Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Does God Care for You and Me?

Instinctively I have to, or want to, say "Yes, certainly God cares for me and everyone else (at least if he exists)". But why should I be so confident in that? Perhaps is it my background: growing up in a Christian family and inheriting that assumption. Not all religions would teach that about God. If Christian doctrine is a sufficient reason for you believing something, then no need to read further. But if like me you want something more, then join me in asking this question:

Is there any actual evidence that God cares for people in general, or Christians in particular?

I remember from my church-going days a proof given periodically by preachers of this. After preaching on God's care for his followers, the preacher would ask a question like this: "Is there anyone here who God has not provided for when you were in desperate need?" And of course no one raises a hand. Wow -- surely most people have been in some sort of great need during their lives, and if God provided for them then that's a 100% batting average on God's part. What more could you ask for?

There are a number of problems with this demonstration, and here is the big one that made me a bit uncomfortable even in much church-days. Say someone was in desperate need and God didn't provide. Well, he would die. And clearly there have been many Christians in desperate need of healing or something else to keep them alive, but didn't get it and died. By asking this question to the living members of his congregation, the preacher has effectively excluded anyone who could convincingly say "No, God didn't provide for me and I died." So if you exclude the nays, then it is not too surprising you will get 100% yeas.

The classic demonstration from nature that God must care for us is attributed to Jesus. Consider Luke 12:22-24: And [Jesus] said to his disciples, "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!" Granted, we are more valuable than ravens. And granted, I have not seen any dead ravens. I am not sure it follows that God feeds them in their need. If so the population of ravens would have exceeded all other birds by now. Rather it seems more likely that ravens die of starvation or thirst when food or water are scarce just like other animals. That puts a pretty big hole in the argument that God cares for us by analogy to ravens.

Instead of discovering evidence that God cares for those in need, the opposite seems to be the case. There is so much needless suffering in this world, and so many untimely deaths. Here I am not addressing the problem of suffering; I just want to find some positive evidence that God cares for those in need. Anecdotes of good coming out of times of desperate need are encouraging, but have to be balanced by the innumerable times desperate need leads to tragic death. So I am at a loss in finding evidence that God cares for you and me.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Two Faces of Christianity

There are two conflicting sides of Christianity that I see in our culture. Let me call these the Utopian side and the Militant side. Both of these are found and justified in many passages of the New Testament. And yet they present divergent, if not diametrically opposite, views of what Christianity means.

The Utopian Christian loves his neighbor (and everyone in the world) as much as himself. He has compassion on the poor and downtrodden and sacrifices his well-being for theirs. He rejoices in affliction and even afflicts himself with fasting and other hardships. He does not judge or condemn others. He gives to whoever asks from him. He is a pacifist who will not strike back or retaliate when slapped on the face. He loves his enemy, will not speak evil of him behind his back, and prays for his well-being.

The Militant Christian, on the other hand, sees this world as a spiritual battle ground. What is important is whether people are going to heaven or hell, not their physical condition or whether they are fed or content. Evil spiritual forces are impinging on good and must be fought. People must be pulled out of the jaws of hell. Whatever means that accomplish this are justified even if they harm people. Evil is defined as what contravenes the revealed will of God (i.e. Bible). Condemnation of immorality is a staple, especially anything to do with sex or sexual orientation that isn't sanctioned in the Bible.

If something saves lives or pulls people out of poverty or helps the downtrodden or leads to greater happiness, the utopian Christian is likely to support it. These factors, however, are not particularly relevant to the militant Christian. Things for him are judged on an absolute moral scale, rather than on a harm/benefit scale. The militant Christian attacks policies that could be seen as condoning immoral behavior, even if they could literally save thousands of lives. This includes attacking sex education and providing condoms to poor nations to protect them from the spread of HIV. A similar reasoning leads to attacking same-sex marriages -- it doesn't matter whether or not it could lead to happier people. All that matters is that it contravenes what they see as God's ideal for the world. Other similar ideals by some Christians include banning contraception use including condoms, (even though contraception undoubtedly protects millions of unwanted children from coming into the world), and banning suicide and euthanasia even for terminally ill people in great pain. The merits of each of these could be debated on a harm/help basis, but this is irrelevant to the militant Christian who sees everything through a black-white, moral-immoral lens.

Freedom of belief and religion are certainly not ideals of the militant Christian. If a belief system (or religion) is going to lead people astray and into eternal torture in hell, why should that be legal or tolerated? The militant Christian has few qualms in leveraging the state's powers to further the spread of the gospel and halt the spread of other "nefarious" beliefs.

I have just described the extremes of these views. Both can surely find plenty of support in the Bible. And Christians hold a whole spectrum of beliefs spanning these two extremes. But what I find sad is that the second of these faces seems to be winning. While modern Christians still pay lip service to the utopian ideals espoused by Jesus, in practice they have ditched them as ineffective. I presume they judge it less effective to live a selfless life, than to rail judgments against all the evils they see and lobby politicians to fight their cause. Turning on the radio or scanning the blogsphere or listening to sermons, it is the shouts of Christian soldiers that are drowning out the quiet voices of their utopian brethren.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Guilt: a reason to believe?

