By necessity, this book will deal with subjects that some people feel strongly about. Where I work, my boss forbids conversation about all three topics mentioned in the title of this book. He forbids discussion of religion to prevent hard feelings between people who feel strongly about the issue. He forbids philosophical discussions because they can be construed as anti-Republican, and he forbids discussion of ethics because the firm I work for is in business to make money. Nevertheless, all three subjects affect everyone at one time or another, and it is useful to know enough about each to realize how much you don't know. That is about as far as this book will take you, but in many a discussion concerning one of these subjects that knowledge alone will make you the brightest guy at the table.
When it comes to computer software and hardware, most everyone accepts that fact that people are not born with an innate knowledge of how these things work, and the school of hard knocks is really not the best place to pick up the proper use of batch files. Even my father, with his years of fix-it experience and a super dose of common sense, doesn't tear down his PC without a good manual or the help of a pro. However, in the areas of religion, philosophy and ethics, it is commonly held that a good dose of life will make you an expert. Professionals are often actually avoided, on the grounds that they have been corrupted by too much knowledge. This in not an intelligent approach. If you feel that you know all there is to know about these subjects because you are over twenty-three years old and thought about them once, then I have to take back what I said about not being a big dummy. I rely on computer experts when I have a computer problem, and in discussing religious and philosophical ideas I rely on the manuals and the experts. On occasions I will refer to them, but this in not a college course. There is a bibliography in the back of the book. Should you want to become an expert, start there or go back to college.
This book will probably offend nearly everyone. People with strong religious views will object if my discussion varies from a particular point of view. Philosophers will complain that I oversimplify to the point of misrepresentation. Ethicists will probably declare the whole project immoral. My boss will be distressed to learn that I even think about such things. That is the nature of the beast. I welcome criticism and encourage anyone who finds errors in this text to contact me. All mail should be sent to me care of my ex-wife. Please address it as follows:
HILDA THE HORRIBLE
P.O. Box 666
I do not intend to convince anyone of the correctness of a particular religion or philosophical system. Deeply held convictions seldom change, so people who like Macs will continue to use Macs, and people who like IBM will still like IBM. Although this book may bring peace to the Middle East, I doubt it can ever change anyone's view on the important issues. Dos users will still hate Windows, and Windows users will still consider Dos a form of technoid torture.
The other thing this book will not do is list and rate the numerous religions and schools of philosophy. Consequently, you will learn nothing about rat worshippers of Eastern Malaysia, Mongolian shamans who believe that the life is really a cosmic game of Jeopardy, or American political talk show hosts who believe that ethics are a sign of inferior genetic makeup. Instead, you will get an introduction to the concepts which, in one form or another, are of concern to all religions and the structures that form philosophy.
This book has three basic sections. The first concerns religion. Religion comes first for historical reasons. Religious movements built the largest buildings the earliest. Philosophy is next. Once the buildings got built, the philosophers moved in. Ethics is the final section, because, since the beginning, ethics has ridden the coat tail of both philosophy and religion. It is like a little dog that tags along, so I let it tag along in the last section.
"Blame those who corrupt religion, who flood it with an army of formulas and definitions, and seek to cast it into the fetters of a so-called system."
One of the major drawbacks to understanding religion and philosophy is that the user interface is still the English language. That means struggling through with a case sensitive shell, an absence of icons, and nary a point and click in the whole system. The documentation on this particular interface is extensive but confusing, and use of the wrong word can often cause your listener to lock up or worse. One of the essential guides to this interface is called the dictionary. Let's start with it, and the concept of religion.
re-lig-ion . . . 1 a (1): the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance . . . 2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs and practices.
This simple definition seems a bit inadequate to encompass people as separated in time as Moses and Jerry Fallwell, such institutions as diverse as the Catholic Church and the Scientology, events as different as the parting of the Red Sea and the war in Bosnia, but in one way or another they all fall under the rubric of the simple word "religion." Unable to concern ourselves with all of these things, we will simply ignore most of it and climb down the directory tree a bit.
Let's skip past religious art, religious wars, church architecture, a lot of other stuff and stop where the rubber hits the road: the religious experience in the lives of individuals. Since the first hominid climbed down from the tree and stood upright, the religious experience has been part of humanity. Maybe it went something like this:
"Hey, Arg, I just felt something. It was like a presence. Like there was something here looking over me."
"Shut up, Uhg. Probably the fermented bananas we ate."
"Nah, Arg, it wasn't that. It's something bigger, something outside of myself. I understand now, that our life has value and purpose."
"Yeh, sure Uhg. It was just the bananas. If you value your life, shut up, 'cause my purpose for being here is to stamp out nonsense."
"You just don't understand, Arg. Here, read this pamphlet." Arg and Uhg never come to any agreement about the experience, and their friendship slowly wanes. Arg bought an IBM clone, Uhg bought a Mac and the two of them are still arguing all across the internet today. Uhg, you see, was struck by "faith," and thus became a theologian. Arg was not, and took up philosophy. This anthropological tale brings us to one of the major branches in the directory tree: theology and philosophy. These are the fraternal twins of deep thought, so lets spend a bit of time with each of them.
The dominant *.ism in theology is theism. For Webster theism is "belief in the existence of one God viewed as the source of man and the world, who transcends yet is immanent in the world." Most religious people are theists of one sort or another, believing in a single God who is the creator of reality as we know it and who has an ongoing relationship with mankind. The theist does not necessarily assert that God has physical characteristics in the same sense that a floppy disk has certain characteristics, or even that the concept of "existence" is appropriate for God, but the theist does, usually as a result of personal experience, feel that God has had and continues to have an effect upon the world.
A couple of other *.isms tend to limit the idea of theism. Deism, a related concept, acknowledges God as the creator but denies that God has any continuing hand in worldly matters. The God of deists simply double clicked the cosmic execute command and walked away. The program is still running and what happens to us is the result of what the program held when it was started and what we do here on earth. Pantheism arrives at a similar result by different means. The pantheists asserts that man, nature, and everything else for that matter, are elements or extensions of God. Pantheism plays a part in most major religions, but the powers that be keep quiet about it because, for the theist, saying that everything is God amounts to just about the same thing as saying that nothing is God. Both deism and pantheism are much to close to the dreaded atheism to suit most theists. A theist will often call someone a deist or pantheist when he or she wants to be pejorative, similar to the way one uses the word "bureaucrat" in reference to government workers. Therefore the use of the words often says more about the prejudices of the speaker than the subject of the speech. Deists and pantheist do have some intelligent advocates who may appear later, but for now we will simply place these two *.isms in a bit of the middle road that lies between theism to atheism.
Next on the list of *.isms is agnosticism. "Gnosis" is Greek for knowledge, and "gnosticism" has a small but dedicated following, the tenets of which remain mostly Greek to me. "A- gnosticism" is a lack of knowledge, in our case, lack of knowledge regarding the existence or nature of God. The agnostic claims that he doesn't know, and, in fact, it is impossible for anyone to know whether God exists. This lack of knowledge, of course hinges on the question of what constitutes knowledge and how one gets it. Theists fault agnostics for thinking of the existence of God as some sort of scientific problem, which it is not, and others fault agnostics for simply being wishy washy, which they often are. Most agnostics, however, treat theological questions much the way most people treat data compression. We download a three megabyte FAQ intending to learn all about it, leave the information on our hard disc for months without reading it, and finaally delete the whole thing because we need the disc space. It's not that they can't decide; they just won't decide without sufficient evidence, and they never get around to looking at the evidence. Agnosticism, however, gets us to the other side of the coin, the atheists.
In dealing with agnostics we said that sticking an "a" in front of a Greek word negates the word. Thus, agnostics have no gnosis. Well "atheists" have no theism. They are the theists sworn enemy. Atheists assert that there is no God, and that's that.
The polls don't really prove it, but there are probably as many atheists as there are theists. However, with the exception of places like China, where atheism is official government policy, atheists in most cultures are not all that visible. This is probably because they don't build churches and they seldom hand out pamphlets. While theists come in all shapes and sizes, atheists come in three basic types. Eighty percent of atheists are atheist because they just don't have the time or inclination to think much about God at all. These people are busy with other things. God has never bothered them or left them any money, so they figure he must be one of those tooth fairy deals that you outgrow when you get older and have to worry about making a buck. This kind of atheist exists, and has always existed, even in the most religious of cultures. He has opted out of the whole issue. He has no interest in theology, and frankly, theology doesn't have much interest in him. Ten percent of atheists are atheists because someone they admire is an atheist. These atheists are often college students who are trying to emulate the ways of a particularly clever professor, or people trying to suck up to an inheritance from a grumpy atheist relative. Theology doesn't have much offer these people either.
The remaining ten percent of atheists are the atheists who really give this *.ism the name. These are the atheists by conviction, the ones who be believe with all their hearts, minds and souls. They read the Bible so they have ammunition with which to attack Christians. They gather in public recreation centers and dormitory basements to plot a revolution of reason, logic, and the dreaded "secular humanism." These are the theologians of atheism. They think about God a lot, moreso than many a theist, but address their arguments to his nonexistence. As diverse as a club for people who don't like artichokes, they may be philosophers, scientists, artists, humanitarians or lunatics, but they all share a passion for probing the logical and ethical problems of theism. They fill the internet bandwidths, invading the religious discussions, offending the self-righteous, and generally making sure that there will always be something to talk about when it comes to religion. The world would be a far less interesting place without atheists.
Philosophy is the attempt to make generalizations that will apply to all of human experience, or at least an important chunk of it. The methods of philosophy are largely scientific. Thus, the philosopher attempts to begin with the absolute minimum of preconceived notions and work from those notions by mental gymnastics or observation of natural phenomena toward some sort of reasonable conclusion. Thus, Rene Decartes, who was sort of the Bill Gates of philosophy, began with the famous assertion, "I think, therefore I am." (Note that this is not a logical conclusion, but a presupposition.) From this he worked though a series of allegedly coherent deductions to a philosophy that encompassed man, experience, ethics and God. A nice piece of work, frankly, and he has been revered for it by philosophers ever since.
Descarte, through a form of scientific reasoning, allegedly demonstrated the existence of God. Thus, he was a philosopher, a theist, and in certain respects a theologian. You see, a philosopher can be a theist, a deist, an atheist, or anything in between. However, because a philosopher is a theist, does not neceessarily make him a theologian. The methods are different. Philosophers use a linear method of reasoning, such as working from Descarte's, "I think therefore, I am." to conclusions about man, God and the human experience. Theologians begin with different assumptions and employ a reasoning that is unashamedly circular. The theologian brings to his study his own faith in and experience of God. The questions he addresses concern the relevance of faith has in the modern world. The answer, however, after much discussion, is always the same as the question, "faith in and experience of God." This circular reasoning drives philosophers and self righteous scientists absolutely crazy. However, most human thought about concepts such as love, justice, morality, and politics is circular in exactly the same way. For example, the assumption that any good judge brings to the courtroom is the assumption of justice--it exists and can be accomplished. A trial is the dispute over how justice is relevant to the case before the court, and in the prounouncement of judge and or jury the answer is given. Justice if both the question and the answer. If this aspect of theology really bothers you, get over it. People do this sort of thing all the time.
