TF: Let us sing

TF: Let us sing July 10, 2009

Tribulation Force, pg. 61

This Sunday morning gathering at New Hope Village Church is a very strange worship service, mostly because the authors don't see anything strange about it. It's a church service and we all know what church services are like, so why should this one be any different just because the entire world is different?

Thus our service begins with some praise choruses, just like any typical evangelical church service would:

The music had begun. Buck stood to sing with everyone else. Many seemed to know the songs and the words. He had to follow as the words were projected on the wall and try to pick up the melodies. The choruses were simple and catchy, but they were new to him. Many of these people, he decided, had had plenty of exposure to church — more than he had. How had they missed the truth?

If you're at all familiar with the sorts of "simple and catchy" choruses that tend to get "projected on the wall," then you'll realize that it only takes about five minutes to learn "the songs and the words." Mindless repetition tends to be easy to pick up.

I'm having a hard time, however, imagining how any of the usual PowerPoint choruses would seem remotely appropriate or relevant for this particular group of people on this particular Sunday, just weeks after the instantaneous disintegration of every last one of their children. "Shout to the Lord" wouldn't seem to be the sort of thing one would sing to begin a funeral and it would seem equally out of place here.

Jenkins mentions this singing of praise choruses to give a sense of familiarity for his evangelical readers — to make them feel at home there at NHVC, reassuring them that it is their kind of church (the right kind, the good kind). That comforting sense of recognition is also intended, I think, to carry a warning to those same evangelical readers — a reminder that "many of these people" had attended just such evangelical churches and yet had still been left behind. Don't think you're saved just because you go to the right kind of church, Jenkins is reminding them, you must also say the Magic Words and correctly acknowledge the correctness of correct prophecy doctrines.

It's unforgivably lazy, though, for Jenkins to leave out the telling detail of what songs, specifically, the congregation is singing. This is an aspect of storytelling he rarely seems to bother with — the selection of just right details. Here was an opportunity to reinforce his themes and characters with a precisely chosen line or two of quoted lyrics. This would have, at the very least, made more tangible the effect he's going for of reassuring his fanbase that this is a familiar setting. More than that, though, it was a chance to season his prose with an allusive, evocative snippet of poetry, and how could any novelist ignore such an opportunity?

But this brings us again to the difficulty of choosing precise and apt details for this particular story. The story itself is so implausible that plausible details seem impossible to find. What on earth could such a congregation in such a setting possibly find to sing?

Choruses and hymns that mention children would be grossly insensitive. Most praise choruses would sound inappropriately pre-Event ("Our God Reigns," for example, comes from the wrong part of Isaiah), as would most southern gospel standards like "I'll Fly Away" or "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder." Classics like "Amazing Grace" clash with the authors' theology and contradict the sermon Bruce is about to preach.

My choice would be a hymn that wasn't written for PowerPoint slides or Yamaha keyboards. I'd have started out with "It Is Well With My Soul." That's a song that arises from and begins with grieving over lost children, earning its way toward a conclusion in which "the trump shall resound / and the Lord shall descend."

That would seem to be an apt hymn for this group of "grieving … terror-stricken" people gathered at New Hope Village Church, but I'm pretty sure I'm not looking at this the same way the authors are. Plus, when I hear this song in my head, the voice singing it is Mahalia Jackson's and her blues-on-the-verses, gospel-on-the-chorus rendition gives it a this-worldly grounding — more Exodus than Revelation — that I don't think the authors would like.

The sad truth is that there just aren't that many memorable songs espousing or even compatible with the prophecy mania of premillennial dispensationalism. And almost none of those few songs would still work after the Rapture has already occurred.

The only song I can imagine meeting that criteria would seem almost cliche here: Larry Norman's 1969 Jesus Freak anthem, "I Wish We'd All Been Ready."

Life was filled with guns and war,
And everyone got trampled on the floor,
I wish we'd all been ready
Children died, the days grew cold,
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold,
I wish we'd all been ready,
There's no time to change your mind,
The Son has come and you've been left behind.

The influence of that song among PMD types can't be overstated. For all the millions of books sold by Tim LaHaye or Hal Lindsay, it is this version, this telling of the story, that most PMD evangelicals have in mind when they speak of the Rapture and the Tribulation. It's influence on the Left Behind series is as obvious as that title, but it's also worth noting the differences between Norman's vision — in this song and many others — and that of LaHaye and Jenkins.

The biggest difference isn't in the lyrics above, but in the minor key and the mournful tone of Norman's song. He isn't happy about the scenario he describes. He isn't triumphalist. And unlike L&J he doesn't find the idea of a Tribulation filled with guns and war and dead children to be feverishly exciting. His song expresses an unrestrained millennialism, but it's inclusive — "I wish we'd all been ready." Because of that, the suffering he believes is prophesied is something dire and tragic and not the basis for gleeful, self-congratulatory distinctions between ourselves and those deserving of punishment (hence the inclusion of children in his scene).

For Norman, the "birth pangs" of apocalypse are a lamentable aspect of the coming rebirth, but the rebirth is what is most important — the day when, as he sings in another song, everything can happen like it first was planned and we're all invited to play in the band. That's from "The Sun Began to Rain," which featured Dudley Moore on piano and lyrics like:

Water swelled from fountains and then turned to wine
Rocks fell from the mountains in a chorus line
He came in tails and top hat and he looked so fine
Yes, the son began to reign

That's a Busby Berkeley apocalypse, one that takes no joy in the birth pangs, but is positively jubilant over the prospect of rebirth. The despicable thing about the Left Behind books is the way they turn
that emphasis upside-down. These books are fascinated by and preoccupied with all the doom and suffering and wrath they foresee in store for fools and sinners — that's what gets the authors' pulses racing. In Hal Lindsay's terms, L&J don't get excited about "There's a New World Coming," but they can't get enough of all the lurid details in store for the "Late Great Planet Earth."

As a young hippie, Norman's millennialism tended toward the otherworldly, the idea that we're "only visiting this planet." That's a strain of religion easily exploited by those with an interest in the status quo and it tends to be mostly harmless. Yet even that long-hair, drop-out variety of millennial fervor carries the implicit danger of the more militant varieties. Millennialism proposes an ultimate ending and thus an ultimate ends that can come to be seen as justifying any ultimate means. A final solution, as it were. That is the inherent danger of millennialism — that it propels itself toward a situation in which it will be used to justify atrocities.

