Tag Archives: Faith

Do Animals Believe in God?

Whenever we humans have been wrong about animals, it has been because we have underestimated them. As a schoolboy, I was taught that animals could not reason, solve problems, or use tools. False, false, and false. Earlier than that, scientists believed animals even as advanced as other primates could not feel pain. Way false.

Any dog-owner knows that animals can anticipate and even manipulate the thoughts of members of other species (their human companions).

Animals adopt children, display altruistic behavior, and wage organized war. Elephants, dolphins and chimpanzees have all been observed to take special care of their dead. All of this was unthinkable a hundred years ago.

If you are a religious person, you have your own reasons for believing in God. But think for a moment about people in general, especially primitive people. Why do they pray for rain? Why do they sacrifice their daughters to volcano gods? Why do they believe every tree and rock has a spirit? Surely humans’ hyper-developed sense of agency has something to do with it. We believe there are personal forces behind events, even when there are not.

It’s easy to see why we have evolved to go overboard in this way. If one of your great-great-…-great grandparents had seen the grass rustling on the savanna and mistakenly thought a lion lurked there, he might waste a few calories running away from nothing, but otherwise no harm done. The opposite error, believing there was no lion when it was right there stalking its dinner, would have been fatal and you would not be here. In that environment, it would not take long to evolve a bias for seeing animate forces behind events.

That environment was also the one that shaped the forbears of our animal cousins. Why wouldn’t the more cognitively endowed among them evolve a belief in some sort of god exactly as we have?

Maybe animals are smarter than we are, in a way: they know when to stop. After all, they have never been observed sacrificing their daughters to volcano gods, or doing rain dances. But why wouldn’t animals have an animistic view of nature? And isn’t animism a form of polytheism? And mightn’t that polytheism have developed into a proto-theology in some of the more advanced animals? Maybe they can’t talk about it with each other (or maybe they can), but who knows what’s going on in their heads?

What do you think?

What if Life is a Joke?

What if the truth about life were horrible? What if, as the ancient Hebrews believed, we are all destined to spend eternity in a shadowy sheol rather than a glorious heaven? Or what if there is no afterlife at all? What if life is absurd — just a cosmic joke played on us by no-one at all?

If you were to discover that any of these propositions is absolutely, undeniably true, how would you feel?

I’ve been rereading Plato at the Googleplex, in which author Rebecca Goldstein imagines Plato on a book tour in modern America. I’d like to share with you a passage that I find very moving. Ms. Goldstein, synthesizing Plato’s writings, has him say this about those who are fit to be the Guardians of his ideal republic.

[An essential character quality is] an inborn horror of being deceived as to the nature of things, and an inborn desire to know the truth… [It] is something different from intelligence and different from knowledge. Those who have this trait love the truth not because it is like this or like that. They love the truth simply because it is the truth and are prepared to love it no matter what it turns out to be. They will stick to a view just so long as it seems to them the truth and will not be seduced away from that view no matter what others are telling them, or what flashier and more attractive options are dangled before them; but they are also the least reluctant among all people to abandon a formerly loved view, if once they become convinced that it is not true. They are always on the scent of the truth, like dogs, who are the most philosophical of animals.

Do you identify with this? I do. During the years that I was in the evangelical church, nothing “seduced me away from that view” — not money, not social opportunities, not fleshly lusts, not even the common decency to see some of its teachings as horrible. I thought I had found the truth; how could anything else matter?

When I became convinced otherwise, I did not mourn the loss of eternal life, a God who loved me, or a sense of eternal purpose. Instead, I felt anger at having been deceived.

I don’t think life is a joke. I’d say it’s more of a game. But if that is the truth of the matter, I am prepared to love it. Delighted, even. How about you?

Broad is the Road to Moral Insanity

Slacktivist recently posted a very insightful series called Unlearning the Lies We Learned from the Theologians of Slavery. Briefly, he points out that many of the great Protestant theologians who are America’s spiritual Founding Fathers supported slavery or even owned slaves — men like Jonathan Edwards (yes, even in the North!), Patrick Henry and George Whitefield. Slacktivist shows that this disturbing truth ought to challenge us in many ways. Do read his whole series, but I’d like to focus on one sentence from Part 4:

You have to get a host of other things wrong in order to arrive at the place where you get that one thing [slavery] wrong.

What wrong steps did Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield take that made that final step of justifying slavery seem perfectly sensible and even godly? Might we have already taken some of those steps?

