Monday, August 25, 2014

From the Archives: The Paradox of the Stone and the Challenge of Defining "God"

Since I'm talking about the challenge of defining "God" in my philosophy of religion class this week, I thought I'd reprint this post, from an earlier occasion when I covered the same material.

This week in my philosophy of religion class we are talking about the concept of God. Since I have already expressed my views on how "God" should be defined in Is God a Delusion?, I don't intend to simply repeat myself here. But I do want to say a few words about some common challenges to the coherence of the traditional Western theological understanding of God--which, in the language I use in my book, is a "substantive definition" (one that defines God in terms of a set of properties) as opposed to an ostensive definition (which would define God by metaphorically "pointing," as Schleiermacher does when he defines God as the "Whence" of our feeling of absolute dependence) or a formal one (which sets out a procedure for arriving at divine properties, as Anselm does) or a functional one (which is what I tend to favor).

As I worded it in class, the dominant substantive definition of God in Western theology takes God to be "the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator of the world who is transcendent, eternal, and self-existent."

One common challenge to God thus conceived targets the property of omnipotence, arguing that it is incoherent to attribute this property to anything. Another challenges the co-possibility of divine omniscience and creaturely freedom. Of course, the most historically important objection to theism is the argument from evil, which in some of its forms challenges the possibility of there existing a being characterized by omnipotence and omnibenevolence in a world with the amount and kind of evil we find in this one (I won't consider this challenge here, since I will be devoting considerable attention to it later in the semester).

The main thing I want to consider here is what significance such challenges have for the devoted religious believer. For this purpose, let me focus on the challenge to divine omnipotence. In its most common form, this challenge starts with the so-called Paradox of the Stone, which asks, "Can God create a stone so heavy that God cannot lift it?" The argument, roughly, is that however one answers this question one must reject divine omnipotence. Either God can create such a stone, in which case there is something He cannot do, namely lift said stone; or God cannot create such a stone, in which case there is again something God cannot do.

The traditional response to this argument is to define omnipotence in terms of the capacity to do whatever is logically possible--and then to note that it is not logically possible to create a stone so heavy that it cannot be lifted by a being that has the power to lift every possible stone. As such, on the assumption that God is omnipotent, God creating a stone God cannot lift is logically impossible--and since omnipotence is defined as the ability to do whatever is logically possible, the inability for God to create said stone is no restriction on God's omnipotence. It would be like saying that God cannot create a round square or make it true that two plus two equals seventeen.

Of course, if we define omnipotence as the capacity to do even what is logically impossible, then the paradox of the stone is a non-starter. If logical consistency is of no consequence to God, then God could do the logically impossible thing of creating a stone so heavy God could not lift it...and then lifting it (while it remaining true that God could not do so).

But while this solution to the Paradox of the Stone strikes me as sound insofar as it goes, it obscures what I find to be a deeper and more profound question raised by the paradox: Can an omnipotent being limit its power so that it ceases to be omnipotent? And if it can, would a God who did so thereby cease to be God?

How one answers these questions has some very interesting implications. First of all, it has implications for what one thinks about about the idea of "kenosis" that has been proposed (and vigorously debated) by some Christian theologians. "Kenosis" refers to a kind of divine "emptying" that some theologians invoked to help to make sense of the Christian doctrine of incarnation. The question at issue has to do with how Jesus' humanity is to be understood in relation to His divinity. If God is all-knowing, and if Jesus is God, does that mean the baby Jesus was born with a full knowledge of 21st Century string theory and could have explained it at three weeks of age to anyone who might have understood what He was saying?

Some theologians have thought that to answer "yes" to questions of this kind is to strip Jesus of his humanity. To be human involves living a human life--and to be born possessing all the infinite knowledge of the universe pretty much precludes that. Such a being would be a divine being wearing human skin, not a human being at all. But Jesus is supposed to be both fully human and fully God. Is there a way to make sense of this?

Some theologians, inspired in part by Phillipians 2:6-8, suggested that the solution was to suppose that in order to be truly human, the incarnate God "emptied" Himself of at least some divine attributes--in effect becoming limited in knowledge and power, etc. That is, in order to authentically share in the human condition and live in solidarity with God's finite creatures, God didn't just pretend to be a finite creature alongside us but actually took on real finitude.

This idea of kinosis took on different forms among its advocates. Some thought it involved a total abandonment of the divine nature while others distinguished among divine properties--distinguishing God's moral attributes from God's "physical" ones (such things as omnipotence, omniscience, and timelessness) and arguing that the incarnate God preserved the former while abandoning the latter.

What is important to note for my purposes here is that this kenotic theory has implications for how we are to understand divinity. Marilyn McCord Adams, in Christ and Horrors, puts the point in these terms:

If partial absolute kenosis (the theory that Jesus is emptied of God's "physical" attributes but not the moral ones) retains the traditional claim that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit could not exist without being God, it insists that not all the perfections formerly thought to be essential to Godhead were genuinely necessary to It. So-called physical attributes are allegedly the permanent but contingent possession of the Father and the Holy Spirit, and are contingently had, then abandoned, then repossessed by the Son. Thus, it seems, with respect to some perfections, Godhead essentially includes a capacity for them but not their actuality. (Italics in original)
Here we have a theology which, metaphorically speaking, maintains that God can create a stone so heavy that God cannot lift it--that, in other words, it is in the power of God to impose real limits on God's capacity to exercise power (as well as on God's knowledge, eternity, immunity from harm, etc.) but that the God so limited remains God.

Another variant of kenosis can be and has been posited apart from the uniquely Christian concern with making sense of the incarnation. Specifically, some have argued that the very act of creation is an act of the divine imposing limits on itself--that a divine withdrawal and abdication of power is essential for establishing the "otherness" of the created world, thus preserving its status as a reality distinct from God that can evolve on its own terms and eventually acquire (in accord with its own rules) the capacity to autonomously enter into a self-other relationship with God. This is an idea articulated, for example, in the kabbalistic notion of Tzimtzum, and it is also expressed in the writing of Simone Weil. Put simply, the idea is that the existence of a universe that isn't simply swallowed up into God requires the establishment of a kind of boundary or demarcation between God and the created world, one which implies limits on what God can do in relation to that world. On this view, in effect, the act of creating the universe is an act of creating a stone that God cannot lift.

The question then becomes, does God remain God after creation if the act of creation necessitates divine limitation? Or, perhaps better, do those who ascribe to theological views like Tzimtzum have to give up calling the object of their religious devotion God? I don't think so, but if not it makes little sense to insist that "God" just means what is expressed in the traditional substantive definition above. The fact is that people who believe in God can disagree about just how essential the various properties ascribed to God in this definition really are.

And someone who thinks God in fact possesses all of the properties identified in the traditional definition may well agree that these properties do not define God. For example, you might well think that my eyes are a particular shade of blue. But suppose someone demonstrated to you that it was physiologically impossible for human eyes to possess that specific shade, given the manner in which eye color arises. Would you conclude that I don't exist? Surely not--because, although you thought I possessed this specific property, it was never a property that you took to be definitive of me.

Likewise, there is presumably room to accept that a certain property you had formerly attributed to God is one you must give up on, without thereby being forced to give up on the claim that there is a God. But this raises in a new way the question of what, precisely, a theist is asserting when they assert that God exists. If someone ceases to be a theist--what, specifically, are they denying that they had once believed? And why is it that some undergo radical reconceptions in their beliefs while still professing to be theists? What is it that they still believe that warrants holding onto the "theist" label?

This is what I think a functional definition--a definition in terms of the role or function God fills in the life of the devoted theist--is helpful for. In class the other day, a student defined God, roughly, as that in which he could place his hope in times that otherwise would call for despair. This is a functional definition. Given this understanding of God, the believer might radically change their idea of God--but so long as God, thus characterized, could be a source of hope in the midst of despair for those who believed in it, it would still qualify as "God."

Monday, August 18, 2014

Fair People: A Confession

A bit over a week ago, while visiting my relatives in Buffalo, I took a trip to the Erie County fair. After eating some unhealthy food (and bypassing some really unhealthy food, such as deep fried Oreos and fried dough), we headed to one of the display buildings to see my sister's award-winning flower displays.

Unfortunately, food and drink weren't allowed in the building, and my kids weren't ready to relinquish their lemonades--so my wife and I took turns guarding the lemonades outside while the others took in the floral arrangements and used the restrooms.

That's how I found myself standing there, waiting, a sweating lemonade in each hand. And I did the only thing that made sense under the circumstances: I started people-watching.

I saw tattooed people who (apparently) were trying to expose every fold and flap of skin on which a favorite work of art had been inked.

