Wednesday, April 29, 2009

New Essay Critiquing Dawkins Now On-Line at Religion Dispatches

Readers of this blog may be interested to read my new essay published today on Religion Dispatches, "Is Christianity Simply About God Entering the Uterus of a Jewish Virgin?" The essay looks at a recent caricature of Christianity offered by the world's most renowned atheist, Richard Dawkins. The essay challenges critics of religion to focus on real versions of Christianity rather than on soulless caricatures.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Principle of Charity and Some Other Brief Technical Points

I want to breifly discuss here two "technical" points, that is, points about philosophical terminology and the philosophical methodology to which it is related. My reason it to give readers of my blog a better understanding of some of the things I say, and a better sense of the argumentational etiquette that I strive (not always successfully) to adhere to and that I value in others.

First, and most significantly, in philosophy there is something called "The Principle of Charity." This principle is not, mainly, about being nice or kind to those one is debating with. It's not about sugar-coating what you say, and it is entirely consistent with being blunt about the perceived failures of their reasoning (although there are other reasons why, in philosophy, we should avoid being nasty--name-calling and put-downs often take the place of sound reasoning, and so interfere with the progress of an argument).

So what is the principle of charity about? It is about how we should strive to interpret and explicate the often ambiguous, usually incomplete, arguments and ideas expressed by others. The principle can be roughly stated in the following terms: "If an argument (objection to an argument, theory, etc.) can be interpreted in more than one way, pick the most favorable interpretation, that is, the interpretation which makes the argument (etc.) the most convincing or plausible that it can be."

If and when in this blog I talk about interpreting what someone says charitably or uncharitably, this is what I have in mind. The rationale for making use of this principle in philosophical discourse is that it does the most to advance the discussion. That a weak version of an argument fails is less interesting than that a stronger version fails, and that a weak interpretation of someone's argument is a failure does not tell us whether a stronger version fails as well.

Using the principle of charity does not entail that you will always figure out what another person meant to say. Your interpretation might still be wrong. Human beings are, after all, inevitably fallible. Interpreting correctly what others mean to say is hard work. Even the clearest and most careful writers are misunderstood routinely, and sometimes by the most careful thinkers. But when one really sits down and tries hard to fully understand what another person is attempting to say, the rate of misunderstanding decreases. It is part of the principle of charity that one engage in this interpretive work--preferably BEFORE commenting on their thinking. And it also means that if there is an obviously silly interpretation of what they are saying and one that is obviously less silly, you choose the less silly one.

Of course, people sometimes differ in their judgment about what is silly, so someone can be seriously trying to follow the principle of charity and be perceived as ignoring it. But the more participants in a discussion who make a sincere effort to follow it, the more likely it is that the discussion will go more smoothly, with fewer parties talking past one another, fewer parties needing to say, "That's not what I meant at all," etc. Such misunderstanding is inevitable, but the principle of charity helps to minimize it.

In a context like a blog, one way in which the principle of charity has to be invoked is in the following way: Since not every argument can be fully developed and defended in a brief comment, those who post on a blog site will often gesture towards some arguments that they don't develop, as well as developing other arguments more fully. Readers need to be sensitive to when a person is merely gesturing, and when they mean to be developing something more fully.
And, of course, there are degrees between a full development of an argument and a mere gesture. One might offer the main premises of ones argument without defending these premises, or one might defend one of them, or one might defend all of them but only against the most obvious objections one might anticipate. How in depth one goes depends on context and available time and space.

It is rarely helpful to accuse someone of offering an inadequate argument simply because it is less fully developed than another discussant wishes it would be. It is far more fruitful to ask for a fuller development of an argument of interest (or for a source where the argument is developed more fully), or to ask for a defense of a premise that wasn't defended in the original treatment of the argument, or to offer a specific objection to a particular premise of the argument and ask the author what they think of the merits of the objection. Authors often have thought about a variety of objections that they don't have the space to adequately address. It is far more charitable (that is, far more likely to promote fruitful dialogue) to say, "What about this counter-argument?" than to say, "You FOOL! You didn't think of THIS! Gotcha!"

