain belief in God couldn’t be all that rational, since one has to be aware they are using denial to salvage faith. It’s a catch 22 of sorts.

Sheridan then asks Randal, “Are parts of the Bible false?”

To which Randal responds:

“No, I don’t think so, as long as the Bible is properly interpreted.”

But didn’t he just say…? Wait, there’s more.

“I’d say that while the human authors may have said some things that are in error scientifically, historically, or morally, God nonetheless had a sovereign and perfect reason to include every detail.”

He did, did he?

“In the sense of divine intention there surely is no error.”

Says Randal.

“[W]hen there is apparent conflict in the Bible, we need to choose which of the voices in the text will be the authoritative one.”

So Randal’s fix to the problem is to do, not less but, more cherry picking?

Don’t agree with the Bible, well, that parts not authoritative. This other part, the part I like however, is authoritative—so let’s base the Bible’s authority on our own subjective preferences. That’s the way of a true Christian apologist!

Ain’t it though?

Sheridan then asks why God, as the editor of Biblical text so to speak, would include morally offensive material to begin with?

Randal informs:

“I would see those violent texts as serving as a foil, a visible parable of human folly and sinfulness.”

Sheridan objects, mentioning that if the Bible was meant to be read that way, then why has it been so thoroughly misread throughout Christian history? Randal has no good answer, and admits that is a problem with his theory, but that

“[F]or now I’m happy just saying that admitting this proposal as a possibility removes the objection that Yahweh cannot be the most perfect being because biblical moral atrocities.”

Well, only and only if “p” is true. Does “s” know “p” is true here? Not in the slightest. So Randal’s objection is really a non-sequitur.

I must admit I found this chapter a little bit baffling. I honestly am having my doubts about how Randal obtained an accredited PhD, as nobody I know with advanced learning would have ever written anything remotely as shockingly bad as this chapter was. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if that really is all Randal bases his belief on, simple denials of incontrovertible problems and controversies. I find myself being a little dismayed at how atrocious Randal’s thinking is in this area, and I still have no way to account for it. He's either an idiot who has mastered sophist language, or he's a sophist who can't tell when he's being a complete idiot. I know I just made an attack on Randal's character, and I don't want that to bias anyone's opinion of him, because my opinion really doesn't count for much. But if you wanted proof that I wasn't just attacking Randal but making an observation, all you'd have to do is pick up a copy of "The Swedish Atheist..." and read it for yourself.

In the next chapter, chapter 22, “What Hath a Most Perfect Being to Do with a Most Horrendous Hell?” Randal will address the question that’s been on all our minds—well, some of our minds—can a perfectly good God be the author of damnation and the owner of Hell?

[1] The American cell biologist Kenneth Miller, a practicing Catholic, responded to Intelligent Design (ID) proponents in his 2008 book Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul, in which he takes to task addressing the objections traditionally lobbied by ignorant IDers against Darwinian evolution, defends the theory of evolution as presented today, and shows how ID isn’t even a real theory and so could not hope to ever replace the actual theory of evolution to the chagrin of creationists everywhere.

[2] Professional physicist Sean Carroll, a senior research associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology, utterly destroys the fine tuning argument in this lecture about whether or not God is a sufficient explanatory mechanism.

[3] Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies, Prometheus Books 2007; Kindle edition, loc. 1378.

[4] Ibid.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist