Wednesday, January 30, 2013

God's Quality Control 9.1


Here I continue my thoughts on Paul Copan's 2011 book, "Is God A Moral Monster?"

In Chapter 2, Copan urges us to approach the Old Testament with "patience, charity, and humility." I think that it's appropriate to approach the bible with patience, and maybe even a bit of humility, but let's talk about approaching it with charity. What Copan is asking us to do is to be lenient and give Yahweh the benefit of the doubt when possible. So when Yahweh orders the slaughter of women and children, we should not take a cold, hard look at the facts, as we would if it were anyone else ordering the slaughter. Rather, we should first assume that Yahweh is good, and then try to think of reasons why a good god would order the slaughter of innocents. But why should we interpret Yahweh's actions charitably? Do we give anyone else, human or deity, the benefit of the doubt under such horrific circumstances? Such questions clearly haven't occurred to Copan. Or if they have, he seems to have thought better of attempting to address them.

It's actually rather ironic that Copan wants us to think charitably about Yahweh's actions. The Apostle Paul himself tells us, in II Corinthians 11:14, that Satan masquerades as an angel of light. Paul is telling us specifically not to be charitable, even toward something beautiful. How much more would Paul advise us to be uncharitable toward something ugly like the bloodthirsty Yahweh, if only he weren't blinded by his childhood indoctrination, having been taught that somehow, everything Yahweh does is good? The Apostle Peter adds to Paul's warning in I Peter 5:8, saying, "Be self-controlled and alert," because "your enemy the devil prowls around like a lion looking for someone to devour." Peter seems to agree with Paul here, calling on us to be alert for evil, not charitable toward it.

Shockingly, even Copan himself agrees, telling us explicitly that if an evil being demands that we worship it, we shouldn't do so. But how can we ever tell whether a being is evil when we make allowances for the slaughter of innocents? What could possibly count as evil if such atrocities do not? Again, Copan fails to address the obvious questions.

Copan concedes that god, in making us in his own image, can come across as a vain toymaker, creating human dolls that look just like him. But this is an erroneous view of god, we're told. According to Copan, being eligible for salvation, and therefore eternal life, is wrapped up in being created in god's image. Not only the eligibility for salvation, but also the ability to think rationally, to make moral decisions, even to express creativity. So the fact that god created us in his image is a sign of god's kindness, not his vanity. But wait--who was it that supposedly created the universe? Who set up all the rules for this universe, including the rule that only those created in god's image could have all these other great attributes? Copan would have us believe that this particular rule is out of god's hands, that god couldn't help the fact that salvation would be available only to beings that look like god. This is another common theme among superstitionists: god is responsible for only some of the rules, not any of the rules that might show him in a negative light.

Musing on the biology of religious devotion, Copan plays more tricks on us. First, he refers to a question that many of us have asked: why are humans so readily religious in the first place? He actually does a good job of paraphrasing Dawkins and Dennett on the subject: children are hardwired to believe whatever they're told; the adults around them "spew out their superstitious bilge, and later generations latch on to it and eventually create churches." Then he pretends that this explanation is not an explanation at all, but rather an argument against the existence of god, saying, "Some conclude, therefore, that God doesn’t exist but is simply the product of predictable biological processes." Can you see the straw-man argument he has fabricated? No one has concluded that our religious tendencies rule out the existence of god, but Copan puts it out there so he can argue against the idea and lead his reader away from the real point.

Second, he takes this argument (the straw-man he just invented in order to trick us) and turns it around to trick us again, saying that perhaps our tendency to be religious, and especially the tendency of some people to sacrifice their lives for god, might mean that god really does exist, which would therefore mean that our religiosity is a perfectly normal manifestation of Yahweh's design. This is also an argument we've heard before: why would anyone sacrifice their lives for a cause unless that cause were rooted in the eternal god of the universe? It seems that those who ask such questions don't watch the news much, or they'd be aware of the Tibetan monks who keep setting themselves on fire for causes that have everything to do with the real world of humans and nothing to do with Yahweh.

That's 9.1. Thanks for watching.

Friday, January 25, 2013

God's QC 9.0: Is God A Moral Monster?

Here I discuss my thoughts on Paul Copan's 2011 book, "Is God A Moral Monster?" On April 7, 2011, Sam Harris and William Lane Craig debated whether the foundations of moral values can be natural or must be supernatural. I reviewed that debate in Section #6 of my "God's Quality Control" Series. During the debate, Craig found an opportunity to plug Copan's book, which seems like good material for more quality control.

