Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Ultimate Questions"

Back in March, I saw a post by Chris Bolt on a blog called Choosing Hats, a blog dedicated to the presuppositional method of defending the Christian faith. The post was titled Your Thoughts Welcome.... In this blog Chris posted an illustration of the antithesis between Christianity and “Non-Christianity” as Christians are supposedly expected to understand it.

Given the title of this post, I thought I’d submit my comments in response to this. In my comments, I had raised the criticism that, according to the illustration which Bolt published, non-Christian philosophies were being grouped together by a trivial, non-essential characteristic, namely “ultimate commitment to human [independence] from God.” In fact, I dispute the claim that non-Christian worldviews could reasonably be characterized as founded upon or motivated by an “ultimate commitment to human [independence] from God.” I gave my reasons for this in my exchange with Chris Bolt, which spilled into subsequent blogs which he posted in response to my comments (see here and here). Chris of course sought to defend the division which his illustration portrays, but seems to have had difficulty answering the points I raised against it.

In his post Bahnsen Burner’s Presuppositional Apologetic for Objectivism, Part 1, Chris made the following comment:

There are only so many ultimate questions available to any worldview with a finite number of “possible” answers.

While I am happy to entertain this proposal, I was looking forward to seeing the questions which Chris thinks are “ultimate” and for any reasons why he would characterize them as such. Unfortunately, Chris has not identified those questions which he considers “ultimate.”

So to encourage further interaction between ourselves, I proposed a few of my own “ultimate questions” for Chris to consider in a comment which I posted on April 1. The first two questions are:

1) What is your starting point? and

2) What is the proper orientation between the subject of consciousness and its objects?

Now my first question – What is your starting point? – should be easy to understand for anyone who has given his worldview a significant amount of thought. If he does not know what his starting point is, I’d say he has some unfinished business and is defending his position prematurely.

With respect to my second question, many thinkers (perhaps most?) do not seem to understand what it is asking right off the bat. My question is intended to allow a thinker to reveal his position with regards to metaphysical primacy, i.e., the relationship between consciousness and its objects. In fact, however, this is such a fundamental concern that most thinkers do not even recognize it as an issue, let alone explore it, and pass it over in their haste to pontificate on higher-level matters. So I proposed three additional questions to help Chris and anyone else who might want to consider them:

3) Are you conscious? (yes or no)

4) If you are conscious, are you conscious of any objects? (yes or no)

5) If you are conscious of any objects, what is the relationship between yourself as a subject of consciousness, and any object(s) of which you are conscious?

Questions 3) and 4) should not need any explanation. They are quite basic, they use common terms, and they seek simple yes-no answers. The answer to question 3) of course should be yes. If one were not conscious, he could not consider the question in the first place, since consciousness of the question is a precondition to considering it. The answer to question 4) should also be yes: in considering a question, one is obviously conscious of that question. A question can be an object of one’s consciousness. He is likely conscious of many other things as well, such as the computer monitor on which he’s pulled up the page bearing the question, things on the desk around him, the seat he is sitting in, noises that may be sounding during the time he’s considering the question, such as the whirring of his computer hard drive, a ticking clock on the wall, a car passing by on the street in front of his house, birds chirping in trees outside his window, etc. All of these things would be objects of his consciousness if in fact he is aware of such things.

Now with respect to question 5), I can understand that this may be new territory for many thinkers. But it focuses on the most fundamental issue in all philosophy. The answer which a worldview gives to this question determines whether it is objective or subjective, rational or irrational, suitable for man’s life on earth, or unsuitable. Of course, once one does answer this question when he finally does consider it, it remains to be seen whether or not the views he endorses are consistent with the answer that he gives.

Perhaps I’m just naïve, but I was really hoping that Chris would take a few moments and consider these questions, and post his answers to them. After all, as he himself points out, there are only so many ultimate questions one can ask, and only a finite number of possible answers. My questions are intended to penetrate to the very core of one’s worldview, to the most fundamental level of one’s “presuppositions.” I would think that presuppositionalist apologists would relish questions of this nature. It’s been nearly a month now since I posed my questions to Chris. Perhaps he’s still thinking about them.

by Dawson Bethrick

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Q and A on Atheism

I had seen these questions for atheists some time ago, and had even written up a set of responses to them. However, I must have forgotten about them because I never did post them. While I was rummaging through some files recently, I came across these and decided to finally put them on my blog. Enjoy!