Philosophy is very difficult to do, and the works of the major philosophers are often difficult to understand. Those who make a name in the field are as often as not mathematicians or other intellectual types who have become bored with making new discoveries in psychology or theoretical physics. Good philosophers appear very seldom, hence philosophy, as a field of study, changes very slowly. Academic philosophers, the ones who populate the philosophy department at your local university, seldom actually engage in philosophy, but rather study the works of the people who do and torture the undergraduates who aspire to study them too. Theology is arguably less difficult, due largely to wider variety of acceptable methods, but advances in theology don't come much faster than those in philosophy. In the meantime, the two borrow from each other and fight like a pair a fraternal twins. More on this battle later.
The field of philosophy has as many *.ologies an and *isms as does theology, most of them representing a certain philosophical school or outlook. The *.isms have names like realism, naturalism, rationalism, utilitarianism, idealism, pragmatism, and logical positivism, just to mention a few. Even experienced philosophers, however, have a tough time accurately explaining the differences between these schools of philosophic thought, so as a beginner it's not necessary to concern oneself a whole lot about them.
For the newbie, one should simply be careful to avoid the really basic errors. A philosophy is not something you own, lease or adopt. It is not at all like a Pentium 100 with a 750 meg hard drive and sixteen megabytes ram. It is a structured way of looking at the world so that the activities in one's experience make a bit more sense than they previously did. Secondly, philosophy does not usually provide people with much of a "guide for living." The golden rule is not a philosophy, however valuable it might be in helping one decide what to do in a particularly tight spot. Guides to living will get discussed in ethics, and, although philosophy, theology and ethics are related, they are not interchangeable. Lastly, philosophy cannot be avoided by simply not thinking about it. This is really an extension of the first two rules, and arises from that fact that the successful philosopher does not dictate how the world and the people in it relate to each other, but instead describes how that relationship operates. Thus, when our scientists researching the effect of a hot poker on human skin publishes his findings, he will, by the employment of scientific method, logic, and his insatiable thirst for knowledge have acted in conformance with one or more philosophical frameworks. Science without philosophy, that is, without a framework for inquiry, a method for coming to a conclusion, and at least some sort of reason for even doing the research in the first place, is nothing more than repetitive and meaningless data entry. Philosophy: you can't own it; you can't live by it; and you can't avoid it. In short, an annoying but absolutely crucial science.
Philosophy contains a variety of *.ologies as well as the *.isms mentioned above. Two of them are important enough that even the technoid should know the meaning of the words. The first is a branch of metaphysics known as "ontology." Ontology is the study of existence itself considered apart from the nature or characteristics of any existing object. Ontological investigations inquire into the different ways in which entities belonging to various categories such as physical objects, numbers, conceptions and abstractions may be said to "exist." Take, for example the Washington Monument. One could test its existence by driving a car into it and examining the respective damage to the monument and the car. This is a rather crude ontological enquiry, but it will work. Consider then the color of the monument. It is white. We all are familiar with the color white, but to what extent does the color exist apart from the Washington Monument and other specific examples. It is an idea, a perception, a recollection, an abstraction and a conception, but does it exist. The question is ontological. Now if white exists, how about a white Easter Bunny, the white whale from Moby Dick, or the white light of a near death experience. Although not the Washingtion Monument, these too may have some sort of existence either within or outside of the human mind. Thus, by certain ontological views, God may be more real to a fanatic atheist, than to a halfhearted theist. Ontology is the inquiry into these matters and is often the concern of both philosophy and theology.
The second *.ology one needs to be aware of is the field of epistemology. This is the branch of philosophy concerned with theories of knowledge, or "how is it exactly that we 'know' something." For example, you might know something because you read it in the newspaper, your mother said it, or the Bible tells you so. This is the simple stuff, reliance on trusted authority. You might know that your roof has a hole in it because there is rain water dripping from your ceiling. You know about the hole in the roof even though you didn't learn it from trusted authority and can't see the hole. You deduced it from the evidence. You know that your foot hurts because your senses tell you so, and you know that aliens circle the earth because you remember the time they abducted you and pierced your left ear with that hot poker. This is knowledge from experience. There is a lot to this stuff, and the question of when, how and to what degree of certainty someone can know something keeps philosophers hopping. These days epistimology is hot stuff in philosophy because "knowing" is arguably at the root of all science and religion. Thus, if philosophy can get a grip on knowing, it will establish itself at the base of the scientific directory tree, be assured of a permanent spot in the academic autoexec.bat file, and be returned to the glory it experienced in the eighteenth century. For the newbie, you should simply remember that epistemology is a difficult and active area in philosophy, and that if you think you have a simple common sense answer to the whole problem of knowing, you haven't thought much about it.
