Sunday, January 15, 2012

Guest Post: Michael Heath

Below is Michael Heath's response to my preceding post.

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David,

You’re conceding a certain descriptive to make a leap into the prescriptive. I think such a leap will guarantee a sub-optimal dialogue on the prescriptive since the descriptive premises required for an optimal dialogue aren’t well-established, at least on my end and between both of us. I’ll play along on this post, but I strongly suggest we spend future energies more on the morality of people celebrating the existence and nature of a god who punishes eternally – where I presume you belong to this group. Additionally I would love to see a defense of God, as you understand the Bible describes him that asserts he is not evil in spite of his promising to punish some eternally. Unless of course you concede the point he is incredibly evil, which I doubt you, do.

In addition I don’t conclude, at least yet, that Christians who celebrate a god they believe will punish humans for eternity are therefore evil themselves. I’ll play along here, but that’s not a conclusion I’ve reached. I’ve just started this line of thought and read nothing on the matter so I won’t go there because I’m confident others far smarter or better-informed have taken positions that would greatly expand my perception of this issue, and hopefully present compelling arguments I’d never come up with myself. So I’m far more interested in considering your position on these descriptive points.

I also disagree the ball is in my court, I find that analogy doesn’t work here at all. I’d argue for a plethora of responsibilities some owned by me and more owned by you given your a member of the set who believe in this type of god. So I would instead suggest we consider the degrees to which each of us is associated with those acting badly.

As a fellow human and ultimately, an American, I do take some responsibility that people celebrate a biblical god who punishes eternally based on their fealty to an inerrant Bible because I think the premises lead to the following conclusions:
1) The primary premises allowing this belief system have primarily been falsified or lack empirical evidence. And because this type of belief is based on certain biblical passages where the Bible is asserted to be both inerrant and the word of God, incoherent. That train of thought is problematic for all us because I think this incoherent reasoning continues to enable our culture in its pervasive celebration of faith as a beneficial human attribute. I instead find faith to be an infantile character defect which impedes human progress while increasing human suffering.
2) This belief coupled to the association of believers into various religious denominations and other religious-centric groups have caused and continue to cause increased human suffering.
3) Because the U.S. has over the past five decades experienced a merging of believers in this category with political conservatism and this religious-political movement has come to significantly influence policy, this suffering has extended beyond these believers and their close associates and now harms all U.S. citizens while also threatening the well-being of all humans. [Re the future threat of all humans: American Christian conservatives are the primary voting base that allows the Republican party to successfully obstruct even confronting the fact of climate change along with the grave threat it poses to human wellbeing and life on this planet.]

I do take my responsibility seriously. I don’t just comment in Ed’s blog, I write and advocate elsewhere. Just recently I had an on-going private dialogue with the local editor of our local newspaper. We are on good terms. He’s a social conservative in a rural red-state area so red it’s uncommon for us to have Democrats running for local office. Yet he writes columns as if Christians are persecuted when people criticize Christians for acting out their faith in the public square. The people criticizing such public acts were not demanding these public demonstrations of piety end; they were only criticizing them for making such demonstrations. My motivation here was first to get him to make better arguments given that as editor, he writes opinion columns. He’s a young guy where he graciously accepted my offer to read two books I recommend which teach how to identify bad arguments and build good ones, qualities I would have thought he’d have learned getting his degree in journalism.

A few years back we had our state representative, Kevin Elsenheimer, make a very Rick Santorum-like argument regarding gay rights in our local newspaper. His argument was that his church’s teachings (Catholic) condemned gays. He then argued that his personal religious beliefs were justification for him to legislate in a manner that denied gays their rights. He never mentioned his constitutional obligations or even mentioned any regret on how his position would harm the gay people and their family members in his district. I wrote a published letter to the editor conceding his right of conscience to believe this, but how it violated the principles inherent to the enlightenment, Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and was in direct violation of the 14th Amendment of the plain meaning of the Constitution as well. I also made a policy argument he had an obligation to represent the interests of all his constituents, not just those who were heterosexual. I received two death threats from that letter, calls to my home. Thank goodness I answered the phone both times rather than my wife.

I received my first death threat for defending a local family when their gay son’s wedding announcement was published in the local paper which caused a ruckus, largely centered on people objecting to such an announcement being published, “in a family newspaper” (actually it’s our area’s paper of record). Of course these arguments were predominately based on the critics Christian beliefs. My letter defending this family and arguing we should celebrate gay people taking on the responsibilities of family was worthy of our admiration, not an event that justified shoving gays back into the closet in a manner that enables gays to be persecuted precisely because the larger Christian community seeks they continue to suffer being ostracized.

These are merely a few examples; as a human and an American I am actively engaged at the local, state, and national level advocating for policies that are based on our country’s secular founding values where we leave religious beliefs at the door if those beliefs are contra to the first principles of this country (freedom, equal rights, rights of conscience, and pursuit of happiness to name a few of a long list). That has me calling my U.S. representatives office, writing letters to my governor and Congressional members, and contributing to organizations like the ACLU, Americans United, and politicians I think have the character to govern on behalf of all their constituents without seeking to ostracize some as a way to gain political advantage, power, and money.

I also personally lobby (in-person, never email) my extended family advocating they differentiate their obligations to their church and how that can conflict with their obligations in our free society as U.S. citizens. These conversations are decreasing for obvious reasons, they’re committed and by attribute, incapable of adapting. [A close family member and many of her fellow church members continue to advocate for the current president’s death because they’re convinced he’s a covert Muslim operative and member of al Qaeda, where they get this idea because of their religious association.]

While I would never directly advise my nephews and nieces on religion, most have no idea what I believe, I do present my siblings, their parents, with arguments their obligation to their children should have them considering those kids getting the best education possible rather than merely indoctrinating them as they prefer. That such indoctrinal tactics are ultimately selfish and limit their children’s future. They of course seek to save their kids souls by lying to them about what is and what is not true, and paying “teachers” to do the same.

This issue is not my primary concern however, that’s because unlike you David, I’m not so directly associated with these people as you are. In addition I’m currently become far more concerned about what I perceive is a far greater threat, that of climate change. So my free-time energies are often spent more on that topic than others.

I don’t think there is a cookie-cutter response to your question and therefore find it some nonsensical. Some people work to reduce the suffering of animals, should they stop and all focus on children? We each have to judge if we’re doing enough. However that doesn’t deny our respective responsibilities, I’ll gladly carry that burden and do what I think is the best I can.

I do find your responsibility to be far more immense so I don’t think you do yourself any favors raising this question. So, I’m in a rhetorical corner? Hardly, I’d argue you’ve instead done that to yourself. To concede one is evil doesn’t remove the responsibility I think you have for the planet and humanity so I can’t follow the logic, “the ball is in my court.” Your closer association to this evil should obviously put a far bigger burden on you than on me.

David writes, “What action do you advocate against evil such as I am, or do you just stand by and then, by similar reasoning by association, become a guilty accomplice?”

If we belong to a group with fundamental issues which harm others, and they all do to some degree, I think each of us has a personal responsibility to always do the following:
1) Vociferously seek reform
2) Quit. I admire people who work for authentic reform even when their odds are nil to low. I spent 5 additional years in the Republican party advocating for reform, finally leaving the evening of the 2008 National Convention delegates unanimously approved Sarah Palin to be their VP nominee. I don’t have the wisdom necessary to create and offer a formulaic method on when to stop seeking reform from within and quit. I don’t regret quitting the GOP because I don’t see a candidate, officials, or even voters who even remotely approaches past Republicans I admired, like MI’s long-time governor, Bill Milliken.
3) For those issues we find have a grave impact on us and/or others, own responsibility and continue to advocate for reform on those where you think you have the talent and resources to make a difference.

When I was young I actually thought hard and long about remaining in the denomination I was raised and seeking reform. I decided that the very structure set-up by evangelical and fundamentalist organizations makes any such efforts nearly impossible, both within the denominations and their so-called colleges. That’s because they reject the journey seeking objective truth; they instead demand members submit to a set of “truths” where there are few viable if any viable options to seek reform. At least I thought that, growing up in a small rural area I was never exposed to the fact some local faith communities do change denominations because influential members convince enough of the others. But still, what’s the odds of and uneducated (at the time) late-teen/early-twenty convincing his church that not only was the Bible not the inerrant word of God, but it wasn’t even rational to believe in a judging triune god who has us destined for either Heaven and Hell.

And while I left that church, I continued to study religion, formally at university and even more ardently informally after university, from 1985 to the mid-2000s. That was in order to authentically test fundamentalist/evangelical truth claims and later in this time period, make better arguments to convince people to abandon faith, seek objective truth using the best methods possible, and do what morally right rather than act out in a way you can justify with Bible verses. I was especially motivated to change minds due to the persecution of gays I encountered either by conservative Christians, or enabled by them. This wasn’t merely due to what I read in the news, but persecution I personally encountered where I got involved to stop. (Public school bullying that was defended by the principal, a certain Board Member, and an elder of my church. Where the Board member was the Board’s president and my pastor and the elder was a close relative. Only the superintendent was empathetic to the persecution gays were subjected to in our school.)

So I don’t see our responsibilities ending if we sought to reform and failed and quit. I do think it’s not easy to calculate the level of effort we should expend and claim we acted with integrity. I will assert with confidence you have far more responsibility to act on this matter than I do precisely due to your association being degrees closer than me.

