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The Limits of Omnipotence

February 20, 2018 2 comments

So my country has had another mass shooting, and I thought it would be relatively easy to speak on that for today’s post, but then I wondered what was the new thing that I could say. Basically, I could just repeat what I’ve said before and just switch out the places. Instead of X I could say “school” or in the case of the Connecticut shooting I could keep the place and just change the age of the victim (my country has a lot of these kinds of shootings). However some politicians and commentators offered  me a new take on it. I was going to come up with the examples but enough people have made the comment that the list is too long and I don’t want to be accused of cherry picking so let’s just say Todd Starnes said it (because he did) and then a whole bunch of other people agreed with him that school shootings are the result of kicking god out of the schools.

Ignoring the fact that “god” wasn’t kicked out of the schools–forced prayer was–let’s examine this claim in detail.

If there is a law which tells me I can’t do X, that doesn’t mean that I cannot do X what it means is that if I do X I can suffer consequences for that action. A law which mandates that I stand for the pledge of allegiance doesn’t force my action by virtue of the law itself, it forces the action by causing me to weight the consequences of the action. If I deem the penalty as too severe I will stand for the poem, if deem it not severe enough than I can choose to sit and possibly suffer the consequence. The same goes for any law or rule. The compulsion is only from consequence avoidance. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn once commented that freedom of speech existed in the USSR as well as the USA, the only difference was that in the USA we had freedom after speech. The difference is important especially when we consider what people like Todd Starnes are saying.

Their belief is that the US passed a law by which “god” was no longer allowed in schools. Now, I doubt that they are so devoid of rational thinking that they believe the literal being was denied access to the school…maybe…but that it was illegal to pray, bring a bible, or anything religious based. So a student “John” cannot pray. This has caused a blanket ban on all religious thought, consideration, or feeling in the school. As a result the omnipotent being that John would have prayed to can no longer find His (because we know what god people like Starnes are talking about and it ain’t anyone other than Jesus) way into the school, or even on school property. As a result, this means that the school shooter gets to unload a few clips of his AR-15 style rifle into some students. QED making prayer forbidden in school caused this.

The implication here is that god is bound by US secular law. Once the law is enacted and the court passes its ruling it’s like Gandalf on the bridge of Khazad-Dum forbidding the supernatural being from passing. What Starnes and his ilk seem to believe, again because it bears repeating, that god is bound by US secular law. That’s the first possibility. The second is the one they actually aren’t saying aloud and is pure speculation on my part, that, they believe god is causing the mass shootings because we don’t allow enough Jesus inside the school. The second, of course, is not something that most religious people believe and should, indeed, find quite offensive. The problem of evil trilemma is almost never solved by eliminating the Omni-benevolence portion in this manner.*

That returns us to the first possibility which severely limits the power of god to even speeding. This would explain a lot of the absence, but it also means that every person living within the US legal boundary has more power than the divine being that Starnes wants back in the schools. Especially those that are not legally citizens, since their mere presence is more powerful than the creator of the universe. This is not a god worth worshipping since its power is so limited, in fact it’s not a god at all.

 

*Though sometimes it’s eliminated by way of “god works in mysterious ways.” Which implies that even the worst tragedies are to some greater plan that involves such intense human suffering and our feeble minds will never grasp the true meaning. It’s not a satisfying answer by any respect but if you hear it enough times as a child you learn to stop asking why (at least that was my experience).

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Self Inflicted Wound

February 12, 2018 Leave a comment

“The reason I believe in free will is because I believe in an all knowing god who knows every decision we are going to make…”

The assignment was a short, one page opinion essay on the student’s thought as to whether or not we have free will. Very easy, very quick…and most of them screwed it up. Instead of talking about free will they talked about decisions they made or didn’t make. This student wasn’t one of those that screwed up, the essay actually addressed the problem. It would be completely unfair of me to expect an answer to the question of free will, people still write their dissertations on the topic and entire subdivisions of academic disciplines are devoted to it. I just wanted their opinion as briefly as appropriate for an introduction to Philosophy course.