Although ethics is a branch of both philosophy and theology, many people confuse it with custom and law. Take for example the ancient religious prohibitions against using weapons to rob convenience stores. As a custom of ancient times, it had the practical effect of keeping the peace and assuring a fair supply for twinkies and beer for everyone. In modern times, robbing convenience stores has simply been made illegal, and there are a host of police, prosecutors and judges on duty to dish out justice to those who violate this law. Law and custom are the behavior standards that we depend upon for an orderly and predictable society. They are standards of morality, rules for living, and methods of avoiding jail, but simple knowledge of these things is not a knowledge of ethics. If you doubt this, next time you are accused of a major felony, get rid of your lawyer and hire a ethicist or philosopher. You will learn the true nature of ethics and be given time to thoroughly master the subject while serving your sentence in the local penitentary.
One of the more common type of ethicist is the moral philosopher. This fellow takes a particular set of attitudes, customs, or laws, whether in use by a particular group or merely invented by another philosopher, and attempts to explain and anzlyze the basic tenents of the ethical system. Note here, that the word "morals" comes into play. Morals and ethics are the same thing. Arguably, the concept of "morality" carries a bit more religious baggage than does the idea of "ethics," but there is no substantive difference. Folks who make arguments based upon differences between morals an ethics are engaging in a linguistic slight of hand rather than coherent argument. The moral philosopher, who you hired instead of the lawyer, will explain to the judge the how the prohibition against convenience store robbery arose in western culture, what values are enhanced and protected by the prohibition, and how such prohibition contributes to the aspirations of the individuals and groups within the society. The judge may be enlightened by the discussion, but you might do better with a good alibi.
Normative ethics is a bit closer to rules to live by in that it concerns itself with justification of moral principal in light of the facts of life. It you had actually hired a lawyer instead of a philosopher in your felony case, you could tell your lawyer about all the other convenience store robberies you had committed and the lawyer would be prohibited by his professions ethical rules from turning that information over to the police. This ethical rule seems to conflict with the idea that we should all contribute to apprehending criminals and solving crimes, however, the rule is "justified" by the fact that a lawyer must have all the information about you in order to help with your case. He would not get that information if you, as the client, knew he was going to take it straight to the cops. Thus, an ethical standard for lawyers which is different from that for the rest of society is "justified" by the goal of promoting justice through full and fair legal representation. This is not too difficult. The real challenges in normative ethics are when one wants to justify broad based ethical rules based upon the goal of creating a completely fair society or being the perfect person. As the goal becomes more distant in time and more ambiguous in definition, the job of justification becomes much more difficult.
The final arena of philosophical ethics is that of meta- ethics. This unpopular area deals with the appropriate kinds of reasoning for ethical questions. Meta-ethics might concern itself with questions about whether morals are subjective, like a person's response to the Grateful Dead music, or objective, like the relation between gravity and falling rocks. Meta-ethics similarly deals with the relation between factual beliefs and moral beliefs. This is where the leap from "is" to "ought" becomes a problem, for it is in meta-ethics that one attempts to decide when what is natural and normal, what "is," should become the obligitory "ought." Maybe we have been wrong all these years. Robbing convenience stores is actually a positive thing. At the very least, it is a positive and valuable experience for the person who does it, and if morality is in the eye of the beholder . . .? Note here, that meta-ethics swims in the same pool as our old friend "ontology" in that the way in which moral and ethical values exist, whether as facts, ideas or opinions, has a lot to do with the meta-ethical problem of what constitutes a coherent argument when it comes to "ought," and without coherence all you say will come to "nought."
Don't misunderstand. The arguments in this chapter are important, and most of them have been addressed by some of the most intelligent, insightful and spiritual men that mankind has ever produced. Reading what these men have to say can be enjoyable and instructive. Arguing these things with your neighbors, internet buddies, traveling Jehovah Witnesses or anyone else does no one any good. Don't do it. Simply understand that various views exist, accept one or another if you like, and move on to other things.
A. The First Cause
Long before Jesus, Mohammed, Jimmy Swaggart and L. Ron Hubbard, Plato brought us the argument that God could be proven by the fact that the cosmos, the stars, the planets, and people, for that matter, were in motion, circling each other, walking around, and for the most part staying annoyingly busy. Plato, being quite taken with the concept of cause and effect, a concept that is a bit shaky if you think about it, noted that all current movements are caused by some combination of prior movements. Following these causes backward he found himself at the beginning of time. At the beginning he found God. With all due respect to Plato, this is analogous to a conversation with a three year old.
"You can't go outside." says Mom.
"It's too cold."
"Why is it cold?"
"Because it's winter?"
"Why is it winter?"
"Because of the tilt of the earth in it's orbit around the sun and the location of our house in the northern hemisphere."
"Why does the earth orbit and tilt? " Three year olds get tiring rather quickly. Eventually mom wants out of it.
"Because that's the way God made it." she says. Hopefully, the child walks away puzzled.
You see, Plato decided that in the beginning there had to be an uncaused cause to get things going. The only entity capable of uncaused motion is the soul, and to get the cosmos going one needed a soul a bit more powerful than yours or mine. The soul that did it was God's.
Thomas Aquinas made an argument similar to Plato's based upon the contingency of the world. He noted that a lot of things in this world, particularly people, appear, grow old, retire and then disappear. He reasoned that everything that "is" at one time "was not." Therefore, at some time way back before Macs or PCs the cosmos did not exist. The world was contingent. It could either be on not be. However, it could not have come into existence unless something existed to create it. This creator, the existence of which is shown by the creation, is that which we call God.
Of course, none of this truly ends up answering our three year old, who, when we explain about God, simply asks "Why? and therefore troubles us with whom or what created God. For more on three year olds, see "original sin."
