Born to Believe

We understand and interpret the world through language. This of itself has the potential to bias the way we understand reality. Language right from our first words, ‘Mama, Dada, No!’ has inherent meaning, and frequently purpose.

reach for the moonIt should be no surprise to find that this is how  many of us interpret the world – a place with meaning and purpose.

We take life personally. And of course sometimes it is. Some of that which happens is a deliberate act by a conscious being.  Someone who if they had wanted too, could have behaved otherwise.

It is this feeling that life is, or ought to be, purposeful and meaningful, that creates within us the ecological niche, that is the habitat for religious memes.

I’m coming to think the really interesting thing about theology is not what any of it says about God, but how people try to verbalize their belief, and what the attempt tells us about the person and the culture in which said person operates.

Wendy Dackson  Two Entirely Random unrelated reflections 2016

Theology understood  not as the study of God, but as the study of how people incorporate this feeling that reality has purpose and meaning into their belief systems, has the potential to be a very fruitful discipline.

The study of God is a little more problematic.

The existence of an Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnibenevolent God, is as the Scottish Philosopher, David Hume pointed out inconsistent with the existence of suffering in the world.

This is something that Bertrand Russell also referred to in his, ‘Is There a God?’ essay  of 1952, the one that introduced the world to the Celestial Teapot.

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.

Bertrand Russell  Is there a God ? (commissioned by, but never published in, Illustrated Magazine, in 1952)

Bertrand Russell is frequently understood to be implying that belief in God is the logical equivalent to belief in an orbiting teapot; there is no reason to believe in the existence of either, and this is a good reason not to believe.

This is how Richard Dawkins understood him, and  argued in, ‘The God Delusion,’ published 2006, that he could do better than this, by making a probability argument. The existence of God, is like the existence of a Celestial Teapot, so improbable that believing in either is unreasonable.

Of course they aren’t actually comparable. We know what teapots are; human artefacts, intended for the brewing of tea. We also know, or at least think we know, that there was no way in 1952, that one of these artefacts could have gotten into space.

There is no reason to believe that the Celestial Teapot existed, and good reason to believe that it did not.  But all that would be required for it to have existed, was for there to have been something going on, that we don’t know about. (I am assuming that even if it had existed in 1952, the fact that it was made of china, makes it highly probable that it would no longer be in existence.)

The same is not true of the Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnibenevolent God, of traditional Western theology.  A mere something going on that we do not know about cannot turn this God into a possible reality.

A God who is Omnipotent and Omniscient, is one who could do anything that is logically possible, including achieving His ends, without the need for suffering.  Suffering exists and therefore, given a normal understanding of goodness, observed reality is incompatible with the existence of an Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnibenevolent God.

There is zero probability that the Triple O exists.

The same is not necessarily true of the Celestial Teapot.

Knowing that the Triple O does not exist, does not rule out the possibility that this universe is the result of conscious creation.

We know what a china teapot is, and its existence or otherwise in any given place, is open to direct verification.  The same is not true of consciousness. We experience consciousness in ourselves, and extrapolate this outwards. The existence of other minds is a theory that is not open to direct verification.

All the provable facts on earth, including things such as The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the Taj Mahal, and the Mona Lisa, can potentially be explained, as the outworking of  materialistic processes. There is no need  to introduce the notion of conscious agency.

Science is sometimes understood to be pushing the notion of a conscious, purposeful Creator into smaller and smaller gaps, as more and more phenomena fall to materialistic explanations.

It is argued that everything that has been recognised in past times as an act of conscious creation can already be, or will at some time in the future be explainable in materialistic terms.  The trouble with this is that it doesn’t just apply to so-called acts of God, it also applies to among other things, Michelangelo’s David, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. I am reasonably certain that the immediate creation of these items is explainable in entirely materialistic term, the firing of synapses, and contraction of muscles, and the effect that this had on materials external to the body of the artists.

I don’t regard this as evidence that these acknowledged masterpieces are not the work of conscious creators. Likewise materialistic explanations for the structures of the universe, do not provide evidence that they are not works of conscious creation.

There is good solid evidence that the Triple O does not exist.  There is good reason to believe that the Celestial Teapot does not exist. There is no reason not to believe in a Conscious Creator.

Our human tendency to see meaning and purpose, where we see structure and function combined, makes belief in a Conscious Other easy for many of us.  However as David Hume pointed out way back in the 18th Century, this does not give us sufficient reason to believe.  Since that time, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution has been propounded, with its demonstration, that it is possible to explain the existence of structure and function without need to invoke a deity. This proves just how right Hume was. It is unsound to argue from the existence of structure and function to a purposeful Creator, but it does not demonstrate that such a Creator does not exist.

The Protestant claim is that proof of God lies in his inspired word, the Bible.  We can know that God exists because he has revealed his existence to us.

It is sometimes claimed that the remarkable degree of consistency shown in doctrine, teaching and prophecy throughout the Bible demonstrates its divine authorship. This is a belief that although held fervently by some, is like belief in the Triple O, held despite the evidence not because it.

The author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, frequently wrote in a voice not his own.  The opinions expressed by his narrator, which in the case of Gulliver’s Travels, was of course Gulliver, were frequently although not necessarily at odds with the opinion held by Swift.  It is possible that the entire Bible is inspired by a consistent Creator, but if so then the Bible needs to be read like the works of Jonathan Swift.  The opinion of the narrator is not necessarily, the opinion of the Ultimate Author. And as with Jonathan Swift there is room to interpret the Author in different ways.

There is one major flaw in this analogy.  Gulliver is a work of fiction, he didn’t exist, therefore we know, that he was not the author of Gulliver’s Travels. It is reasonable to believe that there was an actual author, Jonathan Swift, who was trying to communicate something different, something frequently at odds with what his fictional narrator was saying. Swift was after all a satirist.

The case with the Bible is different.  The narrators of the Bible did exist.  There is no a priori reason to conclude that they were not working under the influence of an Ultimate Author. But no reason not to believe is not sufficient grounds to believe. This is the point being made by Albert Einstein in the following quote:

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this for me. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition.

Albert Einstein Letter to Erik Gutkind 1954

Subtle interpretations provide evidence, not for  the Mind of God, but the mind of the interpreter.

Among the allegedly primitive legends of the Old Testament, is a story which has been written in such a way that it can be interpreted fairly literally, without any need for subtlety, in at least two different ways.  There is the surface level account, which reads like a fairy tale, and serves to disguise the much more historical  account that is also there. Both accounts describe that historians and archaeologists tell us really did happen, the origin of agriculture.

The double interpretation relies on a very simple trick, giving one of the characters a proper name   that has a meaning.  Anyone who has ever at a personal level run across the legend of Adam and Eve and Pinch Me Tight, will know just how unsubtle this trick can be.

The name Adam, like Pinch Me Tight, is a name with a meaning. In Hebrew the word Adam means man. Man not in the sense of the male of the species, but of humankind. It doesn’t take too much subtlety of interpretation to figure out that any story where the main character is called humankind is likely to bear hidden meaning.

The Garden of Eden story starts off with no humankind to till the ground.  It is quite literally humankind that is told not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.  It is humankind that  is told that the consequences of eating of the Tree of Knowledge will be death. The immediate consequence of eating of the Tree of Knowledge was not death, but the difficulties of primitive agriculture; the tilling of a soil that became increasingly infertile. It is an agricultural origin story.

We are presently in what some scientists have labelled the sixth extinction.  Species are disappearing faster than at any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs.  The cause of this extinction is not an asteroid hitting the earth, it is us.  For most of the 500 thousand or so years that our species has been in existence, we were mostly harmless.  It was the agricultural revolution, that changed that.  It was the triggering factor that made our modern world possible.  The event, that enabled us to become death the destroyer of this world; the likely bringer of our own extinction. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge has put us in the pathway to accelerated extinction.

The Adam and Eve story is a work of ancient human genius. At one level it is a simple children’s story, advising of the dangers of not doing what you are told.  At another level it is an account that is compatible with our modern knowledge about the history of the earth.

But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.

Genesis 2:6

In our modern scientific version of origins, evolution, the process that resulted eventually in the formation of humankind, began after this initial watering of the earth, in the primitive ocean. The same time zone where the Bible describes God as initiating the formation of Adam.

In the Biblical account the river names identify the Garden East of Eden, where God places humankind, with the fertile crescent. In our modern accounts too humankind arose outside, the fertile crescent.  Human Beings moved into that area during the last ice age.

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Genesis 2:8,9

And yes, our modern science tells us that as the climate became warmer the tundra type landscape changed to one where tree growth was no longer stunted. So trees did grow up, after human beings entered the fertile crescent.

Eating from the Tree of Knowledge strikes me as an excellent metaphor for eating of the fruits of agriculture.

Given the different roles of men and in hunter-gatherer society, it is likely that it was women who were the first farmers. Or metaphorically speaking it was they who first picked the fruit from the, ‘Tree of Knowledge.’

The King James version of the Bible provides a literal, not idiomatic, translation of the effects that eating of the Tree of Knowledge had on the woman.

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

Genesis 3:16

An increase in the number of conceptions, and an increase in male dominance are known to be consequences on women of the move from hunter-gatherer society, to subsistence farming.

And for men considerably more work was required of a subsistence farmer than of a hunter-gatherer. The diet of the first farmers was inferior to that of hunter-gatherers, and without understanding of the need for crop rotation and fertilizer the ground would have become increasingly infertile.

And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;  Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Genesis 3:17-19

There is good reason to believe that the Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnibenevolent God of traditional Western theology does not exist.  The same is not true of a Conscious Creator. There is no reason not to believe that such a Conscious Other Exists.

Once men argued that the structure of the universe proved that God the Triple O, must exist. History has shown that Hume was right, there can be other reasons for structure than a Conscious Creator.  Massive improbabilities are possible in infinities.

The question I need to ask is, does the co-incidence between events related in this story and the findings of modern research, stretch the laws of probability to the degree, that requires introducing the concept of infinities into the equation; or could ancient human genius, and a bit of coincidence, provide sufficient explanation.

My opinion is that the latter explanation is sufficient.  The co-incidences mentioned are consistent with the reality of a Conscious Other, but do not provide proof.

The co-incidences do not prove that even this bit of scripture is divinely inspired.  But they do show that even as great a human genius as Einstein was, can sometimes be mistaken.

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.

Albert Einstein Letter to Erik Gutkind 1954

 

 

 

 

 

Football, Santa Claus, Free Will and God

Football, Santa Claus, Free Will and God all at a certain level exist . They exist as concepts which affect human behaviour.

At its very basic level, the football concept means that with enough space  any object that rolls, can be turned into an occasion for fun, competition and social bonding. The environment, the human, and the concept interact to produce that which is conceived, a game of football. Something that, along with the singing of Christmas carols, is associated with the informal truce that broke out in Christmas 1914 between British and German soldiers fighting on the Western Front.

The Santa Claus concept, means that children are motivated to behave well in early December and that the adults get to enjoy maintaining a fantasy for children.  The environment, the human and the concept interact to ensure that children get excitement and presents. Some of that which is conceived relates to events in the external world.  But the central part of this concept, the man in the red suit flying through the sky, delivering presents to children all over the world, exists only in fantasy.

Free will is different from football and Santa Claus in that there is arguably a credible case that it exists externally to the concept. A case that physicist Sean Carroll failed to make in the following quote from a speech he made on naturalism in 2012.

The universe is made up of elementary particles that don’t have intelligence, don’t pass judgment, don’t have a sense of Right and Wrong. And the fear is, the existential anxiety is that if that purpose and meaningfulness is not given to me by the universe, then it cannot exist. The good news is that that fear is a mistake. That there is another option: that we create purpose and meaning in the world.

“If you love somebody, it is not because that love is put into you by something outside, it is because you created that from inside yourself. If you act goodness (sic) to somebody, it’s not because you are given instructions to do so, it’s that it’s a choice that you made.

Sean Carroll The case for Naturalism 2012. Transcript from Atheism Analyzed 2015

The bad news is that if materialism is true, and like Sean Carroll I ‘instinctively’ believe that it is, then it is these same elementary particles, that don’t have intelligence, don’t pass judgement, don’t have a sense of Right and Wrong; that we and the rest of the universe are made from.

If we are capable of loving, creating purpose and meaning, and doing good, it is because of how we are made.  Our ability to love, or hate, must come from inside us, but that is not the same as saying that an individual who feels either of these emotions created them.

The individual who exists at any one time is a consequence of nature, nurture, and the environment, including the social and cultural one in which they find themselves.  We do not make ourselves. Everything we do is a consequence of who we are, and the circumstance we find ourselves in with possibly a bit of randomness thrown in.

Bertrand Russell concluded the famous essay in which he introduced the celestial teapot to the world with the following quote.

Man in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny.  The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

This is of course a nonsense statement,  our behaviour is subject at every level to the same laws of nature as the rest of the universe.  What we are is determined at a fundamental level, by the behaviour of elementary particles.

Fundamental particles, structured by natural processes, to produce conscious beings. (I am aware of no group who is arguing that modern day humans, come into existence, by anything other than natural processes, regardless of how they believe our ancestors arose.)

We, if materialism is true, exist as a consequence of natural forces, our conscious   and our subconscious are dependent on them.  The person that exists at any given time is the consequence of these natural forces; and that consequence  decides how to interact with his/her environment.

I think it is possible to argue that if you are aware of what you are doing, if you behave as you want to, or take what appears to you at the time to be the best option given your circumstances: that you the consequence of the natural forces that are the immediate cause of your existence, are acting of your own freewill.

This is a very long way from Bertrand Russell’s miraculous Man, not subject to natural forces, or Sean Carroll’s supernatural you, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, creating ex nihilo love, and goodness.  It is sufficient freewill to enable us to take ordinary everyday responsibility for our actions, but not enough to ensure that anyone has the right to claim, or accuse anyone else of ultimate responsibility, or ultimate blame, for the good or evil that they do.  No-one makes themselves.

A problem arises when we have mutually incompatible desires.  What happens then can feel like anything but freewill. It can feel more like being dragged between two masters.  A feeling that St Paul poetically captured nearly two thousand years ago.

O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death!  Roman 7:24

Paul famously despised the human rationality that the Greeks venerated. And in doing so eschewed one of the great ‘benefits’ of the human brain. Its ability to confirm for us, the desired truth, that we are doing one thing  when we are actually doing another, and that the evil must therefore lie in the other.

Sean Carroll provides a demonstration of this skill in action in his, ‘The Case for Naturalism,’ the talk he gave in 2012, the one where he propounded the existence of supernatural You, the Being able to create love and goodness, ex nihilo  You can find a transcript here.

Before his claims of the wonder of You, he first attacks Rene Descartes theory of mind and body dualism as unintelligible.  How can an immaterial mind, act causally on the body?  Then he goes on to mention other scientists, whose materialism he approves of.  Eventually he provides as though it is a culmination of the findings of materialism his own theory, not merely of mind/body but of mind/universe.  Magical Us, able without any help from the universe,  to create purpose, meaning, love and goodness.

By concentrating on rational failures, in what was a real attempt by Descartes to understand consciousness, he has managed to hide from himself, the truth that his own beliefs about consciousness have no rational basis. And project all the despised irrationality on to someone who is a member of what his social group has identified as the not we, the superstitious, religious other.

This speech was his introduction to the, Moving Naturalism Forward Workshop that he had organised. In it he identified his reason for holding the workshop.

And yet! Here we are! We’re having a debate. Why are we having a debate? Because, clearly, religion speaks to people for reasons other than explaining what happens in the world.

Most people who turn to religious belief do not do so because they think it provides the best biology or cosmology. They turn to religious belief because it provides them with purpose and meaning in their lives. With a sense of Right and Wrong. With a community. With hope.

“So if we want to say that science has refuted religion, we need to say that science has something to say about those issues.

Sean Carroll The case for Naturalism 2012. Transcript from Atheism Analyzed 2015

He identifies religion as a belief held for social reasons, and his purpose in this gathering was to attempt to replace religious socially held beliefs with science. Or although he clearly didn’t see it that way, to turn science into another religion.

Human Beings bond on shared beliefs. Beliefs which are held with a high level of emotional certainty. Scientific ideas need to be falsifiable, this makes them inherently unstable, incapable of giving certainty. Problems arise when people confuse the two.

Emotional certainty is possible, rational certainty about things other than logical necessity, is not. When people belong to social groups that demand that their core beliefs are held with rational certainty, then there is a problem.

A problem which the human brain, the organ which as Voltaire had it, has the wonderful ability to enable a man to believe exactly whatever he wants to believe, seems to have special adaptations for dealing with – an innate deceiver.

For compelling social reasons Sean Carroll needs to believe, that his emotional certainty, is rational, and  to convince others of the same.  This unleashes a mechanism for deception of the self.

Bobby Henderson noted a similar response among Scientific Creationists, and produced a brilliant anthropomorphism, for this particular socially induced form of confirmation bias – The Flying Spaghetti Monster.  And Sean Carroll has been well and truly noodled.

Which brings us back again to the question of freewill. Sean Carroll wants to produce a rational argument, to  support his emotional belief. He is enabled by unconsciously operating mechanisms, to deceive himself that he has actually done so.  He is not aware that he is deceiving himself.  For freewill to be operating it is not enough that Sean Carroll is emotionally satisfied with what he is saying.  He has to understand what he is doing.

So no he is not operating of his own free will. The Flying Spaghetti Monster made him do it.

Of course the Flying Spaghetti Monster does not just inflict itself on atheists. It affects the religious also, where it masquerades as faith.  Dr Wendy Dackson who blogs at Past Christian, describes her own relationship with the imposter, a ‘being’ whose reality is a lot nastier than Bobby Henderson’s pastopomorphic projection.

Because I did not “lose” my “faith” (as you define it, not as I do).  I know precisely where it is.

It’s in the corner, lying quietly, where I shot it with a tranquilizer dart to prevent it from doing any harm while I examine it and decide what should be done with it.

Wendy Dackson  What happened to my ‘Faith’ 2015

The socially induced certainty that misidentifies as faith, has the potential to be every bit as destructive, as Dr Dackson alleges. Those who are taken in by this dead ringer, lose touch with reality. Their certainty leaves them unable to connect with or understand the view of others. Being deceived into believing in the integrity of their socially held views, they can see  folly, or evil only in the other.

Those without fear have no need for courage, and those who are certain have no need for faith. Real faith can only be held in uncertainty.

Rowan Williams the former Archbishop of Canterbury, demonstrated many times that the understanding that faith must be held in uncertainty, frees you to understand the truth found in the views of others, even others opposed to the beliefs that you hold. And in recognising similarities between his own beliefs and the belief of the other, he was able to form bonds of understanding.

He demonstrated this in an article he wrote for the Guardian in 2004, on a dramatization of Philip Pullman’s, His Dark Materials.  Rather than being threatened by the death of The Authority, the God Figure, in this play, he was able to acknowledge that there was truth in Pullman’s critique of religion.

If the Authority is not God, why has the historic Church so often behaved as if it did indeed exist to protect a mortal and finite God? What would a church life look like that actually expressed the reality of a divine freedom enabling human freedom?

Rowan Williams A Near Miraculous Triumph 2004

He also noted something else, that was portrayed in the play. The role that power and the desire for power, has in the trampling of the rights of the individual.

Repressors and would-be liberators are equally merciless to the individual; that is why Lyra’s life is at risk from both sides.

Rowan Williams. A Near Miraculous Triumph   2004

Yet the disastrous affair of the failed Anglican Covenant shows that Rowan Williams was also Spaghetti Monstered.  He didn’t believe in a God who needed to be protected. For him Pullman’s Authority equivalent was The Anglican Church. The Anglican Covenant was an attempt to protect the unity of the Anglican Church, with enforced agreed sanctions, even though he wasn’t calling them sanctions, on those branches of the Church, that failed to conform. An attempt to protect a mortal and finite institution.

Apparently failing to understand that this agreement, which thankfully wasn’t accepted, would have handed power over to the faithless believers, they who hold their ‘truths’ in certainty.