I focus on this student’s essay though not because of this specific answer but because of the general type of answer that it is: a self-refuting argument. Or as I call it, taking inspiration from the podcast God Awful Movies, the “jingly keys argument.” Without delving to far into the problem, the student has essentially stated that there is free will but then the reasoning seems to refute the idea of an indeterminate universe. The difference is that while the student is proclaiming a divinely ordered free will universe, there is also the counter claim that everything is already known. So setting aside the omniscience issue with choice, we’re to accept that while my decision to wear a sweater or not is mine, that choice was already made in the future…and more importantly, already known by a being possessing of perfect knowledge. Therefore, my decision had to be one way and could never have been another. This brings us full circle back to the issue we set aside a few sentences ago: was my choice really free?

This has been addressed by the Philosophical pantheon. Augustine said that there was a difference between knowing that something is going to happen and having made that thing happen–thus he can preserve both his religious beliefs and his belief in free will. It takes some mental work and some cognitive dissonance to hold both beliefs, but there we have it. What I wonder is why even come up with this argument in the first place?

It reminds me of the Epicurean paradox concerning the existence of evil and an all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing god. Epicurus never said it, the Epicureans did not believe in a god that cared and had little awareness or interest themselves in the burgeoning Christian cult when the school was adopted by the Roman intelligentsia. They had no rivals which postulated such a being so it wouldn’t have made sense to them to offer specific arguments against them. The paradox itself comes from a Christian writer named Lactantius who was using the paradox as a polemic against the Epicurean school to say, “look these idiots believe that an all powerful, all knowing, all good god wouldn’t allow evil in the world so they are a bunch of atheists which is why we shouldn’t follow them.”

Does Lactantius answer his own paradox? No. Why then would he write such a damning thing about his own belief?

In both cases we have authors defending their personal beliefs by developing extremely difficult problems for that belief, but doing so thinking that it buttresses their own argument. Augustine, in his defense, is not making the problem up and then arguing against it, he’s making an argument against an external threat. So while I think his position is weak he’s not shooting himself in the foot with it.

However this does not excuse my student or Lactantius from what they have done. Nor does it scream to the motive of why they came up with it in the first place. The only reasonable explanation that I can offer is that they do not understand what they are saying. This could be for two different reasons: the first is that they are merely parroting what someone else had told them. In the case of Lactantius this might be less probable given the lack of knowledge he was sure to have since while his writings indicate an exposure to the other philosophical schools of Rome (Stoicism is his other target in this same work) they also show a lack of understanding of them (which is something I suspect can be attributed to a great deal of early religious writing in the bible–but that is for a much longer and more researched post), it might very well be that Lactantius developed this argument on his own thinking that the Epicureans didn’t believe in any gods, which he would have been wrong about as they were Deists. With the student it’s more probable that this a repeated argument but I can’t make any conclusions as to the certainty, but since it’s an easily searchable claim–in fact, an essay making the exact claim in much greater detail was the first result with the search terms “free will, Christian, omniscience.”

The second, and I think the more probable explanation is that they think it helps their cause because they haven’t considered the implications of it. Lactantius is looking for a slander against the Epicureans for their naturalism and their denial of an involved god so he throws the ancient slander that the Epicureans were “atheists,” why not it worked on Socrates and Aristotle. However, “atheist” didn’t mean then what it did today it just meant that a person didn’t worship the “right” god the “right” way. The student seems to believe that their god gives free will, but then hasn’t considered that such knowledge leads to a deterministic universe unless they didn’t feel like getting into it, which is a bit problematic for their paper. In either case, the strangest thing is that just a little self-reflection on their own assertions would lead them to understand that they are providing ammunition against the very thing that they are arguing for.

