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Good Friday? We object..

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profound spirituality lives on

profound spirituality lives on

Canto: I’m sitting here thinking I’d like to take a ride to the beach and then breakfast at a seaside caf but I can’t because it’s ‘good Friday’ and every such outlet in this state is shut down.

Jacinta: Right, and so what’s so good about Good Friday? I’ve heard tell it’s good for us to have a complete day off from shopping or having paid servants wait on us – a bit like having a day off from using electricity or motorised transport or – imagine it – a whole day in which smartphones couldn’t be used. We would somehow be better human beings, more appreciative of the first-world splendour we bask in, if we experienced the horrendous suffering of being deprived of it for a day.

Canto: Well I’ve had thoughts of that kind in the past, but I’d rather be up-front and call it first-world-free day or some such, because we both know good friday isn’t about deprivation of our favourite indulgences, or, if it is, that deprivation is supposed to remind us that on a ‘good day’ around 2000 years ago someone was crucified. A horrible death but not so horrible in this case because this particular guy was an immortal being in disguise who is now still alive and all around us and loves us terribly much. So it’s all good.

Jacinta: Yeah…right… sooo…

Canto: Okay the reason they say it’s good is because this immortal being died, or pretended to, or went through enormous suffering, because this allowed us to be saved.

Jacinta: Ahh right… saved… saved… ummm

Canto: Look Jass … I know this seems confusing to you but if you take a thorough-going theology course, and maintain a deeply spiritual lifestyle for the next several years you might be offered a glimmer of the revelation enveloped in this outwardly mysterious form of knowing-as-being.

Jacinta: Ohhh… shit… but all I really wanted was a caffe latte..

Canto: Okay well the reason you won’t get your latte today is because a certain dwindling section of our society believes this story of Jesus on the cross is literally true, or symbolically true or true in some deep sense which is beyond our shallow faithlessness, and this section of our society, though now a shadow of its former all-powerful self, once had complete control of our polity and economy and thus dictated what holidays we should have and why. And since we really like to have holidays and it would be a pain in the national arse to rename or reconfigure them, the ship of state being very difficult to shift from its course and all that, we’re stuck with good friday until the dwindling near-minority dwindles to such a level that it becomes a national embarrassment that we’re still pretending to respect such inconcinnities.

Jacinta: Well I saw on the morning news that the Sydney fish market’s open today.. wherever that is..

Canto: I think it’s in Sydney.

Jacinta: … but nothing’s open in dear old Adelaide, the shitty of churches. I don’t think we should just sit back and accept this. Why aren’t people protesting?

Canto: Okay, yes, let’s protest. What do you suggest?

Jacinta: Well, ummm, we could write to our local MP?

Canto: Yes, that would turn the ship of state around quick smart.

Jacinta: How about a petition?

Canto: Now that’s original. We could put it out over the net through change.org or some such, and sit back and watch the overflow of community outrage…

Jacinta: Well the fact is, as you say, we love our holidays, so many people are prepared to be completely hypocritical about the reason for the season, even to the point of accepting the inconvenience of one complete shut-down day…

Canto: So that’s the end of our protest?

Jacinta: Pretty much. Join me for a nice breakfast out somewhere tomorrow morning?

Canto: You’re on.

jesus_hates_you_mug

Written by stewart henderson

March 25, 2016 at 1:24 pm

disassembling Kevin Vandergriff’s gish gallop, part 1

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then_a_miracle_occurs

I’m always taken in a thousand different directions by my vagabond mind, as the history of my blog shows, but philosophy has long been an interest, more recently neglected due to trying to keep up, unsuccessfully of course, with the wonders of scientific discovery and speculation. A move away from rational to empirical stuff you might say, if only it was that simple.

So I recently listened to a very wordy debate presented on the Reasonable Doubts podcast between Jeffrey Jay Lowder (atheist) and Kevin Vandergriff (theist) on whether metaphysical naturalism (essentially the scientific approach) or Christian theism yields the best understanding of the universe (or multiverse?), based on ‘the evidence’. It sounded like a good idea at the time, as it sounded like it might be as much a report on empiricism – presenting the evidence – as a philosophical debate. Not surprisingly though, I became increasingly frustrated as I listened, especially to Vandergriff’s long-winded, fast -paced exposition of way too many points (he had to get everything in within the specified time limit, and was still gushing when the end-game theme music started playing). Vandergriff has clearly been inspired by the ‘success’ of William Lane Craig’s debating tactics, even trying to outdo WLC in the number of debating points that he claims must be rebutted by Lowder in order to ‘win’. Well, if wishes were fishes the sea would be swarming.

