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the anthropic principle lives on and on

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The anthropic principle, the idea that the universe – and let’s not muddle up our heads with multiverses – appears to be tweaked just right, in a variety of ways, for the existence and flourishing of humans, has long been popular with the religious, those invested in the idea of human specialness, a specialness which evokes guided evolution, both in the biological and the cosmological sense. And, of course, God is our guide.

Wikipedia, God bless it, does an excellent job with the principle, introducing it straight off as the obvious fact that anyone able to ascertain the various parameters of the universe must necessarily be living in a universe, or a particular part of it, that enables her to do the ascertaining. In other words the human specialness mob have it arse backwards.

So I’ll happily refer all those questing to understand the anthropic principle, in strong and weak forms, it proponents and critics, etc, to Wikipedia. I’ve been brought to reflect on it again by my reading of Stephen Jay Gould’s essay, ‘mind and supermind’, in his 1985 collection, The Flamingo’s Smile. 

Yes, the anthropic principle, which many tend to think is a clever new tool for deists, invented by the very materialists who dismiss the idea of supernatural agency as unscientific, is an old idea – much more than 30 years old, because Gould was critiquing not only Freeman Dyson’s reflections on it in the eighties, but those of Alfred Russel Wallace more than a century ago, in his 1903 book Man’s Place in the Universe. Gould had good reason for comparing Dyson and Wallace; their speculations, almost a century apart, were based on vastly different understandings of the universe. It reminds us that our understanding of the universe, or that of the best cosmologists, continues to develop, and, I strongly suspect, will never be settled.

Theories and debates about our universe, or multiverse, its shape and properties, are more common, and fascinating, than ever, and accompanied by enough mathematics to make my brain bleed. The other day one of my regular emails from Huff Po science declared that maybe the universe didn’t have a beginning after all. This apparently from some scientists trying to grab attention in a pretty noisy field. I’ve only scanned the piece, which I would hardly be qualified to pass judgment on. But not long ago I read The Unknown Universe, a collection of essays from New Scientist magazine, dedicated to all ideas cosmological. I didn’t understand all of it of course, but genuine questions were raised about whether the universe is finite or infinite, about whether we really understand the time dimension, about how the laws that govern the universe came into being, and many other fundamental concepts. It’s interesting then to look back to more than a century ago, before Einstein, quantum mechanics, and space probes, and to reflect on the scientific understanding of the universe at that time.

A version of the universe, based on Lord Kelvin's calculations, used by Wallace

A version of the universe, based on Lord Kelvin’s calculations, used by Wallace

In Wallace’s time (a rather vague term because the great scientist’s life spanned 90 years, which saw substantial developments in astronomy) the universe, though considered almost unimaginably massive, was calculated to be much smaller than today’s reckoning. According to a diagram in Man’s Place in the Universe, it ended a little outside the Milky Way galaxy, because we had no tools at the time to measure any further, though Lord Kelvin, the dominant figure in physics and astronomy in the late 19th century, made a number of dodgy calculations that were taken seriously at the time. In fact, Kelvin’s figures for the size of the universe, and for the age of the earth, though too small by orders of magnitude, were considered outrageously huge by most of his contemporaries; but they at least began to accustom the educated public to the idea of ginormity in space and time.

But size wasn’t of course the only thing that made the universe of that time so different from our own conceptions. The universe of Wallace’s imagination was stable, timeless, and, to Wallace’s mind, lifeless, apart of course from our planet. However, he doesn’t appear to have any good argument for this, only improbability. And an odd kind of hope, that we are unique. This hope is revealed in a passage of his book where he goes off the scientific rails just a bit, in a paean to our gloriously unique humanity. A plurality of intelligent life-forms in the universe

… would imply that to produce the living soul in the marvellous and glorious body of man – man with his faculties, his aspirations, his powers for good and evil – that this was an easy matter which could be brought about anywhere, in any world. It would imply man is an animal and nothing more, is of no importance in the universe, needed no great preparations for his advent, only, perhaps, a second-rate demon, and a third or fourth-rate earth.

Wallace, though by no means Christian, was given to ‘spiritualism’, souls and the supernatural, all in relation to humans exclusively. That’s to say, he was wedded to ‘human specialness’, somewhat surprisingly for his theory of evolution by wholly natural selection from random variation. This is the chain, it seems, that links him to modern clingers-to the anthropic principle, such as William Lane Craig and his epigones, who must needs believe in a value-laden universe, with their god as the source of value, and we humans, platonically created as the feeble facsimiles of the godhead, struggling to achieve enlightenment in the form of closeness to the Creator, with its appropriate heavenly rewards. And so we have such typical WL Craigisms as ‘God is the best explanation of moral agents who apprehend necessary moral truths’, ‘God is the best explanation of why there are self-aware beings’ and ‘God is the best explanation of the discoverability of the universe [by humans of course]’. These best explanation ‘arguments’ can be added to ad nauseum, of course, for they’re all of a part, and all connected to the Wallace quote above. We’re special, we must be special, we must be central to the creator’s plan, and our amazingness, our so-much-more-than-animalness, in spite of our many flaws, suggests a truly amazing creator, who made all this just for us.