 

Ladders

December 18, 2017 Leave a comment

As a universal atheist, i.e. one that finds all religions to be false, it’s easy to find yourself agreeing with ideas that you normally hate. For example: I don’t want to see Sharia law in the United States but that doesn’t mean that I agree with the type of people who repeatedly post about it because their point is usually about immigration and hating people who are coming from countries where Sharia law is just the law. It’s useless to indicate that there is no chance of Sharia law in the United States due to that pesky 1st Amendment and 200 years of legal precedent as a protection, but nonetheless I don’t want Sharia Law.

It is however worth pointing out that those same people are often the ones lobbying to remove those protections so that their religion can be the one in charge. Weird, because the two religions have a lot of the same rules, just a couple of differences of trivial importance. I also find it uncomfortable when I find myself agreeing with some of the ridiculing of various religious practices from the same kind of individuals often reverting to the type of comments that begin “well yeah that is pretty silly but so is X.” This is to remind the individual that for every religious rite/rule/habit of the foreign religion their religion has just the same silly feature that they follow without question. Yes, it’s pretty silly that two of the Abrahamic religions won’t eat pig meat, but it’s just as silly to abstain from fish on Friday during a specific forty day period set by the full moon. That’s the real power of religion, to take something arbitrary and make it a rule. Tell a group of people that they can’t eat French fries on a Tuesday and they’ll laugh at you, tell them that rule is in a holy book, and it’ll give them pause. The more liberal of them might actually consider following it for fear of upsetting someone else, while the more conservative might order double to purposefully offend this made up group.

Raised Catholic I never questioned the prohibition of eating meat on a Friday during Lent. The reasoning behind this, which I’m sure I’m actually going to be educating some of the few Catholics I have reading this, is pretty ridiculous. Since Jesus was allegedly executed on a Friday giving up his flesh, the Catholic church decided as a way to honor that, that “flesh” meant meat so the faithful were to abstain. The original rule was every Friday but then that changed to only the Fridays during Lent (at most 5 days) and Ash Wednesday. Now they’re allowed to eat fish though, because according to the Latin origin the word “carnis” which is “meat” translates to “animal flesh” which for some reason doesn’t include fish…because fish aren’t animals (?). Whatever, this is a religion that based on the same book that thinks bats are birds (Lev 11:19) and that rabbits chew their cud (Lev 11:5 and 11:6). Also in that same chapter their are four legged flying creatures. Further to get along with the ridiculousness the Catholic church decreed in the 17th century that the Beaver was a fish for the purposes of Lent, also the Capybara, because since they live in the water they must be fish.

However those are minor things and unless you are completely devoid of a sense of humor, they’re pretty absurd. When we get into the various sects of religions things get more serious. For example I see posts ridiculing ISIS (as is deserved) and the simmering Islamic civil war between the two major off-shoots of Sunni and Shia. The difference is political, Muhammed didn’t leave an heir and the sects developed over the difference between who should lead the Islamic Caliphate back in the 7th century. Dumb, says the evangelical minister, why can’t they just get along like all the Christians do? Never mind the millennia long history of Christian sectarian war (not just violence but straight up war), most recently in what is known as “The Troubles” of Irish history. The Muslims do seem to get along at their most holy of sites though, the violence is done to pilgrims on their way to and from it, but never, it seems, there (minus the occasional trampling which seems to happen every year).

Well it happens with the Christians too. Which brings me to the most absurd example of how religion poisons everything and it involves a ladder. That’s not a metaphor, it’s a literal ladder.

The holiest site in the Christian religion is in one of two places: the alleged birthplace of Jesus or the alleged resurrection site. The latter is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and its presided over six different Christian sects: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syriac Orthodox. These six groups do not like each other, to the point where moving a chair outside a monastery at the church a mere couple inches started a fist fight between the Coptic and Ethiopian monks landing eleven in the hospital (there were a bunch of videos on the internet about it). Because these six groups couldn’t decide who was in charge of what back in ancient times they constantly fought over which group would oversee the alleged* site of the death and resurrection of their God. Because of the violence, the Sultan Osman III of the Ottoman Empire decreed what is known as the “status quo.” Basically, this meant that everything would freeze as is in the 18th century as the Ottoman empire controlled the region. No change to Holy Sites could be made without universal agreement amongst the various religious groups.

