Strange Idols and Strange Identities

In Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, Elizabeth Scalia has a simple definition of an idol. In the decalogue, we are warned by God to have no other/foreign/strange gods before Him.  So, in our modern age, Scalia points out, our idols are less likely to be something like, say a giant golden calf that give burt offerings, and more likely to be letting Reddit usurp our prayer time.  An idol doesn’t have to be worshiped to impose itself between us and God.

But what would it be like to face God, with nothing between us and Him?  It’s sounds terrifying, akin to the staring at the sun sect that appears in “The Eye of Apollo” from Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown.  Or maybe it’s like the experience of  Frodo, when he cried out to Sam, “I am naked in the dark, Sam, there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire!  I begin to see it even with my waking eyes.”

The technically-good horror of facing God directly is why I’ve always liked this quotation from Diane Duane’s A Wizard Alone:

“Virtue,” he said. “The real thing. It’s not some kind of cuddly teddy bear you can keep on the shelf until you need a hug. It’s dangerous, which is why it makes people so nervous. Virtue has its own agenda, and believe me, it’s not always yours. The word itself means strength, power. And when it gets loose, you’d better watch out.”

“Something bad might happen…”

“Impossible. But possibly something painful”

I’m someone who tends to take about fifteen to twenty minutes to get into a swimming pool — wading in inch by inch, with copious wincing.  When I was in kindergarten, and got to play on the monkey bars for the first time, I hung from just the first rung and practiced   dangling and swinging back to the platform and getting off.  Once I could do that calmly, I dropped from the first bar about a dozen times until I was sure I falling wasn’t too bad.  My sense of safety depended on my sense of control.  That’s not an option in Catholicism.

I have a wunderkammer of idols, but I notice that a fair amount are an attempt to draw some kind of screen between myself and God or other people (same difference, after all “to love another person is to see the face of God“).  It’s easy to interact as a persona, rather than a person.  Stephen Colbert-in-character is an extreme example, but it’s always tempting to exaggerate flaws and foibles to the point where they’re comical instead of vulnerabilities.

I’ve been trying to be more careful about running jokes and Homeric epithets since I caught myself using one as a crutch.  After seeing The Mikado, I stole one of the phrases (“in my artless Japanese way”) to use as an excuse when I was socially maladroit.  Instead of being callous or careless, I was being amusingly strange.  But it would be better to be sincere, regretful, and have the ability to grow — to not treat that weakness as an essential distinguishing trait.

In the secular world, you see this point made by many disability activists (a person without the use of her legs, not a paraplegic).  In the autistic and Deaf communities, this kind of language becomes controversial precisely because there’s a disagreement about whether their differences are incidental or essential to identity.  We can all stand to be a little more thoughtful about the names and identities we hold on to.  Paul Graham counsels people to “Keep your identity small” and view as few things as possible as inviolate.

The trouble is, the part I should hold on to “adopted daughter of God” is so much vaguer than the identities I’d like to hand on to: New Yorker (with attendant walking and speaking speed), Sondheim nerd, brusque/efficient, bad at small talk, uninterested in physical activities, kludger/engineer, etc.

But if I only hold on to what I can grasp, I’m choosing to remain small and isolated.  To submit to God, I have to be ok with not having mastery.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Control is the hardest thing in the world to give up. Once you do however- and once you master St. Mary’s Magnificat example- you end up with more responsibility and control than you ever thought you could handle.

  • grok87

    “The trouble is, the part I should hold on to “adopted daughter of God” is so much vaguer than the identities I’d like to hand on to: New Yorker (with attendant walking and speaking speed), Sondheim nerd, brusque/efficient, bad at small talk, uninterested in physical activities, kludger/engineer, etc.”

    Yes I see what you mean, it seems vague to me sometimes too.

    It may help to remember that Jesus was himself firstly a disciple, of John the Baptist. Today’s gospel from Mark 11 refers to this:

    http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/060113.cfm

    .. the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders approached him and said to him,
    “By what authority are you doing these things? Or who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I shall ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was John’s baptism of heavenly or of human origin? Answer me.” They discussed this among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘Of heavenly origin,’ he will say, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘Of human origin’?”– they feared the crowd, for they all thought John really was a prophet. So they said to Jesus in reply, “We do not know.” Then Jesus said to them, “Neither shall I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

    It may help perhaps, to flesh out our identity as Christians, to identify not just as disciples of Christ but as followers of a specific saint or saints with whom we identify. That’s one of the reasons i think the cult of the Saints is so important in Catholicism. If I recall you had previously expressed a desire to study Augustine- there was a passage of his in this past Wednesday’s office of reading that you may have missed.

    http://divineoffice.org/?date=20130529

    “Where did I find you, that I came to know you?…”

  • Ray

    “The trouble is, the part I should hold on to “adopted daughter of God”
    is so much vaguer than the identities I’d like to hand on to: New Yorker
    (with attendant walking and speaking speed), Sondheim nerd,
    brusque/efficient, bad at small talk, uninterested in physical
    activities, kludger/engineer, etc.”

    If you think “adopted daughter of God” is a small identity you have missed the point of Paul Graham’s essay entirely. You may be a New Yorker and I may be a Bostonian, with neither of us building an identity around a lie. (Well, unless your identity as a New Yorker causes you to adopt a metaphysics where the Yankees do not in fact suck. If that’s the case there is no help for you.)

    To give a more clear cut example, this live and let live attitude will not work with an Austrian and a Keynesian economist. If the gold standard does not provide price stability, then the only identity the Austrian will have is as a purveyor of falsehood. The same goes for the Keynesian if fiscal stimulus proves less effective than Keynesian models predict. (For the record, I’m pretty sure the Keynesians are right about this one, but as I am not a working economist, there’s no point in staking my identity, or even my reputation on such an issue.) If an economic model is inaccurate, it remains so, no matter who espouses it. Same with a religious cosmology.

    Who are you really, if you build the core of your identity as the adopted daughter of God, and reality refuses to cooperate by providing you such a deity?

    • KG

      I don’t think Leah is saying live and let live, though. Based on what I’ve read, she’d agree that there’s an objective truth that she’s either gotten right or wrong as a result of her conversion. But as you point out, the important question to ask is whether reality is cooperating or not. I think we all agree that talking about “God” or “deity” is too vague, though. The religious claims in question are far more specific than that.

      • Ray

        Agreed. Leah is not quite advocating for live and let live, but something weaker — peaceful disagreement, and something stronger as well — taking the opposing argument seriously. The problem is that if your identity contains an inherent falsehood (e.g.The gold standard leads to price stability, God exists, the Yankees do not suck,) then being shown wrong is akin to personal death. It’s very hard to peacefully disagree with someone, while taking their arguments seriously, if those arguments, when taken seriously are a mortal threat.

        Now I don’t think Leah is really in as deep trouble as all that, but I think the more she subsumes her identity to a controversial claim like the existence of God, the harder it’s going to be to agree both productively and peacefully.

        • KG

          We are clearly of similar mind on this topic. But I must once again suggest that we avoid saying it’s “the existence of God” that’s in question, because that could mean so many things (or so few things). This is one of my pet peeves with theological discussion – the blurring of the line between God as an ill-defined, abstract concept and the specific manifestations of God (Christ, Trinity, etc) that humans have claimed to interact with, and who influence the physical world with miraculous events.

          This is why I find it odd that Leah is complaining about the vagueness of her chosen identity. As theologies go, Catholicism is rather specific.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Universalism is specific? Just to translate the greek into the latin for a second.

          • KG

            I’m not quite sure what your message is here, but I’ll try to clarify my point.

            People are often overwhelmed by a sense of wonder of the physical world, its beauty and natural order, its elegance, and its remarkable suitability for beings such as ourselves.

            We desire that our life have meaning, that our actions matter in some sense greater than ourselves, that morality be something more than a matter of mere opinion, that justice is a real and useful concept.

            We recognize that there are mysteries of our minds and consciousness that do not fit nicely into our limited understanding of the universe, and perhaps never will.

            I think that these feelings are all necessary to Catholicism. They are far from sufficient. This is my point about specificity. Even self-proclaimed atheists can share in these feelings, along with members of nearly any religious creed.

            I object to the rhetorical trick of jumping immediately from this conception of God to that of the Christian one without doing the heavy lifting to make this transition inevitable. I see this happen ubiquitously, not necessarily by Ted Seeber, but by other apologists. The best debates I’ve had so far about Christianity have centered on the historical evidence for the divinity of Christ and the miracles attributed to him. That seems like the most useful place to keep the conversation. Otherwise, we are referencing just about anything, which is to say almost nothing.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            I was more pointing out the literal definition of the word “Catholic”. When you understand the literal definition, you understand that the miracles and incarnation are just the starting point. A very important starting point to be sure, but they are the tip of the iceberg. Catholicism is best seen as a meta culture, with EVERYTHING else inside of it. Katholikos, universal.