I saw walking skeletons in Wrangler jeans and blue eye shadow.

I saw men of enormous girth whose mouths were greasy with the oils from the fried-whatever-on-a-stick they were clutching in their fists.

And I thought to myself, "Dear Lord, I may actually be one of the pretty people."

It was something of a jolting thought, and it made me laugh. You see, the week before that, my wife and I were in Boulder, CO, getting ready for her bid to complete a second Iron-distance triathlon (her bid was sadly derailed when she got swimming-induced pulmonary edema the moment she hit the water--but that's another story). While there, I spent a lot of time standing around waiting--and people-watching--while my wife got registered and otherwise ready for the race.

Waiting around in an Ironman Village, while triathletes trot by on every side, is a rather humbling experience. Even vigorously healthy people can start to feel, well, kind of dumpy.

But people-watching at the fair was a decidedly different experience. Glancing at my reflection in the glass doors, I found myself tempted to preen, cock my head, and say, "Hey there, me. You look mighty fine."

Well, not really. But you get the idea.

When I got home, I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed to discover that a friend had posted a link to an article, "Deep-Fried America on a Stick." It featured portraits of some rather interesting fair-goers and an interview with the photographer, Bruce Gilden. Here's one of his portraits (click the link to see them all):

I stared at the photos. And then I promptly commented on my friend's post with the same glib thought that had entered my head as I was standing there guarding lemonade: I may actually be one of the pretty people.

Then I went to bed. But a day or so later, I found myself remembering something from Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. I don't recall much about the book (I read it a long time ago), but this bit stuck with me.

Valentine Michael Smith, the protagonist of the novel, was raised on Mars by Martians--and one of the more engaging features of the book is Smith's outsider view of human culture. Something that perplexes him is the human concept of beauty. Those that we find beautiful strike Smith as simply boring. In contrast, he is drawn to interesting faces: weathered, wrinkled ones, faces that say something about the character of the person within.

And as that tidbit from the novel drifted to the surface, I felt ashamed. Ashamed of how I'd been looking at the people at the fair.

I returned to the Deep-Fried America article. I looked anew at Bruce Gilden's portraits. I looked at them as Valentine Michael Smith might have looked at them. Or at least in a way that was nudged by his fictional spirit. And I imagined that Bruce Gilden, in his choice of models, was nudged by that spirit as well.

I saw interesting faces, faces full of personality. Most of all, they were faces that told stories.

I wondered what stories I would have seen walking past me at the fair if I hadn't been possessed by my glib little thought. I wondered why we are so prone to see beauty in the superficial way that so puzzled Valentine Smith. I wondered just how much we miss.

When I look at faces like the ones Bruce Gilden photographed and I laugh at them (even if only to myself), these other human beings becomes nothing but a way for me to see myself--a kind of foil. I'm not looking at them. I'm blind to the stories in their faces. Delight, empathy, and fascination are sacrificed to a moment of smug superficiality.

Fortunately, I have a chance to redeem myself. The Oklahoma State Fair is coming up in about a month. I plan to be there, and to do some people-watching. But when I do, I'll be thinking about Valentine Smith.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

From the Archives: The Choice is Yours

For some reason--probably because I'm getting ready to head out on a family road trip soon--I was reminded of this post from a few years back. Because its wisdom is timeless and transformative, I decided it was worth sharing again. Enjoy!

While on vacation, I passed a billboard somewhere in rural Ohio that read, “The Choice is Yours: Heaven or Hell.” A toll free number was provided for those who wanted to learn more.

Fortunately (?) the idea for a crank call didn’t occur to me until it was too late to jot down the number. That didn’t stop me, however, from fantasizing about it for much of the remaining six hours on the road. Since I didn’t get around to any of the promised “lighter fare” on this blog while I was vacationing, I share with you now my crank call fantasies.

I should warn you that, in some circles, even having these fantasies would be viewed as grounds for damnation—and the same fate is most likely attributed to those who read them with a chuckle. So it’s probably best to remain grimly sober as you proceed.

(Note to readers: I manifestly do not think that every species of Christianity adopts all the views and ideas expressed by “Them,” especially as articulated in Fantasy 3. But some do. My aim in Fantasies 2 and 3 is not to offer any kind of serious philosophical critique of doctrines of hell, but to playfully gesture towards the absurdities of some of the less thought-out versions. Fantasy 1 is just what comes into your head when you’ve been driving a car for days on end.)

Fantasy 1: Probably Not What Carrie Underwood Intended.

Them: “Amazing Holiness Bible Church of the Redeemer, World Outreach and Evangelical Ministries Center. How may I help you?
Me: “Well, actually, I was hoping Jesus could help me. Is Jesus there?”
Them: “Jesus is always with you. All you need to do is turn your heart to Him and repent your sins.”
Me: “Yeah, well, I was looking for more, you know, practical help.”
Them: “Sorry? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
Me: “Well, I saw your billboard, and it made me think of that song. You know, the one by that American Idol winner.”
Them: “Jesus Take the Wheel?”
Me: “Yeah! Well, you see, I was wondering if He could do that for me.”
Them: “Of course. Jesus is just waiting for you to open your heart, so that He may become the Lord of your life.”
Me: “Um, yeah, well, what about the Lord of my car?”
Them: “Excuse me?”
Me: “I’ve been driving for days and I’m getting pretty tired of it. I could use a break.”
Them: “Uh, Jesus doesn’t drive cars.”
Me: “Why not?”
Them: “Well...”
Me: “I mean, he was bodily resurrected, right?”
Them: “Yes...”
Me: “So He has arms to steer with, a foot for the gas pedal and brake, all of that. And surely He know how to drive, being omniscient and all.”
Them: “Of course. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to climb into your car and take over the driving.”
Me: “Why not?”
Them: “Well, for one thing, Jesus has more important work to do than to drive people around in their cars.”
Me: “But if He’s omnipotent, doesn’t that mean He can do that greater work and drive my car for me?”
Them: “He wants us to live our own lives. He’s not going to live it for us.”
Me: “Then what’s this ‘Jesus take the wheel’ stuff about? Anyway, I’m not asking Him to live my life for me. Just drive my car for an hour.”
Them: “What do you think Jesus is? He’s the Lord of Life, not your servant!”
Me: “Um, well...I don’t mean to contradict you or anything. I’m sure you know this Jesus guy better than I do and all...but, well, doesn’t the Bible say He is a servant? The suffering servant, or something like that?”
Them: “He served us by dying for our sins, not by doing our chores for us.”
Me: “Oh, wait. I think I get it. He doesn’t have a license, does He?”

Fantasy 2: Choices, choices

Them: “Grace for Life Bible Ministries, Center for Global Evangelism. How may I help you?”
Me: “I saw your billboard, the one about the choice being mine, and I had some questions.”
Them: “There is no more important question than your eternal destiny. God has led you to make this call.”
Me: “Yes, well, I was hoping you could tell me a little more about this heaven and hell, so that I know exactly what I’m choosing between.”
Them: “Of course. Heaven is the most wonderful and—”
Me: “You’ve been there?”
Them: “Well, no, but...”
Me: “So this is just hearsay, is that it?”
Them: “No. God has revealed to us—”
Me: “Can we just cut to the chase?”
Them: “What?”
Me: “I’m a masochist. You know what that means?”
Them: “Um...”
Me: “I get off on pain. Actually, what I like best is when an older woman beats me with a riding crop. So I’m wondering where I’m more likely to experience something like that.”
Them: “This is sick.”
Me: “Would I get to have that in heaven? Leather, manacles, bullwhips?”
Them: “Absolutely not!”
Me: “So, I guess my best bet is to go with hell, then?”
Them: “No! What you need is to invite Jesus into your life so that he may cure you of these perverse desires.”
Me: “So, my masochism is a bad thing?”
Them: “It is sick and evil! You must be cured of it!”
Me: “What if I’m not?”
Them: “Then you will roast forever in the unquenchable fires of hell!”
Me: “Mmm. Sounds nice.”
Them: “You don’t understand. It’s utter misery and suffering.”
Me: “But I already told you that I get off on—”
Them: “Not in hell, you won’t! Hell is a place of unmitigated suffering. It is existence stripped of anything that might redeem it. Even if you find pleasure in pain now, you won’t when you get to hell. It will be all and only pain, and you won’t even remotely enjoy any of it.”
Me: “So you're telling me, basically, that if God sends me to hell He’ll first cure me of my masochism so that I won’t enjoy any of it when the demons flog me?”
Them: “That’s right.”
Me: “And being cured of my masochism is a good thing, right? So hell isn’t all bad.”