It was particularly shameful, because he himself believed that homosexual relationships were compatible with Christian belief, and that those who were opposed to gay marriage were wrong. Yet to prevent a church schism he was willing to tell the LGBT  minority  in the Church that they must respect the views of those within the ‘family’ who held that they were disgusting.

Williams’ fall from grace was linked exactly where Pullman placed the problem – in power structures. And to hold a particular power structure together he was willing to allow the church to continue to discriminate against one group of people. In fact to insist that it happened, even in branches of the Church, where the majority wished to be fully accepting of that difference.

This call to dogma would have if it was accepted, given the strong feelings that it invoked, probably have done the very thing that it was meant to prevent. It could have created schisms, and turned what remained of the Anglican Church into just another sect. Another sect whose beliefs separated them from the society around them, but where Church Leaders would be big fish in  the small pool, thus created. A place where people could have their craving for emotional certainty fulfilled, and where they could be held together by the condemnation of the evil other.  In other words it would be a church held together, not by the love of God, and neighbour, but one held together by the power of faction.

Rowan Williams was, in the hellish position of being in a situation of authority in a church that was tearing itself apart. This reduced rump church  would have been a more comfortable church to have been leading.

Give people certainty, and an enemy to oppose, and you create a faction.  While at a conscious level this is not the kind of church Williams wished to lead, it is one that he would have been able to lead.

And in this, ‘O wretched man that I am,’ scenario the very intelligent Rowan Williams, supported the ‘Anglican Covenant,’ a document that would probably have provoked schism – as a solution to schism.  What his emotional health needed was in opposition to what his rational mind desired. And he plumped for a solution that met his emotional needs.

There are other interpretations, but I believe that Rowan Williams is not only intelligent but also honest, and that therefore he must have been deceived.

Materialist that I am I don’t think that you need to invoke a supernatural presence to explain how this happened.

Where there is a conflict between the best interests of a person, and their own beliefs about what they should do, it would be no surprise to  an evolutionist to find that there is a mechanism in existence to persuade people that they are doing one thing, when they are actually doing the very opposite.  That a particularly vicious strain of confirmation bias would be invoked, one that because it is using a persons own intelligence to deceive them, would actually be more successful in the very intelligent.  An innate deceiver.

The saying, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ is well known. In the mythology of ancient times, this was blamed on the Prince of this World, the devil.  We have discarded the mythology that enabled this belief. Fundamentalists still pay lip service to the reality of a devil, but being blinded by the very same fellow, they are unable to see his tentacles operating through their own certainty.

The old mythology of the devil, created another, on whom to blame the world’s evil.  A better response than blaming people.

 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Ephesians 6:12

The old mythology didn’t tell you how to recognise someone that was in the grip of the deceiver.  The knowledge that the deceiver operates through confirmation bias, gives you a place to start when you are looking to detect it in operation.

You are looking for very simple mechanisms, underlying what may be very fluffed out and convoluted arguments.

Rowan Williams for instance  used the argument from inappropriate guilt.

But who needs the Covenant, it might be said? There’s one very short answer to that. Some bits of our Communion represent needy and isolated parts of the Christian world.  They need relationships. They need the assurance that we won’t drive them into difficult positions. They need to know that we take them seriously enough to engage in conversation with them. And that’s part of what keeps them going and what makes them strong.  It’s very interesting that some of the parts of the Communion that have already said yes to the Covenant are exactly that kind of church.

Rowan Williams Archbishop: Why the Covenant Matters 2012

We must do things the way the poor and needy want them done. Because if we don’t give the poor and needy the power of veto over us, and it is  power that is being demanded not conversation; they will think we don’t take them seriously.

Note that we would not be giving this power to the actual poor and needy, we would be giving it to those who are in leadership positions within those communities. And in the case of LGBT rights strengthening the hand of those who wish to oppress the genuinely poor and needy.

Rowan Williams provides a rationalisation, based on the argument from inappropriate guilt. Sean Carroll, in the following quote, uses a different mechanism to support his socially held belief, truth by circular argument. He defines natural as identical with real, and God as supernatural and therefore not real.  So therefore God does not exist.

 By “naturalism” we mean the simple idea that the natural world, obeying natural laws, is all there is. No supernatural realm, spirits, or ineffable dualistic essences affecting what happens in the universe. Clearly the idea is closely related to atheism (I can’t imagine anyone is both a naturalist and a theist), but the focus is on understanding how the world actually does work rather than just rejecting one set of ideas.

Sean Carroll  Moving Naturalism Forward Discover Magazine  2012

It is not lack of imagination, but rationalising from his basic premises that there is only one reality, and that God does not belong in that reality,that leads him to believe that naturalism is incompatible with theism.

Of course any theist who understood the word natural to be identical with the word real, would argue that God was natural.  This peculiar definition has nothing to say about empirical reality.

Richard Dawkins presented in ‘The God Delusion,’ an unintentionally entertaining riff, on this simple argument.  For Dawkins, because only the natural exists, any real creator, wouldn’t be supernatural, but only superhuman, and therefore couldn’t, by his definition, be God. This argument of course has nothing to say about reality, only what names you should give to different parts of it. My entertainment was compounded by the fact that he then went on to argue that he was agnostic about  this God, which by definition couldn’t exist.

The Innate Deceiver that says, ‘Yes,’ to its devotees, doesn’t appear to be a very complex adaptation.  Where you see certainty expressed, when you got through the fluff, there you  are likely to find it sitting naked and waving its noodly appendage, an argument that has only to fool the logic blinded. It gets away with it because those who agree with the deceived are unable to see any flaw in an argument that is so, to them anyway, self-evidently true. While those who see the flaw become outraged and think that the person making the argument is a truth denier.  Where the opposition are also fully certain members of the noodled brigade, then this effect is magnified.

So far I have considered the real existence of football and Santa Claus.  These have real effects on the world, only because they are held as concepts.  Free will exists independently of the concept, and in a much more limited way than the concept suggests. Our behaviour is determined by the behaviour of the elementary particles that make us.  But as at any given time we are just a particular pattern of the elementary particles that form us, if we understand the truth about what we are doing, and could if we wanted to do differently, then we are acting of our own free will.  Deceiver instincts which cut short this process, must have had, at least in the past, an average positive effect on reproductive fitness.  However the people who are affected by them, have had there free will compromised. They do not know what they are doing.

As to the existence of God, well that does really depend on how you define the term. And I am going to plump for Ultimate Reality, that which brings us into being.  And as we clearly exist that Ultimate Reality must exist.

This is a concept of God, that Richard Dawkins would of course object wasn’t God at all, just a bad metaphor; like Stephen Hawkings, ‘Mind of God.’ And while I would agree with him about Hawking’s phrase, Professor Hawking, is an atheist and is not talking about anything that could reasonably be conceived of as a mind, I don’t think that my definition qualifies as a bad metaphor.

For Sean Carroll the Ultimate Reality, appears to be ‘Elementary Particles,’ and he has a problem, because it is extremely hard to believe that they give us purposefulness and meaning.  To resolve this problem he resorts to the nonsense that is ‘magical you,’ able to create love, goodness, etc., ex nihilo.

It is extremely hard to believe that our experience of consciousness is a product of simple interacting natural forces; that we came into existence through non-purposeful processes. That we are not in fact the consequence of purposeful action, by an Ultimate Reality with a non-metaphorical mind.  So difficult that Sean Carroll’s need to believe this has triggered an innate deceiver mechanism. Richard Dawkins has solved the problem, by creating the extremely bad metaphor of the purposeful selfish gene.  However just because it is hard to believe, and that proponents of the idea have fallen prey of the noodly appendage, doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. It doesn’t mean that it is true either.

Richard Dawkins made an argument in the God Delusion that is, although he didn’t realise it, an ontological argument for the existence of God.  He had meant it as an demonstration, that his atheism was rational.

He said that he was logically agnostic, because it couldn’t be proved that God does not exist, but that the existence of God was so improbable, that his existence was no more probable than the celestial teapot, or fairies at the bottom of his garden.  So his agnosticism was compatible with his de facto atheism.

Of course if he is right that there is any probability of God at all, and reality is infinite, then he has just proved that God exists.  But atheists needn’t worry because in writing, ‘The God Delusion,’ he, or probably more accurately his subconscious, took care to define God in such a way that his existence would be a logical impossibility.

The logical position on the existence of an actual, ‘Mind of God,’ is agnosticism.  We really don’t know. And while Richard Dawkins in ‘The God Delusion’ looked forward to a time when we would know for certain, the only way that will be fulfilled is if there is a Mindful God.

What there is evidence for is that any God that actually exists is not all good, and omnipotent.  A point made rather well by Bertrand Russell in the following quote.

I will say further that, if there be a purpose and if this purpose is that of an Omnipotent Creator, then that Creator, so far from being loving and kind, as we are told, must be of a degree of wickedness scarcely conceivable. A man who commits a murder is considered to be a bad man. An Omnipotent Deity, if there be one, murders everybody. A man who willingly afflicted another with cancer would be considered a fiend. But the Creator, if He exists, afflicts many thousands every year with this dreadful disease.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

The First World War army chaplain, and Anglican priest, G.A. Studdert Kennedy, argued that belief in the omnipotence of God embittered people. Reading Wendy Dackson’s post on Language, where she protests strongly against the delusional use of words like love and goodness, to describe that which Bertrand Russell described as fiendish, you can see how the notion of omnipotent (magical) God, could leave those who are unwilling to go down the path of the noodled deceiver deeply angry with God.  And also angry with those reality deniers within the Church.

We seem to instinctively believe that where there is function there is also purpose. Some of the atheists who argue most strongly against the existence of a God, are driven to locate this feeling that there is purpose where it logically cannot exist.

It is logically possible that the universe and even the multiverse are a work of purposeful creation, the act of a mindful Creator.  It is even possible that that Creator is omnipotent in the sense that he holds all the power that it is possible to have. But traditional Western theology used omnipotence to mean something different from this.  They to honour God made Him the monstrous fiend outlined by Russell, magic god, constrained only by logic. The God that is not there.