Second, briefer technical point: There is an enormous difference between a pragmatic argument for or against a view and the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy is the fallacy of rejecting what someone thinks by virtue of what caused them to think it. A pragmatic argument against a view is, roughly, one that operates from the premise that an important measure by which a belief can be evaluated is in terms of its "fruits," that is, its pragmatic implications for how adherents to that belief live their lives. One asks, in effect, how useful the belief is in living one's life more successfully.

There is a school of philosophy that takes this pragmatic approach very seriously, and it is a school of thought that has influenced me. I am particularly influenced by William James. This is not to say that I identify as a pragmatist. I have yet to find one with whom I agree completely even methodologically. One of the key difficulties with applying the pragmatic method has to do with the criteria whereby the behavioral implications of a belief are to be assessed--it is a species of "the problem of the criterion" with which philosophers are continually wrestling.

In any event, I sometimes use quasi-technical philosophical language in this blog ("charitable interpretation," "pragmatic assessment") out of habit, forgetting that non-philosophers don't necessarily know what I mean. I hope this little post is of some help, and can maybe offer some guidance for understanding the argumentational etiquette with which I operate.

My promised post on biblical authority without inerrancy will come later in the week, depending on how much time I have between grading papers.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Dissecting and Assessing a Pair of Arguments for Biblical Inerrancy

In two comments in response to the previous post, Craig offers several arguments in support of a doctrine of biblical inerrancy. In this post, I want to try to develop and then evaluate the two arguments that Craig gestures towards in the following passage:

“…by insisting that the Bible contains errors you are anthropomorphizing God. The God I know (and love) would not willingly allow errors to enter His sacred text and is powerful enough to ensure that this does not occur by communicating with (breathing into the minds of) the authors.”

I think there are two related arguments here. The first is mostly undeveloped but implicit in the opening sentence of the quote. The second is a bit more developed, and is suggested by the remainder of the quote. The first argument, which I’ll call “A” (for Anthropomorphizing God), might be charitably developed in the following terms:

A1: The Bible is the revelation of God.
A2: So, if you adopt the view that the Bible contains errors, you are adopting the view that God’s revelation contains errors
A3: If God’s revelation contains errors, then God has human-like failings.
A4: So, if you adopt the view that the Bible contains errors, you are adopting the view that God has human-like failing
A5. To adopt the view that God has human-like failings is to anthropomorphize God.
A6. So, if you adopt the view that the Bible contains errors, you anthropomorphize God.
A7. It is a mistake to anthropomorphize God.
A8. So, it is a mistake to adopt the view that the Bible contains errors.

Note that this argument starts with the premise that the Bible is the revelation of God. Take that away, and I don’t see how we will get to the conclusion. But my discussion in the previous post is precisely about whether God would choose to reveal Himself primarily in a text (the Bible or some other text, such as the Koran or the Book of Mormon or the Vedas or any of the other texts that some have claimed to be the revelation of God). As such, this argument begs the question at hand—it assumes what needs to be proved.

The second argument, which I’ll call “S” (for “Sacred Text”) basically has a form similar to what we find in the argument from evil. It might be formulated as follows:

S1. The Bible is the “sacred text” of a God who is perfectly good and almighty.
S2. God, being perfectly good, would want His sacred text to be free from errors, and so would guarantee this result if He had the power to do so.
S3. God, being almighty, has the power to do so—specifically, He can inspire the authors of the Bible in such a way as to guarantee that they write without error.
S4. So, the Bible must be free from error.

Now, if we define “God’s sacred text” to mean “the text through which God has revealed Himself to the world,” we see that this argument once again begs the question at hand, assuming what needs to be proved. But perhaps Craig means something else by “God’s sacred text.” Perhaps we should take “God’s sacred text” to mean something more vague--perhaps something like “A text in which God has a special interest and which He makes use of in a unique way to guide humanity towards a state in which we all love God with our whole heart and mind and love our neighbors as ourselves.”

