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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

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Hello gentilhombres,

I think there are numerous problematic aspects with the argument you are trying to offer here, Spencer. Insofar as I have not read in great detail your previous discussions with Bill on this matter, I admit that some or perhaps even much of what will follow you may have already covered; I won't let that stop me from voicing my opinion, though. :-) I will limit myself to defending Christian religious belief (as I understand the Christian religion), because it is the religious tradition with which I'm most familiar and in which I am most interested.

1. First, Spencer, I think you fail to understand the concept of participation and the role it plays in Christian religion, or at least as far as I understand the latter. The Christian, on my view, is a citizen of two worlds, or better yet, of two ages: she lives in this 'present evil age' (to use the phrase from Gal 1:4), and yet she participates to some extent in a way of life which characterizes a future age where things will all be set right, and human beings will be living the kind of life right for them to live in. Indeed, the Christian invitation to the non-believer, as I understand it, is precisely an invitation to take part in this new way of life made possible through Jesus: consider Romans 6, where Paul says that the Christian has been baptized "into Christ's death", so that they lead a new life, just as Christ, being raised from the dead, is no longer subject to mortality but lives to God; or the famous passage in Gal 3, where Paul writes that, for those who are in Christ, the distinctions of the present age and the present world (Jew/Gentile, slave/free, etc.) should no longer have any place in their thinking. In brief, the Christian participates (in an admittedly limited manner) in the future life they expect post-resurrection. Given that this is so, it makes no sense for a Christian to be zealous in such a manner as would entail destructive violence, murder, torture of the innocent, and in short all these admittedly sinful ways of living which characterize life in the present evil age: I won't be living the kind of life I intend to have in the future, a life which is truly good for me, if I do those things! Understood another way: that future age the Christian desires is partly present to her, and if she wants to keep it this way, she cannot go back to behaving in a manner characteristic of the present age. This is an especially compelling point if we take into account the fact that the way of life characterizing the present sinful age is understood by the Christian, not to be life at all, but rather death: thus, in Ephesians 2, we find the famous words, "You were dead in your sins and trespasses." The Christian is someone who understands that the sort of behavior she possibly previously engaged in (prior to becoming a Christian) was really a death, and so to go back to it would be effectively to die again (this is something like the point I take Paul to be making in Romans 6); so a going-back would be especially irrational for someone whose desire is to participate in a future life where she will no longer do such things!

(I initially wanted to complain that you seem to accept a consequentialist ethic with which the Christian may not herself agree, when you say "if you could inflict a great amount of suffering on an innocent person, and by so doing, influence that person's choice, or someone else's choice, to turn to religion, then it would seem one should do it." But this is not exactly the right complaint to make, since just about any moral theory can be consequentialized: rather, the Christian can accept the consequentialism, and claim that the sorts of goods worth bringing about are not coerced conversion, and definitely not torture, violence and the rest; that is, she can deny that "conversion" brought about by violent means is a good thing at all, and thus it is not morally obligatory to bring it about.)

2. Moreover, the Christian need not accept your view of religious conversion and proselytizing. As far as I understand the religion, or at least some important Christian writers (such as Paul), the Christian religion adopts a rather pessimistic anthropological outlook: human beings, of themselves, are not capable of much good, and really tend to do rather badly. If this is so, then conversion and transformation to the religious life has to be something God effects rather than the religious believer herself, and this is something I think religious believers would oftentimes corroborate when contemplating the phenomenology of their own religiosity: they simply find themselves with a powerful belief in God, or a strong conviction of the truth of some important Christian claims, or whatever. If one accepted such a view of conversion, it would make no sense to torture innocent people until they make a public confession: one would rather go about speaking to whomever one could, accepting that the act of conversion will be brought about by God fundamentally and not by oneself or one's listeners, desiring in any case to be a ready work at hand for God's changing the world for the better.

3. Finally, the religious believer need not conceive of God and Hell as you've done: that is, the Christian need not believe in an eternal hell, that some persons will be lost forever lest they make a public declaration of faith, etc. If one were to think that God's interest is in saving the whole cosmos and everyone whatsoever, one has to think of such a God as fundamentally benevolent and as desiring the good for his creation out of love: but if you think God behaves and thinks that way, then it seems to me unlike you will find largely the opposite kind of behavior and thinking to be acceptable on your part. You may, of course, complain about a lack of complete analogy between God and man, but on this point the Christian tradition maintains there is an important analogy: Christians, for instance, are told to be forgiving and to love their enemies and those who do them wrong because God himself does it too (see, e.g., Mt 5:38-48, 18:21ff; Eph 4:31-5:1).

