Politics, philosophy, religion, and other things

Monday, April 30, 2007

Red or green?

I hope New Mexico doesn't lose its chiles (h/t Matt Yglesias). I've never lived anywhere so dedicated to a particular plant. The obsession is strong enough to influence McDonald's corporate culture, which offers (as far as I know only in NM) green chile sauce with its hamburgers. Almost everyone I knew would go on treks in the summer to the chile farms and buy big boxes full of peppers to freeze. And the standard by which every restaurant was judged was the quality of the red and green sauce. I was also interested to finally discover relationship between the chile and the Anaheim pepper. I used to have fierce arguments with NM natives about whether it is possible to buy chiles in the Northwest. I maintained (incorrectly according to the article) that the Anaheim is the same thing, which was a somewhat heretical notion among New Mexico's true believers.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Busy day

I was busy at a conference all day and afterwards went to a concert with an old college friend--so I'll finish up my series on Inerrancy later. It is always fun to catch up with old friends as I get to tell them about all the good music and interesting books I've been reading. Right now that essentially means I rave and rave about my complete and total crush on Lorrie Moore.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Biblical Inerrancy Pt. 2

Yesterday I laid out some of the reasons Christians have accepted the doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy. As I see it, there are two primary reasons motivating this belief:
1) The belief that a perfect God would only "inspire" a perfect book--where perfection is understood to include complete factual accuracy as well as correctness of doctrine.
2) The need for a hermeneutical methodology austere enough to provide authoritative interpretations of the Bible.

These are two different types of motivations. The first presents an argument for the truth of the Inerrancy doctrine, while the second tells us why something like the Inerrancy doctrine is necessary for Christian belief. Today I want to focus on the first reason and see if this is in fact a successful argument.

Initially, this argument might be read like this:
1) God is a perfect being.
2) Anything created by a perfect being is also perfect.
3) The Bible was created by God.
4) Therefore, the Bible is perfect.
5) Anything that is perfect must be without flaw.
6) Errors of any kind (factual, theological, moral, etc.) would constitute a flaw.
7) Therefore, the Bible is without error.
8) The Bible is inerrant.

Obviously, atheists will be unpersuaded by this argument as they do not accept (1). However, as I said initially, my goal is to show why the Inerrantist view is not a likely view even on explicitly Christian grounds. So I take it that we must accept (1) as one of our axioms (yes, I'm aware that some Christians, including even some that are closely tied in with the evangelical community [such as Clark Pinnock], question the traditional understanding of (1), but I take them to be a fairly insignificant minority). However, after that we immediately run into problems. Normal Christian doctrine would have it that everything has been created by God. Thus, God has created many things, such as humans or wormy apples, that are not perfect. So (2) seems to be obviously false. But that doesn't seem fair. Surely something else is meant when we say that God "inspired" the Bible than just ordinary creation. After all, in some senses God has created all books, but yet the Bible is still supposed to be uniquely inspired by God. So how can we fix up (2) to better catch what is meant by the doctrine of Inerrancy?

After she had finished creating the universe back in Genesis 1, God pronounced everything to be good--perhaps a way of saying that it was blameless and perfect. And then, so the story goes, humans messed things up by disobeying God's commands. So perhaps (2) should be replaced with:

(2)* Anything solely created and/or influenced by a perfect being is perfect.

While that would seem more correct, we now run into problems with (3). In order to derive (4) using (2)* we would have to also change (3) to:

(3)* The Bible was solely created and/or influenced by God.

But that seems incorrect. After all, the general doctrine of Biblical Inspiration acknowledges that the Bible was in fact written by humans--it just claims that these humans were divinely influenced when they were writing. But, for instance, it would seem very unlikely to claim that there is nothing at all of Paul in his epistles, especially as they are written in the first person, and given the personal tone at the ending of most of the epistles.

So this argument fails to prove that based solely on the perfection of God the Bible must be perfect. Because the writing of the Bible is uncontroversially mixed with the labor of humans, there is no requirement that the end product, even of a divinely inspired process, be perfect in the way claimed by the Inerrancy Doctrine.

But wait a minute. Can't the Inerrantist still claim that while it is perhaps not necessary that the Bible be perfect, as a matter of fact, God did inspire the Biblical writers to pen a perfect text? Well, that is a possibility. However, the perfection of God does not provide us with a reason to think that he did so. We would need some other reason to think this true, and I am not aware of any respectable arguments beyond the one I have presented.