As a former conservative Christian who walked the same path as Edwards et al, I suggest the road to moral insanity can go something like this…

  1. You believe that you are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and this gives you a supernatural edge in deciding moral questions: you can understand scripture and hear God’s voice more reliably than people who do not “know God.”
  2. In fact, you are taught to distrust non-believers’ ideas as non-spiritual “worldly wisdom” or worse.
  3. From that privileged position, you allow yourself a moral epistemology that you deny to others. When a fundamentalist Muslim arrives at obviously inhuman morality based on the Koran, you wonder how he can be so blind. “Why don’t his conclusions lead him do question his scriptures?” you ask. But when the same hermeneutic is applied to the Bible to arrive at positions that the rest of society has come to agree are harmful (e.g., the condemnation of homosexuality), you defend the process as being “faithful to God’s Word.”
  4. Having fully embraced an epistemology that has, by your own account, failed everywhere else it has been tried, you are well-prepared for final steps to moral insanity.
  5. You encounter passages in the Bible about, in this case, slavery. Although you are a good person, the plain reading of the text is that God not only tolerates slavery, but actually commanded his people to enslave whole cities full of people that were at a distance, minding their own business. The New Testament provides not a glimmer of relief for slaves, with Jesus’ parables casting God himself as a harsh slave-owner, and Paul teaching that slaves should obey their masters, rather than teaching masters to free their slaves.
  6. Although you are a kind person and would never in a thousand years have tried to justify slavery on your own, far be it from you to deny the authority of God’s Word. You come up with excuses for it. If you are Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, living in a culture where a consensus against slavery has not yet emerged, you positively endorse it as part of God’s Order.
  7. As I outlined in my last post, you are now mired in the same moral insanity as ISIS, for exactly the same reasons.

Maybe you think, “I’m quite sane, thank you very much. I don’t support slavery at all. I’m completely against it.”

Really? Have you repudiated God’s commands to enslave in the Bible, or do you justify them with one lame excuse or another?

When your Bible tells you that God commanded genocide, do you blame the victims, or do you say that genocide is wrong, period, therefore the Bible is wrong?

When the Bible commands a man to stone his own wife to death if she expresses the slightest desire for religious freedom, what is your reaction? Do you justify this command as “God forming his people” or do you say that no amount of historical context can justify stoning one’s wife?

These are all markers of moral sanity.

Although slavery, genocide and religious freedom are no longer a sources of controversy in America, we are fighting other battles in the culture wars, with same-sex marriage and abortion rights being the most active and long-running. More lately, a flare-up has started over contraception. In each case, the spiritual heirs of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield appear to be on the wrong side of history.

Jesus said, “The gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. The gate is small and the way narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

As we consider the questions that stand where the slavery question stood 150 years ago, I would add, “Be careful. The gate to moral insanity can look a lot like the gate to God’s Kingdom, and the road can appear to be the road of faith.”

On Moral Vision

I was recently informed that my moral standards have “lowered” since walking away from my faith. It’s true that some things that I once considered sins are no longer on my Thou Shalt Not list. Homosexual relationships would be in that category. Touching on what is apparently the most important moral issue in the evangelical church, I no longer equate early-stage abortions with murder. And of course, I score a big fat zero on the Greatest Commandment.

I granted my conversation partner’s premise and we moved on from there.

As Blackadder said to Prince George, “It is so often the way, sir: too late one thinks of what one should have said. Sir Thomas More, for instance, burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism, must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, ‘I recant my Catholicism.’”

What I should have said was, “My moral standards have not lowered. They have sharpened.

“The Bible was the lens through which I used to see the moral world. It gave excellent vision of the basic moral truths: tell the truth, don’t steal, and so on. However, there were some dirty spots on that lens. Looking for truths about slavery, genocide, the treatment of womenhumane slaughter of animals, or even discrimination against the handicapped, one learns that the lens is not as clean as one would wish.

“Most people already have great moral vision for the basics, with or without the Bible. Our problem is that we suffer from various astygmatisms of prejudice. We don’t trust people who are not in our tribe — our race, our religion, our political party, our culture. We tend to over-trust people who are like us. We also over-trust ourselves: our cognitive biases systematically prevent us from seeing the truth.

“The most pernicious is confirmation bias, and faith-based morality sinks an arrow deep in that Achilles’ heel.

“I’ve traded the biblical lens for one that sees morality in terms of the well-being of sentient creatures. Although it may be harder to learn to use that lens than to read a book, it is cleaner than the book I had been using.

“I realize that my biases are hard to correct. That’s why I study them and blog about what I learn and learn and learn.

“My new lens is not perfect, but I think I see sharper now than I used to, and I hope my vision will continue to improve.”

