October 03, 2004

Various Sunday Thoughts

from - smijer

I have a lot of thoughts on my mind, but none in particular that I "feel led" to develop a sermon on. I will just share them, in no particular order:

  • In a discussion about religious liberty, someone once suggested that it was "always the atheists" raising a fuss about prayer in schools and what not. Actually, that has never been true. There have been numerous plaintiffs among other religious minorities. But in effect, yes: it is religious minorities who are most apt to be in a situation to "make a fuss" about majority religions using the apparatus of the state to promote themselves. I ran across an unlikely ally for us atheists and other religious minorities: a group of Baptists. Funny. When I was growing up, it was Baptist preachers that I heard regularly railing about the evils of the "secular humanists" who were determined to "take God out of the schools". I'm glad to see that some of them have grown up.

  • Going back to my prior sermons about Christianity's portrayal of God as unjust, and particularly with reference to the portrayal of him as one who delights in administering punishment to the innocent, I wanted to bring up another example of it. For the pharaoh's crime of holding the Israelites hostage, the plagues were visited upon all of Egypt. Particularly, the final plague, wherein God slaughtered the first-born of every Egyptian family (and, with ironic symbolism - the Jews slaughtered sheep) because of Pharaoh's hard heart. Some skeptics and apologists like to get sidetracked over the issue of whether it was God or Pharaoh who hardened pharaoh's heart, leading to the ultimate massacre of the first-borns. I don't see the point in quibbling over it. The real injustice is in punishing families and killing the innocent for the misdeeds of one man. This is a particularly onerous depiction of God, when a real, powerful, and good God could have used the same situation to show His real power and justice by removing the Israelites miraculously, and without the pharaoh's consent, then miraculously placing the pharaoh at the command of Moses to work for the Israelites and pay off his debt to society. A punishment that fits the crime, in other words.

  • Raving Atheist makes much sport of people on the left - some who are "skeptical" in the realm of religion, becoming devout people of faith during the CBS memo scandal, and the converse where people who normally allow faith to trump reason resorting to that skeptical empiricism when they sought to disprove the memos. (He has posts here, here, and here.) I would like to brag that I was not among those people on the left who abandoned skepticism and pushed the partisan line. I held the skeptical view throughout. In the beginning, I held a moderately high degree of confidence in the memos, as they were reported by a major news organization and not in dispute. When the questions were raised, I decreased my confidence in the memos, while also maintaining a healthy skepticism about the reports of evidence of fraud. When it became clear that expert opinion was in consensus against the documents, my confidence in the authenticity of the documents went to near zero, where it will remain until evidence surfaces that takes it further down or increases it again. I cannot say with absolute certainty that the memos are fake, but I am completely satisfied of their inauthenticity. One of the most overlooked elements of a skeptical world-view is that there is never absolute certainty. There are only degrees of confidence.

  • Speaking of Raving Atheist, one of my private pleasures is to fisk bad arguments against God. A good skeptic eschews bad arguments just as much when they support his own position as when they support an opposing view. I hope I won't offend the Raving Atheist by publicly fisking one of his arguments against the possibility of God. Actually, I have problems with each of his seven arguments, but I don't feel like putting too many irons in the fire just now. His first point is that an all-powerful (omnipotent) God is a contradiction in terms - a logical impossibility on the lines of a square circle. His argument is formulated this way:
    Omnipotence is impossible because God would, at a minimum, be unable to limit his powers, e.g., make a stone he cannot lift; if he could make such a stone, then his inability to lift it would defeat his omnipotence;

    The problem is that we have left "all-powerful" (or omnipotent) insufficiently well defined. It may include the ability to change anything that exists into any of its potential configurations. If so, and if God is to be omnipotent, then "so heavy that God cannot lift it" is not a potential configuration of a rock. Therefore, God could make a rock of any finite weight, or of infinite weight, but God could not create a rock that is a logical impossibility. Under this view, God could not make a "square circle". The "all" or "omni" is the set of all logically possible actions, not all actions whether logically possible or not. Another view is that God transcends logic. Such a case leads to absurdities that more mature thinkers would reject out of hand. God could create a square circle, and he could create a rock that he could not lift - yet he could lift it. The argument as it is phrased by the Raving Atheist seems to ask us to believe that omnipotence must require the ability to violate logic, and that therefore it is logically self-defeating. However, if it truly does include the ability to violate logic, then we cannot consider it a problem that logic forbids it. If it transcends logic, then logic can be no obstacle. If I were addicted to a religion, I would prefer the first viewpoint, and leave God with complete power over nature, but not imbue him with the power to lift an object that he cannot lift. No matter, though. The argument against the possibility of God does not stand under either view. I think the atheist is far better served to argue against the accuracy of religious beliefs than against the existence of an ill-defined God.
  • It would be unfair for me to fisk a pro-atheism argument without similarly fisking an apologetic argument as well. The one I have in mind is the ineffability of God. Often, when a religious belief can be shown to be self-contradictory, contradictory with the evidence of our senses and reason, or in some way morally damning (thinking here of the incident described above from Exodus), the reply is that God is unknowable. According to this view, whatever apparent problem we perceive would go away if only we had God's perspective. It is our inability to comprehend God and his ways that make us unable to understand this particular problem with a religious claim. This argument is actually wonderful for the atheist - because religion is an effort to do just that impossible thing: to understand God's plan for people. This argument is an admission that the main goal and focus of religion is impossible. Of course, the Christian believes that he is not defeated by his own beliefs about the unknowability of God, because God chooses (in some cases) to reveal Himself and His plans,... and we know it when He does.. But the sticking point is the unspoken next line - "Or does he? And, do we?" According to the view that God's ways are incomprehensible to us, we can never answer those questions. We cannot know whether this or that revelation is from God or is a deception - because our comprehension is not up to the job of discerning the one from the other - by the believers' own insistence.

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    Posted by smijer at October 3, 2004 10:08 PM
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