Where did the idea of a loving God come from?

I was struck by this quote from Heather Mac Donald:

The only touchstone that I can possibly imagine for deciding whether or not to adopt any particular belief is its truth, in this case: Does the evidence of human experience support the claim that we are attended to by a loving, personal God?

It reminded me of something I read in another atheist, Peter Medawar:

I do not believe- as much as I would like to do so- that God watches over the welfare of small children in the way that children need looking after (that is, as fond parents do, and pediatricians and good schoolteachers) I do not believe God does is because there is no reason to believe it.

I very much like the honesty shown in both quotations, but both ways they are conceiving the love of God are ridiculous, and and both ideas show what happens when a claim is cut off from its context.

Let’s face it, the claim that God is a loving father to the whole world is a Christian claim. Both authors above are therefore critiquing a Christian claim, but they sever it from its Christian basis and tie it to an interpretation that is downright silly. The Christian argument for the divine love is well known. Finish the following sentences: “God so loved the world that _____” or “Greater love hath no man than that ____” If you are Heather Mac Donald, you fill in the blank with “he attends on us”, if you are Medawar, you fill it in with “he looks after small children as a doting schoolteacher”. Having written in an obviously ridiculous answer they then- quite reasonably- call the answer ridiculous, and then (of course) see no evidence for it.

The Christian claim for the fatherly love of God is based on faith. If it is by faith that we hold that God became man, then it is by faith that we hold that God became man to die out of love for us, in order that we might saved. Mac Donald and Medawar look around and say “where’s the loving God?” A Christian can only shrug “did you think we were kidding when we talked about the need for faith? Believe now, and you’ll understand more later.”

To be fair, Mac Donald and Medawar are probably mocking a corrupt and flabby Christianity that has ceased to believe, and is sleepwalking through claims about divine love, mumbling reasons it can no longer remember. It seems like a merely academic thing to deny the divinity of Christ, but little do we realize that we destroy the Christian claim about divine love by doing so.

We can come to understand something about the love of God from natural theology too, but in this science we can only understand man as a subordinate being, a sort of happy and willing minister to the divine purpose. We would love God as Lord, but not as Abba. But it is perhaps pointless to bring this up. It was not natural theology that brought the claim of a loving, fatherly God to all nations.

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33 Comments

  1. John Farrell said,

    March 3, 2009 at 10:37 am

    Excellent point, James. I wonder what Heather would say if you posted this in one of her comment boxes.

  2. peeping thomist said,

    March 3, 2009 at 11:59 am

    The point in the post is razor sharp.

    Not that Christians don’t make the same kind of arguments going the other way on occasion, but a hell of a lot of what the new atheist crowd says is simply predicated on what they, rather than all men, or Christian dogma, call God.

    I think sometimes this is more than a logical fallacy, but rather an insight into the root of their problem. They are not able to let themselves think seriously “If God, what then…” because they are simply not taking God seriously. A doting school teacher? Attending to us–like one’s mommy when you are sick in bed? They have not thought about what God means. It is hard for me not to attribute this to the loss of natural theology, since this lets one know from reason vaguely what pertains to God. And if you had this, or atl least understood its claims, which granted may not be enough, you wouldn’t make the sort of asinine comments these people do.

    I don’t disagree with what you say about faith, which is simply true, and which they also ignore. And its probably true that their excuse could easily be the simpy tones of modern day dying Christianity hand them this view of God that they mock or use to argue His non-existence.

    But can you imagine Cicero confronting one of these people? Or Aristotle? Their response would not convince anyone of a loving Father, but their response would knock this happy horsecrap off its stilts. And it would not contradict the understanding of the loving Father that Faith does offer.

    But they are trying to refute faith. And I love the point–“then pay attention to what faith itself claims.” Heh.

  3. peeping thomist said,

    March 3, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    I think what was gestating in the comment above is that if these people understood God as what reason can point towards–as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and even men like Thomas Jefferson understood God and/or the divine–the true Christian claim of revelation and faith then becomes an answer to a problem…an unforeseen blessing beyond measure, an overflowing goodness, a bounty beyond what anyone could have imagined. In the context of what is reasonably understood of the divine, revelation is not some silly, childlike sentimental garbage. It is the supernatural answer to the prayer that emanates from our very nature. Indeed, all nature. It is the solution to the insoluble, divided problem of our nature as we live our daily lives whilst striving to do good and avoid evil.

  4. peeping thomist said,

    March 3, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    I love the juxtaposition. A doting school teacher can be cute. A God-man who was slain by human beings, for human beings, on a cross–not so much. Kind of serious, in fact. But that is the love of the true Father.

  5. Robert Nachtegall said,

    March 3, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    Reminds me of Lucy when she first learns about Aslan from the Beavers…

    “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
    “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”

  6. Ben said,

    March 4, 2009 at 12:58 am

    Greetings,

    What bothers me about this post is that it only displaces the problem one step as though there is nothing to criticize concerning the Bible’s measure of itself. This is very related to the complaint that atheists don’t take the Fall of Man into consideration when they evaluate the evidence for the suffering in the world. On that count, so often, Christians will harp from the sidelines about the injustice of their actual views not being addressed, when in fact those details are much more perverse than what is being criticized. Why are modern humans suffering for the decisions of their ancient ancestors? Why is Tom, Dick, and Harry born into a situation with the deck so stacked against them? That’s still *personal* even if Christianity wants to pretend like it isn’t. The divine injustice is just one step removed, but basically the same idea and the Christian answer is just the sort of lame excuse a false worldview could easily cook up.

