Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Steve Hays' Invisible Friend

Steve Hays of Triablogue is frustrated. He's upset because atheists liken Jesus or Yahweh to an invisible friend. In spite of his hurt feelings, his attempts to recover his worldview from this comparison are pretty flimsy. In fact, instead of serving to advance his position, Hays’ points only tend to backfire.

As is his customary procedure, Hays seeks to turn the tables on those dastardly atheists he has in mind by pointing to a series of would-be foils which, on a good day with ample hallucinogens, might suggest that the atheist’s “mocking” is out of line. On a more sober reading, however, Hays’ whole post comes across as a rather juvenile “I’ll show you!” outburst which quickly collapses under its own weight. It’s nothing epic, unless of course we consider the fail factor.

Before going any further (full disclosure alert), I’ll point out for readers that this is not the first time the notion of imaginary friends has come up on Incinerating Presuppositionalism. Back in the summer of 2006, I posted an entry titled Christianity: The Imaginary Friend’s Network, which readers are invited to read at their leisure. 

As for Hays’ attempt to downplay the parallels between theism and childhood preoccupation with imaginary companions, what I find lacking in his approach is any hint of thoughtful consideration for the position that the non-believer might find himself in. For Hays, anyone who doesn’t believe – presumably on evangelists’ say-so – that Jesus really lived, died on the cross and was resurrected two thousand years ago by the creator of the universe, is to be scorned as a lying cheat who has deliberately betrayed the theist (or Jesus himself!) personally, when no such offense was ever intended. I suspect he’s not aware that this is how many of his comments about non-belief come across; special, more biting vindictiveness is reserved for “apostates” – people who were at one time believers but later abandoned faith in god-belief. At no point is the apologist willing to acknowledge that expecting people today to believe such a story might in fact be a tall order for many.

Of course, Hays is not alone in this; the Christian worldview in fact encourages such an attitude: non-believers are to be condemned simply for not believing (cf. Mark 16:16). Apparently, if any leeway of this sort were to be granted, then there’d be room for legitimate argument on the non-believer’s behalf, and that’s too much to concede.

But can someone like Steve Hays, who is clearly intelligent (I peg his IQ to be at least 107), sympathize with the person who is simply being honest to himself when he recognizes that he’s merely imagining Jesus when he reads gospel stories, such as when Jesus feeds the four thousand (or is it five thousand… or both?), or when Peter denies Jesus three times, or when Thomas the Doubter probes the risen Jesus’ wounds with his own fingers? Is it really morally proper to scorn people when they recognize the distinction between what is real and what is merely imaginary, even if mindfulness of this distinction impedes their acceptance of religious claims? Does the apologist not realize that a reader is naturally going to engage his imagination when reading the gospel stories, and that it is there, in the reader’s imagination, where the gospel stories come to life? After all, that’s what we do when we read other stories – we imagine the characters and scenes which the stories describe. The gospels are no different in this regard, and the role that imagination plays in religious belief cannot be underestimated. Hays himself has stated that “an imagined Jesus is just an imaginary Jesus” (Olson’s Imaginary Jesus). Similarly, an imagined Hercule Poirot is just an imaginary Hercule Poirot. This is true even in the case of actually historical personalities.

When I read an account about Abraham Lincoln, I will no doubt find myself imagining the tall bearded president playing out the scenes of the story, and yet the Abraham Lincoln I’m imagining is still nevertheless entirely imaginary, even if the account has a historical basis. The characters and the actions they are described in the account to perform come alive in my imagination as I read through it. But I don’t pretend that Abraham Lincoln is still alive any more than I pretend that the Abraham Lincoln I imagine was the real Abraham Lincoln back in the day.

Often readers get so absorbed in the stories they read that they don’t even realize they’re imagining any more. Rather, they’re engrossed in the experience of the story as they read it. Ever notice how much fiction sells? There’s an enormous market for it, and I don’t think that will ever go away. After all, imagining can be very pleasurable, and it’s an amazingly productive tool. And yet, the imaginary is still imaginary, no matter how much one wants to believe it’s real. When one is caught up in imagining the scenes and characters of a story that has captivated a reader’s attention, it’s quite easy to overlook the fact that imagination is not a mode of perception. However, just as wishing doesn’t make it so, imagining something doesn’t make it real, and it never will. The primacy of existence ensures this.