So the bewildering number of points (though many of them tediously familiar to anyone acquainted with WLC’s arguments) and the speed of delivery naturally reminded me of the old ‘gish gallop’, and my response is to regain control by taking my own good time to pick apart the arguments, so replacing the debate approach with a more effective ‘philosophical’ one, in writing. Not that this was a public debate; it was a written-and-read audio exchange, and many of the comments, linked to above, deal pretty effectively with Vandergriff’s fails. I’m just doing this to get back in the saddle, so to speak.

I won’t be dealing so much with Lowder’s pro-naturalism argument except where it supports my own, but generally I thought that there was too much emphasis, on both sides, on the old philosophical approaches, and not enough on evidence per se.

Vandergriff starts by saying he wants to defend three claims:

1. Christian theism is not significantly less simple than specified naturalism.

(Vandergriff doesn’t explain what he means by ‘specified’ here, and seems to use it as a technical term. A google search on ‘specified naturalism’ has come up with nothing (though the creationist William Dembski likes to use the term ‘specified complexity’), so I will assume he simply means metaphysical naturalism as per the debate title.

2. If God [i.e. the god called God] exists necessarily, then the prior probability of naturalism, no matter how simple, is zero.

3. Christian theism has significantly more explanatory power and scope than specified naturalism.

Before listening to Vandergriff’s defence of these claims I want to make some preliminary remarks. On (1), presumably Vandergriff has the Ockham’s Razor heuristic in mind – keep your assumptions to a minimum. But obviously Christian theism involves two assumptions over and above the assumptions of naturalism (that all is natural and potentially explicable in naturalistic terms). It assumes not only that there’s a supernatural agent responsible for the multiverse, but that the said supernatural agent is the god called God, who had an earthly son who was also a god, sort of, and all the other baggage that attaches to him, or them. These are big assumptions, and, to my mind, far from simple. On (2) yes, if any supernatural agent exists necessarily, I suppose that means supernaturalism reigns supreme and naturalism is vanquished. All we need is evidence, but not only can we not find any, we don’t even know what we’re looking for. Concepts like supreme goodness and maximal power are no more real than Plato’s ideal forms. We don’t call them ideal for nothing. And on (3), it seems to me that the explanatory power of naturalism is virtually infinite, because each new explanation leads to a host of new things to be explained (e.g the DNA molecule is discovered to be the essential building block of all life, but then why is it made up of precisely these amino acids, and why this sequence and why the helical structure, and why introns and exons, etc etc). Christian theism seems to me more like an evasion of explanation, and the ‘don’t question God’s handiwork’ argument was in fact quite prevalent in the 17th century and before, and was often used effectively to limit scientific inquiry.

Vandergriff next defines his god for us, with the usual ‘ideal form’ language. The god called God is maximally powerful, intelligent and good. I’ve elsewhere described this abstraction as a boob: a benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent being. Do boobs really exist? I’d like to hope so, the more the merrier. But I may be confusing my concepts here, so I’ll stick with gods. The god called God, according to Vandergriff, is a transcendent, personal being who created the physical world, and who sent a set of moral messages to us via Jesus.

Vandergriff emphasises his contention that a personal being (a being with personhood, just like us?) caused the physical world (presumably the multiverse) to exist, and that this multiverse is value-generating rather than indifferent, as it is claimed to be under naturalism. He also claims that, under naturalism, the universe or multiverse is eternal and uncaused, which his theism disputes. I would’ve thought naturalism remains open to the questions of ‘eternality’, finitude or infinitude, and ultimate causation. My own recent readings on the universe/multiverse tell me that cosmologists have many positions on these matters, though all approach them from a naturalistic perspective.

Next Vandergriff returns to the 3 claims stated above. He takes issue with Lowder for presupposing an indifferent universe in some of his arguments, which he cites another philosopher, Paul Draper, as claiming ‘is roughly equal in simplicity to theism’. One wonders how these various simplicities can be weighed or measured, by Draper or anyone else. Presumably all that’s meant by this is that it’s just as straightforward to posit a naturalistic universe, with no intrinsic value, as it is to posit a supernatural-being-created universe, full of value. Vandergriff thinks that this goes a long way to prove the claim that theism is not a more complex explanation than naturalism, and this somehow bolsters theism. But it seems to me, on reflection, that the two cases are not roughly equal in simplicity, because with theism, first you have a supernatural creator, second you have value-adding, so to speak. In fact, these two elements struck me as separate when I first leaned about a supernatural creator as a child sent to Sunday School. Full of skepticism and curiosity about this new entity I was learning about, I wondered, how do we know this being is so concerned about us being good? If he created the world in the long ago, why does that automatically mean he’s still obsessed with us? If he’s so all-powerful and super-clever, why wouldn’t he want to test his powers on some new project, just as I might build a fabulous house out of lego and then abandon it for bigger and better projects? In other words, couldn’t a supernatural creator be indifferent too? Or only interested for a period before turning his attention to something else? Vandergriff would get round this objection, I suppose, by pointing to his assumptions about the supernatural being, especially the one about ‘goodness’. An all-good god would never abandon his creation but would, apparently, be eternally obsessed by it. But I’m not sure that perfect goodness (whatever that means) entails this, and anyway these are just assumptions.

Now to Vandergriff’s second claim. Again he quotes Paul Draper, who says that if the god called God necessarily exists, then naturalism is incoherent and theism has a probability of 1. That’s a long-winded way of saying if theism has to be true, it’s true, like absolutely. Of course, that’s a big if, possibly bigger than the known universe. However, at this stage, Vandergriff provides no evidence for this necessary existence (though he says he has two arguments up his sleeve).

On the third contention, Vandergriff goes straight into argument.

1.  God is the best explanation for the origin of the universe.

Here, Vandergriff cites the 2003 Borde Guth Vilenkin theorem relating to an expanding universe (and, I think, other universe models), to support his argument that the universe is non-eternal, to which one commentator on the Reasonable Doubts blog replied tersely ‘Yet another William Lane Craig clone abusing the Borde Guth Velenkin theorem’. In fact I’ve dealt with this claim myself well enough in one of my responses to WLC’s typical debates. Of course the issue here is not whether the universe had a beginning, but what was the cause of that beginning, or what were the conditions at that beginning, or is it meaningful to talk of a ‘before’ the beginning. But here’s where the likes of Vandergriff and WLC make the leap into metaphysics or the supernatural with wild talk of a transcendent, miraculous cause, which, of course, allows tremendous scope for the imagination. The fact is, we’re far from clear about the origin. I’ve read one hypothesis that the big bang may have been the result of a collision or interaction between two ‘branes’, of which there are presumably many in the multiverse. I’ve also read that, as we get asymptotically close to the big bang (going backwards), the laws of nature break down in the super-intensity of it all, so who knows? The Borde Guth Vilenkin theorem, moreover, even on Vandergriff’s (and WLC’s) much-disputed interpretation of it, doesn’t disconfirm naturalism at all, because naturalism is not dependent on an eternal, uncaused universe. Says who?

But it really gets ridiculous when Vandergriff, having proved to his satisfaction that the universe must have a cause, ‘wonders’ what that cause might be, and concludes that it must be an ‘unembodied mind’ (gifted, of course, with miraculous powers). How did he come to this conclusion? Well, this mind must be miraculous because it ‘created the world with no prior materials’. How does Vandergriff know this? The obvious answer is: he doesn’t, he’s just making stuff up. And why would this ‘transcendent’ cause have to be an unembodied mind? Because, according to Vandergriff, only abstract objects and unembodied minds can transcend the universe, but since abstract objects can’t cause anything, the cause must be an unembodied mind!

But of course an unembodied mind is just another abstract object. There are no real unembodied minds that we know of (though Fred Hoyle sort of created one in The Black Cloud, but that one didn’t go around creating universes, in spite of being super-smart), and Vandergriff doesn’t even consider it a requirement to prove that such things exist. As for ‘miraculous’, that just reminds me of the old cartoon – which I’ve put on top of this post.

I’ll have a look at Vandergriff’s next argument, and so forth, in my next post, though I’m not sure why I’m bothering. It’s good mind-exercise I suppose.

For now, though, I’ll watch some FKA Twigs videos, for delightful relief.

Written by stewart henderson

December 31, 2014 at 7:52 pm

the strange case of school chaplaincy

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Ron Williams - hero of the High Court challenge

Ron Williams – hero of the High Court challenge

The National School Chaplaincy Program is on the face of it a curiously retrograde program that first came into being in 2006, near the end of Howard’s conservative Prime Ministership. It apparently began its life with a conversation in May of that year between the Victoria-based federal minister, Greg Hunt, and one Peter Rawlings, a member of Access Ministries and a volunteer in primary school religious instruction. Rawlings suggested to Hunt that it would be a great idea to install Christian ‘support workers’ in state schools throughout the Mornington Peninsula area. Hunt, whose religious beliefs are a mystery to me, apparently though this a great idea, one that should be extended to the whole nation, with federal support. His boss, PM Howard, who claims to be a committed Christian, was also whole-hearted in his support as were various other conservative MPs.

Given that over 23% of Australians are openly non-religious (a decidedly conservative figure), and that the rise of the non-religious over the last twenty years is the most significant change in religion in this country, and given that every Christian denomination is in decline, some of them spectacularly, and given the fall in church attendances, and the increasing multiculturalism and multi-religiousity of that proportion of society that is still religious, I personally find it unfathomable that this proposal has received such support. I can only suppose that such organisations as the Australian Christian Lobby, Access Ministries and Scripture Union Australia have far more political power and clout than I could ever have thought possible.

In any case, Labor, under its devoutly Christian PM Kevin Rudd, chose not to throw the scheme out when it came to power in late 2007. Labor has long supported the separation of church and state, a position reinforced, one would’ve thought, by the increasing secularisation of our polity in recent years. Rudd himself was keen to reassure people that he supported church-state separation, as did his Education Minister, Peter Garrett (another Christian). So why did they persist in this program? Wouldn’t a financial boost to school counselling have been a simpler, more effective and far less controversial option? Of course the program fits the current conservative government’a agenda perfectly. It has hit schools hard with its recent cost-cutting ‘share the pain’ budget, while at the same time earmarking some $245 million for chaplaincy over the next four years or so. The program will replace the existing School Welfare Program from the start of 2015, thus undermining school counselling and psychological services. In May of this year, a provision to allow for non-secular ‘chaplains’ was struck out. It was a finicky provision in any case, only allowing for non-secular welfare workers when all attempts to find an ordained chaplain for the job had failed. However, the striking out of the provision gives a clear indication that this is a federally-backed religious (or more specifically Christian) position. It can also come at a great cost to individual workers and to recipients of their services, as this story from the Sydney Morning Herald of May 21 shows:

Last week’s budget delivered a double blow to youth welfare worker Joanne Homsi. For the past 18 months, Ms Homsi has worked in two high schools in the St George and Sutherland area, supporting students with drug and alcohol issues, low confidence, family problems and suicidal thoughts. As well as talking with students, she has connected them to mental health centres, remedial learning programs and other services. Ms Homsi loves the job, and the schools value her work. But in December she will be looking for a new job – and there will not be a safety net to catch her if she cannot find one. Because she is under 30, she would have to wait six months before she can receive any unemployment benefits under tough new rules for young job seekers.

The federal government, in any case, hasn’t generally been in the business of providing funding for these kinds of services, which is usually a states responsibility, but of course schools will look for funding anywhere they can, and to have that scarce funding tied to a Christian belief system seems wildly anachronistic. This Essential Report poll gives the clear impression that the program is unsupported by the general public, but maybe there’s a larger ‘silent’ public that the conservatives are appealing to, or maybe they simply don’t care about what the public prefers. Their argument would be that take-up of the program is entirely voluntary. In other words, cash-strapped schools are faced with this option or no option as far as federal funding is concerned.

There are plenty of parents who are willing to take a stand on this issue, however. One of them, Ron Williams, Australian Humanist of the Year in 2012, was recently successful yet again in his second High Court challenge to the NSCP, though the government, and the Labor opposition, are perversely determined to find their way around the High Court’s ruling. In a 6-0 result worthy of the German national team the High Court found that the funding model of the government was inappropriate. When Williams’ first High Court challenge was successful in 2012, the then Gillard Labor government rushed through the Financial Framework Amendment Legislation Act to enable it to fund a range of  programs without legislation. Some $6 million was provided to the Scripture Union of Queensland. To add insult to injury for Williams, a father of four school-age children, funding was provided to his own children’s school to employ a chaplain.

The recent High Court finding says that the funding mechanism is invalid. This affects many other federal government funding mechanisms too, as it happens, and that’s a big headache for the government, but the most interesting finding related to the NSCP is that the funding, in the overwhelming view of the High Court, did not provide a benefit to students – which it should according to section 51 (XXiiiA) of the constitution, in order to be valid. In other words the High Court overwhelmingly disagreed with John Howard’s claim, made at the launch of the NSCP in October 2006, that ‘students need the guidance of chaplains, rather than counsellors’. I don’t think there’s any doubt that, had the money been earmarked for counsellors, the High Court would indeed have seen that as a benefit to students.