    We do not allow cults to define what is good and right for us. We do not let con artists tell us what the proper measure of wise financial decision making is. And we do not let Christianity tell us that a perfect divine being is off the hook for mismanaging the fates of our ancestors, allowing it to infringe on all of their decedents, and that the best he could do for us is to take care of some far removed theological abstractions which inevitably by His own account leave most of humanity suffering in hell for all eternity.

    Any religion can fill in the blanks you posed any way it wants. “God so loved the world that _____” “…he drew a smiley face on the dark side of the moon.” In my opinion, being executed 2,000 years ago is equally ridiculous in terms of “loving” humanity. I would suggest defending that Christian construct and showing us why it is such a better measure of love than something in the ballpark of the school teacher motif rather than merely complaining it isn’t being addressed. We expect better spiritual results from attentive and concerned parents and I see no reason why we shouldn’t expect something very similar from God if he really so loves the world. Any honest person can take a look at the world around him/her and recognize this probably isn’t the best a super being could do with people’s lives.

    From here it seems like the secret to being a Christian is hosting incredibly low standards for the morality of your deity just because the old book says so. As much as I may *facepalm* at some of the things the neoatheists say, they’re still much more on track than conservative Christianity. And I doubt anything you can say will change that. Good luck though.

    Ben

  7. John Farrell said,

    March 4, 2009 at 2:35 am

    Well said, but, on what basis, Ben, do you presuppose that God’s goodness is defined in moral terms? That’s the problem I have with ‘the probllem of evil’. Aquinas points out that one of the reasons the Bible has so many contradictory images of God is that it prevents people from too easily making an idol out of any one image. God is not a ‘super being’. In fact, he isn’t a ‘being’ at all. This, I know, strikes many atheists, as philosopeak and hair splitting, but it’s one reason why so many Christians find the ‘flying spaghetti monster’ argument irrelevant. It’s a straw man.

  8. peeping thomist said,

    March 4, 2009 at 6:16 am

    I really like your comments, Ben. Now we’re talking. Of course, James’ post was simply geared to pointing the discussion towards what it should be. Can’t blame him for not posting on what you want him to. Heh. Maybe you can get him to, however.

    “this probably isn’t the best a super being could do with people’s lives”

    “Why are modern humans suffering for the decisions of their ancient ancestors?”

    “a perfect divine being is off the hook for mismanaging the fates of our ancestors, allowing it to infringe on all of their decedents, and that the best he could do for us is to take care of some far removed theological abstractions which inevitably by His own account leave most of humanity suffering in hell for all eternity.”

    “We expect better spiritual results from attentive and concerned parents and I see no reason why we shouldn’t expect something very similar from God if he really so loves the world.”

    In all of these sentiments, regardless of whether your picture of Christianity/theology is correct or not, you have certain expectations of what God is and how he should best interact with, and indeed manage, human affairs. If you could build that case, that would be helpful to me. Why do you have these expectations, and why is it best for God to manage human affairs in the way you assume to be best? I doubt you think that you personally are the arbiter of such things, so where are you getting these standards from–these ideas of how best God ought to manage human affairs? How do you know that God ought to be more like a parent? How is the case of God and humanity similar to a parent/child relationship? Why?

    It seems to me that to build your case, you need to either 1) show contradiction within Christianity about what God is and how He should interact with human affairs, or 2) you need to argue explicitly about what the reasonable standards for God and the way He ought to Be and interact with human beings are. I am more interested in the latter, because it seems to be behind your complaints–you seem to be arguing from a universal standard (“we expect better from parents, etc.). And because arguing this way keeps us out of all the debates over what Christianity says/claims at present, which, to be quite honest, I think you distort in your comments.

  9. March 4, 2009 at 6:19 am

    “as though there is nothing to criticize concerning the Bible’s measure of itself.”

    The bible is a message, not the messenger. No message can ever account for itself – one could always say, “Well, of course that’s what an imposter would also say.” That’s why a messenger carries credentials, or the message carries a seal or some such.

    Such a thing is not a criticism of the bible, but a statement about the one who wants to criticize. The table of contents for the Bible wasn’t part of the revelation.

    “Why are modern humans suffering for the decisions of their ancient ancestors? Why is Tom, Dick, and Harry born into a situation with the deck so stacked against them?”

    Such questions presuppose things about man that the Bible does not presuppose, such as the nature of this life and its meaning, the meaning of suffering, the nature of sin, and for that matter, of good.

    “Morality of your deity” … what are you talking about? As John said, God is not some agent in the universe that we measure against some code that we all know.

  10. Peter said,

    March 4, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    James, you removed your reply?

  11. Ben said,

    March 4, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    Wow, some pleasant responses. I’ll try not to act so surprised. 😀

    John Farrell,

    “Well said, but, on what basis, Ben, do you presuppose that God’s goodness is defined in moral terms?”

    I apologize, but that sounds incredibly redundant and self refuting to me. Why wouldn’t cats be defined in feline terms?

    “That’s the problem I have with ‘the problem of evil’.”

    I’m guessing (feel free to correct me) your problem is that you do not allow the pattern of goodness to be merely recognized for what it is independent of supernatural premises. One of the problems I have with this kind of rejection of the problem of evil is that Christianity requires that we can recognize morality independently or else “Gentiles” cannot be judged by it in the end. If the real God “placed the law in our hearts” then it follows we can and should evaluate religions for quality moral content by it and Christianity can be refuted via internal consistency, since our moral compasses have been included in the loop by its own admission. Every section in my full “argument from evil” case on my xanga starts off with moral measures the Bible is quite familiar with (since I‘m quoting it). In my moral paradigm, you should be able to start from anywhere and come to the same conclusion, rather than stacking all your moral chips on one far removed faith wager. Hopefully, if anyone cares to peruse the arguments I’ve assembled, I’ve used many measures and shown that the only one that “works” is the “whatever the Bible says God done did” standard. Of course, that’s basically meaningless and any god could get away with that and it no longer means anything to call the Christian God “good.”