Why should one believe in Christianity? What evidence can one present to the skeptic or doubter or even the believer? Miracles are a popular one, but most have never seen one. Thinking back over the evangelism I have done and observed, the guilt argument is one of the most effective at making converts. Here is how it goes:

We are all sinners and guilty of breaking God's universal moral law. The evidence for this is the guilt we feel -- surely no one will deny that we each suffer from feelings of guilt at times in our lives. Hence we are each aware of being transgressors of God's law. Now the wages of sin are death, but the free gift of God is eternal life. One simply believes and repents and one will be forgiven one's sins. Moreover, this is right way to overcome our guilt.

I certainly believed this line of reasoning for many years. A favorite anecdote in sermons is that of a non-believer being driven by his or her overwhelming feeling of guilt to the forgiveness of Christ. What makes this powerful is that guilt is real, undeniable, and impacts everyone. If it is evidence for Christianity, then indeed one should pay attention.

But is it really evidence for Christianity? Is the argument sound? As I Christian I did not really think to question it; I knew what I wanted to believe and since it supported my beliefs I was happy to include it in my reasons for belief. Now, however, I only want reasons that hold water, and I fear this one does not. Here are the problems I see with it.

First, is it really evidence of a God-instilled moral code? As described in the Wikipedia article, "Guilt is an affective state in which one experiences conflict at having done something that one believes one should not have done." So guilt is evidence of internal conflict, of failing to meet one's own expectations. This conflict need not be between one's actions and God's laws. Rather, our moral expectations of ourselves can easily have purely natural sources. That is, guilt and feelings of right and wrong need not originate in God but are simply a component of our evolution as social beings. (I won't argue that here, but here is a post makes that case:

So guilt need not require the existence of a God-given universal moral code. But is it nevertheless a side-affect of this moral code, and so still useful evidence? The problem with this is the huge variability in guilty feelings, both between different people and in response to similar actions by the same person. Some people are highly sensitive to feelings of guilt; a minor infraction will send them into the depths of guilt. Others are impervious to guilt. While others may commit great crimes without guilt and then have great guilt for a small action. A measure with such variability is a poor indicator of a universal constant or a universal moral code.

A reponse to this is that those who willfully sin sear their consciences and lose their feelings of guillt. But is that really a satisfactory explanation for the variability of guilt? It does not explain why some feel guilt for certain small infractions but not other major ones. Nor does it explain why some are hypersensitive to guilt. It may be that some people can reduce their feelings of guilt through repeated efforts, but a better explanation for its variability among people is that just as physical and emotional attributes vary between people due to genetic and nurturing differences, in the same way sensitivity to guilt will vary.

As a final note, I wonder if it is true that Christianity offers an "answer" to guilt. Rather, from my observations of others and myself, it tends to enhance guilt, particularly in the case of small, inconsequential harms. I can say that from personal experience: as a child of about 5 I once stole a key from my grandfather's desk and then denied it to him when directly asked. I lost the key and so never returned it, but guilt from this sin stayed with me for many years and reoccurred most strongly during revival sermons. I wondered if that sin was the reason God didn't give me the gift of tongues, and other such blessings. Even though I many times asked Jesus to forgive that sin, the guilt from it did not go away. I never told anyone about it but finally, desperate to overcome the guilt, at the age of 15 or so I wrote a letter to my grandparents admitting and apologizing for my grievous sin against them. Then, in a letter to my whole family(!), they added a couple lines addressed to me thanking me for my admission. I think it was the annoyance that they would do that to me that finally overcame my guilt. But now that I look back at the experience, I think it was Christianity that harmed me by nurturing and feeding my guilt and keeping it in my mind as a possible reason that God may be witholding blessings from me when the guilt should have dissipated long before.

So to conclude, I do not believe that our feelings of guilt imply the existence of a God-given law. Rather guilt an important component in the interactions between social beings enabling others to forgive and so overcome wrongs. But guilt is also a useful tool for religions, both for making converts by offering people a way to overcome it, and then in keeping followers in repentance and submission by actually nurturing and spreading guilt.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Apologetics, Anecdotes and Aspersions

I agreed to read Ravi Zacharias's book "Can Man Live Without God" because of a deal with my Mom. She would read Dan Barker's book "godless" (see my review) if I would read this book. Another motivation of mine was that I remember listening to a talk by Zacharias when in college and being impressed. But back then I was a Christian. So I wanted to see what I still thought of him. Also, it has been a while since I have read an apologetics book, and this would be a good chance to reassess the Christian apologetics literature.