That’s the hope, captured well by the great French biologist Jaques Monod when he wrote

All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency.

I think modern philosophy has largely moved on from desperate denialism, but Monod’s remarks certainly hold true for religions, past present and future. Basically, the denial of our contingency is the central business of religion. It’s hardly surprising then that the relationship between religion and science is uneasy at best, and antagonistic at its heart. The multiverse could surely be described as religion’s worst nightmare. But that’s another story.

why is the after-life so appealing?

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You could say that the question this post poses is both rhetorical and not. Why wouldn’t living forever, whether through cycles of reincarnation, or as a disembodied ‘ancestor spirit’, or in heaven, jannah, elysium or wherever, be appealing? And what could possibly be appealing about the finality of death?

But it’s worth exploring this question more deeply, as I believe it’s a major key to understanding many aspects of religion and ‘spirituality’. I’ve written about this subject before in the context of children and the origins of religious and magical thinking, but this time I want to focus on the afterlife in more detail.

I like to focus on childhood because it’s fertile ground for thinking beyond the bounds and the limits of our mortality and our physical constraints. Shapeshifting, super-powers, magic, and the absolutes of good and evil, they come very easily to young children, and immortality is just another element of that thinking. I want to emphasise this because I object to claims made by some atheists that a lot of this thinking, about magic and absolutes and immortality, is irrational. I don’t think that’s a useful term in this instance.

I’ve given the example, which I’ll repeat here, of kids playing life-and-death games like cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, goodies and baddies. When a kid’s shot dead, he accepts it reluctantly, lies down for a few seconds, then declares he’s ‘alive again’, and this encapsulates time-honoured attitudes towards mortality.

Because death is literally unimaginable, and kids, with their vivid and unrestrained imaginations, don’t need much time to work that one out. What’s more, even playing dead is boring. Not moving, holding your breath, trying to get your brain to shut down its thinking and imagining, it’s all hard and unnatural work.

On the other hand thinking about the afterlife can bear rich fruit. To give just one of hundreds of literary examples, Dante’s Divine Comedy divides the afterlife, from which no-one can escape, into 3 realms, hell, purgatory and heaven, with each realm being divided into nine, or actually 10. Nine descending circles of the inferno, with Lucifer lurking at the bottom as number 10, nine rings around Mount Purgatory, with the garden of Eden at its summit representing number 10, and nine celestial bodies of heaven, with the tenth at the top, representing the Empyrean, filled with the essence of god. And their are various other divinely numerical schemes operating throughout the work. Another very interesting depiction of the afterlife occurs in Plato’s Republic, in which a soldier, Er, brought from the battlefield as a corpse, reveals himself after a number of days not to be dead but unconscious, and on recovering consciousness tells a richly detailed tale of the afterlife, which he’s been privileged to witness, and also to recall, as he was excused from the requirement of drinking from the river Lethe’s ‘waters of forgetfulness’.

The two points to be drawn from these afterlife descriptions is, first, that they offer great scope for the imagination, but second, they’re constrained by the particular time and space of their own culture, not unlike current descriptions of UFOs and alien abductions. So the Divine Comedy is a large-canvas imaginative rendering of Christian revelation and eschatology as experienced, at least by one atypical individual, in thirteenth and fourteenth century Italy, while Er’s tale reveals much of how Greeks living not far away but nearly 2000 years earlier might have imagined the life to come.

Interestingly, while there are many cultural peculiarities to these descriptions, they have one key feature in common – the afterlife constitutes a punishment or reward for the life lived on earth. It’s a theme repeated in many religions, as well as in beliefs in reincarnation which aren’t strictly religious. There are those who manage to believe that, even though there’s no deity pulling the strings, we get reincarnated into something ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ depending on how we behaved in the life just completed. How this happens, without some conscious being making judicial decisions, is not a question that seems to bother their brains. But what interests me more is that this kind of thinking goes back a long long way. It appears to have a very powerful appeal, one that, as I’ve said, is way too prevalent to be dismissed as irrational.

So I want to explore not only why the afterlife is so appealing, but why a particular kind of afterlife, based on perfect justice, is so appealing. I prefer ‘perfect justice’ to ‘divine justice’, as it takes away the religious trappings while preserving the most important ideal of many religions – the ideal hope that nobody will evade proper justice in the end.

Again I turn to early childhood, a period when rationality and logic mean little, to look for clues to this appeal. I suspect that one of the great events of childhood, or it might be a series of events, is the experience that your parents or your guardians are not the all-protecting beings that you’d more or less unconsciously assumed them to be. I think this experience is made much of in certain branches of psychoanalytic theory, and I associate it with the name of Jacques Lacan, but I have a very limited acquaintance with his views or theories.

In talking of all-protecting beings, I’m really thinking of them in god-like terms. Beings who protect us from harm caused by dangerous objects or predators, but also from harm caused by our own ignorance or folly, by correcting us and guiding us. Our early survival is, of course, entirely dependent on being nurtured by these all-protecting entities, so that it’s all the more shocking when, at some stage in our development, we actually see these entities, even if only for brief moments, as actually threatening our existence. I’m not sure when this may happen. It could be at a very early stage, when, say, a mother refuses the breast to her child, resulting in a screaming fit, and perhaps a great sense of inner trauma and crisis. Or it could be later, when the child has developed an independent sense of justice and realises, or at least strongly feels, that her parent is punishing her unjustly, and quickly infers from this that the parent could be a real threat to her freedom and even her life.

I see an obvious association between this very real experience, which may be near-universal in humans, and the garden of eden story, though the fact that in the eden story it’s the humans who have ‘fallen’, rather than the gods, is well worth pondering. It seems to me that monotheistic religions, by creating a perfect deity or parent, shift the focus of the world’s obvious injustices from that parent to the children, which has at least the advantage of avoiding what could become a problem for children who ‘see through’ their parents – the problem of blame-shifting. Not that this has always stopped  irate believers from berating their perfect Dad for their sufferings.

Of course the more developed way of seeing the parent-child relation is as one between two faulty, all-too-human entities, but face it, the seemingly utterly powerless child and the seemingly all-powerful parent are neither likely to possess such equipoise, at least not for long. Both are profoundly frustrated, the child at not being able to get the parent to see the justice of her situation, or at least at not being able to penetrate the imperviousness and the mystery of the parent’s judgment, and the parent at not having the power to transform the child by his judicious punishment. Frustration leads to idealist fantasies, in which everyone understands each other, everyone judges and measures each other in perfect understanding and harmony. Of course this never happens in this world, bitter experience reveals this, especially in the harsh and often desperate environments out of which so many religions have been born.

It all happens in another life, in another world, another place, a world that doesn’t bear too much thinking about it, but a world that can absorb all the hope aimed at it, all the dreams of the ‘faithful’. In absorbing all these hopes and dreams and cries for justice it just keeps expanding, like a balloon, ever more diaphanous, amorphous, enticing. Who’d want to be the prick that bursts it?

Written by stewart henderson

December 7, 2013 at 8:18 pm

on transcendental constructions: a critique of Scott Atran

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Some years ago, when watching some of the talks and debates in the first ‘Beyond Belief’ conference at the Salk Institute, I noted some tension between Sam Harris and his critique of religion generally and Islam in particular, and Scott Atran, an anthropologist, who appeared to be quite contemptuous of Harris’s views. Beyond noting the tension, I didn’t pay too much attention to it at the time, but I’ve decided now to look at this issue more closely because I’ve just read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s powerful book Infidel, which gives an insider’s informed and critical view of Islam, particularly from a woman’s perspective, and I’ve also listened to Chris Mooney’s Point of Inquiry interview with Atran back in April, shortly after the Boston marathon bombing.

The interview, called ‘What makes a terrorist?’ was mainly about the psychology of the more recent batch of terrorists, but in the latter half, Atran responded to a question about the role of Islam specifically in recent terrorist behaviour. It’s this response I want to examine, not so much in the light of Sam Harris’s contrasting views, but in comparison to those of Hirsi Ali.

In bringing up the role of Islam in terrorism, Chris Mooney cites Sam Harris as pointing out that ‘there’s something about Islam today that is more violent’. Atran’s immediate response is that ‘this is such a complex and confused issue’, then he says that ‘religions are fairly neutral vessels’. This idea that religions, especially those that survive over time, have a degree of neutrality to them, has some truth, and in fact it served as the basis for my critique of Melvyn Bragg’s absurd claims that Christianity and the KJV Bible were largely responsible for feminism, democracy and the anti-slavery movement. But there is a limit to this ‘neutrality’. Religions are clearly not so ‘neutral’, morally or culturally, that they’re interchangeable with each other. Fundamentalist, or ultra-orthodox, or ultra-conservative Judaism is not the same as its Islamic or Christian counterparts. In fact, far from it. And yet these three religions ostensibly share the same deity.

The interaction between religion and culture is almost impenetrably complex. I wrote about this years ago in an essay about traditional Australian Aboriginal religion/culture, in which it’s reasonable to say that religion is culture and culture is religion. In such a setting, apostasy would be meaningless or impossible – essentially a denial of one’s own identity. Having said that, if your religion, via one of its principal texts, tells you that apostasy is punishable by death, you’ve already got a yawning separation between religion and cultural identity – the very reason for the excessive threat of punishment is to desperately try to plug that gap. It’s like the desperate cry of a father – ‘you’ll never amount to anything without me!’ – as the son walks out the door for the last time.

These major religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – are embedded in texts that are embedded in culture. Different, varied texts interacting complexly – reinforcing, challenging, altering the culture from whence they sprung. Differently. Judaism’s major text, always arguably, is the Torah. Christianity’s is the New Testament, or is it the gospels? Islamic scholars – but also those believers who rarely ever read the sacred texts – will argue about which texts are most important and why. Nevertheless, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have a different feel to them from each other, even given the enormous variation within each religion. Judaism is profoundly insular, with its chosen people uniquely flayed by their demanding, unforgiving god. Christianity is profoundly other-worldly with its obsession with the saviour, the saved, the end of days, the kingdom to come, the soul struggling for release, not to mention sin sin sin. Islam, a harsh, desert religion, somehow even more than the other two, is about denial, control, submission, and jihad in all its complex and contradictory manifestations and interpretations. The status of women in each religion, in a general sense, is different. Christianity gives women the most ‘wriggle-room’ from the start, but its interaction with the different cultures captured by the religion can sometimes open up that space, or close it down. The New Testament presents a patriarchal culture of course, but in the gospels women aren’t given too bad a rap. Paul of Tarsus notoriously displays some misogyny elsewhere in the NT, but it isn’t particularly specific and no detailed restrictions on women’s freedom are presented. More importantly, the dynamism of western culture has blown away many attempts to maintain the restrictions on women’s freedom dictated by Christian dogma – pace the Catholic Church. In any case, Christianity has no equivalent to Sharia Law, with its deity-given restrictions and overall fearfulness of the freedom and power of women. And neither Christianity nor Islam has the obsession with ritual and with interpretation of the deity’s very peculiar requirements that orthodox Judaism has.

To return, though, to Atran. He argues that the reason the big religions survive and thrive is precisely due to their lack of fixed propositions – which is why, he says, that we need sermons to continually update and modernise the interpretations of texts, parables, suras and the like. I’m not sure if the Khutbas of Moslem Imams serve the same purpose as priests’ sermons, but I generally agree with Atran here. The point, of course, is that though there is much leeway for interpretation, there are still boundaries, and the boundaries are different for Islam compared to Christianity, etc.

What follows is my analysis of what Atran has to say about what are, in fact, very complex and contentious matters relating to religion and social existence. Whole books could be, and of course are, devoted to this, so I’ll try not to get too bogged down. I’m using my own transcript of Atran’s interview with Mooney, slightly edited. Occasionally I can’t quite make out what Atran is saying, as he sometimes talks softly and rapidly, but I’ll do my best.

So, after his slightly over-simplified claim that these big religions are ‘neutral vessels’, Atran goes on with his definition. These religions are:

… moral frameworks that provide a transcendental moral foundation for large groups coalescing – for how else do you get genetic relatives to form large co-operative groups? They don’t have to be necessarily religious today, but it involves transcendental ideas. Take human rights, for example, that’s a crazy idea. Two hundred and fifty years ago a bunch of intellectuals in Europe decided that providence or nature made all human beings equal, endowed by their creator with rights to liberty and happiness, when the history of 200,000 years of human life had been mostly cannibalism, infanticide, murder, the suppression of minorities and women, and so [through the wars?] and social engineering, they took this crackpot idea and made it real.

I have a few not so minor quibbles to make here. Presumably Atran is using the term ‘transcendental’ in the way that I would use the term “over-arching’ – a much more neutral, and if you like, secular term. The trouble is – and he uses this term often throughout the interview – Atran uses ‘transcendental’ with deliberate rhetorical intent, taking advantage of its massive semantic load to undercut various secular concepts, in this case the ‘crackpot’ concept of human rights.

This isn’t to say that Atran objects to human rights. My guess is that he regards it as a somewhat arbitrary and unlikely concept, invented by a bunch of European intellectuals in the Enlightenment era, that just happened to catch on, and a good thing too. That’s not how I see it. It’s just much much more complex than that. So much so that I hesitate to even begin to explore it here. The germ of the concept goes back at least as far as Aristotle, and it involves the increasingly systematic study of human history, and human psychology. It involves the science of evolution, and it involves pragmatic global developments in commerce and diplomacy. Eighteenth century Enlightenment ideas had a catalytic effect, as did many developments of the scientific enlightenment of the previous century, as did the growth of democratic ideas and the concept of systematic universal education and health-care in the nineteenth century, in the west.

My point is that, though I have no problems with calling human rights a convenient fiction – nobody ‘really’ has rights as such – it’s based on a this-worldly (i.e. non-transcendental) understanding of how both individuals and societies flourish and thrive, in terms of the contract or compromise between them.

Atran goes on:

But, in general, societies that have unfalsifiable and unverifiable transcendental constructions win out over those that don’t –  I mean, Darwin talked about it as moral virtue, and said that this is responsible for the kind of patriotism, sympathy and loyalty that makes certain tribes win out over other tribes in […] competition for dominance and survival, and again, without these transcendental ideas people can’t really be blinded to [exit strategies], I mean, societies that are based on social contracts, no matter how good they are, the idea that there’s always a better deal down the line makes them liable to collapse, while these societies are much less prone to that. And there are all sorts of other things associated with these sorts of unverifiable propositions.

Presumably these ‘unfalsifiable and unverifiable transcendental constructions’ are religions, and I’ve no great objection to that characterisation, but I’m not so convinced about the positive value for ‘dominance and survival’ of these constructions. One could argue that my kind of scepticism can only flourish in a secure environment such as we have in the west, where such ‘undermining’ values as anti-nationalism and atheism can’t threaten the social cohesion of our collective prosperity and sense of superiority to non-western notions. There are just no ‘better deals down the line’, except maybe more health, wealth and happiness, commitment to which requires the very opposite of an ‘exit strategy’. In other words, western ‘social contract’ societies, in which religious belief is rapidly diminishing (outside the US), are showing no sign of collapsing, because there is no meaningful exit strategy, unless a delusional one. There is no desire or motivation to exit. We’re largely facing our demons and rejecting overly ‘idealistic’ solutions.