Fantasy 3: Getting Serious

Them: “Church of Absolute and Indubitable Truth, Such That Any Who Doubt Are Obviously Delusional and Deserve What They Get. How may I help you?”
Me: “Can I get serious?”
Them: “About what?”
Me: “Do you really mean it when you say it’s my choice, heaven or hell?”
Them: “Oh. That. You saw our billboard. Yes, we mean it.”
Me: “Okay, then. Let’s see...heaven is eternal bliss and all that’s good, while hell is undying misery stripped of anything even remotely valuable. Have I got that right?
Them: “That’s about right, but there’s more to it. Demons with implements of torture are—”
Me: “Okay, okay. I don’t need the gory details. I choose heaven.”
Them: “Wonderful! Pray with me.”
Me: “Why?”
Them: “Why? Well, if you want to go to heaven you have to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. Usually that’s done in a prayer.”
Me: “Oh. Well…to be honest, I really don’t know what to think about all this Jesus business. I mean, people have different ideas about who he was and what he said and did and what it all meant. So, I’ll take the heaven stuff, since it sounds pretty nice, but let’s leave Jesus out of it.”
Them: “That’s not possible. You won’t go to heaven unless you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.”
Me: “But I thought the choice was mine. If I choose heaven, I get heaven, right? So I choose heaven.”
Them: “It doesn’t work that way.”
Me: “Okay, so what you’re telling me is that even if I choose heaven, I’ll get hell unless I make the right choice about Jesus. That doesn’t sound like the choice about heaven or hell is mine at all.
Them: “It's your choice whether you welcome Jesus into your life or not.”
Me: “But since that choice is framed by a set of beliefs about who Jesus was and what he did, I first need to adopt the right framing beliefs. So, what you’re really telling me is that, from all the world’s religions, I have to decide that Christianity’s got it right. Only then can I enjoy heaven.”
Them: “What I’m telling you is that you need to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior if you want to get into heaven.”
Me: “So, if I’m really convinced that, say, Islam is true, and so become a faithful Muslim, I won’t get into heaven?”
Them: “That’s right. The only path to salvation is Jesus.”
Me: “So say you. But there are others I’ve talked to who have a really different view about this stuff. So I’m not sure what to believe. But wait…Oh, I think I get it. If salvation depends on getting my beliefs right, and since the truth isn't obvious in this life, then God’ll make the truth obvious after I die. Right? So I can make a fully informed choice then.”
Them: “No.”
Me: “No?”
Them: “You have to decide before you die. If you do not accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior before death, you will go to hell.”
Me: “Well, if that’s true, then God is pretty mean.”
Them: “God is not mean. He became human so that He might suffer and die for the salvation of the world. He’s love.”
Me: “But you’re telling me that if I sincerely try to figure out the truth about reality in this life and get it wrong, God slam-dunks me down into hell?
Them: “The truth has been made manifest to all, so that no one has any excuse. Says so in Romans.”
Me: “Well, it’s not manifest to me! The ultimate truth about reality seems to be one of the most mysterious and not obvious things of all. All the evidence indicates that sincere people who care about truth arrive at very different conclusions about the ultimate nature of reality, and so about religion. If guessing wrong about religion means that one is cast into hell, then the choice isn’t really up to me at all. I can choose heaven all day, but if I guess wrong about the nature of reality, it won’t matter. Isn’t that what you’re saying?”
Them: “It’s not a matter of guessing. The Truth is obvious to anyone with eyes to see.”
Me: “So, you’re telling me I’m blind?”
Them: “If you do not see that Jesus is the Way, then yes. You are blind.”
Me: “And because I’m blind I’m doomed to hell even if I choose heaven?”
Them: “I suppose you could say that.”
Me: “Well, then, I hate to tell you this, but…well, you guys may be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I’m afraid I’m going to have to report you.”

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Must Hobby Lobby See Attempts to Conceive as a Crime?

The owners of Hobby Lobby claim to oppose not only the termination of pregnancy in the technical sense, but also anything that impedes implantation of a fertilized egg. (In the technical sense, prior to implantation no pregnancy has yet been established.)

Hobby Lobby's position on this issue appears to be rooted in a certain view about the fertilized egg: At the moment of fertilization, it becomes a person with a person's rights--including the right to life.

Now there's more to their argument than that--and that something more should make those with a vaguely libertarian bent rather uneasy. After all, what does a right to life consist in? If I will die unless you let me into your home, does my right to life entail that if you lock me out you have committed homicide? Hobby Lobby would presumably have to say something along these lines if they want to insist that there is something seriously wrong with preventing implantation--which is a fair bit like denying me access to your home when I need such access in order to survive.

But let's grant all of this. Let's assume that the fertilized egg has a person's right to life, and that a person's right to life isn't limited to a right not to be killed but also puts demands on others: If I have a right to life and I need to use your body in order to survive, then you have a duty to make sure that I can gain access to it--and if you take steps to block me from gaining access, that's seriously wrong.

Let's assume all of that is true. If we adopt such a perspective, what ought we to think about a practice which results predictably in the deaths of more than half of all fertilized eggs that are involved in the practice? If you know, when you engage in a practice, that there is a good chance that a person will die--let's say a 50-60% chance--would it be permissible for you to engage in the practice?

Let's suppose that you have a worthy goal: You want to become a parent. Imagine a dystopian world where the only legal way to become a parent is to put in a request with a breeding factory--one which is fully automated, using artificial wombs and robotic childbirth and infant nursing machines. If you put in a request, the breeding factory goes to work--gestating a baby until viability and then evaluating the newborn for a period of time (a few weeks, say).Then the facility either delivers the newborn to you--or anesthetizes the infant and dumps it into a midden where it dies quickly from suffocation. Sometimes this happens because the evaluation protocols have judged the baby insufficiently healthy. Sometimes it happens inexplicably--it's just something the breeding factory does.

In fact, let us suppose it does it 50-60% of the time. More often than not, when you put in a request for a baby, the machine produces a baby and then dumps the living three-week-old into a midden heap to die.

Would it be morally problematic for you to make use of such a breeding facility? Most of us, I think, would say yes. After all, babies have a significant moral standing and a robust right to life--and making use of this facility entails that, on average, for every two beings with such moral significance who come into the world, one of them is automatically tossed away and left to die.

If a fertilized egg, pre-implantation, has that kind of moral standing, then there's a significant problem. Because fertilized eggs only successfully implant 40-50% of the time. The rest of the time, they are washed out of the uterus and die. If we really want to give to fertilized eggs the kind of moral standing that we give to three-week-old babies, then don't we need to regard every case of a couple trying to conceive as having the same problematic moral status that we attach to the parents putting in a request with the breeding factory?

Now let's modify our dystopian scenario just a bit. Let us suppose that all human beings are sterilized at birth, but they are implanted with a device that detects if and when they are engaged in sexual activity. Instead of putting in a request for a baby, in this future world you just have to start being sexually active--and a request is sent automatically. The detection device is imperfect, so the request only goes once in awhile, and is more likely to go out during full moons. To be sure the message is sent, you need to have sex fairly consistently, especially around the time of the full moon.

Now compare two couples who are sexually active in this dystopian world. Bill and Mary want a baby and are urgently trying to get the message through to the factory--and hence engaged in a practice which has a 50-60% chance of throwing a baby onto the midden heap. Carl and Nancy, however, have found a way to disable the transmitter so that it doesn't put in any requests for babies. But suppose that the disabling technique is not quite perfect. There is a 0.5% chance, say, that a request will go out anyway after a year of being sexually active. And when that happens, something about the disabling technique increases the chances that the baby produced will be thrown on the midden heap. Let's say the chance is 90%. Still, since the chance of a request going out is only 0.5%, the chance that Carl and Nancy' activity will send a child to the midden heap is 0.45%.

So, Bill and Mary are engaged in an activity that has a 50-60% of resulting in a living baby being thrown onto a midden heap to die. Carl and Nancy are engaged in an activity that has a 0.45% of producing this result. Who is morally better? Which choice is more problematic, morally?

Numbers aren't everything, of course, so the morality of their respective choices may not be simply a matter of consulting the numbers here. And in this dystopian world, taking he risks that Bill and Mary take is the only way for new children to come into the world. But something should be pretty clear: It's not obvious that Bill and Mary are doing nothing wrong while Carl and Nancy are engaged in moral wrong-doing. There's at least some reason to think that Carl and Nancy's behavior is less troubling, morally.

