Saturday, November 30, 2013

Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist…” Chapter 22

Chapter 22: What Hath a Most Perfect Being to Do with a Most Horrendous Hell?
If we were to answer the question proposed in the title, it would simply be: nothing. A perfect being would have no use for a hell.

Sheridan begins this chapter by sharing about his past. His parents were divorced, and when his biological dad died, his step dad (an Evangelical Christian) said that Sheridan’s real father had died and gone to Hell. Sheridan wants to know what Randal’s thoughts are on the subject, and Randal mentions, 

“[T]hat’s an area that I’ve wrestled with for a long time.”

Sheridan asks:

“Do you think a God who is, as you say, the most perfect being would really damn some of his creatures to hell forever?”

Randal begins by stating that most Christians tend to avoid the problem. Randal says the fire-and-brimstone sermons are of a bygone time, incompatible with today’s suburban Jesus, and notes “Most churches dropped the topic of hell years ago.”

When Sheridan asks why, Randal states that

“Some Christians take the disappearance of hell as evidence that we are ‘capitulating to secular culture’ and ‘losing a sense of God’s holiness.’ I agree that describes part of our increasing discomfort with hell. And I think these are troubling trends.”

Why Randal uses single parenthesis to quote what some Christians think isn’t clear. It seems like he may be quoting those aforementioned Christians indirectly, but he may just be highlighting the points by distinguishing them from the rest of the sentence.

What strikes me as silly, however, is that Randal thinks that people growing less superstitious is a “troubling trend.” Why would becoming less superstitious be troubling? I don’t know, and Randal doesn’t care to explain.

Even so, Randal explains another reason for why hell has ceased to be viable.

“I suspect that at least some of our discomfort with hell results from a heightened perception of its morally problematic nature.”

Problematic is perhaps going to easy on the unethical concept of moral blackmail and the place devised to ensure loyalty and worship through the threat of punishment and torture, including those who choose not to worship God.

At any rate, Randal continues:

“[I]n my experience Christians often treat the doctrine of hell in a way that parallels their treatment of herem violence: We either ignore hell or we misrepresent it.”

Randal then goes on to say that the idea of hell is much worse than most people think. He reminds us that the mainstream traditional doctrine of hell holds that hell is essentially ‘eternal conscious torment.’

For some odd reason Randal then mentions that Christians believe in different types of damnation, citing Calvinist Christians doctrine of predestination, and God sending people, whomever he wills, to hell—but that other Christians believe there are different prerequisites to getting into the hellfire club.

He then talks at some length about the Catholic Church rejecting the idea of limbo, noting that “Christians doctrines can change and develop through time.”

Randal then informs there is even a split on the concept of salvation, citing theologian Karl Rahner’s idea of “anonymous Christians” who would consist of people who have never heard of Jesus’ atoning death but who may still be saved by Christ. I guess it’s sort of like Mormon baptism of the dead, in the sense that you can save the person retroactively, often times against their will or without their knowing it.

Sheridan doesn’t buy into the various interpretations of salvation or damnation, but still wants to know Randal’s opinion about it. Randal goes on to say:

“Christians are not driven to their views out of hatred for others. Rather, they come to their views out of a conviction that this is what the Bible teaches. They don’t relish the doctrine. They simply find themselves obliged to accept it.”

Next, Randal says it’s important to get the facts straight and starts quoting scripture. Giving us his own exegesis of Matthew 25:41, he informs:

“I’ll tell you this much: the ‘eternal conscious torment’ reading of this text is definitely out of sync with contemporary notions of justice.”

Randal goes on to add:

“Increasingly, jurisprudence is focused on reforming and restoring the offender. As for deterrence, there the rationale for punishment is to provide consequences that will dissuade others from engaging in criminal activity… Unfortunately, the judgment of hell fits neither of these rationales. The point of hell certainly cannot be reformation if the person is to be punished forever.”

Randal then makes the analogy that the concept of a Hell House,[1] yes the kind that are popular at Halloween, could represent a virtual representation of a metaphysical hell that would work just as effectively to scaring people into being on their best behavior, but admits that “With a divine hell house there simply is no need for real people to suffer forever.”

Basically this equates to Randal’s claim that hell isn’t intended as a place for suffering, per se. Sheridan wants to know, if so, then “what’s the point?”

Suddenly the chapter comes to a close. And we haven’t learned whether a perfect being would fashion a hell let alone require one. We haven’t learned much of anything really. Randal talked a lot on unrelated topics for most of the chapter. Chapter 23 is entitled “An Eternal Eye for an Eye.”

[1] Hell houses are haunted house styled attractions run by Christian organizations. These depict real life situations of sin, such as abortions and drunk driving, and the torments of the unlucky damned to Hell for their folly and transgressions. Usually the attractions concludes with a depiction of heaven and a voucher that asks if you’d like to repent of your sins—as a hook to try and get people to ask forgiveness and accept some Christian salvation. Most Hell house events are typically operated in the days preceding the triduum of Hallowtide. A popular documentary about the Hell house phenomenom was made by director George Ratliff in 2003.

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.

Reviewing Randal Rauser's "The Swedish Atheist..." Chapter 20

Chapter 20: Would a Most Perfect Being Have a Most Imperfect Church?
We begin with a continuation of comparing the Christian concept of God with the Greek concept of Zeus. Granted, Zeus has more in common with Jesus than Jehovah, but Randal is playing a little sleight of hand trick here. Instead of holding up like religious concepts he’s reaching for the polar opposites and then saying that one of these fits his preconceived definition.

What are the odds that Randal’s concept of God will fit the exact definition he selected for it? Odd are probably in his favor. This prompts Randal to affirm:

“[W]hile Zeus was created by other gods, Christians and Jews always taught that Yahweh is the creator of all things…. The difference between various concepts of God is important for eliminating certain descriptions of the most perfect being.”

Remember my objection to this method of assigning templates to your chosen God concept and then holding them up to your chosen definition the last time? It really amounts to little more than a type of “naming” game.

Holding up dissimilar God-concepts to your randomly selected definition, and then saying, this one fits and this one doesn’t, is easy. But in essence, all one has done is show that some templates fit arbitrary definitions better than others. Likewise, definitions can be found to be compatible with certain templates. This is to be expected. But one hasn’t proved anything.

All Randal has done is show that the Greek template is less compatible with a randomly selected definition for a Perfect God and that the Christian template is more compatible with this same randomly selected definition of a Perfect God.

But what if we were to assume that God wasn’t a perfect being? Well then, the Greek template would be more compatible than the Christian one, and Randal still hasn’t said why the definition of a Perfect being is more plausible than an Imperfect being, accept that’s the definition he likes because it fits with his theological views.

Sheridan then launches into an example of a girl with liver cancer from Australia whose parents flee to El Salvador to avoid having to give her the mandatory medical treatment required by the Australian Law so that they can, instead, pray for hear recovery in accordance with God’s will. This is Sheridan’s counter to Randal’s claim that God is a perfect being. The fact that God didn’t do anything to ease the young girl’s suffering is essentially a version of the Problem of evil, and it is a strong argument against the Christian God, but Randal doesn’t seem to think so.

“But how exactly does that work against Yahweh’s claim to be God?”

I don’t know what happened here, but I thought we were talking about God being a so-called perfect entity. Not God’s claim to be divine. This is trick theologians like to use when they have no good or ready answer for the skeptic. They quickly change topics, or raise other points, so as to bog down the conversation in a quagmire of confusing and irrelevant points—hoping to throw off the exacting scrutiny of the skeptic.

The question I would of asked Randal is, “Wait a minute, are you saying Yahweh is claiming to be a perfect God? If so, that’s easy to disprove!”

Then all one would have to do is reference the Bible. End of debate. The folly of the apologist exposed.

Instead of dealing with these hard hitting issues, real world Randal has his atheist puppet do the same thing real world Randal likes to do, change topics. Sheridan then begins to harp of all the religious idiots which exist, saying that “as far back as you care to look your God has been trailed by an unbroken chain of idiots.”

Randal scoffs.

“Idiots? The whole lot of us?”

We feel burdened to answer Randal here, so we shall. No Randal, not all religious are idiots. But many are. And not to point any fingers, but have you read your own book? It has some pretty unintelligible comments in it that only an idiot could make. Does that mean Randal is an idiot, or that he just wrote a sad example of an apologetic book? I think it’s the latter. I don’t believe Randal’s mentally deficient, but his brain certainly seems overcast by the storm of religious nonsense.

Coming back to the suffering of the little girl, Sheridan points once again to the parents’ negligence and asks:

“[I]s it part of his [God’s] perfect plan that children suffer agonizing deaths?”

Randal’s defense is rather lame, but let’s allow him to make it anyway.

“I don’t think those parents correctly understood God’s will…”

If you find yourself shaking your head that the best Randal can come up with is the excuse that these good Christian literalists simply misunderstood God, then where does he draw the line? Hell, maybe *all Christians are misunderstanding God all the time? What’s his criteria for discerning who is good at understanding God and who isn’t?

It’s not coincident that if you’re not a Christian, the reason we nonbelievers are told why we often cannot grasp God is that we do not have the Holy Spirit to guide us to God’s Truth™. But here’s the problem, if the parents in the story cited by Sheridan are, in fact, real Christians, then shouldn’t they understand God’s will because they have the Holy Spirit?

Lots of problems arise due to Randal’s poor reasoning, but never mind. We aren’t allowed the luxury to debate real discrepancies or raise real objections. This is Randal’s grande conversation with himself, and Sheridan is turning more and more into a nitwit reminiscent, well, most uneducated apologists.

Randal informs:

“Medical quackery has nothing to do with the Christian view of God.”

Really? So, does Randal consider the power of prayer medical quackery? Inquiring minds want to know.

Randal then comes back with this doozy:

“[T]his tragic story could just as well have been about a couple of atheist parents who favored quackery to proven medical treatments. I am not sure why you’re blaming the Christian concept of God for the medical ignorance and foolishness of some deeply misguided parents.”

That’s right. Because atheists have a belief in the supernatural power of prayer, firmly feel miraculous healing happens all of the time, and hang on every word of a religious holy text which instructs them on how to invoke prayer to heal the sick and get their desired miracles.

No, wait. That’s Christians.

How Randal confuses the two is beyond me. But it seems he simply doesn’t want to admit that unquestioning religious beliefs can often lead to folly if followed faithfully, because that would be admitting that one’s religious beliefs are fallacious. There’s a reason medicine works and prayer doesn’t. If you ever wanted greater evidence for the inefficacy of miracles, and the impotency of God, quite frankly, there isn’t a better example than the failure of prayer.

Randal then states:

“Parents subject their children to abuse and neglect for all sorts of reasons, not just religious ones.”

And although he’s right, it’s beside the point. Sheridan’s example was a direct objection to a perfect God. If God was perfect, and was real, then he’d answer those prayers, heal the sick, and work a few miracles in favor of his faithful followers. The point wasn’t to say there isn’t child abuse in the world, it was to say that if your God is perfect then he’d be burdened to have to oblige his followers and answer their prayers as promised in the holy texts of the faith. Then it’s a matter of whether or not such a belief compels the parents to neglect their child.

Sheridan then quips, “The fact is that belief in God promotes fatalism.”

Randal counters by informing:

“The Christians I know believe God works through modern medicine and that he expects us to use our common sense… there’s no essential link between theism and fatalism.”

Of course, Randal is wrong on both accounts. There’s no way he can *know that God wants people to use common sense. That’s just a wild assertion on his part. Meanwhile, as to his claim that there’s no essential link between theism and fatalism, I mean, really? Does Randal even know what Calvinist Christianity is?[1]

Randal and Sheridan continue to argue. Sheridan asserts that it’s Christians who are frequently doing such things, and Randal wants to know “how often do Christians do these things compared to non-Christians?”

A lot, actually (hint: try using Google search).[2]

Randal then states that the reason Christians get caught doing abhorrent things happening frequently is quite simple.

“Christians outnumber atheists by multiple orders, so it’s not surprising we’d have more examples of Christians committing evil acts—just like we have more examples of Christians committing heroic and good acts…”

Sigh. Yes, that explains the link between faith and faith based actions precisely. (Not really).

Next, Randal proves that he doesn’t only partake of the Koolaid, he flat out guzzles it.

“How many of the hospitals and orphanages built in the last two millennia were built by atheists? And don’t forget that the largest mass-murderer of the twentieth century was an atheist.”

Ooh, yes. Evil psychotic mass-murdering atheists. It’s not clear whether Randal means Stalin or Hitler, but it doesn’t matter, both are incorrect. It’s a fallacy (association fallacy to be exact) to invoke either of them because of their atheism, since apart from whatever else they didn’t believe, they were A) mass murdering psychos, and B) used religion to a great degree as a means to help carry out their evil design. As Richard Dawkins quipped, they also had mustaches. Meanwhile, it is well known that Hitler was a Catholic and Stalin trained in the Russian Orthodox faith.[3]

On the Iron Chariots Wiki page for Stalin, we learn that

“As the de facto ruler of the USSR, he initiated many purges. Many clergy were killed and this is often cited as Stalin's anti-christian mark. However, like Henry VIII he did not simply remove clergy, he replaced them. He established a new national church of Russia, which of course answered to him. He considered the church very important to extending control from Moscow to the satellite nations. Stalin's church was called the Russian Orthodox Church or The Moscow Patriarchate; and the suppressed church was called the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. They have a bitter history.