So the government is trying to find new funding models for a variety of programs it wants to hold onto, but it’s got a problem on its hands with chaplaincies. They have to be Christians, but they can’t proselytise, they’re there to give spiritual guidance to students, but this isn’t seen legally as providing a benefit, and how do they do that anyway without proselytising? What a holy mess it is, to be sure.

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 2, 2014 at 5:45 pm

Why is theology so boring? Stanley Hauerwas

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Hauerwas

These are the posts where I get to be a not-so-nice guy. Theology is one of my principal bugbears, for many reasons, one of which is that I’ve rarely encountered a modern theologian or Christian apologist who can resist lashing out at atheists.

I suppose I should feel sorry for them, they make such soft, or frail, targets (they’re mostly elderly), but they do insist on making themselves targets, so I’m happy to oblige. Before today I’d never heard of Stanley Hauerwas, so imagine my lack of interest in encountering this soft-spoken elderly gentleman being interviewed on my favourite ABC this arvo. Well, not so much lack of interest but mild willingness to be interested – a willingness quickly dashed by some of the first remarks I heard Hauerwas utter (I didn’t know at the time that he was a theologian). He was being interviewed for all of ten minutes on the ABC show One plus One by Scott Stephens, the ABC’s ‘online editor for religion and ethics’. I now recall Stephens having conducted a series of soft interviews in recent times with prominent ‘believing’ Australians such as David Cappo and Clare Bowditch, but I didn’t recognise him immediately, otherwise I might’ve dodged this. Unfortunately I listened – well, ok, I do have a combative interest in what theologians say.

So here’s the little interview in total, together with my commentary and summing up. The interview material is in italics. Enjoy.

Stephens: You’ve written some very interesting things in your recently published memoir. You’ve admitted for instance – ‘you don’t need to be a theologian to be a Christian, but I probably did’. At the end of your memoir, you then say that the whole reason you’re able to call yourself a Christian is because your friends name you as such. In a time that values self-reliance and even fetishizes self-made men, it’s a very strange series of admissions to make from someone who is renowned as one of the most important Christian thinkers in the last half-century. How did you come to that conclusion?

Hmmm. What makes me think all this was in order to introduce Hauerwas as the best thing since Christians invented sliced bread?

Hauerwas: By necessity. I can’t imagine coming to it just by individual reflection, because I don’t trust my own subjectivity at all. So it’s exactly by discovering what I believe through friends who tell me that this is what I believe that I discover that I am a Christian. Umm, it’s not a natural thing for me to be, I oftentimes point out, hell I’m a Texan (laughs) I mean it does not come easy for Texans to become Christian in the way that I think we must be as faithful followers of Christ, that is, to be non-violent. But I think that it’s through friends that you are enabled to live that way.

All of this sounds unproblematic on the face of it, but I have two criticisms to make.

First, the Jesus of the gospels wasn’t an entirely consistent construction. Yes, he said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, and I say hurray to that, but he also lashed out at the moneylenders in the temple, sending tables and chairs flying (Matt 21:12), killed a fig tree for not producing fruit out of season (Mark 11:12-14, 20-25, Matt 21:18-22), and damned for all time the townsfolk of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, villages in his own neighbourhood, for not listening to his preachifying (Matt 11:23, Luke 10:13-15). So much for love your neighbours, never mind love your enemies.

Second, Hauerwas describes what people ‘must be as faithful followers of Christ’, rather than what we, arguably, should be upon reflection. It’s all about following the leader, apparently. I’ve written about this before, but the difference between the ‘follow my lead’ approach of Jesus and other preachers and sermonizers, and the Socratic method of constructive engagement, getting the interlocutor to ‘go deeper’, is key, and should be key to the whole framework of modern education. It’s because of this approach towards independence and ‘ownership’ of ideas that religion is fading, methinks.

Stephens: Now this is interesting to me, because one of the themes that you’ve been exploring throughout your career is that, even though it might seem, looking from the outside, that the church is in a pretty good position here in the USA, it’s precisely because American culture is so saturated with Christianity – you’ve spent the better part of your professional career trying to convince Christians in the United States that their cosy relationship with American culture is pretty hazardous to its own health.

Hauerwas: Absolutely. I say I represent the Tonto principle of Christian ethics. The Lone Ranger and Tonto were once surrounded by 25,000 Sioux in the Dakotas, and the Lone Ranger looked over to Tonto and said, “What d’you think we should do Tonto?’ and Tonto said, “What do you mean we, white man?’ and I’m trying to help Christians in America recover the Christian ‘we’, which has been very much occluded in the celebration of the relationship between Christianity and America as the presumption that American democracy is the equivalent of what it means to be Christian.