What sets LaHaye & Jenkins apart is that they don't even bother using millennialism to justify atrocities — they just assert the atrocities without seeing any need for their justification. For them, the atrocities are the main attraction.

I don't know what sort of songs such people would sing, but I'm fairly sure I don't want to hear them.

"The Bible says that the Cross offends. If you are offended, I am doing my ..."

LBCF, No. 214: ‘Bruce’s sermon, part ..."
"These two perhaps? https://www.youtube.com/wat... https://www.youtube.com/wat..."

Advent Calendar Day 13: 12 days ..."
"Is this the new Bloody Mary game? Say it in front of a mirror in ..."

Advent Calendar Day 14: Pink Flamingos
"Are they all little girls? I see a lot of tortiseshell in the tabby... usually ..."

Advent Calendar Day 14: Pink Flamingos

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • hapax

    Oh, fooey. That was Biolante. My bad.
    (Actually, Toho Studio’s bad. Very Bad. But somehow, irresistible.)

  • Anton Mates

    hapax,

    If you start with the assumption that “there are non-material deities out there,” you will probably conclude “well, THEY are non-material, but WE are not, how the heck are they going to interact with us *except* through physical means?”

    This assumes that “physical means” has been predefined, though, and at least in science that’s not the case. A curved spacetime is now part of our picture of physical reality, but it didn’t use to be–we added it in because it explained things we couldn’t explain before. 400 years ago, fields of force weren’t part of known physical reality, and a couple hundred years before that, even now-fundamental quantities like “mass” and “acceleration” weren’t there.
    The “physical” or “material” is just a long list of hypothetical entities that have turned out to have significant explanatory value for us.
    To the degree that deities interact with us in some sort of testable or predictable way, I don’t think it really matters what they’re made of–they would necessarily become part of our picture of material reality. Of course, if they don’t interact with us in a testable or predictable way that won’t happen. Maybe that’s equivalent to the starting assumption you describe above; saying “there are non-material deities” is the same as saying “there are deities whose behavior does not show any regularities humans can perceive.”

    No reputable scientist would try to study an object that is, by definition, non-material. (Economists and other social scientists, for example, do not study “money” as a concept, but the aggregate physical data about what real life meat people do in response to that concept.

    I don’t see how they could possibly study the latter without studying the former as well. If social scientists didn’t have a handle on what the concept of “money” is, it would be meaningless to ask about how it influences people’s physical behavior.
    The concept of “money” is not fundamentally different, in terms of scientific accessibility, from the concepts of “force” or “neutrinos.” None of these things are directly perceptible as sensory phenomena. But all of them can be used to explain and predict what we do perceive, and we haven’t yet come up with simpler concepts of equal explanatory value. Therefore, as far as science is concerned, they exist.

  • Anton Mates

    El Durazno de la Muerte,

    You would have to launch them pretty far, though, or the chunks they knock off of each other would fall back to earth and do horrible stuff to us. I don’t know if they’d grow in to full Cthulhi or what, but it would suck, I’m sure.

    At least within HPL’s own stories, you can’t really knock a chunk off Cthulhu–he just vaporizes and flows back into a single being. Obviously he does reproduce somehow, since the others of his race are described as his “spawn,” but it doesn’t seem to be automatic if you rip him in half.

    I always assumed that an atomic bomb would probably kill him, but it was never an option because he always turns up in populated areas.

    Later versions of Godzilla are crazy good at absorbing radiation and other forms of energy, so nuking him just makes him stronger. Hell, he eventually gets dropped in an artificial black hole and survives.

  • You would have to launch them pretty far, though, or the chunks they knock off of each other would fall back to earth and do horrible stuff to us. I don’t know if they’d grow in to full Cthulhi or what, but it would suck, I’m sure.
    ohhhh, now THERE’S a horror story…you nuke Cthulu, and all those little bits of him go splattering everywhere, and the world thinks it’s safe until they start growing again. Not as big, probably, but still. Thousands of people sized Cthuli, millions of dog sized Cthuli. Might make a Old Ones story more manageable on a human scale.
    My favorite involved Godzilla stumbling drunkenly…
    Drunk Godzilla comes home, tips over a few buildings in Tokyo, curls up in tokyo bay to sleep it off…oooooh, Godzilla with drunken morning breath…actually, that explains the first movie. He wasn’t angry, just really hungover. If only they’d given him a pepto the size of a minivan…
    Cthulhu’s got an entire race behind him, though, so it’s not like he’s accustomed to being unique–and he’s not their god, just their high priest. So now they’ve got two high priests. They might end up schisming into Orthodox vs. Catholic space octopi, but that won’t slow them down much from eradicating humanity.
    I was always fuzzy on that. It seemed more like Cthulu and the others were unique beings who had sortof found themselves on the same side scattered across the stars, fighting off the deep ones and the Antarticans. They never really seemed to have a plan or even an intelligence…just a massive power. Wasn’t that part of their horror? that they were these unimaginably powerful creatures who didn’t care. And Cthulu doesn’t seem like he’d take too well to another copy of him just showing up eating HIS acolytes and destroying HIS planet. Of course..they’d both see it as their planet.
    I’m holding out for Cthulhu v Hedorah.
    Am I the only one who figured Godzilla and the rest were just deep ones or antarticans, or fugitives from the plateau of Leung or something? See, if only lovecraft were as popular as Stephen King, we could make cool cross-over movies.

  • Anton Mates

    I was always fuzzy on that. It seemed more like Cthulu and the others were unique beings who had sortof found themselves on the same side scattered across the stars, fighting off the deep ones and the Antarticans.