Perhaps my meaning will be clearer when we look at more of Atran’s remarks:

So now, the propositions, these things themselves can be interpreted, however, depending on the political and social climate of the age. Islam has been interpreted in ways that were extremely progressive at one time, and at least parts of it are extremely retrogressive, especially as concerns science for example, the position of women in the world, especially parts of it in many countries it’s extremely retrograde. But, Islam itself, I mean does it have some essence that encourages this kind of crazy violence? No, not at all – that truly is absurd, and just false.

Atran’s becoming a bit incoherent here, and maybe he expresses himself better elsewhere, but his base argument is that there’s no ‘essence’ to Islam which renders it more violent than other religions, or transcendental constructions (eg communism or fascism) for that matter. He overplays his hand, I think, when he claims that this is ‘absurd’ and obviously false. We could call this ‘the argument from petulance’. Islam does have some essential differences, I think, which makes it more able to act against women and against scientific ideas, though I agree that this is a matter of degree, and that it’s very complex. For example, the growth of Catholicism in Africa has combined with certain aspects of tribal culture and patriarchy to make African Catholic spokesmen very outspoken against homosexuality – and a recent local television program had a Moslem leader speaking up in favour of gay marriage. So, yes, there is nothing fixed in stone about Islam or Christianity with respect to human values.

The thing is that, for writers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and I suspect Sam Harris too, the question of ‘essentialism’ is largely academic, for right here and right now people are being targeted by Moslems (under the pressure of cultural connections or disconnections), because they are apostates, or critics, or women trying to get an education, or women dressing too ‘immodestly’, and this is causing great tension, even to the point of death and destruction here and there. In fact, Hirsi Ali, in calling for an enlightenment in the Moslem world, is backing a non-essentialist view. It’s the culture that has to change, but of course religion, with its transcendentalist, eternalist underpinnings, acts as a strong brake against cultural transformation. To engage in the battle for moderation is to battle for this-wordly, evidence-based thinking on human flourishing, against transcendentalist ideas of all kinds.

Atran, I think, relies too heavily on his notion of ‘transcendental constructions’, which he uses too widely and sweepingly, even with a degree of smugness. Let me provide one more quote from his interview, with some final comments.

But again, I don’t see anything about Islam itself… you need some kind of transcendental ideal to get people to sacrifice for genetic strangers, for these large groups. Religion is the best thing that human history has come up with, but there are other competing transcendental notions of which democratic liberalism, human rights, communism, fascism, are others, and right now the democratic-liberal-human rights thing is predominant in a large part of the world and it’s a salvation [……..] and people don’t want that or feel left in the driftwood of globalisation, they are looking for something else to give them equal power and significance.

Methinks Atran might’ve been spending too much time in the study of religious/transcendental ideas – he’s seeing everything though that perspective. I myself have written about democracy, in its various manifestations, from a sceptical perspective many times, and I’ve been critical of the over-use of the concept of rights, and so forth. It’s true enough that people can take these concepts, along with fascism or communism, to a transcendental level, making of them an unquestionable given for ‘right living’ or ‘a decent society’, but they can also be taken pragmatically and realistically, reasonably, as the most serviceable approaches to a well-functioning social order. Social evolution is moving quickly, and we can make sacrifices for genetic strangers, based on our growing understanding, as humans, of our common genetic inheritance. We’re not so much genetic strangers, perhaps, as we once thought ourselves to be. Indeed, it’s this growing understanding, a product of science, that is expanding our circle of connection beyond even the human. We need to promote this understanding as much as we can, in the teeth of transcendentalist, eternalist, other-worldly ideas about submission to deities, heavenly rewards and spiritual superiority.

how to debate William Lane Craig, or not – part 8, the divinity and resurrection of Jesus

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Ah am the greatest - Ah whopped those guys in the temple, and they's tried to whop me, but ah ain't-a whopped, coz you see ah's as white as a white-man, an ah am so purty, lookit me, ah am the greatest

Ah am the greatest – Ah whopped those guys in the temple, and they’s tried-a whop me, but ah ain’t-a whopped, coz you see ah’s as white as a white-man, an ah am so purty, lookit me, ah am the greatest…

I’ve decided to run the last two of Dr Craig’s arguments together, as they’re by far the weakest – which is saying something. In fact, his eighth or last ‘argument’ isn’t really an argument at all, as he more or less admits, as it constitutes anecdotal claims for a personal relationship with a supernatural being. I note, by the way, that Dr Craig eschews the use of the term ‘supernatural’, instead preferring ‘non-material’, or ‘transcendent’, but they’re essentially synonymous terms for beings for which there is no material evidence. As for these personal relationships, I have nothing to say about them, except that I find them unpersuasive, and easily explicable in psychological terms. I don’t doubt the sincerity of people who believe they have a relationship with a god, but we should all know by now about the enormous human capacity for self-deception.

