Peter Boghossian seeks new vocation

Peter Boghossian must be seeking a new job. He has recently joined a very tiny, niche, and widely ignored group who are calling for academic philosophy of religion to be withdrawn from secular universities. [1] 

This seems a little odd since Boghossian teaches sophomore-level philosophy of religion in a secular university himself. [2]

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Surely if one seriously thought that philosophy of religion should not be being taught in secular universities one would not be teaching it in a secular university? If he got his wish, that would be the end of his ‘introduction to atheism’ classes at Portland State University!

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[1] I’m Calling For An End to the Philosophy of Religion As A Discipline In Secular Universities

The intimidating list of academics (I am being sarcastic) calling for this change appear to be: Richard Dawkins, Peter Boghossian, John Loftus, and Jerry Coyne!

I have written more on this subject here: Peter Boghossian ostracizing atheist/agnostic philosophers

Could it be that these four men are so widely ignored by professional philosophers of religion that they are on this quest? I did ask Graham Oppy if he would be responding to Loftus’s response to his video interview on philosophy of religion and he said he would not be. Too busy writing good books on philosophy of religion probably!

Following some of Peter’s links makes things even more confusing. Notice this screenshot:

ScreenHunter_398 Aug. 01 15.35

Peter recommends a ‘Secular Studies programme’ instead of philosophy of religion and asks us to look up the ‘Pitzer’s program’. Funny things is – if you do that guess what you find being taught on that course? Yes, that’s right – some philosophy of religion!!!

ScreenHunter_399 Aug. 01 15.40

[2] If anyone should be in doubt about that have a look at Peter’s schedule and required reading for his ‘Atheism PHL 365U 001′ course:

http://www.skeptic.com/skepticism-101/downloads/syllabi/Syllabus-Atheism-by-Peter-Boghossian.pdf

Anyone who knows the subject well will also spot his bias toward New Atheism and the lack of reading he requires his students to do from theist philosophers. It’s certainly an odd philosophy of religion course which requires students to read so many people who are not published in the subject as well. In fact, he virtually ignores all the atheist, agnostic and theistic philosophers one would consider compulsory reading in a philosophy of religion course in favour of reading lots of Sam Harris and his own book (which no other university that I know of uses as a standard textbook on the subject!).

In fact, after seeing his syllabus and clips of him teaching at Portland, I am not usre he could get away with this course in many universities. I don’t know how it can be considered good practice for the lecturer to be very clearly trying to convert his students into his own conclusions on the matter. I would certainly fear the objectivity of his marking!

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PS. I have recently been blocked by Peter Boghossian on Twitter. While I attempt to get over this hugely distressing moment in my life I do wonder what his reason was. I was never rude to him and never said anything about him as a person. I have only ever asked some difficult questions about his street epistemology. It does seem rather odd since he is such an advocate (so he says) for engaging with one’s critics. First I was ignored. Now I am banned. Interesting approach for interacting with one’s critics Peter.

ScreenHunter_397 Aug. 01 13.44

Posted in Atheism, Atheist apologists, Education, Street Epistemology | Tagged | 11 Comments

God in the Old Testament

This is a response to ‘from synapse to byte’s’ [STB] article ‘Scrapping Morality’ found here.

Complaints regarding certain passages, especially in the Old Testament, have been a matter of heated debate on the internet in recent years. None more so than passages regarding certain case laws and moral actions found in the historical narratives and legal sections of the Old Testament. One reason I have not written on this topic before is because there are already so many good replies already in existence (far superior to this one as well – I will provide some links at the bottom for suggestions) but also because there is nowhere near the same level of scandal among academics. The claim that these passages cause Judaism / Christianity such a huge problem they cannot possibly overcome their implications is almost entirely a popularist one. However, since this article was recommended to me by the writer of it I would like to explain why I don’t find his complaints to be seriously problematic.

The first complaint he makes is his idea that a personal being cannot be the proper grounding for an objective morality because a person’s claims are subjective and therefore cannot properly ground an objective truth (true analytically a priori). STB has not given a definition of ‘objective moral values’ (and doesn’t do so properly in the entire article strangely enough) so I’m concerned he’s defining this in a way philosophers would not since the belief that God can be the proper grounding for objective moral values is not contrary to how professional philosophers define objective moral values. Objective moral values are referred to as a view called moral realism in philosophy. Take a couple of definitions by top-level philosophers:

“Moral realism is the theory that moral judgements enjoy a special sort of objectivity: such as judgements, where true, are so independently of what any human being, anywhere, in any circumstance whatever, thinks of them.”

 (Russ Shafer-Landau – ‘Moral Realism – A Defense’ p.2)

“Realism holds that moral judgements can be true or false, that sometimes they are true and that what makes them true is independent from people’s (or groups of people’s) beliefs, judgements or desires.”

(Andrew Fisher – Metaethics: An Introduction’ p.77)

“Moral realists are those who think that, in these respects, things should be taken at face value—moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right. Moreover, they hold, at least some moral claims actually are true. That much is the common (and more or less defining) ground of moral realism.”

(Geoff Sayre-McCord – Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy article on Moral Realism, 2009)

So the question is whether God’s character can be an appropriate grounding for moral values and yet they can be objective. The obvious answer is yes. The view that morals are objective is merely that there is some reason for thinking moral values can be factually right or wrong on the basis of some factor. It’s actually an equivocation to use the word ‘subject’ to refer to the basis of that objectivity as the personality of God. Of course God is a ‘subject’, in the sense of being a person, but it is not God’s belief that certain moral actions are wrong which make them wrong but rather his nature (his essential character). This would be why all three of these philosophers cited would have no problem with God being a logically possible grounding for objective moral values.  This is why Shafer-Landau contrasts them with “human being[s]” and Fisher with “people’s beliefs.” Therefore, to attempt to make the case that God’s character cannot be a legitimate grounding for objective moral values is either to be using the phrase objective moral values differently from professional philosophers or to be equivocating on the word ‘subject’. After all, if that were the case then any objective truth claim made by a person would be ‘subjective’ in the sense that it’s being made by a subject. But an objective truth claim made by a ‘subject’ (in that sense) does not make the truth of the statement ‘subjective’ (in the sense of not being objectively true). If that were the case then anyone claiming 2+2=4 could not make the claim it is objectively true! I seriously doubt STB is claiming there are no facts of any kind made by persons which can be objectively true which is why this criticism is confused (not to mention self-defeating since the claim appears to claim objectivity and yet it’s perpetrated by a person/subject!).

Then STB turns his attention to the claim that the source of morality could possibly be the Abrahamic God. He says:

“This incoherent concept of this subjective objectivity as the foundation of morality reaches absurdity when we add to the mix the actual moral decrees made by the Abrahamic god. A consistent moral law-giver might deserve some respect, but a cursory look at the ever-changing whims of the biblical god makes this god appear as objective as a 3-year-old in a candy shop.”

So his complaint appears to be that Yahweh (the Abrahamic God) has inconsistent and changing moral values over time. He then cites three examples: rape, slavery, and genocide.

The first thing to point out is that anyone can hold to objective moral values and still think that different moral actions are right moral actions in differing circumstances. In short, moral realists do not have to hold to moral absolutism. Moral absolutism is the view that there is only ever one moral response to a certain situation (eg. “Abortion is always wrong”). But one would still be considered a moral realist (again, by the definitions professional philosophers use) if one thought that abortion is always wrong unless it takes place before the eighth week. That is still to have a belief about the factual rightness or wrongness of abortion and so constitutes a moral realist view. So STB needs to be more careful not to imply that any circumstantial change to a moral value does not imply a rejection of moral realism because it’s not. To reject moral realism would be to argue that there can never be any situation where there is a right or wrong moral action and clearly no theist holds that view.

His essentially argument of inconsistency boils down to arguing:

1. Those who hold to objective morality must believe moral commands can never change.

2. Theists claim to hold to objective morality.

3. Theists believe moral commands can change.

Therefore,

C. Theists are internally inconsistent.

The obvious problem is the fallacious definition found in premise 1. Because it’s based on an incorrect understanding of what theists actually believe the argument is obviously invalid (it’s a straw man in other words).

Let us briefly take on these three examples however:

1. STB cites Judges 21:10-22 as evidence that Yahweh once thought that rape is morally permissible. This is a part of the narrative where more than four hundred virgins from Jabesh-gilead are taken for the men of the tribe of Benjamin. It is a shame that STB does not interact with any biblical scholarship at this point since if he had he would have noticed why this is a very bad passage to use for what he wants. For a start there is nothing said by Yahweh in Judges 21 which makes the case look very shoddy. Worse than that, however, is the ending of the story where the writer comments, after telling the story:

“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

Judges 21:25

So not only is there no mention of Yahweh affirming what Benjamin did at this point in the narrative there is actually a strong denouncement of what they did immediately after telling what happened.

As the professor of Old Testament, David T. Lamb states on this chapter:

“The perspective of the text toward the men who committed the gang rape in Judges in highly negative, and the outrage of the men of Israel against the perpetrators of this heinous crime leads to civil war (Judges 19-21)… The Bible includes numerous examples of violent behaviour, but we shouldn’t assume that simply because these stories are included in the Old Testament that the behaviour is being condoned.”

David T. Lamb God behaving badly p.94

So not only does STB fail to note that the text itself condemns the actions recorded in Judges 21 but he also fails to notice that this action by the tribe of Benjamin caused the remaining tribes of Israel to go to civil war against Benjamin in protest to what they were doing.

Quite clearly this passage does not vindicate what STB thinks it does – in fact it does quite the opposite.

2. STB’s second example is slavery. He proposes that Abrahamic religions will today condemn slavery whereas in the OT Yahweh condones such a thing (Leviticus 25:44-46).

Despite this claim, however, there is quite a significant amount of scholarship which has argued that what we call slavery today is a very different phenomenon from the ‘slavery’ (many prefer to call it ‘voluntary servitude’ or ‘bonded service’) of the OT. A great many OT scholars have pointed this out [1] but STB again fails to interact with any of them which makes his case rather dubious. Here is the OT scholar Christopher J.H. Wright:

“First, slavery in relatively small societies like Israel was qualitatively vastly different from slavery in the large imperial civilizations… We must put out of our mind pictures such as the Roman gallery slaves of ‘Ben Hur’, or the neck-irons, slave-ships and sugar plantations of modern black slavery when we read the word ‘slave’ in the Old Testament. It is not even the most helpful translation of the word ‘ebed, which basically meant a bonded worker, and in some circumstances could be a term of high office when applied to royal servants. In the pastoral-agricultural society of Israel slaves were largely residential, domestic workers. In many cases they would have been debtors working off their debt through bonded labour to their creditor. Secondly, slavery in the Old Testament was not simply tolerated with a ‘rubber stamp’ of uncritical approval. Aspects of Old Testament thought and practice in this area virtually ‘neutralized’ slavery as an institution and sowed the seeds of its radical rejection in much later Christian thinking. Certainly these aspects, to which we now turn, made Israel unquestionably unique in the ancient world in its attitude to slavery. This is a fact unanimously acknowledged by ancient Near Eastern scholars.”