            If you focus only on the incarnation, you will miss so much else; the Inquisition bringing justice where before there was vigilantism, the Saints, the slow empirical discovery of morality.

            The reason the heavy lifting isn’t inevitable is because you are viewing the question completely backwards. If you want reason, look to the Church first, and work your way back in time to Christ. It is all a logical whole, so consistent that it makes science look like a new-age cult.

          • disqus_iTutIvyyo0

            The etymology of “Catholic” no more prevents Catholicism from being very specific (in the sense meant by KG, or in fact any other) than the etymology of “Orthodox” prevents one of the Eastern Orthodox churches being wrong about something, or than the etymology of “science” prevents some of the things some scientists think they know actually being wrong.

            In any case, the greater the scope of Catholicism (in the sort of way you’re describing), the more “specific” it is in KG’s sense. The sort of greater scope that would make it less “specific” would be if it embraced (e.g.) unitarianism, or polytheism, or atheism.

    • Randy Gritter

      Many great men and women have not just been Catholic but made Catholicism the center of their identity. If you are right then people like Mother Teresa and John Paul II wasted their lives because they clearly put Catholicism at the very center. Same with Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and Dante and so many others. It ends up just making you more sure Catholicism is true.

      But what makes you most sure is when it works for you. When you put Catholicism in the center of your person and it makes you better. You find you are more comfortable in your own skin. You are a more powerful force for good. You have greater joy and bring more joy to those around you. You can see God has transformed you in a way your own efforts never could. Much more deeply and much more beautifully than you imagined possible. Then you know God is real.

      • Ray

        Randy

        You say: “Many great men and women have not just been Catholic but made Catholicism the center of their identity…It ends up just making you more sure Catholicism is true.”

        This definitely doesn’t work. I could quibble about the centrality of Catholicism to the identity of some of your examples, and I could quibble about the greatness of some of the others, but I think the best way to show that your list cannot prove Catholicism to be correct, is simply to provide a similar list of plausibly great figures who may just as plausibly be thought to have defined themselves by ideologies that are incompatible with Catholicism:

        Lucretius, Porphyry, Maimonides, Spinoza, Al Ghazali, Martin Luther King, Margaret Sanger, Sartre, Gandhi, etc.

        • Randy Gritter

          You can quibble. I can quibble. Was what made MLK or Ghandi great really incompatible with Catholicism? I don’t see it. Sure they didn’t embrace all of it but what they did they were willing to pay any price for. Sartre and Sanger seem to prove my point as well. Is that really the best you can do? They would be so much greater if they were Catholic.

          You were the one making the point that the falsity of Catholicism would ruin the lives of people who built their identity around it. I agree with you. If it is false that should happen. I see the opposite. Those who are fully committed to its truth have done well in every period of history. It is also seems true in the people I know. Those that accept the counter-cultural teachings of the faith and take huge risks based on their faith end up with the awesome lives.

          • KG

            “Sure they didn’t embrace all of it…”

            The stuff they don’t embrace is hugely important! It’s what categorically separates them from Catholicism. How can someone’s life be “compatible” with Catholicism if that individual doesn’t accept, say, any sentence of the Nicene creed?

            The assumption here seems to be that Catholicism owns all notions of good works. Your argument seems to imply that you can be a firmly committed Jew, Hindu, or atheist, but if you’re acting in accordance with e.g. the Golden Rule, you’re actually a secret Catholic and just don’t know it yet (please let me know if I’m putting unfair words in your mouth).

            Good works are necessary to Catholicism, but not sufficient. Catholic figures may have worked, along with non-Catholics, to place an emphasis on good works in society, but that doesn’t automatically validate all church dogma. If, as I understand it, faith in the miraculous events described in the Gospels is *also* necessary to Catholicism, then it seems unfair for the church to take credit for the virtuous lives of people who reject those miraculous accounts.

          • Erick

            Your argument seems to imply that you can be a firmly committed Jew, Hindu, or atheist, but if you’re acting in accordance with e.g. the Golden Rule, you’re actually a secret Catholic and just don’t know it yet

            KG, please clarify this point for me, because you seem to be conflating “Faith” with some sort of mental assent?
            Catholic “faith” is not defined as mere mental assent, but instead is defined as acting according to the Truth handed down to us.
            I think Randy is quite correct in saying that Gandhi acted according to the Truth as given us by Jesus. It doesn’t matter that he wasn’t Catholic in name; his principles were Catholic principles. Catholics do not deny that other groups may have parts of the Truth and can act on them. We only affirm that we have Truth in its entire fullness.

            If, as I understand it, faith in the miraculous events described in the Gospels is *also* necessary to Catholicism

            Objectively, sure this is the case. But subjectively, we have no knowledge.

            Gandhi is popularly quoted as once saying in his life that he liked Christ, but he didn’t like Christians. So perhaps he gets a pass from God for having terrible Christian witness in his lifetime.

            Our job as Catholics is not to judge whether a Hindu like Gandhi acting according to the Truth taught by Jesus is justified enough to reach Heaven without entering the Church. That is for God to judge.

            Our job is to make sure that the Truth is still evident in the world even without Jesus being materially present for all to see.

          • KG

            “…you seem to be conflating ‘faith’ with some sort of mental assent? Catholic ‘faith’ is not defined as mere mental assent, but instead is defined as acting according to the Truth handed down to us. ”

            If faith is defined solely by actions, then why have creeds? Can one be faithful without agreeing to anything contained in those creeds?

          • Erick

            Acting according to the Truth is not at all a statement about “actions” people take, but instead is a statement about internal intention/motivation, which is where God wants to affect change in us.

            Mental assent and creeds are meaningless without right intention. As we are told in the bible, even demons believe in God (in that mental assent function).

            Action with mental assent is still meaningless without right intention. This is one of the lessons of the widow’s offering.

          • KG

            But is it possible to act in accordance with the Truth as you describe without any mental assent to the contents of the creeds?

            ADDED: I think you might have already conceded this point with respect to Gandhi. So it now sounds like you’re saying that the creeds are optional, and atheists are in principle no less capable of “acting in accordance with the Truth” than Catholics. That’s a wonderful point of agreement. Jesus did not necessarily have to be the son of god, but he helped to show us how to live peacefully and lovingly with each other, and that’s what is important.

          • Erick

            But is it possible to act in accordance with the Truth as you describe without any mental assent to the contents of the creeds?

            Yes, of course, just as it is possible for me to act according to German criminal laws by not stealing or murdering, even though I am ignorant to the complete set of German criminal laws.

            Notice, however, that ignorance of the complete set of laws is not a good thing if I was in Germany. Similarly, ignorance of the fullness of Truth is not a good thing since ultimate reality is the Catholic God.

            So it now sounds like you’re saying that the creeds are optional

            NO, the creeds are not optional. What I am saying is that assenting to the creeds are not sufficient.

            atheists are in principle no less capable of “acting in accordance with the Truth” than Catholics

            Certainly, all persons are equally capable. For example, an anti-abortion atheist is certainly closer to Truth than a pro-abortion Catholic. All things being equal though, it is better to be Catholic than to be atheist.

            Jesus did not necessarily have to be the son of god

            You can stick to this claim at your own risk. Something about this conversation tells me you don’t actually understand Catholicism, so I’ll just have to pray for your enlightenment in this case.

            but he helped to show us how to live peacefully and lovingly with each other, and that’s what is important.

            This is a meaningless platitude.

            Do you even know what Jesus meant by peace and love? If you think they have the same sentiments as used in regular, everyday conversation today, you have another thing coming.

          • KG

            My point in reducing faith to platitude, which I absolutely agree I was doing, was to reinforce the separateness of many of the figures Ray mentioned from Catholicism. It seemed like you were weakening the notion of Catholic faith just as much in order to claim someone like Gandhi as an example of someone acting in accordance with Catholicism.

            The creeds weren’t optional, and by not assenting to most of their content, someone like Gandhi seems to be acting on principles well outside of Catholic tradition. This, I think, was Ray’s original point that you disupted: There exist “plausibly great figures who may just as plausibly be thought to have defined themselves by ideologies that are incompatible with Catholicism”

          • Erick

            My point in reducing faith to platitude, which I absolutely agree I was doing, was to reinforce the separateness of many of the figures Ray mentioned from Catholicism.

            Understood, KG. But my point, by correcting your definition of faith is to reinforce the fact that though Ray’s figures are not Catholic, it is not the same thing as saying that their great actions are not Catholic.

            For example, Gandhi and MLK non-violent movements are very Catholic.

            Or to put it in reverse: a Hindu could still rightfully say that Jesus’ model (therefore the Catholic model) of non-violence was in accordance with Hinduism, even though Jesus is not Hindu.

            Or as they say, even the blind squirrel can find the nut.

