Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Water of Life

Doctors save man with vodka drip BBC 10 Oct 2007

Sed Contra II

The human experience of evil is a major problem for polytheists, dualists, and atheists. It's also a problem for monotheists, but one I think they can address best.

Polytheists do not face the same problem (since they can believe in conflicts between gods), but as far as I am concerned polytheism is a trivial answer to the problem of evil.

What clearly does work as an answer is radical dualism, i.e. the view that there are two opposing first principles. Variations on this theme which ascribe evil to a created devil figure do not really provide any answers. Note that while some historical dualisms have posited evil as a conflict between spirit and matter are not the only possible versions. In some forms of Zoroastrianism the Good Principle creates the physical world as an arena for the battle between good and evil. The problem with dualism is that while it does explain a conflict, it does not explain why one principle is good and the other evil. To provide such tags requires a level of meaning more fundamental than the two first principles, which are thus not first principles.

Atheists have perhaps a greater problem with evil. Let me be clear, many, perhaps most, theoretical atheists are highly moral people. Indeed, I think the whole argument that one needs to believe in God to be a good person is off kilter. In practice I suspect habit is the major guide in life to being a good person, and a habit of virtue is the way to be a good human being. (Such a position is entirely consistent with theories of behaviour in many varieties of Catholicism and Judaism). But faced with raw evil, atheism has nothing to say. For atheism, theoretical ethics must be nothing more than a combination of innate instincts and contingent social constructions. It is quite possible from such a point of view to condemn certain acts as destructive of social goods, or to come up with a theory of law. It is much more difficult to say certain acts are absolutely wrong. And it is impossible to see as evil the impact of natural forces. Atheists simply cannot coherently say that pain and suffering are evil.

The problem of evil for monotheists is this:- If God is an all powerful then God could create any possible world. There is a possible world without pain and suffering (and even if there is no possible world consistent with free will that has no pain and suffering, there is surely a possible world with much less pain and suffering than this one.) If God could have created a better world than this one, but did not, then God made evil. If God was not able to create a better world, then God is not omnipotent (and thus not, in an important sense, God at all).

There is no easy answer to this, but I think monotheism does provide better answers than the alternatives presented.

First, with God as the unique ground of being, it is possible to identify goodness as identical with Godness. Goodness is simply that which is accord with God. Evil is what is opposed to God.

Second, there is at least one theoretical explanation for evil possible with theism which allows both that human experience of evil is real and yet consistent with God as the ground of being. This is Augustine's notion that evil represents lack of actualisation of God's will. I don't find it entirely convincing as an argument, but it is better, I think, than any other.

Third, actually existing religions try to grapple with evil in an honest way. The Book of Job in the Jewish Bible (i.e. the Christian Old Testament) in a novelistic form addresses the reality of evil as it occurs in a human life. Job presents evil as real, random (i.e. not a proportionate response to some human sin), and ultimately inexplicable. It's only real statement is that the will of God is beyond human comprehension. This is scant comfort, but rather more comforting in fact than an easy answer. Christianity could be said to provide an explanation for evil with it's idea that evil is the result of sin. Now, I do think that the current band of published atheists such as Dawkins avoid the quite real issue of human sin, but I don't think myths of Satan tempting Eve provide much of an answer either. What is striking in Christianity is that it's central story - God incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth - does at least involve God in all the muck and mess of evil in the world.

The Christian version of monotheism does not provide an answer to the problem of evil, any more than does the Book of Job, but it does address the reality of evil (and does not try to cast it as an illusion like eastern religions), and states that God is involved in the mess. That, to me at least, provides some comfort.

Sed Contra I

To begin to try to reply to the difficulties I set below.

Whatever science discovers there remains the quite real problem of why anything exists rather than nothing at all.

Some religious traditions have not taken this as a major issue - the Buddha supposedly said that if the house was burning down (i.e. if suffering exists) why bother to find out who built the house. Nevertheless, the question of why something rather than nothing remains important.