    The uniqueness is really a post-HPL addition by August Derleth–he’s the one who lumped a bunch of Lovecraft monsters together as the official “Great Old Ones.” All of Lovecraft’s own writings present Cthulhu’s people as a socially unified race; “The Call of Cthulhu” is coy about whether all the other ones look pretty much like him, but “At the Mountains of Madness” makes it explicit that they do and are literally descended from him. They’re just one of many alien races kicking about the universe, who happen to be particularly significant to us because a) they’re exceptionally unpleasant and b) they live here right now.
    Derleth massively revamped the Mythos to suit his own (Catholic-inspired) tastes, which is a big reason for the fuzziness you mention.

    They never really seemed to have a plan or even an intelligence…just a massive power. Wasn’t that part of their horror? that they were these unimaginably powerful creatures who didn’t care.

    Well, they’re definitely intelligent, and it’s suggested that Cthulhu himself is a gifted magic-user–it’s just that their plans are incomprehensible to us humans, and our plans are irrelevant to them, so we might as well think of them as mindless. (Cthulhu’s human cultists think they have a grasp on his plans and a way to fit in, but they’re probably deluding themselves.) Coincidentally, this is exactly the position Lovecraft espoused toward foreign cultures of brown people.
    Races superior to humans, like the star-headed vegetable Elder Things in the Antarctic, manage to communicate with Cthulhu’s people and even establish peace treaties. But that only shows up in Lovecraft’s later stories, where the horror takes a back seat to the sci-fi.
    There are ultimately powerful and ultimately mindless entities in the Mythos, of course, like Azathoth–it’s just that Cthulhu doesn’t qualify. He’s not really that important in Lovecraft’s universe.

  • Amaryllis

    Tonio: I suppose I’m arguing that the issue is whether there really is Something or Nothing, not our emotions or convictions about one or the other. I’m not arguing that the latter are irrelevant, merely that they’re distinct from the issue.
    I know. It was just a poem, not an argument. Just a “what such an experience might feel like” metaphor.
    And since it’s even later and I’m even more tired tonight, I’ll just leave you with a poem that you might like better:
    One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
    Would be a more restricted employment by the authors of simile and
    metaphor.

  • hapax

    Anton Mates: if they don’t interact with us in a testable or predictable way
    there are deities whose behavior does not show any regularities humans can perceive
    These statements are not equivalent.

  • Anton Mates

    How so?

  • hf

    Yeah, do you mean testable predictions that come with a precise number for probability attached? Because regularity means we can at least make vague predictions and compare them to the world we see around us.

  • hapax

    Short version:
    a) As a conscious personality with free will, I continually make choices to behave in certain ways with other free-willed individuals that are not testable or predictable (e.g., “where shall we have lunch?”, for a trival example). Although some do deny the existence of free will, as a practical matter, to do predict a single individual’s future choices can require so much preliminary data as to be functionally impossible.
    That’s why social science experiments usually do with *groups* (which are often predictable and testable) rather than individuals.
    b) Human beings are very very good at “perceiving regularities” in random collections of data — faces in clouds, messages in waffles, etc. — that may have no significant cause or meaning. In fact, you might say that’s what we’re *best* at.
    Taking these two factors into account, along with the fact that most claims about religious phenomena involve unique events of interacting with one or a very limited number of Personalities — and I’d say that the scientific model is simply not applicable to religious claims*.
    *I exempt such claims as “if we do this dance, we will make the corn grow,” or “if you send me ten thousand dollars, God will make that hurrican spare Miami,” and the like. Those are in any sense of the word testable hypothesis. They are also, strictly speaking — in the technical and completely non-prejudicial sense — in the specific realm of “magic,” which is a very restricted subset of the broader category of “religious phenomena.”
    “God loves humanity to the point of Self-sacrifice, and wills that we treat each other likewise” is NOT a testable hypothesis. That says nothing about whether it is true or not. Just to whether it is in the domain of science.
    I suspect that most Christians, at least, would consider the last statement to be far more essential to their understanding of the “objective truths” (“real” but not “material” or scientifically testable) than the others.

  • Anton Mates

    hapax,

    a) As a conscious personality with free will, I continually make choices to behave in certain ways with other free-willed individuals that are not testable or predictable (e.g., “where shall we have lunch?”, for a trival example). Although some do deny the existence of free will, as a practical matter, to do predict a single individual’s future choices can require so much preliminary data as to be functionally impossible.

    I’m not sure how this conflicts with what I said; your lunch choices are unpredictable precisely because they don’t strictly follow a set of obvious regularities. Whether you’re a material or immaterial being doesn’t seem to have much to do with it. (And it doesn’t really have anything to do with free will, I think; either randomness or deterministic chaos could account for why your choices are so hard to predict.)
    At the same time, though, there are almost certainly some perceptible regularities in your behavior. If someone had lunch with me every day for a year, they could easily come up with a list of less than ten restaurants I’m likely to visit on a given day. That’s pretty precise, out of all the restaurants in the world, and it would be right 99% of the time.

    That’s why social science experiments usually do with *groups* (which are often predictable and testable) rather than individuals.

    One can do the same with a single individual over time, however. Each of us has a distinct personality, as you say, and what is a personality but a fairly simple model describing our behavior? It’s not complete and it’s not always right, but it’s good enough for government work.

    b) Human beings are very very good at “perceiving regularities” in random collections of data — faces in clouds, messages in waffles, etc. — that may have no significant cause or meaning. In fact, you might say that’s what we’re *best* at.

    Sure. But if those regularities can be perceived, they can be tested. Randomly generate a bunch more clouds and see how often faces can be seen in them. Take a picture of the original cloud, rotate it by various angles, and see if the same face is equally obvious. You may find that this cloud really does look exceptionally and unusually like a human face–what force is responsible for this, of course, is another question–or that your original assessment was wrong.

    “God loves humanity to the point of Self-sacrifice, and wills that we treat each other likewise” is NOT a testable hypothesis.

    I agree. But, again, I don’t see how God’s “materialness” is a factor in its untestability, unless “material” is defined in terms of testability. That hypothesis is untestable simply because it’s not precise enough–it doesn’t assign God a sufficiently well-defined personality to yield predictions about what God would do in a given situation.
    I’m not saying religious believers should be making precise predictions about God’s behavior, of course. Attempting to research the behavior of an omniscient and omnipotent being is probably a losing proposition, no matter what that being is made of.