Stephens: One of your great critiques is that it’s not simply just, say, a cultural issue, that many Christians assume that what it means to be American is to be Christian, and in turn what it means to be Christian is to be American in some sort of deep level, but you’ve even, in some ways you’ve also  upped the ante. You’ve said that one of the great problems facing American politics and also Christian identity, is the assumption that the American god is the Christian god.

This American stuff is of course a bit of a yawn to me, but I will say that there’s no such thing as the Christian god – or rather, no clear-cut thing. In the same sense, there’s no such thing as the American god. There’s the god of Bush junior, who’s different from the god of Obama, etc etc. These are fantasies you can tailor to your individual personality and needs. Apart from that, I’m happy to let American believers simmer in their theological idiosyncrasies.

Hauerwas: Right, yeah, I think, that the reason – I mean, atheism is so uninteresting in America. I mean, atheism in general is uninteresting in our world, because the god that is being denied isn’t very (laughs), isn’t the Christian god. That’s the reason why Americans think it’s very important that you believe in god, irrespective of what ‘god’ names. I find it extremely uninteresting whether you believe in god or not. The god I worship is not some deity, but the father the son and the holy spirit. That makes all the difference in the world for a people that are identified as not religious America. So I want Christians to be able to recover that kind of theological integrity in a world that makes it very hard to even identify it.

This is the passage I first heard – ‘atheism is uninteresting’. Again, I’m endlessly amused that theologians and religious apologists just can’t help having a go at atheism, and so revealing their ignorance as well as their anxiety. And of course their denialism of the fastest-growing movement vis-à-vis religion in the west. Of course, in one sense Hauerwas is right, atheism is totally uninteresting when you compare it to being the pet project of a supernatural being who’s also the creator of the universe, created just for you. It’s a bit like being personally chosen by the Doctor as his lifetime companion in all his space-time adventures. Great japes! Only Doctor Who is a science fantasy TV show, not a religion (with apologies to the Whovians out there).

Yes, rejecting the existence of supernatural entities is not intrinsically interesting, but the point is that atheists don’t go around being atheists. If I can give a roll-call of some of my intellectual heroes –  Aristotle, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Hume, Stendhal, Darwin, Russell, Einstein, Sagan, Attenborough, to name a few – I don’t so much care whether they were atheists, though clearly many of them were/are. What attracts me is their this-worldly concerns. None of these ‘uninteresting’ people are interested in theology, they’re too fascinated by how the real world – and its inhabitants on this tiny planet – works. We live in enthralling times – for exploring human origins, for exploring the world within and beyond our solar system, for exploring neurophysiology and consciousness, for exploring nanotechnology. So many realms opening up for exploration, it’s just endlessly fascinating. I just can’t see how ‘faith’ and theology, the eternally fruitless but entirely self-serving speculation about non-evidence-based supernatural entities, can possibly compare.

Stephens: What you’re saying, though, truly runs against the grain of the assumption that many people believe today, kind of guarantees a kind of social peace and cohesion, the assumption being that, if you wanna be religious, fine, just make sure your religiosity remains a form of inwardness, or even just, probably a better term would be sentimentality. Now, almost everything you’ve written is pitted against the reduction of religion to sentimentality, or ‘god’ to some sort of general deity.

These remarks of Stephens are simply intended to introduce the term ‘sentimentality’, a term that Hauerwas has apparently twisted out of all recognition to feed his theological concerns. I should simply remind readers that the currently agreed dictionary definition of sentimentality is something like ‘an appeal to shallow, uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason’.

Hauerwas: Absolutely, I say the great enemy of Christianity is not atheism it’s sentimentality. and the deepest sentimentality in our culture is the presumption that we should have children in a manner that they do not have to suffer for our convictions. I think it drives people – it drives children absolutely crazy for our parents to think that they ought to raise children in a manner that when children grow up they get to make up their own minds. I mean, what kind of conviction is that, why did you have them in the first place, if you want them to make up their own minds? They don’t have minds worth making up until they’ve been trained. So exactly how to overcome those kinds of sentimentalities that, interestingly enough result in great violence, I think, is exactly the kind of challenge that Christianity presents to the world in which we find ourselves.

So Hauerwas has defined sentimentality, or one aspect of it, as ‘raising children so that they get to make up their own minds when they grow up.’ Imagine how Socrates would deal with such a distortion of a concept!