That’s what I should have said. Now I’ve said it.

Plato’s Truth-Loving Test

Love them or hate them, standardized tests are part of growing up. To get into college, most students take the SAT. To gain admission to graduate school, you might take the GRE, LSAT, MCAT, or who know what else.

Inasmuch as higher education is usually required for leadership positions in our society, these tests are gate-keepers to leadership. They do a good job of measuring intelligence, but is intelligence what we want most in our leaders?

It seems to me that the problems in America today are not due to our leaders being stupid. On the contrary, I suggest that many politicians who take stupid positions are very smart. Take an issue like climate change. There’s a lot of money at stake and politicians know it. They also know exactly how informed or uninformed the public is, and just how flagrantly they (the politicians) can deny reality. They’re very smart about that. The problem is that they have insufficient love for truth.

And what about the polarization of public discourse that is so notorious right now? As any reader of PolitiFact.com or FactCheck.org knows, much of the dysfunction and hate is fueled by outright lies. Again: not enough love of the truth.

What I want is a leader who loves the truth — whose highest aim is to discover what it is, so that he may promote and serve it.

We have standardized tests that help smart people rise to the top. How can we identify people who love truth?

Plato solved that problem 2,400 years ago. As dramatized in Plato at the Googleplex (a book you’ll be hearing more from on this blog), Plato says,

What I proposed was having our children be told glorious tales to stir their imaginations, very much stressing all the time that these tales were true, and then seeing which among the children can resist them, can see the logical inconsistencies within these tales, and see all their inconsistencies with other truths that they have been told (Republic 413c-414a).

What an interesting idea! Do you think that would be a good test of truth-loving? It makes sense that people who will not be enticed by attractive, heroic lies would be leaders we can trust, doesn’t it?

Maybe the question is moot. Maybe Plato could engineer this test in his ideal city, but the suggestion is not practical today.

Or is it?

I suggest that Plato’s test is embedded everywhere in our society, but most of us don’t realize it. To know whether we have passed his test, all we must do is ask whether we have found the flaws in our most cherished beliefs — and all beliefs have flaws.

How many of us have esteemed as a true friend one who incisively criticizes our culture? How many of us Americans have seen how un-democratic it is to arrogate the maximum power for America in the assembly of nations? How many of us have seen the contradictions and cruelties in the scriptures we learned at our mother’s knee?

How many of us would vote for a politician who openly does any of these things?

Plato’s test is already in place. How many of us will care about the results — in our leaders or in ourselves?

 

In Which Belief Becomes Culture and Gains Respect

Not long after I became a Christian, Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late, Great Planet Earth stormed onto the scene. I well remember being convinced by its interpretation of biblical prophecy — that the world would come to an end within “one generation” of the 1948 founding of Israel. With a biblical generation supposedly being 40 years, that would mean by 1988.

I was not alone. The book was a best-seller and the latest wave of end-times prophecy mania was on. For me, this was a positive experience: God was in control of history and great events were just around the corner.

However, some people are more compassionate than I was and are not as eager for the world to end, as we will see in a moment.

One aspect of end-times prophecy commonly taught in the evangelical church is that the original Temple must be rebuilt before Jesus will return. The original site is where the Dome of the Rock (the famous golden dome of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque) now stands. Obviously it must be cleared away before the Temple can be rebuilt. Putting two and two together, a sign of the imminent return of Christ must be the destruction of the al-Aqsa Mosque.

The al-Askari Mosque

The al-Askari Mosque

In 2006, the al-Askari mosque in Iraq was bombed. It, too, has (or had) a golden dome. When one of my daughters, who had been brought up in the evangelical church, saw this on the news, she was visibly shaken. “Dad it has begun.”

“What has begun?” I asked.

“The end of the world,” she replied.

I quickly assured her that this was only the al-Askari Mosque in Iraq, and not the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. She was relieved, but as I look back on this episode I am not relieved at all.

First of all, I am ashamed that my daughter was ever afraid of anything because of nonsense she had heard on my watch.

Thankfully, she is past that, but I am still not relieved. I am concerned that millions of people live in fear that the world is about to end. Worse, millions more are looking forward to it — with bad consequences that are beyond the scope of this post.

This fear (or joyful anticipation) is the direct result of religious belief. In American culture, religious belief is accorded an enormous amount of deference.

Suppose a father were to tell his impressionable child, “The world is going to end soon. Before that happens (and it could happen at any moment), you must agree that the Moon is made of cheese and turn your life over to the Man in the Moon. If you don’t, then when the world ends he will fling you into the Outer Darkness for all eternity and you will never see your family again.” We would call such a father abusive, wouldn’t we?