            The creeds weren’t optional, and by not assenting to most of their content, someone like Gandhi seems to be acting on principles well outside of Catholic tradition.

            All this says is that Gandhi was acting on some principles that are well outside of Catholic tradition. It doesn’t follow that what made Gandhi great were principles that were outside of Catholic principles. Nonviolence and pacifism after all are Catholic principles even if they are not in the creed.

          • KG

            “Or to put it in reverse: a Hindu could still rightfully say that Jesus’ model (therefore the Catholic model) of non-violence was in accordance with Hinduism, even though Jesus is not Hindu”.

            Yes! This is a good point of agreement.

            We both seem to be saying that people can lead great lives even if they do not believe a word of the creeds.

            So the key question that remains is whether the non-Catholics who do so are just blind squirrels finding nuts, as you put it.

            This gets at the heart of the original exchange between Ray and Randy. They were, in a manner of speaking, testing the blind squirrel hypothesis by examining the lives of people who led great lives both inside and outside of Catholic tradition.

            If the blind squirrel hypothesis were true, you wouldn’t expect to be able to find as many examples of people who led great lives outside of Catholicism. But plenty of them exist, in many cases following traditions that predate Catholicism. It therefore seems to me that your evidence for blind squirrels is weak.

          • Erick

            If the blind squirrel hypothesis were true, you wouldn’t expect to be able to find as many examples of people who led great lives outside of Catholicism.

            How so? The blind squirrel hypothesis makes no predictions on the total success rate of the blind squirrel. The only prediction it makes is that it is easier for seeing squirrels to be successful.
            Now, it may be that there should be more successful seeing squirrels than successful blind squirrels, but it does not follow that successful blind squirrels be rare or few.

          • Randy Gritter

            What is more, Catholicism claims the squirrels are not totally blind. They do have access to some of the means of grace. So they can discern some truth about God. A lot depends on how they react to such truth. If they do the best they can considering their degree of blindness then you should not be surprised to see them achieve great things. So there is hope for atheists. They would still do better if they were Catholics but a good atheist is more pleasing to God than a bad Catholic.

          • KG

            This might be as far as we can go on this topic. The claim that all good works ultimately flow from Catholic principles is impossible to debate because you’ve chosen the definition of “good” such that this is a tautology.

            It is encouraging to see the extent to which both Catholic and non-Catholic definitions of good can overlap. This is evident in our discussion about the lives of the people Ray listed.

            We are left with a world in which Catholics and non-Catholics both seek to do good, according to their slightly different conceptions of what is good, in the best ways they can. This is less of a relativist position than it sounds because of the large degree of overlap. (But I’m very much aware that the points of dispute, such as the debates over homosexual relations and contraception, prevent the situation from being all rosy).

            All the while, Catholics will view the nonbelievers as blind, and nonbelievers will view the Catholics as overly self-assured. My main objection remains to this self-assurance, which is tied to the interpretation of the accounts of the life of Jesus. I personally am not *sure* that he was a non-divine human man, but I find it highly likely to be the case. If and when the evidence shows up to convince me otherwise, I’ll act accordingly. Until then, I will continue to ask other people who at one point in time shared my views, such as Leah, how exactly they came to change their mind on the divinity of Jesus.

          • Randy Gritter

            I shall pray for you KG. Thanks for being open to Jesus. BTW, Catholics don’t see non-believers as blind so much as not knowing where they get their notion of goodness from. Like you say, there is a lot of overlap. The differences are the modern diversions. Homosexuality and contraception are relatively recent issues. The church has not changed on them. Society has. If you believe right remains right and wrong remains wrong then it is most reasonable to believe it is society that has erred.

          • KG

            Perhaps, as a favor for the sake of my soul, Randy and Erick could help me convince Leah to write a post in which she explicitly lays out the reasoning that took her from general agreement with many Catholic moral teachings (but certainly not with all of them!) to the decision that miracles such as the virgin birth and resurrection must have occurred? I can’t guarantee that my mind will be changed, but it will go a long way toward helping me understand Catholicism. Consider it charity?

          • Randy Gritter

            I am not sure that would be convincing. Leah’s conversion is personal. She has shared some of the thoughts leading up to it but deep down something in her heart said Yes. I am thinking it might not be rational but more mystical and therefore she might not want to share it. Sometimes rational people like me can be almost embarrassed when a decision is driven by deeply felt desires that are not irrational but not driven by logic either. In some strange way the sheer beauty of Catholicism can be convincing but you don’t want to give it as an argument.

            From there it is quite easy to get to the virgin birth and the resurrection. If it is true then it is all true. I believe the virgin birth because Catholic tradition says it is true. It is not inherently implausible. God can do anything. Why would He do this? That is something to ponder. But the fact of it is known because the church says it and God prevents the church from teaching falsehood on such matters.

            The resurrection? Leah has indicated it is the same way for her. I find the resurrection as something that builds my faith as opposed to the virgin birth which is something that requires faith to believe. I find accounts of history that deny the resurrection to be implausible and incoherent. Leah has said the opposite.

          • KG

            Randy, thanks for the thoughtful response here. I understand that Leah’s conversion is personal, and of course she has the right to keep any or all details about it private. But here is why I feel justified in asking more detail:

            1) She operates a blog on faith with her picture at the top devoted to, among other things, theological debate

            2) She works publicly for an organization called Center for Applied Rationality. On the front page of its website it says it exists to “…turn mathematical and empirical insights about the human mind into everyday skills, for making accurate predictions, avoiding self-deception, and geting your motivation where your arithmetic says it should be”

            Given that, I would expect that she would feel compelled to put forth a rational argument for the acceptance of miracles that is implicit in her conversion, or at least be interested in discussing why such rational argument doesn’t apply.

          • Randy Gritter

            The question here is not whether God gets the credit for all the good works in the world. I think He does but that is not my point.

            The question I am addressing is what would you expect if Catholicism were true vs what would you expect if Catholicism were false. If Catholicism were true I would expect some people to find great joy and great power in teachings similar to Catholicism. I would expect those who embraced the fullness of those teachings would have the greatest joy and the greatest power.

            Conversely, if Catholicism was false, as Jake points out, we should see very talented men and women have their lives ruined because they trusted in a God that does not actually exists. Those that rebelled against the church should have great success. I would even suggest if Catholicism were false you would not expect the church to exist at all. You would not expect religion to be much of a thing today. It should be as popular as the flat earth society.

            So what do we see? Well, I see a ton of impressive people who have Catholicism in the center of their lives. I see them in history. I see them on the world stage. I see them in my life.

          • Jake

            Would that Ray and I were the same person :)

          • TerryC

            “The assumption here seems to be that Catholicism owns all notions of good works.”

            Well actually yes. That is actually the teaching of the Church. The Catholic Church holds the full deposit of Truth. Other denominations and individuals contain truth in so far as they agree with the Church.

            “The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as “a
            preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.(CCC 843)

  • Cam

    “Adopted daughter of God”

    Tell me, what kind of father drowns his children?

    • Anonymous

      You do realize that baptism is the analog of death in Christian theology, right? This particular complain pretty hilariously misses the mark.

    • Suburbanbanshee

      I bet you play videogames and read novels, but have no problem with characters being killed by their creator.

      And I bet you don’t expect anyone to drop into your house and start haranguing you, yet that seems to be your current activity towards others. What you’ve just posted isn’t an argument so much as ringing a doorbell, shouting a slogan, and running away.

      • Cam

        In Christianity and Judaism, the people god massacred weren’t fictional characters, they were real people who existed- they had lives, families, hopes, etc. Unless you’re saying the bible is a work of fiction?

        • branemrys

          Well, if you’re talking about the Conquest narratives, it’s been known for quite some time that they use standard tropes from genre conventions which are recognizable in other Middle Eastern conquest narratives; and that they are stylized semilegendary accounts of historical events is only controversial among some fundamentalist groups — and not even all of those. It takes a lot of training for historians to write accounts of events that don’t slip easily from bare fact to legend-stylized fact, and it is difficult even so; it would be naive to look at any complex historical narrative and classify it wholesale as fact or fiction.

          I find the underlying principle of the argument somewhat odd, though. Everyone dies, a fact due to natural set-up, and they are all real people who who have lives, families, hopes, etc.; so the argument really seems to be little more than a complaint that everyone is not immortal.

          • Randy Gritter

            You need to be careful here. It is OK to believe that the historical narratives had limited accuracy. That does not allow Christians to simply throw out the bits they don’t like as obviously inaccurate. It is the word of God. It accurately portrays what God seeks to portray. God did chose a people for Himself and used raw power to free them from slavery and give them a land flowing with milk and honey. Did He kill some people in the process? Sure.

            Your second paragraph is right on. People accept suffering and death as a theory but when they get faced with the reality of what it looks like they go back on it. Death is ugly. It is wrong. When you look at it close up and see how people die it is downright sickening.