Stalin was many things, a former theologian, the head of the national church, and one of the most brutal dictators ever. His own views on religion are difficult to guess. Many scholars think of Stalin as a ruler who envisioned himself as a god.

Furthermore, there is the concurrent claim that the USSR was an atheist nation. While the Communist Party suppressed religious fervor, it did so only out of jealously of loyalties. The Communist Party demanded loyalty to itself above all others, even above God. Russia has always been an intensely religious nation. They consider the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church to be equal to the Vatican's Pope; or even above the Pope. To claim that Russia became atheistic overnight in 1917 only to emerge deeply religious in 1989 is incredibly ignorant.

One may also note that almost all of the leaders of the USSR, from Lenin to Gorbachev, except for Malenkov, were atheist or non-religious or did not have their religion documented. Yet only Stalin committed such historic atrocities. Gorbachev explicitly affirmed his atheism, but he nonetheless campaigned for religious freedom and was very friendly toward believers.”[4]

But Randal’s point is well taken. Simply having religion or not having religion doesn’t make one evil. Accept for, you know, when having religion does make someone evil … by causing them to fly planes into skyscrapers or bomb abortion clinics to ensure women don’t get the medical help they may desperately need, to trying to lobby to have the right to teach nonsense to children in public schools.

There’s a reason we don’t see atheists doing these things, but Randal is right about people frequently having a propensity to do bad things. But that doesn’t address the criticism of good people behaving badly because of religion and their religious beliefs.

To conclude this chapter Randal asserts:
 “I certainly don’t find that the sins and errors of individual Christians—or people who claim to be Christians—warrant the conclusion that Yahweh isn’t God.”

But doesn’t this ignore the criticism entirely?

The point is, if Christians had a direct conduit to God, to morality, and to miracles like they claim, then a perfect God would be obliged to act in accordance with his perfect nature, and answer prayers, cause wondrous miracles which defy our knowledge of the natural world, and all this in accordance to his perfect plan—which could only be a form of predestination if God was at all perfect—because a perfect being would be all knowing by definition of perfection.

So Christians would be morally superior to everyone else (even with sinners included), they would have the ability to invoke magic (and things like praying for the cure of your child’s illness would actually work), and it would be clear that God was working wonders for his believers but not anyone else (since only those who are in communion with a perfect being would benefit from this so-called personal relationship), and this evidence would all go a long way to establishing the Christian God as the perfect God Randal holds as the ideal type of God in his mind. But this we do not find.

Instead we find that Christians, based on this ardent belief in a perfect God, all too often waste their time praying for sick children only to have the children suffer. And this is a direct cause of their religious beliefs. All too often Christians make the best sinners, because no matter how bad you behave, you can always ask God’s forgiveness. And the only personal relationship it seems any Christian has with God is the one they have imagined in their mind, otherwise, all these above things would be true rather than false.

Now, as for the question of Yahweh claiming to be God, the God of the universe, this isn’t really a claim anyone can take seriously. We’ve never heard it from the horse’s mouth, but rather, have an old book filled with myths in which believers held that a mythical deity, not so dissimilar from any of the other mythical deities of his day, was a God among gods in a story about Gods.

Therefore the claim that Yahweh must be considered the one true God simply because some believers believed it and wrote it down in a book is certainly not a good enough reason to accept the claim. It’s exactly the same as me asking you to accept Spiderman as a real person because my child saw him in a book—and because Spiderman fits with what my child thinks a hero should be. But not Batman. Batman obviously couldn’t be a true hero because he’s too dark and startles the fine line between vigilantism and the law—and that’s just un-hero-like.

This is essentially what Randal has asked us to believe. And it’s so patently absurd that I have to worry about the common sense, or lack thereof, of those who read this hokum and accept it hook line and sinker. Which, when you stop to think about it, would be a defeater for Randal’s ideal perfect God, technically speaking. After all, his God wants people to use their common sense, but if they did that then then wouldn’t read books like this.

Chapter 21 is called “Would a Most Perfect Being Command Genocide?” I’m sure it will probably be more of the same. So join me, won’t you, as we discover the depths one Christian apologist will go through to salvage belief in a nonsensical deity.