If we assume some sense of "sacred text" other than "a text that is the perfect and inerrant revelation of God," then premise S1 need no longer beg the question. But is the argument sound? Here, of course, much hinges on precisely what "God's sacred text" is taken to mean. But rather than run through all the possible options and evaluate the argument with each possibility in place, let me approach this in a different way.

Recall that something I pointed out when I first laid out argument "S"—namely, that the form of “S” is similar to what we find in the argument from evil. But there is a crucial difference as well. To see that difference, we need to turn to the argument from evil.

The argument from evil has been formulated in very many ways, but let me offer a formulation that makes the parallel to the above argument clear. We’ll call this argument “E”:

E1. Assume for the sake of argument that the world was made by a God who is perfectly good and almighty.
E2. God, being perfectly good, would want the world He made to be free from evil, and so would guarantee this result if He had the power to do so.
E3. God, being almighty, has the power to do so—specifically, He can make the world in such a way that there is no natural evil (disease, starvation, natural disaster) and can influence people in such a way as to guarantee that they never do evil.
E4. So, given our assumption, E1, the world must be free from evil.
E5. But, there is evil in the world.
E6. So, E1 must be false—the world was not made by a God who is perfectly good and almighty.

This argument differs from “S” in that it is formulated as a reductio ad absurdum argument—that is, it aims to show that an initial assumption leads to a false conclusion, and so must itself be rejected as false. What is revealed here is that the very same line of argument can cut in two different directions. Consider a modification of “S” along the following lines (we’ll call it argument “SR,” for “S reductio”):

SR1. Assume for the sake of argument that the Bible is the “sacred text” of a God who is perfectly good and almighty.
SR2. God, being perfectly good, would want His sacred text to be free from errors, and so would guarantee this result if He had the power to do so.
SR3. God, being almighty, has the power to do so—specifically, He can inspire the authors of the Bible in such a way as to guarantee that they write without error.
SR4. So, given our assumption, SR1, the Bible must be free from error.
SR5. But, the Bible is not free from error.
SR6. So, SR1 must be false—the Bible is not the sacred text of a God who is perfectly good and almighty.

Now there are many who argue precisely along these lines, by pointing out apparent contradictions in the Bible, or by identifying claims that sound as if they were intended by their authors to be factual assertion but which are at odds with the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence, or by highlighting moral injunctions that have every appearance of being horrifically at odds with our deepest intuitions about morality.

Since these ordinary forms of evidence contradict what is in the Bible, it is concluded that the Bible is not inerrant—and if the first part of the argument is embraced as sound, it is further concluded that the Bible is not God’s sacred text in any meaningful sense.

Now I find arguments along these lines important and worth serious reflection, but there is a difficulty with all of them. For every “error” that is identified by the measuring stick of logic or science or moral intuition, the biblical inerrantist can assert that it is logic or science or moral intuition which are in error. And this creates a kind of standoff between those who start with these ordinary forms of evidence and conclude that the Bible is not to be trusted, and those who start with a very high view of the Bible and conclude that these ordinary forms of evidence are not to be trusted.

Still, something important has been demonstrated if we come to see that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy forces its adherents to reject the evidentiary significance we would otherwise attach to logic and science and moral intuition. We are led to the conclusion that allegiance to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is not an innocuous thing. If the doctrine is wrong, the consequences of being wrong on this doctrinal issue are a rather systematic alienation from ordinary ways of knowing, and hence a greater likelihood of being wrong about many more things.

But let me set this issue aside for the time being, since it has so often led to a kind of ideological impasse. What I want to focus on is the first part of argument SR, the part which moves from the assumption that the Bible is “God’s sacred text” in some meaningful and important sense, to the conclusion that the Bible must be inerrant.

In philosophical discussions concerning the problem of evil, it is the parallel portion of argument “E” that most theists challenge. That is, they don’t deny that there is evil in the world. Rather, they argue that there are good reasons why a perfectly good and almighty God would allow the world that He created to be marred by evil. An account of such reasons is called a “theodicy.” Likewise, someone might argue that there are good reasons why a perfectly good and almighty God would allow His sacred text to be marred by error. Call it “a theodicy of biblical errors.”