Dr Craig’s seventh argument, which he apparently sets much store by, is really the one that I find the most completely beyond redemption, to use a religious term. This is the claim, of course, that there is overwhelming evidence that Jesus came to life after he died. And he supports his claim solely with fallacious ‘arguments from authority’, in his case numerous authorities. Every historian worthy of the name, according to him, is in substantial agreement that Jesus had a a godly authority, and that he rose from the dead. The highly respected scholar N T Wright wrote an 800 page book in which he concluded that Jesus’s resurrection was as empirically established as the existence of Caesar Augustus, etc etc.

This is absolute nonsense. Nonsense. Now, I’ve been told that you have to hone your debating skills when confronting Dr Craig on this subject because he really knows his New Testament. Well, with respect, I think that also is nonsense. The question whether a human being can rise from the dead or not is not a New Testament question, it’s a question about human physiology. Now there are cases where people have been revived after being pronounced clinically dead, but such cases simply cause us to revise our concept of ‘clinical death’, which is not an exact concept. In any case, these are ‘operating table’ examples, not cases in which people have been dead for days with rigor mortis having set in, decomposition, etc. In such cases, return to life is not a possibility.

Of course, Dr Craig has an easy solution to that problem – Jesus wasn’t a man, he was a god, or the son of a god, or a god in human form, or an aspect of a triune god, or whatever. He was immortal. In which case, with the flick of a switch, it’s all possible. But note what this is arguing. What Dr Craig is really saying, is that all these historians are agreed that Jesus was a god. Every reputable scholar agrees that Jesus is a god. Our highly respected author, of the 800 page book, has established that it’s as certain Jesus was a god, as that Augustus Caesar was an emperor, or that Plato was a philosopher. What nonsense, if I may use a euphemism.

Let me look at Dr Craig’s carefully-worded presentation on this. He says, and I quote, ‘historians have reached something of a consensus’, end quote, about Jesus’s godliness. He later goes on to talk about the facts of the resurrection, and I quote, ‘recognised by the majority of historians’. And further on he claims that naturalistic claims against the resurrection ‘have’ and I quote, ‘been universally rejected by contemporary scholarship’.  Well, end of story. Well, hardly. As an avid consumer of history myself, particularly western social and political history, it has become pretty screamingly obvious to me that historians are overwhelmingly a secular lot. I haven’t taken a poll, but I’d guess, say 80% of them would not identify as Christians. And of course the vast majority of them have no interest whatsoever in the resurrection. New Testament historians and scholars, however – and they represent a tiny, tiny subset of all historians – are much more likely to be Christians. I mean, whadyareckon? I haven’t taken a poll, either, of the number of NT scholars who are Christian, but I can say this, I wouldn’t be a New Testament scholar no matter what you paid me. To me, as a non-believer, it would be like being forced to pick up sticks and move to Jerusalem to live for the rest of my life. Surrounded by religious crazies of every stripe, screaming out their self-righteousness at every opportunity. To me it would be hell on earth.

So I take my hat off to the secular New Testament scholars who persist in the face of such adverse conditions. They have more courage and tenacity than I could muster. And Dr Craig mentions the eminent British scholar, N T Wright, he of the 800 page book that proves beyond doubt that Jesus came back to life and was therefore truly a god. However, Dr Craig doesn’t mention that Wright is also an Anglican bishop. Oversight? Of course not. Let me point out again that every word in Dr Craig’s presentation is carefully considered, and that includes the words he has left out as well as those he has put in. There are no inadvertent errors in this presentation. Is he being disingenuous in his presentation? Most certainly. Is he being dishonest? You can be the judge. I will say again though, that Dr Craig is fanatically obsessed with his cause, and any means, to him, would be justified by the end of winning the argument, and promoting his message.

Dr Craig’s argument, then, relies on authorities who are already convinced that Jesus is a deity, a claim I find too implausible to be even worth investigating, but presumably it might be made more plausible if we had other evidence of Jesus’s superhuman perfection, evidence that might make him seem worthy of the miracle of resurrection. And the only evidence we have of Jesus comes from the so-called gospels. Now, as I say, I’m no New Testament scholar, but I have read the gospels several times, and I even went so far as to make an informal assessment of Jesus’s character based on close study of his statements and remarks in those four books. I have to say, I’ve never found Jesus to be a particularly remarkable, or even entirely coherent, person on the basis of those texts. If you take away the paranormal events – miracles, raising from the dead, a virgin birth and a resurrection, you get a fairly normal guy, who loses his temper, acts selfishly, behaves arrogantly, gets cold feet, and makes various often contradictory pronouncements on moral issues. But one thing that really struck me about the guy was his so-called family values. It strikes me as really weird that the conservative Christian movement in the USA, which is so huge, is obsessed with family values, meaning of course the nuclear, heterosexual family. Because Jesus turned his back on his family, and made no attempt to create a new one in adulthood.  He died, assuming he was crucified, in his mid-thirties, perhaps even as old as forty – we don’t know his date of birth, and the birth stories are clearly unreliable. It would’ve been quite unusual to remain unmarried at that age. Okay, so he was a deity, how could he get married and have children like mere mortals. And yet, his remarks about family are quite troubling. I won’t go into all of them, as they’ve been dealt with by many analysts, but for those interested and unaware, the troubling verses include Matthew 10:35-37, 23:9, Mark 13:12, Luke 12:49-54, 14:26, 21:16-17, and John 2:3-4. These include general statements against the family and specific statements he directs against his own family members, particularly his mother. But I’ll dwell here on one of the more chilling of Jesus’s pronouncements, in Matthew 8:21-22.