B. Where There's a Watch There Has to be a Watchmaker
This argument is a variation on the original cause argument but focuses rather on the incredible intricacies of the universe. The proponent of the Watchmaker theory argues from nature that the world exhibits clear evidence of design, and where there is design, there has to be a designer. The designer of course is God. Opponents respond that the design is actually only in the mind of the observer, and nature itself, uninterpreted by human experience, says nothing about designers, watchmakers or God. This argument had a lot more force prior to Darwin.
C. The Ontological Argument
Thank a guy named St. Anselm for this one, with a little help from our old buddy Rene Descartes. These two postulated God as a supremely perfect being. They then reasoned that a supreme being who exists is more perfect than one who does not, so existence is a necessary quality of the supremely perfect being. Thus, a supremely perfect being must have existence. This is not, according to Descartes, imposing existence on God by mental exercise, but rather being intellectually bound by the qualities of the object itself, in the same way that one can only know triangles that have three sides. A four sided triangle is simply not a triangle, and a nonexistent God is a rational nullity. This particular argument involves the question of whether it is in anyway meaningful to consider existence a quality which belongs to an object as well as the question of what it means to "know" a triangle, or for that matter, God. Atheists, of course, consider all of this nonsense, and modern theologians consider the argument somewhat of an historical relic.
D. God as a Presupposition of Value and Morals
This argument is a bit different in that it proceeds from human experience rather than speculation about the nature of the universe or the qualities of existence. The proof starts with the psychological fact that most humans have experienced "value" within their lives, and based upon this sense of value possess a sense of morality. People believe that some activities, attitudes and relationships are better than others. For example, most people feel it is better to help out a needy friend rather than kill him even though killing him is probably a more permanent solution to his poverty problem. People think more highly of Mother Theresa than of Adolph Hitler. The argument is that for morality and value to make any sense in the material world, they must have some sort of permanent reality that transcends the situation. Values must exist in the mind and actions of one who transcends the physical world and thereby gives intrinsic and indestructible worth to concepts such as truth, value and morality. The place where these eternal values exist is in the mind of God, and without God we could not and would not share the knowledge that some acts and attitudes are and will always be better than others. Thus, our own meager attempts to live within a moral framework defined by goodness, honesty and love are based on a necessary presupposition of God, and without that presupposition all practical moral and ethical thought is rendered meaningless.
The skeptic has a variety of ways of attacking this proof, the most dramatic of which is to take the position of a cosmic pessimist. We are infinitesimal specks on a tiny planet, and even the sun which we orbit will last no more than a nanosecond in the cosmic scheme of things. Value, morality, truth and goodness are psychological illusions that keep you alive so that you can carry out your genetic obligation to propagate mankind into extinction. We are biochemical machines. We live. We work. We become Republicans, buy Winnebagos and die. Nothing makes any difference, and the fact that people are occasionally kind to strangers does not prove the existence of God or anything else. People who believe this way do not have an organization. Why bother.
E. Proof from Religious Experience.
Since the beginning of man, people have been having personal sensory experiences which are religious in nature. In fact, such experiences are quite common in nearly all cultures. Some of them are quite bizarre and some are, by any objective standard, illusions resulting from psychological stress of one sort or another. However, most of these experiences have identifiable characteristics and cannot be clearly linked to any mental aberration. The fact that some are truly weird cannot condemn them all much as the fact that a few diehards out looking for Bigfoot do not discredit all of zoology. One of the common characteristics of the religious experience is that, after such an experience, the subject believes in God. Now, if every experience needs a cause, the most obvious explanation for the religious experience is God.
Most people believe in God, not because of logical arguments or the words of trusted authority, but because they have had experiences that make nonbelief contrary to their experience of reality. Atheists tear their hair out over this, claiming the religious or spiritual experience does not exist as an independent sensory event, that the experience is not real, or that any evidence resulting from such experience is anecdotal, unverifiable, and therefore meaningless. They point out that having a pink elephant experience does not prove the existence of pink elephants. When pushed to provide a cause for religious experiences, the atheist usually suggests biological agents such as bad drugs in the sixties, tainted food, or improper toilet training. This argument in favor of God has lost a good deal of its force since Jimmy Hendrix.
So much for the arguments in the "Does God Exist?" group. For the theist they all work, for the atheist, none of them do. If you have a new one, keep it to yourself. But whatever you do, don't engage in discussion with anyone about any of these arguments. People's views on these issues are determined by their genetic makeup and short of divine intervention, they do not change.
Can God write a sentence so long He can't read it.?
Can God make a chair so uncomfortable he can't sit in it?
Can God turn the subject of this sentence into pea soup?
Can God turn make a mountain so big it becomes a valley?
Can God make this sentence meaningless?
Can God make the statement that he is omnipotent into a lie?
In one way or another each of the above questions have the grammatical structure of a fair and reasonable question, but in fact make no sense in terms of the subject of discussion. It's another case of the four sided triangle. In essence they ask whether God can do something inconsistent with the common definitions of God or inconsistent with normal people's idea of what is physically and logically possible. So just stay out of it. If you absolutely must get involved do it like this.
"Can God make a rock so big He can't move it?
"Aha, then he isn't omnipotent, is he, if he can't move the rock? Get it?"
"Oh man, you sure got me on that one."