Does the fact that we engage our imagination when reading even about actual historical figures lend credence to the argument that such engagement therefore is not an indicator of the truth value of the account in question? In fact, the truth value of an account hinges on a great number of things, the reader’s own psychological activity being far downstream from this question. What’s important to note here is that if all we have to go on in assessing the truth value of an account is our experience as readers shaped as it is by what we imagine when we interact with the account, we’re on pretty flimsy footing. Just as when I had an imaginary friend when I was a six year-old boy growing up in rural California, I’m imagining Jesus when I read the gospels. The operable difference today is that my awareness of the role of my imagination in my experience is explicit. Now what?

Yes, I can read these gospel stories in the dark of night when not even a mouse is stirring, alone in the candlelight, confronting my own demons as it were in the process. I can imagine Jesus standing on the bow of a fishing vessel raising his arms and commanding the coming storm to calm, the winds coming to a halt and the clouds clearing. And yet, I have enough self-awareness to recognize that I’m imagining everything that I’m reading. Is this like a cigarette that I need to put out when the Steve Hayses of the world come along, so that they are not offended by the smoke? Nay, I’m not going to put a stop to the operation of my consciousness because it might offend someone. Independent thought is no vice!

And yet, Hays complains that “Atheists mock Christian belief in their ‘invisible friend’.”

Note Hays’ use of the provocatively rich word ‘mock’ here. He chooses this word to emphasize his view that atheists are doing something immoral, dastardly, underhanded, etc. He does not cite any specific instance (which would reflect only on the individual responsible for the thoughtcrime in question), but rather casts his net as wide as possible, excoriating all atheists generally, presumably for the sins of a few. Regardless, recognizing the fundamental similarities between a child’s imaginary friend, harmless as it may be, and religions’ supernatural beings, is for Hays an instance of “mocking,” which therefore is supposed to be an indicator that said atheists have nothing better going for their non-belief. That’s unfortunate for Hays, for it only shows that his motivation to probe the issue he raises in his post is biased towards his religious worldview and that he is not open to considering the position that non-believers might find themselves in when considering religious claims. After all, if a person was not raised by religious parents and thus not indoctrinated from their earliest formative years with the positive reinforcement of religious imagination, it may be the case that he is encountering religious claims as a thinking adult and therefore prone to reacting to insistent claims of the “you must believe this!” sort with a high dose of skepticism. Some effort to persuade a person in such circumstances would be necessary to convince them of the need to reconsider their non-belief, and characterizing their point of view as merely “mocking” will very likely not only fail to persuade, but in fact reinforce the suspicion that the believer really has nothing more substantial than mere characterization in defense of his god-belief.

Of course, it may be that Hays is simply worn out on the task of defending his god-belief. After all, fifteen years of blogging should be sufficient to convince the whole world that his god-beliefs are true, right? If someone doesn’t believe (read: pretends not to believe, in Haysian thought), he should just read a post (or two hundred) from 2010 or 2014, and that should settle it, right? Why should Hays restate any of his “arguments”? Indeed, if there were a god, why would any arguments be necessary to convince any human being (who was presumably created by said god) that a god exists? According to Hays’ worldview, isn’t every human being created (by an act of wishing?) in the image of Hays’ god, and therefore imprinted on his heart with the knowledge that this god exists and is real (cf. Romans 1)?

But let’s examine Hays’ objections and see if they successfully put his god in a category altogether separate from imaginary friends.

Hays’ first objection runs as follows:
i) Jesus is visible, not invisible. God Incarnate is visible. He was seen (heard, and touched) by thousands of observers in 1C Palestine.
So, “Jesus is visible, not invisible”? Really? What does he look like? Where can I see him? Did I see him and miss him? If Hays is correct (of course he is!), I should be able to ID Jesus on sight, if only he can inform me on what I should look for!