In his introduction to the book, Copan tells us that he will use various statements from the "New Atheism movement" as a springboard for discussion of Old Testament ethics. By "New Atheism movement" he seems to mean the Four Horsemen—Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens—and their admirers. Like most superstitious people, Copan seems to believe that atheism is a religion, or a movement, or an "–ism," failing to understand the basic principle that lacking a belief in supernatural bullshit doesn't make me part of a club. And similarly, agreeing that Yahweh is a bully doesn't make me a follower of anyone or seal my loyalty to anyone.

Copan makes an interesting observation concerning the perceptions that asuperstitionists have about the church. He says that our perceptions, although not entirely accurate, "can often provide an illuminating corrective to help professing Christians to properly align themselves with Jesus their Master." This is the basic theme of all of my quality control videos: many of these people who claim to follow a "god" that loves truth are the biggest liars around. Nothing at all seems to have any corrective effect on these charlatans. If Copan were serious about aligning himself with a force of love and truth, I imagine that William Lane Craig would not have so readily plugged Copan's book during the debate.

In his first chapter, titled "Who Are The New Atheists?" Copan names the Four Horsemen and discusses his four primary complaints against them:
  • The "current tide of emboldened opposition to the Christian faith lumps Christianity into the same category as radical Islam."
  • To which I say: There are very good reasons for said lumping. To start with, as Sam Harris has pointed out numerous times, the milder forms of superstition open a door for the more radical forms. It's not enough for a mild Christian to say that the Phelpses, for example, are misinterpreting Yahweh's word. The interpretation process itself clearly does not work: there is no way for anyone to know which interpretation is correct. The radicals are just as likely to be correct as the non-radicals.

  • Further, Christianity has indeed been at least as bad as radical Islam over the centuries. Remember the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, segregation; radicals and non-radicals alike have found justification for these and worse in the bible. Copan can interpret Christianity mildly all he wants to; the problem remains that Christianity clearly lends itself quite well to poisonous ideas.
  • For all their emphasis on cool-headed, scientific rationality, they express themselves not just passionately but angrily.
  • To which I say: here Copan is playing a rhetorical trick. Cool-headedness in scientific inquiry suggests keeping one's biases out of one's investigations and conclusions. It has absolutely nothing to do with suppressing anger, and everything to do with letting the facts guide one's thinking.

  • Further, why shouldn't we be angry? Superstitionists are forcing us to fight for the future of humanity. Consider the issue of climate change as just one example of the issues we're angry about. Most Christians expect the world to end—in fact, they eagerly look forward to the end of the world, so as a group they have very little interest in preserving humanity's only home. Of course we're angry when they won't listen to us about world-threatening issues like climate change.
  • Their arguments against God’s existence are surprisingly flimsy, often resembling the simplistic village atheist far more than the credentialed academician.
  • To which I say:  the author fails to give even one single example of these supposedly flimsy arguments. We have no way of knowing which arguments he is referring to; he simply asserts that "their arguments are [an incoherent] collage of rhetorical barbs." When someone criticizes my arguments but can't clearly articulate their objections with real examples and real discussion, I tend to think that someone is either being intellectually dishonest or perhaps even missing the point of the conversation entirely.
  • They aren’t willing to own up to atrocities committed in the name of atheism by Stalin, Pol Pot, or Mao Zedong, yet they expect Christians to own up to all barbarous acts performed in Jesus’s name.
  • Let's talk about what "in the name of atheism" means. Copan wants to use it to mean that these dictators justified their atrocities by claiming that there is no "god," and therefore no basis for behaving morally. But that's not "in the name of atheism." That's in the name of the conclusion, in the name of there being no natural basis for behaving morally. But that conclusion is not a given. Plenty of people know how to behave morally with no help from any supernatural entities. There is nothing about atheism that lends itself to immorality. On the other hand, the bible and other books of superstition positively overflow with justifications for all kinds of immorality in the name of Jesus and other deities.
Copan says that his "New Atheists" add spice to the God discussion. The spice metaphor is better than Copan realizes. Before the days of refrigeration, one of the original uses for spice involved covering the taste of slightly spoiled food, and killing some of the dangerous microbes in the food. You may notice that hot, spicy food is more prevalent in areas of the world where the climate is warmer, where meat and other foods can spoil relatively quickly. A rational consideration of the "god" discussion is indeed a good antidote to the spoilage that occurs in the brains of superstitionists.

That's 9.0. Thanks for watching.