    “Aquinas points out that one of the reasons the Bible has so many contradictory images of God is that it prevents people from too easily making an idol out of any one image.”

    Of course an alternative hypothesis is that it’s a theological junk heap of dozens of authors subjective opinions who weren’t necessarily on the same page or interacting with a real entity.

    “God is not a ’super being’. In fact, he isn’t a ‘being’ at all. This, I know, strikes many atheists, as philosopeak and hair splitting,”

    It strikes me as self refuting, given that “being” merely means it exists. If you are saying God does not exist, I agree. :p

    “but it’s one reason why so many Christians find the ‘flying spaghetti monster’ argument irrelevant. It’s a straw man.”

    The FSM is not a ‘super being’. In fact, it isn’t a ‘being’ at all. This, I know, strikes many apastafarians, as philosopeak and hair splitting. It should also be remembered that the Invisible Pink Unicorn is both invisible and pink at the same time.

    peeping Thomist,

    “I really like your comments, Ben. Now we’re talking. Of course, James’ post was simply geared to pointing the discussion towards what it should be. Can’t blame him for not posting on what you want him to. Heh. Maybe you can get him to, however.”

    That’s fair enough.

    “In all of these sentiments, regardless of whether your picture of Christianity/theology is correct or not, you have certain expectations of what God is and how he should best interact with, and indeed manage, human affairs. If you could build that case, that would be helpful to me. Why do you have these expectations, and why is it best for God to manage human affairs in the way you assume to be best? I doubt you think that you personally are the arbiter of such things, so where are you getting these standards from–these ideas of how best God ought to manage human affairs? How do you know that God ought to be more like a parent? How is the case of God and humanity similar to a parent/child relationship? Why?”

    Well if morality-speak does not refer to anything, then obviously Christianity is false. If it does, then what I’ve said probably corresponds fairly well with it and Christianity is probably false since it tries to get away with something that doesn’t have anything to do with any morality-speak I’ve ever heard of. It doesn’t seem to matter why that is the case since Christianity would be false regardless. At the very least we would be looking for a different supernatural worldview if evolution could not account for such things like altruism.

    “It seems to me that to build your case, you need to either 1) show contradiction within Christianity about what God is and how He should interact with human affairs,”

    It appears I’ve done that.

    “or 2) you need to argue explicitly about what the reasonable standards for God and the way He ought to Be and interact with human beings are.”

    I’m pretty sure I’ve already done that in explicit enough terms unless you want me to literally write God a “Being Good to Humanity: For Divine Dummies” book. Maybe I don’t have everything right, but I sure don’t have a good reason to think otherwise. The broad strokes are already damning and the details I know of seem to make it much worse. If “few will be saved” then the ultimate shepherd has returned with only a “few” of his sheep and somehow we imagine there must be a perfectly rational explanation for such an epic shepherding failure? I don’t expect Christians to be necessarily ready to deal with that (as though I’m your keeper), but from an outsider perspective, it appears that Christians hope in vain to get lost in the minutiae. Naturally the door is open, but in my experience nothing reasonable walks through it.

    “I am more interested in the latter, because it seems to be behind your complaints–you seem to be arguing from a universal standard (”we expect better from parents, etc.).”

    I certainly do think humans in general have enough psychological common ground that we can in fact have objective discussions about the proper maintenance of genuine human happiness. It would be dishonest to say we cannot identify it and that we cannot improve our definition of it over time as we learn more. Then it’s just a matter of finding out which life strategies are most likely to maximize success towards that goal and these are empirical questions and territory we are already familiar with from many different moral perspectives. That could be a fairly simple, straight forward, fact based discussion that’s not a novel invention of neoatheism by any means. I also think many of the persistent theological escape routes here in all these comments back to me are incredibly damaging to public discourse, solidarity, and the moral maturity of society in general (as much as pure reductionism and nihilistic atheism are). I see them all the time and that is unfortunate in my opinion.

    “And because arguing this way keeps us out of all the debates over what Christianity says/claims at present, which, to be quite honest, I think you distort in your comments.”

    Could you provide me with an example of one such distortion? Maybe I could clarify.

    Niggardly Phil,

    “The bible is a message, not the messenger. No message can ever account for itself – one could always say, “Well, of course that’s what an imposter would also say.” That’s why a messenger carries credentials, or the message carries a seal or some such.”

    My statement can just as easily be read as “the Christian worldview’s measure of itself” which is in my mind a clear reference to other comments here by Christians complaining that Christianity is being judged by the wrong standards. I apologize for the confusion.

    “Such a thing is not a criticism of the bible, but a statement about the one who wants to criticize. The table of contents for the Bible wasn’t part of the revelation.”

    Next you’ll be telling me ancient Hebrew doesn’t have vowels and punctuation. GASP! hehehe I’m just teasing.

    I‘d said: “’Why are modern humans suffering for the decisions of their ancient ancestors? Why is Tom, Dick, and Harry born into a situation with the deck so stacked against them?’”

    “Such questions presuppose things about man that the Bible does not presuppose, such as the nature of this life and its meaning, the meaning of suffering, the nature of sin, and for that matter, of good.”

    I thought I’d already covered that the Bible‘s standards are not justifiable, but perhaps I was unclear. My contention is that the Bible is wrong to not presuppose respect for individual autonomy. And in fact it endorses it in Ezekiel where it says a man shall not be judged for the sins of his father. Again, the recurring theme here for Christians is backing out of the supposed misrepresentation of Christianity uncritically into something worse as though one is not setting up the ultimate dysfunctional relationship by leaving out respect for individuals.