Christopher J.H. Wright Old Testament Ethics for the people of God p.333

Wright then goes on to number a long list of characteristics to Old Testament slavery which are radically different from what we think of when we think of slavery in modern times. The fact that slavery was voluntary, slaves were to be freed in the seventh year and released with what we would today call unemployment benefit, they were protected from bodily harm, and there was a law of asylum for runaway slaves. Listen to Christian philosopher Craig Hovey in his response to Sam Harris on this topic:

“Now, it is true that the Old Testament gives clear commands about the treatment of slaves. But what is most striking is something Harris completely ignores: the Bible’s trajectory of liberation that inspired the abolitionists. In the same way that Jacob sells himself into Laban’s employ (Genesis 30-31) or a present-day soldier agrees to serve for a certain number of years in exchange for college funding, the slavery laws in the Bible regulate a contractual system of debt-payment for those too poor to pay by other means. It was an ancient system that, in Israel’s life, provided an option for people otherwise trapped in poverty. In historical context, moreover, Israel’s specific regulations regarding slavery were much more humane than its neighbours’. The regulations are oriented toward the goal of freeing slaves by forgiving their debts before they have been “worked off.” Freedom rather than ownership is the operating principle.”

Craig Hovey What makes us moral? p.61,2

The New Testament rejection of slave trading can clearly still take a moral realist view of slavery due to the changing social conditions at that time. The severe problems of poverty common in largely nomadic societies were now quite different from the social structures they then found themselves in. This is why, by the way, quite a number of the Old Testament case law was abandoned as well.

3. His third example is “genocide” (Deuteronomy 7:1-2). The immediate problem with citing Deuteronomy 7 as a proof text for Yahweh being pro-genocide is that many scholars see this complete destruction in relation to the religion and occult practices of the Canaanites rather than the Canaanites as a people group.  (Deuteronomy 7:3–5; 12:2,3; cp. Exodus 34:12,13) As Peter C. Craigie notes on the Deuteronomy 7 passage:

“Any kind of treaty would be a compromise and would lead to disaster; therefore the Israelites were to destroy systematically the physical religious ‘furniture’ of their enemies, indicating thereby their complete lack of recognition for the god of their enemies.”

Peter C. Craigie The Book of Deuteronomy (NICOT) p.177

Even then it does not appear that it is merely the fact that they worship idols and break the first commandment that God brings judgement on them. Many historians have noted that their religious practices included both bestiality and regular infant sacrifice.

Further evidence that the judgement on the Canaanites was not racially motivated is that later on in the prophets the Jebusites (descended from the third son of Canaan) are incorporated into the new Israelites. (Zechariah 9:7 / Matthew 15:21) [See The Illustrated Bible Dictionary p.737] In other words not only were they permitted to live and not be killed but they were to be reconciled to God and be a part of the chosen people of God (we see this already through the stories of Hagar and Ruth as well by the way).

Yet more evidence exists that no such ‘genocide’ of the Canaanites was even attempted, even less achieved by the Israelites since the most dramatic accounts of the defeat of the Canaanites are found in the book of Joshua which has been noted by scholars as having all the hallmarks of Ancient Near Eastern war rhetoric and hagiography.  This is why the book of Judges makes it very clear not all the people were even displaced geographically. As Lamb points out:

“The major point of similarity between the biblical conquest narratives and those of their neighbours is the hyperbolic language. The hyperbolic nature of the two Joshua texts can be seen when they are examined alongside other texts. While Joshua 10:40 and Joshua 11:12-15 speak of everyone being destroyed, elsewhere in Joshua and Judges a very different perspective is given. These other texts repeatedly state that the Israelites did not kill all the Canaanites; they couldn’t even drive all of them out of the land (Joshua 13:1-6; 15:63; 17:12; Judges 1:19-34)… To reconcile these two divergent perspectives on Israel’s conquest, a nonliteral reading of the texts which speak of “all” people being destroyed is required.”

David T. Lamb God behaving badly p.77

Wright also makes the same point:

“We do need to allow for the exaggerated language of warfare. Israel, like other nations of the ancient Near East whose documents we possess, had a rhetoric of war that often exceeded reality on the ground. Even in the Old Testament itself this phenomenon is recognized and accepted. It is well known, for example, that the book of Joshua describes the conquest in rhetorically total terms – all the land is captured, all the kings are defeated, all the people without survivors are destroyed. Yet the book of Judges sees no contradiction in telling us that the process of subduing the inhabitants of the land was far from completed and went on for some considerable time. So even in the Old Testament itself, rhetorical generalization is recognized for what it is. We need, therefore, in reading some of the more graphic descriptions, either of what is commanded to be done, or recorded as accomplished, to allow for this rhetorical element. This is not to accuse the biblical writers of falsehood, but to recognize the literary conventions of writing about warfare.”

Christopher J.H. Wright Old Testament Ethics for the people of God p.474,5

The philosopher Richard Swinburne has made it clear why God has the right to judge human beings in the way he does with the Canaanites (whom he gave four hundred years to repent before judging them and therefore cannot be judged as having done so in a moment of anger or “on a whim”):

“If God is our creator, our life comes as a temporary gift from him; and he can take it back when he chooses. If A has the right to take something back from B, A has the right to allow someone else to take it back for him. And if A is God, he has the right to command someone else on his behalf to end a life. God therefore has the right to order the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. God’s reasons for issuing this command, according to the Old Testament, was to preserve the young monotheistic religion of Israel from lethal spiritual infection by the polytheism of the Canaanites, a religion which included child sacrifice and cultic prostitution. Such spiritual infection was without doubt a very real danger. When monotheism had become more deeply rooted in Israel, such an extreme measure was not, according to the Old Testament, required again. It was a defensive measure necessary to preserve the identity of the people of Israel. While the Israelites would not have had the right to take this extreme measure without the explicit command of God, he had the right to issue that command.”

Richard Swinburne ‘What does the Old Testament Mean?’ in Divine Evil: The Moral Character of the God of Abraham (Edited by Bergmann, Murray, and Rea) p.224

A hermeneutical warning is also worth raising here too. As philosopher Eleonore Stump warned Louise Antony on this same issue:

“… it is especially important in presenting an interpretation of a text to consider alternative readings. To support one interpretation is to support it over others. But then those others need to be canvassed, and something needs to be done to show why they are to be rejected.”

Eleonore Stump ‘Comments on ‘Does God love us?’ in Divine Evil: The Moral Character of the God of Abraham (Edited by Bergmann, Murray, and Rea) p.48

This is, unfortunately, the exact same methodology which STB employs. He states his own interpretation of these texts but completely fails to interact with professional scholarship on their interpretation at all. Zero interaction. The principle of charity is also completely ignored. It’s as if the views of the professionals matters not one jot to him. This seriously brings into question whether his interpretation of them is indeed the better one.

Now STB offers a couple more biblical passages but if he interacted with scholarship instead of asserting his own interpretation of them he would be forced to reconsider what he is attempting to draw from them. He needs to realize that many accounts of history in the Old Testament are just that and not every story mentioned is a vindication of what people did in that story (thus there is no vindication of Lot’s behaviour and neither is there a divine ethic being taught in the poetry of Psalm 137:9 instead of a very human emotional outburst in the face of what Babylon has done to Israel in the context of the exile). Since I have already done this at length with the three main examples he chose so far I see no need to comment on all of them. Answers to the other ones can easily be looked up.

Briefly I would also like to suggest that the advocating of the ‘Golden Rule’ by Jesus was not to borrow a ‘secular’ principle as STB claims. Just because there were Jewish Rabbis and other religious teachers who have taught this principle before Jesus does not make his ethical framework any less radical. After all, to the contrary, the Golden Rule is not found in some amorphous consequentialist metaethic but rather in a profoundly religious and teleological one. There are principles in Jesus’ ethics which challenge even this rule of thumb (“love your enemies” and “forgive seventy times seven” – in other words endlessly). It’s important that one does not attempt to suggest, as STB does, that Jesus’ ethics can be summarized by some individualistic or relative interpretation of the Golden Rule – they cannot.

STB finishes by suggesting that he is not a moral realist himself and rather that his ‘morality’ simply ‘works’ for him. This is rather self-destructive to his case however. If STB is claiming that Yahweh’s morality does not work for him personally then that’s fine but that is something very different from offering a logical refutation of either moral realism or the ethical standards of the God of the Bible. In order to do that STB would have needed to have constructed a moral realism of his own and then shown it was more probably correct than any other form of realism and that Yahweh does not meet it. Instead he appears to be suggesting that there really are no moral rights or wrongs in any objective sense. That’s fine but this means his case against Christianity cannot amount to anymore than noting that it has very different standards of ethics than his own personal standards he lives by which leaves him personally with a bad feeling. What moral outrage does not accomplish is to suggest that it makes the other person wrong. It just means he feels outraged by the moral standards of Yahweh. But that does not equate to Yahweh is morally wrong. For him to be morally wrong STB would need to embrace moral realism in some form and his blog makes it pretty clear he rejects moral realism (objective moral truths). Notice that I’m not saying STB cannot attempt to question the internal logic of the Christian view (clearly he attempts that) but what he cannot do is suggest that different moral perspectives to his own are wrong moral perspectives (and he certainly sounds a lot like that by the end).

I therefore submit that we barely even have a substantial criticism of Christian ethics being made by STB and certainly not the logical refutation he claimed to have achieved. But then I think that is true of this criticism as portrayed by the New Atheists of late on the whole anyway. If only they would read and interact with scholarship on this matter.