 

 

 

Evolution is Immaterial

probability of god

 

When Richard Dawkins claimed that you can never absolutely prove the non-existence of anything, he was of course wrong.  It is for instance perfectly rational to be certain that square circles, and spherical cuboids definitely do not exist.

So it is with the God of, “The God Delusion.” He cannot, by definition, exist.

I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: their exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it including us.

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007

For Richard Dawkins a necessary part of the definition of all gods is that they are supernatural, and by supernatural he means magic – the possessor of powers which by definition do not exist.

Skyhooks  – including all gods – are magic spells.

 Richard  Dawkins The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007 

With this definition of God there is no reason to beat about the bush:

An Ontological Argument for the Non-existence of God.

  • Supernatural beings are fictional beings, with fictional powers.
  • God is a Supernatural being.
  • Therefore god is a fictional being with fictional powers.

See also the God Delusion Paraphrased for Reluctant  Readers.

This syllogism demonstrates that it is possible to define God in such a way that he exists only in the mind.  It does not  prove anything at all about whether or not the universe is a work of intentional creation.

Richard Dawkins claimed that his position on the existence of God was the rational one – Temporary Agnosticism in Practice, or T.A.P.; which he compared with what he alleged was the irrational position of, Harvard professor, Stephen Gould, whom he accused of arguing for  Permanent Agnosticism in Principle, or P.A.P.

The view that I shall defend is very different: agnosticism about the existence of God belongs firmly in the T.A.P category.  Either he exists or he doesn’t.  It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability.

 Richard Dawkins The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007 p.70

It seems fairly obvious from this quote that Richard Dawkins had failed to note that God as defined by him has a zero probability of existence.  And he didn’t feel the need to revise what he had previously written after making the following claim.

That you cannot prove God’s non-existence is accepted and trivial, if only in the sense that we can never prove the non-existence of anything.  What matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn’t) but whether his existence is probable.

 Richard Dawkins The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007 p.77

This claims contained within this paragraph can be formed into  a syllogism:

  • The existence of God is a, not very probable, possibility.
  • We can never absolutely prove the non-existence of anything.
  • Therefore we are never going to absolutely prove the non-existence of God.

So I am afraid dear atheist, that if these premises were true, and that if Richard Dawkins was also correct in his assertion that  one day you might be able to give up rational agnosticism; it would be because you would have acquired absolute proof for the existence of God.

But cheer up, because, as any philosopher is likely to tell you, absolute proof for the existence of anything is also very difficult, and with the right definition of the word existence, maybe even impossible to achieve.

Julian Bagini explains in Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, the meaning of an atheist’s commitment to naturalism:  ‘What most atheists do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical out of this stuff come minds, beauty, emotions, moral values – in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life.’

Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain.

 Richard Dawkins The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007 p.34

A materialistic definition of  the word existence means that it applies only to physical stuff, i.e. matter and energy.  Naturalism is the belief that everything other than matter and energy is an emergent property of the physical. Using this definition, many things whose reality we experience as primary, are immaterial emergents: e.g. pain, pleasure, love, consciousnes. And as the title informs you, evolution is also an immaterial reality; an emergent consequence of the interaction of matter and energy.

Boxing Ultimate Reality

Anselm‘s Ontological argument, made nearly one thousand years ago, produced a definition of God that made it impossible to conceive that God did not exist.  By describing God as that than which no greater can be imagined to exist, and arguing that existence was a necessary part of absolute greatness, Anselm made it impossible to meaningfully conceive that God, as defined by him, did not exist.  Because at the very moment you conceived the great being you were thinking of not to exist, you would no longer be thinking of God. See also Anselm’s Teapot.

Richard Dawkins, was  unimpressed with Anselm’s ontological argument, but enjoyed Australian philosopher Douglas Gasking’s ironic parody of it.

1. The creation of the world is the most marvellous achievement imaginable.

2. The merit of an achievement is the product of (a) its intrinsic quality, and (b) the ability of its creator.

3. The greater the disability (or handicap) of the creator, the more impressive the achievement.

4. The most formidable handicap for a creator would be non-existence.

5. Therefore if we suppose that the universe is the product of an existent creator we can conceive a greater being namely, one who created everything while not existing.

6. An existing God therefore would not be a being greater than which a greater cannot be conceived because an even more formidable and incredible creator would be a God which did not exist.

7. Therefore, God does not exist. 

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007 p.107-108

Christian apologist William Lane Craig, like Richard Dawkins believes this argument to be incoherent.

Ironically, this parody, far from undermining the ontological argument, actually reinforces it! For a being who creates everything while not existing is a logical incoherence and is therefore impossible: there is no possible world which includes a non-existent being which creates the world.

William Lane Craig  Dawkins’ Critique of the Ontological argument  2009

The irony does not necessarily lie where William Lane Craig thinks it does. He believes that God is Immaterial.  Richard Dawkins naturalistic definition of reality, means that the immaterial is always emergent from the material, and therefore cannot be the first cause. So when Richard Dawkins hears believers claiming God, as the Immaterial First Cause, what he hears is, within his worldview the rambling of fools. Anselm who, like William Lane Craig, started with a different first premise, would have thought exactly the same of Richard Dawkins’ naturalism.

There is an awful lot of reality about, and to interact with our environment and society effectively, it is necessary to form models of it. Different models of reality can be  effective, in allowing those who hold them to function successfully. Acknowledging that your model may not be all encompassing, and that those holding alternative models are not necessarily truth deniers is rational. It may however result in accusations such as, bending over backwards to almost supine lengths; an allegation Richard Dawkins made against Stephen Gould, in The God Delusion.

Deductive reasoning can give the appearance of certainty, but it is only as good as the premises that you start with.  And where the question is about reality rather than definition, then the premises can never be  absolutely certain.  As Douglas Adams had his eponymous  detective, Dirk Gently, point out: all that is required for the impossible to be true, is for there to be something that we don’t know about.

 Alvin Plantinga, the author of a modern version of the ontological argument, the one that William Lane Craig accepts as definitive;  acknowledges that it doesn’t provide proof of the existence of God,  because it cannot be proved that its central premise, that the existence of a maximally great being is possible, is true.

But here we must be careful; we must ask whether this argument is a successful piece of natural theology, whether it proves the existence of God. And the answer must be, I think, that it does not. An argument for God’s existence may be sound,after all, without in any useful sense proving God’s existence. Since I believe in God, I think the following argument is sound:

  • Either God exists or 7 + 5 = 14
  • It is false that 7 + 5 = 14
  • Therefore God exists.

But obviously this isn’t a proof; no one who didn’t already accept the conclusion, would accept the first premise. The ontological argument we’ve been examining isn’t just like this one, of course, but it must be conceded that not everyone who understands and reflects on its central premise — that the existence of a maximally great being is possible — will accept it. Still, it is evident, I think, that there is nothing contrary to reason or irrational in accepting this premise. What I claim for this argument, therefore, is that it establishes, not the truth of theism, but its rational acceptability. And hence it accomplishes at least one of the aims of the tradition of natural theology.

Alvin Plantinga   The Ontological Argument  2001

Alvin Plantinga is a theist, that is someone who believes that Ultimate Reality is a maximally great being – God. He admits that the existence of a maximally great being may be impossible, that is have a probability of zero.  But argues that if you accept the premise that the existence of a maximally great being is possible, then you must rationally also believe that the existence of that being is certain.

Richard Dawkins worldview is naturalism, that is that everything that is real, is natural; and that therefore if there is any creative consciousness lurking behind the observable universe, it like the only consciousness he has any direct evidence for, his own, will be natural.  Within this worldview, supernatural means unreal, having no possible existence outside the imagination.  So when Richard Dawkins defines God as a supernatural being, he has defined God in such a way that he cannot possibly exist.

Richard Dawkins should rationally therefore have classified himself as a 7 on his own scale of degrees of belief in the existence of God; someone who is absolutely certain that God does not exist.  To do this would have put the spotlight on his own belief about the nature of reality, and mean that The God Delusion would have been a book investigating the rationality of his own atheism.  Not nearly as much fun as ridiculing the beliefs of others.

Richard Dawkins, classifies himself as somewhat less than certain of the non-existence of God,  arguing that anything you can imagine to exist, must have a possibility of actually existing. Therefore God’s existence is possible, but very improbable. He in fact argues that God is so improbable that we can be confident of his non-existence.

What both Alvin Plantinga and Richard Dawkins convoluted arguments seem to be aiming for, is the boxing up of reality, so that it cannot disturb their emotional certainty. The gift of confirmation  bias, the instinct that likes to say yes, means that they are likely to be largely unaware of the dishonesty of their position; and will therefore be able to present themselves to the world, without any hint of irony, or need of acting skill, as men of integrity.

And while Richard Dawkins definition of God as supernatural should have meant that he didn’t need to go to all the trouble he did; the god that he is arguing against isn’t magic god, but the maximally great being whom Alvin Plantinga claims as God.

Most of us who believe in God think of Him as a being than whom it’s not possible that there be a greater. But we don’t think of Him as a being who, had things been different, would have been powerless or uninformed or of dubious moral character. God doesn’t just happen to be a greatest possible being; He couldn’t have been otherwise.

Alvin Plantinga   The Ontological Argument  2001

Radical Christian theologian Peter Rollins, argues that this God haunts modern secular society, that the problem with atheists is that they aren’t atheistic enough, and that,the scandalous message of the Gospel is that freedom from the sovereign God, in all its manifestations, is possible”.

 

Rupturing the Box

box cross

 

  • You are sitting in a bar in Belfast.
  • In walks a seven foot purple gorilla with a submachine gun.
  • What do you call him?
  •  Sir!

As this joke illustrates there can be very good reason for treating the powerful with respect. In scary circumstances our rationality is likely to fail us, and at that point a forelock tugging instinct, is one that could increase our chance of survival.

If you are forced to remain in the pub with the gorilla, then the lizard brain effect of fear, will increase your chances of not surviving the encounter. One mechanism for reducing the fear, is to believe that the gorilla has qualities other than power and that these qualities are such that he doesn’t want to harm you, if he doesn’t have to.