  • Bugmaster

    Ok, I’ve been away for a bit, and I’m jumping in at the end here, so I’m probably missing a lot of context, but still:

    a) As a conscious personality with free will, I continually make choices to behave in certain ways with other free-willed individuals that are not testable or predictable (e.g., “where shall we have lunch?”, for a trival example). Although some do deny the existence of free will, as a practical matter, to do predict a single individual’s future choices can require so much preliminary data as to be functionally impossible.

    In the trivial sense, this is demonstrably false. If any and all of our future choices were completely unpredictable, then any kind conversation would be impossible. For example, if you told me, “Hello, Bugmaster, how are you doing ?”, I might answer “fine”, or “the eagles dance with the mushrooms”, or I might do a backflip, there’d be no way of telling. And yet, clearly our future choices are predictable enough so that we can have not only conversations, but prolonged debates, where we can anticipate each other’s objections ahead of time.
    Of course, that’s just the trivial sense. I don’t think you meant, “any and all of our choices are entirely unpredictable”; you probably meant something like, “some of our choices are very difficult to predict”. Still, you example — “where shall we have lunch ?” — is rather weak. Most people have a preference for one kind of food or another; and most cities have a limited number of restaurants within a reasonable distance from any given point. Knowing this, plus a few rather mundane details about a person (such details as a close friend might know), it is relatively easy to predict, with a high degree of certainty, where he will want to have lunch.
    Of course, this does not imply that all our choices are 100% predictable at all times — but that’s true of any event, not just of people’s choices. For example, weather is notoriously difficult to predict. Electrons flow in predictable patterns, but only most of the time (which is why TCP/IP has error correction built in). Even planetary bodies will surprise you occasionally. Does this mean that weather, electrons, and asteroids all have free will ?

    “God loves humanity to the point of Self-sacrifice, and wills that we treat each other likewise” is NOT a testable hypothesis.

    Try to look at this statement from an alient point of view: the point of view of a person who does not believe in any deities. It’s very difficult to do so, I will grant you, but it’s worth a shot. An atheist such as myself doesn’t really consider the question, “does God love me ?”, until he gets an answer to a more important (to the atheist) question: “does God do anything to affect my life in a way that I’d notice ?” If the answer is “no”, or “yes, he does, but there’s no way to distinguish God’s meddling from random chance unless you have faith”, then the atheist’s conclusion is that God is not important enough to worry about. Similarly, the surface rocks on a remote asteroid orbiting Alpha Centauri (assuming such an asteroid exists) are not important enough for me to worry about. They may be very nice rocks — beautiful, even — but we can’t afford to spend our time worrying about rocks whose existence is entirely hypothetical, when we have more pressing matters to attend to, such as where to take our friends for lunch tomorrow.

  • Bugmaster

    I suspect that most Christians, at least, would consider the last statement to be far more essential to their understanding of the “objective truths” (“real” but not “material” or scientifically testable) than the others.

    A skeptic would define “objective truth” as “a truth that can be demonstrated through evidence to anyone and by anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof”. I realize that you meant “objective” in a more poetic (i.e., subjective) sense, and that’s fine; just be aware that your choice of words may not be as clear as you think.

  • hapax

    Well, to continue with the lunch analogy, if someone told me that they had observed my lunch buying behavior and could predict with a reasonable degree of certainty which of ten restaurants I would go to, I’m pretty sure that I would deliberately choose to go to a restaurant I hated, because I really intensely dislike being treated as an object of tests.
    Those who take the Hebrew and Christian scriptures seriously have reason to believe that God feels the same way — “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” Similar sentiments are expressed by deities in the stories of many of the worlds religion.
    And it’s tough to come up with a double-blind test for God, even if you were willing to ignore the ethical dilemmas in testing subjects without their consent.
    Of course, if you’ve got any deity’s signature on a consent form, I say go for it.
    One can do the same with a single individual over time, however. Each of us has a distinct personality, as you say, and what is a personality but a fairly simple model describing our behavior? It’s not complete and it’s not always right, but it’s good enough for government work.
    Well, I would argue fairly strenuously against your definition of “personality”, but that’s neither here nor there. What you describe is good enough for government work, and good enough for relationship work, and good enough for religious work. That’s pretty much what religions DO, after all — get a huge body of people together who describe their interactions with a Personality over thousands of years, and try to draw conclusions about what that Person is like and expects and desires. As you say, “it’s not complete and it’s not pretty” — but I’m rather bemused to hear you essentially arguing to put theology back into its old position of Queen of the Sciences.
    But if those regularities can be perceived, they can be tested.
    Actually, the experiment you describe merely tests for the human tendency to perceive patterns — a physical (neurological) entity — rather than the pattern themselves.
    Which was the point I was trying to make in saying that your original two statements were different. To re-cap, I was disputing the apparent equivalence you were drawing between:
    if they don’t interact with us in a testable or predictable way
    there are deities whose behavior does not show any regularities humans can perceive

    The “short version”, which Typepad in its unpredictable wisdom chose to eat whilst keeping the “long annotion” (an anomaly that I just noticed now, and I’m sorry, because it might have made things more clear):
    The first statement refers to the behavior of the deities, which as free willed individuals I argue is inherently unpredictable, and as (proposed) immaterial entities is untestable except for the responses to it of physical entities
    The second statement refers to *human perception* of the behavior of the deities, which is subject to the well-documentented propensity of human beings to perceive regularities in random events.
    Does what I wrote make more sense now?

  • hapax

    Yeah, Bugmaster, that was very sloppy terminology on my part. I actually do use “objective truth” much more in the sense you define.
    I was still tangled up in Tonio’s apparent (?) definition of “objective truth” of “something that would still exist whether human beings thought of it or not”, which I guess could be better described as — what? A “true object”? :-)
    What I was *trying* to get at there (I think — I’ve just taken my bedtime dose and my brain has gone all loopy again) was that most Christians would argue that the God they worship exists independent of their opinions or beliefs or even awareness of Divine nature, not that such opinions about (or the existence of) that God were objectively demonstrable.