This brings us to the ladder. At some point, no one really knows, but definitely in the mid 18th century someone put a ladder on a ledge near a window. That person was probably doing some work there, but it can’t be moved because of the sectarian disagreements. The question is, who owns the ladder and who has the right to move it? The problem is that you can’t six different groups to agree that a ladder should be taken down. There’s probably a lot of spite going on, but c’mon, it’s a ladder. I’ll do it, provided that travel and stay expenses are covered. I won’t, however treat it with reverence because it’s a ladder that has no historical significance other than indicating how petty and silly religious groups can be when it comes to territory. Which is the real lesson here. See we atheists can point to bombings, assassinations and wars to show what evil humans do in the name of superstition, but if we want a real lesson in how absurd this can get, it’s a ladder on a ledge outside of a window that is the real icon of religion.

*I keep using “alleged” because of the story of how this site was chosen seems suspicious to me. Emperor Constantine’s mother chose them, as the story goes, but how she made the choices seems to be a matter of controversy (I’ll bet it was chosen simply to remove the temple to Aphrodite from Jerusalem).

By A Preponderance…

December 4, 2017 Leave a comment

We left off with the idea that we need some sort of deity in order to be moral. A ridiculous claim that even my religious students do not stand by. We’re still searching for the evidence that the book promised…

Continuing on with his decrying of the morality of the non-believer he begins citing the bible. Sigh, the problem here should be obvious. If he’s going to be claiming proof, undeniable proof, then he can’t cite evidence that requires you already believe. That’s a perfect example of question begging. This line from 2 Thessalonians 1:9 “These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power,” begins our conversation about hell. The “These” in that line are those that do not obey the gospel of Jesus. Which, is a little weird, since there is very little to obey in those books.

Now, now, I’m not retreading the mythicist line about that not being a real person. I’m talking about the four books themselves. There’s very little to obey. Most of the books are stories about Jesus, but as far as obeying there’s very little. What is there is sometimes contradictory, i.e. Matthew’s Jesus says that we must obey the laws of the prophets (Old Testament laws) while Luke’s Jesus says (16:16) that they don’t matter anymore since John the Baptist. Just sticking with Matthew we are told to let all those see our good words (5:16) but then to not do that and instead do our good works privately and not bring attention to them (6:1, 23:3-5). So who goes to Hell? Those that do good and slap their names on the side of buildings or those that do works and never talk about them? In both cases we have individuals that are both following and not following the gospels. In both cases these are “red letter” passages, meaning they come from the mouth of Jesus and not some epistle writer.

God, according to our author, respects our free will in much the same way that a person with a gun against your head demanding your money respects it as well. You’re free to not give it, but the consequences are there. Which, fine, a religious person has to believe this. However, I’ve written time and time again that if the only thing keeping a person moral is the threat of hell, it’s not morality it’s compulsion. A moral act ought to be done without the consequence in mind. If I tell the truth I should do so not because of the threat of hell but because I have an intrinsic respect for the truth (whether that be Kantian, Utilitarian, or some notion of Justice).

Palaszewski then wraps up this chapter with speaking of the most important event in the history of time–the sacrifice of Jesus. Which, again, is only something if you already believe it. There’s no evidence for the non-believer to accept here. He’s merely assuming the conclusion and then using that to justify the premise. Here’s where he’s going to get himself into trouble. Let’s assume that the story happened and that Palaszewski’s earlier remarks are also true. Good? Having a problem? You should be because it’s contradictory.