And while I’d find a response to my points here interesting, if you have limited amounts of time I’d much prefer getting into believers’ moral culpability for celebrating a god who punishes eternally. Especially given the nature of this reality and God’s supposed powers and role in the development of this reality

15 comments:

  1. And while I’d find a response to my points here interesting, if you have limited amounts of time I’d much prefer getting into believers’ moral culpability for celebrating a god who punishes eternally.

    Assumes facts not in evidence. First, you have to show that eternal punishment is, in fact, morally wrong. To do that, you have to show that there is a moral standard that applies equally to God and man.

    Until you do that, your question is nothing more than human grandstanding. It's simply "I don't like what you're doing, God!"

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  2. I'd like David to define the word "faith" in his statement above. And then explain why he thinks faith is such a bad thing.

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  3. Me earlier, "I’d much prefer getting into believers’ moral culpability for celebrating a god who punishes eternally."

    wrf3 responds, Assumes facts not in evidence. First, you have to show that eternal punishment is, in fact, morally wrong. To do that, you have to show that there is a moral standard that applies equally to God and man.

    Until you do that, your question is nothing more than human grandstanding. It's simply "I don't like what you're doing, God!"


    So you are arguing that an all-powerful, all-knowing entity can't meet a standard of morality most humans can easily practice? Really, that's your argument? That God needs me to give him points in a volume that approaches infinity?

    My conclusion is that you appear to want to avoid having to confront the topic altogether and patched up this hail Mary. That you have no meritorious argument but still want to maintain your current position while simultaneously deluding yourself about your fealty regarding the use of facts and evidence. Where if we used facts and evidence on this matter, and I strongly suggest we don't, would cause the reasonable person to confidently conclude there is no such god and no threat of eternal punishment.

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  4. Russ writes, "I'd like David to define the word "faith" in his statement above. And then explain why he thinks faith is such a bad thing."

    Actually, this is a guest post by me. I'm the one who asserted that faith is an infantile failure in character. I'm referring to faith as a belief which is held in spite of a lack of evidence, and possibly also lacks reason. Where such beliefs remain steadfast even if evidence falsifies the belief or one goes through heavy-duty logical fallacies to maintain one's grasp of their belief. That one is clinging to a belief at odds with evidence and reason.

    An illustrative example of infantile faith would be those who reject common descent to maintain a believe in YEC after being exposed both: 1) all the fossil evidence but far more importantly, 2) the overwhelming weight of DNA evidence we now enjoy. E.g. as one of several relevant different lines of DNA evidence, the particular patterns of endogenous retrovirus we observe found in extant mammalian species' DNA, including our own.

    So I'm not criticizing hope, which is often used inter-changeably with faith. Hope tied to reasonable confidence based on reasonable conclusions is also an important factor in human progress. But instead faith in lieu of reason tied to evidence.

    I think this type of faith is a failure in character because it prevents people from improving themselves by adapting to superior conclusions and then acting accordingly. We advance our collective well-being by learning, especially by learning inconvenient truths and adapting accordingly. I also observe the celebration of faith helps people justify their avoiding and even denying evidence which would challenge or even falsify their current beliefs.

    A good example of this sort of bad behavior is people finding Bible verses which sustain their faith that humans are not causing climate change. These are the types of people who also avoid studying and attempting to understand what the climate science community has found regarding the climate and their measuring the various natural and anthropogenic forcings which have increased the earth's energy budget to increase (by about 1.5 watts per sq meter at a certain level of the atmosphere). They celebrate their faith-derived position as a test and a victory for their fealty to faith. Ben Stein is the most recent exemplar of this behavior which is currently being publicized. Kyocera decided not to use him in their marketing campaigns precisely because of this attitude where they are a tech company.

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  6. Just to insure clarity on my original request, which was divergent from David's blog post and this blog post here. I'm not asking David to defend the morality of the biblical promise of God causing infinite suffering to some sentinent beings. I'm instead asking him to explain the morality of humans celebrating the existence and nature of such an all-knowing/all-powerful god. Where I note the all-knowing attribute in order to eradicate the faking of such a celebration as a way for humans to rationalize such celebrating.

    And Russ, I'd like to add on to why I think such faith should be abandoned by our culture. Because I think it stunts the development of emotional intelligence and therefore our wisdom. Precisely because faith acts as a method to avoid, deny, and suppress facts that would cause cognitive dissonance or make it hard to justify not adapting. So standing on faith is a double whammy, it justifies and even celebrates our avoidance of learning, and then minimizes or eradicates opportunities to become wiser due to the benefits of actual learning; which results in honest self-reflection and increased motivations to improve.

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  7. So you are arguing that an all-powerful, all-knowing entity can't meet a standard of morality most humans can easily practice?

    I think what wrf3 is saying is that if you claim that it's morally wrong for God to damn anyone eternally, you're going to have to provide an argument for this. Likewise, when someone questions the reasoning of applying the same moral standard to God as to man, a response which is basically "yeah well I say God doesn't meet that standard" is no response at all.