But if a fertilized egg, prior to implantation, has the same moral status as a three-week-old newborn baby, the couple trying to have a baby is like Bill and Mary, while the couple using an IUD is like Carl and Nancy. That is, if we adopt a key assumption made by advocates for Hobby Lobby's position on contraception, the couple trying to have a baby is engaged in activity that is at best morally suspect--and arguably more wrong, morally, than the couple that uses the IUD. Their key premise about the moral status of the fertilized egg can hardly justify the position which they in fact seem to take--namely, one in which a couple trying to conceive is doing something lovely, while the couple using the IUD is engaged in a serious moral wrong.

Note that most of these problems go away if we think that baby-like moral standing emerges at some point after implantation--that is, at some point after a pregnancy has started in the technical sense.

All of this leads me to conclude that there is something seriously muddled about the Hobby Lobby position. Am I missing something?

Hobby Lobby and Religious Conscience: Two Reasons to Doubt the Freedom of Religion Argument

There is much about the recent Hobby Lobby ruling that I'm not qualified to comment on, but I have some concerns about a key claim in this case--namely, that the business owners' freedom of religious conscience offers grounds for justifying the Supreme Court's decision. There are two problems, in my view--although my thinking on both is still evolving. The first strikes me as less serious than the second.

1. Religious conscience needs to be responsive to matters of fact.

Suppose Pastor Bob refuses to officiate at the wedding of Pat and Alex on the grounds that he is religiously opposed to same sex marriage. If, as a matter of fact, Pat and Alex are a heterosexual couple, then no court of law would treat his religious opposition to same-sex marriage as a legitimate basis for refusing to marry them. And if Bob sputters that it is a matter of religious conviction that this man and woman are in fact both men--well, I doubt that will fly if the facts don't line up with the conviction.

In other words, there is the moral premise of Bob's argument--which is derived from his religious convictions. And then there is the factual one--which isn't a matter of religious belief and shouldn't be.

In the Hobby Lobby case, there is the the moral premise: The rather complex conviction that a form of contraception which operates by preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg is wrong because fertilized eggs are persons who are thereby being deprived of their lives. And then there's the factual claim that the four forms of contraception at issue function in this way.

But it does not appear that, as a matter of fact, the four forms of contraception operate in this way. Three (the two "morning after" pills and the hormone-releasing IUD) operate primarily to prevent fertilization, while the fourth (the copper IUD) kills sperm cells. With respect to the two "morning after pills," extensive research indicates that these do not prevent implantation in the cases where they fail in their primary function.

It may be true, however, that when the IUD's fail in their primary function and conception happens anyway, the fertilized egg is considerably less likely to implant than it would be in the absence of the contraceptive. Absent any contraceptive, on average only 40% of fertilized eggs implant. IUD's may lower this percentage considerably.

But in that case, the effect on implantation appears to be a side-effect of the contraceptive's use. Given the standard 40% success rate for implantation, someone who is trying to get pregnant is a greater threat to the lives of fertilized eggs than an IUD-user--since it is likely that the IUD-user will never flush out a fertilized egg because the IUD will prevent the egg from being fertilized in the first place. But I doubt Hobby Lobby is going to start condemning couples attempting to conceive of slaughtering innocent babies wholesale. After all, the deaths of more than half of the zygotes they produce is a side-effect of the effort to become pregnant, not the aim of it.

The moral status of a medicine's side-effects is different from the moral status of its primary intended effect. Hobby Lobby could argue that any medication which substantially increases the probability that fertilized eggs won't implant even as a side effect of its use violates their religious conscience. But if their religious faith entails commitment to this broader ethical principle, consistency would call for more sweeping employer involvement in regulating the health-care options covered by a health plan. For all we know, numerous medications prescribed for a range of purposes have an impact on implantation chances. (At least the IUD makes it unlikely that this side-effect will ever happen, since it is highly effective at preventing the conditions under which such a side-effect will arise.)

So: If Hobby Lobby isn't interested in sweeping involvement in health-care choices, then it doesn't seem as if they really are, as a matter of religious conscience, committed to this broader ethical principle after all. And if what they're committed to is the narrower one, their religious conscience at best calls for condemning those who use IUD's in part to achieve what is ordinarily a side-effect (as in when someone takes a medicine with psychotropic side-effects for the sake of those side-effects). If their religious conscience really does push them towards the broader principle, then the substance of their religious conscience calls for a level of intrusion into health care options that is far more burdensome on the insured than what the Supreme Court was considering--leading to a different set of worries about the ruling.

Of course, all of this is premised on the facts about the four contraceptives being as described above--and while I am relying on what I've read about them, I'm not an expert. So this line of concern hinges on what the facts are--but that's part of my point here. This can't and shouldn't be seen as merely a matter of religious conscience. If the facts don't fall in the right way, the principles derived from religious conscience don't apply. And there is reason to think this is the case here.

There is, however, a deeper concern about the relevance of religious conscience that I think may be more decisive.

2. A health care plan is a form of compensation that gives employees a means of paying for their health care--and in this way is like a paycheck.

Here's the concern in a nutshell: Hobby Lobby sees its religious conscience as compromised when it's required to offer a health care plan that can be used to pay for certain types of contraceptives. But the paycheck that Hobby Lobby pays out to each of its employees can be used to pay for those same types of contraceptives. If the latter doesn't compromise Hobby Lobby's religious conscience, why should the former?

A health insurance policy is sometimes viewed as a product--but no one wants a health insurance policy for its own sake. They want it for the sake of paying for the healthcare products and services they many need. Hence, it is more natural to see a healthcare policy as a way to pay for a certain class of products. Insofar as it is the latter, offering a healthcare policy that covers the normal range of healthcare products is like offering a salary in a form that can be used to buy the normal range of things money can buy.

When Hobby Lobby pays its employees, they are providing them with the means to buy porn. They are providing them with the means to visit Nevada prostitutes. Money, in our society, has by social agreement been invested with a very broad purchasing power. A normal healthcare policy, by contrast, can be used to buy far fewer of the things that offend the values of Hobby Lobby's owners. That's true even if the policy covers morning after pills and IUD's.

Does the fact that our monetary system empowers money-possessors to buy porn entail that Hobby Lobby's conscience should be opposed to paying its employees with money? I suspect Hobby Lobby would say no. They could explain that the decision about what to do with the money Hobby Lobby gives them lies with the employee, not with Hobby Lobby--and if the employee decides to use it on porn, that's not Hobby Lobby's fault, even if Hobby Lobby provided the money that was used for this purpose. So Hobby Lobby hasn't done anything wrong. The company hasn't been forced to violate its corporate conscience.

That, of course, is exactly what Hobby Lobby should say about the money they give to their employees. But if so, why shouldn't they say exactly the same thing about the health insurance policies they give to their employees?

Unless a sufficiently potent distinction can be made here, it becomes hard to justify the claim that Hobby Lobby's religious conscience is being violated by offering a broad health insurance policy covering the usual range of health care products and services. If their conscience is being violated, then they should be complaining about the violation of religious conscience that comes from offering a paycheck in a form that can be used to buy the usual range of things (including porn and divorce lawyers and emergency contraceptives) that our society makes available for purchase.

And if this isn't about religious conscience, it becomes instead about the desire to use their position as the provider of health insurance to constrain employee choices. Instead of this being about Hobby Lobby's desires to follow its religious values, it becomes about Hobby Lobby's desire to use its position to impose its religious values on others--to make their employees act according to the values of Hobby Lobby's owners, by controlling what the compensation provided to employees can be used to do.

And if this sort of control is deemed acceptable, what follows? Will it become legitimate for employers to pay their employees with cash cards that can only be used to purchase employer-approved goods and services?

In the end, the Hobby Lobby case is about the clash between the liberty of businesses and that of individual employees. When companies do whatever they please, their choices can sometimes restrict the options and freedoms of those who work for them. In a world where workers largely depend on business owners for their livelihoods, workers are susceptible to exploitation and undue control when owner decisions about how to run their business are unregulated. Business owners should have considerable freedom to decide how their businesses are to be run, of course. But if the exercise of the power they have as owners is wholly unregulated, it is individuals who pay the price--in terms of fewer choices and opportunities.

The Hobby Lobby decision strikes me as ultimately being about this balance between the liberty and welfare of business owners on the one hand and workers on the other. And the Supreme Court decided in favor of business owners in a way that, as I see it, sets a very disturbing precedent.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Any Growing Interest in Classical Music is a Sign of Our Nation's Moral Decay

As I read Ann Coulter’s recent commentary on why soccer is un-American, I felt a paradigm shift in my understanding of the world. With a growing pit in my stomach, I saw that her reasoning doesn’t just apply to soccer. And I knew, once I finished the essay, that I would be compelled to resign from the Stillwater Community Orchestra. To do otherwise would be un-American.