But when an entire evangelical movement says something not unlike that, we don’t call it abuse. We call it “the evangelical culture” and grant it all the respect due any religious opinion in America.

In case you are able to shrug your shoulders at that, I’ll close with a quotation* from Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape. (Warning: graphic content ahead.)

If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely the person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes “culture,” and thereby becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western “moral thinkers,” including feminists.

Genital mutilation is not common in America, but can we reflect for a moment on the beliefs we do hold that are in themselves horrible, but have become so widespread that they gain respect as “culture”?

* – The quotation is actually Harris quoting Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate, who was in turn quoting anthropologist Donald Symons.

Speaking Honestly About Belief

What do you think of this statement from Sam Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape?

…people tend not to speak honestly about the nature of belief…

My reaction was to be brought up short: How true! Sam Harris elaborates at length in the book, but here I’d like to give my own perspective.

A Community of Barnacles

A Community of Barnacles

In this context, the word belief is synonymous with faith. It is something you hold to be true, even dear, but which you didn’t arrive at by logic or science. It’s often a matter of trust (another synonym for faith).

I’ll speak of the faith with which I’m most familiar, evangelical Christianity. Most evangelicals came to faith as children, trusting their parents, Sunday School teachers, or camp counselors. When an adult converts, it’s usually the result of a personal crisis — his life is a mess and just when he doesn’t know where to turn, a trusted friend invites him to a Bible study.

Let’s follow the adult convert as his years unwind from there. Christianity offers him something beyond his wildest hopes: the creator of the universe will personally forgive him and love him. He only has to receive the free gift of salvation.

So the miserable sinner takes the leap of faith and becomes what the Bible calls a new creature. His sins are forgiven, and he feels great.

Within this new world-view, everything makes sense. “Yes, I see it now. God is in control of history. The animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant prefigured Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. How glorious! By his blood, a New Covenant was established to make even sinners like me children of God. How fortunate I am to have come into it!”

The new believer goes to church, where he makes many good friends. In fact, he finds he has much more in common with his new friends than with “the world” (as he has learned to call it). After a few years, all of his close friends are fellow Christians.

It is the nature of human beings to be suspicious of outsiders, and the tribe at church is no exception. They warn our hero, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, … rather than than according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

Our friend takes this to heart. He was already socially isolated. Now, with all good intentions, and only half-consciously, he builds a wall around his mind. He does his best to make his faith immovable. He has become a barnacle.

If he has doubts, his seeks to assuage them rather than to follow the evidence wherever it leads. For example, he may wonder, as almost everyone does, “If there’s a God and he is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?” His pastor assures him that suffering and evil are the result of mankind exercising the God-given gift of free will. “God could have made us as robots, but he loves us so much that he gave us free will. We have brought suffering on ourselves by choosing war and other evils, but that is not God’s fault.” This is enough to quiet the mind of our friend who, after all, was not looking to push the issue but to resolve his doubt. He forgets about the suffering caused by natural events; and it does not occur to him that God could have made us free up to a point, setting limits on what he’ll allow us to do to each other just as we may let our children quarrel but not poke each others’ eyes out.

If something reinforces his belief, the believer will accept it without question. He may wonder, as I did, about slavery seemingly practiced with God’s permission in the Bible. His pastor assures him, “God tolerated slavery, but never condoned it. Besides, slavery in the Bible is not the same as slavery in its modern form. It was more like indentured servitude.” Our faithful friend, having done enough critical thinking for one day, continues on his way praising God. It does not occur to him to read the Bible carefully for himself, where he would discover before he had gotten a fifth of the way through that his pastor is lying. (His pastor probably doesn’t even know he’s lying because he, in turn, got his information from any number of evangelical apologists who are no better at doing their homework than he is.)

If all that were not enough, our little barnacle is told that if he ever climbs out of his shell, he will drift forever and never be able to find his old home again: “For in the case of those who have once been enlightened … and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance…. Ground that drinks the rain … and brings forth … thorns and thistles … ends up being burned.” (Hebrews 6:4-8.) If laziness does not keep him in the fold, fear will.

The foregoing is not everyone’s experience, but having spent four decades in the evangelical community, I can tell you that it is typical.

Can we speak honestly about belief? Can we admit that its aim is to preserve itself, rather than to seek truth? Can we see that it is a defensive, inward-looking, gullible mentality in contrast to the open, curious, yet careful stance of freethought at its best?

Having done that, can we agree that it is not a virtue, but a pernicious vice?