    You can act as morally outraged and indignant as you like, but it's not going to cover up the lack of an argument. And if you have no argument yet you believe it anyway, huh. Sounds a lot like that faith you're no fan of.

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  8. If we mortals may not judge God's morality, because it is in a different category than human morality (however derived), then we likewise cannot say that God is good, based on our morality.

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  9. Heath wrote: So you are arguing that an all-powerful, all-knowing entity can't meet a standard of morality most humans can easily practice? Really, that's your argument?

    Of course that's not my argument. At issue isn't whether or not He can't but whether or not He should.

    My conclusion is that you appear to want to avoid having to confront the topic altogether and patched up this hail Mary.

    And this conclusion is as erroneous as your initial question. In a subsequent paragraph I'm going to provide links to posts I wrote in February of last year that deal with this.

    If you've seen the movie "My Cousin Vinny", there was a scene where the character played by Marisa Tomei was asked a question no different is form than yours. Her proper response, "it's a BS question".

    I'm going to make the attempt to show you why it's a BS question.

    Refer to the 6 models of how morality is typically viewed in Modeling Morality. Since you haven't stated what model your question is based on, I'm going to assume that it's model #5. (Typically, atheists use this model to then argue that one of models #1, #2, or #3 are correct).

    Since your question is based on model #5, you're going to have to show why that model is the correct one.

    That you have no meritorious argument but still want to maintain your current position while simultaneously deluding yourself about your fealty regarding the use of facts and evidence. Where if we used facts and evidence on this matter, and I strongly suggest we don't...

    That's because that's the only way your question makes sense, btw.

    ...would cause the reasonable person to confidently conclude there is no such god and no threat of eternal punishment.

    Good thing that last year I wrote Modeling Morality: The End of Time which anticipated your question. I'll be happy to provide further explanatory detail as to why it has to be the case, but that presupposes that you actually make yours. Your case is built upon the idea that our intuitive notions of morality are necessarily correct. They aren't, any more than the classical view of the universe is correct. Quantum mechanics shows that we can't rely on our intuitions for physical things; this is why you need to prove that your model of morality is the correct one instead of taking it on faith.

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  10. zilch wrote: If we mortals may not judge God's morality, because it is in a different category than human morality (however derived), then we likewise cannot say that God is good, based on our morality.

    And, given your premise, we likewise cannot say that God is evil, based on our morality, which is what Heath is doing.

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  11. And, given your premise, we likewise cannot say that God is evil, based on our morality, which is what Heath is doing.

    True, but it's not my premise- it's the usual Christian premise. If God exists and is indeed beyond human good and evil, however, that begs the question: why all this talk of God being "good" in the Bible? You can't have it both ways: either God's morality may be judged by humans, in which case I'll side with Heath and say that killing children and donkeys, say, is bad, or God is beyond human judgment, in which case it doesn't make sense to say anything about His being, or doing, good or evil.

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  12. zilch wrote: True, but it's not my premise- it's the usual Christian premise.

    I wouldn't go quite that far. It isn't that we can't judge God. After all, we do it all the time. It's part of what makes us human. Scripture is full of instances of this.

    Rather, what we cannot do is deem God guilty. It is a part of our mistaken moral intuition that God must adhere to our standards of good and evil. Furthermore, it is part of our mistaken moral intuition that if it is good for God to do something that it is likewise good for us to do it (i.e. Model #4 is wrong).

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  13. zilch wrote: True, but it's not my premise- it's the usual Christian premise.

    I wouldn't go quite that far. It isn't that we can't judge God. After all, we do it all the time. It's part of what makes us human. Scripture is full of instances of this.

    Rather, what we cannot do is deem God guilty. It is a part of our mistaken moral intuition that God must adhere to our standards of good and evil. Furthermore, it is part of our mistaken moral intuition that if it is good for God to do something that it is likewise good for us to do it (i.e. Model #4 is wrong).

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  14. If we mortals may not judge God's morality, because it is in a different category than human morality (however derived), then we likewise cannot say that God is good, based on our morality.

    Who's judging God to be morally good 'based on our morality'? I wasn't, and I lean strongly against doing so.

    But more than that, I didn't say Heath can't judge God. I just asked him to provide an argument for why God should be judged by standards for man, and I saw wrf3 as doing the same. Heath didn't have a reply to that, at least thus far.

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  15. Um, wrf3, is there any evidence or reason to accept that your Model #6 is correct outside of its (possible) scriptural basis? If yes, that would be news to me (and, dare I say, the whole of humanity) - do inform us (citations, please). If no, you are just demonstrating the failings of faith that MH has delineated, i.e. projecting yourself into the god you are imagining in your own image. Your preferred model may be scriptural, but taking the same on faith as authoritative is the behavior in question. Circularity moves the conversation nowhere.

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