The secular version arises from the fact that psychologists and those with advanced degrees in the social sciences view themselves as omniscient. What you have for breakfast is determined, not by Gods plan, but by a combination of heredity, the culture in which you happened to be born, social and economic status, upbringing, intelligence, and the biomechanical patterns in your brain. The result is the same. You may have felt that you were making a choice, but over at the university there are several teaching assistants who already knew that it would be bacon and eggs.
So the argument comes down to are we participants in our lives, making meaningful choices and being rewarded or possibly punished based upon those choices, or are we spectators in a divine psycho-social comedy in which we are given the illusion of choice simply so we can stress out about the whole thing. The argument becomes important when you end up before the judge. If it's a free will judge, you go to jail. If it's a predestination judge you end up in a treatment center. Which is worse depends upon your point of view.
The dangerous thing about this argument, is that no one seems to really stay fully on one side or the other. Augustine, a Catholic, and Luther, one of the first born again Christians, were both full blown predestinationists. In their view, whether you were destined for heaven or hell had been decided and written in stone long before you were born. But don't tell a Republican from the bible belt that your are poor, addicted and in jail, because you was predestined to be so. You'll just piss him off. The story might work over at the university as long as you aren't a poor and addicted to born again Christianity. The social aspects are too complex for words, with everything coming down to what extent our choices, our "will," plays in our lives and our disposition thereafter. So, what is this thing called "will," anyway. More on that later.
Some theologians, tired of the whole thing, have decided that destiny and free choice are really not two different things at all, but instead different shades of the same thing. The theory is similar to our experience of light and dark. You can't know one if you haven't known the other, and darkness is really no more than an absence of light. Thus, destiny, God's plan for each of us, is exhibited in our physical, cultural and environmental circumstance, and includes all the choices, good and bad, we have made in the past. We have free choice each morning within the bounds of our destiny. We can choose to have bacon and eggs, but we can't choose to fly or be the Pope. Choice without regard to destiny is arbitrary and meaningless. Destiny without choice is action without purpose. This is a rather pleasant view of the subject, so it is rejected by most secular and religious authorities.
Original sin has had many erudite spokesman, but the one everyone loves to pick on is John Calvin. He is no relation to the Calvin of "Calvin and Hobbes," but is instead a theologian of the sixteenth century known for his organized approach to Christian theology and for a mean streak that seemed to flow through everything he did. He had this to say about original sin:
"Original sin, therefore, appears to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused through all the parts of the soul, rendering us obnoxious to the divine wrath and producing in us those works which the scripture calls `works of the flesh.'"
Calvin is clear that original sin is not about being born responsible for the sins of ones forefathers, but is a pollution of the individual that is everyone's personal birthright. Nevertheless, his use of concepts like heredity, and references to the first sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden, have made the idea of original sin inescapably linked to bearing the guilt for the crimes of ones ancestors. Whether so linked or not, it is the guilt inherent in being who we are.
Original sin is an anathema to the atheist, the humanitarian and anyone who has ever held their little "bundle of joy" in the first days of life. Babies look innocent and by their very nature argue against the idea of original sin. Once they turn two, parents usually reconsider a bit, and adults encountering someone else's two year old, can easily be converted to the concept. However, the whole idea of attaching sin to a person without there being associated sinful acts, seems a bit unfair and somewhat un-American. Also disturbing is the fact that original sin denies parents their God given right to be the ones to inflict upon their children the first taste of guilt, a denial that in many respects removes the basic attraction of parenthood. God may be all powerful, but it was never intended that he take the place of Jewish mothers.
Original sin has a secular counterpart that arises from the fact that we all live with the consequences of what the generations before us have done to society. Many, usually people of the proverbial "bleeding heart liberal" persuasion, feel guilt over the misdeeds of their ancestors and the fact that they today reap the ill gotten benefits of those crimes. These people take personal responsibility for the fact that their cultural forefathers owned slaves, raped the environment, or feasted on the orgy of government benefits America handed out at the end of World War II. This generalized guilt about the past has a bit of democratic equality about it, permitting rich people to feel guilty for being rich, and poor people to feel guilty for being poor. Inheriting sin is one of those strange areas where extremists on opposite ends of the political spectrum seem to unite. The right wing has its original sin, originating in Adam's indiscretion at the Tree of Knowledge, and the left wing has its guilt by association, originating in the social crimes of those who went before us. The vast middle, however, has nothing to do with any of this, and chooses instead to feel guilty only about those sins which one actually committed.
What makes the idea of original sin one of the deadly arguments is that is comes down to a basic feeling about oneself and about mankind in general, a feeling that will not change as a result of argument. Two very different operating systems are at work. The majority of people feel that they are essentially good folks. Thus, when they review past behaviors they do so from the point of view of the good guy within. This results in a certain amount of stress, because this good person has usually engaged in activities that to one degree or another are immoral, unethical and often criminal. The good guy within has to come up with a rationale for how such a nice person could have done these things. The rationales take any number of forms, but often involve blaming society or someone else, attributing the actions to minor errors in an overall pattern of good conduct, or simply writing them off as motivated by the old inner bad person who has now been replaced by the good one. The power of this belief in the essential goodness of oneself and mankind is enormous and the waiting room for the electric chair at major penitentiaries is often filled will good little boys who just made a few mistakes. Original sin, the idea that we were born corrupt, flies in the face of this inner goodness and has thus been almost completely squeezed out of the theology of mainstream religion.