Oh, wait, suddenly Hays slips into the past tense! Did you notice that? First it’s “Jesus is visible,” then it’s “He was seen… heard… and touched… by thousands of observers in 1 C Palestine.” Lotta good that does any of us today. Here we have another bait-‘n-switch, a predictable instance of false advertising. While Hays leads with “Jesus is visible,” he quickly gives away the game that he was talking about people in the past all along. Sorry for you and me – the party’s all over. Nothing to see here, folks. Literally! Everyone go home. If you stick around and try to see something, you’ll be disappointed. Don’t blame Hays! Any observations you make will be chalked up as “mocking.” You’ve been warned!

Naturally, one could say that Santa Claus is visible. Hays could not characterize this as “mocking,” for who hasn’t seen Santa Claus? Seriously (and here’s the test!), who among us would not recognize Santa Claus if we saw him? We’ve even seen what Santa Claus looks like in his long underwear! In terms of evidence, we have loads more evidence for Santa Claus than we do of Jesus Christ or the Christian god. It was just recently that we got through that time of year when Santa sightings abound in every city and town across the United States and elsewhere. Families flock to places where Santa Claus has been sighted, hopefully to get a glimpse of the jovial gift-giver, maybe even a token photograph with a youngin’ on Santa’s lap! I even saw Santa Claus when I was living in Thailand of all places! The guy gets around like no one else. Talk about omnipresence! It’d be hard to outdo Santa in that department. Yet I suspect Steve Hays and other Christians don’t “believe in” Santa Claus in spite of this vastly superior evidence.

But again, notice Hays’ use of the present tense to squelch the comparison (“Jesus is visible…. God Incarnate is visible”), and then his use of the past tense in backing up his contradiction (“He was seen…”). It’s quite probable that atheists are aware of the fact that Christianity has storybooks which include tales about Jesus coming to the earth and mingling with human beings… some two thousand years ago. But Jesus isn’t here now, and certainly not visibly! Does Hays see Jesus now? If so, what does he look like? How tall is he? Is he slender, buttery or obese? Does he have fair complexion or dark? Is he clean cut, or does he look like a Rasputin on a bad day? Or, is Hays just bluffing here, hoping no one catches on?

At any rate, even if one believes (as Hays does) that Jesus was visible two thousand years ago, it’s quite dubious to hold non-believers in contempt for pointing out that a man who died (and vanished!) two thousand years ago is simply not visible today. I gather that Hays has no empathy for people whose minds are not marinated in Christian mysticism like his, but a more sober approach would involve at least some self-awareness here and acknowledge the fact that not everyone on planet earth is running around gulping the Kool-Aid Hays has been nursed on since his teenage years. Besides, the neighbor’s boy across the street is very capable of giving a description of his imaginary friend, and how could that be possible if he were invisible?

Hays’ second objection sends us on a wild goose chase:
ii) And that's not just a thing of the past. Consider many reported Christophanies in modern times:
Tales of supernatural happenings are a dime a dozen, and they are by no means unique to one religion. They may be entertaining, they may even raise an eyebrow or two; but they secondhand and further removed hearsay about strange happenings in distant places involving people who are likely never going to be available for interview do not serve as a suitable substitute for an objective understanding of reality and the human condition. In fact, it’s hard to shake the sneaking suspicion that such stories are really aimed at eroding one’s critical faculties, especially when they’re thrown out there for the purpose of distracting thinkers from more weighty issues or eliciting blank nods of trusting astonishment. It’s no question that religious belief prevails on the arid carcass of augmented credulity, and anecdotes purposed to call into question the objective nature of reality are a prime means of abusing one’s trust. Regardless, pointing to such tales as Hays has done, does not constitute an argument. I’m guessing that Hays is expecting rational persons to take seriously the collection of vision experiences he’s linked to and investigate each one. Unfortunately, I’m only on season three of alien abductions from 1968, so Hays’ fetish for Jesus sightings will simply have to wait its turn.