1. Question: “Why do you not believe in God?”

Answer: Because I’m honest.

2. Question: “Where do your morals come from?”

Answer: From existence.

3. Question: “What is the meaning of life?”

Answer: Meaning is a property of concepts and symbols. Perhaps the questioner meant to ask, “What is the purpose of life?” In that case, broadly speaking, the purpose of man’s life is to live and enjoy it.

4. Question: “Is atheism a religion?”

Answer: No. Atheism is an individual’s absence of god-belief.

5. Question: “If you don’t pray, what do you do during troubling times?”

Answer: I use my mind and deal with the situation. Those who choose to pray to an invisible magic being are simply announcing with this action the fact that they have given up on their own minds and are seeking a substitute to do their thinking for them.

6. Question: “Should atheists be trying to convince others to stop believing in God?”

Answer: Not necessarily, and here’s why. That one is an atheist does not mean that he ascribes to or promotes a rational worldview. Many atheists hold to a worldview which is little more than a secularized form of religion, a worldview which is built on subjectivism (the primacy of consciousness), mysticism (anti-reason), self-sacrifice, “duty,” the primacy of the state, etc. Such individuals are in no position to provide a suitable alternative to the irrationalism of religion. Now if the atheist happens to ascribe to a rational worldview, he will likely have an interest not only in educating others about this prize possession of his, but also be eager to model it to others in his own choices and actions. Such an individual recognizes the facts that every individual has the right to govern his own mind according to his own conscience, and that no individual can be forced to believe or disbelieve anything. He also does not give primary importance to what others believe or not believe. His own life is more important to him.

7. Question: “Weren’t some of the worst atrocities in the 20th century committed by atheists?”

Answer: I don’t have a list of 20th century atrocities by rankings. But again, atheism is neither a religion, nor a worldview. That one is an atheist only tells us what he does not believe. It does not tell us what he thinks is true. The atrocities of the 20th and other centuries were committed by individuals whose worldview sanctioned the initiation of the use of force against other individuals. I know of no religion which can consistently prohibit this, and many secular worldviews, themselves influenced by religion, likewise fail to prohibit the initiation of the use of force.

8. Question: “How could billions of people be wrong when it comes to belief in God?”

Answer: Quite easily, in fact. The billions of people who have subscribed to one form of god-belief or another have been let down by the philosophers, who should have recognized and understood the fundamental distinction between consciousness and its objects, and consequently the distinctions between the real and the imaginary, the factual and the fictitious. Without understanding of these fundamental distinctions, expect a lot of errors in one's philosophy.

9. Question: “Why does the universe exist?”

Answer: This question commits the fallacy of the stolen concept.

10. Question: “How did life originate?”

Answer: By a causal process.

11. Question: “Is all religion harmful?”

Answer: Yes, very much, particularly if one attempts to practice it consistently. Fortunately few in the west try to do this. But this does not lessen its threat to man.

12. Question: “What’s so bad about religious moderates?”

Answer: That depends on the individual case. But a so-called “religious moderate” is likely to stand for very little, and when more serious religionists assert their numbers, moderates are usually the first ones to yield. They are less likely to be philosophically consistent in their views, and thus more likely willing to strike a compromise on serious issues. It is also important to keep in mind that every dictator is a mystic, and every mystic is a potential dictator.

13. Question: “Is there anything redeeming about religion?”

Answer: Not that I have found.

14. Question: “What if you’re wrong about God (and He does exist)?”

Answer: I’m not wrong.

15. Question: “Shouldn’t all religious beliefs be respected?”

Answer: This is like asking, “Shouldn’t all lies be respected?” The answer is a most resolute no.

16. Question: “Are atheists smarter than theists?”

Answer: I don’t see it as an issue of intelligence so much as it is a matter of choosing to be honest to reality.

17. Question: “How do you deal with the historical Jesus if you don’t believe in his divinity?”

Answer: The stories of Jesus that we find in the bible are legends.

18. Question: “Would the world be better off without any religion?”

Answer: Simply ridding the world of religion would not be enough. Human beings still need a philosophy suitable to their life on earth (and anywhere else in the universe for that matter). That is why I promote and defend Objectivism. The alternative to Objectivism is some form of subjectivism, of which religion is the chief model.