If God respects our free will and allows our choices to dictate whether we go to hell or not then how has he been punishing people prior to the sacrifice of Jesus? According to Catholic doctrine (and most Christian doctrines) heaven is opened by Jesus’ death. This means that prior to this, it doesn’t matter what kind of choices you made you were still going to Hell because you couldn’t have known about Jesus or this gospel. Some Catholic thought tries to work around this by offering the Purgatory solution. That all of the prior dead, still under the sin of Adam, were not in Hell but Purgatory and when Jesus was dead for those two days (it’s not three, not by any measurement of time) he lifted them up. This is provided you had only committed venial sins and not mortal sins the latter of which is automatic hell. Again though, that is required that you knew the difference between them. Nevertheless it is the fallacy of special pleading, we have to accept the existence of this purgatory which is not mentioned in the Bible in order to justify this contradiction.

I have two kids: one was baptized and the other was not (long story). Does this mean that the one with at least the exposure to church goes to heaven and the other doesn’t simply by virtue of that exposure? According to our author, yes. Yet, it’s not exactly their choice at this point. The same goes for someone born in China, while they may be aware of Christianity, they are more than likely not believers so according to the author they are going to Hell because they aren’t fulfilling their life’s sole purpose in worshipping god. That’s not the respect of free will because those kids in China did not have the opportunity.

Thus far, nearly half way through this book, we’ve seen no evidence, no argument, no proof of the truth of Christianity or Jesus. Instead, I must ask: what am I reading? Given what we’ve gone through so far, I’m reading a book that is designed to give arguments to people that already believe so that they can throw them at non-believers. It also serves the point of making believers think that they have some kind of intellectual foundation for their preconceived notions. The biggest problem though is that these aren’t good arguments. They might confound a new atheist, but a mere introduction into informal fallacies will quickly nullify anything this book is saying. It’s pure counter knowledge.

Ethical Foundation

November 20, 2017 Leave a comment

I made referenced my student surveys a few weeks ago, mentioning the strangeness of some of their responses taken together. I’ve finally compiled all of them and it’s a bit encouraging that their may be hope for the future. With about forty responses (out of what should be approaching 50) I have two bible literalists in my courses. However, despite that, I have 0 students that believe you need religion to be a good person. I know this, you probably know this as well, but it’s nice to see that even where there are biblical literalists there is still universal agreement that you can be good without god(s).

I should explain for any new readers. I teach a course that is specific to first year college students. So we’re talking the 17-19 age range along with some outliers for transfer students. The school does not have any kind of “non-traditional” student…at least in any kind of significant way. My oldest student would be in their early 20s. They are, gender-wise, an even mix leaning toward female (so far no non-binaries); no idea regarding sexual preferences–it doesn’t come up and I don’t ask since it’s irrelevant to my course. For the most part religious, monotheistic, with a good agnostic/atheist showing. Yet none believe that we need a religion to show us moral guidance.

This runs in stark contrast to what we discussed last week. Where our author contends that even in judging an action to be good/bad we are tacitly acknowledging “the law.” Which I felt was a false statement that cannot be held rationally. I then mentioned that there are several different moral foundations for ethics that don’t require any kind of religious background or godhead at the top of the chain (or bottom if it’s foundational).

The goal of ethics, as a field of discipline, is in figuring out a system by which we can judge actions to be moral or immoral. It’s not necessarily about creating the system but elucidating the system that aligns with our moral intuitions. This is where religion fails to uphold its claim to moral foundation–because it teaches us to override those intuitions in many cases. In others, it only surrenders their original claim once popular feelings on the subject turn against it and then these religions have to retroactively change their stance (see: slavery, segregation). For the former just take a look at gay marriage. There’s only a religious objection to this our normal intuition should be one of ambivalence. It matter very little to me, if my neighbors are gay or not. It matters even less if they are married or not. Unless humanity dwindled down to a couple dozen people there are no tenable naturalistic objections (even then we don’t need people to not be gay, we just need some cells from them).