    “’Morality of your deity’ … what are you talking about? As John said, God is not some agent in the universe that we measure against some code that we all know.”

    Right, so anything that comes out of the mist of the unknown can freely plop down any construction of seemingly unrelated and arbitrary statements and we are just supposed to accept it uncritically and call it morality or goodness whatever synonym you prefer to use? It seems that drawing a smiley face on the dark side of the moon might just be the religion we are looking for after all…

    James Chastek,

    I’m not sure why you removed your comment. I happened to copy/paste it before that happened. I can await a second version? I’ll continue with the grain of salt that you may want to take back something I respond to.

    “You claim that my post commits the fallacy of moving the goalpost.”

    Um, I don’t think that’s my main argument, but since I can formulate a related alternative in terms of what you presented I won’t be picky.

    “First, a definition: ‘Moving the goalpost, also known as raising the bar, is an informal logically fallacious argument in which evidence presented in response to a specific claim is dismissed and some other (often greater) evidence is demanded.’”

    So far so good.

    “Here’s the argument so far: Mac Donald and Medawar: We look at the world, and find no evidence for the claim of a loving God. Me: The claim of a loving God came from Christians, and Christians didn’t form that belief by examining evidence. They have always insisted that it was from faith. Ben: Yes, but you must give me additional evidence to show that the claims of the faith itself are reasonable, otherwise the argument you just gave here has no value. So who’s moving the goalposts? Okay, okay, that was a cheap trick.”

    My version of this would be:

    Them: Where’s the evidence of a loving God?

    You: Christians have low expectations for the goodness of God and so don’t expect evidence of that particular popular conception of a loving God.

    Me: Those in-house low expectations are indefensible and should be rejected in part for the reasons I gave.

    As I see it, I stepped up to your goalpost where you put it.

    “What you meant by ‘moving the goalposts’ was that I was addressing trivial concerns when the real concern is the reasonableness of Christianity.”

    True enough. The goal post moving was more of a subjective “political” complaint than an argument. However, given my familiarity with the debate, such complaints do seem to reflect a systemic problem in Christian thought. There appears to be much more “not my religion” talk aimed at the neoatheists than defending whatever the actual conception of the religion is. And I think part of the reason is that Christianity has much to lose by explicitly pointing out what real Christianity does and doesn’t entail. You might agree that the “popular conception” of most *Christians* is probably not very Christian and it follows that true defenders would end up alienating a great deal of their own (relative) stock in the process. I suspect this isn’t necessarily a conscious choice or plan, and you can disagree or take that however you want, but that is how it appears to me in general. I can grant that getting into a full fledged theology course in a debate is unreasonable (especially in short televised exchanges), but so is pretending that Christianity only has to do with loving your neighbor and nothing to do with the divine extortion of hell, for example, just because most Christians don’t like to dwell on it.

    “Since I’m a Christian here, I might as well explain why I think what I’m doing is reasonable.”

    Yay! For the record, I’m an atheist, metaphysical naturalist/realist, materialist/physicalist/evolutionist, determinist/compatibalist, non-reductionist (which means I accept the composition as well as the parts) who subscribes to moral goal-theory and the mental map correspondence to experience truth theory. Depending on the deity in question, of course I can range anywhere from agnostic, to apatheism, to anti-theism. I think something like Max Tegmark’s all or nothing multiverse hypothesis is the best candidate I know of for the “brute fact” of all reality. Basically (as I understand it) that means that everything that an omniscient God could logically imagine actually exists (and our universe is one part of that ensemble of all possible things) and that’s all there is. In terms of epistemology I’m an a-centrist (which is my own term), which means many methods yield accurate results and should mutually corroborate and clarify one another rather than there being one all powerful method for acquiring truth.

    I reject platonic realism as redundant and incoherent, and I reject presuppositionalism, fideism, revelation, subjective religious experientialism, and various other mystical methods for acquiring supposed facts about the world since these are relatively easy to show to be unreliable. Modern science is imperfect but obviously has a lot more going for it than the methods of religion.

    I was raised Missouri Synod Lutheran, took that seriously for about six years as a young earth creationist, converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity for about 2 years and in 2005 de-converted to agnosticism for about six months because I was fed up with making excuses for things I didn‘t really know were true. Since then I’ve been rebuilding my worldview as an atheist and have dedicated much time to engaging the debate as sensibly as I can from my new perspective and I’ve enjoyed that measure of confidence and intellectual integrity a great deal. I don’t necessarily want to get into all of this, but I mention it so that you at least have some idea of where I am and where I’m coming from.

    “I want to be holy like the saints are. The Catholic Church showed me how to do that, and no one else showed me how to do it as well, so I joined them.”

    That’s a rather subjective justification and possibly you are aware of that. Many people have positive experiences from various viewpoints. That doesn’t say much about the arbitrary things they ask you to believe on faith, especially if those things don’t have much to do with why you had the positive experiences in the first place.

    “Hitchens used to quip that he couldn’t think of one thing that a Christian could do that an atheist couldn’t, but my response was immediate: they can’t be holy.“

    A: You don’t think atheists can embody the utmost virtuous behavior.

    B: You define generic virtue in a circular way that arbitrarily requires the participation of God.

    C: You are a little confused and do in fact think atheists can embody virtuous behavior in a genuine sense.

    I’d rather not drop the “B word” on you, but you are treading close into that territory. Perhaps you deleted your comment to rethink your perspective there.

    Thanks for all the responses everyone!

