Sunday, April 6, 2014

1. Theological Terrors

Here is something a bit different from my usual postings on early 20th century horror, fantasy and science fiction.  Now and then I like to share some of my other interests with readers, one of them being theology and philosophy of religion.  (And it’s a Sunday morning in the middle of Lent as I write this.)  

Regular visitors to The R’lyeh Tribune know or suspect that your humble blogger is a mediocre Christian whose world view tends towards the Calvinist in orientation.  With respect to horror fiction, at least in America, it seems that a thorough understanding of the genre is enhanced by awareness of the religious traditions—Puritanism in particular—that serve as the base material.  For example, H.P. Lovecraft in some sense is a Puritan, but without a belief in salvation, and this dynamic generates much of the cosmic horror in his work. 

Last month I had the pleasure of joining a spirited—if I may use that word among atheists—dialogue hosted by one of the more philosophical communities on Google+.  The various postings reveal that the group is more than merely an atheist echo chamber—a diversity of questions and views are entertained.  Mysteriously, few of the members agreed with my arguments or points of view.  And I have to admit I faced formidable opposition.

What follows is largely my response to the topics discussed, separated by paraphrased versions of my opponents’ remarks.  (These are in italics.)  The question which opened the debate is a classic one: 

“Atheists claim they have solid evidence disproving the existence of God. What is your opinion about that?” 

There are many ways to look at this very ancient question of whether "evidence" is available to prove or disprove the existence of God.  Of course, there is no evidence whatsoever, one way or the other, but none is necessary.  Either you believe or not—your choice—and this choice is not made on the basis of reason, objectivity, or evidence.  It's made on the basis of grace—a concept that may be unintelligible to some of you. 

Some of the previous arguments assume that knowledge or ‘the truth’ is acquired solely through an application of reason.  But this is preposterous.  Humans experience the world more through faith than reason.  They are primarily believing creatures, who use their reason to support whatever it is they believe in.  So the choice is not about what evidence you use, but what you believe in first of all.  This determines what evidence you look for and trust.  To some extent, we create the worlds we live in by what we choose to believe and attend to.  

How do you know?

As a Christian in the Calvinist tradition, do you believe that without the “human sacrifice at the end of the gospels” and a sincere profession of faith, humans deserve eternal damnation because of original sin and their “total depravity”?

•Doesn’t your concept of grace make discussing this issue pointless?  We may choose what to believe or not to believe, but we cannot choose to receive this grace.

The simplistic answer to question of ‘how I know’ is the old lyric: "Because the Bible tells me so."  But more seriously, I know this is so intuitively and subjectively.  (Incidentally, it is doubtful there is such a thing as objectivity.  Knowing something is ultimately a subjective experience, in my view, no matter what the object of attention.) 

Yes to the second comment, whether you conceive of the total depravity of the human race as genetic in origin or the result of original sin.  There is unfortunately abundant evidence that humanity is evil to the core and in need of salvation.  Now whether someone is deserving of eternal damnation is not a decision anyone currently on earth is qualified to make, though.  As for the third point, it does not seem to logically follow that discussing the matter is pointless if the concept of grace is introduced.  Religious faith is not possible without the grace of God.  It is doctrinally correct that we cannot choose to be granted grace, but why would someone assume they have not already received it or won't in the future?

Isn’t denying the possibility of objectivity a cop-out?  Denying objectivity is equivalent to claiming that all beliefs are equally true.  While perfect objectivity may never be realized, making the attempt is probably the only valid way to determine right and wrong answers.

Doesn’t Calvinism imply predestination?  Perhaps I have received this grace in the past or will again in the future, but invoking it in this discussion will not make it so.

• On a personal level, Calvinism, original sin, and salvation seem implausible, as does belief in God.  And the Calvinist world view appears remarkably bleak and negative.  What about newborn babies?  A “totally depraved” infant is a particularly strange idea.  Rather than “original sin”, it seems a better explanation of humanity’s evil lies in the theory of evolution.  We are animals and often behave like them.  But our neocortex gives us the capacity to reason and to rise above our animal natures—it makes us able to be generous and kind, and not just toward those who are close to us.

•Knowing something may be a subjective experience, but the reasons which support the understanding are not.  It appears that the authors of the Bible could not actually know what they claimed to be true.  My view is that the Bible is fictional, not factual.

 I’m not sure that it necessarily follows that suspicion of so-called objectivity means all beliefs are considered equally valid.  Human self-interest will always reduce the absolute "truthiness" and trustworthiness of any proposition.  Regarding "totally depraved" newborn infants: you indicate above that we are animals, or at least very much like them, which seems quite true.  Why then would a human infant be any more innocent than a lion cub?  Both are capable of violence when mature, the human even more so.  All humans are capable of evil, which is the insight from the doctrine of original sin.  Our neocortex also allows us to invent and carry out spectacular evil in the world, which we routinely do.

Readers can certainly find much to criticize in the Bible and how its teachings have been applied over the centuries.  The Bible is probably neither fictional nor factual, but in a category of its own. Yet millions still derive great meaning and value from it thousands of years after the original documents were written.  How many will still be reading Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet in even 50 years?

(To be continued.)

I will close this post with a quote from one of my favorite atheist philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche: 

“If a man have a strong faith he can indulge in the luxury of skepticism.”

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