Of course, the most common theodicies appeal to free will. Since my focus in this post isn’t on the problem of evil, I can’t do full justice to the problem and the various proposed solutions, but the rough gist of a free will theodicy is this: human freedom is so important that God is morally bound to allow it unimpeded expression even when it results in such horrors as the Holocaust.

Let’s consider what would follow if we took this idea seriously in the domain of the argument from evil, and then applied it to argument SR. If genuine human freedom is so deeply important to God that He would permit moral horrors of enormous proportion rather than interfere with the expression of such freedom, would there be any way that God could guarantee inerrancy in a holy book written by human authors?

If the human authors of God’s sacred texts are afforded by God the freedom to ignore divine inspiration, then God could not at the same time guarantee that they never ignored that inspiration in favor of their own cultural prejudices. Likewise, if the human beings who selected among the various writings to assemble the canon of the Bible were afforded the freedom to ignore divine inspiration (which was, say, telling them that the Book of Revelation wasn't divinely inspired at all), then God could not at the same time guarantee that they never ignored that inspiration in favor of their own fallible judgments. And so, if preserving freedom is so important that God is willing to allow millions to die in gas chambers out of respect for it, it might well be plausible to conclude that He must also regrettably allow His chosen authors to mangle and misrepresent His revelations.

Now I don’t spell out this particular “theodicy of biblical errors” because I believe that God was trying to create an inerrant text but was foiled by willful human authors whose freedom was so important to God that He had to allow them to misrepresent Him. I sketch out this theodicy of biblical errors simply to highlight the kinds of issues that need to be explored before anyone can say with confidence that God would have created an inerrant text.

My own view, as I’ve sketched it out in this blog and in my book, is that there are good reasons to conclude that God would pursue revelation in an entirely different way than through a text, and that the Bible is therefore better understood as a human testament to divine revelation rather than as the revelation itself. And I do not think that we should expect God to intrude on the freedom of human authors to prevent their testament from containing errors—not because human freedom is sacrosanct (although I do think human freedom is important), but because God’s plans are better served without the existence of a text that is inerrant in every detail.

I guess underlying all of this is an essentially Lutheran theology of grace, which holds that we cannot save ourselves—either by doing the right things or by getting all of our beliefs right. Only once we admit this will we let go of the effort to save ourselves by our own works and so let grace flood in. An inerrant text would inspire too many to think that they can get it right, if only they follow the rule book and believe everything it says. And so such a text might prove an impediment to the flow of grace.

The Question of Biblical Inerrancy: Comments Posted on Another Blog

Some days ago, a religion professor posted on his blog the following quote from one of my articles (the RDPulpit piece on same-sex marriage):

"[T]he doctrine of biblical inerrancy has the effect of inspiring its adherents to pay more attention to a text than to the neighbors they are called upon to love. Sometimes it even inspires them to plug up their ears with Bible verses, so that they can no longer hear the anguished cries of neighbors whose suffering is brought on by allegiance to the literal sense of those very texts."

The quote triggered a lively discussion on biblical inerrancy—as of this moment 85 comments and counting. After reading quickly through the highlights, I decided to post a comment of my own to provide some context for the quote. Since readers of this blog may be interested, here is what I wrote:

It's rewarding to see that a quote from me can stimulate such a lively discussion.

For even broader context than my RD article provides, it may help to locate the quote within my ongoing work on the nature of divine revelation. Some of that work is summarized in Chapter 8 of my book, Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion's Cultured Despisers, especially on pp. 175-177. But the full development of my ideas here has yet to be published.

The gist of it is this: a God whose essence is love would not choose, as His primary vehicle of revelation, a static text. We learn most about love through loving and being loved. And it is persons whom we can love, as well as who can love us. And so it is in persons and our relationships with persons that the divine nature is made most fully manifest.