19. Question: “What happens when we die?”

Answer: Typically someone buries us.

by Dawson Bethrick

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Three Questions on the Resurrection

Here are three penetrating questions for those who wish to defend the claim that Jesus rose from the dead to consider:

1) Do we have any physical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection?

2) Does anyone purported to have been a witness to Jesus' resurrection claim to have seen Jesus actually rise from the dead?

3) Do people ever lie?

Please submit your answers and be prepared to discuss.

by Dawson Bethrick

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Was Jesus a "Great Moral Teacher"?

Like the uninventive refrain on an over-enthusiastic toothpaste jingle, we’ve all heard it so many times: “Jesus was a great moral teacher.” It is repeated over and over, most gleefully of course by Christians, with the most uncritical zeal one can summon for a bad idea.

Statements like the following are not unusual in Christian cheerleading sources about Jesus:

Almost all scholars acknowledge that Jesus was a great moral teacher. In fact, his brilliant insight into human morality is an accomplishment recognized even by those of other religions.... Jesus' Sermon on the Mount has been called the most superlative teaching of human ethics ever uttered by an individual. In fact, much of what we know today as "equal rights" actually is the result of Jesus' teaching. (Great Moral Teacher?

Similarly, another site states:

Many non-Christians have no problem believing that Jesus actually existed and that He must have been a very moral person and a great teacher (since He has had such an impact on the world even after 1900 years).

Then, in a paper which explicitly acknowledges the deontological nature of Christian morality (some Christians I’ve encountered have actually denied this!), we have Christian apologist J.P. Moreland, who writes:

It has long been recognized that, irrespective of one's religious views about Jesus of Nazareth, He is one of the world's leading ethical thinkers and teachers. Indeed, as late as the second world war, most moral thinkers in the West — secular or not — did their best to show that their moral theories yielded results in keeping with the ethics of Jesus.

Christians like to tell everyone else how impressed they are with the moral teachings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. They have to be: it’s part of “giving God the glory.” So regardless of whether or not they have any better understanding of morality, they are compelled by virtue of their confessional investment to give wholesale praise to the moral teachings in the New Testament, especially those found in the gospel narratives attributed to Jesus, because that is one of the things that they as Christians are called to do: anything Jesus says and does is supposed to receive the highest accolades, regardless of what it might be. It may very well be the case that some Christians really do think the moral teachings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament are spectacular in some way. However, it seems that the praise given to the actions and statements attributed to Jesus in the gospel narratives, is not due to any special insight they might contain or judgment which motivated them, but bestowed at any rate because of their alleged source: Jesus. If Jesus says it, it must be the highest because Jesus said it. This is at odds with a sober understanding of moral principles, which recognizes their worth regardless of who might have first formulated them.

Another noteworthy point, made clear in the quote from Moreland above, is that Christians very often like to extend their enthusiasm for the teachings attributed to Jesus to non-Christians. Not only Christians praise Jesus’ moral teachings, but so does everyone else. Many would have us believe this. An appeal to numbers is usually never far from even the most robust defenses of Christianity. (How often do we hear about what the “majority of scholars” in “peer-reviewed journals” think of some particular claim in question?) The concern at this point is to “puff up” the bandwagon of support in order to make any individual detractor feel insignificant and overwhelmed by the tide of opposition. It’s all part of the tactic of arguing from intimidation.

Of course, it may very well be the case that some non-Christians may repeat the claim that “Jesus was a great moral teacher.” It is ironic that Christians would be so interested in pointing to non-Christian approval of the teachings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. Many Christian apologists (see for instance this blog are on a mission to show the world just how stupid “unbelievers” are (and this coming from people who worship a contradiction). It is readily conceded that many non-Christians have little understanding of what constitutes sound morality as well. In fact, the few that I’ve run into who endorse the moral teachings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament seem to be just as unknowledgeable on the issues of morality as Christians. It may just be that they’re simply repeating this refrain uncritically, as many Christians do, without having critically examined the issues, without giving a good look at the teachings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. Then again, most self-identifying non-Christians whom I’ve encountered seem to have at least some criticisms of the moral teachings put into Jesus’ mouth in the gospels. Critical literature both in print and throughout the internet universe abounds in varying degrees of discriminating examinations of many New Testament teachings, including moral teachings said to have come from Jesus. So it is misleading to give the impression that everyone - both Christian and non-Christian – thinks that Jesus was a superb instructor on issues pertaining to morality.

