Maybe God is a better person than you think

Maybe God is a better person than you think July 7, 2012

Jesus Creed serves up a guest post by Jeff Cook on one of my least favorite topics: “apologetics” and those awful show-debates between Christians and new atheists.

I love dialogue, I do not love this approach to “debate.” It turns the conversation into a matter of winning and pushes participants away from their complementary quest for truth and towards thinking of themselves as members of Team Christian and Team Atheist. That’s not particularly instructive, interesting or even entertaining.

That tendency infects some of Cook’s post, which reads in places a bit like a coach’s half-time speech for Team Christian (ugh). But if we look past that to the main point of his post, I think he’s saying something rather interesting and important.

After watching a debate between Team Atheist All-Star Sam Harris and some representative of Team Christian, Cook says:

I thought the Atheist won. … I don’t recall anything the Christian said that made me want to believe in his God, yet I had a worthy list of things the Atheist said that made me think the Christian God distasteful.

Cook cites Pascal, who said that Christianity is bound to be despised unless it seems like something that a good person would wish to be true.

What we quite often see these days, instead, is a form of Christianity that no one wishes to be true — not even many of its believers.

Think again of that “I Am Not Charles Worley” essay. I don’t mean to keep picking on poor Halee Gray Scott for writing that, but it’s too useful here to ignore as a classic example of what I’ve elsewhere called reluctant bigotry.

Scott is correct to say that she’s different from the enthusiastically anti-gay bigot Charles “Concentration Camp” Worley. Worley loves the idea that his faith requires him to exclude and condemn. The opportunity to rail against the evil Other and to campaign against the civil rights of LGBT people is, for him, one of the most attractive features of his brand of Christianity.

For Scott, this isn’t an attractive feature, it’s a bug. She wishes it weren’t so. She wishes that God would allow her to be more inclusive and accepting. She wishes that God was as inclusive as she seems to want to be. She wishes her version of the faith didn’t require her to exclude and condemn and oppress, but she doesn’t see any way around it. And so — reluctantly, and as nicely as she can manage — she winds up excluding, condemning and oppressing right along with Worley.

I think Cook’s basic point is correct: It’s very hard to invite anyone to believe anything that they have no reason to want to believe in. It’s very hard to convince anyone to believe in a God who seems distasteful — even to you.

Here’s the really, really weird part of this: Conservative evangelicals reading this are now convinced that what I’m saying here is that we need to reinvent God according to our own preferences. They think I’m saying we need to change what God is really like and who God really is in order to make the idea of God more popular — more palatable and more acceptable.

Let that sink in for a second. Consider the assumptions that shape that criticism — what one would have to presume in order for that criticism to make any sense at all.

What they’re really saying — what they’re really confessing — is that they believe that the actual truth about God is, in fact, unpalatable and unacceptable. They believe that God’s actual character is, in fact, distasteful — that God is exclusive, condemning and oppressive. And that any attempt to portray God as otherwise is a liberal lie.

In this view, God could decide to cherish us, but simply decides not to. That’s worse than “distasteful,” that’s Lovecraftian.

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  • arcseconds


     Science is an investigation of the falsifiable.

    The ghost of Popper lives, I suppose.

    The problem is, that’s not how it works.  You kind of seem to half-recognise this yourself, because you’re also providing Occam’s Razor, which seems to be doing most of the work in your theory selection that you’ve given so far.  But note that Occam’s Razor isn’t an empirical principle, and it doesn’t falsify anything.

    Let’s just take this business about the Earth going around the Sun.  How do we falsify this statement?  Well, we can just look! What could be more empirical than that? Well, the problem there is that it looks like the Sun goes around the Earth (Wittgenstein’s quip not withstanding)

    It turns out that this question is impossible to answer on purely empirical grounds, basically because you need to decide what counts as ‘standing still’ and what counts as ‘going around’.   So you can only ‘falsify’ it in the context of a scientific theory.

    OK, fine. That’s what Popper wanted anyway: you falsify theories, not single statements.  So, I pick Newton.

    But Newton’s theory isn’t falsifiable.