I love classical music. I love playing my violin. And I’ve long classed myself among those trying to expand interest in classical music in this country. But enough is enough. It’s clear to me now that any growing interest in classical music can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.

▪ Individual achievement is not a big factor in classical music ensembles. Sure, there’s the concert master and the conductor, and the occasional soloist. But in the best orchestras, instruments blend seamlessly together and voices complement one another so as to produce a collaborative work of art. It’s practically communistic. In real music there ought to be stars who stand or fall based on their personal charisma—a Mick Jagger gyrating at the microphone while crowds scream and swoon and tear at their clothes.

▪ In a high school orchestra, lousy players can hide in the back of the second violin section and fake it quietly to cover up their lack of talent, so that no child’s fragile self-esteem is bruised. This encourages kids to hide from personal responsibility. They grow up to be moochers.

▪ Liberal moms like classical music because it’s something both girls and boys can participate in equally. But no serious human endeavor is co-ed, even at the grade-school level. I'm not sure why. Ask Ann for details.

▪ In an orchestra performance, nobody scores. You can sit (or snore) through an entire concert, and the score is still 0-0. No fist pumping as one player dominates another. No victory dance by the principal cellist while the poor clarinetist hangs her head in defeat. It’s all “collaborative” rather than competitive. How does that teach our kids the traits they need to make it in the competitive capitalist economy?

▪ No human endeavor is worth pursuing if it doesn’t come with the risk of personal humiliation or physical injury. While someone sitting in an orchestra might face some slight risk of a bow in the eye, the risk is low. And a personal slip will probably be covered up by the other musicians—unless you're in the winds or percussion section, but then you're safely hidden behind the strings, so no one can see you to pin the mistake on you.

▪ People are always trying to force-feed you classical music as if it were good for the soul. The same people trying to push classical music on Americans are the ones demanding that we drag our noses away from our TV’s and smart phones and spend more time reading books. It’s that “eat your vegetables” thing, except with sound. It’s patronizing.

▪ It’s foreign. Classical music was invented by Europeans. That’s probably why people try to push it. They think European stuff is better than American stuff.

▪ Classical music is like the metric system. It is. Take my word for it.

The only people listening to classical music in America are academics and immigrants from France. I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is listening to classical music. Or if they are, they’re forced to do it against their will, or trying to impress someone. Either that, or they are actively betraying American values.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

How Does God Reveal? Five Christian Reasons to Doubt Biblical Inerrancy

The Patheos website is currently hosting a multi-blog conversation about progressive Christianity and Scripture which has generated numerous engaging and thoughtful contributions--such as this one by James McGrath. Because the relationship between progressive Christian faith and the Bible is one of my enduring interests, the sudden flood of interesting essays on the topic has inspired me to take a few minutes to reflect on the issue myself. 

As a philosopher of religion, the way I approach this topic is in terms of a philosophical question: What theory of revelation fits best with the Christian view of God? Put another way, if there is a God that fits the broadly Christian description, how would we expect such a God to reveal the divine nature and will to the world?

Many conservative Christians take it for granted that God has revealed the divine nature and will in and through a specific book. More precisely (although they aren't usually this precise), they believe that God inspired certain human authors at various times in history to write texts that inerrantly express divine truths--and then inspired other human beings to correctly recognize these texts and include all and only them in the comprehensive collection of Scriptures we call the Bible.

Let's call this the theory of biblical inerrancy.

Does this theory fit well with broader Christian beliefs? Is this a good Christian theory about divine revelation, culminating in a good Christian theory about what the Bible is and what sort of authority we should attach to it? I think there are a number of reasons to be skeptical.

Put more narrowly, I think there are a number of reasons why Christians should be skeptical, given their Christian starting points. Let's consider at least some of these reasons.

1. Christianity holds that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God

Traditional Christian teaching holds that Jesus is the Word made Flesh, the incarnation of God in history. And this means that for Christians, the primary and monumental revelation of God is in the person of Jesus, not in any book (however inspired). It is this fact which motivated George MacDonald to say of the Bible,
It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as the Word, the Way, the Truth. The Bible leads us to Jesus, the inexhaustible, the ever unfolding Revelation of God. It is Christ "in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge," not the Bible, save as leading to him.
Biblical inerrantists might argue that nothing precludes God from both revealing the divine nature primarily in Jesus and authoring an inerrant book as a secondary revelation. This is true as far as it goes. But there are reasons for concern.

First, there's a difference between the kind of revelation that Jesus represents, and the kind that a book represents. A person and a book are different things, and we learn from them in different ways. Consider the difference between having a mentor in the project of becoming a better person, and reading self-help books.

Doesn't Christianity teach that God's preferred way of disclosing the divine nature and will is through personal, living relationship rather than fixed words? The problem with throwing in an inerrant book as a "supplemental" revelation is that it can lead to Bible-worship. Given human psychology, there is something alluring about having a book with all the answers. But if God primarily wants us to find the answers through personal engagement with the living God, as discovered in Jesus, isn't there a real danger that fixation on the Bible will distract the faithful from God's primary mode of self-disclosure?

None of this is to say that human stories--witness accounts of divine revelation in history--aren't important. They can motivate a desire to seek out the one whom the stories are about, and they can offer tools for discerning whether you've found the one you seek or an imposter. But once they are seen as secondary, as valuable as a means to an end, the need for inerrancy dissipates. If what really matters is my friendship with Joe, and if I sought out and formed a friendship with him because lots of people told me stories about him that revealed him as an awesome guy I wanted to meet, do I really need to insist that those storytellers were inerrant? Why?

2. The Jesus of Scripture was not an inerrantist

In John 8:1-11, we have the story of the teachers of the law coming to Jesus with an adulteress, and asking Him whether they ought to stone her to death as the Scriptures prescribe. The passage itself declares that this was a trap: If Jesus came out and directly told them not to stone her, He would be defying a direct scriptural injunction.

He avoided the trap: He didn't directly telling them to act contrary to Scripture. Instead, He told them that the one without sin should cast the first stone.

It is a stunning and powerful story (no wonder someone decided to write it into the Gospel of John, even though it didn't appear in the earliest versions). But notice that Jesus didn't tell them to do what Scripture prescribed. Instead, He found a powerful way to drive home exactly what was wrong with following that scriptural injunction--in a way that avoided their trap.

In short, Jesus disagreed with some of the teachings in the Scriptures of His day. In the Sermon on the Mount, he offered gentle correctives to earlier teachings--teachings which started in a direction but didn't go far enough. The lex talionis command to punish evildoers eye for eye and tooth for tooth may, at the time, have served as a restraint on retributive impulses: don't punish beyond the severity of the crime. But for Jesus, that level of restrain was insufficient. It was a start on a path, perhaps, but only that. Jesus followed the trajectory of that path to its conclusion, and enjoined His listeners to turn the other cheek.

In short, it's clear Jesus didn't have the inerrantist view towards the Scriptures of His day that conservative Christians have towards the Christian Scriptures of today. Conservatives might argue that Jesus would view the modern Bible--or maybe just the New Testament?--in the way they favor, even if the approach to Scripture that He actually modeled is at odds with their approach.

Allow me to treat such a speculative claim with suspicion. If Jesus is the primary revelation of God in history, then it strikes me as appropriate to follow His model for approaching Scripture, and respectfully look beyond the letters on the page to the deeper intentions that finite human authors might have missed, noticing trajectories and exploring where they might lead.

3. In the New Testament, Paul distinguished between his views and the Lord's

 In 1 Corinthians 7:10-12, Paul says the following:
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her...
I've talked about this passage before, so I won't go into details. What interests me is the distinction Paul makes between his own views and those of the Lord. In this passage, it's clear that Paul did not see Himself as taking dictation from God. He made a clear distinction between his own opinions and those of the Lord, and by making the distinction explicit was signaling to his readers that they should treat the injunctions differently--as if he didn't want to claim for himself the kind of authority that he took to accompany Jesus' explicit teachings.

But if inerrantism is true, then Paul's teachings are the inerrant word of God, and so have the same kind of authority as Jesus' words. In other words, if inerrantism is true, then Paul was wrong to make the distinction he made. But that distinction is made by Paul in a letter that's in the Bible. And if inerrantism is true, a distinction made in a letter that's in the Bible has to be accurate. But if it's accurate, inerrantism isn't true. Zounds!

An exercise in creative interpretation might offer the inerrantist the wiggle room to escape this logical trap, but inerrantists are routinely skeptical of such creative interpretation of Scripture. At best, then, this amounts to a difficulty for inerrantism, the sort of difficulty one often sees when trying to force a theory onto subject matter that doesn't quite suit it. Theories can perhaps weather some such difficulties, but if they become too common it is hard to reasonably persist in endorsing the theory.