Non-religious ethical systems all suffer some kind of flaw. Utilitarianism suffers from the problem of the “tyranny of the majority” wherein you can kill one person in order to save five–though there are some defenses for it. Kantian ethics has an absolutist problem in that the ethics are so strict that one can not lie to save a life. The DDE, though sourced in Aquinas’s religion (as I claimed last week it doesn’t have to be) suffers from two flaws: in that it’s primary determination requirement: that the good intention outweigh any bad consequences is subjective unless one already has an established moral foundation by which to make such judgments (in this respect it only works in religion, but one could hybridize the theory with one of the others). This leads us to Rawls’ theory of justice.

Rawls’ theory is that morality ought to be derived from the assumption of the original position. A similar situation to both philosophers Thomas Hobbes’ and John Locke’s respective political philosophy stances. However, both Hobbes and Locke diverge entirely from how the original position was: Hobbes believed that humanity was the worst without the power of the sovereign to punish. Locke, conversely, believed that humanity was the best. His view is too rosy as much as Hobbes’ is too dark. The ethical foundation of Rawls is neither but, like Adam Smith, it appeals to self-interest.

The idea is that we take a group of people and leave them only with the self-knowledge that they exist and that they are going to enter into a society of some kind. While they’ll know that each person is going to possess certain differences in race, sex, class, position, authority what they won’t know is what attributes they will each have once the “veil of ignorance” is removed. The idea here is that the individuals would naturally favor some kind of equitable moral code. You wouldn’t condone slavery since the odds are you would not be a master. You wouldn’t condone sex discrimination since you would not know what side of the discrimination you would be on. The important aspect is that this entire thing is based on self-interest of an individual who doesn’t know where they are  going to land.

This is opposed to literally every religious sense of morality that claims a “chosen people” that are, by default, better than other people. With Rawls’s theory there is an understanding that some people could be better off but his belief was that the playing field would be far more equitable because where there are inexhaustible benefits “liberty” or “rights” he felt that people would agree  that everyone ought to be entitle to them.

Now, there are some problems with the theory itself. It’s uncertain whether or not this naturally implies socialism. Most academics do not believe so, though the case could be made. However that case could also be made with Utilitarianism and less likely though still possible with Kant.

Nevertheless this theory is one that offers an easily graspable and defensible position that can easily be thrown back at the religious claim that we need them to be moral.

Jingly Keys (By A Preponderance of the Evidence)

November 13, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve just about given up any hope that there will be some kind of evidence for “Jesus” in this book. The introduction was just that, ‘I believe in Jesus everyone else is wrong, but here’s the evidence for why you should believe.’ The first chapter was allegedly about framing the question correctly. Which, to be fair, is a good idea provided you actually do that and not go on a long screed against what the author perceives as “liberal/atheist/communist/etc. values.” The second chapter was allegedly about the search. Now, here I was hopeful because that might mean we should arrive at some modicum of evidence. Instead we were treated to incorrect historical facts and the referencing of people on the bad side of academic honesty. The third chapter is titled “Evil, Pain, and Hell.” Here’s the problem, before we even start the chapter: we know what this is about. It’s about the problem of evil. Fine, I’ll take it, however it’s weird that we’re already launching into apologetics for a thing we haven’t proven yet.

The normal course of this type of thing is to first establish the existence of the divine being then defend it against criticisms. This is assuming I’m going to give the person a pass on which deity it is that they’ve proven. To reference last time’s post, William Lain Craig doesn’t prove Jesus or the god of the Bible, he attempts to prove the existence of a divine power. With that “done” he then makes a giant leap and just says, “Jesus.” This the problem with using him as your academic foundation. So here we’re at a long chapter that is essentially one giant red herring: the problem of evil.

When we condemn the act or the evildoer, we tacitly acknowledge the reality of the law in our hearts. Yet if we use the existence of evil to deny the existence of God, we destroy the standard on which we may judge what is evil or good…We are left with a Utilitarian construct [sic] on which to build our world.