    It’s really not!

    Firstly, of course you can’t just falsify a theory on its own.  You need to turn it into a model of the phenomenon you’re investigating.

    But by definition, in Newton’s theory if a body moves in a way that your model doesn’t account for, there’s a force acting on it of which you were not previously aware.  So there is no experiment that can falsify Newtonian mechanics, only ones that can tell you about new forces.

    And that’s actually a strength of the system, because it gives you an immediate route to improve the model.  And that’s how Newtonian science proceeded: by giving a series of models.  Each of these models were ‘falsified’ by the data the day they were tabled, but no-one rejected any theory, and they didn’t just biff the models either, they revised them by trying to account for the new force they were being told about by the deviation of model from data.

    And it was this unfalsifiable theory that settled the geocentric/heliocentric debate. Not theory simplicity: immediately prior to the publication of the Principia the two dominant theories were Kepler’s and Tycho Brahe’s, and they were only different in which body was held to be at rest: the sun and the earth respectively.  They are both as complex as one another.  You need a dynamical theory to tell them apart.

    Incidentally, the Newtonian answer is not ‘heliocentricism’, but ‘neither’.

    In addition to not being useful when it comes to looking at theories, there’s also the simpler objection that much, if not most scientific work isn’t about proving theories.  It’s about finding new beetles, or making new chemicals, or proving things from existing theories, or showing new correlations, or gathering basic data…  sure, you can say things like “well, the coleopterist is falsifying the theory ‘there isn’t a new set of beetles in that bush’ “, but that’s clearly shoehorning.

  • But by definition, in Newton’s theory if a body moves in a way that your
    model doesn’t account for, there’s a force acting on it of which you
    were not previously aware.  So there is no experiment that can falsify
    Newtonian mechanics, only ones that can tell you about new forces.

    I disagree.

    Newton’s theory is a description of a force named gravity, attributed to the mutual attraction of mass to mass.

    It is falsifiable in the sense that if two objects interacting with each other gravitationally clearly can be acted on by no other force than that of gravity but which nonetheless do not obey Newton’s equations, then it’s not that there’s a new force, it’s that the force doesn’t behave in ways Newton’s theory accounts for (the model is incomplete). Mercury’s orbit is the usual “go-to proof” cited as a problem with the Newtonian theory. It wasn’t much, but it was there.

    One can also falsify the assertion that the force always acts between objects of mass by looking for any case where, once accounting for other forces (e.g. the electromagnetic), the objects do not attract each other at all.

    EDIT: I believe there are some back-of-the-envelope calculations that can show that if electromagnetic effects were ‘contaminating’ gravitational force measurements, that the charge imbalance in the universe would be detectable in very noticeable ways.

  • arcseconds

    Where I’m going with all of this, Guest, is that it’s  easy to get excited about science.  It has provided and promises to continue to provide a lot of cool stuff and answers to interesting questions, and of course there are a lot of people already very excited about it, and enthusiasm is infectious amongst human beings.

    In this enthusiasm, and especially given that the focus is usually on the products of science rather than the process, it’s easy to suppose that science doesn’t just have some answers, but all the answers, and that the process is actually quite simple, at least in principle, and gives (for example) a clear demarcation between science and non-science, and therefore between meaningful and meaningless questions.

    But — and I mean this in the kindest possible way — you know not of which you speak.  There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.I’ve tried to provide a crash course in why the usual simple answers to how science works aren’t adequate, along with a bit of a prod to suggest that you need to work harder on your account of art, which can’t be easily resolved in five minutes because someone asked you about it in the comments section of ‘blog.   I’m hoping that this will prompt some reconsideration on your behalf on whether things really are as simple as you suggest.   such reconsiderations can, and probably should, take a bit of time and further thought and investigation. However, that may just prompt you into becoming a more sophisticated scientist (no mean improvement in itself, mind).  It doesn’t show that you are wrong to think we should stick to the answers science provides for everything.  I can’t prove to you that you should take a wider view in terms you’d accept, of course, but I’m hoping I can gesture as to why such a view might be desirable, or at least defensible by those who hold such a view. Note your reply to Robyrt.  he was attempting to give a question science is ill-equipped to answer, and you:

     a) complained that the question wasn’t formulated in (what you take to be) a proper scientific manner, and

    b) decided to answer a question that science can answer, namely what do human beings think art is.