4. Efforts to overcome apparent contradictions in Scripture lead to a false view of Scripture

Speaking of difficulties of this sort, the Bible isn't a neat, orderly, systematically consistent treatise. The Gospel narratives, for example, aren't identical. They tell the stories of Jesus' life in different ways. Details differ--for example, in accounts of the resurrection. Bart Ehrman does a fine job of cataloguing  many of these in Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible.

Mostly, these tensions aren't explicit contradictions but rather what might be called apparent ones: they don't seem as if they can go together, because you'd need to tell a rather convoluted story to make them fit.

Inerrantists have not been remiss in offering such convoluted stories. But if you need to tell enough of them in order to make your theory map onto what it's supposed to explain, the theory becomes increasingly implausible.

And there's another problem, one that should be of concern to Christians who care about the Bible. The convoluted tales that you have to tell in order to make disparate biblical narratives fit together end up leading you away from an honest appreciation of the message of the biblical authors. As Ehrman puts it, "To approach the stories in this way is to rob each author of his own integrity as an author and to deprive him of the meaning that he conveys in his story."

When you do this, you care more about preserving your theory about the Bible than you do about understanding and taking in its message. For me, this is one of the greatest tragedies of an inerrantist approach to Scripture: It makes it difficult for readers to engage with the Bible on its own terms. It's like someone who is so devoted to a false image of their spouse that they can't see their spouse for the person they really are. Likewise, the steps that need to be taken in order to preserve the doctrine of inerrancy in the face of the Bible's actual content means that it becomes impossible to have an intimate relationship with the Bible as it really is. This is not taking the Bible seriously. It is taking the doctrine of inerrancy seriously at the expense of the Bible.  

5. God is love

Christianity teaches that God is love. In fact, it is the closest thing Christians have to a scriptural definition of God:  "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." (1 John 4:7-8).

If God is love, then we experience God when we love. If God is love, then the primary way we can encounter God is through loving and being loved--that is, through cultivating loving relationships with persons. This may help to explain the Christian view that a person--Jesus--served in history as God's fundamental revelation, rather than a book. Books can't love you. And you can't love a book in the sense of "love" that Christians (and the author of 1 John) have in mind when we say God is love.

When we feel the profound presence of the divine showering love upon us--or when we feel the joy of being loved by others--we are encountering the divine nature as something coming to us from the outside. But when we love our neighbors as ourselves, we are channeling divine love, and experiencing it "from within" (so to speak). The divine nature is moving within us, more intimately connected to us than any mere object of experience. I think this is what the author of 1 John means when he says that whoever does not love does not know God. To love others is to be filled with the spirit of God. It is to let God in.

If any of that is true, then it is by encouraging us to love one another that God makes possible the most profound revelation of the divine nature and will. And while the Bible does encourage us to love one another, the theory about the Bible which takes it to be the inerrant revelation of God may actually be an impediment to love.

We end up focusing more attention on the Bible than on our neighbors. We are more committed to "doing what the Bible says" than we are to loving those around us. Out of a desire to be connected with God, we insist that homosexuality is always and everywhere sinful--and when the gay and lesbian neighbors we are supposed to love cry out in despair, their lives crushed by these teachings, we stifle our compassion, shutting out love in fear that loving them as ourselves might lead us to question the inerrancy of the Bible.

If God is love, then any theory of revelation that tells us to find God by burying our noses in a book is a problematic theory. If God is love, we must look for God in the love we see in the world. The Bible, understood as a flawed and finite human testament to the God of love working in history, can be a deeply meaningful partner in our quest to encounter God and live in the light of divine goodness. But as soon as it is treated as inerrant, it is in danger of becoming a bludgeon used to silence those neighbors who want to share experiences that don't quite fit with this or that verse.

The Bible points away from itself. Respect for it demands that we look up from the page and engage with our neighbors and the creation. God is alive in the world. The Bible tells us that God is alive in the world. In so doing, the book is telling us that if we want to find God, we need to look into our neighbor's face with love, and at the natural world and all its creatures with love.

Because God is there. God is there, revealing Himself in the vibrancy of life and the child's laugh and the mother's tender kiss. God is there, in the gay man who sits by his longtime partner's hospital bedside, gently stroking his brow. God is there, in the joyous wedding vows of the lesbian couple that can finally get a legal marriage after years together.

And any time a too-literal allegiance to the letter of the biblical text causes someone not to see the face of God in that tenderness and joy, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has blocked divine revelation, impeding God's effort to self-disclose to the world.

Monday, June 16, 2014

AA's Critics, Pseudoscience, and Anti-Religious Bias: Considering a Recent Challenge to AA. (Part 3)

This is the third part of a consideration of Lance and Zachary Dodes' critique of AA. In the first part, I called into question their claim that AA helps only about 10% of those who pursue it, and is damaging to the other 90%. In the second part, I consider how they mischaracterize AA's twelve steps--in a way that parallels the distortion of Christian theologies of grace.

For the final installment in this series, I want to (briefly, for me) consider how the Dodes' suspicion of AA may be linked to the deeper science/religion wars. The Dodes' make claims about the ineffectiveness of AA that are far more confident than is warranted, and they impose an uncharitable interpretation of the twelve steps when a more charitable one is available. But why? What lies behind these kinds of errors?

My answer is admittedly speculative--a bit of an exercise in "psychologizing." But I think there are clues in what the Dodes' say that point towards a diagnosis

Let's begin with the title of the Dodes' essay: "The pseudoscience of Alcoholics Anonymous." This title is ambiguous. It might refer to pseudoscience in the study of AA, or it might be accusing AA itself of being a pseudoscience.

While concern about the former seems appropriate, calling AA pseudoscience is a category mistake. AA isn't an empirical study of the world, but a way of life and an underlying way of thinking about life that aims to help those who participate in it overcome addiction and live clean and sober lives.

Unfortunately, the Dodes appear to have more than just the former in mind. This comes out especially when they walk through the twelve steps. As they begin to examine the steps one by one, they set up their discussion by asserting, "Twelve steps sounds like science." That is, they begin their walk-through of the twelve steps by setting up a kind of straw man: AA should be considered a science and evaluated in those terms. But then it's found to be more like religion in its language and aims. And this becomes the basis for a kind of condescending dismissal.

Let's think about what's going on here in a broader context. A common feature of the modern culture wars is the tendency to pit science against religion as if the two were essentially opposed. I think this tendency is a disservice both to science and to religion--and it is, unfortunately, fueled by agendas on both sides.

It's a disservice to both because treating them as competitors leads to distortion: On the one side, it leads to a "scientism" that unjustifiably treats scientific descriptions of the physical world as if they were offering a metaphysical worldview--that is, a view about the fundamental nature of reality and the meaning of life. This happens when it is assumed without warrant that the limits of what science is suited to investigate are identical to the limits of what is real.

On the other side, the conflation of science and religion leads to a superstitious fundamentalism wherein something meant to provide a way of seeing and responding to the world of physical facts is instead reduced to a set of dubious factual claims. When religion sets itself up as offering the best path to answering empirical questions, it has lost touch with what religion is for. It is attempting to do the sort of thing that science does, except badly. In other words, it has devolved into pseudoscience.

For example, instead of offering a religious worldview that invites us to see and respond to the world (the one described by science) as a reality that springs from a vast and creative intelligence, we get the Young Earth Creationist claim that the best way to decide the age of the earth is to deduce it from clues left in the Bible. The creationist then has to scramble for some semblance of scientific credibility in the hopeless attempt to compete with the results of sober and objective research.

Some Young Earth Creationists even find themselves driven to say that their God has systematically deceived us by planting an overwhelming body of evidence for an ancient a test of our faith in what the Bible "teaches" (as if we should trust God after accepting their assertion that God is the perpetrator of the greatest hoax in history).

This is what happens when religion pretends to be science. And there's plenty of it going on out there. But some overreaching critics of religion have taken this distortion of religion for religion's essence, as if there could be no religion without pseudoscience. And this mistake leads to the prejudicial dismissal of ideas and approaches to life that smack of religion. Even those who pay lip service to the social value of religion will often fall prey to this unconscious prejudice.

Such prejudicial dismissal, when it happens, is rarely spelled out explicitly. But if you read through the Dodes' treatment of the twelve steps, what you find is a critique that relies extensively on invoking the labels of "unscientific" and "religious" as if they were equivalent--as if, in establishing that AA is pseudoscience, it is sufficient to show that the twelve steps retain much of their religious origins.