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STB’s responses to this refutation has been essentially to complain that he does not have the time to interact with scholarship on these matters (although appearing to know said scholarship well enough to know it’s a load of hogwash!), to complain that it’s not worth studying a subject formally if scholars have differing opinions (in which case I suppose he does not study any subject at a scholarly level), an ad hominem attack (questioning people’s motivations), and to formulate this handy syllogism:

  • P1: Christians hold that whatever their god condones is moral.
  • P2: Christians hold that the apparent condoning of activity “X” found in the bible is not immoral because the activity is actually a diminutive “x”.
  • C1: Therefore, Christians hold that “X” would be immoral even if their god condoned “X”. (P2)
  • C2: Therefore, Christians hold 2 logically contradictory notions. (P1 & C1)
  • P3: Christians would refuse to follow diminutive “x” because they deem it immoral.
  • C3: Therefore, Christians hold 2 logically contradictory notions. (P2 & P4)

I wonder if you can figure out why I am not even going to bother responding to this syllogism? I encourage STB to offer it up for publication in a philosophical journal and see what happens. (He also appears unaware that conclusions are supposed to follow from the premises!) I doubt one is well placed to write supposed formal disproofs of Christianity if one cannot even write a basic, logically valid, syllogism and also not manage to assess the religion aright.

This highly superficial approach of STB’s is further evidenced in posts such as this one where he cites a list of reasons he abandoned Christianity. His list of reasons are a complete and utter car wreck all the way through (and also indicate that he did not understand Christianity very well though he claims to have been one once) but he even claims that rape is “condoned or encouraged” in the Bible. No doubt this ludicrous statement comes from his hermeneutical inadequacies evidenced by the fact that he appears unable to distinguish between a report of something and the recommendation of it. The fact that he could not admit to his serious and obvious misreading of Judges 21 was an indication that such a person is not interested in truth or practicing the principle of charity but desperate to sling enough mud in the hope some of it sticks. This is indicative of the desperation of much New Atheism.

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[1] Here are some very worthwhile lectures for further research:

Here are some links showing some slightly different approaches to the issue from a Christian perspective:

Contra Mundum: Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?

Slaughter of the Canaanites

The best way of getting out of the whole Canaanite genocide thing, and it comes right from the Bible (but you may not like it)

Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites

Genocide in Canaan? Part II

What about God’s cruelty against the Midianites?

I strongly recommend the books I cited in this blog post but especially:

9780801048852

divine evil book

9781844744398

Posted in Arguments for God, Atheism, Bible, Christianity, Metaethics, New Atheism, The Moral Argument | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

Peter Boghossian ostracizing atheist/agnostic philosophers

This was a recent tweet by Peter Boghossian:

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My replies were:

ScreenHunter_380 Jun. 15 17.43

His reply was… nothing.

There are, of course, many other great atheist / agnostic philosophers who could also be mentioned (people such as Bertrand Russell, Anthony Flew, John Mackie and more recently Stephen Law [1] to name a few) but one thing appears very clear – Boghossian thinks he deserves to be at the adult table while all these (fine) philosophers deserve to be on the kid’s table.

Now, the obvious question ought to be: On what basis do you say that Peter? I mean, how on earth could he attempt to invalidate all the people professionally published in the subject he is most interested in – philosophy of religion?

Now if that’s not child-like, I don’t know what is! Even then that’s insulting some children I fear!

Anyway it looks like we could be in the last few days of Peter Boghossian on theology since in a recent interview [2] he has claimed he’s getting “burned out by atheism!” It would not surprise me in the slightest if Boghossian quickly walked away from the subject of theology and philosophy of religion given how radically he is ignored by academics and given the devastating criticisms made of his work in this area and his inability to respond to serious criticisms made of his work.

He complains that he cannot manage to get theologians to attend his lectures but those of us involved in theology and philosophy of religion who have responded to him online have had absolutely no response whatsoever to our criticisms. It appears if you cannot physically get to a Boghossian lecture and sit in one of those seats he’s going to pretend you don’t exist at all. And now it looks like he could be the one to run away from the subject before answering his critics directly. I cannot say I’m too surprised.

I loved the response from this atheist turned theist philosopher:

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Contrast this attitude of Boghossian’s with a paper on the subject in the philosophy magazine ‘Philosophy Now':

“To conclude, the prospects for philosophy of religion look brighter than they have done for many moons. The general standard of discussion in the analytical philosophy of religion is high – in my judgment, as high as in any other branch of philosophy. It is also provoking much interest both amongst professional philosophers in other fields (David Lewis and Martin Davies, for instance, have both written articles on the philosophy of religion) and amongst students taking philosophy at university (at Oxford, philosophy of religion is the second most popular optional subject, after philosophy of mind). In addition, it is a lively, interesting and accessible area, whose questions are surely relevant to all (don’t atheists need to consider the arguments for God, and perhaps provide some reasons for their rejection of theism?). If you would like to study it, there are many easy ways into the academic subject, and I feel sure that it will amply repay your time and attention.”

Daniel Hill What’s new in… Philosophy of Religion ‘Philosophy Now’

Here is the atheist philosopher Nicholas Everitt expressing a very different perspective of this academic discipline as he begins his book on the subject:

“When I was a philosophy student, I once told my tutor that I would like to write an essay on the existence of God. ‘My interest in my maker ceased when I read Hume’s ‘Dialogues’, he loftily replied, leaving me in no doubt that my interest should be similarly short-lived. I never wrote the essay, but nor, in spite of Hume’s ‘Dialogues’, did I lose the interest. Since those distant days, the philosophy of religion has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance. In those bad old days, with a few honourable exceptions, it was dominated by the woolly pieties and crass objections of third-rate thinkers. Since then, the field has been taken over by by imaginitive, creative thinkers who are themselves cutting-edge contributors in other areas of philosophy. These philosophers have brought with them an array of the sharpest weapons in the armoury of analytic philosophy. This combination of able thinkers and sophisticated techniques has transformed the field in the last few decades.

“The topic of God is a huge philosophical river junction, a confluence into which flow streams from metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, epistemology, the philosophy of science, moral philosophy, and the philosophy of logic, and of course from the history of philosophy.”

Nicholas Everitt The non-existence of God pp.xiii, xiv (emphasis mine)

Or atheist philosopher Michael Martin:

“However, as I pursued my graduate education in philosophy at Harvard I specialized in the philosophy of science, not the philosophy of religion. The former seemed vital and fresh, the latter dead and uninteresting. It seemed to me quite clear in the light of the evidence that disbelief in God was more justified than belief. So the question of God’s existence seemed closed, while questions about the justification of induction, the theoretical entities in science, and the incommensurability of scientific theories were open. I have changed my mind about this, primarily because of the recent resurgence of interest in the philosophy of religion. Although I have not changed my opinion that disbelief in God is more justified than belief, as I explain in the Introduction, recent philosophical arguments for theism make it necessary to reassess and reformulate the case for atheism.”

Michael Martin Atheism: A Philosophical Justification p.xii (emphasis mine)

Even though Paul Draper and Ryan Nichols write about what they perceive as some of the problems in philosophy of religion in modern times in their paper Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion they are also quick to state:

“It is widely believed, at least by philosophers of religion, that philosophy of religion is flourishing. It is not difficult to find evidence supporting this optimistic assessment. For example, many university students at all levels are intensely interested in the subject, and philosophy of religion gamers far more attention from people outside academia than most other areas of philosophy. Also, in terms of sheer quantity of articles, books, conferences, and specialty journals, philosophy of religion compares favorably with many other areas of philosophy. This has not always been so. Philosophers of religion today, including the two of us, owe a considerable debt of gratitude to the extraordinarily talented philosophers responsible for the growth of philosophy of religion in the second half of the twentieth century. Their own careers would not have been possible were it not for ground-breaking work by distinguished thinkers like William Alston, Nelson Pike, Alvin Plantinga, William Rowe, and Richard Swinburne, to mention just a few.”

Paul Draper and Ryan Nichols Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion (The Monist , Vol. 96, No. 3)

A good reaction to Draper and Nichols’ complaints can be found in this paper:

METHOD AND MADNESS IN CONTEMPORARY ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION

For more on these matters more widely, see also, Quentin Smith’s very interesting paper The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism where he states:

“And how have naturalist philosophers reacted to what some committed naturalists might consider as “the embarrassment” of belonging to the only academic field that has allowed itself to lose the secularization it once had? Some naturalists wish to leave the field, considering themselves as no longer doing “philosophy of mind,” for example, but instead “cognitive science.”  But the great majority of naturalist philosophers react by publicly ignoring the increasing desecularizing of philosophy (while privately disparaging theism, without really knowing anything about contemporary analytic philosophy of religion) and proceeding to work in their own area of specialization as if theism, the view of approximately one-quarter or one-third of their field, did not exist.” [Emphasis mine.]

Quentin Smith, The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism in ‘Philo’ (Volume 4 #2)

“Philosophy of religion has for several decades been thought identical with philosophical theology – brilliantly revitalized by a host of very able philosophers, most notably perhaps, Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga. Before the publication of Swinburne’s Existence of God, and Plantinga’s God and Other Minds, philosophy of religion was largely in the doldrums. Metaphysical questions had been abandoned, and the subject was for the most part confined, (as moral and political philosophy were for a time), to the application of philosophy of language to religion. A few decades later, however, the subject had been transformed. It now has substantial metaphysical and theological content. The number of both prominent and promising philosophers engaged in it continues to grow, and they have produced innumerable very high quality books and journal articles.”

Gordon Graham (Henry Luce III Professor of Philosophy and the Arts at Princeton Theological Seminary) What is Philosophy of Religion?

Or how about the ‘Philosophy of Religion’ article on the well respected Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“Today philosophy of religion is a robust, intensely active area of philosophy. Almost without exception, any introduction to philosophy text in the Anglophone world includes some philosophy of religion. The importance of philosophy of religion is chiefly due to its subject matter: alternative beliefs about God, Brahman, the sacred, the varieties of religious experience, the interplay between science and religion, the challenge of non-religious philosophies, the nature and scope of good and evil, religious treatments of birth, history, and death, and other substantial terrain. A philosophical exploration of these topics involves fundamental questions about our place in the cosmos and about our relationship to what may transcend the cosmos. Such philosophical work requires an investigation into the nature and limit of human thought.”

 Charles Taliaferro Philosophy of Religion

Or William Wainwright:

“The philosophy of religion as a distinct discipline is an innovation of the last 200 years, but its central topics—the existence and nature of the divine, humankind’s relation to it,
the nature of religion, and the place of religion in human life—have been with us since the inception of philosophy. Philosophers have long critically examined the truth of and
rational justification for religious claims, and have explored such philosophically interesting phenomena as faith, religious experience, and the distinctive features of religious discourse. The second half of the twentieth century was an especially fruitful period, with philosophers using new developments in logic and epistemology to mount both sophisticated defenses of, and attacks on, religious claims.”