  • hapax

    Crossposting with Bugmaster again:
    Of course, this does not imply that all our choices are 100% predictable at all times — but that’s true of any event, not just of people’s choices
    True. But even the weather in San Francisco is *theoretically* 100% predictable, if one only had access to all data, everywhere, since the Big Bang, and the means to analyze it.
    IF (and this is a big “if”) you accept the idea of free will, human choices are not.
    Of course, I am aware that some people do NOT accept the reality of free will, and argue that it’s an illusion caused by our inability to access and process sufficient necessary background information.
    That, however, is a different argument. If you don’t accept free will, I’m pretty sure that the existence of any gods is a pretty moot point.
    An atheist such as myself doesn’t really consider the question, “does God love me ?”, until he gets an answer to a more important (to the atheist) question: “does God do anything to affect my life in a way that I’d notice ?”
    Well yes. I’ve often not just conceded, but emphatically endorsed the idea that an atheist (or even a strong agnostic) probably should NOT be considering such questions as “What does God want of me?” I don’t waste a second thinking about what zombies want of me (aside from to eat my brains). I don’t waste a second thinking about what my *cousins* want of me, and I not only know they exist, I’ve met them.
    But a page or so back, when this particular tangent began, I was pointing out to Tonio that his insistence that all claims about the supernatural be subjected to scientific tests was puzzling and frankly pointless, because it made assumptions about theists that was totally contrary to the experience of any theist that I have ever heard of.
    I find it difficult to believe that people even *can* reason themselves into theism — although I do believe those who say they have reasoned themselves out of it. Most believers are believers because they ALREADY, to some degree or other, HAVE an answer to the very important question of “does God do anything to affect my life in a way that I’d notice ?”.
    However, once I *do* get that “yes” answer, then I hope you can understand why the follow-up question does outrank lunch, just a little.

  • hf

    Yes, I was going to say that someone used “objective” to mean something close to noumenon. But then, hapax, you seem to have invented this word “immaterial” to mean a contradiction in terms. Nothing can affect matter without opening itself to detection (as I understand it). Unless we go with Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, and in his system all the matter we perceive around us seems partly “immaterial”.
    Also, we all understand what Fred means when he says, “Buck Williams is supposed to be human, and no human would behave like that.” If we give God a recognizable personality, we can in fact make certain predictions. In principle we could invent rationalizations for why God has taken or not taken certain actions, but that seems akin to saying, ‘Maybe the air you experiment on has weight because it contains undefined Earthly contamination, and pure air behaves differently.’ The most general rules of science (which we can and do apply to the actions of individuals) say you don’t get to make that sort of after-the-fact claim.

  • Leum

    If you don’t accept free will, I’m pretty sure that the existence of any gods is a pretty moot point.
    Why would it be moot? I don’t believe in free will* or the super/supranatural, but I still think the latter’s existence or nonexistence is important. First, on an intellectual level, and second because I believe that new information can and does influence our behavior, and that accurate information tends to do so for the better.
    *Not a debate I’m willing to have right now, though, and you can’t make me have it!

  • Anton Mates

    hapax,

    Well, to continue with the lunch analogy, if someone told me that they had observed my lunch buying behavior and could predict with a reasonable degree of certainty which of ten restaurants I would go to, I’m pretty sure that I would deliberately choose to go to a restaurant I hated, because I really intensely dislike being treated as an object of tests.

    …which dislike, of course, could itself be detected by your nosy acquaintances. They need merely notice that they always turn out to be wrong when they tell you their predictions.

    Those who take the Hebrew and Christian scriptures seriously have reason to believe that God feels the same way — “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

    Although apparently you can do it occasionally if you ask the right way, as Gideon and Elijah did. But sure, an omniscient and omnipotent being who wished to remain undetected would have no problem doing so.

    That’s pretty much what religions DO, after all — get a huge body of people together who describe their interactions with a Personality over thousands of years, and try to draw conclusions about what that Person is like and expects and desires. As you say, “it’s not complete and it’s not pretty” — but I’m rather bemused to hear you essentially arguing to put theology back into its old position of Queen of the Sciences.

    Oh, I’m not; as I said, it seems to me very reasonable that trying to model a god’s behavior would be fruitless. For us nonbelievers, that follows from the fact that gods may not exist at all; for believers, it follows from the fact that gods have no known limits on their power, intelligence, or the complexity of their behavior, and perhaps also from the aversion to testing you mention.
    But now I’m a bit confused, because you seem to be saying that most religious people are trying to put theology back into science. If God is not to be tested—or more importantly, if most religious people believe that God is not to be tested—then what are they doing getting together and constructing models of God’s personality based on observational data?
    I mean, imagine that every time you go out to lunch, you notice a bunch of your friends standing behind you and whispering. Every time you say, “Well, how about this today?”, one of them quietly writes it down, looks at the others and nods seriously. But when you ask what they’re doing, they smile and say, “Oh, don’t worry, we’re not testing you. We know you don’t like that.” Seems to me you’d probably get a bit irritated anyway…

    Actually, the experiment you describe merely tests for the human tendency to perceive patterns — a physical (neurological) entity — rather than the pattern themselves.

    Depends what the claimed pattern is. If the claim is merely, “Hey, there’s a face in that cloud, how weird” then that’s a statement about human perception first and foremost. If you can identify a pattern in the human perception of patterns–for instance, that humans often see faces in clouds—then you can account for it easily enough.

    The first statement refers to the behavior of the deities, which as free willed individuals I argue is inherently unpredictable, and as (proposed) immaterial entities is untestable except for the responses to it of physical entities
    The second statement refers to *human perception* of the behavior of the deities, which is subject to the well-documentented propensity of human beings to perceive regularities in random events.

    Ah, so you would prefer the first statement to say “if they don’t interact with us in a humanly testable or predictable way?” Sure, that would be more precise; in fact, that’s how I was thinking of it in the first place.

  • Anton Mates

    hapax,

    True. But even the weather in San Francisco is *theoretically* 100% predictable, if one only had access to all data, everywhere, since the Big Bang, and the means to analyze it.