4. I'll also add the following: I have the strong tendency to believe that if there is a future life that is better for us, it has to be something at least somewhat familiar; it has to be something like the life we enjoy here, but at the same time without flaws in the relevant respects. But to think this is to grant that the life enjoyed on earth can be good, even if not perfect, and even if ultimately unsatisfying. I think life on earth is ultimately unsatisfying: I eat, but I get hungry again; I have okay relationships with others, but sometimes they mistreat me, and other times I don't have access to them as I would like; etc. But this doesn't mean that I don't think any of those things are good and worth having, or that it would make no difference to me if I were to go without them!

I fail to see how a religious zealotry of a violent or destructive sort could be motivated if these were my religious views! Perhaps your problem is a kind of quasi-Gnostic Christian fundamentalism, rather than religious belief as such.

Thanks for these excellent comments, Steven. I hope Spencer responds. In #3, however, you may have been a bit unfair. He doesn't say anything about hell above. I hope it was clear which portion of the text was his and which portion my response.

Hi Bill,

I guess I found some view about hell implicit in the following:

"If one believes, as a majority of the people of the world do, that an eternity of happiness of a much higher grade than any that exists on earth awaits the righteous after death, then one is left to draw this, and other unpalatable conclusions. For instance, if you could inflict a great amount of suffering on an innocent person, and by so doing, influence that person's choice, or someone else's choice, to turn to religion, then it would seem one should do it."

Unless the irreligious are somehow cut off from that eternity of happiness forever upon death, I fail to see how there's an argument for violence in proselytization.

As a Christian, I, too, find the chaplain’s eulogy offensive for the same reasons your friend does.

Your friend is rightfully rejecting, as so many others do, a vulgar (in both senses of the word) and bastardized version of Christian doctrine that is so foreign to the pages of the New Testament that it can only be called, not without lamentations, nominally Christian. This “other-worldly,” “better place,” “pie in the sky bye and bye” concept of heaven is about as “abysmally ignorant” as it gets. To suggest that this even comes close to resembling a genuine, theologically informed Christian understanding of heaven would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.

One of Jesus' central massages is that heaven and earth, or “this life/this world” and “the life/world to come” are as intimately and inextricably connected as Hesperus and Phosphorus are. They may have very different properties at different times, but they are not as different as you think. Part of what it means for "God's Kingdom to come and His will be done on Earth as it is in heaven" is reveling in and spreading the Earthly goods and values Spencer mentions, thereby making the former properly resemble the latter. Heaven (and hell) are very, very this-worldly. But it’s at least reasonable, from a geocentric perspective, to think Hesperus is not Phosphorus. But I struggle to see from what perspective the former confusion could be reasonable.

But somehow this and other poisonous narratives have sunk their roots deep into the consciousnesses of lay Christians and theologians, who continue to carry and transmit them in their diseased form. On heaven, I highly recommend N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope as a good antidote. Once ingested, a Christian will look at the three premises of Spencer's argument with utter bewilderment. Spencer is talking about a different planet altogether.

Hi Chad,

I like your response and appeal to Wright's focus on Jesus' "worldliness"; he makes strongly the point that Jesus was interested in improving earthly life, bringing the Kingdom of God on earth, not getting persons into some strange heaven far away from here.


Thanks for your thoughtful response, Bill. I will respond piecemeal rather than inundate you with one very long response. With my first response, I want to respond to your suggestion that epistemic modesty about religious belief resolves, or can even really help to resolve, the zealotry issue as I have framed it.

First, consider the following example:

Sam is 65 percent certain that his religion is true (I choose this number because it makes him unambiguously not an agnostic, but leaves plenty of room for doubt). His religion ascribes infinite value to the next life, and a finite amount of value to this one. Sam has tried to persuade Bob that his religion is correct, but Bob can't be persuaded by any rational (or indeed, non-rational but peaceful means). Sam is understandably concerned about Bob's long-term well-being, for Sam believes that if Bob continues on his current path, there is a 65 percent chance that he will miss out on infinite value. Suppose, further, that Sam person is very knowledgeable about psychology and he knows the psychological make up of his friend Bob very well. He has done his dissertation on a series of studies that show that people of Bob's personality type tend overwhelmingly to take solace in religious observance when confronted with unexpected hardship. And he now has the opportunity to inflict just such a hardship on Bob, which would obviate the 65 percent risk of an infinite loss of well-being.