[1] Perhaps it would help to clarify. Fatalism is the belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable. It leads to a bleak outlook, because without free will, without choice, what purpose could there be to life? At the same time, Calvinist Christianity preaches the doctrine of predestination. It is shocking that Randal, who is a theologian, doesn’t know this. Either that or he’s being deliberately disingenuous here.

[2] Of course, there is something along the lines of child neglect and abuse for specifically Christian reasons in the news almost on a weekly basis. Here’s the latest tragedy:

[3] I’ve written in depth on whether or not Hitler was an atheist or not. If Randal means Stalin, then I recommend Christopher Hitchen’s book God Poisons Everything, in which he tackles the subject of Stalin’s homicidal motivations superbly. My article can be read online at:

Also, don’t forget to check out Wikipedia’s in depth bio on Stalin at:

Monday, November 25, 2013

Reviewing Randal Rauser's "The Swedish Atheist..." Chapter 19

Chapter 19: Why Zeus, at Least, Isn’t God
Getting back into the thick of it, Randal begins this brief chapter with restating every assumption he can think of, affirming:

“The existence of the contingent universe is enough to show us that invoking God as an explanation is not arbitrary. Thus, being a theist does not oblige one to adopt an indefensibly complex, arbitrary view of the world. Further, reflection on the intuitively compelling definition of God as most perfect being shows that it is possible that God exist, then God must exist.”

So Randal has asserted, once again, that God is the explanation for why there is something rather than nothing, and that God is the most perfect being. As we saw in the chapter before, he bases such assertions off his intuition. Intuition, which the psychologist Daniel Kahneman showed to be highly unreliable.

Sheridan then objects that the philosophical description of God doesn’t take us all the way to the God of the Bible, and asks Randal what his proof is that the Perfect being is the Biblical God and not, for example, Zeus.

Randal then says there are two ways to approach Sheridan’s challenge. Once is to disprove Zeus, and the other is to show that Zeus doesn’t fit the definition of God that Randal has chosen.

Randal then refreshes the reader in a bit of Greek mythology, and goes on to ask Sheridan how far can a description vary before it ceases to adequately refer to the thing it’s purporting to describe.

Continuing on, Randal informs that when holding various definitions of God up to his (arbitrarily selected) definition of God, there comes a point where a description will be so far off that it fails to refer to the definition of God he has settled on as the correct definition for God.

Of course, what Randal is actually doing here is naming God, not describing God to any degree. As the language theorist Ludwig Wittgenstein once observed, naming and describing are different things. In most cases the definitions people give for God are not proper definitions at all. That is, they are not ‘descriptions’ of God but rather ‘names’ applied to a specific conceptualization. The religious anthropologist Pascal Boyer calls these religious conceptualizations templates, and identifies a list of ones which are commonly shared among the world’s religions. Regarding these religious templates he states:

“Religious representations are particular combinations of mental representations that satisfy two conditions. First, the religious concepts violate certain expectations from ontological categories. Second, they preserve other expectations.”[1]

Boyer then gives a list of several template examples. Number twenty-one from the list is: Omniscient God [PERSON] = special cognitive powers. This example illustrates one possible template, and is one of many possible religious representations of God.

Now if a theologian imbues his sense of God with metaphysical characteristics and/or attributes, such as saying that God is transcendent, all-loving, omniscient, omnipresent, immutable, eternal, existing outside of space and time, well, these are just the various templates which other theists and theologians will use to check their definitions of God against.

As a consequence of having preconceived templates, however, the religious believer hasn’t provided a reliable description of anything and nothing has been done yet to provide a meaningful definition.

All Randal has done, in other words, is reinforce a preferred religious template familiar to his brand of theology. Naturally, Zeus will not match his chosen template because it is not a template derived from Christian theology. Even talking about God as a Perfect being falls into the category of one possible template among many. So, all it seems Randal has accomplished here is that he has held up the Greek template for Zeus and juxtaposed it against the Christian template for a Perfect being and observed that they are different templates. This has nothing to say on whether one religious template is more plausible than the next.

Randal then mentions some obscure fact about ancient Christians believing Zeus was a demon.

Then Randal dials on his Evangelical preacher mode, and closes the chapter with a bit of good old fashioned proselytizing.

“One thing I do know is that even if Zeus exists, he’s not the most perfect being, and that’s the only being worthy of our life’s focus.”