    Under what theory? Under our current understanding of physics, this is certainly not true; perfect prediction of the weather is simply impossible, since it’s influenced by indeterministic events on a quantum scale. Even if some determinist “hidden variable” refinement of quantum theory turns out to be true, it would almost certainly need to be nonlocal, meaning that all data since the Big Bang wouldn’t be enough—you’d need data from the future as well.
    (Of course, there’s the simple way of predicting SF weather with 100% accuracy. Build a machine which spits out a piece of paper reading “FOG” every day.)

    IF (and this is a big “if”) you accept the idea of free will, human choices are not.

    Only if the version of free will you accept is contra-causal. Hobbes, Hume and Dennett all defend ideas of free will which are consistent with determinism, although they do not require it.
    And many modern defenders of contra-causal free will argue that the weather (and the rest of the physical universe) is also indeterminist; indeed, quantum indeterminacy is often proposed as a mechanism for contra-causal free will these days.

    If you don’t accept free will, I’m pretty sure that the existence of any gods is a pretty moot point.

    I’ll have to join Leum in asking why. I don’t accept free will either, but I don’t see why that would make the existence of gods a less significant question.

  • hapax

    hf, how do we know what something “immaterial” can or can’t do?
    We know that immaterial concepts — Pratchett’s Big Lies — can affect matter dramatically. But Kant aside, those sorts of noumena aren’t exactly Dingen an sich. They do not have existence, as Tonio pointed out, outside of human beings to conceive of them.
    Once again, I am not saying that theists are proposing for rigorous examination for empirical plausibility an immaterial object that can affect material objects. They are claiming to have already experienced such a Being.
    It’s perfectly reasonable to say that “I don’t believe that such an object is logically possible.” It is perfectly reasonable to say that “such an object is neither testible nor necessary in any scientific hypothesis.” What is not perfectly reasonable is to say “such an object must be subjected to the rigors of scientific analysis before anyone believes in it, talks about it, or acts according to an understanding of its nature” — because by the definition of *the people who have experienced it*, it is OUTSIDE the proper boundaries of scientific investigation.
    If we give God a recognizable personality, we can in fact make certain predictions.
    Once again, according to the Christian understanding (and please let me repeat that I am not speaking for any other faith system) we do not “give” God a personality. God already HAS a Personality. I capitalize this, because most Christian theologies are very clear that God’s Personality is not at all like a human personality — that is merely the closest word we can use, due to the difficulties of human language.
    This is one of the principle objections to all forms of Biblioatry. God is conceived as something so radically Other that trying to confine God to the limits of human words and concepts — even “inspired” ones, even if you consider “inspiration” as error free dictation — is blasphemous.
    But just to say that God is not perfectly comprehensible is not the same as saying that God is completely incomprehensible. Nor is saying that God is not predictable the same as saying that God is chaotic or inconsistent. It is saying that the ability to access and process sufficient data to understand and predict God is outside all human capabilities — let alone that one enormously powerful and useful but still limited human tool called the scientific method.
    Theists are always trying to observe our understandings of how God has interacted with the material world in the past, and make predictions about the future. But the honest ones also admit that even the poor data we have is incomplete, subjective, and possibly garbled or even falsified. It isn’t a matter of making an after-the-fact claim; the claim that god(s) are NOT human (although they may sometimes act in a way similar, accessible, and comprehensible to humans)is pretty much built into the definition from the beginning.
    I truly don’t understand why it bothers people so much to posit that there are entities that human beings simply CAN NOT understand, riddle we never so wisely. I, at least, would be saddened and horrified if there were not more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies…

  • hapax

    I don’t accept free will either, but I don’t see why that would make the existence of gods a less significant question.
    If there is no such thing as free will, it doesn’t matter if there are gods or not. My reactions and choices in response to their existence or non-existence are merely illusions that I was determined to have anyway.
    Why should I waste time on it, except as an exercise in pushing pretty words around a page? (Not that’s a Bad Thing, of course. But I’d rather make up stories about werewolves and anthropomorphized scientific principles than about the Christian God, who is a pretty unwieldy protagonist to work with, even if one presumes the constraints of Actually Existing)
    Lots of other interesting points raised, which I am honestly not blowing off. I do enjoy and respect courteous debate on this, although it never seems to resolve anything.
    But my fingers keep sliding off the keyboard, so I must emulate Pepys, before I start perpetuating italics or other atrocities…

  • Because, Hapax, it seems, to me at least, to be throwing in the towel.
    It also seems a rather…unrigorous(?) stance to take.
    See, we’ve yet to encounter anything in the entire universe that we cannot understand. There are things that we cannot have an intuitive grasp on, lots of them, but that’s not the same thing.
    So by assuming from the get-go that we cannot understand something, well, it just doesn’t jive with thousands of years of human experience. Given enough time, it would seem, we can understand anything.
    Plus, of course, if God was not understandable then, I’d argue, he’d make a pretty poor deity. Something we cannot comprehend cannot be good, or just, or moral, or, for that matter, evil, petty, and selfish. Those are all things that only have meaning in relation to us and our perceptions.
    Indeed, unless God was roughly as understandable as any given human then we’d run into that problem. A human can be good or evil. Azathoth cannot.
    So, that’s another reason to question the “we can’t understand him” stance.
    Finally, the God of the Bible is very clearly very, very, very human. He describes himself using very human adjectives, seems to have very human whims and desires, and seems generally like what you’d get if you took a paragon of the culture that wrote the particular book that you’re using for reference and made him very powerful.
    And, finally, the scientific method is not so limited. In theory if we had enough data (and computing power) we could predict, with very good accuracy, the future. We could certainly predict with nigh-100% accuracy how any given human would act for their entire life (we don’t have anywhere near enough data or processing power to do this now, but I don’t see it being impossibly far in the future). It doesn’t seem too off to say that, again, with sufficient data and processing power that we could do the same to God.
    Of course, even stopping short of that, the scientific method would give us the best possible understanding of God that we could have.

  • Bugmaster

    Well, to continue with the lunch analogy, if someone told me that they had observed my lunch buying behavior and could predict with a reasonable degree of certainty which of ten restaurants I would go to, I’m pretty sure that I would deliberately choose to go to a restaurant I hated…

    …Then it still looks like your behavior is fairly predictable. In fact, I can easily build a very simple machine that will act as you say you would. The machine will have 10 buttons; each button would have a light next to it. I will write down a restaurant next to each button. I will then press the button next to one of the restaurants, indicating my prediction of the restaurant it would choose; the machine will then light up some other restaurant on the board. Do you think such a machine would have free will ?