The god of the ontological argument, the greatest thing that can be conceived not to exist by the godless fool of Anselm’s argument, is the purple gorilla, made maximally great: i.e. omnipotent, omniscient and completely good. Someone that  as Alvin Plantinga  tells us, we don’t think of, ‘as a being who, had things been different, would have been powerless or uninformed or of dubious moral character’.

This is where the scandal of Christianity lies, the difference between the gospel message and the religion of Christendom.

At the very heart of the Christian message is the cross, and the young man on it, an image of maximal greatness, that is the very antithesis of everything that the ontological argument, and our natural instincts imagine greatness to be.  1 Corinthians 1: 22-25

 In the life of one an outcast and a vagabond on earth,
In the common things He valued, and proclaimed of priceless worth,
And above all in the horror of the cruel death He died,
Thou hast bid us seek Thy glory, in a criminal crucified.
And we find it – for Thy glory is the glory of Love’s loss,
And Thou hast no other splendour but the splendour of the Cross.
For in Christ I see the martyrs and the beauty of their pain,
And in Him I hear the promise that my dead shall rise again.
High and lifted up, I see Him on the eternal Calvary,
And two piercèd hands are stretching east and west o’er land and sea.
On my knees I fall and worship that great Cross that shines above,
For the very God of Heaven is not Power, but Power of Love.

G.A. Studdert  Kennedy  High and Lifted Up   taken from  Rhymes Published 1929

Dishonouring the Father

Text taken from wikipedia caption

Touched by His Noodly Appendage, a parody of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, is an iconic image of the Flying Spaghetti Monster by Arne Niklas Jansson. (wikipedia)

It is not just atheists who reject the father god of traditional theology; the image of god  that has developed within traditional Western Christianity also causes problems for those who regard themselves as staunch believers.

The portrayal of a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, all loving, and morally necessitated to torture us, or at least allow us to be tortured for all eternity, because we are not perfect as He is Perfect; is a portrayal of a being that has properties that appear not only mutually incompatible, but  also incompatible with the qualities of Jesus Christ, the human being  that the New Testament identifies as the Incarnation of God.

This dichotomy of character was referenced last May by Northern Irish man, Pastor James McConnell of the Metropolitan Church, Belfast.  Pastor McConnell had caused controversy, by declaring in a  sermon, preached in the Metropolitan Church on 18th May 2014 and then uploaded to the internet, that Islam was Satanic.  In a subsequent Radio Ulster  interview, in an apparent attempt to disassociate his religious beliefs with the God of Islam, he declared that his God was Jesus.

The soundness of Pastor McConnell’s theology of the Trinity has been questioned on previous occasions, and when you listen to the still available televised  interviews it is obvious to anyone who does not hold the same bias, that his thinking is strongly noodled by Confirmation bias.(1,2,3)

It is not just mavericks like Pastor McConnell that can be witnessed struggling with traditional Trinitarian beliefs. In an interview in Bristol Cathedral in September Justin Welby, the Archbishop of  Canterbury, expressed reservations about God, that didn’t apply to Christ.

We know about Jesus, we can’t explain all the questions in the world, we can’t explain about suffering, we can’t explain loads of things but we know about Jesus,” Welby said. “We can talk about Jesus – I always do that because most of the other questions I can’t answer.” Asked what he did when life got challenging, Welby said: “I keep going and call to Jesus to help me, and he picks me up.”

Matthew Weaver  Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God 18th September 2014  

This statement of belief in only one member of the Trinity is consistent with Justin Welby’s decision to have Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s emotionally powerful hymn, In Christ Alone, played at his inauguration as Archbishop of Canterbury.

This hymn is hardly a resounding defence of the traditional trinitarian theology, but is rather a celebration of a type of Unitarianism. “In Christ alone my hope is found,” is the first line; note  the absence and even denial, of faith in  everyone and everything  else including the other members of the Trinity, implied by the use of the word, alone..

And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;

John 14:16  King James Bible

The role traditionally  associated with the Holy Spirit,  the Comforter, is in this hymn also assigned to Christ.

My Comforter, my All in All,
here in the love of Christ I stand.

Keith Getty, Stuart Townend  In Christ Alone

It is not however the Unitarian sentiment of this hymn that  caused the controversy or got it excluded from the new hymnal of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Glory to God, but these lines.

Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied

The hymn selection committee, had wanted to use a different version of this hymn, which they had found in another publication, one that replaced, “The wrath of God was satisfied,” with “The love of God was magnified.”

 It turned out that this new version had not been authorized by the writers and they refused  to allow the change.

Keith Getty explained his reasoning for the refusal to Collin Hansen of the Gospel Coalition.

The main thread of what we see revealed throughout the Old and New Testament is the need for man to be made right with God. The provided path toward reconciliation came through Christ’s predetermined and perfect sacrifice on the cross, satisfying God’s wrath once and for all. The two hymnal committees wanted to change the lyrics to focus on how Christ’s death on the cross magnifies God’s love for the world. And indeed, God’s love was magnified on Calvary’s hill. Yet the way this occurred was through Christ doing for us what we could not do for ourselves—shedding his own perfect blood to atone for our sins.

.Keith Getty  as quoted by Collin Hansen of the Gospel Coalition December 2013

Mr Getty doesn’t argue that those who wish to change the words are wrong to think that the crucifixion demonstrated the love of God, he just believes that the more vital message is that Christ died to save us from the wrath of God.

He does admit that this is confusing, but that God’s wrath is not like our wrath.  Though on a straight forward reading the wrath described here  seems exactly like our wrath; anger so irrational that it really doesn’t care that those that it strikes out and hurts are the innocent.

A lack of trust in a deity that behaves this way is a reasonable response, and one that the evidence of this hymn suggests Keith Getty has actually made; while waving his firm belief in the righteous wrath of God, as a talisman of orthodoxy.

Timothy George, the dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, has supported Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s  position, identifying the committee who collated the new hymn book as a sort of wrath denying bunch of wishy washy liberals.

Though it turns out that he like Keith Getty thinks that the word wrath doesn’t really have the same meaning when applied to God, as when applied to people.

The problem comes when we use an anthropopathic term like “wrath” and apply it univocally to the God of eternity. Before long, we have constructed “a god who looks like me,” to use the title of a recent book of feminist theology. Then caricatures of divine wrath proliferate: God having a temper tantrum or acting like a big bully who needs to be “appeased” before he can forgive or, as is often alleged with reference to the atonement, practicing cosmic child abuse.

Timothy George No Squishy Love July 2013

One of the things that struck me as a child about the Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, was that even if the cloth had been real, but visible only to the wise as the weavers alleged; every fool in the crowd, would have seen the emperor’s patched underwear.

In a similar way even if Keith Getty and Timothy George are right and the word wrath has a different meaning when applied to God, not all of the people singing this song will have the deep knowledge of theology and language necessary to recognize this; and  are likely to  understand the words,”The wrath of God was satisfied,” in a way which makes God the Father appear  a monster.  And therefore despite the popularity  and emotional appeal of In Christ Alone, that wisdom lies with those who rejected a song likely to cause some maybe most of those singing it to blaspheme.

AnselmCanterbury2.jpg

Anselm the first of the Scholastic Philosophers,  a former Archbishop of Canterbury and the originator of the ontological argument.

 

Timothy George in a subsequent post claims that some commentators have tried to wiggle out of their problem with wrath by claiming that their objection was not to the word wrath, but  the word satisfied, and its reference to the satisfaction theory of the Cross proposed by  Anselm, (c. 1033 – 21 April 1109)  the first of the  scholastic philosophers, and the first Archbishop of Canterbury, to be Primate of All England – he only agreed to take the job when he was assured that the Archbishop of Canterbury had preeminence over the Archbishop of York.

One response has been to say that the committee’s problem with the hymn lyric was not so much the noun wrath as the predicate adjective satisfied, although other comments suggest that the real problem was indeed the concept of divine wrath or anger. In any event, the key culprit in this alleged misconstrual is said to be the medieval theologian Anselm.

Timothy George  No Squishy Love Part II  August 2013

 Anselm was the originator of the ontological argument, an argument resting on a definition of God, that understood as Anselm understood it, made it impossible to conceive that God did not exist.(4)  His definition of God, was, that than which no greater can be conceived. He argued that this concept is so clear, that even a godless fool understands what it means.

One of the  characteristics of greatness as understood by Anselm was that it was not tainted by passion.

How God is sensible (sensibilis) although he is not a body. –God is sensible, omnipotent, compassionate, passionless; for it is better to be these than not be.

The Proslogion  Anselm 1077-1078

In Anselm’s theory it was not the wrath of God that was satisfied by the Cross. It couldn’t be because the god that was the greatest thing that he could imagine to exist was not tainted by what he considered a human weakness, passion of any kind. It turns out that the greatest thing that Anselm could imagine was a passionless medieval tyrant writ large, who was driven by his own nature to seek satisfaction for the loss of face caused by Adam’s sin.  Anselm’s vision of god was a Prince of this World writ large, whose righteousness lay in his might.  What was satisfied by the Crucifixion according to Anselm was this god’s honour.

The god of Anselm’s theory is controlled by his own nature, which must have the honour due to it. The god of “In Christ Alone,” is driven by a wrathful passion, which requires satisfaction. To identify either of these beings with the God whom Jesus called Father, is a slur on fatherhood.

Timothy George argues that a belief in the wrath of God is necessary to understand the message of the Bible.

Why do many Christians shrink from any thought of the wrath of God? R.P.C. Hanson has said that many preachers today deal with God’s wrath the way the Victorians handled sex, treating it as something a bit shameful, embarrassing, and best left in the closet. The result is a less than fully biblical construal of who God is and what he has done, especially in the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ.

Timothy George No Squishy Love July 2013

Yet he in the same article demonstrates that he understands it as a sort of metaphor, i.e. not literally true, as demonstrated by the following quote, also from No Squishy Love

“The problem comes when we use an anthropopathic term like “wrath” and apply it univocally to the God of eternity.” 

He himself appears to see no irony in the inconsistency between his condemnation of other Christians as wrath denying heretics, and his own denial that the wrath of God is literally true.  By criticizing others as wrath deniers he is able to disguise from himself the reality that he has a problem with the concept of God’s wrath.  For him it is acting as what theologian Peter Rollins describes metaphorically as a poltergeist, a repressed truth, which has in this case been projected on to the other, rather than dealt with.