There’s a lot there and it’s in the second paragraph of the chapter, so we’re not getting very far today. First off, no we don’t tacitly acknowledge “the law” we acknowledge our emotional reaction to an event. That emotional reaction, can be based on a religious law but this is not a necessary condition of it. We have an emotion called “empathy” which causes us to react to the suffering of others when it has not been overlaid by other emotions such as hate. I can feel terrible about the mass shooting in Texas (the one in the church) even though I don’t know those people, share their belief system, or geographic location. I can feel bad for the people who died in the earthquake in Iran, even though, I’m told they hate me. Why? Because they are human beings and I don’t want to see people suffer. This has nothing to do with some kind of “law.” I’m not acknowledging anything.

Palaszewski misunderstands the “epicurean paradox” (not actually Epicurus’) as well. The paradox does not disprove the existence of God, a God, or many Gods. What it does is disprove the need to worship the being, or that it has any kind of involvement in our world. It is, in essence, an argument for Deism. The whole point is that that the belief in a god that cares about human suffering is silly because if that god existed it’s not doing anything about it and is thus uninvolved. It doesn’t matter which prong of the paradox you want to latch on to: whether not able, not willing, or not knowing; the very idea that the evil exists means that the god is not involved in the world. The Epicureans, who again did not come up with this paradox, believed that gods existed but that they were just different beings with a wholly distinct type of existence. The paradox also argues against religious devotion, because, as the Epicureans actually argued the gods don’t need or want worship. Perfect beings don’t “need” because that implies deficiency.

Denying the existence of god does not deny the source for morality. Even the author knows this because he cites one that was made famous by the atheistic philosopher John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism is not, as he characterizes it, doing whatever is useful. It is whatever contributes to the common good or lessens the amount of bad in the world . Typically, this is gauged with pleasure v. pain. No god needed. That’s just one: Aristotle’s virtue ethics, the Epicurean and Stoic schools, Kant’s imperatives, Rawl’s theory of justice, etc. All of these do not require a god. Hell, even Aquinas’s doctrine of double effect doesn’t need a god to resolve moral conflicts, it’s just that the underlying foundation for his ethics is based on the bible and Catholic teachings–but you could run his five point system without being religious very easily (easier than running through a 12 step program while being an atheist).

The author is right about one thing though: moral laws do require a standard. It can’t just be arbitrary moral relativism. However, what he gets wrong is that it needs to be a divine being, and specifically it needs to be the divine Jesus being. The problem is that he’s assuming the conclusion–which all moral arguments for the existence of god do. The existence of morals only proves “god” if you have already begged the question that god exists.

The standard apologetic move is then to wash away all things with “free will.” God allows people to be evil because of free will. This is little comfort to the victims who did not choose to get murdered/raped/robbed but it’s their go to argument. The issue here is that the will can assent to commit an act without that act being successful. If I intend to commit genocide, fully intend to do it, that should be the immorality not my success. The god being could thwart the consequence of evil and still punish those intending it. Otherwise we’re left with a weird contradiction between Jesus telling us that adultery is looking at a woman with lust in your eyes and a purely consequentialist position of being successful at evil meaning that I would have to have intercourse with a woman not my wife. It can’t be both, that’s a contradiction.

The No True Christian Fallacy

November 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Every semester since I began teaching my skepticism course, I’ve offered the following assignment:

Choose one informal fallacy, explain it, give a relevant example and then discuss.

The entire course is based around conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. There’s no reason that a student shouldn’t be able to come up with a cromulent example. Depending on what school you subscribe to there is either one fallacy or there are over a hundred. The former is a remark made to me by a colleague who said that, really the only informal fallacy is the non-sequitur since the conclusion never follows from the premises. The latter is because you can find one fallacy with many different sub-fallacies underneath it’s umbrella. For example, an argument ad hominem (against the person rather than against the argument) is a large category with several smaller derivations. The “guilt by association” fallacy is really just an ad hominem slightly to the left of the person.