    And it’s tough to come up with a double-blind test for God, even if you were willing to ignore the ethical dilemmas in testing subjects without their consent.

    I don’t need a double-blind test to discern the existence of hapax. I’m pretty sure she exists. Granted, I could do a double-blind test if I wanted to, but this seems excessive. I’d settle for a similarly less rigorous test for the existence God, but, so far, no one has produced any…

    That’s pretty much what religions DO, after all — get a huge body of people together who describe their interactions with a Personality over thousands of years, and try to draw conclusions about what that Person is like and expects and desires.

    Whoa ! You’ve just told us that religions collect available evidence, and build a model of their chosen deity based on this evidence. But a few paragraphs ago, you told us this wasn’t possible. So, which is it ?

    there are deities whose behavior does not show any regularities humans can perceive

    Yes, and there may indeed exist some rocks on some asteroid somewhere that are very beautiful, but whose beauty I can’t perceive. I am going to go ahead and live my life as though those rocks didn’t exist, until I have some indication that they do, in fact, exist. But, if things are as you say:

    But just to say that God is not perfectly comprehensible is not the same as saying that God is completely incomprehensible. Nor is saying that God is not predictable the same as saying that God is chaotic or inconsistent…

    …Then God does have a perceptible effect on the world, unlike my made-up rocks. After all, weather is not entirely predictable, nor entirely comprehensible, but we can nonetheless observe its effects. A world without weather in it would be radically different from our world in which weather exists, and one does not have to have faith in anything in order to see that. So, is this true of God as well ? If not, then a world without God would be a world where some random events happen in unpredictable ways; and a world with God is a world where the same random events happen in other unpredictable ways. If there’s no way to tell which world you’re living in, then God is superfluous, just like my fictional space-rocks.
    Of course, if what you said above is true, and God is predictable in at least some ways, and religions (which ones ? Christianity, Hinduism, Wicca ?) have built up a model of his behavior — as imperfect and flawed as that model might be — then we should be able to make some predictions based on that model. After all, we can currently predict the weather to a certain degree, as well; not perfectly, of course, but reliably enough for “government work”.

    If you don’t accept free will, I’m pretty sure that the existence of any gods is a pretty moot point.

    I don’t see why; these two concepts seem orthogonal to me.

  • hf

    @hapax: Well again, Kant doesn’t so much talk about the immaterial as suggest that matter does not exist. A worldview has to fit together internally. If you say that something can affect “matter” without opening itself to detection, then you must logically say we don’t understand matter. (Which seems technically true.) “Immaterial” thus seems like a silly word that helps nobody.
    I capitalize this, because most Christian theologies are very clear that God’s Personality is not at all like a human personality — that is merely the closest word we can use, due to the difficulties of human language.
    Have you tried not using a word for it? Because I keep trying to understand you when you do, and I usually just feel annoyed.

    Practically, “I concentrated my mind upon a white radiant triangle in whose centre was a shining eye, for 22 minutes and 10 seconds, my attention wandering 45 times” is a scientific and valuable statement. “I prayed fervently to the Lord for the space of many days” means anything or nothing. Anybody who cares to do so may imitate my experiment and compare his result with mine. In the latter case one would always be wondering what “fervently” meant and who “the Lord” was, and how many days made “many.”

    Oh, and: If there is no such thing as free will, it doesn’t matter if there are gods or not. My reactions and choices in response to their existence or non-existence are merely illusions that I was determined to have anyway.
    That seems about as wrong as a sentence can get.

  • hf

    Perhaps I should explain that blockquote. The author, Aleister Crowley, often speaks in strange and formally contradictory ways about his experiences. He also says roughly, ‘If you want to understand what I mean, I suggest you do such-and-such. Don’t just bang your head against the brick wall of trying to interpret the word-like noises I make.’ He seems aware of the problem. In fact, he seems properly embarrassed by his failure to get the meaning across.
    Whereas I get the impression that if hapax tried suggest a practical way to understand her God, she’d describe some action that many atheists do all the time without having any experience that compels them to post unhelpful metaphors.

  • Anton Mates

    hapax,

    God already HAS a Personality. I capitalize this, because most Christian theologies are very clear that God’s Personality is not at all like a human personality — that is merely the closest word we can use, due to the difficulties of human language.

    Okay, but you must know (or hypothesize, at least) something about this Personality, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to say that “personality” is the closest word in the English language. You’d have no reason not to talk about God’s Chestnut Wardrobe instead.

    God is conceived as something so radically Other that trying to confine God to the limits of human words and concepts — even “inspired” ones, even if you consider “inspiration” as error free dictation — is blasphemous.

    Fair enough, but if God’s so completely Other that you can’t even effectively talk about him/her/it, why is anyone trying to discuss God’s behavior and make predictions about it?

    But just to say that God is not perfectly comprehensible is not the same as saying that God is completely incomprehensible. Nor is saying that God is not predictable the same as saying that God is chaotic or inconsistent. It is saying that the ability to access and process sufficient data to understand and predict God is outside all human capabilities — let alone that one enormously powerful and useful but still limited human tool called the scientific method.

    But the scientific method is applicable to tons of not-perfectly-comprehensible things. Heck, as far as we know, the physical world itself is one of those things. We can understand and predict the summed spin of two entangled electrons, but we don’t know how to predict the spin of each individually, and so far as modern science can tell, we never will know. That’s not a science stopper–we just describe the properties of electrons we do seem able to investigate, and shrug our shoulders at the rest.

    I truly don’t understand why it bothers people so much to posit that there are entities that human beings simply CAN NOT understand, riddle we never so wisely.

    Oh, I’m fine with that. There may be all sorts of such entities; by definition, I wouldn’t even know they exist. So I don’t think about them. What would be the point? Any belief I could have about them would be, by definition, wrong.
    The thing I’m having trouble with here is the notion that there are entities we CAN NOT understand, making scientific investigation useless…only at the same time we sorta kinda can understand them, making some other sort of investigation useful. Possibly this is because I was bit by a radioactive logical positivist as a baby.

