Monday, August 27, 2012

Part 1: Why God Matters

For nearly all of American history, Christianity has enjoyed undisputed dominance over mainstream culture and media.  But with the arrival of the information age, this status has begun to falter as more and more believers find themselves falling away from the faiths of their parents.  Christian apologists have therefore organized a dedicated campaign of lectures and debates in order to publicly defend their faith and preserve their status.  It’s a crucial aspect of our politically-charged culture war with far-reaching social consequences.  After all, if God is real, especially the Christian God, then we owe it to ourselves to understand this God and worship Him as best as we can.  It means the Holy Bible is the pure and righteous word of God, and we all need to start praying and studying, lest we find ourselves rotting in eternal torment after this life is over.  However, if God is not real, then millions upon millions of our friends, family members, neighbors, and countrymen are all taking part in a massive, self-inflicted delusion - a delusion that not only demands time, money, and sacrifice to sustain itself, but also the political authority to legally impose itself on everyone else.  All of us, everywhere, have a serious stake in this issue and would do well to understand it as best as we can.

I’m a professional scientist and engineer with a Doctorate of Philosophy from an accredited American university.  I have several publications in refereed journals, and I make a decent living by solving problems and pushing the limits of human understanding.  It's a matter of professional interest that I understand what it means to test my beliefs against the dictates of reality, and to correct them when nature tells me I’m wrong.  I have no personal stake in any of the beliefs I hold, but simply in the rational assurance that whatever beliefs I do hold are indeed correspondent with reality.  I therefore measure my beliefs through a well-defined set of epistemic rules, and I make no exceptions under any context.  That’s what it takes to make new discoveries and build the knowledge of humanity.

Yet when it comes to religious affiliation, you don’t have to bother with any of that stuff at all.  Your beliefs are practically decided for you at birth and then grounded on little more than tradition, na├»ve intuition, social pressure, and authority.  Why else would religious faiths around the world segregate into such distinct cultural and geographic boundaries?  This is entirely unheard of in the world of physical and mathematical science, but it’s practically a defining feature in the world of religion.  It’s a dead giveaway that when all is said and done, religious belief has nothing to do with an objective understanding of reality, but instead is a purely cultural phenomenon of human making.

Ordinarily this would not be so terrible, except for one problem.  By its very nature, religion, and especially Christianity, is never satisfied with merely sitting back and enjoying a life of quiet worship.  Christian doctrine itself requires believers to “spread the Word” to everyone else, and even threatens them with eternal damnation should they ever desert the cause.  This problem is further amplified by the constant push to exercise legal force as a blunt instrument for imposing a narrow interpretation of Christian morality onto the rest of the nation.  Intelligent design, traditional marriage, abortion, and abstinence-only education are just a handful of the current political controversies that are heavily motivated by the religious convictions of Christian conservatives.  So if there's any truth to this stuff at all, then it's a good idea to find out what that truth is so we can make good decisions accordingly - and if not, then abandon those beliefs and correct them so we can stop wasting political capital on pointless, dogmatic superstitions.  That’s why I feel personally compelled to understand this controversy as best as I can, and to share my professional insights with the rest of the world.  Not just to casually analyze a few political and philosophical arguments, but to critically expose the very core of what it is that Christian apologetics ultimately represent.

It's important to realize that the debate on God’s existence is more than just a philosophical controversy between academic egos.  It’s a battle over the very rules of epistemology itself.  Because in the world of science, if you expect to build a reliable understanding of reality, then beliefs must be rigorously justified in accordance to very explicit requirements before they can ever promote to the status of knowledge.  But when it comes to religion, there are no epistemic rules to speak of.  No one converts to Christianity through the pure force of evidence and argumentation, but plenty of people do convert because of tradition, upbringing, and social pressure.  So for Christian apologetics, the goal is not really to convince nonbelievers through brute intellectual force.  Rather, the only really meaningful goal of apologetics is to rationalize the validity of a preconceived conclusion in order to slow the ever-increasing tide of apostasy [1,2,3]. 

They do this with good reason, too.  There’s big money in this stuff and even tremendous political power, but it only works as long as you can maintain a reliable pool of gullible believers to support you.  That’s what makes education and outspoken criticism so crucial in this controversy.  It's the only way to break the cycle of belief and disrupt the political machine that works so hard to intrude on our lives.  This is also why religious groups around the world fight so hard to indoctrinate their children at such young ages.  It’s a deliberate ploy designed to unite religious affiliation with personal and social identity.  Giving up one's religion is never as simple as casually admitting some trivial cognitive error, but the psychological equivalent of cutting off an entire arm or a leg [4,5].  Religious criticism is therefore often met with a hypersensitive, irrational resistance, such that many believers will flatly refuse to ever change their minds under any condition, whatsoever.  For example:

The way in which I know Christianity is true is first and foremost on the basis of the witness of the  holy spirit in my heart, and that this gives me a self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true, wholly apart from the evidence.  And therefore, if in some historically contingent circumstances the evidence that I have available to me should turn against Christianity, I don’t think that that controverts the witness of the holy spirit. [6]:”

This may sound like a harmless assertion of spiritual faith, but it's also an open admission that facts simply don’t matter - that subjective personal experiences supersede any and all physical evidence which may ever emerge to the contrary.  Remember that these are the exact same people who want the rest of us to believe as they do and live as they do - people who abjectly refuse to even admit the mere possibility of error in their beliefs, yet insist on legislating their spiritually-based morality onto the entire nation.  Rather than engage the discussion sincerely and work together to formulate a functional understanding of our universe, Christian apologists, whether they realize it or not, are far more interested in engineering conformity to a foregone conclusion. 

So if we’re going to take the issue of God’s existence seriously, then we need to remind ourselves that the actual existence of God Himself is not important.  If He’s real, then great.  Let’s believe in Him and worship Him and study Him to the best of our ability.  But if God is not real, then that’s great too.  We can stop wasting our time at boring sermons on Sunday and start making better use of our short, mortal lives.  All that matters is that, whatever beliefs we do hold, those same beliefs can justifiably reflect reality.  It's a bitter pill of humility to be sure, but if truth matters, then we should all be able to agree on this much at least.

Now to be fair, Christians do possess a whole slew of impressive-sounding arguments for God’s existence, but their entire position boils down to just that: arguments.  They're empty words shrouded in a thin veil of philosophical jargon without verifiable power in the real world.  That's why it's so easy to discredit each and every argument that Christians have ever come up with.  Because in the world of science, when we want to convince people of a controversial idea, no one ever bothers with cutsie philosophical rhetoric - we make testable predictions and present our findings!  So despite the huge volumes of sophisticated philosophical posturing, no Christian apologist has ever provided a single, verifiable instance of any supernatural force manifesting in the real, physical world.  It's as if the entire Christian apologetic tradition is built on the naive supposition that merely concluding God is the same thing as demonstrating Him.

So please join me as together we dissect the great beast of Christian apologetics.  Not just because we have a bone to pick with Christianity per se, but because Christianity is simply the most well-organized and focused of all the apologetic traditions [7].  Doing so brings us face-to-face with the very foundations of knowledge itself and forces us to enumerate the most basic rules of epistemology in a concise, unambiguous template.  Only by basing our beliefs on a functional reflection of reality can we ever expect our decisions to have a positive impact on the real world.  It’s a simple, practical question about how exactly we intend to justify the choices we make.  Are we going to rigorously hold ourselves in accordance with strict epistemic rules and then modify our beliefs in the face of new, ever-changing information?  Or are we going measure our beliefs through the lens of cultural traditions and subjective personal perceptions, never changing them under any conditions to speak of?  The answer we choose as a nation, and as a species, will have immeasurable repercussions for years to come.

  1. " exists to remove intellectual impediments to Christian faith, thereby enhancing believers' confidence in, and weakening skeptics' objections to, the gospel message." - mission statement.
  2. "Catholic Answers is an apostolate dedicated to serving Christ by bringing the fullness of Catholic truth to the world. We help good Catholics become better Catholics, bring former Catholics “home,” and lead non-Catholics into the fullness of the faith." - mission statement.
  3. "Reasonable Faith aims to provide in the public arena an intelligent, articulate, and uncompromising yet gracious Christian perspective on the most important issues concerning the truth of the Christian faith today." - Reasonable Faith mission statement.
  4. Guenther, C. L. and Alicke, M. D, "Self enhancement and belief perseverance," Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, Vol 44 (2008)
  5. Cohen, C. L., Aronson, J., and Steele, C. M., "When beliefs yield to evidence: reducing biased evaluation by affirming the self," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol 12, No 9, 1151-1164 (2000
  6. William Lane Craig – “Dealing with Doubt
  7. And once you understand the one, you pretty much understand them all.




You say you want to have a debate. For what purpose? To make us better citizens? Why are you “anti-citizen” then? What’s your real name? Or do you like to hide behind a clever nom de plume? You say you are highly educated but which university and what degree? You say things like this: “And if Christians don't want to play by the rules of rational discourse, then everything they have to say on the matter is already wrong before it even begins.” I guess you want to make the rules – your “well-defined set of epistemic rules”.-If we don’t want to play by these rules then to hell with us.

Then you begin making assumptions: For example: “It’s a dead giveaway that when all is said and done, religious belief has nothing to do with an objective understanding of reality, but instead is a purely cultural phenomenon of human making.” So you’ve already started the “debate” with a conclusion supposedly proven by a map with leading church denominations as if you discovered something new. Then you make this audacious claim; “So if we’re going to take the issue of God’s existence seriously, then we need to remind ourselves that the actual existence of God Himself is not important.” So one of the things we have to agree with is that the actual existence of God Himself is not important. You say what?

You seem worried about the Christian mandate to make disciples but nothing is mentioned about the mandate to feed the poor and clothe the hungry – acts of charity which continue to go on despite all your epistemological rumblings and probably had something to do with your very existence unless you can trace your ancestry back through a royal line that never lost their fortune and never got sick.

You seem worried about wasting political capital. What do you want to waste it on? Are you American? You haven’t identified this either. Do you subscribe to the American creed which says that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” If you don’t believe in a Creator then what gives you the right to claim American citizenship? If you were born here and no longer believe; then you should do the honest thing and renounce your citizenship because you are giving your tacit assent to that belief by remaining here.

You seem worried about the fact that big money and political power is involved. Are you advocating the dismantling of the present American political power elite? If so, you are looking in the wrong direction.

You seem to be bothered by the fact that Christians won’t give up their faith. Why should they? -Because of your reasons? Good luck.

AnticitizenX said...

Dear John,

Are you really interested in hearing my answers? Or are you just venting? Please let me know so that I don't spend time responding to a drive-by comment.

Anonymous said...

If the Cristian god did exist wye would you want to not resist and try and change it's doctrines to something based on being benifitial to the wellbeing of mankind.
Why would you consider .worshiping such a moraly empty, cruel, dictitorial and jealous being?

Unknown said...

I'm really not taking any sides, cos religious wars can get terrifying (at least when considering the extent people go to support some unobservable being that doesn't respond, react to any stimulus, and can be a group's manifestation of an imaginary friend).
I'm interested in just considering the possibility of this being called God, if we consider frankly absurd cases like living in a simulated universe, as a phenomenal causation from unobservable forces(that are mostly inert to our current devices) or particles that have yet to reach our part of the universe or are inert wrt our measurement devices or rare or could change states when observed to something more innocuous. Whatever randomness exists in the subatomic states are not significant in our scale (suppose this would be order in randomness.), so I really doubt that some chain reaction can cause something 'miraculous' even though there are mentions of explosive reactions from chain reactions. But I won't rule it out, since there are theories regarding teleportation(via entanglement), multiverses(where a possible 'divine' occurance can occur. I'll give them the benefit of doubt)

Unknown said...

The funny thing is, even if anyone asks for proof, no orthodox religious person would be willing to give one (at least from what I've seen from my parents.). Even if there was a person who claimed to have met, talked or interacted with one- they are met with harsh criticism especially from the religious side. They're diagnosed with say, schizophrenia and that's 'bout it. Any otherworldly experiences recounted by people are deemed hallucinations, acid trips, delusions, a trick of the eye or misremembered facts. Group delusions can be attributed to carbon monoxide emissions, mirror neurons and biases to believing someone who gives part of the facts that they share common (like in the ouja board). If you consider the impossible as God, then we wouldn't believe it- because it'll fall mostly on our cognitive biases. I think cognitive bias is a tendency to lean towards anything that has already been explored, observed and interacted with. You bring a being whose actions you can't fathom in the big picture, a being akin to super-intelligence that think on a different level than us (making us the dogs to us humans, say.) that people can't help justify as benevolent, because the contrary is dreadful.
Also, in Asian cultures, there is a sort of masochism set afoot where Gods tend to give trials, test, suffering so that we can live fulfilling lives. In western cultures, I think they play as a messiah who's to shoulder all sins. In this way, there are multiple definitions of what God means to people, and I understand them as a representation of the current generation of society- their beliefs, ideals, and values. That being, according to me, is an ideal role model and a representation of hope and achiever of the impossible and the absurd, something to strive towards and a safety net to retry- since they would have faced much worse situations and triumphed with different solutions and approaches.

If you'd ask me to prove if he/she/it/they exist or not; I can't. It's because I consider this area as a region of uncertainty- since, no dead man has talked about what happens afterward (weirdly enough, even the statements of clinically dead people don't count). Even if you don't consider the dead, there is not a single person that would fit as an authority that we can trust enough to inquire these questions. I believe that god is in the end, a manifestation of a very personal idea/ideal which was created as a kind of id token of acceptance in a group. I think the concept is entwined with our selves and what all we want to be able to do. Maybe, it's for this reason religious fights are so intense- it's because it's a war on our id, ego and superego as well as on the community we have chosen to belong in(I think this is that hive mind logic thing or that the sense of belonging is one of our basic needs).

Unknown said...

Sorry about splitting it up to the two (now three threads). It wasn't letting me post in depth comments :/