When teaching I don’t wear my atheism on my sleeve. I keep my personal beliefs, aside from being anti-conspiracy theory, out of the course where possible. Though I think my concentration on evidence based reasoning might lend itself to exposing my skepticism of religious belief, but I’ve also received comments from student evaluations wondering why I had to be so religious in class (seriously, I think it’s because I have a wide religious knowledge like most atheists in fact).

I have a student this semester we’ll call “George.” She has chosen for her example, the “No True Scotsman” fallacy and she wants to apply it to right wing Christianity. Her central claim is that people like Pat Robertson and the numerous people like him are not Christians because their rhetoric does not reflect True Christianity. George, whom I did not expect to take this line of thought, believed that when they say that people who are unlike them are guilty of the fallacy. Clearly her and I needed to sit down.

I explained very quickly that she was either “right with a ‘but'” or “wrong with an ‘if.'” (thank you Simpsons); because while she was correct in her estimation of their problem, she was wrong in that she’s committing the exact same fallacy as them. The look on her face forced the question out of me (it didn’t “beg the question” because that’s an entirely different thing), “are you a Christian?”

She said that she was, and a Catholic. Which then prompted her to explain that everyone who didn’t follow a specific set of Christian rules weren’t really Christians and these people she was planning on talking about qualified. I then pointed out that they would say the exact same thing about her, further they would probably call her a heretic and a polytheist because of the Catholic veneration of Saints and Mary. This elicited a laugh from her but my facial expression conveyed that I was being utterly serious.

The way the No True Scotsman works is that you see a member of a group doing something and the claim is that by very action they are performing, disqualifies them from being a member of that group. “No true Christian would ever say God hates fags.” “No true Muslim would ever commit an act of terrorism.” “No true Buddhist would ever condone genocide.”

Via, rationalwiki, Henry Drummond said, “No man can ever be opposed to Christianity, who knows what it really is.”

The problem is in the definition of group itself. Is there a distinct set of qualifications that make one a member and prevent them from joining. “No true bachelor is married,” is not an example of the fallacy because ontologically the definition requires that person to not be married. No true Christian denies the existence of Jesus, is again, not an example because the definition requires the individual to believe that Jesus existed. However, behaviors are not ontological qualifications. The assassin of Dr. Bernart Slepian was a Christian despite his willingness to murder a person in his own home, and despite the fact that the popular belief is that Jesus would not condone such an action. This is despite the fact that the assassin claimed to be a Christian.

What the fallacy amounts to is distancing an individual from a group because we identify ourselves as members of the group and wish to avoid being the target of a guilt by association fallacy. George may not want to be associated with Pat Robertson because of what he says, and Robertson would likely agree since she’s probably too tolerant and doesn’t think god sends Hurricanes against cities who once elected a lesbian. However, we can’t make the assumption that these people are lying. If they say they are Christians, we should assume they are Christians.

Which is why we have that pesky separation clause to begin with, because when we atheists ask “what religion?” we don’t mean the distinction between Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. as being the religion of the United States; well not just that. We also mean what Christianity? While Catholics and mainline Protestants share a lot in common they also share a number of distinct differences. Even within mainline Protestant Christianity there are many differences. Some Protestant churches have no problems with gay marriage and homosexuality; while others distinctly do. So which one are we picking? The unification of these different sects under the term “Christianity” didn’t really occur until the 70s. Before then you’d be hard pressed to get an Anglican, Episcopalian, Catholic, and Mormon to agree that they were all members of the same religion despite the fact that they all believe in this Jesus fellow.

George seemed genuinely confused as my observation as though she hadn’t ever considered it. Which, is likely the case. I explained that I was raised Catholic and was taught that the other Christianities weren’t the correct ones because their beliefs and practices were different. Likely, kids in other religions were taught the same thing about me. However the core membership qualification is what matters in this fallacy whether or not we like the person’s actions. If an atheist commits an act of terror, they are still an atheist, it’s just that they are a terrible person who coincidentally did the act. This especially applies to religiously motivated actions. If a terrorist says, I did this because of this and for this; we can’t say they didn’t.