    As for (a), I think we’d expect questions that science can’t answer would not be cast in a form expected by science (because then they’d be scientific questions which could be answered by science).  So I think this is an unfair complaint. In response (b) you answer a different question to the one first proposed. Now, if you’re clever enough (and you’re pretty clever) you may be able to do this to every question that someone gives as an example of something science can’t answer — complain about its form and then answer a different but related question that science can answer.   That doesn’t show that there aren’t such questions, it just shows you’ve got a really clever way of avoiding them.  No-one can show you your view is inadequate if you’re going to reinterpret everything lying outside your view as something lying inside your view.

    What I want to point out, though, is that this is not very useful from the perspective of the artist.  “What is art? ”  is a worthwhile question for an artist to ask themselves, but how art progresses is not by artists accepting whatever the received view is, but by challenging it, which they do by coming up with their own answer.   Science isn’t going to help them here.

    Now, you may think that the artist is just engaging in meaningless play and it doesn’t matter what irrational ideas float around their heads.  but note the scientist is in an analogous position.  Newton didn’t go “what explains the motions of the planets? I know, I’ll get Gallup to do a poll on the matter and find out.”  he had to work out his own answer.  and by doing so, he redefined what science was understood to be.

    Finally, given that polling the population followed by statistical analysis is not going to be a useful answer for an artist, it’s only reasonable for them to say to you “well, this empirical science of yours is all very well for developing antibiotics and going to Mars, but it’s really not helping me personally engage with the works of my predecessors nor in going beyond them, and it’s not helping me find a new way to challenge the art public, so take your statistical results to someone who’s interested. ”

    Working out whether the religious can make a similar rejoinder is left as an excercise for the reader.

  • One the reasons I love Slacktivist – sometimes the comments are like a philosophy lesson, but comprehensible.

  • arcseconds

    By Newton’s theory, I meant not just gravity, but also the laws of motion.  In fact, i mainly mean the laws of motion.

    It’s the laws of motion which define what a ‘force’ is (something that causes acceleration, i.e. a deviation from constant rectilinear motion).

    Obviously, you need to have this, because just knowing ‘there’s a force between two masses’ tells you nothing if you don’t know what forces do to masses.

    and it’s that portion of the theory that’s non-falsifiable, and it’s non-falsifiable because it’s definitional.

    by those definitions, there’s a force (or combination of forces) acting on Mercury, because it’s not moving in a straight line at constant velocity.   Most of that acceleration is accounted for by Newtonian gravitation — including, incidentally, all but a tiny portion of the orbital precession.  What the theory says is that there must be a further force acting on Mercury that accounts for the remainder of the precession.

    Obviously the theory doesn’t state that the only force is gravity! Otherwise it would have been falsified every time someone threw a ball.  

    Now, remember that the elaboration of the theory always produced models that didn’t fully capture the data, so each model was always falsified (no completely adequate model was ever produced).  The scientists working on it interpreted (as the theory by definition states) that the remaining deviations from the model told them about new forces.  These forces usually involved accounting for interactions not dealt with in the previous iteration, weren’t always gravitational (e.g. tidal friction), and sometimes involved new planets.

    There were always deviations, and always new moves of different kinds being made to explain those deviations.  What makes Mercury any different?  Remember there had been a series of attempts to account for the orbital precession, and most of them worked, and there had been successes in the past using invisible planets and non-gravitational forces, and at least one of the attempts to explain mercury’s ‘anomalous’ precession did actually make a small contribution to the explanation (the oblateness of the sun).

    the question here is not when Newtonian theory is falsified — the models were always falsified, and the laws of motion were never falsified.  The question is when you give up.