Maybe somewhere in his theological works Hauerwas has presented his views more cogently than here, but I have little appetite for anyone’s theology, so I must presume to limit myself to this little interview. I’m far from denying that human children need (and get) training, as do all social animals, including dolphins, elephants, wolves, lions and hyenas, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t have minds of their own, and that independence of thought isn’t a desired outcome. The trouble is, Hauerwas’s god only knows what he means by ‘being trained’. I suspect the worst, bearing in mind his remark that children should suffer for their parents’ convictions. This sounds to me like he thinks Christian parents should bring them up strictly to be Christians, and make them suffer if they stray. No Darwins, no… (name just about every significant thinker of the last century) would ever get to emerge in Hauerwas’s world it seems, they’d all be trained out of their independence of mind until they were black and blue. But I’m being mean – Hauerwas is an advocate of non-violence.

In any case, none of this has anything to do with sentimentality. We bring children into the world for a whole host of reasons, not all of them worthy, of course. We hope to contribute to their becoming good people and happy, but we don’t need to have read Pinker’s The Blank Slate (another boring atheist) to be aware that kids do indeed have minds of their own from day one. I have no idea what Hauerwas could possibly mean by saying that encouraging independence of spirit leads to great violence, but obviously he’s no student of history. Our modern education, which tries to combine a certain degree of training in the basics, without which children are unlikely to succeed in modern society, with independent analytical skills of the type that have created the scientific and technological explosion we’re currently witnessing, has, in fact, helped to create a less violent society than at any time in human history. And that’s not spin, it’s well-supported fact.

Stephens: Weeks before the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001, Time magazine named you America’s best theologian.

Hauerwas: Actually it was September 10, 2000 the 11th, by the time the magazine came out it was the day before, which was wonderfully ironic, because then no-one noticed.

Stephens: But after September 11 you issued many of your most public, most notable, and for many people now even most infamous critiques of the American response to that attack.

Hauerwas: That’s true. My response was, one, you could have done it as a just warrior. I said, you know, the most fateful words that were uttered after September 11 was George Bush’s ‘we are at war’. Now, I think that that was a deep mistake on ‘just war’ grounds. What happened on September 11 was murder, and you don’t go to war against a murderer. As soon as Americans agreed with George Bush, we are at war, you gave Bin Laden exactly what he wanted. You made him a warrior, not a murderer. I think then, the problem…. I think George Bush’s response was a pastoral response. The American people felt at a loss, we didn’t know what to do. We know war, so to say we were at war made this a comforting claim that gave us a sense that we knew what to do – we had to find someone to kill (laughs). So Afghanistan and Iraq were destined to be wars that we had to fight against the infidel. If we had been able to say ‘this was murder’, and how do you respond to murderers, it would have been… it would’ve required a patience that the American people find very hard to enact. I was recently asked, what would I suggest if I wanted America to be more thoughtful and possibly even non-violent, and I said the return to the draft. That we have the situation, we now have is because we have a paid military in which we expect very little cost from the broad American middle class, and it would be very interesting to have a return to the actual sacrifice necessary in order to pursue a legislated war against terrorism. It’s very… I think the Obama administration is to be credited with toning down the war against terrorism, because they understand that’s a war you can’t win in that way. But, generally the American people bought into that, and we paid big prices for it.

Okay, in this latter part of the interview we’ve left theology far behind, thankfully, and we’re into straightforward ethical issues. Apart from the remark about a ‘pastoral response’ from George Bush, there’s nothing in Hauerwas’s argument that owes anything to religion, it’s all secular ethics, and it’s the same ethical argument that myself and many others, such as Geoffrey Robertson, have been putting for years – that so-called acts of terrorism should be treated as criminal, police matters and dealt with under criminal law rather than glorifying them, inadvertantly or otherwise, as acts of war.

So Hauerwas seems to have some reasonable ideas, and a few dodgy ones (he’s a Texan, after all), but it’s unlikely that any of his best ideas emerge from Christian theology. Don’t be a faithful follower of anyone – or anything, except evidence.