While Zacharias is certainly eloquent and makes moving speeches and tells powerful anecdotes, he makes almost no arguments. He just states his positions and relies on the implications of his anecdotes to support them. Perhaps this is effective at convincing most people who rely on emotional appeal rather than reasons for belief. I can see why his books are popular among Christians; those who share his beliefs don't need or want arguments, and they would rather have emotional anecdotes. Compare that to Dan Barker's book "godless" which is full of arguments -- one may disagree with inferences or assumptions in them, but at least Barker provides a reasoned basis for his positions.

I was a bit preturbed to find Zacharias using the term: "antitheist" for atheist. I suppose this is because the term atheist has lost most of its perjorative sense. Right from the beginning this illustrates how he intends to convince his reader of his points: use rhetoric, imagery and other tricks to make his opponents look bad. But in reply to his use of the term "antitheist", consider this distinction: There are hundreds or thousands of gods that people past and present believe in. A monotheist rejects belief in all but one of them. An atheist rejects belief in one additional god. So far so good. Hence it is strange that rejecting 100% versus 99% of gods should make one an "anti" something. Rather Zacharias is simply using it as part of his arsensal of attacks on atheists.

Zacharias loves to find examples of well-known atheists who make outrageous claims or do something outrageous, and then lump all the other atheists in the same box as them. The problem is that atheists are as varied as theists. There are probably as many different ethical systems among atheists are there are among theists. His strategy of telling with relish an anecdote of Stalin pulling feathers out of a live chicken implying that atheists have no basis for morality is like me finding something nasty or brutish taught by some religion (say burning slaves to the sun-god) and implying that all theists (Christians included) are heartless slaves of their gods. Zacharias loves to use Nietzsche as a kicking bag for all of atheism. The problem is two-fold. First he takes Nietzsche's aphorisms far too literally. Second, Nietzsche is not a general representative of atheism; I'm sure far many atheists disagree with much of what Nietzsche proposes.

Zacharias summarizes one of his main claims (pg 32): "Antitheism provides every reason to be immoral and is bereft of any objective point of reference with which to condemn any choice". Contrary to this, and plenty of similar claims (and aspersions), it *is* possible to have an ethical system without need to rely on a deity's wrath or reward. Perhaps Zacharias does not read ethics? For example, Peter Singer provides an ethical framework in his book "Practical Ethics". Also Barker, in his book "godless", describes how he went from assumptions similar to Zacharias's to realizing that an ethical system that truly values humans is one that is based on human needs and characteristics, rather than those of a deity.

My biggest disappointment with the book was Chapter 12 "Getting to the Truth". Here is Zacharias's opportunity to argue constructively for how we can find the truth and distinguish truth from falsehood. There are a lot of falsehoods out there, and people could surely use some good instruction on how to discriminate between what is true and false. Here are Zacharias's 3 tests: (1) logical consistency, (2) empirical adequacy, and (3) experimental relevance. After stating these, Zacharias then goes on to ignore (2) and (3) and relies only on (1). Granted, logical consistency is an important identifier of falsehood. But most real-life falsehoods we encounter are logically consistent (or vague enough to it is hard to show them inconsistent). So how is someone to determine from the myriad claims out there (that aren't clearly logically inconsistent) which ones to trust and which ones to reject? Zacharias gives us no help. The answer lies in a field that Zacharias almost completely ignores (except for a few derogatory comments he makes about evolution). It is found in science. The scientific method is our best tool for acquiring knowledge about the world. It consists of three components that work together: (1) observation, (2) hypothesis creation and (3) hypotheses testing. And there are three main tests for hypotheses, these are: (i) logical consistency, (ii) accuracy (how well the hypotheses describe the observations), and (iii) parsimony (how succinct the hypotheses are). Together these methods and tests are extremely powerful tools for discovering truth about the world. One could wish that Zacharias had applied them to the problem at hand.

There are plenty of other points in his book that I would dispute. The main issues, though, are how one can find the truth, and how one seeks to illuminate the truth to others. Apart from insisting on logical consistency, Zacharias seems quite confused on how to find the truth. He certainly does not make a reasoned case that Christianity is true. There are many strong counter-arguments to his case for Christianity that he ignores (such as those found in Barker's book). Furthermore his method for illuminating truth to others is quite deceptive: he discredits viewpoints by recounting examples of extreme followers, by making broad, unsupported attacks on atheism with the aim of nurturing fear amongst Christians of the rise of amoral atheists, and by using anecdotes as justifications or proofs.

On the other hand, perhaps the problem is that I am not his target audience. These are the very tactics used every Sunday by pastors in countless churches to sustain the faith of their congregations and keep followers from venturing beyond the safe havens of the Christian religion. Certainly these tactics have power to retain followers in the faith. Ravi Zacharias is simply one of those pastors who has put his preaching into print. Considering that the prime use of a book like this is to provide arsenal to pastors for apologetic sermons, I think a more appropriate title for his book is: "Anecdotes of foolish, deluded and nasty atheists."