Christianity affirms this when it maintains that God's most fundamental revelation in history was in the person of Jesus. And Jesus was, if nothing else, a model of agapic love. His core message was love. And He never wrote anything. Instead, He made disciples--persons--whom He sent out into the world.

In this context, a text that collects human testimony concerning divine revelation in history, especially one that reports on the life and teachings of Jesus, is going to be invaluable. But it will cease to be valuable if we come to pay more attention to this text than we do to our neighbors. Jesus Himself declared that He is present in the neighbor in need, and the community of the faithful is called "the body" of Christ, that is, the place where Christ is present, embodied, on Earth today. Not in a book. In persons.

When the biblical witness is treated as the proxy voice of persons who lived long ago, and we listen to the voices of those persons as we do the other members of the body of Christ, then the biblical witness becomes an invaluable partner in our efforts to understand what God is saying to us--that is, what God is communicating through the web of human relationships and the spirit of love that moves within that web.

But when the biblical witness is treated as inerrant in a way that no human being is inerrant, it trumps the voice of the neighbor and is used as a conversation-ender. It becomes an excuse not to listen to the lived experience of the neighbor. Or it becomes a measuring stick for deciding which neighbor should be listened to (their experience conforms with the biblical template) and which should be dismissed (because their experience does not conform).

And since compassionate listening is one of the most essential acts of neighbor love, it follows that a doctrine of biblical inerrancy is an impediment to such love.

Therefore, I conclude (contrary to what Craig argues here) that a God of love would not create an inerrant text.

As far as 2 Timothy 3:16 goes, let us recall that at the time this letter was written, "Scripture" referred to what Christians today call the Old Testament. The author of second Timothy says that these Hebrew writings are "God-breathed and...useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness."

Now we can ask two questions here. First, was the author of second Timothy right? Second, if he was, what does that imply about how we should approach these Old Testament Scriptures? Focusing only on the second question, we can reasonably ask what we have to believe about the Old Testament Scriptures in order to affirm that it is useful in the ways mentioned? And we can reasonably ask about the different possible senses of "God-breathed."

On both questions, Karen Armstrong's The Bible: A Biography offers a concise historical account of the numerous different answers through both Christian and Jewish history. There is, in short, not a single, incontrovertible interpretation.

This post generated some responses, one of which was rooted in a misunderstanding I felt compelled to clear up. And so I posted the following follow up:

I wasn't going to post here again since I have so much else to do, but it's obvious I need to clarify a point. Craig quotes something I say and then comments on it in a way that he seems to think constitutes a refutation. Here's what he says:

".....But when the biblical witness is treated as inerrant in a way that no human being is inerrant, it trumps the voice of the neighbor and is used as a conversation-ender..... Ive never contended that humans are inerrant only that God is omniscient and omnipotent. and that His word is God-breathed and claims to be God-breathed."

I know that neither Craig nor any other biblical inerrantist maintains that humans are inerrant. That's my point. When a person takes a text to be inerrant, given that no human is taken to be inerrant, it follows that the person will pay more attention to the text (which is assumed to be inerrant) than the neighbor (who is assumed to be fallible).

This is what I think is dangerous. We learn how to love by getting on with the messy business of loving one another. And one of the most fundamental features of loving one another is really paying attention to one another. But why pay attention to fallible people when you think you've got an infallible book? Why listen to them when they share life experiences that are in tension with the most obvious meaning of the book? The tendency is to silence them by quoting chapter and verse: "It's says so here. It's never wrong. So you must be wrong. Now shut up."

The fruits of the doctrine of inerrancy are particularly vivid in the case of homosexuality: the anguished cries of gays and lesbians who are excluded from full participation in the life of the community are ignored in favor of Romans 1:26-27. For a vivid sense of how poisonous these fruits can be, the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So offers a dramatic example.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Ten Question Interview

A ten question "interview" with me about my book is the featured article in today's Religion Dispatches, accompanied by a review of the book. Check it out here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The News from Buffetville

Just yesterday, a loyal (if fictitious) follower of my blog sent me the following fabricated clipping from the Buffetville Scallion-Picayune. I thought it worth sharing with other followers of my blog, and so I reproduce it here.