    If there is no such thing as free will, it doesn’t matter if there are gods or not. My reactions and choices in response to their existence or non-existence are merely illusions that I was determined to have anyway.

    I’m not terribly sure what you mean by “illusions” there. But if there’s no such thing as free will, then you’re going to go ahead and have those reactions and choices anyway, so, well, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t matter. Does it?
    My lunch choice may have been decided at the dawn of time by the Great And Powerful Universal Wave Function, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel like a burrito today.

    Why should I waste time on it, except as an exercise in pushing pretty words around a page?

    Is/ought fallacy, no? It’s an interesting factual/philosophical question whether your choices are predetermined or random or (in some non-contradictory sense I’ve never been able to understand) “free,” but why is that relevant to what you should do?

  • Mabus: What I mean is that the text, considered in the broadest sense, is more important than what anyone else says about the text
    At the risk of taking things too far; that’s your complaint about what a lot of the discussion here you disagree with boils down to. The text isn’t an ideal, and people interact with it (as we discuss the bible, and it’s application to everyday life). Texts are not freestaning objects.
    With some texts (say… the bible) knowing what the original text is can be hard. I really like Wilfred Owen. I’ve got a book of his poetry, with notes and examples; taken from his manuscripts. There are some real problems with the later poems.
    He died before they were published, there are strikeout and marginalia. Which of those are what he really wanted? Was he done (they seemed polished, but maybe he was playing with them still).
    So “the text above all” isn’t really all that useful. Context matters.
    Jason’s comment about M*A*SH is a perfect example. The book was written as a memoir of Korea, with elements of protest. The film was made as a reaction to Viet-nam, and the TV series started that way, but became a more generic thing, long before it’s end.
    So the “text” changed, and looking at it, none of it is coherent to itself.
    Re, “Our God is an Aweswome God” The first time I saw that on a commercial, I thought it was terribele. The words imply the actual existence of other Gods.
    There’s also Bruce Cockburn’s version of “Always look in the Bright Side of Life” (YouTube)
    Katz: Which is why virtually every Bible includes a note to that effect before that story and the end of Mark. And indicating the other handful of interpolated verses. Wha…? Because I’ve met (and been lectured to by) the KJ = The divine word of God, other than which there is no other sorts, and I’ve looked at a lot of bibles without any emmendations, footnotes, etc. The issue of transmission is as important as that of translation.
    Torah scrolls have a really good QC regimen, but even at that there are questions about passages which seem to have been corrupted. When you get to the Christian texts, well they were letters, and memoirs. They are in conflict in places. When copied the copiest might try to clarify (or correct) the things which were confusing to him.
    And that shoots inerrancy in the foot.
    Animus: I think He, who is without sin. Otherwise it would be “Him, whom is without sin. (the subject/object relationship carries through). If you recast the sentence you get, “He who is without sin may cast the first stone.”.
    Hobbes: We don’t know yet if the 2000 election was all that important. It really depends on the after effects. If the way the country is run (with the acception of presidential immunity become permanent) than, for the US, 2000 will be really significant. If we manage to reassert the idea that all are equal before the law, then it will be important, but not as important as the election of 1860. (and I have heard [well read] of Beornwulf of Mercia)
    Jeff: If there’s a translation error there, who knows where else there might be translation errors. That way apostasy lies.
    No, that way lies exigesis.
    Re aliens as kids: Have you read, “Waiting for the Galactic Bus, and “The Snake Oil Wars”
    NRH, DoTF, CoPRatUoT(AC), OoSt.P,wDB: Re bass playing: Have you looked at the Chapman SticK, and it’s ilk?

  • Jason

    @Pecunium –
    I am wondering if perhaps the “text above all else” thing is mainly just a lack of critical thinking skills on the part of *some* adherants. That would account for some of the thought processes to keep out any pop culture that is not RTC approved, because they seem to use text above all else across the board when it comes to all media.
    I see Monty Python’s Life of Brian as a parody of the weaknesses of organized religion which is often right on the money. They see it as blasphemy.
    I see Harry Potter as a fantasy story that can also teach kids good things about friendship,loyalty, doing the right thing, etc. They see it as a promotion of pagan religions.
    etc. etc. etc.

  • Hobbes

    @Pecunium:
    Most praise songs are made from one or two snippets from the NIV, RSV or Living Bible translation of a Psalm, repeated and varied ad nauseum. In the case of “Our God is an Awesome God”, this doesn’t seem to be the case. I’ve never liked that song. I’ve also never liked any song that repeats the word “holy” over and over. (We’re told several times that various prophets witnessed angels singing “holy, holy, holy” over and over, but at least when they do it, it’s probably not tedious and boring.)

  • Jason: Yes, and the differences in how the text is taken (that same text, in the time it was written) is why textualism is suspect.
    Add all the troubles of transmission, translation and education (because no one comes to the text without being taught to it, if nothing else in the gaining of the skills to read it; the bible, in particular, is taught to be people before they can read. Then when they get books of “Bible Stories” those have been chosen, edited and shaped, to teach things about, “meaning”
    Maybe what the authors are ultimately asking Christians are: Would you die for your Christian beliefs? Would you give your life for Christ, when it comes down to it? Many characters in this series die for Christ, would you do the same? Think about it.
    If that’s what they were trying to talk about they’ve not only done a piss poor job in the text, they’ve not made it clear in the commentary.
    What, one wonders, do you mean by, Give your life? As Mother Theresa did? Or as St. Barbara did? I grew up reaing martyrologies (to tie into horror reading), and I don’t really believe that not being willing to “testify unto death” that I believe is all that important. What I do, is more important than what I say.
    I look at Matt. and the separating of the sheep and the goats, and it makes me think that matters more to God too. The core tenet of so many of the parables (and miracles and direct teachings) is, “be good to one another.”
    Katz: Acronyms take the correct article for the word-name of the first letter, if they are read out (an RTC, a JDAM), and the correct article for the phoneme, if they are read as a word (an ACE).

  • Dsluchin

    The Mahalia Jackson video linked in the post is no longer available, but this one’s good:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1A8iaJEORfo