It's not sufficient. And one reason it's not sufficient is precisely this: In an effort to be ecumenical and welcoming to the diverse array of alcoholics within its fold, AA has needed to treat as inessential the very things that are at risk of turning religion into pseudoscience when treated as essential.

Consider: AA has seen the need to set aside specific doctrinal claims, including in the interpretation of its own twelve steps. In the same stroke, it has lost the need to be "right." It is that need that leads so often to assertions that a specific text or institution or prophetic leader is an inerrant authority. And it is the need to stick by this supposedly inerrant authority, to preserve its inerrancy even when that authority makes claims that are about empirical facts rather than transcendent meaning, that so often paves the way to pseudoscience.

Put another way, AA offers a good model of what religion can look like when it is freed from the propensity towards pseudoscience. Focusing on a general way of approaching life and responding to its challenges, but without the demand for doctrinal conformity that prevails in fundamentalistic religion, AA offers a broadly religious way of life that is resistant to the pseudoscience that springs from the insistence on inerrant authority (and the concomitant cries of heresy).

This is not to say that no such fundamentalistic leanings ever infect isolated AA meetings. It is not to say that individual AA members never bring their pseudoscientific ideas into their home groups. Rather, it is to say that AA overall is not a source of pseudoscience in the way that fundamentalistic religion has proven itself to be.

Of course, the same can be said for many progressive expressions of traditional religious faith, which are friendly to good science and its conclusions (even if they are not friendly to a scientism in which invalid inferences from science underwrite metaphysical claims). But too often, those who have been burned in one way or another by fundamentalistic religion see all religion through the lens of this species, and are prone to dismiss progressive faith as some kind of bad-faith attempt to cling to comforting ideas while throwing off religion's irrationality. "Real" religion is the stuff that stands in opposition to science.

My speculative hypothesis, then, is this: The Dodes' critique of AA, riddled as it is with the errors discussed in previous posts, is colored by an underlying prejudice (perhaps a quite unconscious one). That prejudice is born out of two things: first, the fact that AA is not only historically rooted in religion but retains religious and spiritual language and aims; and second, a derisive attitude towards religion springing from (a) the scientist's wholly appropriate disdain for pseudoscience, and (b) the unfortunate prevalence of pseudoscience in fundamentalist religion.

The problem, of course, is that not all religion is the same. And to the extent that AA is religious, it is (largely) a form of religion that can live happily alongside science done with integrity.

Of course, if that is true, then AA members should be willing to engage seriously with careful scientific study of the efficacy of AA's methods relative to alternatives. While I don't think the Dodes' have offered anything critical of AA that would qualify as such a study, should there be serious academic research that demonstrates ways of improving the outcomes of AA's efforts, the AA community ought to be willing to engage with that research.

But, of course, most AA members are not researchers qualified to assess the merits of such research. And they aren't in AA to do research, but to stay sober. To say that the AA community should be open to seriously engaging with such research is not to say that AA members should be skeptical of a way of life that has worked well for them personally.

If you've become a brilliant pianist through a distinct method, a study suggesting an alternative method works better for most people who learn to play piano shouldn't inspire you to jeopardize your achievement by switching to an approach that may not be suited to you. It might, however, mean that if other methods are available and comparably accessible to your students, and some of those students aren't flourishing with you, you might suggest that they try one of the alternatives.

But AA members routinely say, "If you find something that works better for you, go for it." AA is a way of engaging with and thinking about the world, not a scientific study of the relative efficacy of such ways. Furthermore, because of the interpretive flexibility built into AA, there is not a single monolithic approach that falls under AA's rubric. Even within AA, there is room for asking which approach works better, and for whom.

More often than not, the answer to that question comes from personal discovery rather than scientific study. This is not to say that the latter should not be attempted despite the range of practical difficulties discussed in my first post. But it is to say that AA isn't a science. And it is to say that personal decisions about the path to sobriety typically need to be made based on something other than the outcomes of scientific research. Sometimes that path with adopt the forms and language of religion, extracting from religious traditions the fruits of centuries of collective practical experience, fruits which have yet to be scientifically assessed.

And none of these facts imply that AA is pseudoscience.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

AA's Critics and the Mangling of Theologies of Grace: Considering a Recent Challenge to AA. (Part 2)

In a post last week, I began to consider a recent Salon piece by Lance and Zachary Dodes, in which the Dodes argue that Alcoholics Anonymous's 12-step programs are a poor method for treating addiction. In the earlier post, I considered their contention that AA works for only a very small percentage of people (5-10%) and is "harmful to the 90% who don't do well." I explained why I find these claims less than compelling.

In this post and the next one, I want to consider something I think may be going on beneath the surface of the Dodes' essay, something that may help explain why they make such dubious assertions with disproportionate confidence. Although anti-religious bias might not be the best term for it, it's related to the kind of prejudice one finds among many well-meaning humanists--a prejudice that fixates on a distinctive (mis)construal of religion that's widespread among believers and nonbelievers alike, but which is opposed to a more reasonable and beneficial construal.

Mangling the Twelve Steps

My suspicion that some kind of prejudice is in play is elevated by several tensions and confusions in the Dodes' critique of AA. These come out especially as they walk through the twelve steps.

For example, one recurring feature of the Dodes' critique is their charge that AA creates the illusion of control by giving the addict a series of steps to follow: "AA offers a comforting veneer of actionable change: it is something you can do." They raise this concern in their lead-in to examining the twelve steps, and in the very next paragraph consider the first of those steps: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” They dismiss the value of this step on the grounds that "it lacks any clinical merit or scientific backing."

The tension here lies in the fact that the first step is about admitting that recovery requires letting go of the idea that you can do it on your own. So which is it? Should the twelve steps be accused of inculcating a false sense of control in the addict? Or should they be accused of encouraging addicts to give up the illusion of control even though such an act of release has no "clinical merit or scientific backing"? Maybe the charge here is that the twelve steps contradict themselves.

If so, the problem may be that the Dodes haven't really understood what the twelve steps are about. They haven't found the interpretation that makes sense. What they are targeting is an interpretation that doesn't make sense at all. Doing that is worthwhile, of course: If AA is going to work, it's the version that makes sense which will work, not the version that doesn't. And so it's beneficial to expose incoherent interpretations and warn addicts against working them.

But if there is a version of the steps that isn't contradictory, assuming that the steps are essentially confused  does a disservice to addicts who would benefit from AA if they only got past their mangled understanding. It's exactly similar to the kind of attack on religion that we find in the New Atheists: They treat the mangled fundamentalist understanding of religion as the very essence of religion, never considering the possibility that there exists a more promising and life-enriching understanding.

And there can be little doubt that the Dodes are attacking a mangled understanding of the twelve steps.

The Dodes excoriate the twelve steps for inspiring "self-flagellation," as if the twelve steps were about beating yourself up about your failings: "The degradation woven through these steps also seems unwittingly designed to exacerbate, rather than relieve, the humiliating feelings so common in addiction." And they make this charge despite recognizing that the first step "is intended to evoke a sense of surrender that might give way to spiritual rebirth."

It doesn't occur to them that this first step sets the tone for understanding the rest: addiction is an illness, not a fault, and from the perspective that concedes something greater than ourselves, the guilt and shame that comes from clinging to a vaunted sense of control can be released. The idea is that, from the right perspective, we can honestly recognize our inescapable imperfections without beating ourselves up over them, and so can seek the kind of help and support required to become better than we could be on our own (something we can't do so long as we are hiding from our imperfections in order to avoid the guilt that we attach to them).

The Dodes deride the fourth step's call to make "a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves" and the tenth step's call to continue taking "personal inventory," while extolling the capacity of competent therapy to promote the kind of honest self-awareness that can lead to positive change. That the twelve steps are about cultivating the kind of inner honesty essential to therapeutic breakthroughs doesn't even enter the Dodes' radar screen, because they link AA's call to acknowledge our "shortcomings" and hand them over to our higher power with "the fundamentalist religious principle...that the path to recovery is to cleanse oneself of sin."

It doesn't occur to them that this funamentalist religious principle, which drives people to fixate on their sins in an effort to purge themselves, is the very opposite of what is intended when AA calls on its members to hand their shortcomings over to their higher power. It's not accidental that steps six and seven don't say "we are entirely ready to make ourselves responsible for overcoming our defects of character" and "arrogantly take charge of the effort to overcome our own shortcomings." The steps don't call for this because "cleansing oneself of sin" is the very opposite of what the twelve steps are about.

