Dialogue w Atheist on Jesus, Demons, Pigs, & Animal Rights

Dialogue w Atheist on Jesus, Demons, Pigs, & Animal Rights July 5, 2018

The words of Jim Scott and Jim Dailey (fellow Catholics) will be in blue and green, respectively. Words of atheist “Grimlock” will be in purple. See the entire original exchange (that got into some other topics as well). I may edit and rearrange a bit for the sake of levity and back-and-forth “dialogical flow”.

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This [one of my papers on atheist “exegesis”] reminds me of when I was a freshman at college and my Philosophy professor gave us the essay “Why I am not a Christian” by Bertrand Russell and Russell actually argues against Jesus being a moral being for “killing a fig tree for no good reason” and “for killing herd of pigs by casting out demons”. On the latter my professor said “Well couldn’t he have just sent the demons into the Abyss? Why did he have to harm the pigs?” So I responded “It’s heads you win tail Jesus loses. If he sent the demons into the Abyss after they begged him to sent them into the pigs Russell would say “What a cruel jerk Jesus was to those poor Demons! Why didn’t they just sent them into the pigs?”

Also traditional theology tells us neither fig trees nor pigs have souls, so who cares what happens to them? We discussed the ethics of vivisecting animals for pure science in college so what is wrong with saving two men from being tormented (the two possessed men) at the expense of a bunch of dumb animals? Not to mention my professor was “pro-choice” so he didn’t care if a baby is stabbed in the back of the head to have his or her’s brains sucked out, but Jesus allows demons to kill a few pigs to save two men then that make Jesus the monster? Give me a break!

Out of curiosity, do you also agree with Jim when he says, “traditional theology tells us neither fig trees nor pigs have souls so who cares what happens to them?”

Christian theology holds that only human beings have souls.

Interesting. And a bit surprising. I’ve generally found Christians to be quite concerned with animal well-being.

Yes, Christians love animals. That has zero relation to whether they have souls or not.

Glad to hear that you don’t accept the leap from “no soul” to “not caring what happens to them”.

The two options were quite clear:

1) By casting the demons into the pigs, and then killing the pigs Jesus was bad towards the pigs (both by killing them and by putting demons into them). This badness seems redundant for an omnipotent being. 

2) Jesus would in some way have been bad if he hadn’t thrown the demons into the pigs.

But what I’m unconvinced of, and challenging, is that (2) is a position that Russell would have taken. I suspect it’s founded on the assumption that Russell had already decided to find Jesus to be morally deficient. But that’s hardly a justified position.

Now, thinking about it, . . . it’s a case where two contradictory observations or options lead to the same outcome. But consider:

1*) Jesus was bad towards the pigs.
2*) Jesus was bad to the demons.

These options are not contradictory. It could, for instance, be that Jesus was bad to both the pigs and demons. (We should perhaps skip the discussion of whether demons are morally responsible for their nature.)

It should be noted that none of this actually disputes Russell’s point, though Russell himself considers it a relatively minor matter.

Edit: I think the options can be construed as contradictory, but the only way I could think of to do so would be something along the lines of this: 2′) Jesus was bad by not letting the demons inhabit the pigs, which presumably are bad towards the pigs. But then you’d need to claim that Russell would indeed consider this a morally deficient act, which seems implausible.

Well, first off, Jesus gave the demons what they begged for. Secondly, Jesus didn’t kill the pigs. The demons inhabiting the pigs drove them into the lake.

It’s like you’re unwilling to concede that putting demons into innocent animals, and plausibly causing their death, are worthy of criticism.

As to the pigs — no I am not willing to concede that the pigs’ existence is of greater value than the people’s existence. I actually think it is pretty silly of Russell to argue this. You do realize that several hundred animals are sacrificed in the development of any pharmaceutical treatment – yes?

As for putting animals lives ahead of humans, clearly that’s not what I asked. Casting out the demons directly would have the same result as casting them into the pigs and then do their death. (Which it seems is how Russell interprets this story.) Thus the suffering of the pigs had no purpose, and included gratuitous suffering.

What we’re getting at is that the truly problematic position is holding that neither animals nor human beings have souls, so that both are equally of value. That’s why secularists and atheists and Christians who reject their own traditional moral teaching favor childkilling, up to and including nine-month-old babies, while at the same time favoring strict rules against killing snail darters, cutting down old trees, or harming the nests of rare birds.