Adam Copeland who was on the hymn selection committee, has pointed out that the hymn book, Glory to God, has plenty of references to the wrath of God in it.  He also notes how easy it would be to produce ridiculous  and misleading  accusations of heresy for many of the hymns chosen. And makes the following comment.

I remain hopeful we won’t get stuck in unhelpful, uninformed debates, throwing hymn verses at one another in some unending game of “Why the Denomination Sucks: Hymnal Edition.” (Hint: your winning reasoning always has to do with your previously-held beliefs and self-satisfied finger-pointing.)

Adam J.Copeland The Wrath of God, the PCUSA, and a New Hymnal  August 2013

While his annoyance is understandable, I think he is mistaken in regarding his critics as self-satisfied. The irrational nature of their attacks suggests a deep-seated unease with their own beliefs, which they are alleviating by scapegoating others.

 

No Guilt in Life?

No guilt in life, no fear in death,

This line in Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s hymn is also worrying.  People do, as Keith Getty says, take their theology from hymns  and this line with its denial of experienced reality is dangerous.  Guilt like pain is a warning that something is not right.  It is anger directed against the self, a recognition that you have not matched up to your own internal standards.

For Christians,  as Keith Getty recognizes, the Cross provides both evidence of the seriousness of our failure and the place where  burning self-wrath can be nailed.

Truth put to music remains with us. It’s why we still sing the powerful lyrics of hymns written centuries ago. Speculation and questioning about theology will come and go, but truth remains. Consider these words of Horatio G. Spafford, penned in 1873: My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!/ My sin, not in part but the whole,/ Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,/ Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

.Keith Getty  as quoted by Collin Hansen of the Gospel Coalition December 2013

If we directed our anger, judgement  and cruelty only at ourselves, Christ would not have died.  He was crucified by humans.  We who project our wrath, hatred and cruelty unto others and scream out for vengeance.  We who seek human  scapegoats to blame for the evil of this world. .

At the Cross, God in Christ, took on all the cruelty and hatred of the world, and showed the world for what it was.

28 Then said Jesus unto them, When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things.

29 And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him.

30 As he spake these words, many believed on him.

31 Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed;

32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

John 8  King James Bible

To see the Cross with Christ alone carrying the sins of the world, is to dishonour the Father.

The Father of Lies

Swan Lake

 Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do.

We are biological machines built according to instructions carried from generation to generation on molecules of DNA.

Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976) compared these instructions (genes) to Chicago gangsters, and argued that the predominate quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. These are strangely pejorative terms for ‘beings’ that have been working collaboratively to construct successful survival machines for millions of years. The  stunning level of complexity that our genes are able to achieve by working together, deserves a more accurate, and morally neutral anthropomorphism. My preferred simile is  that of ballet dancers working collaboratively, under the choreography of natural selection.

Our existence is ephemeral, like a piece of performance art; or as the old hymn has it, like a dream, fading at the break of day. The dancers (genes) that bring us into being, exist in many others also, and while they are not immortal, have the capacity to be very old indeed. They are successful because they have managed to produce, and/or survive in  successions of disposable bodies, that have transported them through time.

We should expect natural selection to produce, not selfish organisms, but altruists, serving on average the needs of their genes.  This will not necessarily translate into altruism towards other organisms, but it can.

One of the problems with Darwin’s original theory of evolution by natural selection, was that it threw individual organisms into a war of all against all.  The existence of naturally occurring altruism caused problems for this theory; problems that vanish if you consider the gene rather than the organism as the unit of selection.

Richard Dawkins, by his own account, developed his deeply held views about religion, as a consequence of his understanding of evolutionary theory. He shows in his more recent work, e.g. “The God Delusion,” an understanding that natural selection can produce  individuals that behave altruistically,  and even argues that it can give us a basis for morality.

This is not something that he believed when he wrote “The Selfish Gene.”  Then he was very much a nature red in tooth and claw man.  This book contains some very entertaining examples of confirmation bias, as he shares his conviction about the nastiness of it all; and by conflating two very different modes of being, that of the gene and the organism demonstrates to his own satisfaction, that what appears to be altruism, e.g. parental care, or  the willingness to lay down ones life for the good of others, is in fact really selfishness.

But don’t be misled into thinking that the young Richard Dawkins was a misanthrope.  He was very far from it, believing, like 18th century enlightenment man, that human rationality rises us above all the rest of nature; and frees us to pursue disinterested altruism. You will also see from the following quote, that he has failed to realize  that it is our genes that have long-term natural “interests”, not us.

The point I am making now is that even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight – our capacity to simulate the future in imagination – could save us from the worst  selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests.

Richard Dawkins  The Selfish Gene 1976

He also failed to note that the replicators he maligned as Chicago gangsters, have without an ounce of foresight between them, managed for some millions of years, to cooperate towards a common goal, the creation of disposable, and biodegradable survival machines. The following quote is taken from  close to the beginning of the book, shortly after his comparison of genes to Chicago gangsters..

Be warned that if you wish , as I do , to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.  Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.  Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something which no other species has ever aspired to. Richard Dawkins  The Selfish Gene 1976

Our bodies provide evidence, that biological nature has enabled genes to cooperate, towards a common good, and they have done it without any need for either altruism or generosity. Richard Dawkins’, nature red in tooth and claw school of evolutionism, is not based on empirical evidence, and appears as an attempt to import the sheer nastiness of Darwin’s original theory, which saw individual organisms as engaged in the war of all against all, in a bitter battle for survival, into new synthesis biology.

The sheer nastiness of the mechanism understood  to be driving evolution in Darwin’s original theory caused a problem for theism, as it was a mechanism that was hard to reconcile, with the notion of a good God. It is of course not good science, to allow your religious beliefs to interfere with how you interpret scientific evidence,  and I believe Richard Dawkins  to be too honourable a man to be doing this deliberately.  He is the victim of  something  that appears to be instinctive, and therefore coded for in his DNA – confirmation bias.

Ironically Richard Dawkins’ unconscious  bias, his conflation of the gene with the organism, actually hides from view something truly nasty at the core of the modern synthesis.  In Darwin’s original theory all adaptations including instincts were understood to work for the good of the organism.  This is not true for the modern synthesis, where it is the gene, not the organism that is the beneficiary of natural selection.

And the interests  of  the gene and the organism are not identical.  Genes do not have all their eggs (or sperms), in one basket and are therefore able, metaphorically, to play the odds. For instance a gene that caused human beings to play Russian roulette, would result on average in total loss of reproductive fitness for 5 out of 6 of the players. If the pay off for winning increased the  average reproductive fitness of the winner by even marginally over 6 times, then the roulette  gene would increase in the gene pool.

The interests of the  hypothetical, unconscious  roulette gene are obviously not identical with the interests of the majority of the conscious beings whose behaviour would, if it existed, be influenced by this functionally selfish gene. It is a potentially a very dangerous error to assume that following our instincts will  on average lead to good consequences for individual humans, even if the conditions under which we now live, were identical with the conditions under which the instincts evolved.

Risk taking behaviour is fairly obviously not in the average best interests of the organisms engaged in the pursuit. Confirmation bias is not so clear cut a case.  It is possible that it in most cases, at least in the distant past, it increased the survival and reproductive chances of the programmed organism We are social creatures who bond on shared ideas. Stable social groups, allow for the successful raising of offspring which go on and do likewise.  Genes for overruling our rationality, when to continue with a particular line of thought is likely to call into question a core belief/dogma of our society, are likely to increase the average reproductive fitness of those holding them.

Not all of these beliefs are to do with religion. Robert Trivers, the biologist who wrote the original preface to Richard Dawkin’s – The Selfish Gene, holds  Darwin’s original  theory of natural selection, as his dogma.This can be demonstrated in this attack on Stephen Gould, where he accuses him of attempted heresy, over his development of the theory of punctuated equilibrium.

But Steve wanted to turn this into something grander, a justification for replacing natural selection (favoring individual reproductive success) with something called species selection.

Robert Trivers The Mismeasure of Stephen Jay Gould Psychology Today October 2012

Robert Trivers identifies the organism as the individual at the centre of Darwinian selection, and therefore regards confirmation bias as an example of an organism deceiving itself, for its own advantage; rather than an organism being deceived in a way that historically increased the frequency of the programming gene in the gene pool.   Just how bizarre this is can be seen in the central attack he makes in the same  article on the morality of Stephen Gould.

Stephen Gould accused 19th century scientist Samuel George Morton of unconscious bias in measuring the size of human skulls. Morton was trying to ascertain whether or not humans were all members of one species, an activity which Gould believed to be inherently racist. It turned out that it was Gould’s statistics that were biased, not Morton’s measurements. Here is Robert Trivers’ take on how the statistics were arrived at.

Where are the unconscious processes at work here? Is Steve flying upside-down on auto-pilot, unconsciously looking for the actions (substitute Nordic for Tropical, delete all samples smaller than four) that will invite the results he wants (while hiding his bias)? Is the conscious organism really completely in the dark while all of this is going on? Hard to imagine—but at the end the organism appears to be in full self-deception mode—a blow-hard fraudulently imputing fraud, with righteous indignation, coupled with magnanimous forgiveness for the frailties of self-deception in others.

Robert Trivers The Mismeasure of Stephen Jay Gould Psychology Today October 2012

That Stephen Gould made this error is almost unbelievable, but the evidence is that he did.  This mistake would have done  Professor Gould’s reputation no good, had it been caught on in his lifetime, and it has done it harm posthumously.  It has also been used as evidence that racism is scientifically valid, something that would have appalled him, given that he was an ardent campaigner against racism. The disadvantage of doing what he did far outweighs any benefit.  The most likely explanation is that he was unaware of his own bias.

Robert Trivers accepts that the mistake could be consequence of unconscious processes. But by using the term self-deception to describe two very different set of events:one where the organism has no conscious awareness of what is going on, and another where the organism is aware of what is happening and is deliberately manipulating data; he is able to rain down judgement on the heretic.