I’m extremely relieved that this chapter was short but, at the same time, sort of disappointed that Randal did not show how Zeus was less plausible than Yahweh. All he established was that they were different concepts, and that the Greek template for God didn’t match with the Christian template for God. 

Furthermore, Randal is wrong to assume that simply because the two templates differ that the Greek one is automatically disqualified because it’s incompatible with the Christian one. What has to happen next is we have to test the verity of each template by establishing which template, of the two, accurately reflects reality as we know it. The one that matches reality then is most likely the right template, and the one which doesn’t match reality will be disqualified.

In chapter 20 Randal addresses the question whether a most Perfect being would have an imperfect church? Why would a Perfect being require worship at all, is what I’d like to know. Maybe we’ll find out?

[1] Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained, p. 62

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Reviewing Randal Rauser's "The Swedish Atheist" Chapter 18

Chapter 18: From Personal Cause to Most Perfect Being
As I continue to look at Randal Rauser’s The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails, the more I feel that I should have done an overall review of the book rather than a chapter by chapter summary review. The problem is, the book is already running long, and instead of making clear points, Randal often confuses the reader by quickly changing topics, going off on tangents, coming back to other topics, and often forgetting to follow up on other so-called rabbit trails he went down, but then stopped cold for some reason.

Overall, this makes the book rather difficult to take in. Not because it contains big ideas, but because these big ideas are not presented clearly. As such, this is not a book I could recommend anyone. Don't worry, if you give up on this book after only a few chapters, it's not your fault.

That said, let’s get this show on the road.

Chapter 18 begins with Randal explaining:

“I’m certainly not claiming that the statement ‘personal cause of the universe’ is a religiously satisfactory definition of God. But even if that description doesn’t say all a Christian wants to say about God, it certainly says something important. Christians believe that God is the creator of all things and thus that the question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ has a personal answer: God.”

Sheridan again asks how Randal can be so certain it’s the Christian God? This is a point that Sheridan has raised nearly every chapter, so it seems Randal’s reluctances to answer it right off the bat has something to do with him wanting to massage away the painful criticisms of God, via apologetics, before he tackles the issue. There really is no other reason to put it off, as it is a pretty straight forward question.

Randal then informs that the first requirement is to supply more “specificity to the general concept of God.”

Yes, that goes without saying. If you want to prove the general concept of God is your concept of God, then you will have to specify.

As such, Randal quotes the medieval Christian theologian Anselm’s definition of God, and goes on to state: 

“God is the greatest conceivable or most perfect being. It is not possible to conceive a greater being.”

Sheridan then contends that this is rather an abstract philosophical description for the quote, unquote “Christian God.” To which Randal responds:

“[I]f God exists, he simply must be the most perfect being. But as long as we’re positing God, it’s legitimate to define God as the most perfect being there could be.”

For some reason Sheridan goes along with it. Maybe the apologetic trick of simply re-asserting baseless claims you’ve already asserted a thousand times have worn Sheridan down, but really, Randal has no reason to assume God is the most perfect being. Nowhere has this been established. But for the sake of the argument, and to save on a lengthy tangent, we’ll let it slide this once.

Sheridan also lets it slide, and demands to know where one goes with the definition of God after that. Randal then affirms:

“Well, saying that provides a helpful way to eliminate those descriptions that fail to meet the demands of the definition.”

Randal then cites the Mormon concept of God as an example which fails the test. But how is the test not arbitrary? After all, Randal merely looked around and arbitrarily selected the definition of God he liked, in this case Anselm’s definition. Moreover, what does he do about other God-concepts that meet all the criteria for the definition but are not the Christian God? In Africa, the Akan people of Ghana believe that the deity Nyame is the God of All Things, and their theological description of Nyame meets all the criteria of Anselm’s definition, just to cite one example.

So now the problem is compounded, not only does it seem to be arbitrarily selected, but now other deities that fit the criteria of the definition can be arbitrarily put in place of the Christian God. This is a big problem. And of course, Randal would probably do what most theologians do and hold up their template of God to the template of the Akan people’s God and then nitpick the details until he could find enough divergence with his theology to dismiss it as not-Christian. But that doesn’t prove the Christian definition true, since the Akan people could likewise hold their template up to the Christian template, find where the Christian God diverges with their theology, and then dismiss the Christian God as not Nyame.

Most apologists try to avoid this conundrum by simply denying the validity of other people’s definitions of God, but this is also an arbitrary act—since there is no reason to prefer one’s deity over another when one hasn’t compared, contrasted, and tested both theological claims. Furthermore, another area which proves to be a thorn in the apologist’s backside is the fact that The One True God™ and The God of All Things™ could very well be the same God, simply known by different names.