But okay. Assume that God did in fact create a perfect text. Does that prove that the Bible is inerrant? Well, no, not really. For that conclusion we still need two more premises, and while (5) seems fairly unproblematic, (6) is probably false. Think of it this way. Based on 1-3 anything solely created by God would be perfect. But humans were created solely by God. Does that mean they are/were perfect? Well, yes, in a way it does. However, the creation of some perfectly good things, such as free will, are thought to only be possible by allowing the possibility of imperfection to arise. Thus, it is not possible to create a perfect human being without allowing her to choose to do evil as well as good. Thus, because God in creating human beings desired them to be able to freely choose to obey/worship him allowed them the possibility to not do so. But that doesn't mean that his creation was not a perfect creation.

In the same way, when we evaluate the claim that the Bible is perfect we must evaluate it in terms of the purpose for which it was created. It is not, for instance, a perfect cookbook. Nor is it a perfect mathematics text. But that doesn't take away from any alleged perfection it might hold. It was not written to be a cookbook, thus it takes nothing away from it to say that it doesn't have great recipes.

In the same way, we can say that the Bible is not primarily written as a scientific, or historical, or even as an ethical treatise. Rather, its primary purpose is as a text that brings us closer to God. In that light we cannot make the assumption that either historica, scientific, or even moral correctness are either necessary or even helpful in bringing us closer to God. Suppose as a thought experiment that the theory of evolution is in fact the correct account of the rise of biological diversity. It seems to me entirely possible that a religious text that used this theory as its theory of creation would be unacceptable to most people living two thousand years ago. So if the Bible had included the theory of evolution in Genesis it would have been factually correct, but religiously imperfect. And since it is the the religious goals of the Bible that are its primary goals, that means that in order for it to be a perfect text it would have to include some factual errors (and there are similar arguments about moral truths).

To sum up, the primary motivation for believing the Bible is a perfect text is based on an unsound argument. Furthermore, even if the Bible is a perfect text, that is not enough to show that it is without factual error. God, as a perfect being relating to a world that is imperfect is forced to lower herself to the human level in order to communicate with us in meaningful ways. And really, this should come as no surprise to the Christian. Among the major world religions Christianity is unique in its doctrine of the Incarnation--that God so loved the world that he was willing to lower himself enough to actually become a human being, with all of the frailties incumbent on that state. Why should it be any surprise that he is also willing to use any imperfect human means necessary to communicate his desires and plans for his human followers?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Biblical Inerrancy Pt. 1

Many people assume that it is not possible, or at least kind of pointless, to discuss theological or "spiritual" issues with someone from a different religious tradition than your own. I think the assumption is that most people's religious beliefs are based on grounds not amenable to rational discussion and so unless you share the assumptions of the believer it is impossible to change her mind.

I find this argument largely unpersuasive. Most religious people I know do not consider themselves to be irrational in their religious beliefs. They often have a different conception of rationality, but there is still an underlying logic to their beliefs. Accepting the underlying compatibility of their beliefs with rationality makes it necessary for them to respond to arguments identifying inconsistencies in their beliefs. Thus, even if you do not accept a particular set of religious presuppositions it is still possible to criticize it for logical consistency. Besides, most theological beliefs are far removed from the sort of core assumptions that are the ones that have to accepted on the basis of faith.

In that spirit I want to ask some questions and make some points about the Christian doctrine of Inerrancy over the next few days. Now for many this might seem to be going after low hanging fruit, but as this doctrine is very common in both the Christian and Muslim religions I think it is important to address. While I am a secular atheist myself, I think that some of our religious traditions are important and influential ways of understanding the world, and as such deserving of respect. However, I also think that some of these traditions, or at least aspects of these traditions, have had and continue to have pernicious effects on modern society. I think the doctrine of Inerrancy is one such (at least in Christianity--I'm not as familiar with how it has influenced Muslim countries--although the fact that it usually accompanies fundamentalism makes me suspect it has had a negative effect there as well), and so will make some criticisms of this doctrine and propose some alternative ways of understanding the the main Christian concerns driving this issue.

I am sometimes surprised that non-Christians don't talk about this issue more than they do. After all, around 30% of all U.S. citizens believe "the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word." People will often refer to this belief, usually scornfully if they do not hold it, or with great fervor if they do, but rarely address the reasons why someone might accept it.

First, I want to narrow the issue. I am not interested at this point in addressing the general doctrine of the divine inspiration of the Bible. I take that as a core Christian belief that rejecting would largely result in rejecting Christianity generally. Rather, Inerrancy refers to a particular understanding of what it means to say that the Bible is divinely inspired. This understanding interpretes the doctrines of inspiration to involve two distinctive claims:

1) The Bible is completely without error, including on matters of fact about history, science, psychology, ethics, or most pertinently, theology and spirituality.
2) There is a determinate meaning to all Biblical texts that is accessible by an application of a "literal" reading of the text.*

Why would Christians believe these? Well, the first is easy to understand. God is supposed to be a perfect being. The Bible is a divinely inspired (or "god-breathed" from 1 Timothy 3:16) collection of books. Hence, the Bible should also be perfect. Something like, if God wrote a novel, it would be a perfect novel, if he wrote a scientific treatise, it would be completely without error, because anything with error is by definition able to be improved and so not completely perfect. Ostensibly if God is perfect then he should have the ability to inspire a perfect document, and since he loves all humans would be motivated to do so, and that is why we have the Bible. The acceptance of this argument is why believers in Inerrancy often understand attacks on the accuracy of the Bible as implicitly being attacks on the power or authority of God himself.