      I don’t think that’s amenable to a rational explanation.  If you insist that Newton’s theory must be wrong because we’ve been trying to explain the last bit of the precession of mercury for now without success, and I go “no, no, it tells us there’s another force! something we haven’t discovered yet!”, then who’s right, and why?  Imagine this discussion after we’ve been working on it for an hour.  Obviously you’d be the silly one then.  But when am i the silly one? After a decade? After a century?

    Also think about what would have happened if Einstein hadn’t come along.  We wouldn’t say “Oh, we’ve got a falsified theory, so it’s all bunk”.  What would happen is that we’d teach Newton as ‘the theory’ , with a note that the orbit of mercury hadn’t been fully explained as yet, and the orbit would be a matter of ongoing research.  Some would be looking for new forces, some would be modifying the theory structurally (different index than an inverse square, that sort of thing) just as they had done prior to Einstein, and just as they’re doing now to try to explain things in cosmology, for example.

    You don’t ditch a theory when it’s ‘falsified’.  You ditch it when you’ve got a better one.

    My point here is that falsification isn’t really doing any work.  So my advice would be to stop talking about it.

  • Sagrav

    Um, no, it really isn’t all that complicated.  Fred (and probably most of the people commenting here) rail against the immoral, the hateful, the greedy, etc, but we are all appalled at the idea of torturing those same awful people forever.  There is no justification for such a punishment, it is simply an act of petty revenge.  The punished individual learns nothing from being boiled in molten rock besides “this hurts”.  Even if they understood how bad God thinks they are, they never get a chance to apply that knowledge since their stint in hell is eternal.  The victims of those bad people also don’t gain anything from their former tormentors being tortured unless heaven is filled with people who desire only revenge.  God gains nothing from torturing those individuals unless He is the biggest sadist in the universe.  

    No amount of apologetics justifies an act as barbaric as condemning an individual to unrelenting physical and mental pain forever.  That is what Fred means when he describes the fundamentalist version of God as Lovecraftian.  Such a god is either infinitely malicious (like Cthulhu), so completely alien in its thoughts and actions that even communicating with it is an act of futility (again, like Cthulhu), or both.

  • Wanton_Glance

     I agree with Sagrav’s summary. I’d argue that  fundamentalist groups that use ‘completely alien/unknowable’ as a justification for eternal punishment have not done themselves any favors.  The combination of ‘unknowable’ and ‘delivers unending torment upon all enemies’ is truly terrifying. For me, it also raises questions of trust.

    How can you be confident that such a being’s view of a heaven or paradise is a place you would enjoy? How do you know that you haven’t slightly misinterpreted a message and condemned yourself to agony? Or maybe it’s all a joke and Cthulhu-God places everyone in hell. Bottom-line: If your goal  resembles happiness or safety, why would you rally behind anything this capricious?

  • Robyrt

    Sure – but I don’t think that applies here. The way I read the post, Fred was referring not to people who wish God wouldn’t punish people by sending them to hell, but to people who wish God wouldn’t punish a specific set of people as opposed to others (by whatever method). “What things require punishment?” is a much tougher question to answer than “What are the possible bounds of punishment?” I think.

  • swbarnes2

    Bottom-line: If your goal  resembles happiness or safety, why would you rally behind anything this capricious?

    You know the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life”?

    Do you really not get why the people around the kid acted like they did?  Don’t you think that they were trying to live so that they could get as much happiness and safety as they could, and they sincerely believed that groveling to the kid was the way to do that?

    Sure, the parent’s belief that they would suffer if they defied the boy is 100% empirically founded, but if faithful people aren’t supposed to mind not having evidence supporting their beliefs, why is their stance less understandable?

  • Robyrt

    That’s a valid question – and yeah, Turbo-Jesus is pretty terrifying.  This is such an important issue that it’s one of the Five Points of Calvinism. “Preservation of the saints” basically means that once you’re in the heaven club, God won’t let you out, even if you try to get yourself thrown out. Which seems like a heroic assumption, but it follows pretty naturally from the rest of the Calvinist premises (God is good; therefore God wouldn’t lie to you about heaven being attainable; therefore it is; only God could get us into heaven; therefore he does).