          • branemrys

            There is actually no need to be careful here, or at least any more careful than anywhere else. Ancient historians in any culture are not doing historical scholarship in our sense; this is true even of truly excellent historians, like Thucydides: they stylize events according to conventions, use legends that convey a relevant point, create speeches to sum up events, etc. Many of these practices are descended from oral culture practices: they are history-preserving concessions. We have our own, although we are much pickier than ancient cultures were about them, when we’re actually doing serious historical work (we are not, however, any pickier in everyday practice). Accuracy of the report is simply not an issue here, because accuracy of anything can only be measured in terms of independent evidence applied when the reports being considered are properly understood. You can’t talk about accuracy or inaccuracy until after you’ve determined the appropriate interpretation. Nobody thinks that when a sports headline says, “Bucks Slaughter Bears,” that it’s inaccurate if there wasn’t a literal bloodbath on the field; this is because it’s part of the genre conventions of sports reporting, and thus, taking those conventions into account, can be understood to convey accurately what happened. Such conventions may introduce inaccuracies, but they don’t guarantee them; and it could well be that any inaccuracy is simply in one’s interpretation, because it fails to take into account the conventions of the genre. Our difficulty with ancient authors is that we often have to rediscover the genre conventions.

            Because of this, there’s no arbitrariness here. We have other Middle Eastern conquest narratives. We can precisely identify many of the genre conventions that are being used, although we have to be careful not to assume that we’ve recognized them all. A number of these conventions are so generic that there is no way to give any precise account of events on the basis of them, because their point is not to talk about how many people were actually killed, but to talk about the superiority of one’s gods over other gods. (The conquest narratives in the Bible do not play this up as much as one might expect, although it’s there; the conquest narrative is being adapted to tell a story that is less about the glory of kings and their gods than about the election and distinction of the people of Israel.)

          • Randy Gritter

            I get this, but using it to get around a text that explicitly says God ordered the Israelites to kill every man woman and child in a city, that still seems to assume too much. That is that the genre angle covers what is problematic. Either you nullify the text by assuming it covers everything that is in any way remarkable about the text or you have to argue that this particular detail is one they would not be expected to get right.

            But this is not just any historical narrative. It is one that focuses on the role of God. It should get the commands of God right and the heart of God right. Beyond that you have the role of the Holy Spirit in the writing of scripture. He makes sure that scripture is written in the manner God wants it written. What are we to learn from these books?

            Is He trying to teach us that we should not trust what is in scripture? I don’t think so. I think He is trying to teach us that He has worked through human history calling man to an ever increasing level of morality.

          • branemrys

            There’s no “getting around” the text here, nor is there any nullification — you are assuming you know what the interpretation of the text is already, but you cannot possibly know what a text means if you ignore relevant genre conventions. No matter what the text apparently says, if someone is reading a parable as if it weren’t a parable, or Deuteronomy in a way that ignores the fact that it has the elements of a standard Middle Eastern suzerainty treaty for establishing a viceroy or royal representative, or Joshua in a way recognizing what it shares with typical conquest narratives declaring the superiority of one’s gods, or that Proverbs shares a number of genre conventions with Egyptian wisdom literature, then they cannot pretend that their reading is somehow what the text ‘explicitly’ says: their ‘explicit’ text is a different text from the one that is actually there. This is clear even on a very small level, which are easy to find: sometimes numbers are more symbolic than literal (all the sevens and forties to indicate complete periods of time), or cases in which someone is called the firstborn son even though they aren’t literally firstborn, or the differently arranged narratives of the gospels, which literally seem to be chronological but are often thematic. We have to treat figures of speech as figures of speech. Genre conventions are just figures of speech writ large. The only thing that ends being assuming too much is pretending we can know what a story is explicitly saying when we don’t even pay attention to what kind of story it is.

          • Randy Gritter

            It seems like you are the one who already knows what the text means. You can make arguments from what kind of literature it is. I don’t hear you doing that. You are just saying we need to think about it from this angle and jumping to the conclusion that it makes the problem go away.

            We should compare Joshua with other conquest narratives of the time. We should see how it is different and how it is similar. I have heard it is more liturgical. That it talks more about mistakes Joshua made. That the role of God in the narrative is quite a bit more complex. Interesting analysis to be sure. I do have a lot of trouble seeing how this helps at all in explaining why God gave commands to kill entire people groups.

            Even if you say the whole text is fiction you still have a problem because it is fiction that depicts God a certain way and that depiction is part of the bible. I actually would have more issues with God giving such a command in a parable than in an actual historical situation. History is always messier than parables.

            The problems with just leaving the Canaanites in Israel would have been huge, religiously, politically, economically, etc. God gave the land to His chosen people. He is God. He can do that. In the Old Covenant people were not spiritually strong enough to stand up to that kind of evil in their midst. So Israel has to be set apart.

            Jesus brought a better covenant. Today we expect to live as Christians in the middle of anti-Christians people groups. That is why such a command is so revolting to us today. It should be. It should also make us marvel at how much grace God has given us that we don’t have to separate ourselves anymore. That we can be holy in the middle of any evil.

          • branemrys

            Randy,

            There are obvious reasons why I am not dumping complicated research and arguments about Middle Eastern parallels into the middle of a comments thread. Further, you are making very specific objections to these claims, and all I am doing is pointing out that these objections involve specific assumptions about what the text says that are precisely under dispute — you are assuming again, for instance, that the commands given are intended to be literal commands to kill entire people groups rather than simply standard genre conventions, figures of speech. It is entirely possible that they are not, although we find similar kinds of locutions in other conquest narratives that do indicate that this was at least sometimes taken as a figure of speech indicating the mightiness of the god and the favoredness of the king. We are not arguing about how the text is to be interpreted, simpliciter; we are arguing about whether you can assume that the text is telling us these things literally and without any figure of speech or reliance on genre conventions that would have been recognizable at the time, and my point is that your arguments keep assuming that this is the only way it could be read. Nobody thinks that when God says that Israelites should circumcise their hearts (if I recall correctly the Hebrew word is actually ‘kidneys’) that he is giving them the command to take a scalpel and perform surgery, because we all recognize it as a figure of speech; but genre conventions, although more complex structures than figures of speech, work in very much the same way. And just as we should not read a text while ignoring the question of whether something might not be a figure of speech, we should not read it without asking ourselves whether something might not be a standardized genre convention rather than something to be taken literally.

          • Randy Gritter

            I do find it very hard not to take these commands literally. That does not mean I take everything literally. You seem to keep making that assumption. The logic of the commands is not simply that God is mighty. It is that the Canaanites need to be gone. That the Israelites are not supposed to live alongside the Canaanites but the Israelites are supposed to take full possession not just for the short term but for future generations as well. The threat to kill everyone accomplishes that. They would understand that if they survive the battle they must leave and never come back. Often when a city was invaded the inhabitants would run to the hills for a time and then sneak back into the city after a while. God did not want that happening. He wanted to make clear that to stay meant death. We can confirm this because when the Israelites don’t obey this command it is given as an explanation as to why this people group still exists in Israel.

            I do think the command is also figurative. The church fathers point this out. That the heathen peoples represented sin and the Israelites represented grace. That we need to get rid of sin completely and mercilessly. Don’t leave anything alive. Don’t make any peace treaties. Kill it all.

          • Cam

            Whether an account of a genocide is exaggerated or not isn’t relevant. The material facts in question are whether it occurred at all, and whether the christian god was responsible. You may personally believe that all the accounts of god massacring, murdering and torturing his ‘children’ are embellished to the point of being utter lies, in which case good for you and good luck reconciling that with the notion that the bible contains only truth, but my comment is directed at those Christians who don’t find any conflict between ‘loving father’ and ‘mass murderer’.

            As to your second paragraph, you seem to be offering some sort of nihilistic defense of murder. Just because everyone eventually dies doesn’t mean that we can’t care when or how it happens, or hold responsible those who bring death about sooner than nature alone would have- ie, murderers. The underlying principle is ‘valuing human life and striving to preserve it’- what exactly is your objection to that?

          • Anonymous

            Could the underlying principle be ‘valuing spiritual life and striving to develop it’?

          • Randy Gritter

            Calling God a murderer is just misunderstanding the problem of murder. Murder is about taking for ourselves control of matters of life and death. That control belongs properly to God. God decides when you and I will die. The notion of what nature alone would have done is meaningless. We all deserve to die because of our sin. God gives us the grace to live for some period. Some of us receive many years. Some just a few. Some make stupid choices and pay with their life. Others make the same dumb choice and do not die. Some make wise choices and die young anyway. That is out lot. We will die and we can do nothing to make ourselves immune from death even for a short time.

            Given that, it is silly to complain about natural disasters where a lot of people die or a war where many are killed. It does not fundamentally change the relationship between God and death.