William Wainwright The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion 

Or Chad Meister:

“The field of philosophy of religion has blossomed in recent decades and is now flourishing internationally with creative, first-rate thinkers – many of whom are thought-leaders in other areas of philosophy as well – utilizing their philosophical
expertise to tackle a host of religious topics. The range of those engaged in philosophy of religion is also rather broad and includes such diverse scholars as analytic and continental philosophers, feminists and ethicists, and Eastern and Western thinkers, among others.”

Chad Meister Introducing Philosophy of Religion (Introduction)

Perhaps philosophers who have spent their professional life reading the literature of the subject are a better guide here? No doubt Boghossian would call them some names but that goes to show the level he’s working at.

PS. John Loftus, who describes himself as “Boghossian’s bulldog”, has attempted to defend this tweet by Boghossian: In Defense of Peter Boghossian’s Tweet About the Philosophy of Religion. He says that he has even contacted Peter about it and Peter stands by it. Nonetheless, in order to defend him, Loftus tries to change the meaning of the tweet instead to, “So people who do bad philosophy of religion without sufficient evidence should be disqualified to sit at the proverbial adult table…” which you will notice is still not what Boghossian is saying. I have already noted many philosophers above who do think that responsible, scientifically informed, philosophy is being done in the philosophy of religion. I noticed some months ago Peter Boghossian made this complaint about philosophy at large on a panel discussion (that it does not engage with empirical scientific discoveries enough) and Massimo Pigliucci strongly disagreed with Peter’s analysis of the contemporary philosophical scene saying it was simply untrue. It would appear Boghossian has some very strange ideas about the profession of philosophy which distances himself from the vast majority of professionals (see also his views on metaphysics).

Another of Boghossian’s bulldogs, James Lindsay, also defends Peter by saying:

“Here’s what I see in Pete’s tweet: To publish in the philosophy of religion requires taking theism seriously. He doesn’t think people should take theism seriously. Neither do I.”

And yet both Lindsay and Boghossian write vast amounts on theism themselves? So how do they defend writing a book and loads of online materials and yet denounce professional peer-reviewed articles where people show a much better grasp of religions than either of them do? Also, again, he and Boghossian are seriously distancing themselves from a large number of atheist and agnostic philosophers who do think theism should be taken seriously. But then, Lindsay thinks the theological landscape changed when Dawkins published The God Delusion so we now know how well read he is in professional philosophy of religion and how many atheist philosophers distanced themselves from that treatment of the subject.

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———————————-

Here is someone from the other side of the fence arguing essentially the same thing:

Peter Boghossian: The Deepak Chopra of Atheism?

———————————-

[1] Atheist philosopher Stephen Law writes about the college he works at saying:

“Heythrop has some excellent philosophy research going on. Tom Crowther is doing cutting edge work in the Philosophy of Perception, for example (recent paper in Philosophical Review). But our greatest strength is in Philosophy of Religion. We have Professors Keith Ward and John Cottingham working in this area as part of Heythrop’s Centre for The Philosophy of Religion. And of course I am regularly publishing in philosophy of religion too (and other areas).”

[2] Ignoranti interview (c.16 minutes in)

Boghossian also asserts that theology is like a bad martial art. Unfortunately he doesn’t explain how his theology is so good while for others it’s so bad. This disparaging of theology is nothing we haven’t seen before from Dawkins of course. Nothing new here just a repeat of Dawkins’ assertions. Perhaps I have greater doubts about Peter Boghossian’s abilities in the martial arts to be able to tell? If you would like an example of why theology matters when discussing theology see Part 1 of my series responding to Boghossian where he shows he does not even understand very basic Christian theology which brings his critique into disrepute. Yet again more evidence of Boghossian’s very childish attitude to this whole subject.

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Here’s a recent summary by Tom Gilson:

http://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2014/06/whats-going-on-with-peter-boghossian/

Posted in Atheist apologists | Tagged , , , , , , | 15 Comments

When ‘Street Epistemology’ met a real epistemologist

 

1907631_733047390101016_4612179800882097951_nI would love to write an extensive commentary on the discussion between Tim McGrew and Peter Boghossian but, for reasons I explained the other day, I’m unable to do so right now. Whether there’s even a need for me to do so is questionable since some very good responses have already appeared on the internet. So here are some links to some I think are worth reading.

You can find the discussion here:

Unbelievable

Randal Rauser has a reflection on the debate which can be found here Tim McGrew gives Peter Boghossian an unbelievable public drubbing.

I think it would be pretty difficult to disagree with Rauser on the issue of whether Boghossian qualifies as a bigot or not.

Wintery Knight has an overview of the conversation and a poll where you can express your opinion on what you mean by the word faith: Tim McGrew debates Peter “Bogo the Clown” Boghossian on the definition of faith

Nick Peters has responded over at ‘Deeper Waters’ Tim McGrew vs. Peter Boghossian.

J.W. Wartick has written a piece on his blog “Is Faith a False Epistemology?”- Debate Review: Tim McGrew vs. Peter Boghossian.

There are a few comments over at THINKAPOLOGETICS.COM Unbelievable : Peter Boghossian vs Tim McGrew – Debate on ‘A Manual For Creating Atheists”

Graham Veale has a piece over at Saints and Sceptics: Faith: Simple Lessons for New Atheists.

Those are the main ones as far as I can see.

Personally I cannot understand how any rational person could think that Street Epistemology is a valid or useful approach to the ongoing dialogue between theists and atheists after that discussion.

Boghossian’s entire argument in summary:

Okay so Christians don’t agree with my first definition of faith? Here’s a second. Oh, they don’t agree with my second definition of faith? Here’s a third. Oh, the third one is a bit ambiguous and seems to be closer to the orthodox usage of the word? Well let’s go with that then. Let’s see if Christians agree with that definition and if they do I’ll twist it so they’re conceding something they’re really not!

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At the end of the show Boghossian asked if the “vast majority” of Christians use the word faith the way he uses it (after three revisions). Here are the results from the Unbelievable poll:

ScreenHunter_369 May. 26 08.49

I guess the question now is whether Boghossian is doxastically open enough to permit the empirical evidence to change his mind or whether he will continue to believe something in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Of course Boghossian finished by trying to get the poll to be aligned to his THIRD definition of faith and not either of the two in his book.

Notice this statement in his finishing comments:

“I think anybody who sincerely listened to this conversation knows exactly that I’m correct and that this is how the overwhelming majority of people have it.”

Boghossian has already given himself a way out of ignoring the empirical evidence. He will write off everyone who doesn’t agree with him with an ad hominem. How can someone who teaches critical thinking be engaging in such tactics?

Today the Christian philosopher Guillaume Bignon tweeted this:

“That a proposition’s being possibly false is compatible with its being very probably true is lost on too many debaters.”

I certainly think Peter Boghossian misses that point and dozens of others as well.

Happy reading and I hope to see you again in a couple of months!

More on Tim McGrew:

Professional publications

Interviews and teaching materials

Tim McGrew’s Recommended Apologetics Reading

Here is an extremely good historical survey of the word faith by Wessel:

How Do You Define “Faith”?

PS. Did you spot Boghossian’s attempt to poison the well at the beginning of the discussion with McGrew? If not, here’s him doing it again in retrospect on Twitter:

ScreenHunter_377 May. 27 10.40

222 retweets for that! Critical thinking is still unpopular! No doubt my response will go unanswered! Boghossian probably has some private, non-standard, definition of ‘theologian’ that he’s using here anyway.

ScreenHunter_378 May. 27 10.43

Next time you see one of these at a Boghossian lecture, you might want to ask for a definition before you sit down!

1e98e89455c2abe7fe97d74e9ec76f6d_viewSorry for all the memes but, could this be the future of ‘Street Epistemology’?

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This is an interesting piece I only just spotted on what it’s like to have private email correspondence with Peter Boghossian:

Peter Boghossian sees through me

Posted in Atheism, Atheist apologists, Epistemology, Faith, New Atheism, Philosophy, Street Epistemology | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Peter Boghossian and Tim McGrew in discussion this weekend!

ScreenHunter_367 May. 21 03.13

http://www.premier.org.uk/unbelievable

I don’t want to tell you what to do but… don’t miss it!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Many thanks!

I just want to explain why I won’t be blogging for at least a couple of months.

I have had some serious health issues over the last six months or so and I must go for a rather serious operation on my brain (I know – they found one! and when is an operation on the brain ever not serious?). The chances of success are good but, even so, I have other things and people I need to spend my time on/with in the next few weeks.

If you have been a reader or contributor to my blog in any way whatsoever I just want to say a huge thank you and wish you all the best. I hope to see you again in a couple of months.

This song has been very precious to me and continues to be. Not because it’s wishful thinking but because it’s true. You probably know it already but if not here it is:

God bless.

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

The beauty of penal substitutionary atonement

“…where the idea of the wrath of God is ignored, there also will there be no understanding of the central conception of the Gospel: the uniqueness of the revelation in the Mediator.”

Emil Brunner The Mediator p.152

I had not intended to write anything about Easter (which is why I’m horribly late to the party!) but as I read and reflected on this significant part of the year I became increasingly aware of how fashionable it is becoming for modern Christians to have a go at penal substitutionary atonement (from now on PSA).

I was reminded of the debate between evangelicals and progressives by watching the discussion between Andrew Wilson and Steve Chalke on ‘Unbelievable’ a few weeks ago and since have found numerous Christian bloggers defending Chalke’s view. I was finally compelled to write something after hearing one Christian blogger declare:

What saves us is not that Jesus died for us.”

Jim McDermott Why Good Friday is too often like a bad Indiana Jones movie (April 2014)

Now of course not all who disagree with PSA are willing to go that far in their language but there is certainly one particular meaning of that phrase they are rejecting.

[I apologize in advance because this is going to be a long post. This represents at least five years of wanting to say something on this subject and if it's too much for one sitting that's fine. It took me about twenty sittings to write it. I do hope that you will read it to the end though - especially if you disagree with me! I am not claiming to say anything new but rather to explain why PSA is often misrepresented. There are clearly some serious problems, for those who take a high view of Scripture at least, if PSA is dropped in terms of explaining many biblical passages and the doctrine of the justice of God but I will have to save those problems for another time.]

I don’t know about you but when I read a modern Christian disagreeing with PSA I always end up feeling they don’t really understand the doctrine they are disagreeing with.