    Ben

  12. John Farrell said,

    March 4, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    I was raised Missouri Synod Lutheran, took that seriously for about six years as a young earth creationist, converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity for about 2 years and in 2005 de-converted to agnosticism…

    I guess we should hope when this kid’s head stops turning his face is to the front. Not that it started that way….

  13. Joseph A. said,

    March 4, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    For all of Ben’s typing, all he’s really saying is ‘If your God were real, He would behave the way I expect him to. And the fact that you expect differently means your standards are low.’ There it is, encapsulated, and it’s what every individual response has amounted to. A lesser suggestion is that the Christian God is taken to be some a divine being whose entire reason for existence is to dispense nothing but happiness and joy, or that at the very least this is the God of popular Christianity. As if most christians never expect, much less abundantly experience, a whole lot of pain and suffering in their lives.

    My own response is: As a Catholic, the God I understand to exist does not conform to Ben’s morality. Because frankly, by this limited exchange I find Ben’s idea of good, of what God would or should do to truly be benevolent, to be utter ridiculous – that ‘low standard’ he keeps referring to. I’m not going to bother spelling out my own take on God and why I view it as superior, because really, Ben hasn’t done that either. He’s just given his opinion, declared (of course) that he thinks his view is best, and that given that view he can’t accept God. And hey, that’s fine. But his inability to accept others’ standards does not automatically make Christians at large or in particular objectively wrong by default, or even push the scale in that direction. All we’ve gotten so far is ‘It’s my view, therefore…’

    As for the FSM, it’s an empty comparison and always has been. It’s not an argument, it’s not even an illustration – it’s just God with a silly face. And as Ben demonstrates with his reference to Max Tegmark and the tenth dimension, honest atheists have a FSM of their own. It just happens to be vastly more lovecraftian than anything else.

  14. Ben said,

    March 4, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    John Farrell,

    ? I’m 28. Thanks. What are you? 60? Please let me know how many years I have to be an atheist before my comments are valid.

    Joseph A.,

    Your summation makes so much sense if you leave out the content of what my standard is and the comparison to the Christian version. You claim I didn’t get into it, but I did (and I linked to rather exhaustive posts on the topics as well). Your response is shallow and dismissive of all the ways I grounded my standard and I’m very used to Christians training themselves not to see it, so that’s par for the course of non-conversation.

    “10 dimensions” doesn’t have a lot to do with Tegmark’s views here. I think that’s string theory territory, isn’t it? Tegmark’s “all or nothing multiverse” is the only solution I know of to what I call the “problem of particularity” that is not itself yet another arbitrary solution. And there are many important differences between FSM-esque explanations and the hypothesis I think is best. If there weren’t I would not be advocating it and would settle for agnosticism since that would be the only honest thing to do. And if you can show that Tegmark’s views are just as arbitrary as theistic answers, then that’s exactly what position I would take (agnosticism). It’s not my religion, it’s just a possible explanation that seems to work out better than anything I know of. I’m also used to Christians taking the cheap shot when they themselves would not like to be misrepresented.

    We should be looking for something that is actually explaining something that needs explaining (is necessary), isn’t utilizing unreliable methods (virtually all religious methodologies), embraces the findings of our best methods (science), continues them by extension (from the things we are most sure of), doesn’t come back and create unnecessary problems in the ballpark of what we do know (like the problem of evil, for instance), is actually solving the problem(s) it purports to solve, isn’t introducing new unresolvable problems on top of that, is discernibly simple and elegant in formulation (as in it isn’t an arbitrary “42” kind of answer), properly justifies where and when we can stop asking questions (like, “well, why is that?”), and utilizes the fewest ad hoc assumptions to complete the general picture of “brute fact” reality. That’s my “ultimate explanation” goal post run down (at least as much as I can brainstorm at the moment) and all the versions of theism that I know of fail on all counts (as I see it, at least). It is much easier to build from scratch a grand sketch that fits this criteria explicitly than it is to try to force fit the contents of our most influential religions, in my opinion. As Tegmark says, anything short of filling up the bill of all logical possibilities will keep us asking the eternally valid question of “Well, why is it that way?” His goal post answers what wouldn’t be arbitrary and why. The God hypothesis does no such thing. One minute theists will be blaming atheists for not sufficiently addressing these important philosophical questions and then the next minute theists will be blaming atheists for sufficiently answering these important philosophical questions. I’m used to the no-win scenario. *shrug*

    Since it appears I’ve over-stayed my welcome and am getting blamed for things that could not be helped (since I was responding to four different people), and getting the blow back from every trivialization of religion that has come before my comments here, I think I’m done. I’m not interested in making people bitter and I think I’ve explained my point of view sufficiently without making it a “hit and run.” If certain individuals do not want to recognize how much thought I put into my comments, so be it. I enjoyed the first round at least, and will stop by again some time.

    take care,

    Ben

  15. Ben said,

    March 4, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    One more thing,

    I repost my comments on my blog. No one is obligated to continue the conversation there and I only mention it as a courtesy.

    Ben

  16. Joseph A. said,

    March 4, 2009 at 8:26 pm

    Ben,

    And I’m very used to atheists insisting that they’re saying much more than they actually are, or saying something very similar to what theists say while subtly changing the definition of the words they’re using. Hitchens is a great example of this – where he angrily insists that religion is evil, that atheists can be every bit as good as theists can, etc. But once you ask him to explain just what he means by good and evil, the result is something that is radically different from what most people (and certainly religious believers) take to be ‘good’ and ‘evil’. In the end, with Hitchens, there’s very little there other than the bombastic show.