          • Jake

            Calling God a murderer is just misunderstanding the problem of murder. Murder is about taking for ourselves control of matters of life and death. That control belongs properly to God. God decides when you and I will die

            This is one of the most horrendously immoral positions I’ve ever heard anyone try to back. I usually try to be respectful, but good lord- you’re claiming that not only does the omnipotent overlord have the power to kill us on a whim, he has the moral justification to do so as well. This is the kind of backwards religious thinking that leads people to holy wars. If God has every right to murder people on a whim, then God’s followers- if they truly act in his name- have the same right. I’m sure you have some high minded theological reasoning as to why, in practice, Catholics don’t/won’t/shouldn’t go on a killing spree because God told them to. But guess what? They already have- eight separate times. And let’s not forget Joshua, Abraham, Elisha, Abimelech, David, and all the other Christian heroes who did horrifyingly violent things in the name of your God. And let’s also remember that you’re the one claiming to share a God with them, not the other way around! You hear these stories, and apparently your reaction is “yep, that sounds like my God”?

            The problem of murder is about depriving the other person of their agency. It is in the violation of their right to existence, by virtue of their status as a conscious, thinking, feeling being. It is in the pain and suffering caused to them and their loved ones. It is in the fear that it instills in everyone else that they, too, may be murdered at any moment.

            If the difference between our moralities is that you see humans as pawns to be sacrificed whenever God feels like it without moral consequence, and I see them as conscious beings with a right to existence, then I have never been more confident in my correctness.

            Look, I KNOW you’re not advocating for holy wars, and I KNOW you wouldn’t just be fine if a family member died suddenly. From all indications I’ve seen, you are a normal, empathetic, respectful person. What I can’t figure out is why on earth you’re supporting this as a moral conclusion? Is it because this is a necessary conclusion to Catholicism? Because if so, I expect this would cause Leah to drastically update her priors on whether or not Catholicism is a “truth telling thing”

          • Randy Gritter

            God has a right to kill people on a whim. He does not. He is rational. That is one key difference between Islam and Christianity. They don’t believe God binds Himself with reason. That He can act inconsistent with Himself. Mohammad claimed this when he committed immoral acts. He claimed it was normally immoral but God gave him a free pass. Christianity does not accept that. If what you claim is from God contradicts scripture, sacred tradition, and the magisterium of the church then you must have heard God wrong.

            This is why I take great pains to point out that what God is calling men to is increasing over time. We are called to a higher standard of holiness than Joshua was. Things like polygamy were fine back then but are not fine now. That should be our reaction when we read such passages. That we have come a long way by the grace of God. Not that maybe God is going to tell us to do that tomorrow.

            I do wonder why you are so exercised over the notion that God controls life and death. Who else would control it?

            BTW, your justification of why murder is wrong is very easy to throw out. If you made that argument to someone all they would have to say is “I disagree.” It is just your opinion that a conscious, thinking, feeling being has the right not to be murdered. What if a people group really does need to be eliminated for the good of humanity? Who is to say that situation won’t happen? It all rests on your opinion. That is a thin reed indeed even if you have never been more confident of your correctness.

          • Jake

            God has a right to kill people on a whim. He does not.

            Except when he does. Flip to a random page in the old testament and dollars to donuts, you’ll find an example. Moreover, even if this were true, it still wouldn’t salvage your moral position- replace “God” with “the North Korean government” and this is a clearly absurd claim. What does it even mean to claim the right to do something and then say you can’t do it by definition?

            If it’s not wrong for God to kill people, then why doesn’t he? If it’s not a moral consideration, then give me a reason that God doesn’t kill people that doesn’t ultimately reduce to “because it’s wrong.”

            He claimed it was normally immoral but God gave him a free pass. Christianity does not accept that.

            You mean like Abraham sacrificing Isaac? Or Jephthah sacrificing his daughter? Or the mass genocide and rape of conquered nations? Those thing are all “normally immoral” by any reasonable definition.

            This is why I take great pains to point out that what God is calling men to is increasing over time. We are called to a higher standard of holiness than Joshua was. Things like polygamy were fine back then but are not fine now. That should be our reaction when we read such passages. That we have come a long way by the grace of God

            I have seen you point this out several times. The trouble is that a) this is a deathblow for any sort of claim of a meaningful objective morality, b) you have no justification for thinking that what you currently believe is right, since it will likely be superseded by future revelation, c) this is directly contradictory to your earlier claim that “If what you claim is from God contradicts scripture, sacred tradition, and the magisterium of the church then you must have heard God wrong,” d) this makes no sense if you’re claiming an omnipotent and time-independent God e) there’s no actual reason morality would need to be revealed gradually, and f) this looks suspiciously the exact same as it would look if God did not exist.

            I do wonder why you are so exercised over the notion that God controls life and death.

            I am excised because this is a dangerous belief. I wasn’t kidding earlier- this is exactly the belief that allows radical Muslims to blow up civilian areas. While I do not expect you to do anything of the sort, the proliferation of this idea that anyone has the right to murder needs to be fought wherever we find it. At the very least, this is a warped morality that allows you to stop thinking of other people as human, and think of them instead as God’s property.

            Who else would control it?

            This presupposes a God who is actively maintaining and controlling every single thing that happens. I don’t agree to that claim, but fine, let’s roll with it. Even if God is actively maintaining everything, I suppose we can agree that he’s set up laws that reality follows? Gravity, Strong Force, Weak Force, Electromagnetism, etc.? Then there is a categorical difference between the laws of nature existing in such a way that person X dies at time Y, and between the conscious agent God actively intervening to cause the death of person X at time Z. He’s breaking his own rules to murder people.

            BTW, your justification of why murder is wrong is very easy to throw out. If you made that argument to someone all they would have to say is “I disagree.”

            Yes. The only thing standing between us and utter chaos is empathy and societal norms. This is just blatantly true- an observable fact about the world we live in. This is how life worked for the first few billion years before social animals evolved. This is how life still works for the vast majority of species on the planet. You do what you want, and the strong survive. We humans have found what we consider to be a better way of doing things, a way to make everybody more happy. And that’s what it means for something to be moral. It is categorically and unequivocally wrong to murder someone, specifically because of the reasons I mentioned, and not because “God said so.” But that doesn’t mean people can’t say “I disagree” to me any more than they can’t say it to you.

            What if a people group really does need to be eliminated for the good of humanity? Who is to say that situation won’t happen?

            *gulp*

          • branemrys

            Jake,

            Moreover, even if this were true, it still wouldn’t salvage your moral position- replace “God” with “the North Korean government” and this is a clearly absurd claim.

            Yes, obviously: it is irrational and absurd to treat the North Korean government as God. So why are you assuming that anything said of the latter applies to the former?

            If it’s not a moral consideration, then give me a reason that God doesn’t kill people that doesn’t ultimately reduce to “because it’s wrong.”

            I don’t see why you think this is some knock-down argument against Randy: it’s not difficult to think of reasons not to kill someone that don’t ultimately reduce to “because it’s wrong”: it would interfere with some project, it’s inconsistent with the greatest happiness of the greatest number in Mill’s sense, it would be aesthetically ugly, it’s not necessary to salvation history and the theosis of the human race, it’s unnecessary, whatever. Even in moral matters most of our reasons are not moral considerations. Moral considerations establish rational limits, but it doesn’t follow that all rational limits are moral considerations; it’s unclear to me why you think it is so obvious that an omniscient God could only possibly know moral considerations for doing or not doing anything.

            Further ‘wrong’ is a deontological concept, and there are plenty of perfectly reasonable positions that take deontology not as fundamental — which is what your argument requires — but as derivative of more fundamental reasons that are not themselves deontological, and therefore not reducible to issues of moral wrongness.

            You mean like Abraham sacrificing Isaac? Or Jephthah sacrificing his daughter?

            (1) Abraham didn’t sacrifice Isaac. That’s the whole point of the story. (2) Jephthah’s daughter does not attribute the action to God and it takes a very weird reading to read it as favorable to Jephthah. In these cases, as well as the conquest cases, you are ignoring genre, which makes for incoherent reading.

          • Jake

            Yes, obviously: it is irrational and absurd to treat the North Korean government as God. So why are you assuming that anything said of the latter applies to the former?

            I’m saying the claim itself it absurd, regardless of who is making it. We have a culturally and religiously inculcated propensity for letting ridiculous statements slide when God is involved, but that doesn’t make them any less ridiculous. “____ has a right to kill people on a whim. He does not” is at best Stockholm syndrome.

            it would interfere with some project, it’s inconsistent with the greatest happiness of the greatest number in Mill’s sense, it would be aesthetically ugly, it’s not necessary to salvation history and the theosis of the human race, it’s unnecessary, whatever.