In spite of the availability of damning exposés of Christian morality on the internet and elsewhere, the assumption that Jesus was a “great moral teacher” is almost always taken for granted among Christians. This assumption is often made for the purposes of shadowboxing against the view that he was only a great moral teacher, yet still very much only a man, as opposed to a deity incarnated as Christians believe. Christians like this kind of argument, inspired by CS Lewis who gives it a central place in his “moral argument,” because defending the claim that the moral views which are attributed to Jesus in the New Testament is a much more difficult task. It’s easier to take the assumption that his moral views were superior to anything else in the moral marketplace for granted, and argue from that basis that he actually was “God incarnate.”

Rather than go through all the teachings which the New Testament does attribute to Jesus one by one and evaluate their worth, I take a different approach. Since Jesus is claimed to be this “great moral teacher,” the bar has already been set. The concern at this point is to see if the teachings attributed to Jesus meet it. This approach is valid because the meaning of the concept of “moral teaching” is broader than just what we’ll find in the teachings attributed to Jesus (as should be evident when someone says one set of moral teachings is better than another), and there have been hundreds of other moral teachings throughout history, before and since the days of the early Christians. So the proper approach at this point is to understand what should be present in those teachings, given the lofty touting Christians repeat, and then to see if those teachings actually include what should be there, given the repeated high praise they’ve received. So I have prepared a short list of key questions that should be asked of any moral treatise whose original framer is said to be “great.”

They are as follows:

1) What is the proper definition of the concept ‘morality’?

2) What is the purpose of morality?

3) Does man need morality?

4) If he does, why does he need it?

5) What is the relationship between morality and values?

6) What exactly does Jesus say about values?

7) Does Jesus tell us what values are?

8) Does he tell us whether or not values are important?

9) If he says they are important, to whom are they important and why?

10) Does Jesus teach us how to identify those values which we should pursue?

11) Does Jesus teach us the proper way to go about obtaining those values which are important?

12) Should we protect those values which we have achieved?

13) What if one person has one set of values, and another person has a different set of values? What is Jesus’ teaching for overcoming such conflicts?

These are questions I would ask in regard to anyone said to be the source of “superlative teaching of human ethics ever uttered by an individual.” Jesus is touted as such by Christians. So I ask Christians to address these questions, and give specific citations to support their answers.

For instance, a Christian might contend that my questions 10) and 11) are answered by verses like Matthew 6:33 (which reads “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you”). That would be a start. But then we would need to ask how “the kingdom of God” could qualify a real value to anyone when it is accessible apparently only by imagining it? Why would one think it’s important? How does one go about achieving it? How does seeking “the kingdom of God” first result in all these other things being “added unto you”? Etc.

So simply citing an isolated verse here and there in answer to these questions is probably not in itself going to be sufficient to justify the claim that one is a “superlative” teacher of ethics or authority on morality. Once those answers have been submitted, they need to be examined for their relevance and validity. Unfortunately, I do not see where these questions are addressed in the New Testament, the wellspring in which we find moral teachings attributed to Jesus. In fact, there seems to be a conspicuous lack of rigor on Jesus’ part, if we go by what the New Testament says. For instance, I do not see where statements attributed to Jesus provide any definition to the concept ‘morality’ (the word ‘morality’ does not even seem to show up on a keyword search of the New Testament to begin with!). Wouldn’t he know what morality is? Each moral code tends to define the concept a little differently, but Jesus apparently chose to withhold what his system might mean by this frequently used term.

As for ‘value’, the concept is sometimes used (see for instance here), but it is neither defined nor explained in terms of a developed theory, suggesting that it is simply taken for granted that “everyone knows” what ‘value’ means. But the history of western civilization, with institutionalized sacrifice, slavery, tyranny, coercion and fraud, much of it in the name of Christianity, is (to say the least) hard to reconcile with this flippant presumption. In regard to my question about the purpose of morality, what does Jesus have to say? What precisely does Jesus say the purpose of morality is? I find no explicit answer to this question in the New Testament, but I suppose Christians might attempt to eek out a response to this question from certain bible verses. What I’ve typically seen on this score is the citation of yet another commandment, and as such it presumes one’s motivation to do things that are said to be “moral” on the Christian account. In the case of Matthew 6:33, for instance, why should anyone have any interest in “seek[ing]... the kingdom of God” in the first place? Is it because, if one does so, “all these things shall be added unto you”? In other words, is “seek[ing]... the kingdom of God” a shortcut to achieving other things beyond it that one might want, or value? If so, it seems that Christianity is teaching that there are shortcuts in morality. Is that really so? Do Christians really think that “seek[ing]... the kingdom of God” is just a means to acquiring something else? Is it not supposed to be an ultimate end?

Although Jesus apparently does not address the question of what morality even is, does he address the question of whether or not any human individual has a need for morality? And if so, why he might need it? A great portion of the New Testament’s moral teachings focus on behavior in the context of interpersonal relationships. But would a man all alone on a desert island have a need for morality according to Jesus’ teachings? Although these questions strike me as wholly rudimentary to an informed understanding of morality, I cannot find where they might be addressed in an intelligent manner in any of the speeches attributed to Jesus in the New Testament (or elsewhere in the bible, for that matter). It seems that Jesus has a tendency to base his moral precepts on threats, as opposed to a penetrating understanding of the nature of morality and any individual’s need for it. If you disobey, you will meet with doom, because you have disobeyed what you’ve been commanded to do. This is not the same thing as warning someone not to touch a hot stove or light a match near an open gas tank. In such cases, we are pointing out the causal consequences of an action which would likely result in injury or even death. Rather, what the bible presents as a moral code essentially reads, “obey, or else!” and holds up a stick. The concern is not for one’s safety, but for keeping him in line with an invisible magic being’s desires.

Now although the Christian believer’s cognitive starting point, according to the bible itself, is fear (cf. Prov. 1:7), threats causing fear do not tell the whole story of Christian morality. Fear is not enough. Something else is needed, and Christian morality (if it is taken seriously) supplies it. Instead of a code of values which guides a man’s choices and actions (see here), the moral teachings found in the New Testament consist of psychological sanctions. Consider the following point made by George H. Smith:

A physical sanction, if successful, causes the emotion of fear. A psychological sanction, if successful, causes the emotion of guilt. A man motivated by fear may still retain an element of rebelliousness, of determination to strike back given the opportunity. A man motivated by guilt, however, is a man with a broken spirit; he will obey the rules without question. A guilt-ridden man is the perfect subject for religious morality, and this is why psychological sanctions have been extremely effective in accomplishing their purpose. (Atheism: The Case Against God, p. 301)

To support the psychological sanctions which inform their morality, Christians need to stress the notion of sin, which is the wellspring of guilt in the Christian mind. Christians are people who take the notion of sin against their god seriously, and are consequently crippled with guilt. This guilt can be powerful enough to motivate a man to obey any commandment. And the moral teachings of the New Testament are designed to exploit this to its fullest. Guilt, then, is the precondition of Christian morality. Without it, it’s just a bunch of silly injunctions serving as a primitive worldview’s version of morality.

The conclusion at this point is already obvious: when someone, Christian or otherwise, makes a statement to the effect that Jesus was a “great moral teacher,” such a statement can only suggest that the individual making it does not have a good grasp of morality. Jesus did not define basic terms; he did not explain why morality is important or why one would have any need for it; he did not clarify what values are or why they have moral significance; he did not explain how one should go about identifying those values he might need or the actions needed to achieve them. All this is at best taken for granted (since it is clear from several of Jesus’ injunctions that one sacrifice his values, that one has already achieved them somehow), but is undercut by the underlay of psychological sanctions, fear and guilt which serve as the precondition for his moral system. At the same time, many Christians look at various non-Christian worldviews and apparently find only moral relativism and moral nihilism. It is true that many non-Christians have been influenced by the moral vacuity of Christianity. That this might surprise Christians is baffling. It shouldn’t surprise them, since Christianity has influenced so much in western civilization. So a distorted view of morality is what can be expected to find in a worldview which has borrowed in some way from Christianity. However, Christian apologists typically like to characterize defective moral views held by non-Christians as a logical outcome of their atheism, as if atheism itself were a worldview with its own fundamentals and positions on such matters. This is a smearing ploy, and the apologist invokes it ultimately to make him feel better in his mystical delusions, which he nurtures in order to assuage his deep-seated guilt.

by Dawson Bethrick