Kansas Church Protests at Easter Services

By J.J. Loganberry
Senior Staff Reporter

This past Sunday, Easter services at Buffetville Baptist Church were disrupted when the congregation of Kansas-based Eastburro Church, led by Pastor Phred Fleps, came to Buffetville.

Lining the easement surrounding the Buffetville church, Fleps and his congregation of relatives greeted approaching families with jeers, derisive laughter, and signs declaring “New car owners die, God laughs!” and “New car owners burn in hell!” As services began, the Eastburro group began chanting, “God hates new car owners!”

Lilly Thesbit, a retired school teacher who has been attending Buffetville Baptist Church all her life, was distressed by the group and its message. “I don’t understand it,” she told reporters. “They’re ruining my Easter. Nobody even noticed my new hat.”

Others were equally dismayed. “I don’t know why they have to come here on Easter Sunday of all days,” said 17-year-old Joey Dick. “I mean, if they’ve got a problem with our pastor’s new Acura, why not protest it on the third Sunday in Pentecost or something? Why Easter?”

The offending vehicle, which Pastor Bill McCune of Buffetville Baptist Church purchased less than a month ago, was parked throughout the protest in the designated pastor’s space behind the church. Police were on the scene to make sure that none of the protesters vandalized the car.

“It’s bad theology,” declared Pastor Bill. “They read a few scattered passages in the Bible that say we should care for the poor, and they interpret it to mean I can’t enjoy a new luxury car with my hard-earned money. I mean yes, technically I could make do with a used car, and technically the money I saved could be sent to Oxfam and would help save the lives of a few thousand malnourished children. But come on. I really liked the leather seats!”

Fleps has a different view. “Jesus tells us that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And you remember what he told the young rich man who asked about what he needed to do to earn eternal life? Jesus told him to sell all his possessions and give it all to the poor.”

“It’s not just about the pastor’s new car,” Fleps continues. “That’s a symbol of a bigger problem. Just look at all these people flouncing into church in their brand new outfits. Look at all those fancy cars in the parking lot! These people who claim to be Christians are spending money on luxuries while children are starving! It’s an abomination! The least he could've done is gotten himself a hybrid car.”

But Steve Lisp, one of the deacons at Buffetville Baptist, thinks that for Pastor Bill to keep driving that six-year-old Cadillac “would give the wrong message.”

“We’re not one of those poor churches that can’t afford to pay our pastor a nice salary,” insists Lisp. “Half our congregation belongs to the country club!”

“I don’t understand why they can’t be like those Wetsboro folks, and protest real problems like gay marriage,” says Pastor Bill. “I mean, the homosexuals are destroying this country, right? The Bible’s full of stuff that condemns those homos. Me, I’m just living the American dream. God wants his obedient followers to have nice things.”

“For a pastor,” says Fleps, “Bill doesn’t know his Bible very well, does he? Jesus never mentions homosexuality. And aside from a couple of verses in Leviticus, a book that no Christian today treats as authoritative, the only unambiguous mention of same-sex acts is a passing comment in Romans. But the Bible is obsessed with caring for the poor. Let’s face it, if you’re going to be biblical about things, the controversy shouldn’t be about gay pastors, but about pastors who enjoy luxuries while there are people in the world who go to bed hungry. That’s why we’re here.”

But little Jenny Fisher, who attends Buffetville Middle School, knows the truth of the matter. “They just want attention. I mean look at them. They’re dressed like the nerd contingent at my school. They weren’t popular in school, and now they’ve found a way to get people to pay attention to them.”

As this reporter’s mother used to say, “From the mouths of babes…”

Friday, April 10, 2009

Same-Sex Marriage Essay at Religion Dispatches

My blog post for this week--a reflection on the recent developments on the same-sex marriage front--was picked up by Religion Dispatches, and so can be read by clicking on this link. Enjoy!