            And why should we care about happiness for the greatest number? Or aesthetically pleasing things? Or salvation history? These are all moral claims. You’re quite right that someone could refrain from murder for practical purposes- because it would hinder their plan, or because it’s wasted effort. My point is you’re left with two options: either God is refraining from mass murder for moral reasons, or he isn’t. Both of them are equally troubling. If he’s refraining for moral reasons, then you’ve lost all cause to say that he has the moral authority toward wanton murder that Randy seems to want to claim. If he’s refraining for practical reasons, then you’ve lost any claim to a loving God. If you’d like to posit the D+D playing God, for whom we are all simply characters to be disposed of when it’s practical, I can’t stop you- but that doesn’t logically square that with any sort of personal loving relationship.

            it’s unclear to me why you think it is so obvious that an omniscient God could only possibly know moral considerations for doing or not doing anything.

            Oh, I don’t. The claim at hand is not whether God has only moral reasons for his actions, but whether or not he has moral reasons at all. Again, if you’d like to claim that God is only keeping you around because you’re part of his metagame with… himself?…. then you’re left with a sociopath for a God (or more charitably, a God who doesn’t view or interact with us as conscious agents- a God devoid of empathy. A human that fit this description would be called a sociopath, but if God fits that description, maybe he’s just so far above us that we’re really that inconsequential? Either way, doesn’t square with Christian theology about God’s love for us.)

            (1) Abraham didn’t sacrifice Isaac. That’s the whole point of the story.

            No, the point is that he was willing to. His intentions were clear, and his intentions were either morally right or morally wrong. Take your pick.

            Jephthah’s daughter does not attribute the action to God and it takes a very weird reading to read it as favorable to Jephthah

            He makes a promise to God to sacrifice whatever comes out of his house first, and his daughter comes out. You tell me- was your God in control of what came out first, or not?

            In these cases, as well as the conquest cases, you are ignoring genre, which makes for incoherent reading.

            No genre confusion here; this is bloodthirsty tribal propaganda all the way. You’re the one claiming it as holy scripture inspired by God.

          • Anonymous

            Jake, do you have a right to kill animals? Mosquitoes?

          • Jake

            Mosquitoes? Yes.
            Dogs? No.

            Consciousness is not binary- some things are more self aware than others.

            But I wouldn’t claim to have a loving personal relationship with a mosquito.

          • Anonymous

            …and how do you justify this? Is it some sort of difference in kind? …or is it merely degree of consciousness?

          • Jake

            It is a question of degree, yes.

          • Anonymous

            …and does a bear have the right to kill a dog?

          • Jake

            A bear cannot (to the best of my knowledge) rightly be considered a moral agent. That’s like asking if a tree has the right to cast it’s shadow over another plant that equally needs the sunlight.

            There are animals that at least give the appearance of having the capacity for empathy and projection, and the cognitive ability to be considered morally culpable. Koko, for example, does not have the right to kill a dog.

          • Anonymous

            …is moral culpability a matter of differences in kind or degree?

            In order to speed this up a bit, I’m going to assume that you will answer “degree”, and then proceed to my next question. If you instead choose “kind”, ignore the remainder of this comment.

            What does the mathematical relationship of moral culpability and consciousness look like? Broadly-defined characteristics are fine here. As we slide from Koko to Jake, what changes? Does the lower bound shift up (i.e., Koko might be morally culpable for dogs, but not turtles, while we are culpable for both)? Does it shift down (i.e., maybe Koko would be morally culpable for mosquitoes or some other low-consciousness animal that we would not be)? Does it not shift at all? If it doesn’t shift, isn’t this bound actually a matter of kind? Similarly, what about the upper bound? How does it shift?

          • Jake

            Sure- you’re correct that I would answer degree.

            To answer your questions directly before my explination:

            -Moral culpability scales with the awareness of the one taking action
            -Moral weight scales with the awareness (plus other attributes) of the one being acted upon
            -Whether or not there’s a lower bound or upper bound shift on what constitutes “aware enough for us to care” as the moral agent scales in awareness is a poorly formed question, because “aware enough for us to care” is also not a binary value.

            Explanation:
            I would argue that lower-boundedness is a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem, because it assumes each creature falls into the “care about” bucket or the “don’t care about” bucket.

            Again, consciousness is not binary. Rather than make the kind of vegetative vs. sensitive vs. rational soul distinction that a Thomist would make, I would claim that “self awareness” (or soul, or consciousness, or whatever) is a spectrum. In fact, clearly demarcated tranches of “soul” create a lot more problems than they solve- “where the magic happens” becomes a huge problem.

            On the self-awareness spectrum, some things register a zero (rocks), some are probably zero but it’s hard to know for sure (ameobas, plants), some things are small but non-zero (mosquitoes) etc. etc. When you assassinate a mosquito, you’re killing something that’s self aware on some level, and that’s bad. But it’s bad multiplied by some coefficient of the moral weight of that mosquito- in this case, the awareness/ability to suffer/consciousness/memory/etc. of the mosquito, which makes the ultimate moral negative vanishingly small. Small enough that it’s clearly outweighed by the annoyance the mosquito was causing you by trying to suck your blood.

            I guess if you went out of your way to genocidally wipe out mosquito-level creatures in another solar system that couldn’t ever possibly harm a human, that would be morally wrong. But you have to come up with wildly contrived examples like that for the moral weight of killing a mosquito to be any real consideration.

            Now, this implies what is an uncomfortable conclusion for a lot of people (which I suspect is what you’re gunning for): it is conceivable that there could exist a being or beings so far above us in moral weight that any minor irritation we cause them is causing enough harm that they would be justified in killing us.

            The reason this is so uncomfortable is because it feels wrong to say that something could be that much more than a human- but as far as I can tell, that’s purely anthropocentric bias. We feel that way because we are human. For something to have that much moral weight- enough to override the wellbeing of humans with impunity, the way we override the wellbeing of mosquitoes- it would have to be something of a completely different kind than we can even conceive of. I have no idea what something like that would look like, or even if something like that is a coherent concept, but it is at least in principal possible.

            Now (to anticipate your argument?) if you would like to put God in that bucket of “things for which humans are inconsequential,” you can certainly do that. I think the problem you run into is that any being that treats humans as essentially zero’s on the moral weight scale by definition doesn’t care about humans. That is not the God that Christianity claims to exist. Specifically, if God deigns to interfere with human affairs (much less to engage in loving relationships with each and every one of them!), then God clearly attributes value to each human way, way beyond what we attribute to mosquitoes. We could be considered on the same level as pets, maybe- people have real relationships with dogs, or cats, or rabbits, or whatever- but love implies moral weight of at least a measurable size.

            Edit: btw, if you’re leading me down this path as a debating strategy, that’s cool- I’ve certainly done that before :) But if you’re actually looking for more information about how secular humanists justify moral weighting and such, the humanist manifesto (and associated comments) that ran here six months ago was a pretty good approximation, IMHO.

          • Anonymous

            Thanks for fleshing it out a bit. I was doing both. I smelled something funny and thought there was an argument there, but I was also just genuinely curious about what you’d say (and how you’d ground it).

            When I used the “bound” terminology, I didn’t mean to make a binary distinction. You can still have a function, but there are clearly areas where you’d say, “Sure, a human has the moral right to kill a mosquito.” The function just has a really small value in this area. I was really just asking about how those broad qualities move. (I have a picture of something like a sigmoid function in mind when I say “bound”, but the reality could be very flat. It’s really still a rough quality. The important part is whether it moves.)

            From your answer, it seems as though everything in the function scales in a positive direction. I suppose that’s an acceptable answer, though it probably won’t give you the answers you want re: deities.

            More importantly, I don’t see how any of this sort of answer follows from anything in the humanist manifesto. It seems like an ad-hoc add-on based on intuition and cultural bias. Moreover, it directly contradicts the very strong anthropocentric bias of the humanist manifesto. Sure, the manifesto talks about humans being free agents, but it doesn’t give any hint about whether there could be other free agents or how they would fit into the picture or relate to one another.

            Furthermore, the humanist manifesto asserts that ownership exists. Virtue I displays anthropocentric bias yet again, extending this idea only to humans and ignoring the possibility of other entities (either to have self-ownership or to have ownership of a human). If the original claim is that it’s merely absurd for a god to have the moral right to kill people, then we should probably consider that while most theologies include the god’s love for humanity, quite a few also claim god’s ownership of humanity.

            Since the fuzzy boundaries scale upward and many theologies include the concept of ownership, I certainly don’t see how the idea of a god having the right to kill you or let you be killed is facially absurd. I think you would need more argumentation rather than indignation and comparisons to North Korea. (Like you mentioned, a person can have a real relationship with a dog that they own. Most people think that person has the moral right to determine if/when the dog should be put down.)