So in the end, that’s not even equality, because they put the value of those living things above the value of human life. Christians do precisely the opposite: holding that human beings are inherently of infinite value, because we have souls and are made in the image of God. Value isn’t based on relative scarcity or abundance.

Is Grimlock also a vegetarian, since he is so concerned about killing animals? Even if one is a vegan, they still eat organic materials, which are alive, and under these crazy notions that “all living things are equal” and ought not be killed. St. Augustine made the same reductio that I did, 1600 years ago:

And so some attempt to extend this command even to beasts and cattle, as if it forbade us to take life from any creature. But if so, why not extend it also to the plants, and all that is rooted in and nourished by the earth? For though this class of creatures have no sensation, yet they also are said to live, and consequently they can die; and therefore, if violence be done them, can be killed. . . . Must we therefore reckon it a breaking of this commandment, “You shall not kill,” to pull a flower? Are we thus insanely to countenance the foolish error of the Manichæans? Putting aside, then, these ravings, if, when we say, “You shall not kill,” we do not understand this of the plants, since they have no sensation, nor of the irrational animals that fly, swim, walk, or creep, since they are dissociated from us by their want of reason, and are therefore by the just appointment of the Creator subjected to us to kill or keep alive for our own uses; if so, then it remains that we understand that commandment simply of man. (City of God i, 20)

Russell was an anti-Christian bigot. I read his History of Western Philosophy years ago. In it, he argued that St. Thomas Aquinas was not a true or good or consistent philosopher, because no Christian possibly could be.

Everyone has axioms and tenets before they even get to philosophical inquiry. There is no clean slate. This is the sort of positivism / hyper-empiricism / scientism that was disposed of 60 years ago: notably by Michael Polanyi.

Saying that serious Christians can’t truly be philosophers or consistent philosophers or good philosophers is as stupid as saying that we can’t be true or consistent or good scientists, when in fact Christians or theists founded at least 115 scientific fields.

If that’s what you’re getting at, you’re apparently getting at it by arguing an entirely different point. (Namely that Russell, and many atheists in general, tend to have decided to find something blameworthy beforehand.)

Why don’t you answer my direct question?: “[Are you] a vegetarian, since [you are] so concerned about killing animals? Even if one is a vegan, they still eat organic materials, which are alive, and under these crazy notions that ‘all living things are equal’ and ought not be killed.”

The question you posed is built on a framework with which I don’t identify. For instance, I don’t hold that all living things are equally valuable. Also, I’ve been discussing gratuitous animal suffering, and Russell’s argument, as well as what I perceive to be uncharitable and unreasonable assertions about that. I haven’t really elaborated on my own view of morality, but it seems you made some erroneous assumptions about it.

I take it that now it’s my turn to ask a question, and insist that it’s answered. Is gratuitous animal suffering morally bad? (Note that this is not necessarily quite the same as saying whether you love animals.)

Yes. I argued that years ago in my discussions about animal rights and vegetarianism. In fact, I distinctly remember asserting it over 30 years ago. Of course, that all hinges on what is “gratuitous animal suffering” . . .

You still haven’t said whether you are a vegetarian. You act like it’s a “do you still beat your wife?” sort of question. [smiles]

What about preborn children? Are their lives more valuable than rare bird eggs or 500-year-old trees (and hence, worthy of being protected in and by law)? How do you determine value?

Jim started all this by noting that Bertrand Russell thought Jesus was immoral because of sending demons into the swine (pigs) and cursing the fig tree. It’s utterly obvious that we would (and should) retort by inquiring if a human being before it is born is more valuable than a fig tree or a pig. Jim already brought up this outrageous inconsistency in many atheists and otherwise “pro-choice” folks, too. If he or she is more valuable than those things, then obviously one who holds such a position could not be in favor of the wanton butchering of these little boys and girls.

If that’s not immediately granted, we must ask by what criteria a reluctance or outright unwillingness to do so is based.

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Sounds like Russell suffers from the anthropomorphic fallacy. It’s too bad Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel wasn’t alive then to set him straight. . . . I have no reason to believe animal suffering is in anyway equivalent to human. Russell is projecting human cognitive experience onto animals. If I may put forth the following analogy: in his mind he is imagining what would happen if Jesus cast the demons into a bunch of mentally handicapped children in pig form. That is how he sees it and it is wrong. Animals are not human.

Also if Jesus sent the demons into the abyss Russell would kvetch he is just being merciless to them by ignoring their request.

It doesn’t rely on animal suffering being equivalent to human suffering. All that’s required is that gratuitous animal suffering is bad. But it seems you don’t think so?

It’s “bad” for the planet Jupiter to have its atmospheric surface defaced by comets that strike it. But it is the nature of a material world that things compete with other things for their own perfection at the expense of those other things. God could have made a world where this did not happen (God is not obligated to make any world at all, by the way) but it would not be a material world. 

It is bad for the animal but it is not morally significant. God is not a moral agent in the first place so Russell is channeling his anti-theist personalist polemics that we classic theists roll our eyes at because they are non-starters.

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Good about the animal suffering thing. I’m sure we could have rather a long discussion on the issue, though I suspect a more interesting discussion – at least for your Catholic readers – would be a discussion between you and Jim the Scott on that subject. My impression is that you might have some disagreement there, and I for one would be curious to see if that is indeed the case.

Anyhow, yes, I did interpret the question of whether I’m a vegetarian to be tied into the erroneous assumptions you made about my moral framework. Indeed, that it was intended to reveal an inconsistency between my view of morality and my behaviour. In that regard I can assure you that there are indeed many instances of such inconsistencies. Mostly small ones, but still. . . . 

Socratic questioning (which I am very fond of) need not be premised upon definite presumptions about opponents’ particular positions. It is inquiring, while at the same time, probing into possible inconsistencies. Suspicions are not certainties. You seek to avoid it by simply ignoring questions, blowing them off, or attributing nefarious motivations to me for asking. It’s all to be expected. Socrates himself was — you’ll recall — a rather unpopular person, who wound up being hounded to death.

A) Your assertion that I seek to avoid answering questions is false. If you wish to challenging this, I encourage you to argue where, specifically, I have behaved in an unreasonable manner to avoid answering questions.

1. You avoided my simple question about vegetarianism several times, then finally answered (thanks!).

2. Me: “What about preborn children? Are their lives more valuable than rare bird eggs or 500-year-old trees (and hence, worthy of being protected in and by law)? How do you determine value?” You expressly refuse to answer the first question and you have not answered the second question either. In stark contrast to your reluctance, you wrote: “I take it that now it’s my turn to ask a question, and insist that it’s answered. Is gratuitous animal suffering morally bad?” I answered in literally three minutes: “Yes.”

B) The question about vegetarianism was clearly placed in the context of the assumptions you made about my view on morality, and since those assumptions were erroneous, I still find it reasonable to consider the question of vegetarianism to be misplaced. 

I already refuted this charge by writing above: “Socratic questioning (which I am very fond of) need not be premised upon definite presumptions about opponents’ particular positions. It is inquiring, while at the same time, probing into possible inconsistencies. Suspicions are not certainties.”

C) The Socratic method – which you have mentioned that you enjoy previously – has as a goal to identify inconsistencies, so me assuming that to be your intent is hardly attributing you “nefarious” motivations, as it is simply assuming that you’re being consistent.

This is already answered by my above statement, too. Your claim is that I made assumptions about your views, when in fact, I only suspected those views and assumed nothing (which is consistent with socratic method). You insinuate that I am deliberately mischaracterizing your views or assuming them without evidence or proof. Both charges are false. And that’s why I used the phrase “nefarious motivations” because it is accurate, as to your claim about me with regard to my understanding of your opinions or possible ones.

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Vegetarianism impacts many factors. One is the environmental aspects (which has rather enormous consequences), another is that it’s integrated in our culture and drastic changes would cause social upheaval which impacts the well-being (e.g. livelihood) of, well, lots of people. Then there’s the suffering of animals, though the treatment of animals does vary quite a bit from country to country. Of course, then there are challenges to getting the required proteins and such on a diet without meat. My current thinking is inclined towards vegetarianism being the most moral choice, though I do not technically fit the bill of being a vegetarian. (I have no idea how it is over there, but here there’s a rather common tendency of trying to decrease the amount of meat being consumed. This is especially noticeable in my social circles.) . . . 

You touch on abortion multiple times. You’ll notice that I haven’t written anything specifically about that, and the reason for that is that I don’t think we will be able to have a constructive dialogue on the subject. I will say that I think the way you tied it into Russell’s condemnation of gratuitous animal suffering is flawed, but elaborating would bring us further into the abortion debate than I’m willing to go.

It is disappointing that you refuse to answer simple questions, since you expect me to answer ones involving the most excruciatingly minute distinctions imaginable.

If you won’t answer questions in the interest of probing, inquisitive dialogue, then again, we will not do very well in dialogue. We already have vastly different styles.

Yes, we have different styles. I still don’t know whether you actually mean what you say from time to time, for instance, and as seen above, you have actually gone as far as to refuse to state whether you are being genuine or engaging in “rhetorical exaggeration” or some such. This is obviously problematic, as it is challenging to dialogue with someone when it is unclear what their actual position is.

I will refuse to clarify when I believe my intent and “genre” are utterly obvious. If you don’t perceive what to me is self-evident, then it’s another sign that attempted dialogue between us is futile, either due to my alleged obtuseness and difficult argumentative style or your difficulty in understanding it (or both). Either way, dialogue will be quite difficult, because I use humor a lot (especially the reductio ad absurdum).

It may possibly be, however, that you (like my oldest — 27-year-old — son) have the condition of Asperger’s Syndrome: one of the classic symptoms of which is having a hard time recognizing non-literal utterances, including humorous ones. One article on the topic stated:

. . . inability to understand social/emotional issues or nonliteral phrases . . . Another common symptom is an inability to understand the intent behind another person’s actions, words and behaviors. So children and adults affected by Asperger syndrome may miss humor and other implications.

If that is the case, dialogue is still possible, but I would have to be aware that this is a factor, and adjust my argument accordingly, just as I do with my son. It’s difficult and frustrating at times on both ends, but we manage. Since this issue about humor and sarcasm has come up more than once, I thought it might be a possibility that this factor is in play.

P.S. I’m pretty sure that I did clarify in the last instance where you inquired whether I was rhetorically exaggerating, but it would be too much work to look all that up now. This is my own recollection: that I made some clear indication that it was one thing rather than the other.

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I will assume, by reasonable guesses (since you won’t answer) that you believe in the right to life of pigs, but not that of preborn human beings (which implies differential views of the value of each). I think that is outrageous, if it is true. It was brought up as an instance of reductio ad absurdum, which is always intended to challenge and provoke a person to more closely examine their own position for plausibility and consistency.

I encourage you to reread my previous comment, as the reasonableness of your guesses does not hold when my stated view on morality is taken into account. As noted, an absurdity that arises from a view of morality that I do not hold does not bother me much.

Well, we don’t know for sure what your view on abortion is, since you won’t say. On the other hand, it’s reasonable to assume that you favor its legality (though perhaps not necessarily its goodness or desirability), since if you did not, it’s likely that you would have no qualms about saying so (since it would be a welcome area of agreement between us). Abortion remains fundamental to my reply on this topic, since it is my analogy and reductio, used to show that your position is untenable (and indeed, outrageous, if I am correct in my guesses, as to the views you refuse to reveal).

Furthermore, I stated in my previous comment that I do not intend to discuss abortion with you, because I have good reasons to expect such a dialogue would be anything but constructive. I respect your wishes when you don’t wish to discuss a subject, and I expect you to do the same.

I respect your wishes, but of course this means that the discussion is over between us on this topic, because what I think is fundamental in the discussion, to unpack premises and scrutinize them, you refuse (which may be for good reason, I grant) to talk about. I want to make sure at least that my readers understand this, so I keep pressing the point.

If atheists and agnostics want to talk about the rights of pigs and fig trees, and indeed, to make these points ones with which they will (rather absurdly) accuse Jesus Christ of immorality, you can be sure that we will bring up their views of the right to life of human beings. It’s perfectly relevant to the overall discussion (indeed, I would say it is central, since animal rights from an atheist perspective would also include human rights, since for them we are but one more animal, and not essentially different).

As I mentioned, your attempt at reducing my position to an absurdity falls flat on its face when your representation of my position is false. Your later speculations show no signs of improving upon this.

Your attempt (strained, as I noted before) to bring up abortion when Russell criticizes Jesus’ behaviour strikes me as a clear case of whataboutism, where you simply choose to attack Russell without actually dealing with his argument. As near as I can tell, all responses in this thread to the criticism looks like someone flailing about and dodging the issue.

Except for yours, of course, which are unfailingly cogent, consistent, on-topic, always responsive, wise as a sage, and sublimely moral . . .

Abortion IS precisely dealing with the argument that cursing a fig tree and sending demons into pigs are supposedly immoral actions. If you don’t know why it’s relevant (after I painstakingly explained it), then you (for whatever reason) can’t follow reductio or analogical arguments. And that would be about reason #17 why our dialogues have not been particularly fruitful (no pun intended).

You could easily abstain from talking about abortion (because few are able to do so) while at the same time refraining from the silly (and in myb opinion, an evasive and “low blow”) claim that my bringing it up is off-topic. I wasn’t even the first one to bring it up. Jim Scott did 13 days ago. And the relevance then was just as great as when I reiterated it.

You would not be alone, of course, in not grasping the logical connections (if indeed that is the case, as it seems to me to be). I use both forms of argument regularly, and they are regularly misunderstood by Christians and atheists alike. I will still use them (God help me!) because 1) I love them, and 2) they are very effective arguments, and cut to the quick.

[Grimlock then made a shorter response followed by a very long one. I replied (exasperated): “I think our ability to dialogue is just about exhausted. This is the second-to-last nail in the coffin. One more like this and I’ll give up.”]

“Redcross Knight”: a Catholic, made a remark in partial defense of Grimlock. I replied:

1. I don’t agree with Jim on every jot and tittle of his argument and never insinuated that I did. I’m much more interested in certain (and different) aspects of the discussion than he appears to be (esp., the “animal rights” aspect). And this is to be expected of those who seek to think through issues.

2. I also haven’t engaged Russell himself, or claimed to do so. I merely stated that he was bigoted against Christianity and Christians, having read his History of Western Philosophy many years ago; and I stand by that.

3. I have interacted with Grimlock at length and have answered his questions. He has studiously avoided (either totally or repeatedly and at length finally answering) several of my socratic questions. Our interaction (and also his with Jim) is compiled in a new dialogue [i.e., this one].

4. I deny that he has been treated unfairly. He’s been taking only thinly veiled potshots at myself and at least two others. If there is blame (I’m not sure there is), there is surely enough to go around and make it a wash. I do think, however, that it is at least arguable that Jim has not sufficiently interacted with aspects of Grimlock’s comments; particularly about gratuitous animal suffering (at least in terms of where Grimlock wanted the discussion to go).

5. Abortion is quite relevant to the discussion in three ways (as I have largely explained in the thread):

a) The discussion (at the level of fundamental premise or assumed presuppositions) inevitably involves consideration of animal rights and determination of the value of different living things. I asked Grimlock how he determines this value, and he has not explained his criteria to me. Abortion (I think, very clearly and obviously) ties into this, because it is a question of human rights, analogous to animal rights.

It’s arguably even more relevant under Grimlock’s premises than our own, because the atheist generally doesn’t draw an essential distinction between animals and human beings. There is no stark contrast, as in our view (“made in God’s image” / rational soul vs. no rational soul). Therefore, if pig “rights” and fig tree “rights” are being discussed, it’s perfectly natural and relevant that we would also bring up human rights (of those most defenseless and presently most attacked).

I can’t possibly completely ignore gratuitous (and to me, indefensible) human suffering in a discussion concerning the proposed gratuitous suffering of non-human life. Thus, for me, to ignore abortion is to make any discussion of gratuitous suffering of sentient beings impossible. It would involve an impossible double standard.

b) by analogical argument (which was my intention, as later explained).

c) as related to a reductio ad absurdum (which was also my intention, as later explained).

If Grimlock charges that Jim hasn’t interacted with the aspect of gratuitous suffering, I can just as easily say that Grimlock has ignored my socratic line of reasoning. I don’t see how one is worse than the other, all things considered (so again, it’s a wash). Grimlock says he has reasons to believe that any discussion of abortion whatsoever wouldn’t be constructive. Who’s to say that Jim doesn’t feel that way about a discussion of permissible animal suffering? Goose and gander . . .

In any event, his refusal to answer my questions (which to me are crucial to take the discussion to the next stage) have shut down our own interaction.

Folks didn’t like Socrates when he was alive, and they don’t like the approach and method he used, when adopted by people today. Nothing has changed.

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Photo credit: The Swine Driven into the Sea, by James Tissot (1836-1902) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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