    You didn’t ‘ground’ any ‘standards’. You simply stated what your standards were, and announced that God (as you think Christians envision Him) does not meet said standards. As I said, you’re more than welcome to your standards. But the fact that God doesn’t meet your personal expectations just isn’t all that persuasive, even if you really, strongly are attached to them. If you came in here and insisted that the God of Christianity doesn’t exist because no benevolent God would forbid abortion (which, in this example, you think is either an amoral act or, in the right circumstances, a good act), the result would be strange looks. I submit that what you’ve done here is akin to that.

    As for Tegmark, I wasn’t making reference to String Theory, no. And how is it a cheap shot to point out that Tegmark-style views of the world (‘everything that an omniscient God could logically imagine actually exists’ – which, I’ll remind you, isn’t necessarily an atheistic view itself, and in fact reflects the increasingly strange evolution of atheistic cosmology) – which you more or less admit is just a shot in the dark – amount to an atheistic FSM? Is it because I used the FSM example? But you did that yourself unprovoked.

    Your standards for what constitute a best answer are chock full of so many metaphysical, not to mention subjective preferences that I can skip right past that. And again, I’m not condemning you for having your own views. My problem is that you’ve waltzed in here with two fistfuls of condemnation and ire, with very little reason to take what you say as really challenging the perspectives offered, much less overturning them. All the while you keep talking about what ‘theists do/will do’, complaining about what strikes me as imaginary blame, etc.

    So, one more time: I think you’re more than welcome to your perspective. But don’t confuse emotional attachment for strength of argument. And I certainly think the move from ‘There is evil, therefore God does not exist’ stands out particularly poorly on this site, where natural theology (and its limits) is routinely stressed. I can only imagine how Aristotle would have reacted to, say, ‘Predation exists, therefore there is no unmoved mover’.

  17. March 5, 2009 at 12:25 am

    Ben,

    I removed my comment. One reason was that half of it was wrong. The other is that your original comment raised issues that were too large to be dealt with in a comment thread, or even a blog post. Your original comment was critical of original sin, the doctrine of atonement, theodicy, the evidentiary value of faith, the reasons for damnation, what it means to predicate “just” of God, etc and that’s too many issues to respond to.

    I see comments as just that, comments. Any possible back and forth argument isn’t always possible. The demands of the medium and my work schedule limit my ability to respond to much more than short questions. Thanks for the link.

  18. Ben said,

    March 5, 2009 at 1:17 am

    James,

    Please let me know which half wasn’t what you wanted to say so that I can make a note of that on my reposting. I’m not interested in misrepresenting anyone and I understand many issues were touched on, I understand the impracticality of responding to every possible tangent, and I also understand that it isn’t reasonable to get into a full fledged debate based on every comment you get. I’m fine with my comments just standing as just my perspective and food for thought.

    No worries,

    Ben

    • March 5, 2009 at 1:21 am

      I don’t know where I got the idea that you used the phrase “Moving the goalposts”. Total brain fart.

      One other thing, since I couldn’t respond to each of your objections, my original attempt was to speak of what your objections overlooked: what Christianity (or in my case, Catholicism) actually offers. It’s a system for making people holy. To the extent that you see some value in holiness, you’ll see some value in Catholicism.

      I disagree with how you characterize my argument. It’s not the case that I made a decision that love of God is good, and then I went out and applied my criterion to people. I encountered actual holy people, many of them. I’ve known those people that many now call saints. I’ve experienced myself become more like them through prayer and the sacraments. This is all as much a part of my experience as learning geometry or teaching physics. But if you see no value in holiness, then we are guaranteed to speak past each other- and Christianity is by definition worthless if holiness has no value anyway. I think I could give a defense for the doctrines you challenge, but explaining or critiquing Christianity as a whole without reference to holiness is like trying to explain or critique AA without reference to sobriety.

      (okay, I’m done editing this comment)

  19. Ben said,

    March 5, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    James,

    I’m sure I can find much common ground with the lifestyle in a secular context, however if I gave my definition to the extent it applied, I’m sure most Christians would be too quick to say that isn’t “real” holiness. It becomes something of a “no true Scotsman” game.

    Sam Harris, for example, makes many references to generic transformative mystical experiences and I suspect he’s never taken seriously even though clearly a wide variety of mystics over the ages have cultivated such experiences well outside the confines of Christian doctrine. I can be understanding to an extent that maybe certain Christians don’t understand how that works if they aren’t focusing on God, but I don’t understand how they can’t take a moment to recognize their lack of imagination doesn’t explain the facts of the world very well. Are all the other mystics lying? Probably not.

    You said outright that atheists can’t be holy, so I suspect you’ll at least be inclined to find some way to disagree with me.

    The two most probable reasons common ground on these issues is shunned are:
    1: It would have to be recognized that it could easily be all in your head.
    2. If you want the desired psychological effect, a certain level of suspension of disbelief is required. If an alternative explanation is empathized with too much, such an effect would possibly be compromised.

    The bottom line is that I can easily find common ground with theists on such issues, but the common ground cannot so easily be returned and not for any legitimate reason. I have no problem recognizing the positive psychological benefits of various forms of asceticism. I gained respect for that in my Eastern Orthodox years. It appears that people in the supernatural varieties take it for granted they absolutely have to have a god in the equation for it to work. Maybe that’s subjectively true for them, but then it tends to become some kind of dogma on top of that and I don’t really respect that.

    Ben

  20. Joseph A. said,

    March 5, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    Why would Christians have to suspect that the other mystics are lying? Aquinas and other theologians didn’t need to suspect Aristotle or Plato, among others, of being duplicitous or even utterly wrong in their attempts to grasp God or the immaterial – far from it, in fact, despite their having disagreements. That alone should be enough to expose the common idea that Christians believe every other religion is utterly wrong (and Christianity is exhaustively right) as nonsense – doubly so when so often the infinite nature of God and the difficulties of truly knowing Him are expressed.