Those who are not bothered by original sin are those who view themselves, and by extension people in general, as essentially bad. These bad people don't actually do any more damage or commit any more crimes than the good people. It's all in point of view, and bad people have it easier in many respects. They know they have the ever present inclination to do selfish and socially reprehensible acts and therefore tend to be on the watch for such things. When they get through the day without committing any crimes, without practicing arrogance, selfishness, and covetousness, they congratulate themselves. When they do engage in unethical behavior, they simply write it off as having given in to their natural inclination. As they mentally review prior behavior they do it from the point of view of a bad person, and are more often than not amazed at the number of nice things that even a bad person can do when he expends a little effort. Original sin doesn't bother bad people at all, in fact it is sort of comforting in that it takes away a bit of the personal burden that goes along with being bad. There are plenty of bad people in prison too, but even there, the good little boys outnumber the bad ones. In any case, these operating systems are basic to how people view the world, and nobody switches back and forth.
The goofy part about all this is that people probably aren't "essentially" anything. Guilt exists in people to vary degrees and for varying reasons, but original sin, essential goodness or badness, and even one's felony record probably have little to do with it. You have to deal with it where you find it, and if a little guilt will get your teenager to mow the lawn, what's the harm. However, when original sin comes up, whether it be in a religious or secular context, make your excuses and take a hike. There is no benefit in it for anyone, and no one is going to change operating systems because you think it's a good idea.
The major player in this game is "Creationism." Creationists claim that God, some six, ten, twenty thousand years ago, for very Godly reasons, decided to create the universe, and in a period of several days, proceeded to do so. Creationists know this is what happened because the Bible says that's what happened. That's fine, but creationism is in direct conflict with nearly all the scientific evidence concerning the evolution of the earth, life, and mankind. The conflict between the creationist started a political battle between the scientists and believers, a conflict that rages today in the schools and across the internet. The best thing that can be said about this whole controversy is that it inspired the movie, "Inherit the Wind," starring Spencer Tracy. The movie is wonderful, and should you ever get the urge to become enmeshed in the creationism controversy, rent a video of "Inherit the Wind" and watch it over and over until the urge goes away.
The fact is that creationists are crackpots. They have taken a perfectly good religious text and tried to make it into a science book, an effort that cannot be successful. If you doubt this, tune into the internet news groups that periodically beat this issue to death and read the creationist science that explains why it never rained on earth before Noah. The Bible says that Noah did not know rain, believe it or not, the creationists have a scientific hypothesis covering the reason that Moses had never seen rain. Humorous, maybe, but don't join the fray.
The secular version of this argument comes largely from folks who dropped out of college right after finishing an undergraduate survey of anthropology class. Using the "It is written so it must be true" argument, they maintain that religion itself in little more than a sophisticated version of early man's attempt to explain natural phenomena by resorting to supernatural causes. This is an excellent argument if one is capable of ignoring the last two thousand years of history, culture and philosophy, something that many are quite able to do, however, it is no more reasonable that the position propounded by creationists. The physicists, meteorologists and anthropologists who are as likely as anyone to be in the church pews on any given Sunday, are not there to learn about physics, weather and human development. They are there in search of God.
Religious texts like the Bible, the Koran, and others are filled with truth. However, the truth is the kind of truth that is relevant and necessary for an understanding of God and religion. Religious texts are not science texts, and it is a poor religion that rests its validity on assertions that can be undercut by scientific or historical research.
If this whole controversy still seems attractive, look at the whole thing like this. For whatever reason, we are born and have reason, a mental structure through which we must filter all of experience, including our experience of God. Reason, when applied to the objects around us--tangible things, ideas, memories, past emotions--is or can be science. Reason, when applied to our subjective experience of reality as it occurs, is religion. As you will see when we get to philosophy, this construct may not be perfect, however, if it keeps you out of the "It is written" arguments, it has done all it needs to do. If this doesn't work, and you still have the urge to get in your two cents on the subject, watch "Inherit the Wind" one more time.
The Inquisition illustrates one rather simple point. Religious people can be and often are quite evil. They have faults, they screw up, they are sinners. Of course, this is pretty obvious and most religious people spend a fair amount of time trying to deal with their own sinfulness, character defects, and plain ornriness. One of the main reasons this argument never goes away is that the character defect to which religious people are prone is not a proclivity toward torture, but a self righteousness that irritates the bejeebers out of everyone else. This is largely a result of a common psychological phenomenon. People unconsciously adopt the behaviors of those they work and live with. Thus, after a few years of teaching third grade, many elementary school teachers begin to act in many respects a lot like third graders. Policemen and prison guards, after a few years living with slime balls, begin to exhibit the characteristics and mannerisms of criminals. Similarly, if you spend a lot of time with a supreme being who is omnipotent and omniscient, you risk turning into an overblown, self righteous know-it-all. Hey, just the facts. It doesn't happen to everyone who is a theist, but there are a fair number of intolerant religious bores running amuck out there.
Most theists feel a bit of guilty about the Inquisition and the occasional weirdness that is done in the name of God. They, in a certain sense, accept a bit of responsibility for the actions of others done in the name of religion. On the secular side this is seldom the case. When nonreligious or antireligious people start killing and maiming, the common response of other nonreligious and antireligions people is, "Hey, I didn't do it." Theists suffer in this regard, feeling and possibly being ultimately responsible for what others do in the name of theism. Atheists don't seem to suffer much for the actions of their fellow believers, however, in our modern technological society they pose much more of a physical threat than the protheletyzing Jehovah Witness. If one takes into consideration Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, antireligious political movements have killed more people in the last hundred years than religious wars and persecutions did in the last thousand. Admittedly, secular killing lacks the colorful imagination that the Inquisition brought to the art of death, but if one is concerned simply about survival, watch out for the social scientists. You are much more likely to be killed by a sociologist with a scientific plan to reform and recreate society than you are by some religious nut on a mission from Allah.