There are a lot of uncertainties here. There's the initial uncertainty about religion, there is the uncertainty about implementing his plan (but not much, it's a very good plan) and there's uncertainty about how Bob will react. Suppose the numbers crunch so that there is a 50 percent chance the hardship will do Bob only harm, a 5 percent chance the plan will either fail or break even in terms of Bob's well-being, and only a 45 percent chance it will do him good. Even still, the good that it would do him is such a tremendous good that it seems that Sam is acting rationally if he decides to hatch his plan. After all, doctors are rational for causing their patients some additional pain to obviate even a very small chance of death.

Second, whatever answer you provide to temper Sam's response in this case must not be so strong as to entail the elimination of all religious influence of over one's life. If uncertainty prevents Sam from “intervening” maliciously/benevolently in Bob's case, it can't also prevent him from, say, making small and ordinary sacrifices for proper religious observance. This isn't so much a second argument as a clarification as for what would be needed to satisfy the problem above without being self-defeating from your perspective.

Hope the mild Arizona winter is treating you well.

Thanks, Spencer. Arizona is wonderful any time of year, but especially now.

I don't know how one could evaluate these probabilities. If Sam is 65% subjectively certain that his religion is true, what does that imply about the objective probability of his religion's being true? And how can one even speak of probability in a matter such as this?

Actually, I think you've made a mistake in reasoning. You illicitly moved from "Sam is 65 percent certain that his religion is true" to "the 65 percent risk of an infinite loss of well-being." That looks to be a confusion of subjective and objective probability.

Some things are better known than others. It is beter known that it is wrong to torture someone for his own good in the supposed afterlife that that there is an afterlife.

So right there is a reason to not lay a finger on poor Bob.

We theists also value and believe in lib. FW and we are not about to violate that in the case of Bob.

Take a more mundane example. Suppose a friend, blinded by love and lust, is about to marry a person who will be a disaster for him, and that the chances of disaster are very high. I present my reasons to my friend, but, respecting his free will, I refrain from sabotaging his nuptials. That course is the right one.


Hello Steven,

As an aside, note that my target isn't Christianity per se, but religion in general, at least those religions with the common after life schema I described. The reason I'm talking about Christianity so much is that here it is assumed that the most respectable form of theism is Christian, so it's a product of the principle of charity.

Here's my response to you. You write in your point 1:

“In brief, the Christian participates (in an admittedly limited manner) in the future life they expect post-resurrection. Given that this is so, it makes no sense for a Christian to be zealous in such a manner as would entail destructive violence, murder, torture of the innocent, and in short all these admittedly sinful ways of living which characterize life in the present evil age: I won't be living the kind of life I intend to have in the future, a life which is truly good for me, if I do those things!”

I think I understand the thought you have in mind here, but it needs to be more carefully qualified, or else it will rule out too much. For instance, there will be no just wars in heaven (yes, I know that there was one with Lucifer and all, but I'm thinking those days are past). There will be no painful medical remedies in heaven; indeed, no remedies at all as nothing will ail us in our resurrected, glorified bodies. Does this mean that a Christian can't practice medicine, or take up arms when the infidels are invading, brandishing swords? It seems to me that even committed Christians must concede that we can't always mirror the other world in our conduct in this imperfect one. And if the Christian can allow painful remedies to be inflicted to save our bodies, he must allow that painful remedies must be inflicted to save the soul, which is vastly more important.

Your fourth point is as follows:

“I'll also add the following: I have the strong tendency to believe that if there is a future life that is better for us, it has to be something at least somewhat familiar; it has to be something like the life we enjoy here, but at the same time without flaws in the relevant respects. But to think this is to grant that the life enjoyed on earth can be good, even if not perfect, and even if ultimately unsatisfying. I think life on earth is ultimately unsatisfying: I eat, but I get hungry again; I have okay relationships with others, but sometimes they mistreat me, and other times I don't have access to them as I would like; etc. But this doesn't mean that I don't think any of those things are good and worth having, or that it would make no difference to me if I were to go without them!”

I think, first of all, that if this world is unsatisfying in a way that gives rise to the religious impulse, it can't just be that our pleasures aren't with us always. For it seems within the range of human perfectibility that we might solve those problems. The religious impulse has to come from something that is beyond our capacities, even in principle, like what I think Aldous Huxley is trying to stimulate with his novel, Brave New World, in which all of our needs are met and our wants are constantly satisfied and yet still there is some longing that goes unanswered. Secondly, even if you stipulate that the good of the next world will seem somewhat familiar to us once we are there, it must be unimaginable to us now. For I have experienced no good that is infinite in quality, nor could I imagine what such a good would be like by abstracting from finite experiences that I have had. I do not think anyone else is different in this regard. So the Christian really is asking us to be willing to sacrifice all of the known and familiar for something wholly unknown and wholly unfamiliar. This is why I think that Christianity , like every other practiced form of theism, is fundamentally at odds with the Conservative impulse.