    Christians are able to find a lot of common ground with other faiths, even outside of the Abrahamic tradition of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The Pope is able to have productive dialogue with the Dali Lama, and quite a lot of common ground can be found with hindus, buddhists, taoists, confucianists, and more, even while maintaining their (at times, deep) disagreements. As to why atheists so often seem to be excluded from that kind of consideration – certainly with most recent appearances, the reason seems to me to be grounded in many atheists not really wanting to be included anyway. Atheists often have one hell of a lot of dogma on their backs, for all the criticisms of others’ commitment to certain ideas.

  21. Elliot B said,

    March 5, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    It seems that what is happening in this thread is the perennial mistake of subsuming God and His creatures under some idealized rubric of categories. This is the presumption of an a-Christological worldview. The key premise for Ben, it seems, is the moral primacy of “individual autonomy.” Unfortunately, however, this relies on an assumption that “individuality” not only is coherent per se (which I deny) but also presides over God and creatures univocally. Likewise it is assumed that there is some highest standard of goodness, to which both God and man must submit.

    But the Catholic protest to all such pagan “subsumption” is simply the Eucharist. In the Eucharist alone do we find our canon of humanity and divine goodness. In Chrsit alone, as He is truly given to us in the divine litrugy, we find all the treasures of wisdom and goodness. The Eucharist, which is one with the Cross, is not something that happens in some larger “given” field of being (viz., the “neutral” universe as such), but something which simultaneously grounds creation as stemming from the Father in the Son by the Holy Spirit and elevates it to the same divine persons in common. Ontologically, Christ Incarnate is the basis for there being individual humans at all. Only insofar as a creation suitable for humans is ratified and redeemed in His Incarnation (made present historically and concretely in the Eucharist), can we fathom the creation of humans. Christ partakes of our humanness, not as if it were some antecedent metaphysical category limiting God, but as the ordained pattern for our existence. Thus, our humanity becomes the means by which we find (or lose) God. It is not that Christ partook of humanity qua ideal form, but that humanity is privileged to exist actually by participation in the kenotic glory of Christ Incarnate. God did not look ahead and see “humanity,” and then decide that was a fitting way for us to know and love Him. Quite the contrary: He looked ahead at a myriad of ways in which creatures might reflect and share in His goodness, and decided “humanity” was a fitting way for that self-diffusion to happen. Christ is not to be measured by His likeness to our instinct for “the good man,” for we are human only insofar as we possess a likeness to Him as the Suffering Servant.

    This shows us that our canon for good human conduct is to be patterned after gratuitous suffering on behalf of others who can give us nothing in return. This is precisely why much of “being human” means enduring life for the good of future generations and people we don’t even know. This impulse in humans to keep living and to “make things better” is but an analogical reflection of Christ’s own preeminent one-way kenosis on our behalf. As long as the standard for “good conduct” is reified anonymously and pitted against God-in-Christ, the atheist critic is simply not engaging the Catholic Church’s own claims about good and evil. This, I believe, is James Chastek’s point. Precisely in the intersection of the gratuitous existence of the world (i.e., nothing need have been the case apart from God) and the gratuitous suffering we can offer for others, we find a clue to the mystery of evil. Ezekiel denies a man will be punished individually for the individual sins of another, but unfortunately, no one exists individually. We exist collectively, derivatively, as members of the human race. Hence, we can individually experience the collective evils of our race, as well as individually add to them. So, if we desire to exist as humans, we have no choice but to exist as the heirs of concrete humans before us. This, of course, entails inheriting humanity from them as much as inheriting the woes of sin. Certainly, if God wanted to “dote” on us individually, so that we would never experience the rotten fruit of our ancestors, He could—namely, by not creating us as humans. We are not punished for the sins of others, but we are subject to the punishments given to others insofar as others are the ontological and psychological basis for our particular humanity.

    Along many of the above lines, I highly recommend the reading of Michael Liccione’s essays, “Mystery in Aquinas’s Account of Creation” and “The Problems of Evil” and a reading of Donald Keefe’s work on creation, theology of history, and the Eucharist.

    Lastly, as for Tegmark’s surd-omniverse, if it a) is mathematically-axiomatically formalizable and b) claims to provide a necessarily true description of the physical universe, it is subject to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, and is therefore not necessarily true. Further, insofar as it purports to be a scientific theory, it needs empirical backing. Suffice to say, the empirical backing for the unified existence of every logically possible state of affairs (SoA) is not only slim but also asymptotically hard to come by.

    I have to wonder: surely a “purely possible state of affairs” is logically coherent, but can such a SoA be said to exist in Tegmark-space?

  22. Elliot B said,

    March 5, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    Linkage!

    Along many of the above lines, I highly recommend the reading of Michael Liccione’s essays, “Mystery and Explanation in Aquinas’s Account of Creation” and “The Problems of Evil” and a reading of Donald Keefe’s Covenantal Theology and his other writings on creation, theology of history, and the Eucharist. (John Kelleher has good introductory materials to Keefe’s work. Also, Fr. David Meconi, SJ [PDF!], has a good essay on Keefe’s theology of history, but it seems to be offline. I have a copy on my computer, which I can send to those who request it.)

  23. Elliot B said,

    March 5, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    Add-on:

    Likewise, I wonder: surely “a metaphysically simple cosmos with no parallel universes or alternative modes of being” is logically coherent, but can such a SoA be said to exist in Tegmark-space?