Written by stewart henderson

December 20, 2013 at 6:20 am

the good friday myth – death in the afternoon?

with 6 comments

Church-Sign-saying-Jews-Killed-Jesus-2873765_289753_ver1.0_320_240

I actually don’t mind a day off from pubs, restaurants, shops and, of course, work, on one day of the year – holidays, days of chillaxin every now and then are well worth having – the ancient Romans loved em I hear – but to commemorate the putative crucifixion of someone who, as the incomprehensible narrative goes – died for our sins, or that we might be set free or have eternal grace, because he was a god or the son thereof but at the same time a human being or a symbol of all the sufferings of humanity and so on and on, well I get a little resentful of having that sort of shite imposed on me. So I’m just wondering, as this country’s Christian religiosity diminishes day by day, how much longer the good Friday saga will last. At least this morning’s ABC news breakfast program was much more about easter eggs than crosses, though it did feature a kindly Father Bob, a Catholic apparently, and a tireless worker amongst the poor Of Melbourne. In recent years he’s become something of a media celebrity, especially on radio. In the breakfast program interview, which I admit to only half listening to, he heaped praise on the new pope and then presented a somewhat incoherent metaphysics of faith. Well, long may he continue in his good work.

Easter has been with us for quite a while, but not, of course, from the day of crucifixion. However, though the gospels are more or less completely unreliable as history, they’re a little more date-conscious, or at least time-of-year conscious, in respect of Jesus’s death than they are with respect to his birth.  Jesus’s birthday could’ve been celebrated at any time, so vague and contradictory are the two gospel stories of that event. The one possible seasonal reference was to shepherds watching their flocks at night at the time (Luke 2:8), which would count as evidence against a December birth in the northern hemisphere. The mention of a census conducted at the time, which required people to move to their birthplaces (but this story is almost certainly false, there’s no evidence of any Roman census ever requiring such movement), also argues against a winter birth. You just wouldn’t ask people to move around en masse in the depths of winter in those pre-electric, pre-public transport times.

In any case, the date at which December 25 was fixed as Christmas is unclear, and there were many competing dates in the early years (and dating methods in any case were various and messy). In fact some early Christian thinkers, such as Origen, rejected the very idea of celebrating Jesus’s birthday, claiming that birthday celebration was a nasty pagan practice. So, long live that one.  Jehovah’s Witnesses today, by the way, refuse to celebrate Christmas presumably for the same reason as Origen, but who knows, and who cares?

But let’s return to Easter, whose events were much more significant to early Christianity. As it happens, the gospels give two slightly different accounts upon which to base the dating. John 19 presents the decision to crucify Jesus as having been made at ‘the preparation of the passover’, which might be the eve, though it also says, ‘about the sixth hour’. Sixth hour from what, midnight? Some translations change ‘sixth hour’ to ‘noon’, suggesting that it’s the sixth hour from dawn – in any case before the paschal or passover lamb is slaughtered, which had to be between 3pm and 5pm according to ancient Judaic law. This gives time for Jesus to be taken off to Golgotha and ‘sacrificed’ in the afternoon. The lamb had to be eaten by midnight on the same day (Nisan 14, according to the Hebrew calendar). The synoptic gospels on the other hand present the death as occurring on Nisan 15, with the Last Supper being in fact the Passover meal, and a huge amount of scholarly ink has been wasted in reconciling every mention of the hour in each of these texts.

To me, as a thorough-going sceptic, it seems bleeding obvious that Jesus’s death was written by these gospellers as occurring at Passover, the most holy day in the Jewish calendar (though another piece of nonsense, as it celebrates an event that is entirely mythical – the escape of the Israelites from Egypt, and their subsequent slaughter of the earlier inhabitants of the ‘promised land’). New religions are generally keen to take over the most important dates of a religion they’re keen to supersede, and that is surely why  Jesus is made to refer to himself as ‘the lamb of god’ (John 1:29, 1:36), sacrificed for a very different purpose than the paschal lamb. It’s significant that this description is in John, because the chronology in that gospel fits perfectly with Jesus being killed at the same time that the lamb is killed. John, the later gospel, ‘got it right’ improving on the synoptics who merely tried to hijack the passover meal for the purposes of the last supper, an occasion which could never be as important as the actual crucifixion. In other words the dating and timing of Good Friday was all about symbolism, not about truth. Of course there’s no evidence, outside of the gospels, that Jesus was crucified at all, let alone that he just happened to be crucified at the most important time of year for the Jews, against whom the new sect wished to assert themselves – most unpleasantly by describing them as killing their hero (John 19:14-16, Mark 15:9-15, Matthew 27:21-26, Luke 23:20-25). Matthew drives it home: ‘All the people answered, His blood is on us and our children!’ (Matt 27:25).

So it’s worth remembering this on Good Friday. It’s dating was, from the start, designed to stick it to the Jews, and to stake Christianity’s claim as a rival religion, and of course the Good Friday story, recounted in each of the gospels, marks the beginning of two millennia of Christian anti-Semitism.

Written by stewart henderson

March 31, 2013 at 9:09 pm

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

with 2 comments

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