Bill,

Please tell me where the illicit shift from subjective to objective takes place.

Sam is 65 percent certain that his religion is true. If true, there is a better-than-half likelihood that Bob's eternal well-being is in serious jeopardy.

I do, at this point, shift from subjective to objective. I claim that if Sam holds a certain set of commitments, he is OBJECTIVELY irrational if he does not take them into account in his actions. But there is nothing suspect in this. If I believe a boulder is about to fall on top of me and I'm not suicidal, then I am objectively irrational if I do not move.

Anticipated dialogue from this point:

BV: Are Sam's beliefs justified are not?

SC: I'm stipulating that they are.

BV: But what if an externalist theory of justification is true. It may be that he could not be justified in this set of beliefs. In that case, it's not something that can be fairly stipulated.

SC: If one could truly not be justified in holding beliefs like those I put forward for Sam, then the skeptic has won the day already.


So, Sam's epistemic commitments, though subjective, make certain courses of action OBJECTIVELY rational for him to undertake.

I'm surprised that you concede, at the end of your last response, that certain moral truths are better known than the religious ones. If so, then all I must do is highlight the tension between religion and our basic moral instincts and this debate is a wrap, and in my favor. Though, in my new spirit of cooperation, I should say in our favor, since we've both arrived at an important truth.


P.S. I learned from a tour guide and certified Egyptologist today that Egyptologists have discovered the following sentence written in hieroglyphics and attributed to god (not sure which one):

"I came into being before being came into being."

Thought that would catch your fancy.

Hi Spencer,

A couple of points:

1. The participation of which I wrote is ethical, not bodily. As regards the body, we live in this world; but as regards ethics, the Christian desires to take part in the other world. (By the way, I use 'world' very loosely; I think the future life will be in this space-time universe, not somewhere else.) And that is incompatible with violent coercion of others.

2. You didn't respond to what I thought was one of my stronger points: you are forcing the religious believer to accept a crude consequentialism she can reasonably deny. She doesn't have to deny consequentialism as such, but she can deny that conversion brought about by violent coercion is a good at all, in which case it would not maximize good to do it.

3. I also don't think that irreligious persons, merely by dying prior to conversion, are cut off forever from any happy future life. So I don't see how your argument has strength for persons of similar religious convictions.

Spencer,

It would be very helpful if you were to state, in one or two sentences, what exactly your thesis is.

Bill,

I'm a little puzzled why you'd engage me for this long and just now ask me what my thesis is. If it wasn't clear above, I'm not sure what you thought you were responding to.

The thesis is a conditional: If you share the conservative disposition, then you should reject religious belief with the features I have described. This is because the conservative disposition includes the idea that the goods of the world with which we are familiar are normatively significant, while certain religious doctrines give them a finite amount of importance in contrast to the infinite amount of value placed on the afterlife. This, together with other assumptions about how the world is arranged, renders them normatively insignificant.

I would very much like to continue engaging you on the point about epistemology. If I understand, you think epistemic uncertainty plays some roll in explaining how we can rational have religious beliefs and still treat worldly goods as if they had more than infinitesimal normative significance. I think I've shown quite clearly in my last couple of comments why that won't work. If I haven't, then I don't understand your response.

Steven,

You write:

1. The participation of which I wrote is ethical, not bodily. As regards the body, we live in this world; but as regards ethics, the Christian desires to take part in the other world. (By the way, I use 'world' very loosely; I think the future life will be in this space-time universe, not somewhere else.) And that is incompatible with violent coercion of others.

I find this passage a little confusing, but the main point to make here is that I already gave examples involving ethics. There are plenty of cases in which we can cause a person a lot of harm in order to benefit them, and those are just these itsy-bitsie worldly goods we're talking about! It must be true when eternal goods are at stake as well. You don't have to be any kind of consequentialist to accept this.


I think the following is true about your religion:

1.) Decisions that we make in this life affect how many eternal goods we are going to be rewarded with in the next life.

and

2.) It's possible to influence people in how they make these decisions and thus make a different to their salvation. (Otherwise, missionary work would be pointless.)

That's all I need for my point. If you don't like the forced conversion example, I can give others, as I did with the Sam and Bob example above.

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