I suspect there was rather more than loyalty to his dogma going on in the mind of Robert Trivers when he wrote this piece, but I am willing to accept that his unconscious mind was hiding the truth from his conscious mind.

Robert Trivers and Stephen Gould both show evidence of having had their rationality overruled by instinctive confirmation bias.

What happens in confirmation bias reminds me very much of what happens in stage hypnosis, when the hypnotist convinces his subject that there is no other person on the stage. Even when the other person moves objects round the victim is unable to see them, and is convinced that the objects are moving independently.

When intelligent peoples’ attempts to find the truth are subverted by confirmation bias, it is frequently possible to see the metaphorical invisible man – the meme that does not co-ordinate with the socially held belief..This little warning from Richard Dawkins is a case in point:

Be warned that if you wish , as I do , to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.

Given that he was writing about genes as the creators of survival machines, it should have been obvious that natural selection is quite capable of building a society where individuals cooperate towards a common good.  His categorization of genes as selfish, and his use of the  adverbs generously and unselfishly as necessary characteristics of the actions of  cooperating individuals, have been sufficient to hide this reality from him.

Note that I am not suggesting that the process being followed by the young Richard  Dawkins was in any way rational, or deliberately planned, rather that it was the product of a gene working in ways that caused its numbers to increase in the gene pool in times past.  Nor would a discovery that natural selection was capable of producing cooperation have undermined his atheism.  The part of the unconscious programmed for confirmation bias had  however no way of accessing that data.

Richard Dawkins is not the only anti-theist in whose writings the invisible man .can be found. The following quote from Bertrand Russell argues that it is dogma that is the cause of religious persecution, and that communism is a religion because it to has dogma.

Cruel persecutions have been commoner in Christendom than anywhere else. What appears to justify persecution is dogmatic belief. Kindliness and tolerance only prevail in proportion as dogmatic belief decays. In our day, a new dogmatic religion, namely, communism, has arisen. To this, as to other systems of dogma, the agnostic is opposed.

Bertrand Russell What is an Agnostic 1953

The first line of this quote is the invisible man.  Cruel persecutions were common in Christendom, but that is not what the quote says. This passage arguing that dogma is a feature of religious belief, includes a piece of anti-religious dogma, which Russell treats as though it were a fact. Would you like to bet that cruel persecutions were more common in Christendom than they were in Nazi Germany, or Japanese Prisoner-of-war camps, or that Bertrand Russell had the figures to back up this claim?

This  following passage and conclusion taken from his “Is there a God,” essay show that his social commitment was as he claimed to agnosticism, at least at one level.  But he identified with two social groups, philosophers where agnosticism was the respectable view, but also with atheists.

I will say further that, if there be a purpose and if this purpose is that of an Omnipotent Creator, then that Creator, so far from being loving and kind, as we are told, must be of a degree of wickedness scarcely conceivable. A man who commits a murder is considered to be a bad man. An Omnipotent Deity, if there be one, murders everybody. A man who willingly afflicted another with cancer would be considered a fiend. But the Creator, if He exists, afflicts many thousands every year with this dreadful disease. A man who, having the knowledge and power required to make his children good, chose instead to make them bad, would be viewed with execration. But God, if He exists, makes this choice in the case of very many of His children. …………..My conclusion is that there is no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology and, further, that there is no reason to wish that they were true.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

  • If you define good in the normal way, and not as some theists, including I think St  Anselm, the originator of the ontological argument, do – as might is right,
  • And if you define omnipotence as Bertrand Russell did, as being able to achieve anything without need of process or plan,
  • Then an omnipotent god could achieve all he wanted without allowing suffering.  And as suffering exists therefore any God who exists is not both good in the normal sense of the word, and omnipotent in the way that Bertrand Russell defines the word.
  • And Bertrand Russell has proved that there is good reason not to believe in one of the dogmas of traditional theology, and not the much weaker conclusion he gave at the end of the essay – the dogma of the agnostic, there is no reason to believe.

Bertrand Russell having proved that it was impossible for a god to be, as he defined the words, omnipotent and good, then dismissed the idea of a God who is not omnipotent, with two dogmatic assertions. First he claimed that the idea that God was not omnipotent was modern to Christianity.Then that there was no positive reason in its favour.

That all Christian’s have always believed up until recently that God could achieve his aims without process is a very big claim; and being logically possible is a positive, though not sufficient  reason in favour of a belief.

The strong case against an omnipotent god, and his dogmatic claims on views that he classifies as non-traditional, do not coordinate with Bertrand Russell’s view of himself as a rational agnostic  But the way his argument  is developed demonstrates  that Russell was socially committed to agnosticism. He valued his perceived rationality, more than his atheism.

It seems that Russell agrees on at least one point with William James, that it was certainty that led to the cruel persecutions of the inquisition. His segue into the Celestial Teapot argument comes between his successful argument against the existence of  an omnipotent and good god, and a dismissal of any other view of a god as non-traditional, and a conclusion, to the essay that does not follow from the arguments made.

The Celestial teapot functions here for Russell, as the words generously and unselfishly did for Richard Dawkins.  It serves as a distraction. By using this illustration of the tiny orbiting teapot as an analogy for religious dogma, Russell is able to convince himself that, he really is a rational agnostic; and that the evil certainty that leads to persecution lies elsewhere, in the religious dogmatist. And so he concludes with the defining dogma of the agnostic – there is no reason to believe . This despite the fact that there is every reason to believe that the god, that he defines as the God of traditional theology does not exist externally to the human mind.

The god that Bertrand Russell proved to be non-existent, is based on the the god of Anselm’s ontological argument. The god that Anselm defined as, that than which nothing greater can be conceived to exist, and from this definition proved to his own satisfaction, and that of a surprising number of other philosophers, including for a brief time the young Bertrand Russell, to be a necessary being. Reading  through the Proslogion, where Anselm puts forth his argument, you will find reference to the Godless fool, and Anselm’s acknowledgement that his  own understanding  of that than which no greater can be conceived, is equivalent  to the understanding of the fool.

Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

The Proslogion  Anselm 1077-1078

Rather than recognizing the folly of limiting  the greatness of a Creator to that which a fool might imagine to be great, Anselm’s attention turns to the stupidity of the Godless fool of Psalm 14, and concentrates on the area where  he and the alleged fool differ, whether or not the god of their imagining actually exists.  Deciding that it was the fool’s dullness, that prevented him from realizing that his imaginings must coincide with reality..

And so Anselm was able to transform the imaginings of a fool, into not just an angel of light, but the god of heaven.

Confirmation bias is the instinct that likes to say yes.  It may in a less crowded world have been useful in holding social groups together, but in our world it is extremely dangerous.  It leaves us unable to understand the viewpoint of others,  whether, because we or they are blinded by confirmation bias, or more likely both. Intelligence is no help, because a person who is blinded by confirmation bias, has their intelligence subverted to hiding the truth from them.

Confirmation bias, appears to be the work of a functionally selfish Dawkinsian gene, that is common in the human gene pool.  The behaviour that it programs for is capable of inducing intolerance, anger; and cruel persecutions.  It is the enemy, not flesh and blood.

Before we can resist the devil and all his works we must first recognize him.

Related Articles

  1. John S. Michael Stephen Jay Gould and Samuel George Morton: A Personal Commentary
  2. Lewis et al The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias  PLoS Biol. Jun 2011

Swift’s Judgement Day

Anselm, ( c. 1033 – 21 April 1109)  the first of the  scholastic philosophers believed that man was a rational creature, and that it was possible using reason alone to understand the nature of God, and to prove his existence.

Jonathan Swift, (30 November 1667 – 19 October 1745) set out to debunk the first of these beliefs – that man was a rational animal- in his satirical novel, Gulliver’s Travels.

You can see in Gulliver’s 4th journey, his visit to Houhynhnmland, the land of the rational horses, a direct reference to the following quotation taken from Anselm’s Monologion.

Furthermore, if one observes the nature of things be perceives, whether he will or no, that not all are embraced in a single degree of dignity; but that certain among them are  distinguished by inequality of degree. For, he who doubts that the horse is superior in its nature to wood, and man more excellent than the horse, assuredly does not deserve the name of man. The Monologion   Chapter 4 Anselm 1077

In the extremely  hierarchical society of the talking horses, Gulliver is shown to lose all self-respect, as he comes to regard the horses as more rational and therefore superior in nature to himself. With this loss of  respect he comes to regard himself as a yahoo rather than a man.

The Struldbrugs, the immortals that Gulliver meets on his third voyage, they who become older and increasingly infirm, but never die, can be understood as a reference to another passage from the writings of Anselm. This time not from the  Monologion,  but from his reply to the Monk Gaunilo, who had been underwhelmed by the logic of  Anselm’s Proslogion and the ontological argument for the existence of God.  (Jonathan Swift was a long way from being the first Christian, to be unconvinced by Anselm’s arguments.)

 For instance, who (even if he does not believe that what he conceives of exists in  reality) supposing that there is some good which has a beginning and an end, does not  conceive that a good is much better, which, if it begins, does not cease to be?
Anselm’s reply to Gaunilo       

  Swift is using the Struldburgs as an illustration of the dangers of  naïve extrapolation: of assuming that because something is good in small quantity that increasing the quantity will increase the goodness. I am an admirer of Jonathan Swift, but I think the point was made more entertainingly in the 20th century by the Canadian comedian, actor, screenwriter and singer Dan Aykroyd.; in the 1984 movie Ghostbusters, which he not only acted in but also  co-wrote,with Harold Ramis.

.

In this movie the fictional ancient Sumerian god Gozer the Destructor, gives the Ghostbuster team the option of choosing the form of his coming incarnation.  Dan Aykroyd’s character Ray Stantz thinks of the safest thing he can imagine, Mr Stay Puft the marshmallow man, and it turns out that in large quantities he isn’t safe at all.

File:Stay-puft-marshmallow-man.jpg

In Swift’s poem, The Judgement Day, you can also see a  reference to the ontological argument. Just as the god of the ontological argument – He than whom none greater can be conceived to exist- is presented as existing in the imagination, so is the god Jove in this poem. He is however presented as a nightmare, a being that Swift does not conceive to exist in reality.

However fear not dear Catholic reader: Roman Catholicism is not here the target of Swift’s satire, that honour is preserved for the Protestant Reformers. They who took the ontological argument as their own, and decided that what was most maximally great about God was his retributive justice, and that all of us were in his sight so flawed that the only just thing he could do with something as offensive as us, was to visit his infinite justice upon us: and burn us for all eternity. That is unless we submitted  to the authority and teaching of the particular hell-ologian, and recognised all those who believed differently as damned.

‘Offending race of human kind,

By nature, reason, learning, blind;

These two lines, taken from Swift’s poem, are a fairly accurate account of how the reformers thought, God saw humanity, except of course those parts that had accepted the particular light that they were peddling. (There is reason to think that they don’t  reflect the attitude of Jonathan Swift, who frequently wrote in a voice not his own; and thought that we were rationis capax – capable of reason, rather than reason blind.)

This is a god to whom we are so disgusting that if he walked among us he would require, as Gulliver did when ejected from the land of the Houyhnhnm, a nosegay to hide our stench.  This god is as far from the God, Christ called Father, as it is possible to be.

Swift time-bound as he was would have been unable to identify this antichrist as Gozer, but in identifying him with the Roman god Jove, he has done something better. He has by a one letter difference identified the characteristic of Christ and His Father, that this god absolutely lacks.

This poem ends with Swift’s Jove, visiting on generations of hell-ologists, the satirist’s version of ultimate retributive justice – the justice of being the eternal butt of the joke.

The Judgement Day

by Jonathan Swift

With a whirl of thought oppressed,

I sunk from reverie to rest.

A horrid vision seized my head,

I saw the graves give up their dead!

Jove armed with terrors, bursts the skies,

And thunder roars and lightning flies!

Amazed, confused, its fate unknown,

The world stands trembling at his throne!

While each pale sinner hangs his head,

Jove, nodding, shook the heavens, and said:

‘Offending race of human kind,

By nature, reason, learning, blind;

You who, through frailty, stepped aside;

And you who never fell—through pride:

You who in different sects have shammed,

And come to see each other damned;

(So some folks told you, but they knew

No more of Jove’s designs than you)

The world’s mad business now is o’er,

And I resent these pranks no more.

I to such blockheads set my wit!

I damn such fools!—Go, go, you’re bit’

  1. Derek Flood’s Blog (therebelgod.com)
  2. Man is a Rational Animal Sometimes (open.salon.com/blog/richard_erlich)
  3. A Corrupting Meme (teapotology.wordpress.com)

The Keys of Hell

Russell 3 Passions

There is, it is true a Modernist form of theism, according to which God is not omnipotent, but is doing His best, in spite of great difficulties. This view, although it is new among Christians, is not new in the history of thought. It is, in fact, to be found in Plato. I do not think this view can be proved to be false. I think all that can be said is that there is no positive reason in its favour. Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

God omnipotent is the god of the ontological argument, a god defined by  human wisdom. A god that arose without reference to either scripture or empirical reality, from the mind of  Anselm, ( c. 1033 – 21 April 1109)  the first of the  scholastic philosophers.(3) It is a very big claim indeed to leap from that, to this is what all Christians have believed up until recently. One of Bertrand Russells’ alleged Modernists was the First World War army chaplain, preacher and poet, G.A. Studdert Kennedy. (1883 -1929) Studdert Kennedy saw the implications of an omnipotent god as clearly as any atheist and raged against this abomination as a notion born of human hubris.studdert-kennedy_gaGod, I hate this splendid vision – all its splendour is a lie,

Splendid fools see splendid folly, splendid mirage born to die
. . . .
And I hate the God of Power on His hellish heavenly throne,
Looking down on rape and murder,hearing little children moan.
Though a million angels hail Thee King of kings, yet cannot I.
There is nought can break the silence of my sorrow save the cry,
“Thou who rul’st this world of sinners with Thy heavy iron rod,
Was there ever any sinner who has sinned the sin of God? . . . 
Praise to God in Heaven’s highest and in all the depths be praise,
Who in all His works is brutal, like a beast in all His ways.”

G.A. Studdert Kennedy  from High and Lifted Up  in  Rhymes Published 1929

It is more common to see this honest realisation, of the nonsensical horror that omnipotence makes of Christianity, in the writings of atheists, than Christians.

It is widely believed that omnipotence is a biblical teaching, and it is certainly possible to use scripture to defend that notion.  But the necessary omnipotence of God, at the deep philosophical level is not derived from scripture but from philosophy and the ontological argument of Anselm, ( c. 1033 – 21 April 1109)  the first of the  scholastic philosophers.

The ontological argument

  • God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived .
  • A being that exists in reality is greater than one which only exists in the mind
  • Therefore God exists, to such a great extent, that he is a necessary being; one that cannot be conceived not to exist.

This god of Anselm’s argument was great in other ways than merely being maximally powerful. He was also maximally good.  And for the medieval monk Anselm, this meant maximally rational, and with none of those nasty sinful human emotions such as compassion.

How he is compassionate and passionless. God is compassionate, in terms of our experience, because we experience the effect of compassion. God is not compassionate, in terms of his own being, because he does not experience the feeling (affectus) of compassion.
The Proslogion  Anselm 1077-1078

This god, is not the God the apostle tells us of.  This is god as sounding gong, and tinkling cymbal. 1 Corinthians Chapter 13.

This is a god, for whom we are worthless subjects, of no intrinsic value. This is a god who can do no evil, because he is perfectly entitled to do whatever he wants to his worthless creation. This is vile, and its consequences were vile.

This is not the God at the centre of Christianity.

The ontological  argument was made at a time when the medieval church was in dispute with the crowned heads of Europe, over whether Church or Crown should have ultimate power. The crown had the armies, but this monstrous, omnipotent, unloving god of Anselm’s, handed to the medieval church the key of hell – the power to terrorise those who defied its power with eternal damnation.

This is the god in whose service, those who saw themselves as his chosen enforcers, of his truth and virtue, tortured and murdered their way through medieval Europe.

As I mentioned earlier it is more common to find atheists than Christians who recognise that god omnipotent is an abomination.  One such atheist is blogger Nathan Pratt, who became an atheist after the death of his brother.  He has at times been told  that he isn’t really an atheist just angry with God.  A claim that he responds to by saying that he can’t be angry at something that doesn’t exist.(1)

Richard Dawkins makes a similar claim about the existence of omnipotent god, comparing him to the tooth fairy and denying the existence of both.

Coming from the father of meme theory, I find Richard Dawkins claim that the  tooth fairy doesn’t exist surprising. There is clear empirical evidence that it does.

The tooth fairy is a meme with the power to affect human behaviour.  It causes one group of people to hide teeth under their pillow, and another set to discreetly replace the teeth with coins.  It is a meme driven by the human instincts of trust and love. It takes what can be an uncomfortable and emotionally distressing part of growing up, and makes it life affirming: something to be looked forward to rather than dreaded.

Omnipotent god is similarly a meme with the power to affect behaviour. It exists as a terror inducing piece of software in human brains. Like the tooth fairy it is driven by human instincts, but in this case they are fear and the will to power.

Anger and hate directed towards this abomination of all that is Good and Holy, are rationally justifiable emotions. 

And I hate the God of Power on His hellish heavenly throne

Hate of the meme, not the meme infected person.

G.A. Studdert Kennedy recognised the abomination for what it was and saw a different God.

God, the God I love and worship, reigns in sorrow on the Tree,
Broken bleeding but unconquered, very God of God to me
. . .
In the life of one an outcast and a vagabond on earth,
In the common things He valued, and proclaimed of priceless worth
And above all in the horror of the cruel death he died,
Thou hast bid us seek Thy glory, in a criminal crucified,
And we find it – for Thy glory is the glory of Love’s loss,
And thou hast no other splendour but the splendour of the cross . . .
On my knees I fall and worship that great Cross that shines above,
For the very God of Heaven is not Power, but Power of Love.

G.A. Studdert Kennedy  from High and Lifted Up  in  Rhymes Published 1929

In the prologue to his 1956 autobiography, Bertrand Russell listed the three passions which governed his life. One of those was the unbearable pity he felt for the suffering of mankind, and his powerlessness to solve it. (2) And he is right in this pity is a debilitating emotion, it drains the pitier and demeans the pitied.

It is not the worst emotion which the abused and degraded of humanity experience the effects of.  The other is contempt and blame.  We make yahoos of and dehumanize those whose suffering we cannot bear to empathise with:  An observation made by Jonathan Swift, a man who living in 18th Century Ireland had plenty of opportunity to witness the treatment meted out to brutalised and degraded humanity; and satirized in the widely misunderstood 4th journey of Gulliver’s Travels. (Where the word yahoo comes from.)(4)

The Suffering God, the Man upon the Cross, the God of Studdert Kennedy  is the Meme that gives Ultimate Worth to suffering humanity.

God, the God I love and worship, reigns in sorrow on the Tree,
Broken bleeding but unconquered, very God of God to me . . .

In place of contempt and rejection, or the humiliation of being pitied, it gives to all humanity the Ultimate Value that only Love can give.

This is the power of the Cross.  The Key that opens the gates of hell and sets the prisoners free.

To believe, as I think both Bertrand Russell and Studdert Kennedy did, that Love is the Ultimate Value is arational not irrational.

When Russell argues in, Is There a God? that there is no positive reason to believe that  God, is not omnipotent, he is of course wrong.  To be omnipotent in the philosophical sense is to be able to act without need of pain and process.  Studdert Kennedy saw for himself in the trenches of the First World War, that there is empirical evidence that if the Ultimate Power is the God of Love, then He is not omnipotent in the philosophical sense.

The necessary characteristic of the Christian God is not omnipotence but love.  1John Chapter 4 Verse 8.

Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

1 Corinthians Chapter 13 Verses   4 -8

Related articles
  1. Nathan Pratt’s Blog (unpackthat thought .wordpress .com)
  2. Three Passions to Live For (edicio.wordpress.com)
  3. A Corrupting Meme (teapotology.wordpress.com)
  4. The Three Faces of Cave Hill (teapotology.wordpress.com)