A classic example of this would be Steve Chalke:

“How then, have we come to believe that at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his own Son? The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offense he has not even committed.”

Steve Chalke and Alan Mann The Lost Message of Jesus (2003) p.182

Here are the complaints from self-proclaimed ‘post-evangelical’ Dave Tomlinson:

“…the cross did not bring about forgiveness – this existed already; but rather, Jesus enacted and represented the forgiveness which has always been there in the heart of God. His attitude does not change toward us; instead our attitude towards him changes as we see forgiveness acted out before us.”

No wonder just a few sentences later he asks:

“Does it [that is to say his reading of the theology of the cross] exalt love at the cost of righteousness?”

Dave Tomlinson The Post-Evangelical 1995 p.100,1

Or more recently by Brian Zahnd:

The Bible is clear, God did not kill Jesus. Jesus was offered as a sacrifice in that the Father was willing to send his Son into our sinful system in order to expose it as utterly sinful and provide us with another way. The death of Jesus was a sacrifice in that sense. But it was not a sacrifice to appease a wrathful deity or to provide payment for a penultimate god subordinate to Justice.”

How does “Dying for our sins” work? (April 2014) [Emphasis authors.]

Yet all these sentiments are a far cry from the doctrine expressed within evangelical scholarship. What Chalke, Tomlinson and Zahnd all have in common is that they appear to misconceive how PSA is expressed by those who hold to it, they fail to engage with the scholars they are disagreeing with, and they also completely ignore the passages in the Bible which have traditionally been taken to be teaching it. Obviously, I’m not the first person to notice this. In a classic treatment on the subject Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach complain:

9781433501081“…the most pressing reason why this book is necessary is that the misconceived criticisms of penal substitution show no sign of abating, and the resulting confusion within the Christian community seems to be increasing rather than decreasing. As Carl Trueman remarked, ‘The classical evangelical position on atonement has fallen out of favour over recent years, often rejected on the basis of a theologically caricatured and historically inadequate understanding of what exactly the position entails.'”

Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, Andrew Sach Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution (2007) p.31

In this post I wish to clarify what PSA is generally considered to be by those who hold to it and to dispel a few modern myths about it. I am under no illusion that I will be able to convince a progressive Christian to believe it but I think that is because of a deeper issue which separates us and that is the question of what gets to be the final arbiter of Christian doctrine.

You will notice that the theologians I am most influenced by on this matter are John Stott and Leon Morris. If you are a Christian who takes the authority of the Bible seriously and yet you completely disagree that the Bible teaches PSA I would highly recommending both of them. My piece also relies heavily on the book by Jeffery, Ovey and Sach who, I think, have compiled a fantastic summary of the doctrine in their book just referenced.

What is PSA?

“The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.”

Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, Andrew Sach Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution (2007) p.21

At first glance that might appear to be saying what the progressives cited above are criticizing but I think a deeper look at the doctrine reveals how misunderstood it is. It does not hold that God suddenly reacted in an emotive fashion to our sins (as expressed by Chalke). It is quite obviously not a form of child abuse. As I will point out in the next section, this is to completely misunderstand how the doctrine of the Trinity relates to the doctrine of PSA. It is also not suggesting that there is some higher standard of justice which God is himself answerable to (as expressed by Zahnd).

God the Father (and the ‘pagan’ comparison myth)

One thing I find to be so profoundly annoying among those who argue against substitutionary atonement is that they so frequently get the role of God the Father wrong in their criticisms. In their parodies the Father is either inactive in salvation or he is merely angry (in the sense of being in some emotional state) and Jesus manages to appease his feelings of anger almost against his will. [1] Some even make him seem like he reluctantly participates in the plan of salvation. But this is a seriously deficient view of the doctrine.

As Leon Morris notes:

“The atonement is not basically an impersonal affair nor a sole concern of the Son. It is rather something in which the persons of both the Father and the Son are exceedingly active. It is not an affair in which Christ takes a firm initiative while the Father adopts a passive role. In every part of the New Testament that we have so far examined the fact that the atonement proceeds from the loving heart of God has been emphasized.”

Leon Morris The Cross in the New Testament (1976) p.220,1

The point is also made by Ladd:

“Clearly, atonement is not an affair in which Christ takes the initiative while the Father adopts a passive role. Paul does not differentiate between the love of God and of Christ. Both are seen in the cross. Indeed, the love of Christ is the love of God, and vise versa.”

George Eldon Ladd A Theology of the New Testament (Revised 1994 Edition) p.465

And again:

“The idea that the cross expresses the love of Christ for us while he wrings atonement from a stern and unwilling Father, perfectly just, but perfectly inflexible, is a perversion of New Testament theology.”

George Eldon Ladd A Theology of the New Testament (Revised 1994 Edition) p.465,6

Guthrie makes it clear how this is far removed from pagan notions of appeasement:

“What Christ did was a substitutionary act by which God shows that his anger is turned away, so that men are now freed to come into a relationship with him. This is very different from the appeasement idea, in which the worshipper was obliged to adhere to certain rituals to persuade the god to change his attitude. In Christian thought it is God himself who takes the initiative.”

Donald Guthrie New Testament Theology (1981) p.470

So too, Carson:

“This marks the fundamental difference between pagan propitiation and Christian propitiation. In pagan propitiation, a human being offers a propitiatory sacrifice to make a god propitious. In Christian propitiation, God the Father sets forth Jesus as the propitiation to make himself propitious; God is both the subject and the object of propitiation. God is the one who provides the sacrifice precisely as a way of turning aside his own wrath. God the Father is thus the propitiator and the propitiated, and God the Son is the propitiation.”

Don Carson Scandalous p.64,5 (Emphasis authors.)

This approach is far more in line with the orthodox doctrine of the trinity as he explains:

“God presenting Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice is not an instance of “cosmic child abuse” in which God beats up on his kid… God demonstrates his love in that Christ died for us. You must not think that God stands over against us while Christ stands for us, as if Father and Son are somehow at odds, so that the Father takes it out on his Son. God desmonstrates his love by sending Christ. This is bound up with the very nature and mystery of the incarnation and the Trinity. This is the triune God’s plan. It hurts the Father to lose his Son, but he does it because he loves us.”

Don Carson Scandalous p.69 (Emphasis authors.)

Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach have a good passage on this too:

“From a historical point of view, it is important to recognize that the Old Testament rituals that form much of the biblical background to the New Testament teaching about Christ’s sacrificial death were radically different from many of the pagan practices of other ancient Near Eastern peoples. God’s people received detailed, lengthy descriptions of precisely how to conduct their sacrifices (see especially Lev.1-7; also Exod.29-30; Num.15,28-29), and were explicitly forbidden from imitating many of the rituals of other nations (eg. Deut.12:4,31; 18:19; Lev.18; 2 Kings 17:15-17; 21:2; 2 Chr. 33:2), particularly the appalling practice of child sacrifice (Deut. 12:31; 2Kgs 17:17; 2 Chr. 28:3; 33:6; Jer. 7:31; 19:5, Ezek. 20:31). The mere fact that the other nations also performed sacrifices should therefore not be allowed to obscure the huge differences between those practices and the Old Testament sacrificial system.”

Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, Andrew Sach Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution (2007) p.227,8

John Stott notes two very key differences between pagan notions of substitution and the Christian doctrine:

1. God’s wrath is not volatile or erratic (contrary to the supposed comparison by Chalke and Mann).

2. The propitiation is not made by us but by God himself.

This makes the idea of propitiation completely different in Christian theology to ideas found in pagan practices.

Contrast all of that with what Brian Zahnd claims:

“Particularly abhorrent are those theories that portray the Father of Jesus as a pagan deity who can only be placated by the barbarism of child sacrifice. The god who is mollified by throwing a virgin into a volcano or by nailing his son to a tree is not the Abba of Jesus!”

[See previous link.]

Notice how Zahnd tries to poison the well by already asserting that the Christian doctrine is akin to the pagan practice. Then he, falsely, uses a comparison with child sacrifice which is repeatedly outlawed in the Old Testament. I suppose Zahnd, Chalke, Mann, and others like this comparison because it works on an emotive level. Who in their right mind will agree with child sacrifice? But this is to falsely conflate the meaning of the word ‘child’ with the word ‘son’. Adults can be sons. In fact, all historical scholars agree that Jesus was an adult at the time of his crucifixion and therefore the idea that one has a direct comparison with ‘child sacrifice’ here is absurd.

It also misunderstands the doctrine of the Trinity. Those who think that holding to substitutionary atonement commits one to two different types of God (one found in the Father and the other in the Son) are making a false accusation. Those who hold to the doctrine of PSA have a very strong doctrine of the unity of the triune God working his purposes of redemption through the Son. The triune God is the instigator of the plan of atonement, the triune God is active in the atonement, and the triune God’s expression of love for humankind is found in the punishment all three of them suffer in the divine separation which takes place on the cross. The Son was not only separated from the Father but the Father was also separated from the Son. We ought not forget that.

God the Son

Another serious deficiency among critics of PSA is the role of the Son. It’s common for detractors to claim this understanding of the cross indicates some abuse toward the Son and yet this criticism monumentally fails to take into account the participation of the Son in the plan of atonement for sin.

In commenting on the beginning of Isaiah 53 Jeffery, Ovey and Sach state:

“The Servant consented to, and actively participated in, this ministry of sin-bearing and substitutionary death, in accordance with the will of God to afflict him in the place of others. Isaiah carefully guards against the false idea that God inflicted punishment against the Servant’s will; indeed, ‘God’s responsibility for the Servant’s vicarious role is articulated explicitly after the Servant’s acceptance of suffering has been established in 53:4a.’… If we step back for a moment and reflect on the way that this text speaks of the ministry of Christ, then we find in this solidarity of purpose a wonderful testimony to the unity of Father and Son within the Trinity.”

Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, Andrew Sach Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution (2007) p.59

Those who claim that PSA suggests that God the Father is being unfair on God the Son appear to fail to notice that this charge can be leveled at them as well and perhaps even more so. Let us suppose that the cross is only about God demonstrating the extent of his love for us. We could criticize this idea in the same way PSA is criticized. Only, in this case, there is no objective reason for the Son to die. There is no need for it. Surely God could have demonstrated his love in many other ways? Why did the Son have to die? And even if you can find a reason for Jesus needing to die, why then was a separation between God the Father and God the Son necessary? Why does that take place? Once you reject PSA from your understanding of the cross there really is no substantial reason for Jesus to die and it makes his death seem a rather unnecessary gesture and his separation from the Father appears to be unnecessary suffering (ironically thereby making the Godhead look rather abusive). The very criticism leveled at PSA applies to an even greater extent once you reject PSA and I find critics of PSA completely fail to notice this.

In the context of addressing the view that the primary message of the cross is God’s love John Stott writes:

“The cross is the epitome of Christ’s love and the inspiration of ours. But the question we desire to press is this: just how does the cross display and demonstrate Christ’s love? What is there in the cross which reveals love? True love is purposive in its self-giving; it does not make random or reckless gestures. If you were to jump off the end of a pier and drown, or dash into a burning building and be burnt to death, and if your self-sacrifice had no saving purpose, you would convince me of your folly, not your love. But if I were myself drowning in the sea, or trapped in the burning building, and it was in attempting to rescue me that you lost your life, then I would indeed see love not folly in your action. Just so the death of Jesus on the cross cannot be seen as a demonstration of love in itself, but only if he gave his life in order to rescue ours.”

John Stott The Cross of Christ (1986) p.220

In the context of atheists asking about the moral fairness of the sacrifice of the Son in some legal sense as being morally appropriate Alvin Plantinga points out:

“If God considers human beings guilty because of the sins they commit, then human beings are indeed guilty. If God approves, as no doubt he does, of his accepting the sacrifice of his son on the cross as a propitiation for human sin, then that arrangement is morally impeccable. If God is willing to accept the death of Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, as restoring the moral balance, then indeed the death of the second person of the Trinity restores the moral balance.”

Alvin Plantinga Comments on ‘Satanic Verses: Moral Chaos in Holy Writ’ (in Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham edited by Bergmann, Murray, and Rea) p.114

Is penal substitutionary atonement something new?

It is unfortunately all too common to hear some critics of PSA suggest it is a doctrine which only extends as far back as the Reformers or, at the very earliest, Anselm of Canterbury (c.1033-1109). Oxford theologian Alister McGrath suggests the origin of this myth can be traced back to a book called Christus Victor by Gustaf Aulen in 1930:

“In a brief and very compressed account of the history of theories of the atonement, Aulen argued that this highly dramatic “classic” theory (Christus Victor) had dominated Christianity until the Middle Ages, when more abstract legal theories began to gain ground. The situation was reversed through Martin Luther, who reintroduced the theme. However, the scholastic concerns of Protestant orthodoxy led to its being relegated once more to the background. Aulen argued that this approach could no longer be allowed to be the victim of historical circumstances; it demanded a full and proper hearing.

Historically, Aulen’s case was soon found to be wanting. Its claims to be treated as the “classic” theory of the atonement had been overstated. It was indeed an important component of the general patristic understanding of the nature and mode of procurance of salvation; nevertheless, if any theory could justly lay claim to the title of “the classic theory of the atonement,” it would be the notion of redemption through unity with Christ.”

Alister McGrath Historical Theology (1998) p.286,7

Many have already shown how long and illustrious the tradition of penal substitutionary atonement is so I will merely cite sources you could look up to investigate this ridiculous claim. Chapter 5 ‘Surveying the Heritage: the historical pedigree of penal substitution’ from the book Pierced for our Transgressions by Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach is the thesis you need to refute in order to suggest that PSA is a recent doctrinal development. [2]

Penal substitutionary atonement is usually held alongside other motifs

Those who suggest that PSA ought to be dropped often appear to suggest that there can only be one primary understanding of the cross or they suggest that proponents of PSA hold it to the exclusion of other motifs. This is clearly not the case. Again here are some examples just from what I can find on my bookshelf:

“Of course the idea that Jesus died in the place of sinners, bearing the punishment of God’s wrath due to them on account of their rebellion, is not the only thing the Bible teaches about the crucifixion. We find also, for example, that the cross was the means by which Jesus triumphed over evil powers (Col.2:15), that it offers and inspiring example to those who suffer unjustly (1 Peter 2:21-23), and that it brings about a decisive end to our old life of sin, that we might live as new people (Rom.6:6). The biblical portrayal of the atonement has many facets.”

Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, Andrew Sach Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution (2007) p.33

N.T. Wright has said:

“I want all of the theories of Atonement because I think that they all ultimately do fit together, but if you just take one of them, say Penal Substitution, and take it out of its biblical context, the danger then is that you do just have a picture of God as a sort of bullying headmaster who because the rest of the class have been bad he picks on his own son and he beats him up and says, ‘Well that’ll do.’ And I dread to think that there are some Christians who really think that that’s what the story is like.” [3]

Both Stott and Ladd also make it clear there are other motifs:

“…Gustav Aulen was right to draw the church’s attention to the cross as victory, and to show that by his death Jesus saved us not only from sin and guilt, but from death and the devil, in fact all evil powers, as well.”

John Stott The Cross of Christ (1986) p.229

“Full recognition of the propitiatory, substitutionary character of the death of Christ must not permit us to overlook or to underemphasize the companion teaching that the death of Christ as a demonstration of divine love is designed to kindle a loving response in the hearts of human beings.”

George Eldon Ladd A Theology of the New Testament (Revised 1994 Edition) p.473,4

Even Don Carson, who sees PSA as a more important theme than the others, does not deny other models:

“With all due respect to those who insist that penal substitution is just one gospel metaphor of many, propitiation is in fact what holds together all the other biblical ways of talking about the cross.”

Don Carson Scandalous p.67

Christian philosopher John Hare, in the context of talking about understanding Jesus’ death as a sacrifice, notes:

“This is only one of the pictures presented in the New Testament. Colin Gunton stresses that the various pictures are required to supplement each other, and no one of them should be taken in isolation. Nonetheless, he thinks sacrifice is “the very centre of the doctrine of the atonement.” “

John Hare Forgiveness, Justification, and Reconciliation in The Wisdom of the Christian Faith edited by Paul Moser and Michael T. McFall p.87

Those who hold to PSA frequently make it clear that it can, and ought, to be held alongside other understandings which arise when considering what the full understanding of the cross. If there are proponents of PSA out there who hold that PSA is the only way in which the cross can be understood I’ve never read them. Who are they exactly and where do they say it? Until that evidence is provided this appears to be a criticism based on a myth.

Biblical justification for penal substitutionary atonement

When N.T. Wright makes it clear on video (as he has done in his writings also) [4] that he does hold to PSA he suggests the most obvious places to begin finding it in the New Testament are Galatians 3:13; Romans 8:1-4:

“Paul says that God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus Christ. That is penal because it’s condemnation, it is substitutionary because what happened there in the flesh of Jesus Christ means that therefore there is now no condemnation… Romans 8:1-4 really says it all…”

Wright has felt the need to make it clear since some have suggested that Wright does not hold to PSA. This is a rather stunning misrepresentation since he has made it clear in his writings he does. Wright has said:

“No clearer statement is found in Paul, or indeed anywhere else in all early Christian literature, of the early Christian belief that what happened on the cross was the judicial punishment of sin. Taken in conjunction with [Romans] 8:1 and the whole argument of the passage, not to mention the partial parallels in 2 Cor. 5:21 and Gal. 3:13, it is clear that Paul intends to say that in Jesus’ death the damnation that sin deserved was meted out fully and finally, so that sinners over whose heads that condemnation had hung might be liberated from this threat once and for all.”

N.T. Wright The Letter to the Romans NIB 10:574,5

No wonder then that Michael Bird exclaims:

“How can one read this statement by Wright and then say, as I heard one “theologian” declare on a weekly podcast show, that N.T. Wright does not know “what to do with the cross”? That simply baffles me.”

Michael Bird Evangelical Theology p.406

Hare writes:

“We must be careful, it is true, not to impute to God’s justice what is true only of interhuman affairs, but the idea of separation from God, and so death in various forms, as consequence and punishment for what we do and are against God, is both deeply embedded in Scripture and part of a typical Christian conception of divine justice.”

John Hare Forgiveness, Justification, and Reconciliation in The Wisdom of the Christian Faith edited by Paul Moser and Michael T. McFall p.90,1

The New Testament scholar Leon Morris begins his discussion on this topic by saying:

“Repeatedly Paul says that Christ died for sin and that he died for men. For the first point let us notice that He was ‘delivered up for our trespasses’ (Rom.4:25), that He ‘died for our sins’ (1 Cor.15:3), that He ‘gave himself up for our sins’ (Gal.1:4), that ‘the death that he died, he died unto sin once for all’ (Rom.6:10), that God sent Him ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin’ (Rom.8:4).”

Leon Morris The Cross in the New Testament (1976) p.217

“If Jesus allowed himself to be crucified at Passover time subsequently to instituting the eucharist, he inevitably proclaimed in the contemporary culture an understanding of it in this kind. I conclude that the claim of many New Testament books, that Jesus ‘died for our sins’, originated in the teachings of Jesus.”

Richard Swinburne Was Jesus God? p.107

The first third of Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach’s book is an extended look at the biblical justification for finding PSA in the Bible and is such a strong case I would highly recommend it for anyone who doubts. [5]

Conclusion

One of the biggest problems for those rejecting PSA, for those who take the Bible seriously, is what do do with the biblical narrative of salvation. From the fall of Adam and Eve, the covenants God makes with man, the Exodus, the Law, the Tabernacle, the sacrificial system, the judges, the Exile, the Prophets, the teachings of Jesus, and right up to the writings of Paul the problem is what to make of the fact that the Bible portrays God as angry at sin and requiring a punishment for it. For myself, I cannot see how someone can take the Bible seriously and yet attempt to lose the doctrine of PSA.

What I do hope is that critics of PSA will take more time and care to understand the doctrine they are claiming to disagree with. Too often it appears to be the case that they don’t bother and instead attack a straw man their opponents simply do not hold to. I think the genuine doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is a beautiful doctrine without which one will struggle to make sense of the biblical narrative and the very character of God.

As Alvin Plantinga says, in the context of a propitiatory understanding of the cross:

“This story of atonement is the greatest story ever told, indeed, the greatest story that could be told…”

Alvin Plantinga Comments on ‘Satanic Verses: Moral Chaos in Holy Writ’ (in Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham edited by Bergmann, Murray, and Rea) p.112

“Amazing love! How can it be

That thou, my God, should’st die for me?”

Charles Wesley’s And can it be

———————-

[1] Here is Christian theologian Greg Boyd doing just that:

Boyd does not like the idea of there being violence at the centerpiece of God’s plan of redemption. But I don’t see how rejecting penal substitution solves that fact. The violence is still there if you reject PSA but now you have the even bigger problem that Jesus didn’t really need to die for our sins in any legal sense. So now the violence appears to be far more arbitrary and unnecessary. Does God really need to die in that fashion to demonstrate his love for us? Could he not have chosen some other equally valid ways?

Then Boyd attempts to discredit the idea merely because pagans had some primitive intuition about this (and he calls it a “demonic intuition”). But this is merely an attempt to discredit an idea by associating it with some group we would otherwise disagree with in order to attempt to make it less attractive and that is not a sound argument to make. Just because Nazis had an interest in ancient archaeology does not make doing ancient archaeology demonic. This is just mud slinging. Also he cites the example of ancient people’s sacrificing children to the gods to appease them but this is a practice which those who hold to PSA firmly disagree with since Scripture is so clear on it being wrong. The PSA model is not suggesting anyone but God himself can be such a sacrifice for sin.

Boyd is just horribly wrong when he asserts that if the PSA intuition is right then the intuition that children should be sacrificed to the gods is also right. This is just grossly mistaken and highly illogical as an argument. That’s akin to arguing that if I advocate for voluntary organ donations I must therefore advocate involuntary organ removals from unwilling (or unknowing) victims as the logical outworkings of my view on voluntary organ donation. That is, frankly, an absurd inference. I have a lot of time for Boyd but that ‘argument’ was just horrible. I think it’s because he was making a quick rant of a video rather than a carefully considered argument.

[2] Penal Substitution In The Writings Of The Church Fathers

Chapter 5 ‘Surveying the Heritage: the historical pedigree of penal substitution’ of Pierced for our Transgressions by Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach.

N.T Wright (though not agreeing with everything in the book still) says:

“…it firmly and decisively knocks on the head an old canard which is repeated yet again in a letter in the Church Times (20 April 2007, p. 13): that ‘penal substitution’ was invented by Anselm and developed by Calvin, and that it excludes and even contradicts other ideas, not least the ‘Christus Victor’ theme. Over against this, J, O and S offer a catena of passages from Justin Martyr, Eusebius of Caesarea, Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, Gelasius of Cyzicus, Gregory the Great, and Thomas Aquinas.”

The Christian philosopher John Hare also makes note of this in his paper Forgiveness, Justification, and Reconciliation (in The Wisdom of the Christian Faith ed. Moser and McFall) pp.77-96.

See also: Stott’s The Cross of Christ Chapter 5 ‘Satisfaction for sin’.

[3]

[4] See: N.T. Wright on Penal Substitution and The Cross and the Caricatures by Tom Wright.

Philosopher Richard Swinburne on the need for objectivity in theories of the atonement:

[5] They begin in the Old Testament with an extended look at the meaning of the passover, the Day of Atonement, and the sacrificial system of Leviticus. A strong case is made for the Hebrew term kipper taking the meaning of ‘averting God’s wrath’ in many places (eg. Numbers 16 and 25). They then proceed to find the concept in the Psalms and the Prophets. They offer a substantial interaction with the Servant Songs in Isaiah and offer critical replies to those who have attempted to claim that PSA cannot be found in Isaiah. They also explain the New Testament use of Isaiah and how it is applied to Jesus. They then turn their focus to the gospels and make a specific study of Mark and John. They then address the writings of Paul and Peter.

This Old Testament background understanding of propitiation for sins is crucial for understanding this doctrine.

Old Testament scholar, Willem VanGemeren notes:

“The death of Christ is a part of the gospel message. Jesus ‘died for our sins’ in fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrifices and priestly system (Rom. 3:24-26;8:3). His death satisfied the wrath of God, evoked by our sinful condition (Rom. 5:9). The death of the Christ was thus victorious; he died for us rather than for himself (Gal. 3:13; Eph. 5:2; 1 Thess. 5:10; Heb. 9:11-10:18). The death of Christ was foreshadowed by the expiatory offerings in the Old Testament (the sin and guilt offering) and is efficacious for salvation and sanctification (13:10-13).

Jesus fully identified with the human condition in his incarnation in that he took God’s judgement of sinners on himself (Gal. 3:13). In his death for others he, as the last Adam, represented the human family so that he in his life might bring the benefits of his substitutionary death to all who are in him (Rom. 5:12-6:14).

The effect of Christ’s sacrifice is nothing less than what God had promised to his Old Testament people: covering of the sin, forgiveness, and cleansing. In the Old Testament the priestly system, the regulations of holiness and purity, and the sacrificial system foreshadowed the death of the Christ. The Old Testament people of God truly experienced forgiveness, cleansing, and the joy of their salvation because the wrath of God was propitiated in anticipation of the final work of our Lord.”

 Willem VanGemeren The Progress of Redemption: From Creation to the New Jerusalem (1988) p.405

 

 

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Getting the arguments for God wrong

It’s pretty hard to find too many professional philosophers who mock the traditional arguments for the existence of God even when they disagree with them. I would suggest part of the reason for this is because they, very often, know there are various forms of these arguments and they are aware of responses theists have offered to possible criticisms. Having said that there are some atheist philosophers who have not done sufficient homework in philosophy of religion and yet attempt to interact with the arguments while getting them wrong.

What I intend to compile here are a few misrepresentations of arguments for the existence of God that exist in modern atheistic literature. Since many atheists themselves now consider Dawkins and other New Atheists to be an easy target (and admit they get the arguments wrong quite openly) I will therefore restrict myself to professional philosophers who are atheists since most of them tend to avoid New Atheism. Having said that I am going to begin with the one glaring anomaly to that generalization.

(I’m going to keep adding examples as I find them so if you know of any not documented here please let me know and, if I agree it’s a misrepresentation, I will add it.)

breakingthespell

1. Daniel Dennett‘s Breaking the Spell:

Dennett only manages six pages on arguments for the existence of God in a book which is over four-hundred pages long in total. Brevity is okay if you can manage to explain complex arguments succinctly. Unfortunately Dennett cannot when it comes to philosophy of religion.

On the cosmological argument he says:

“The Cosmological Argument, which in its simplest form states that since everything must have a cause the universe must have a cause – namely, God – doesn’t stay simple for long.”

Students doing philosophy of religion at A-level standard (pre-undergraduate degree standard in the UK) might be excused for such a poor rendering of the argument but, even then, they’re not going to score too highly either! Of course, if any theist had argued that “everything” must have a cause they would be arguing against the existence of God! Fortunately for theism and unfortunately for Dennett, theists have not used this argument.

Notice this interesting caveat at the end of his, less than half a page, critique:

“Unless you have a taste for mathematics and theoretical physics on the one hand, or the niceties of scholastic logic on the other, you are not apt to find any of this compelling, or even fathomable.”

Daniel Dennett Breaking the Spell p.242 [1]

I don’t understand it therefore it’s wrong! Well, it almost sounds like it.

Dennett avoids directly misrepresenting the ontological argument but his treatment goes no further than pointing to Gaunilo’s objection (although modified from an island to an ice-cream sundae) but, of course, he does not mention any of the many responses made to Gaunilo’s objection. The most famous modern philosopher who has contended for the veracity of the ontological argument (Alvin Plantinga) is, not surprisingly, completely ignored. [2]

00097aec_medium2. Robin Le Poidevin‘s Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion

Le Poidevin begins his discussion on the cosmological argument like this:

“In this chapter we shall look at three versions of the cosmological argument. The first I shall call the basic cosmological argument, because the other two are modifications of it. It goes as follows:

The basic cosmological argument

1. Anything that exists has a cause of its existence.

2. Nothing can be the cause of its own existence.

3. The universe exists.

Therefore: The universe has a cause of its existence which lies outside the universe.”

Le Poidevin then immediately admits this:

“Although no-one has defended a cosmological argument of precisely this form, it provides a useful stepping-stone to the other, more sophisticated, versions.”

Le Poidevin Arguing for Atheism p.4

Although Le Poidevin goes on to discuss, what he calls, the temporal cosmological argument (similar to the Kalam but not quite the same) and the modal cosmological argument it’s most curious he begins with a form of the argument which, as he admits, no theist has ever defended. It’s also very disappointing that he does not explore the most discussed form of the argument in modern times (the Kalam) and yet he gives a page of discussion to a form of the argument no theist has ever defended. Odd to say the least.

The God Argument3. Anthony Grayling‘s The God Argument:

Even though Massimo Pigliucci considers the British Humanist philosopher Anthony Grayling to be outside of the New Atheist movement, it certainly appears he shares their zeal for getting theistic arguments horribly wrong. Grayling is a top level philosopher who sits on the editorial boards for numerous philosophical journals and who has lectured in philosophy for many years.

Having said that, listen to him introduce the moral argument (or course – those of you well read in philosophy of religion know there are many versions of this argument):

“What of the moral argument for the existence of a deity? Stated at its simplest, it is that there can be no morality unless there is a deity. Put a little more fully, the argument in effect says that there can be no moral code unless it is laid down, policed, punished and rewarded by a deity… Or, alternatively put again: because god is so nice, we should be nice to each other.”

“The argument that there can be no morality unless policed by a deity is refuted by the existence of good atheists.” [Emphasis mine.] 

Anthony Grayling The God Argument p.103f (kindle ed.)

I didn’t notice it until putting these two quotes side by side but notice how both Dennett and Grayling are keen to talk about the “simplest” versions of the arguments! The only problem is that these ‘simple’ versions are incorrect versions. [3] If I were reading this account of the moral argument for an A-level paper I would conclude the student was, at best, very confused about the argument, and at worst was making it up as they went along. This is, by far, one of the worst accounts of the moral argument I’ve ever read. How can it be that A-level students can understand this argument better than Anthony Grayling? I am yet to work that one out but I think this is a reason why one ought not be worried to hear that some professional philosophers are not impressed by arguments for the existence of God because there is evidence some of them don’t know them very well and/or they cannot describe them correctly.

730484. In her book 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (apt subtitle) philosopher Rebecca Goldstein makes a hash of a good number of the arguments. She proposes a cosmological argument like this:

1. Everything that exists must have a cause.

2. The universe must have a cause (from 1).

3. Nothing can be the cause of itself.

4. The universe cannot be the cause of itself (from 3).

5. Something outside the universe must have caused the universe (from 2 and 4).

6. God is the only thing outside the universe.

7. God caused the universe (from 5 and 6).

8. God exists.

Since I’ve already commented on that first premise when referencing Dennett I’ll let William Lane Craig respond to the rest:

What’s funny is that Goldstein proceeds to point out two “flaws” in this conglomeration of statements masquerading as the cosmological argument. She doesn’t even pause to note that it’s not only logically invalid, but question-begging, since (8) follows from (6) alone, so that all the remaining premisses are just window-dressing. This straw man argument has never been defended by any philosopher in the history of thought.”

William Lane Craig 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: Goldstein on the Cosmological Argument [4]

Given that professional atheist philosophers appear to sometimes be out of their depth doing philosophy of religion in a technically correct fashion it ought not to be surprising that we find these arguments to be horribly wrong in works by atheist authors who have done little or no philosophy at all.

Examples like these suggest that Quentin Smith’s warning to atheist philosophers (that they are not keeping up with technical philosophy of religion well enough to be considered formally competent in the subject) about how well they are able to engage in the subject of philosophy of religion (written some 20 years ago now) has not been given the attention it deserves.

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[1] See also this incredibly painful video interview where the Guardian’s religion writer Andrew Brown takes Dennett to the woodshed in just 5 minutes.

[2] See God, Freedom and Evil.

[3] I have more on how poor Grayling’s interaction is with the moral argument in my post Why I like the moral argument for God.

[4] 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: Goldstein on the Cosmological Argument

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‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 5.4: “What if God told you…?”

At the end of my last post on this book analysis series I commented on Boghossian’s rather bizarre redefinition of the word ‘delusion’ and suggested that his usage of the word, together with his non-standard definition of ‘faith’, cannot possibly be seen as helpful in the context of religious and non-religious people having meaningful conversations.

The rest of chapter 4 (‘Interventions and Strategies’) is really just basic advice on how to have good conversations with people. It ranges from basic commonsense principles most people would already agree with (“express empathy” Loc.1450) right through to the downright patronizing (people who are unwilling to change their views despite a SE ‘intervention’ should be regarded as “precontemplative” Loc.1476 or, in a more honest and less politically correct moment, “denial” Loc.1495). Notice that this is evidence of what William Lane Craig has noticed about Boghossian’s project. He is NOT just attacking people’s ideas – he is also attacking THEM. To claim a person is in denial about something is to attack them as a person as having some personality disorder. It is important to notice this because Boghossian often insists he is not interested in attacking people.

image175

In this post I am going to focus on a conversation Boghossian describes right at the end of the chapter. It is called, “Intervention 2: Kill all left-handed people.”

Boghossian tells a story of how he ended up in a church as he was picking up a friend’s daughter from choir practice and how he targeted a young man in his early twenties while waiting for the practice to finish. After discussing a few other matters Boghossian asks him if God still speaks to people today and the young man affirms his belief that God still does. So Boghossian asks:

“Let’s say that God told you to kill all left-handed people and…”

He gets interrupted as the young man tells him God would not ask him to do that but Boghossian insists that the young man goes with him in his thought experiment. Again he insists that the young man think about a scenario where he became completely and utterly convinced that God had spoken to him and told him to order all left-handed people to be killed and what he would do. Again the young man replies by saying that God would not tell him to do that but Boghossian keeps pressing for a response to this hypothetical scenario by pointing out that God asked Abraham to kill his son in the Old Testament.

Here his Christian interlocutor made a mistake. His mistake was in thinking that God could possibly give this type of command in the part of the Christian narrative we currently find ourselves in. So he tells Boghossian that if he knew for certain that the command came from God then he would do it. (Boghossian then attempts to make the young man feel uncomfortable about admitting this as it conflicts with how he feels about killing people.)

Even if we change the genre of the killing to something more akin to some Old Testament commands (instead of killing left handed people (since that is a bit random) let’s change it to people of some extreme religious view which could undermine Christianity and lead people away from God) that command simply does not fit with where the Christian moral story currently is. [1] There were reasons for the conquests in the Old Testament (the importance of Judah’s line bringing about the Messiah) which simply don’t exist after Jesus has lived and fulfilled his mission. This is why Jesus informs his disciples that the Old Testament law is fulfilled in him. This is why he insists that the time has come in the narrative to love one’s enemies and to pray for those who curse you.

So Boghossian’s question essentially becomes:

“What if God asked you to do something it’s impossible for the God of Christianity to ask you to do?”

The question becomes virtually meaningless [2] and it’s why the young Christian man should have stayed with his initial response to Boghossian instead of getting brow-beaten into answering the question the way he ended up doing.

Any ‘vision’ or ‘experience’ any Christian (or any person for that matter) has which contradicts the moral teachings of Jesus cannot be from God. This is the essence of what it is to be a Christian. Christians believe that God’s fullest expression of what we should do is found in the teachings of Jesus. Therefore, if I had such an experience, I would have to conclude I was deceived.

Toward the end of this intervention the young man asks Boghossian what his point is and he replies:

“I don’t really have a point. I’m just trying to figure out the limits of your faith. It seems to me that your faith is limitless.”

Given everything Boghossian has said about interventions up to this point in his book it’s very hard to believe he is being sincere when he claims he’s not making a point! Notice that as far as he tells us, he did not tell the young man that he was the subject in an intervention. He rather deceives him by making it sound like he’s just thinking on the spot out loud. He finishes by saying to the young man:

“I’m not sure how you or anyone else could ever be certain that God is talking to you. Just because someone is positive that God speaks to them doesn’t mean that God actually spoke to them. They could be mistaken. And just because you feel that Jesus is the Son of God, I’m not sure that you could ever be certain about that either. You could always be mistaken, maybe even delusional. Maybe it’s an idea that’s germinated and developed in you because of our culture and the way our brains work.” [Loc1624]

Notice what Boghossian is up to here. Remember that his aim is to reduce the confidence theists have in the things they believe (again – another thing he does not admit he’s doing to the young man he’s talking to). He considers an intervention successful if a theist who is a 1.5 (on the Dawkins 1-7 scale of belief) reduces their confidence down to a 1.6. But the tool Boghossian is employing to lower the person’s confidence is nothing less than hyperbolic scepticism. This is the ‘going nuclear’ tactic I have complained about before. [3] The reason this is going nuclear is because Boghossian is merely asking if it’s at all possible in the slightest that someone could be wrong on the basis that the brain is not functioning correctly. But this argument could easily be flipped and used on Boghossian in reverse. I could, just as easily, ask Boghossian if his belief in not killing people could possibly be wrong on the basis that it’s merely logically possible that his brain isn’t functioning correctly (or that all human brains function incorrectly systemically). Surely Boghossian would have to confess that it’s possible that the brain (or human brains in general) is not functioning aright (after all, since the problem is in the brain how would he possibly know). But should a sceptical argument like that really be seen as a challenge to the view that I should not kill people? I think it would be difficult to find too many philosophers who would think that’s a particularly strong argument for revising our moral convictions. Notice that it’s not an argument against any specific Christian belief but rather an argument about the possibility of knowing anything at all and therefore applies as much to Boghossian’s moral convictions as any theistic moral conviction. The only difference is that the atheist might just have a harder time suggesting they have good beliefs for thinking the human mind is rational when compared to a theists reasons for thinking it is. [4]

I hope this post helps you think about how you ought to answer a “What if God…” question if you are a Christian. Thanks for continuing with me in ploughing our way through Boghossian’s book. I hope you find some of it useful.

c3c2c0574977f973f10ed7767727930cb1c28b6a1393f2edba8394afc247ceb1

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[1] Here is a very good lecture by Christian scholar Peter Williams in which he talks, in part, about what God can and cannot command. This is vitally important if one is going to attempt to internally critique Christian morality and yet Boghossian appears to have missed this very important point.

[2] I say ‘virtually’ since some atheist philosophers (eg. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong) have attempted to create a problem for Christian divine command theory by raising, what Walls and Baggett call, an ‘extended arbitrariness objection’. But since this objection is based on a nonstandard semantics for counterfactuals it looks like a pretty lame argument. For reasons why see ‘Appendix A’ in Good God: The theistic foundations of morality by David Baggett and Jerry Walls.

[3] ‘Going nuclear’ is a term for people who want to doubt something and therefore decide to doubt everything (hence the metaphor). See Boghossian goes nuclear!

[4] See Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict really lies.

 

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Is Peter Boghossian pretending to know what he does not know?

I have already taken issue with Peter Boghossian’s misuse of the word faith but given some of his recent comments on the Phil Vischer show I think it’s worth showing once more how badly he misunderstands Christianity.

Start by watching @11:42 – 17:20 (the discussion on ‘faith’ goes on to about half an hour into the programme):

Boghossian here attempts to draw a serious semantic divide between the word ‘trust’ and the word ‘faith’ even though most dictionary definitions of ‘faith’ will use the word ‘trust’! Vischer attempts to suggest to Boghossian that he ought to take into account how words are actually being used and Boghossian insists he is.

As evidence for his contention Boghossian suggests that preachers who openly admit they admit that they don’t really believe what they preach are evidence for his definition. But this is just an obvious category error. Just because there exist some people who pretend to be religious when they are not obviously does not mean that all religious people are in that same category. Just because some religious people might use the word ‘faith’ to mean blind faith does not mean that all religious people use the word this way. That is as absurd as suggesting that all atheists are communists because some atheists are communists or that all atheists are affirming the non-existence of God because some atheists affirm the non-existence of God (as opposed to merely defining atheism as a lack of belief in God)!

When Boghossian tries to make a huge difference in meaning between the word faith when applied to a friend and when applied to one’s religious beliefs he is now using the word in a different way than most Christians are using the word and yet, rather than admit that, Boghossian insists that his definition is the one which gets to be right. Boghossian does not cite any Christian philosophers at all in support of his view. [1]

If you listen to the rest of the conversation on the word faith Vischer and Boghossian end up having to agree to disagree on what the word means to them. But this completely supports my contention that Boghossian is setting up a linguistic barrier to serious discussions between atheists and theists by using the word in a different way and attempting to impose that meaning on his opponent.

In other words, half an hour of discussion time is wasted only for Boghossian to have to admit they will have to agree to disagree on the meaning of the word INSTEAD of actually analyzing and discussing what Christians really mean by the word. That is as ridiculous as me insisting that when atheists use the word ‘reason’ what they mean is philosophical rationalism (as in the epistemology after that name) and then demanding that they defend philosophical rationalism for the first half an hour of my discussion with them only then to concede we’re using the word in two different ways.

How Boghossian cannot see this is beyond me!

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[1] In his book he attempts to do so and I have shown that he cherry picks and is, unfortunately, guilty of misrepresenting people in doing so here in part 3.1.

Posted in Atheist apologists, Faith, New Atheism | Tagged | 6 Comments