            As an aside, let me bounce something off you. My group of friends is mostly dynamics/control people like myself. It’s popular in that group to think of consciousness as emergent behavior. Do you agree with this perspective? If so, is there any reason why you think this is actually a gradual process rather than a typical bifurcation (where once we turn some parameter past a particular value, we see a qualitative change in behavior)? Does this possibility affect your schema?

          • Jake

            Warning: long comment

            That’s a fair criticism- the humanist manifesto was extremely anthropocentric. I was thinking specifically of this comment thread, which turns out to a) be less expansive than I was remembering, and b) be located in the combox of a different post. The gist of the comments is that there is an acknowledged hole in the manifesto for non-human-but-still-self-aware things, and that the manifesto should probably generally apply to anything that wishes to be treated a certain way.

            If the original claim is that it’s merely absurd for a god to have the moral right to kill people, then we should probably consider that while most theologies include the god’s love for humanity, quite a few also claim god’s ownership of humanity.

            Setting aside the original claim (I’ll talk about it shortly), ownership does not negate moral responsibility. I both own my dog and love my dog, but that does not remove moral culpability if I brutally kill my dog. Ownership of a thing does not seems to change its moral weight- it is no more and no less wrong for me to kill my own dog than to kill a wild dog for the same reasons (other than, perhaps, transgressing some additional responsibilities I take on by virtue of ownership?)

            More fundamentally, as far as I can tell, “ownership” is a social construct- it’s a way of formalizing which of multiple agents has priority over an object. It’s not a coherent concept unless there are multiple moral agents involved (Did Tom Hanks own Wilson in Cast Away? I’m not even sure what that would mean.) It’s certainly not a fundamental property of an object. What it would mean for God to “own” something, I’m not sure, unless there are multiple gods, one of whom owns humans, another which owns the Na’vi, etc.

            Like you mentioned, a person can have a real relationship with a dog that they own. Most people think that person has the moral right to determine if/when the dog should be put down

            I don’t know what actual the laws are, but I don’t think an owner has the absolute moral right to determine if/when a dog should be put down. Dogs are put down to ease their own suffering, not because we’re moving, or had a bad day at work, or it’s been a slow weekend and we’re looking for some entertainment. Sure, the owner makes the final decision on whether or not a dog is suffering enough to justify killing it, but it’s not arbitrary. We definitely still have animal cruelty laws, so society has some expectation of treating animals as if they have a moral weight. The point that I’m arguing against is the idea that God (and specifically the Christian God) has the moral right to kill us on a whim, with no provocation, justification, or cause; I’m arguing against the moral system in which our value and moral weight derives entirely from God’s existence, rather than by virtue of our own consciousness

            Since the fuzzy boundaries scale upward and many theologies include the concept of ownership, I certainly don’t see how the idea of a god having the right to kill you or let you be killed is facially absurd.

            So two things: first, my objection to the idea of God having the right to kill me is specifically because this claim is paired with the claim that God is intimately involved in human affairs. Second, I am objecting to the system that allows our moral weight to derive itself wholly from God’s existence, because it both implies that morality wouldn’t exist without a God, and allows people to get away with saying things like “God loves you, but could kill you on a whim if he wanted to with no moral consideration” (one of these two things must be untrue)

            If someone would like to posit a disinterested Deist God, or advanced alien who could kill me without much moral concern, that’s fine- I would probably roll my eyes, but no harm no foul.. But once they assert that God is both involved and above moral reproach, they implicitly lend that same killing authority to anyone “doing God’s will.” This isn’t an ideological claim, it’s a historical one. Christianity has done this over and over again throughout history, and Islam is still doing it today. It is a morally repugnant belief because it’s dangerous. It causes humans to hurt other humans.

            I think you would need more argumentation rather than indignation and comparisons to North Korea.

            Yeah, I was just looking for a malignant authority-source without invoking Godwin’s law, but I guess North Korea is just as bad. Noted. Next time I guess I can use the U.S….

            As for indignation, that was purposeful. I think this idea is malignant, and needs to be vigorously and vehemently challenged. I did want to make it clear that I don’t just think this idea is factually incorrect, but is also dangerous. Perhaps I should have spent more time laying out the specifics of my objections.

            It’s popular in that group to think of consciousness as emergent behavior. Do you agree with this perspective? If so, is there any reason why you think this is actually a gradual process rather than a typical bifurcation (where once we turn some parameter past a particular value, we see a qualitative change in behavior)? Does this possibility affect your schema?

            Yes, I agree that consciousness is best described as emergent behavior. My reasons for suspecting a gradual process are twofold:

            First, evolutionary theory. Mutations don’t stick around unless they’re beneficial. Complex systems don’t just poof into existence, they have to gradually build up in small, usable mutations. In the case of consciousness, it’s hard to imagine some animal being born with some clearly unique “consciousness” that it’s parents didn’t have. How did the infrastructure for that consciousness exist if it wasn’t previously being used?

            And second, observation. It appears that there is a spectrum of self-awareness on which different animals fall. This spectrum does not appear to be meaningfully quantized, either inter-species or intra-species. That is to say, it is not the case that all animals fall into one of a few buckets of “consciousness.” It is not even the case that different members of the same species are equally self aware. It’s pretty easy to see this in humans in particular.

            Now it’s true (as I understand it) that some animals don’t have the hardware in their brain for certain tasks (say, language processing) associated with consciousness. It is in principle possible that a single mutation could repurpose a part of the brain designed for something else as a language processing center (though it seems unlikely to me, since that would entail losing whatever functionality that part previously had). All this to say that sure, there might be some minimum barrier to entry for some aspect of consciousness,- but if there is, it’s going to be a physical limitation, not an ontological philosophical one.

            Thanks for the discussion, Anon- it has helped me hash out some specifics of my moral system I hadn’t previously given much thought too.

          • Anonymous

            I appreciate long comments. I’m about to sit down with 38 pages of ‘comment’ on Peugh v US after I write this (and hoping to get a good 60 pages when Fischer v UT comes down).

            Thanks for the link to comments about broadening the manifesto. However, it might leave you in an even bigger pickle then you started out in. First off, the “wishes to be treated” criteria immediately provokes images of p-zombies in my mind. Many of the atheist metaphysical positions I’ve seen espoused here are willing to throw away the first-person subjective perspective long before we get to ethics.

            It’s also problematic from a practical standpoint. For example, it is well-known that a sunflower will turn into the direction of the sun. Does this third-person observation of a turning demonstrate a form of “wishing to be treated”? (I also want to make an aside about how this kind of idea underpins consent-only theories of sex… and how mangled the theories become when we consider thought experiments about children or animals actually being able to affirmatively proclaim their consent or “wish to be treated” in various ways.)

            If we’re throwing out ownership, we’re going to lose several features of the Humanist Manifesto that underpin your Freedomism. I wouldn’t say that ownership just drives moral culpability to zero, but I think it is meant to describe, “If someone has the moral right to determine future existence (or some other property) of entity X, it is entity Y.” The Humanist Manifesto desires X=Y.

            I’m arguing against… the idea that God (and specifically the Christian God) has the moral right to kill us on a whim, with no provocation, justification, or cause

            I think this is arguing against a straw man. Most theologies don’t have their god intentionally killing people at random. Since you mentioned specifically rejecting the Christian God, I’m sure you’re drawing from various instances in which he reportedly intentionally killed people directly. I believe most of the apologists would point portions of the text where it says (or at least implies), “…for this reason.”

            If, on the other hand, you’re coming from a natural evil perspective, this is not really intentionally killing with the associated moral culpability. Complaining that we eventually die from various causes really just sounds like whining that we weren’t created immortal. That’s really going to fall on deaf Christian ears.

            I can imagine a system where we have features of both things you’ve put into a dichotomy. Perhaps, ultimately, our moral weight derives entirely from God’s existence, but then derived from that is inherent personal moral weight. We see a finicky subjective human version of this in contrasts of popular opinions on birds/bats or dolphins/sharks. Birds and dolphins appear nice and pretty, so we want to afford them more moral weight. Bats and sharks are scary and dangerous, so we care a little less. Deriving individual moral weight from a deity’s moral weight doesn’t have to be as finicky. It could be more principled, yet the structural relation could be analogous. (Ownership can come in here, too. It’s bad to kill a random dog… it’s somehow worse to kill the dog your neighbor owns and loves.)

            As to the dangerous nature of the belief, it’s akin to invoking eugenics (or various serial killers who explicitly said their behavior was a consequence of their atheism-derived beliefs) as a response to various atheistic ethical claims. Sure, you can go in the wrong direction a few inductive steps later… but that’s hardly a convincing argument against the original claims.

            Lest you think, “But surely the Manifesto has us protected!” Remember, we’ve thrown out ownership… including self-ownership. All we need is a Really Good ReasonTM. The Manfesto asks, “What do we, as a collective, do?” Many people have argued, and are still arguing, that we have a Really Good ReasonTM to engage in eugenics. Dangerous? Sure. Is that a reason to throw away your project? Nope.

            I think the discussion of quantization in evolution betrays a bit of misunderstanding of emergent behavior and bifurcation theory. Bifurcation theory involves continuous phenomenon, but the parameter changes can be taken in discrete steps (see: numerical continuation). Sure, a tiny step over the mark is only going to give you a small deviation from the regular behavior (and more steps will make the new behavior more pronounced), but that doesn’t mean we can’t pinpoint, “This is where the change occurs.” In fact, that’s the whole point of bifurcation theory… to take two qualitatively different behaviors that intuitively seem like they must have a strange quantized step between them, and show that it’s actually just a tiny tweaking in the neighborhood of a single point.

          • Randy Gritter

            I ignore most of this because it is getting long. I just grabbed the crux of your reply.

            I have seen you point this out several times. The trouble is that a) this is a deathblow for any sort of claim of a meaningful objective morality,

            Why is that? To say there is an ultimate good does not mean we have to arrive at it all at once.

            b)you have no justification for thinking that what you currently believe is right, since it will likely be superseded by future revelation,

            It is right to a point. It won’t be contradicted by a deeper
            understanding of revelation but it will be developed by it. So what we have is good but can get better.

            c) this is directly contradictory to your earlier claim that “If what you claim is from God contradicts scripture, sacred tradition, and the magisterium of the church then you must have heard God wrong,”

            Not really. To this point in history this kind of behavior in
            wartime was considered OK. So God was not contradicting existing moral teaching.

            d) this makes no sense if you’re claiming
            an omnipotent and time-independent God

            God is not trapped in time. He does work in time. He deals with societies where they are at. Just like a father teaches his children more and more as they develop intellectually.

            e) there’s no actual reason morality
            would need to be revealed gradually, and

            Why is anything gradual? We develop our personal morality over time. Partly to allow freedom every step of the way. Partly because the journey is a work of art. We need to see how far we come and how long God has been busy with us

            f) this looks suspiciously the exact
            same as it would look if God did not exist.

            Actually a consistently growing morality that develops
            doctrine but never changes its nature is highly unlikely to develop randomly. Even before Christ the Jews were unique for religious consistency. After Christ we have the Catholic church remaining miraculously consistent. So we are talking about thousands of years of moral revelation that grows but remains true to the character of one God.

          • Randy Gritter
          • TerryC

            “The problem of murder is about depriving the other person of their agency. It is in the violation of their right to existence, by virtue of their status as a conscious, thinking, feeling being. It is in the pain and suffering caused to them and their loved ones. It is in the fear that it instills in everyone else that they, too, may be murdered at any moment.”

            There is the point. No person has a right to exist by their own agency. Their right to exists is only because of their creation by God in his image. That right is entirely as a result of God’s actions. It is a condition that IS entirely at the whim of God.

            Empathy does not mean ignoring fundamental truths. I can feel sorry for the tragedy of a unexpected death and the pain suffered by those involved. I might even think it unfair. However I don’t base my belief in the truth on my feelings.

            Murder is wrong because it takes the life of another created in the image and likeness of God., It is wrong because only God has the right to determine when one of his creatures dies. That right is not embodied in “virtue of their status as a conscious, thinking, feeling being.” It is embodied in their creation in the image and likeness of God. I believe my cat is a “conscious, thinking, feeling being” and would not kill it frivolously. However I also would not treat its death with the same gravitas that I treat the death of a human being, because though the cat has a soul, it is not an immortal soul, made in the image and likeness of God.

            Humans are creatures created by God. Like all such creatures they owe their existence to God, for the totally unearned gift of life. That life is a permanent life, that is an immortal life. Our existence on this mortal plane is but a minuscule portion of the life we can expect to live. That being the case the more important fact is whether that life is lived in conformance to God’s plan or at variance with it.

            I think we get that you don’t like the plan. That is your right. God gave you free will and you are free to accept or reject Him, with all of the attendant consequences of that choice. Rather than a pawn God treats us as free beings able to either accept or reject him. However most of his gifts are reserved for those who ultimately choose His way. He does not withdraw his gift of eternal life to those who reject Him, but neither does He give the benefits of salvation to those who reject him.

          • branemrys

            Cam,

            Genocide is not something that comes in degrees, as if something could be slightly more genocidal than another. The question is whether there is accurate interpretation of the text actually implies genocide or not, and the genre conventions of the time do not give sufficient indication to say much on the subject. There are, of course, no accounts in the Bible of God actually “massacring, murdering and torturing his ‘children’”; this would require not only ignoring genre conventions, which is a sign of stupid reading, but the actual statements of the text.

            I find your “good luck reconciling that with the notion that the bible contains only truth” amusing, because this is the surefire sign of a fundamentalist account of how to read a text: no rational person thinks that getting the interpretation of the text correct by working to avoid false assumptions in itself says anything about whether the text itself says anything true or false. They are clearly different issues, and only fundamentalists (and, apparently, you, assuming you weren’t just throwing it out without thinking through what you were saying) conflate them. It’s a sign of not knowing how to read. The question of whether the Bible is true as a narrative requires first determining how the narrative should be understood and that requires first recognizing what the expressions of the text mean given the relevant conventions. Only when have determined what the true interpretation of an account is can we ask whether that account, so interpreted, is true. Any other way of looking into the question is hopelessly muddled and confused.

            On the second point, I said nothing about murder (you’re the one who keeps trying to slide from death to murder). The point of the issue is shown quite clearly in your claim,

            “Just because everyone eventually dies doesn’t mean that we can’t care
            when or how it happens, or hold responsible those who bring death about
            sooner than nature alone would have”

            because this is exactly parallel to:

            “Just because everyone eventually dies doesn’t mean that we can’t care
            when or how it happens, or hold responsible those who bring death about
            sooner than God would have”

            And, indeed, if there is a God, what “nature alone” does is in fact attributable at least indirectly to God as its primary agent. Thus your argument actually has nothing whatsoever to do with the Bible, since it seems to require the assumption that God cannot be a cause of a system in which things die, which is what is actually doing all the work. This is just an ordinary problem of evil, taking death as evil; all you are trying to do is ramp up the rhetoric by throwing around words like ‘murder’ and ‘massacre’ (which, as Randy notes, you haven’t actually justified the use of).

          • Cam

            Branemrys, let’s try pin this down a bit.

            First, some context. As an example of gods unfatherlike behaviour, let’s take Exodus 12.12, where we are told the Christian god kills every firstborn in Egypt (that’s genocide) after unleashing some plagues (that’s torture). So Christian approaches to god’s indiscretions can generally be classed under two forms:
            -denial (the passages are embellished, or metaphorical, or we can’t be sure what they mean)
            -justification (there’s some reason why it’s okay for god to murder and torture in this instance or in general)

            Notice that these strategies aren’t complementary – if you can morally justify a particular act of god, why would you need to deny it happened? Advancing both involves a sort of irrational desperation.

            Contrary to what you say above, justification strategies are usually separate to theodicies. The more popular theodicies today, such as ‘evil is the absence of god’, or ‘evil exists because of free will’ are designed to explain why the natural order is set up to feature evil- they fail completely at justifying god coming down from heaven to personally dish it out himself. In contrast, punishment theodicies do happen to fit well with the idea of the killer god, but you have to be quite morally depraved to believe that bad things happen to people because they deserve it.

            If you choose a strategy that involves denying god ever committed genocides, then as I said before, my comment is not addressing your particular interpretation of Christianity. I’m attacking those millions of Christians who go for a justification strategy, whatever convoluted or tautological reasoning that may involve (it’s okay for god to kill because whatever god does is okay!, etc).

            Even if a Christian believes that there are morally sufficient reasons for their god to drown the earth in a flood, kill firstborn children, send plagues/bears/assassin angels and so on, it would still not be rational for them to consider this creature to be ANYTHING like a ‘father’. The christian god is a deity, not a father. Considering him a father involves mentally focusing on his creative and nurturing traits, and quarantining in your mind any beliefs you have about his ability to kill you on a whim.
            And even if god decides never to strike you down, then what of the people in the bible he killed? Should the Egyptian children have considered god their father?

    • TheodoreSeeber

      A Planned Parenthood member.

    • Randy Gritter

      I don’t think you need to lose all the other identities. You just need to understand that their is a deeper reality to yourself. One that comes to the foreground when you develop virtue and embrace your vocation. Nothing gets drowned. Some things fall away because you no longer need to hide what you used to hide. Others might remain. There is nothing to fear. You are becoming more yourself. You are not just becoming assimilated into a borg-like Catholicism. You are being shown who you are by your creator. You gain God but you gain yourself as well. You also gain much more authentic relationships with everyone else. What you lose is just stuff that was destroying you anyway.


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