  • Tricksterson

    Logic: Noun: A very effective method of proving what one already believes:

    Ayn Rand said that one’s logic is only as good as the premesises it’s based on and that one should always examine one’s premesises.  What she didn’t get was that once one examines one’s premesises one finds that they’re all flawed, no matter what they are.  They’re just prejudices either acquired or inborn which is why I try , with alas far from complete success, not to have any.

  • Benly

     Sure, an omnipotent being can do that. On the other hand, if it doesn’t want to, then it doesn’t do that. Why doesn’t it give us omniscient brains that can understand its reasoning? Well, I’d be able to tell you the answer if it had chosen to do that. :)

  • Patrick

    Regarding Cthulhu-  Everyone has noticed that Cthulhu is Jesus, right?  Its clearly a lift from the Bible.

    Run through the story.

    Cthulhu slumbers beneath the seas.  One day he will awaken in the form of a massive tentacle mouthed behemoth, and the world will end.  Madness and suffering and horror will descend on everyone, and the only succor will be to those who prostrate themselves to him- for they he will eat first, and spare them the terror to come.

    Jesus lives in the clouds.  One day he will descend in the form of a massive many eyed goat-behemoth, and the world will end.   Madness and suffering and horror will descend on everyone, and the only succor will be to those who prostrate themselves to him- for they he will murder first, vaporizing their bodies and recreating them in the city of the dead, where they will “live” on forever, spared the terror on Earth.

    He’s the same guy.  Take Jesus, and imagine that he’s exactly the same but you’re part of the group of people he’s going to dump on instead of the people he’s going to chill with.  And you get Cthulhu.

  • renniejoy

     Not all religious people claim that their personal interpretations of their own subjective experiences are or should be a declaration of universal Truth.

    Very few people would ask me to prove that I feel cold, or that I hate someone, or even that take-out pizza is one of my favorite foods (something that actually has physical evidence in the amount of money I spend on buying pizza and the garbage produced by it and the number of people at the pizza shop who know what my usual order is).

    There is not and probably never will be physical evidence of everything that people experience, much less their personal interpretation of that experience.

    There are statements which are true for me that have nothing whatsoever to do with being true for anyone else. IMO, descriptions of religious experiences that do not involve claims for any person other than the one(s) experiencing it are in that category.

    Serious question – are empirical evidence and physical evidence the same thing?

  • renniejoy

    Ugh, never mind. I guess making a claim about a religious experience IS making a claim about the ultimate nature of reality.

    I still think it’s rude to demand evidence of it all the time.

  • I think Fred is giving WAY too much credit to the Halley Gray Scotts of the world. 

    I’ve known too many people like Scott. I think Fred’s privilege is blinding him here. No one is telling him he’s not allowed to decide what happens to his own body, for instance. Whenever anyone says, “gee, I do sure wish I was allowed to treat you like a human being but I just can’t,” they are lying. If they wished they were allowed to treat you like a human being, they would treat you like a human being. 

  • “religious people believe that people will sin so even if they do it’s acceptable because they just ask for forgiveness and everything will be OK”

    Er… no?

    Since there seem to be a whole bunch of atheists here at the moment intent on being ignorant jerks: I AM AN ATHEIST. Atheist-agnostic, technically, but I prefer the term “atheist” because it stops people from trying to convince me that their god/s exist. I don’t believe any god/s I’ve ever heard of exist in the forms I’ve heard of them in, and it gets very tiresome to hear the same arguments over and over.

    Now on to this rubbish. Hindus believe if they ask for forgiveness everything will be okay? Wiccans do? Lutherans do? (On that one I am personally qualified to say HAHAHA no.) I was related to some highly religious people: my grandparents. They were all Christian: Baptist/Quaker/Mennonite mishmash on one side and Lutheran on the other. They were all amazing people.  (Except my paternal grandfather, but he does not count by any measure except genetic, and I never knew him anyway.)   None of them thought doing bad things was okay so long as they apologized. I don’t know where you’re getting this delusion from.  

    “I’m not sure how people come up with this mind thought.”