Randal then seems to have a candid moment of clarity in which he affirms:

“[Y]ou can’t say God is whatever you like. I think the Anselmic concept is so basic that every description of God has to be held up to it. If a particular concept of God appears to result I a deity that’s less than perfect, then we need to revise either our understanding of God or our understanding of perfection.”

Sheridan then strikes back with an even more devastating criticism, stating:

“Just because you come up with a description of God doesn’t mean that your God is real. You can’t just define God into existence.”

Randal ducks the questions and instead asks whether or not “it’s possible that the greatest conceivable being exists…?”

Randal then describes how if the definition isn’t in anyway contradictory to what we know, then it is at least plausible that, according to such a definition, such a thing—in this case a Perfect being—could exist, saying, “If they do exist, then they exist contingently.”

Then he raises the point that numbers exist necessarily.

Sheridan objects that numbers are not God, and wants Randal to cut to the chase. Randal obliges.

“When it comes to God—the being than which none greater can be conceived—that being cannot exist contingently, like a beach house…. Because a being that must exist is, all things being equal, greater than one that only happens to exist but might not have existed.”

He goes on to add:

“I’m depending on an intuition to make that claim, but I think it is a strong intuition.”

Ah-ha! We have found Randal out. He knows God is a being than which none greater can be conceived because he has had an intuition!

Well then, it must be so! It’s not like our intuitive thinking is problematic or anything.

Oh, wait, it is problematic? How so?

In Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s groundbreaking research essay “Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases” published in Science magazine,[1] the two researchers documented the main biases of intuitive thinking, described the simplifying shortcuts of intuitive thinking, and demonstrated the role of heuristics in judgment. What they found was a set of 20 common biases that everyone is susceptible to and which always must be accounted for in order for intuitive judgments to be more accurate than not. In other words, our intuition is not at all reliable.

In his excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman observes:

“The spontaneous search for an intuitive solution sometimes fails—neither an expert solution nor heuristic answer comes to mind. In such cases we often find ourselves switching to a slower, more deliberate and effortful form of thinking.”[2]

This slower form of thinking is called “analytical thinking” and is named, specifically for the fact that it deals with the analysis of relevant information to make better, more accurate judgments than if one were to rely strictly on intuition alone.

To say one believes in God, or a type of God, based on intuition alone is the equivalent of saying one believes their random choice of pony will win at the horse races because they have a hunch. But given more information on the competing horses, one should be able to make an analytical judgement. Let’s imagine our horse was running against the famous Seabiscuit. Would it make sense to bet on our horse over Seabisucit based on nothing other than our intuition? 

Of course not! If one is basing their choice of horse on intuition alone, and they are ignoring Seabiscuit’s impressive statistics, then their intuition is going to be wrong nine times out of ten. Something other than intuition is required to make accurate judgments, in this case, which horse is the better runner. So we must look at things like statistics, and we’d use analytical thinking to analyze which horse statistically wins more races than all the other horses, and basing our judgment of the probability that this horse wins more frequently than the other horses, we’d most likely bet on a horse that has won most of its races. 

Therefore, reason dictates we should bet one Seabiscuit because he is a thoroughbred that won 11 of his 15 season races, ultimately going on to defeat the reigning Triple Crown champion War Admiral in 1938 at Pimlico, in one of the most famous horse races of all time.

The analogy shows that if we went by intuition alone, we’d end up being wrong more often than not, because our intuitive thinking is not as accurate as our analytical thinking.

I often feel theologians, like Randal, put far too much faith in their intuition that God is real, or that God has this or that attribute, because, as Kahneman’s research has shown us, intuition alone isn’t sufficient for making correct judgments about the world.

Randal goes on to add:

“If we accept the definition of God as the most perfect being, then it follows either that God must exist or it is not possible that God exists. To put it another way, if it’s possible that God exists, then it’s necessary that God exists.”

My question would be, what is the likelihood of his intuition simply being wrong here? I think it’s rather quite high. In fact, the very notion that our intuition is known to fail us to astonishing degrees, and that analytical thinking is often required to balance our reasoning so that we’re simply not always mistaken, it seems to be a good rule of thumb to keep a healthy skepticism about our intuitive judgments.

Sheridan says it sounds like a type of gamble, and Randal informs, “That’s not too far off, although I wouldn’t exactly characterize the discussion as a bet. It’s really just a matter of definitions.”