Hays’ third objection is about as kooky:
iii) But suppose Jesus is invisible. Charlemagne is invisible. I never saw him. Never met him. There are no photographs of Charlemagne. Does that mean Charlemagne is a figment of the imagination?
The purpose of this rejoinder is not to validate belief in Jesus, but to trivialize the family resemblance between the imaginary friend of one’s childhood and religious devotion to alleged supernatural personalities. No one is denying that people existed in the past and that those people are no longer here and therefore no longer visible. That a human being named Charlemagne lived a thousand years ago does not contradict the basic facts of reality that we observe on a daily basis, facts that obtained a thousand years ago just as they do today. Moreover, it’s not that Charlemagne is invisible, it’s that he’s dead, and has been for over a millennium. In fact, Hays’ objection here actually works against his apologetic purposes, for the reason why Charlemagne is now invisible is because he is dead - long dead! And that goes a fair way in explaining why neither Hays nor anyone else living today has met Charlemagne. Is Hays really so satisfied with this analogy? Would Hays be willing to go so far as to say that the reason Jesus is invisible is because he too is long dead? I doubt it. Christians tell us that Jesus defeated death once and for all (even though people still die), and even though no one can see Jesus today, rest assured Jesus is alive and well and sitting on a throne in some supernatural realm, a realm that is objectively indistinguishable from something that is merely imaginary. To confirm this, just consider all the many variations of Jesus that you’ll find in the Christian marketplace today. There’s a Jesus to suit every taste – Jesus the friend, Jesus the master teacher, Jesus the sympathetic comforter, Jesus the healer, Jesus the miracle worker, Jesus the ever-present voyeur, Jesus the law-giver, Jesus the vindictive judge, Jesus the bringer of the end of the world, etc. Some imagine Jesus to be any combination of these. But as we saw above, “an imagined Jesus is just an imaginary Jesus.”

Consider it from another standpoint: Does Hays run around saying that Emperor Charlemagne is right beside him, rooting for him on the sidelines, clearing a safe path through the evil world and protecting him from devious spirits which too are invisible? If so, I’d say he was imagining. See how it goes? If I have to imagine it, how can what I imagine be anything other than imaginary?

Believers can be expected to justify their scorn for non-believers because they teach that the believer’s non-belief is a personal affront to their god. What often escapes thinkers on both sides of the conflict is the fact that the offended feelings on the part of believers only underscores that the god they worship is ultimately psychological, in fact a figment of their imagination. Given that they emotionally invest themselves in something that they construct and glorify in their imagination, they naturally recoil emotionally to anything that is perceived to threaten it. Hurt feelings do not indicate a mature orientation to the matter in question. Suppose someone comes along and tells you that the Pacific Ocean is not the largest ocean on the earth. Would the rational response to this open denial of something that is indisputably true occasion offended feelings and bitter retaliation? But if a person has emotionally staked his entire being on an imaginary friend, personal offense at the mere suggestion that what he believes in may very well be a tell-tale sign that his leg has been pulled and that he doesn’t want to admit it.

In his fourth and final objection, Hays reaches headlong for a wild gasp:
iv) Consider an anonymous benefactor. Take someone who endows a college scholarship. Although that's an invisible friend, it's not an imaginary friend.
It’s hard to see how someone as clever as Hays would expect anyone to take this seriously. Is that benefactor invisible to people who knows him personally? Who would say that? The benefactor may be anonymous, and therefore invisible, to the beneficiaries of his largesse, but it would not follow that the benefactor is invisible to people when he is in reach of their perceptual faculties.

Hays’ analogy has even deeper weaknesses. After all, the benefactor we’re supposed to imagine (!) here is supposed to be a contemporary of ours, not someone who lived two thousand years ago, right? Nor is the mysterious benefactor said to be invisible because he is a supernatural spirit. He’s just unknown to the beneficiary, but otherwise a biological organism just like everyone else. And if sufficient research were conducted to discover the identity of said benefactor, presumably if we went to search this individual out, we would not find that he’s invisible when we finally catch up with him and engage him in conversation to thank him for his endowment, right?

But notice something else that is possible with an imaginary friend that is not possible with an anonymous benefactor: the imaginer can actually describe his imaginary friend and even carry on a conversation (albeit one-sided, like prayer) with his imaginary friend. The imaginer can even tell us what he imagines his imaginary friend says in response to his observations and questions. Notice how believers do this on behalf of the god they imagine: they tell us that their god wants them to pursue a certain career, fast more, witness to a specific stranger, read a particular passage in the bible, declare war on some nation, etc. Even Steve Hays cannot do this on behalf of an anonymous benefactor, but he can on behalf of Jesus!

by Dawson Bethrick

1 comment:

Ydemoc said...

Great again, Dawson!

Loved the Santa Claus run.