Another of the disciples said to Him, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead.’

Now, in our society, the death of a parent is a serious matter, and we allow people space and time to deal with that. It’s pretty well sacrosanct in our society and in other societies. It’s not unreasonable to assume that in patriarchal ancient Palestine, the death of a father was about as big a deal as you could get. So, to tell someone who’s father has just died that they should forget the funeral and ‘follow the leader’, that they should ‘let the dead bury their dead’ which basically means, ‘let the dead rot’, is about as grossly insulting and insensitive a remark as you can make. It’s jaw-dropping, in fact, in its callousness, though it’s not inconsistent with many of the remarks Jesus makes about family.  I think if we were ever to get an exclusive interview with Jesus’s mum about the great man’s reputation, she’d be very likely to say, ‘well, he’s not the messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy’.

So, I don’t hold much store in this flawed and thoroughly human individual being a god in disguise, and worthy of the resurrection Dr Craig so desperately wants to believe in.

So ends my response to all of Dr Craig’s arguments. Next I want to present some important concluding remarks.

Written by stewart henderson

March 24, 2013 at 11:17 pm

is there any sex in heaven?

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want-jannah

I’ve been reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and fall of the Roman Empire off and on for years now, and still nowhere near finished, but today I was reading his account of the life of Mohammed and the rise of Islam. Gibbon makes an attempt to sympathetically explain Mohammed in both historical and religious terms, and tries to flesh out his metaphysics and his concept of the deity, the sort of stuff that tends to make my eyes glaze over – and my boredom and irritation are compounded by the fact that Gibbon never provides primary sources for his often idiosyncratic character sketches, anecdotes and interpretations.

However, I was mildly amused this time. As with Jesus, the portrait of Mohammed is – well, just a wee bit idealized:

According to the tradition of his companions, Mohammed was distinguished by the beauty of his person… They applauded his commanding presence, his majestic aspect, his piercing eye, his gracious smile, his flowing beard, his countenance that painted every sensation of the soul, and his gestures that enforced each expression of the tongue….

Gibbon goes on for a while in this style, describing the prophet’s modesty, his affability, his firmness, his support for the poor, his accommodation of the rich, his flowing speech, his courtesy, his universal benevolence etc etc. In short, if you’re religiously inclined but don’t want to be so conformist as to let Jesus into your heart, why not consider Mohammed? In fact he might be a better choice, since Jesus was pretty down on the rich (Matthew 19:24) and was rather less of an upholder of ‘family values’ than the prophet (despite the latter’s philandering), to put it mildly (Luke 2:41-51, 14:26, John 2:1-5, Matthew 23:9, to name just a few passages). But I don’t want to dwell on these characters – truth to tell I’ve always been a bit nervous of writing anything critical of Islam – because I want to focus on another passage in Gibbon, treating of the Islamic heaven. Myths of heaven and hell, and the judgment that consigns us to either region, are commonplace in the ancient world, and as with creation myths, it’s useful to trace connections and influences. Gibbon mentions the Koran often in his chapter on Mohammed and the Arabs, but it’s never clear whether his descriptions of their practices and beliefs derive directly from that book. So make that you will of Gibbon’s presentation and commentary here:

According as the shares of guilt or virtue shall preponderate, the sentence will be pronounced, and all, without distinction, will pass over the sharp and perilous bridge of the abyss, but the innocent, treading in the footsteps of Mohammed, will gloriously enter the gates of paradise, while the guilty will fall into the first and mildest of the seven hells. The term of expiation will vary from nine hundred to seven thousand years; but the prophet has judiciously promised that all his disciples, whatever may be their sins, shall be saved by their own faith and his intercession from eternal damnation. It is not surprising that superstition should act most powerfully on the fears of her votaries, since the human fancy can paint with more energy the misery than the bliss of a future life. With the two simple elements of darkness and fire, we create a sensation of pain, which may be aggravated to an infinite degree by the idea of endless duration. but the same idea operates with an opposite effect on the continuity of pleasure; and too much of our present enjoyments is obtained from the relief or the comparison of evil. it is natural enough that an Arabian prophet should dwell with rapture on the groves, the fountains, and the rivers of paradise; but instead of inspiring the blessed inhabitants with a liberal taste for harmony and science, conversation and friendship, he idly celebrates the pearls and diamonds, the robes of silk, palaces of marble, dishes of gold, rich wines, artificial dainties, numerous attendants, and the whole train of sensual and costly luxury which becomes insipid to the owner, even in the short period of this mortal life. Seventy-two houris, or black-eyed girls, of resplendent beauty, blooming youth, virgin purity, and exquisite sensibility will be created for the use of the meanest believer; a moment of pleasure will be prolonged to a thousand years; and his faculties will be increased a hundredfold to render him worthy of his felicity. Notwithstanding a vulgar prejudice, the gates of heaven will be open to both sexes, but Mohammed has not specified the male companions of the female elect, lest he should either alarm the jealousy of their former husbands or disturb their felicity by the suspicion of an everlasting marriage. this image of a carnal paradise has provoked the indignation, perhaps the envy, of the monks: they declaim against the impure religion of Mohammed; and his modest apologists are driven to the poor excuse of figures and allegories.