  24. March 6, 2009 at 12:15 am

    Ben,

    If one severs the idea of “holy” from the existence of God or gods, it is simply an abuse of language. That being said, our experience of someone holy is not an experience of them interacting with God. We simply meet somone like Mother Teresa or Padre Pio or other nameless Christians (or even, in literature, a character like Zossima) I agree that there is a natural mystical transformative experience, or at least that it is possible, but I do not see this experience as constitutive of holiness, though I wouldn’t deny that it is related. I don’t have to deny that an atheist can have a mystical experience. God sends down rain on the fields of atheists and theists, why not mystical experiences? The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. Much of what happens is vanity and chance.

    Holiness is all the Church is offering. If this is undefinable, so be it; if it is difficult to pin down, so be it. The saints and martyrs and holy doctors of the Church are simply there, and we can choose to live the sort of life they lived, or not. Harris claims, at best, that he has a perfectly acceptable substitute to this life- an “all the results with none of the dogma” system- but even if his system worked, how would I know? I’ve never met anyone who was made better than a saint by following Harris- and no one ever has, since any system he came up with would date to around 2006. Get back to me in 300 years or so, and if Harris has many saints, holy doctors, virgins, martyrs, etc (or something else more impressive) as the early church, he will have a stronger claim. I judge systems on the best thing that they have actually done.

  25. John Farrell said,

    March 6, 2009 at 5:07 am

    Elliot,
    Mike Liccione’s a great resource. I would add Scott Carson, Bill Vallicella and Siris to your list. They’re all superb.

  26. John Farrell said,

    March 6, 2009 at 5:20 am

    BTW, on the lighter side, here’s a creation story I think we all can appreciate.

  27. elliotbee said,

    March 6, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Hey John F.:

    As I think you may know, I’m privileged to be a co-blogger at Philosophia Perennis with Dr. Carson. As for Siris and Vallicella, I enjoy them whenever I make my blog rounds. I’m also a fan of the Smithy (Faithful Scotist) and Edward Feser’s blog. Highly recommended. Thanks for the leads.

    P.S. I enjoyed your book on Lemaitre.

    P.P.S. I was able to spend a day with Fr. Jaki in Princeton! Have you met him? He’s really something, a great old saintly Hungarian.

  28. John Farrell said,

    March 6, 2009 at 9:14 am

    Hi Elliot,
    I should’ve guessed why your name looked familar! Thanks for your kind comments about my book.

    I have met Fr. Jaki on a couple of occasions, though it has been some years now. I must have close to all of his books. I have exchanged a few emails with him more recently, when I was writing my own. And hope to do so again, if I’m lucky enough to land a new contract soon.

  29. March 7, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    Nice thread all, but misguided, in my opinion. God is Father only of God the Son. To unbelievers He does not exist; to natural theists He is Creator (and here I disagree with James); to Christians in this life He is Master or, indeed, Lord. “He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.” — in heaven or after resurrection. Not here. “Overcoming” is of obstacles — obstacles that God purposively placed here (even if which particular battles we must fight is partly randomly determined). So, we’ve got to jump through the hoops in becoming holy. And therefore God does not seem to exercise the same providence that parents exercise over their children; e.g., if He did, then what would be left for the parents to do?

    Now even by natural theology we can prove that God has a will and loves. But we do not know the extent of His love. Does He will us merely temporal goods or also the eternal good? That is known through faith, which is why God is our (Christians’) Master, obedience to Whom will earn salvation for us; but it is not enjoyed through faith, which is why God is not our Father.

    Ben, the “all or nothing multiverse” sounds like a far more ambitious claim than merely “God exists.” Theists claims that God knows all possible worlds, most of which are in His mind. This theory seems to claim that these possible worlds are actual. Isn’t that crazy? Besides, God is one the things that God can imagine. Does God therefore exist?

  30. T. Chan said,

    March 8, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    to Christians in this life He is Master or, indeed, Lord. “He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.” — in heaven or after resurrection. Not here.

    I’d disagree–the filial adoption may not be perfected until after death, but it certainly starts here, and those who have been baptized are justified in calling God Father, as they are instructed to do in the Our Father.

  31. Ben said,

    March 8, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    James Chastek,

    To reiterate the options I presented before:

    A: You don’t think atheists can embody the utmost virtuous behavior.

    B: You define generic virtue in a circular way that arbitrarily requires the participation of God.

    C: You are a little confused and do in fact think atheists can embody virtuous behavior in a genuine sense.

    Obviously your claim is not really that the Church is offering holiness. It is that it is offering God. Naturally, on those terms, atheism can’t offer God, by definition and your earlier response to Hitchens was basically meaningless obviousness. However, I’m sure you accept that atheists can be virtuous, have “related” mystical experiences, and basically have their own version of “holiness” to the extent it is logically applicable in psychological consequence. One wonders what the difference is and how one tells who is “more holy” when investigating the various ascetic groups of the world. If the positive consequences are basically equally evident as far as we repulsive sinners can tell, then the obvious common ground is something that Sam Harris’ “cult” can stake their claim on and Christians have no means of objectively establishing they are offering brand name holiness. It is then not a matter of Sam Harris, but instead, what Sam Harris is about in pulling together ALL of the defensible and experience-able aspects of positive mysterious experience in and of itself. His tradition is actually much more broad and well established than just the little Catholic seam and hence you should immediately join. :p It should be obvious Harris wishes to have a 21st conversation about these psychological realities that brings together both what we know of brain science with all applicable religious traditions that have already explored the inner terrain. Who in their right mind would want to cut themselves short in any other way? That’s my sales pitch anyway. You like it? hehehe We’ll call it food for thought.

    Ben

  32. Ben said,

    March 8, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    BTW, I have responded to DChernik here and Elliot B here.

    cheers,
    Ben


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