Here's the idea: One crucial barrier to genuine self-understanding is that people are afraid of what they will find when they honestly introspect. They are afraid because (a) they know they will find serious imperfections, and (b) they have a habit of beating themselves up ruthlessly about their imperfections. You could avoid this fear of introspection, of course, by convincing yourself in advance that there aren't any imperfections to be found. But that, of course, is going to be a lie. Every human being has imperfections. You can't begin a project of honest introspection by telling yourself a lie. The alternative solution is to stop beating yourself up about your inevitable human limitations.

That is what the twelve steps are about: leaving behind the perspective from which you deserve to be beaten up for your shortcomings, so that you can look inward without fear of those shortcomings. The promise of a perspective greater than our own from which our shortcomings are already set aside, a perspective from which we can hand our failings over to something greater than ourselves as opposed to beating ourselves up over them--these are the defining features of the twelve steps.

With such a perspective in place, a crucial impediment to instrospective self-understanding--namely, one's propensity for self-flagellation--can be set aside. The addict is able to engage in the kind of internal inventory and honest self-discovery that the Dodes think the best therapy can help facilitate--and which, thankfully (since not everyone can afford therapy), can also be facilitated with the help of talented AA sponsors and peer counselors.

In short, the Dodes have an understanding of the twelve steps that is almost exactly backwards. Sadly, their confusion is entirely predictable.

Works vs Grace

The Dodes display a classic confusion about the nature of the twelve steps. I say the confusion is classic because the twelve steps have their origins in the Christian theology of grace. But in the history of Christianity, the theology of grace has been repeatedly misconstrued and misappropriated by people who can't let go of "works theology." The result is that good news is twisted into bad news, a message of hope is turned into a threat, and a liberating idea is reframed as a call to self-flagellation.

That the Dodes misconstrue the twelve steps as they do is no surprise, because even those who explicitly endorse the theology of grace have had a long tradition of finding ways to subvert its meaning.

According to the Christian theology of grace, we are saved, not by what we do, but by what God does for us when we get out of the way. And the first thing that God does for us is forgive us--a forgiveness that liberates us from the weight of our offenses, from guilt and shame, precisely because it springs from the author of our very being. If the infinite creator of all does not hold our offenses against us, who are we to do so? This is what traditional Christian theology has called "justification."

The second thing God does is provide spiritual resources for becoming better than we can be on our own. By releasing ourselves to something greater than ourselves, giving our wills over to a good that transcends us, we transcend ourselves. That is, we become better than we could be on our own. This is what traditional Christian theology has called "sanctification."

AA has extracted this theology from its Christian context, offering its practical dimensions purged of specific doctrines and creeds. The way in which releasing yourself to a higher power opens doors to self-improvement can be viewed, within AA, as the result of a metaphysical infusion of divine grace. But it needn't be. There's no cry of heresy if you think of it as a shift in perspective that erases self-imposed limits. Contrary to what the Dodes say, there is nothing preventing you, in AA, from conceiving of your higher power as your best self, the self you could become were you to let go of the narratives and habits that are constraining you.

A friend told me of one person who decided, cynically, to make a doorknob his higher power. What he discovered is that when he went through the twelve steps earnestly, the doorknob became a functional focus for the steps. He released his shortcomings to the doorknob, and they didn't weight him down anymore. The doorknob was transformed into a symbol of something else.

Others less cynical but equally skeptical of supernatural powers have envisioned that their higher power is the support network of love and community, within AA and elsewhere, that encourages them to be more than they thought they could be and offers resources greater than a single person can hope to possess alone.

What AA seeks to preserve is the practical dimension of this theology of grace: the release and openness to transformation, the reaching out for support and strength, the giving up on stubborn reliance on one's own willpower, the attitude of self-forgiveness that makes honesty possible and turns the act of making amends into an exercise of responsible relationship-building instead of an exercise in self-recrimination. AA thereby also affirms the distinction between using moral principles as a map and and using them as a bludgeon--that is, using them as a guide to a better life instead of using them as a tool of judgment and condemnation.

By contrast, we have the theology of works: The idea that it all rests on our own shoulders, that we are to blame for every imperfection, that we can achieve perfection on our own, save ourselves...and that our failure to do so is our own fault. In a theology of works, everything depends on our own willpower--and so, if we fail to live up to moral principles, we are blameworthy. Morality is thus twisted so that it becomes about guilt and blame instead of guidance.

I should point out that a theology of grace does not hold that humans aren't called to good works, or that they don't have responsibilities, etc. What a theology of grace says is that our salvation does not depend on our own works. Instead, our good works depend on our salvation: We live up to our responsibilities because we have opened ourselves up to that which makes it possible to do so--what Christianity calls the grace of God. We don't overcome our flaws by "will power" and personal effort, but by a connection to something that gives us more strength than we can ever muster alone. If we want to transcend our limits we don't do so by relying on our limited self but by reaching out to something that is not limited in the ways that we are. Our "salvation" is found in making the connection to that something--and we make that connection not by an effort of personal will but by an act of release.

Again, AA is open to wholly secular conceptualizations of this process: You might conceive of your higher power as a community that is greater than the sum of its parts, which can offer to you the resources for being better than you could be alone. Whether this works as well as conceiving of your higher power as the infinite creator of the universe is a different matter, and one I think it would be very hard to assess (for reasons mentioned in the earlier post). But even in its secularized understandings, it remains a kind of theology of grace.

In the history of Christianity, the theology of grace has prevailed in theory...but in practice, the theology of works has continued to operate behind the scenes, twisting and distorting the message of grace.

This happens in all sorts of ways. The idea that our salvation comes from divine grace through the channel of faith is converted into the idea that we are saved by the work of our own faith. And so we focus in on our faith, struggling to make sure it is pure enough, fixating on it and beating ourselves up if we fail to show sufficient faith. People say "let go and let God"...and then beat themselves up for failing to do this work for which they see themselves as wholly responsible. The "good news" of Christianity--that humanity has been saved by God's saving work in Christ--is transformed into the terrible news that if you fail to get your beliefs about Christ just right and then perform the act of making Him your Lord and Savior, you will writhe in eternal anguish in the fiery pits of everlasting hell.

At every turn, Christians have found ways to twist and distort the core message of divine grace, making it all about what we do. Paradoxically, what really requires work is resisting the urge to make it all about our own works. We're saved by our own faith, or by getting our beliefs right, or by believing the Bible, or by saying a prayer in which we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, or by saying such a prayer with the right degree of earnestness--anything but our salvation depending on something greater than ourselves.

The Dodes' utter inversion of the twelve steps--getting AA's core message completely backwards--falls cleanly into this pattern. It's as if they've seen the connection between AA and Christian theology, but have experienced Christianity largely in terms of these historic distortions. They transfer the distortions to AA, and condemn the program based on a distorted understanding of it.

But as understandable as this may be, it remains a mistake. The theology of grace should not be judged by the flaws in theologies that wear grace as a cloak. Instead, we should assess the theology of grace and the theology of works on their own terms--and if we decide that there is something problematic about the latter that the former avoids (as the Dodes seem to think, albeit in wholly secular terms), we should look for ways to encourage the former despite the seductiveness of the latter.

Instead, the Dodes treat the mangled variant of AA as the proper way--perhaps the only way--to understand it. In so doing, they are not just unfair to AA. More seriously, they help to perpetuate the misconstrual and the harms that it can do.

If they really want to help addicts recover, it would seem far better to give AA an honest and careful assessment that recognizes both the harmful misconstruals of its methodologies and the more promising understandings--and then encourage those who pursue AA to approach the steps as they were meant to be approached, in a spirit of grace.

I suspect that one reason the Dodes don't approach things this way lies in a common tendency among those who display an anti-religious bias: the tendency to see all of religion through the lens of its most pernicious expressions. The religion of fear and hellfire, the religion of hate-yourself-because-you're-a-sinner, is their model of religion. When they see the religious roots of AA and the persistence of religious language and forms, their stereotype of religion rises up and offers a template for interpreting the twelve steps that admits of no more humanistic rivals.

Such stereotyping of religion can be resisted. And if we want to be honest in our engagement with the diversity of religious communities and those influenced by them, we need to resist such stereotyping.

In my next and final post in this series, I will consider another way in which I see anti-religious bias at work in the Dodes' essay--in a way that reflects the false opposition between science and religion.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Free E-Book Today Only: What on Earth Do We Know about Heaven?

Today only, Randal Rauser's book on the afterlife, What on Earth Do We Know about Heaven?, is available for free as a Kindle e-book. From June 6-12, it will be available at the discounted price of $3.99.

Randal Rauser is a thoughtful theologian who has written a number of excellent books aimed at making theological arguments and perspectives accessible to a lay readership. He also runs an active and lively blog here. If you haven't read any of his books, a free e-book is as good a place to start as any.