The fact is that when evil shows its ugly little head there is always a lot of other stuff going on as well, giving people a chance to pick and choose what they want to associate with the evil deed. Sometimes it's bad religion, sometimes it's bad weather, and sometimes it's just too many lawyers. So avoid arguments and be on the safe side, try not to blame evil on any broad political or religious group unless you yourself happen to be a member of that group and thereby are in a position to do something about it.
Hell really had it's heyday in the middle ages. In that time finding scientific truth in religious texts was perfectly acceptable, so hell was a physical place. It was as real to the man of the middle ages as Hollywood is to modern Americans, and it shared some of the same characteristics. There was fire, drama, pain and anguish repeated endlessly into eternity. There was torture that never actually resulted in death, evil characters and great costumes. The images of hell from the middle ages seem a bit barbaric to modern man, but one must remember that torture, burning at the stake, and other hideous forms of punishment were common in the middle ages. When disembowelment is the punishment for parking one's oxcart in a loading zone, it is not too difficult to come up with some truly disgusting punishments to mete out for an entire life of sin. In fact, the whole Spanish Inquisition may have gotten going from the rather humanitarian idea that a bit of hell here on earth, a couple of weeks of excruciating pain, might convince a person to repent and avoid the same for eternity.
In modern times, the idea that hell is a physical place at the bottom of a really deep cave has lost much of its luster. Psychologists have taken over and hell is now often portrayed as simply a place separate from God, the separation itself being sufficient punishment for one's misdeeds and lack of faith. This is sort of a go-stand-in-the-corner approach, one now used with unruly students in the primary grades of American schools. Max Groening, the cartoonist, has gone even farther by suggesting that being a student in the primary grades is hell, but that goes beyond the scope of deadly arguments.
The ethical implications of hell are as fascinating as the literary ones. To liberal Democrats and even some Republicans, eternal physical torture seems a bit harsh for even for the most hardened criminal. At some point or another, one might think it better simply to kill them, or, as in the case of hell, if they are already dead, let them simply cease to exist at all. Enough is enough already. Unending pain seems particularly harsh if one is also convinced of predestination. In this scheme, one favored by Augustine and John Calvin, not only were the flames of hell eternal, but the poor suckers who ended up there, had been predestined from before birth to be born, sin and go straight to the ovens. In addition, the sin that got you to hell could be no more than failing to convert to a particular religion the first time somebody hands you a pamphlet. If the pamphlet told you about *of.God, redeemer and savior, and you didn't convert, it's fire and brimstone time. You had your chance. Fortunately, the middle ages have passed and a good portion of humanity has noticed. Predestination is no longer the rule in modern theology, and hell doesn't get the attention it once commanded.
The deadly argument begins when we start deciding who is going to hell based upon a particular understanding of religious texts, morality, or economics. The fact is that no matter what you decide or how you decide it you run into the ethical problems described above, and you risk going there yourself for being so arrogant as to claim some particular knowledge of God's will on the question. The most common justification for damning a person to the flames is because he or she did not accept a particular religion or theological viewpoint when given the opportunity to do so. This puts enormous faith in a person's ability to select his own beliefs. If you think believing is easy, try it. Simply change one of your beliefs and believe something different for a couple of days. Try believing that the sky is purple. Not many people can do it, and if you can't choose what to believe about the color of the sky, how are you supposed to choose what to believe about God. So condemning people for nonbelief is condemning them for something that is not their fault. Of course, God may have no use for the concept of fault. A person can end up in flames by driving by a volcano at the wrong time and thus suffer quite severely through no fault of his own, however, we here on earth get on a bit better if we pay at least cursory homage to choice and a bit of personal responsibility.
Other people who get condemned to hell a lot include rich people, homosexuals, criminals and liberal democrats. Rich people probably get it mostly out of envy. They had it good here on earth, so turnabout is fair play. A lot of rich people take this threat seriously. You can see them nearly anywhere pumping away at their health clubs trying to get rid of that extra fat in order to fit through that eye of a needle. Homosexuals get it because they are easy to pick on, they act funny, and almost everyone is a little uneasy about matters sexual. Criminals are good candidates. They have broken criminal, civil and religious laws. More often than not they are truly unlikeable people. They cost the honest taxpayers untold amounts of money and do enormous damage to both property and society. Hell, why not send them to ovens. Although eternal damnation and endless suffering goes way beyond an "eye for and eye," even when the criminal has done some pretty bad stuff, if anyone is to get it the criminal is the logical choice. Liberal democrats of course get the nod because of Ted Kennedy.
The problem with the who-is-going-to-hell argument is that there are really only two ways a person can know who is going to hell and who isn't. Either their favorite religious text told them so (or someone who actually read their favorite religious text told them so), or God told them so directly. You cannot argue with any of these sources. Odds are that you haven't even read the religious writings that apply and arguing with something that came directly from God is pointless. On the other hand, if you have done the reading or spoken directly to God and thereby know exactly who is and who isn't going to hell, keep quiet about it. Be nice to those people. They are going to have it tough. Every time you see one, give him or her twenty bucks. The money won't help in hell, but it may make the day a bit easier here on earth. Deadly arguments do nobody any good.