Two things. In actuality, it really is more about a matter of probability. As with the example of Seabiscuit, letting intuition dictate your judgments is a type of gamble—in this case the gamble that your intuition is correct.

The second thing is that, I think it’s safe to say, Randal is correct in noting that it’s a discussion of definitions, and ultimately, semantics. But this raises a big problem with how Randal chooses to define God, because he is, technically speaking, talking about concepts as if they were real. This usually leads to a form of semantic confusion rooted in incoherency that is common within theology and more so within religious apologetics.[3]

One example of this confusion would be to define God as transcendent. But by the very definition of transcendence (existing outside of reality), we cannot test for this property of God, so there is technically no way to demonstrate God is a transcendent being. Therefore, to talk about a Transcendent God as if it was an extant being creates an incoherency, because we would be talking about a hypothetical abstraction as if it were literally a real world physical object. And imaginary-real things are self-refuting.

What clever apologists do, however, is simply ignore the problem of incoherency. They will talk about God-concepts all day long, only to, at the end of the day, proclaim God is real. It’s not so unlike how theoretical physicists will talk about String Theory. They will talk about it in terms of mathematical abstractions, but at the end of their day, they can only posit String Theory as hypothetical model, full well knowing there is no evidence to confirm it as anything more than a mathematical abstraction.

Of course, this demonstrates the key difference between scientists and theologians. Scientists are duty bound to be honest about their mathematical abstractions being little more than fancy conceptualizations (at least until it can be demonstrate otherwise), whereas theologians do not like to admit their theological abstractions are concepts too.

Sheridan then opts to take the option that God does not exist rather than God existing necessarily. Randal tells him to hold up. That while it’s easy to find a contradiction in terms with something like a “square circle” it’s not so easy to find a contradiction with the idea that God is “a most perfect being.”

Sheridan then suggests the concept of a perfect being simply may not be meaningful. Randal responds, asking:

“What’s not meaningful about the concept?"

Sheridan goes on to point out that Randal is, essentially, comparing apples and oranges. Examining the most perfect rainbow, for example, has nothing to say on the perfection of the most perfect tiger. Saying God is the most perfect being, then, says nothing on the perfection of most perfect rainbows or tigers. They’re different classes altogether.

Randal’s answer, of course, requires us to put on a hockey mask—that is, if we don’t want to break our faces with yet another dangerously powerful face-palm.

Randal informs:

“I agree that not everything is comparable in terms of absolute perfection to everything else. But it doesn’t follow that everything is not comparable to God, does it? Even if we can’t compare redwoods and tigers to each other in terms of perfection, it doesn’t follow that we cannot compare them to God. And if God is the creator and sustainer of all things, then it seems very plausible to conclude that God is greater than all things.”

I have re-read the above quotation at least half a dozen times, and each time it makes less and less sense to me. Usually, profound points are meant to clarify an issue, or hone an idea, and make it accessible to us. It seems the only thing Randal has accomplished here was to take a whole bunch of words, toss them together, and make a fancy word salad.

Notice the only thing we actually learned from the above quotation is that God is the “sustainer of all things.” After which Randal merely states that "it doesn't follow that we cannot compare them to God."

But this is merely another unfounded proclamation of faith. Instead of explaining why something is or isn’t, and demonstrating his claims, Randal merely resorts to proclamations of faith. This is what bothers me about this book. It often is little more than Randal reaffirming that he believes in Christianity instead of explaining why he believes in Christianity.

Sheridan brings the chapter to a close with a question he has raised repeatedly throughout the book, and which seems Randal may finally get around to answering.

“So what makes you so sure that your God is the greatest?”

Chapter 19 is entitled “Why Zeus, at Least, Isn’t God” and I can’t help but feel this is going to be a dangerous analogy for Randal, because he is basically going to explain why he doesn’t accept Zeus as a real deity, and this answer will most likely be the same reason atheists do not accept Yahweh as real. But, of course, Randal will deny the equivalence. I’m interested in what his reasons could possibly be for such a renunciation.

[1] Science, vol. 185, 1974.
[2] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 25 October 2011.
[3] In my book Ignosticism: A Philosophical Justification for Atheism, I discuss why our definitions for God are more likely to be conceptual rather than real. I justify this claim by showing that the descriptions one uses to define God relate back to hypothetical constructs and not literal referents, thereby highlighting the fact that talking about abstractions as if they were a real object brings with it a problem of incoherency.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist