Posts filed under ‘Richard’
Some time ago I wrote an article for this blog discussing my take on the issue of who, “really”, is a Christian. This comes up when you are told, as we all have been at one time or another, that you never really were a Christian in the first place – because if you de-convert, it somehow proves the alleged falseness or insincerity of your prior belief.
My basic argument was that there is no answer to the question. The reason is that “Christian” is an arbitrary human group designation that is used with different (implicit) definitions by different groups. Since none of those groups has accepted authority to establish a (or the) correct definition, and since “Christian” does not (as we used to believe) refer to anything divine or supernatural, it follows that there can be no final, ultimate, “correct” definition. There is no right answer to whether “I was a Christian” is true or not, independent of context and a pre-chosen definition.
I still think my answer is substantially correct. But its not exactly punchy. It takes a bit of explaining, and that won’t always do in the heat of an argument. When faced with confrontation and criticism from friends, former friends, and others who challenge us, it helps to have an answer at the ready that doesn’t depend on delving into philosophical issues of “natural kinds” vs “nominal kinds”. I wanted something more memorable – compact & colorful, more visual and less abstract.
So after continuing to chew on this, I think I’ve come up with one. So, let me share it here and you all can tell me what you think.
Here’s the setting: you are telling a friend, coworker, or stranger on the web that you used to be a Christian, but you deconverted. She scoffingly replies that that means you never were one in the first place; true Christians remain faithful and never leave. (Or, as a variant, as was said to me once, that you cannot lose your salvation, so you are still a Christian whether you think you are or not.)
I think I will call this Kenobi’s Fallacy...
Much ink has been spilled in the skeptical community over the issue of labels. What should we call ourselves: atheists, or agnostics? Which term is more “justified”? Here, I toss my own hat into the ring on this question… and then I will argue that this issue is unimportant, distracting, and, potentially, divisive.
There is at least a small upside to this issue, which is why I’m including my own reasoning. The only potentially serious function it has, in my view, is that it provides a convenient arena in which to explore some epistemology. “Epistemology” is that branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge – how do we know what we know? Hashing out the atheist vs. agnostic question can be an entry way into how we approach questions of knowledge. We can sharpen our critical thinking skills and learn some philosophy to boot. To the degree that they serve that purpose, such debates can be informative, maybe even useful. There’s a serious downside, though, but I’ll save that for the end. So, for what intellectual exercise it’s worth, here’s my take on this question:
I start by defining terms: theism, of course, refers to belief in god(s). Atheism, then, obviously refers to a lack of belief in god(s). Agnosticism is the assertion that it is not possible to know the answer, and thus a refusal to opine (with any confidence) on the existence of god(s).
Now, some atheists define atheism broadly. They suggest it can mean one who asserts, “there is no god”, but also one who simply lacks (by choice or happenstance) any belief in god. This is a rather fine distinction, but real enough, I think. The former position is sometimes called “hard” atheism, the latter, “soft” atheism. However, since a “soft” atheist (a) does not assert “there is no god”, and also (b) does not assert “there is a god”, for my part I do not see any difference between this position, and agnosticism. So, for my usage of these terms below, I will restrict the word “atheism” to the “hard” variety: an atheist is one who asserts “there is no god.”…
To many in the fundamentalist world, Thanksgiving is an especially difficult day to be a nonbeliever. It lays bare, they believe, the clear hypocrisy of a belief system they regard as one giant exercise in willful denial. It brings out with rather embarrassing clarity, they cluck, the God-shaped hole they presume sits at the core of our worldview. After all, we don’t believe in their god, so by our own rebellious logic, we have no one to thank. So why don’t we just sit around and mope on Thanksgiving Day?
So: either celebrate the holiday and admit you’re a hypocrite, or have the courage of your convictions to do nothing this Thursday, admitting that thankfulness without the fundamentalist God is irrational. Gotcha!
As always, these sorts of facile, black-and-white polarities obscure a whole lot of thoughtfulness and real human nuance. But today, let’s thank them for spurring us to think it through, and answer their challenge: why does it make sense to be thankful, if you don’t believe in a providential god?
I will even grant – because I think it’s entirely true – that gratitude is a salutary emotion. And I think this is true (mostly) for the reasons fundamentalists themselves lay out: it impels us to “count our blessings.” Gratitude makes us attend to, and hence appreciate, what we have. That’s a good thing…
“God has a plan for your life!”
Many people have heard this bold declaration from fundamentalist Christian apologists. It is meant, and heard as, an invitation to join the great story of redemption that God is authoring, to be a part of the inevitable sweep of human history and indeed of all Creation. It is an invitation experienced by believers as deeply personal and yet, simultaneously, epic. And judging from the numbers and influence of evangelical Christianity, this claim has a powerful appeal. But I want to look more closely at this appeal, and to try to understand it better from a psychological perspective. As rhetoric, how does this work?
Most people living in Western culture have some familiarity Christian stories. I say “stories” because there are more than one – the individual events and legends in the life of Jesus, the parables he told, and the overarching narrative of the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus himself. More importantly, the Christian story seamlessly weaves a believers own, individual story – his or her life – into this grand Christian drama. Stories, in Christianity (as in all religions), are a big deal.
The is a growing convergence of thought that storytelling may be relatively central to the functioning of the human mind itself. We are, after all, enveloped by stories from birth to death. Stories exist in every culture that has ever been recorded. Young children naturally tell stories, and crave to hear them. Moreover, so far as we know, no other animal tells stories. We tell stories about sports teams and figures, about celebrities and politicians, and about each other around the proverbial water cooler every day. We gossip. Television, books, movies, and many internet blogs provide a constant stream of stories into our homes every day…
In this article, I want to examine one of the more recognizable yet curious features of fundamentalist belief: the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Fundamentalist Christian apologists claim that the Bible is perfect and without error – certainly a striking thing to claim of any book. And this “wow factor” is exactly what gets apologists their mileage with this maneuver. If one were to become convinced that the Christian Bible really is utterly flawless in everything it says, that would certainly be a powerful argument for the truth of a religion based on it.
Now, let me remind the reader that in this series I am assuming a naturalistic stance. I am assuming without argument here that the Bible is not actually inerrant. Instead, what I wish to look at here is two things: one, how to apologists do it? How can they possibly argue that the Bible – which on an honest first reading appears to be resplendent in contradictions and errors – actually only has “apparent contradictions”, not “real” ones? Secondly, why do they do so? What is the pull of this idea, and why is it so hard to let go of for those de-converting?…
In this section I would like to examine one of the claims often made by conservative religionists, namely, that nonbelievers have no basis for morality or ethics.
This is a common apologetic maneuver. It is partly a scare tactic, to be sure, but partly, I think they say this because it really looks that way to them. From within a fundamentalist framework, based on what’s called “divine command” ethical theory, such claims can seem compelling, even natural. It seems natural and obvious that, if there is a Deity, then doing the will of the deity guarantees that one will do what is good. Without God, the universe would seem to devolve into an aimless, amoral chaos. Why do anything if there is no God? Why not cheat, lie, murder, and steal if there is no higher right and wrong and we’re all dead in the end, anyway? “If God is dead, all is permitted.”
How ultimately satisfying such a view is is another matter (e.g., Euthyphro problem), but perhaps us former believers can sympathetically recall its appeal. It does make things rather easy – your moral duty is handed to you. Nevertheless, on leaving the faith we often must work to extricate ourselves from the sometimes long shadow of this worldview. In this article, I would like to propose a naturalistic “basis” for these human needs and thus work to allay the fears of those in the midst of de-conversion. In so doing, I also hope to shed some light on what has gone wrong in the fundamentalist worldview in adopting such absolutist standards in the first place…
In this, our third essay on the psychological and rhetorical techniques that underlie evangelical Christian apologetics, we will examine some evangelical Christian claims that seem devilishly difficult to prove wrong. We have all heard such claims. They would include the following:
- If you de-convert from Christianity, you never really were a Christian at all
- All Christians, in right relationship with God, experience peace in the face of adversity
- If you sincerely seek God you will find Him
- “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move.” (Matthew 17:20, NIV)
What I will argue is that such statements either are not actually claims about the world at all, and hence insulate themselves from disconfirming empirical evidence by defining it away, or else they are claims/predictions, but rely on vague, ill-defined subjective states and thus, are impossible to confirm. In each case, I will elucidate the issues involved and then tie it in with the relevant psychological issues…