Note that, even if certain far eddies of science manage to show that we live in one of many universes, or that all matter and energy were created in a kind of random quantum action, the question would remain as to why anything rather than nothing. I suppose that it might be possible to reject all notions of causation.

If we take the position that the ultimate explanation for there being anything rather than nothing is X, then that X would be insufficient if it were not the explanation of its own existence. It is this X that I and other religious people want to identify as God.

Note that any notion of a god who is responsible for this Universe, but requires an explanation for its own existence is not the God of western theism.

It is true that there are very many different varieties of credal religion, but the God who is the ground of being, to use an old phrase, is the same universal God of ALL varieties of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism; the same God as the God of philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, Plotinus, Spinoza, and Kant; the same God as the God of Stoics and Deists; and the same notion of the absolute found in certain forms of Buddhism (i.e. the Adibuddha concept). In other words, I would claim that assent to the idea of such an argument for God cannot be put down to mere issues of an individual's upbringing.

The X as answer to the ultimate question can not, on this consideration alone, be understood as the personal God of Christianity, Judaism, or Christianity. Belief and faith in a personal God requires further considerations. But, in so far as the question of why anything exists rather than nothing at all remains a serious question, then intellectual assent to the idea of a ground of being is also a serious answer.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

God Does Not Exist

I am a believer in God, but not a very good one.

How I actually act in the world seems to have more to do with habit, the usual mix of good desires and bad desires - all affected on a daily basis by genetics, psychology and the pressure of living. Plus, I am not very good at prayer.

Once upon a time I used to be able to set aside time and really try to "practice the presence of God." That does not really happen any more.

Nevertheless, I will still affirm as true that the world has both a creator and a meaning, that God was incarnate in the historical individual Jesus of Nazareth, and that God is manifest in the world through the emanation of grace, seen above all in the sacrifice of the altar - that "God was man in Palestine/And lives today in bread and wine" (Betjamen).

But, so as to be fair in argument, I want to try to come up with the best arguments against faith in God.

[I am not interested in the discussion about "religion." Religion is the area of my academic study. Religion is a sociological universal. It has good effects and bad effects. It will continue to exist whatever the current arguments conclude.]

1. Science has produced better and better descriptions of the universe. Not everything is explained, but unless one is willing to make the untenable statement that "science has reached it's limits", there is no reason to suppose that the explanatory power of science might not increase *without limit.* As an outside observer (three years of high-school calculus almost killed me), it seems clear that we are in a time of massive scientific advances in understanding without parallel in human history. Science is THE great intellectual adventure of our time. Nothing should be done to hinder it in any way. Science (especially physics/neurobiology) may make God unnecessary.

2. It is morally repugnant to make God the author of all good in the world (beauty, great virtue, mother love) and yet to excuse God for all the real suffering in the world. This is a typical Christian approach.

3. If God, (as I believe) is best know through revelation, why are the so-called Holy books such awful texts? The Koran *appears* plagiarized; the Old Testament is almost completely fallacious as history; the New Testament presents no real problem in the Synoptic Gospels, but the Gospel of John is (almost) from another religion entirely. Buddhist and Hindu scriptures (admittedly not "revelation") are, to an honest westerner, simply tripe.

4. Joseph Smith. Mormonism is (apart from the anti-Gay bit) a really NICE religion. It encourages group solidarity; it does NOT condemn all non-Mormons to hell (just a less nice heaven); Mormon architecture is on the edge of the camp and inspiration, but it is pretty great over all. Despite all this, I think Joseph Smith was a fraud from upstate New York. Why don't I think this about all founders of religions?

OK, that's my best, most honest, set of reasons to deny faith in both God, and specifically Jesus.

Despite all this, I affirm my real and deep faith that Jesus of Nazareth is God.

Now, I invite atheists to come up with the best reasons they can think of to oppose their position.