This is a lengthy passage, but it’s worth quoting, for what it reveals of Gibbon’s style as well as the Islamic view of heaven. ‘Superstition’ is a favourite word of his, trotted out whenever religion’s in question, yet in spite of these enlightenment values Gibbon was a staunch, church-going conservative, properly disdainful of the vulgar and the feminine (largely synonymous terms to his mind). His attitude towards religion was obviously complicated, shot through with continental influences and conservative family – and reputational – concerns. I suspect his view, at least publicly, would be that religion is the opiate of the masses, and a good thing too – and if he had to attend church regularly, to provide a good example to his more vulgar constituents (he was a Tory MP), as well as to placate his family, that was a small price to pay.

But what to make of this sensual – not to say sexual – paradise? The Islamic term is Jannah, and the Wikipedia account, drawn from various Koranic passages, makes no mention of 72 houris ‘of virgin purity’, and generally tends to downplay the sensual elements, probably for political reasons. Even so, the idea of excess – of food and clothing, perfume and jewellery, and ‘immortal youths’, makes it pretty clear what to expect up there. Of course Gibbon didn’t pluck those 72 virgins out of the air; according to Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope, hadith 2562 of the Jami` at-Tirmidhi collection has this:

The least [reward] for the people of Heaven is 80,000 servants and 72 wives, over which stands a dome of pearls, aquamarine and ruby.

Of course, this stuff about 72 virgins was all over the place after the September 11 attacks, and Moslem sites sought to refute it, claiming the hadith to be a weak one, and pointing out the difference between wives and virgins (as if that mattered), but nobody seems to have noticed that this western interpretation of the hadith would have almost certainly derived from Gibbon.

Gibbon also points out that Mohammed’s disciples will enter paradise, as a result of their faith and in spite of whatever sins they may have committed. He doesn’t make clear whether he means a small discipleship, like the twelve of Jesus, or all believers, numbering hundreds of millions. In any case, presented in this bare fashion, this creates a serious moral dilemma, presented concisely by Matt Dillahunty on an episode of The Atheistic Experience. This is the dilemma between justice and mercy. As Dillahunty puts it, you can’t be absolutely just and totally merciful at the same time, because there is an inherent contradiction. To offer mercy and forgiveness and entry to paradise to believers, simply because they believe, no matter what their crimes, is incompatible, it seems, with any reasonable sense of justice, let alone absolute justice. And it presumably follows that if you don’t believe, no matter what your life has been, you’ll be debarred from heaven and will necessarily be eternally damned, there being no alternative.

Actually, though, because Jannah is written about in far more detail in the Quran that heaven is in the Bible, there may be a whiff of a response to the problem posed by Dillahunty. The response would be that Allah’s judgment is much more subtle and, of course, fair-minded, than a simple saved/damned dichotomy would suggest, for Jannah (heaven) and Jahannam (hell) are ‘streamed’, just like my old high school. Jannah has eight gates, and Jahannam seven, with each gate representing a different class of virtues, or vices, graded as to quality or lack thereof. It might be that simple unbelief, allied to good deeds, will get you into the least nasty of hell’s gates, which may be little worse than the meanest of heaven’s gates, especially if your unbelief is based on ignorance rather than wilfulness (and Allah knows all). According to one Islamic commentator, reflecting on whether Christians could ever get into heaven, ‘Though one must do good deeds and believe in God, salvation can only be attained through God’s judgement’. So the ultimate arbiter is ‘God’, who will decide not only whether the deeds are goodly enough to get into the top-graded gate, but also whether the god the believer believed in was the ‘rightest’ god. After all, the Christian believes in ‘God’ too, and, arguably, some Christians may believe in a god that, though they think of him as a Christian, is closer to the Koranic god than is the god in the head of some Islamic worshippers. So it wouldn’t be absurd to find Christians being ushered through one of the gates of Jannah, hastily brushing up on their Arabic and looking suitably bewildered.

But anyway I was supposed to be writing about sex in heaven, so I’m proving to be a bit of a disappointment there. And it depends on which heaven you’re talking about. Islamic heaven is as sexual as Mohammed seems to have been, while the Christian heaven is as sexless as Jesus. But it doesn’t matter, either way you’ll be blissed out, and the fact that we mostly think of bliss in sensual/sexual terms just shows how far we still are from attaining the transcendence of the Godhead. Ummmmm…

 

Written by stewart henderson

March 11, 2013 at 12:20 pm