    I’m not sure how you came up with that sentence. 

  • HNA

    Personally, I applaud any theist capable of believing their god’s morality to be.. distasteful. 

    Not because I find the morals assigned to him to be distasteful myself (I do, but that’s not the issue here), but because it means they’re not merely projecting.

    It’s so incredibly rare to find hellfire-and-brimstone believers that decry the policy of their draconian deity, or for that matter happy-clappy believers that feel that god is hopelessly pussified and is soft on sin. 

    The potential for conflict between what people believe *is* true, and what they believe *ought to be* true, is rare and precious and should be cultivated.  The lack thereof in general is one of the major reasons I have so much trouble taking religion seriously.

  • hf

     In fairness, there did exist a time when it looked like only humans could do math. So the existence of mathematical physics (or the importance of math to reality) would have seemed like evidence of a human-like creator. Though now that I see the quote, it doesn’t look quite that well thought out.

  • hf

     are empirical evidence and physical evidence the same thing?

    Don’t know, and in any case it seems better to ask if your experience seems more likely when you A) assume the truth of the theory or B) deny it. If you can actually assign numbers to these two likelihoods (spoiler: you can’t) then their ratio tells you exactly how to adjust whatever odds you assigned to the theory beforehand. Just multiply the two ratios together. (See Bayes’ Theorem.)

    For a sanity check, consider these examples from your post:

    Very few people would ask me to prove that I feel cold, or that I hate
    someone, or even that take-out pizza is one of my favorite foods

    Supposing these claims to be false, why would you lie? Why would the evidence of your words have a high probability of occurring in that case? (The claims themselves may have good prior odds as well. If it seemed sufficiently unlikely beforehand that you’d hate this person, I hope your friend would at least check to make sure you both have the same person in mind.) If in fact a person in your situation might lie — say, if you’re running for public office and for some reason you want people to think of you as a pizza-eater — then in fact we shouldn’t believe you. We might choose not to contradict you if we see no gain in doing so, but we definitely shouldn’t accept what you say just because you say it.

    Another example with relevance for politics: we know from studying people that we tend to have wildly inaccurate beliefs about what gifts will or won’t influence us. This means that your ‘instinctive’ belief on the matter would probably exist regardless of its truth. It doesn’t count as evidence, at least not strong evidence.

    Now consider the claim ‘X loves me.’ We would expect people making this claim to have formed their belief through experiences which seem more likely to happen if X really loves them. In the past I’ve mentioned a scene from “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality,” explaining why Draco thinks his father wouldn’t “sacrifice him like any other pawn in his game.” In the real world, you might have a long string of less dramatic experiences rather than a single defining moment. But if you believe that X loves you without any such evidence, that makes you sound like either a stalker, or an abuse victim, or someone talking about a fantasy.

  • renniejoy

    I will refrain from a substantive response until I am less tired and less drunk. :)

  • renniejoy

     My point is that sometimes people talk about their experiences without actually asking anyone else to do anything but acknowledge that they are usually the best judge of their own experiences.

    Why assume that they are lying or mistaken about their own feelings?

    Religion is not the only area that this hyperskepticism is proliferating in, just the one that is happening in this thread. 

  • Consumer Unit 5012


    The first time I really, really, thought hard and realized with jarring visceral understanding that there was nothing
    in my experience before I existed also means that when I die, it will
    be, from my perspective, as if I had never existed at all.

    On the bright side, your nonexistence before you were born didn’t last then, either.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     “We’re made in God’s image… so if we’re stupid, He must be stupid!” — Reverend Ivan Stang

  • Here’s an excerpt from my response to Jesus Creed and your blog from last weekend: “Certain Christians have a stake in God’s ugliness, not because of a reluctant commitment to ‘objective truth,’ but because a hard God is actually more attractive to them.”

  • Emma

    I couldn’t agree more with everything you posted here. I’ve researched this out extensively and what I’ve found is the Jewish God and the God of Jesus were two different Gods. Even in the book of John, Jesus calls the Pharises’ god a murderer and a devil.