It is more difficult to understand the reasoning behind the second thesis. However, I think its roots lie in the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). When the Protestant Reformers rejected the authority of either the Pope or the church fathers to make authoritative interpretations of Biblical texts they were left in a bit of a bind. On the one hand they were placing Scripture on an even higher pedestal than previously--it was viewed as the only divinely inspired and thus authoritative documents for Christian practice and doctrine. But they still had to restrain their more adventurous members from outlandishly heretical interpretations of Scripture. Since they could no longer appeal to the interpretation of their own church leaders as authoritative, what would be their response to someone who held heretical beliefs based on a different reading of Scripture? How would they adjudicate between differing interpretations?

It seems they could only do so if they could enforce the claim that a particular method of interpreting the Bible was correct, and furthermore a method austere enough that it could rule out alternative interpretations. With these goals in mind the attraction of emphasizing the literal interpretation of texts becomes obvious, as it allows you to cut down on more imaginative or fanciful interpretations as being illegitimate.

My guess, and this is primarily a guess, is that this reasoning is also why evangelical and fundamentalist Christians reject the claim that they represent only a relatively recent movement in Christianity. They see themselves as the continuing in the mainstream of the original Protestant thinkers by continuing to emphasize the unique authority of the Bible and claim that it is in fact the mainline liberal Protestant denominations that have diverged from their heritage.

Tomorrow I'll examine these arguments in greater depth to show why I think, even if you accept the core theological claim of divine inspiration, they are not convincing proofs of Biblical Inerrancy. After that I will present an argument or two demonstrating the superiority of alternative ways of understanding divine inspiration.

*However, the literal reading should be understood as only the default reading. Even the most dedicated Inerrantist acknowledges that the Biblical authors would often use literary devices such as metaphors and parables to make their points. The point is that we should only accept a metaphorical reading when there are textual markers that the author is intending a passage to be understood in a non-literal manner. This is why many Inerrantists prefer talk of the "plain meaning of the text," or the "intended meaning of the author" as being the authoritative hermeneutical method.

Gay rights vs. Abortion Rights

A couple days ago I mentioned the evangelical Christian focus on the issues of abortion and gay rights. I actually think this is changing, especially as even conservatives become more disillusioned with President Bush. We can see evidence for this in the recent rebuke of the National Association of Evangelicals by Dr. Dobson and other evangelical leaders for distracting people's attention from "the great moral issues of our time, notably the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children," by talking about global warming as also being of great importance.

However, I think there is an interesting contrast between these issues. Abortion has been legal for over thirty years in the U.S. (and for many more years in some states). But yet it is as divisive an issue today as it was when Roe v. Wade was ruled on. Unlike with Brown, the court's decision in 1973 did not lead to a consensus among Americans of the morality of legalizing reproductive freedom. There are doubtless many reasons for this, but at least one is the existence of respectable philosophical and political arguments supporting bans on late stage abortions. Thus, philosophers have continued writing important articles and books arguing about abortion whereas segregation is basically a dead issue--you will find no serious politician explicitly supporting old-school segregation.

I think gay rights is different. I'm not familiar with any argument against (for instance) gay marriage that is taken seriously by philosophers or other political thinkers.* Thus, the main impediments to granting equal rights to the gay community are social in nature.** Social attitudes take time to change, but they are also much more susceptible to top-down change--such as through court or legislative decisions. Because these beliefs are not based on political principles, but social prejudice, one of the best ways of convincing people to change their minds is to legitimize the full personhood of homosexuals by allowing them to engage in the normal activities of society--things such as marriage, youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts, disallowing employer discrimination, etc. In the same way that desegregation forces people to interact in normal, everyday ways with the people that were formerly stereotyped or feared, and so generally works to lessen those stereotypes and fears, it would seem that the more political legitimacy homosexuals achieve the less people will be able to maintain the sort of prejudices they currently hold.

*Of course there are a number of arguments made against gay rights on the basis of religious commitments, which might superficially make it appear to be similar to the abortion issue. However, I think people forget that many of the strongest opponents of desegregation, and even more obviously, equal rights for women, came from the clergy or based their views on religious grounds. But these movements were successful in part (at least legislatively) because the philosophical assumptions of both liberals and conservatives assumed equality for all persons, and so made it very difficult to justify the discriminatory practices that the civil rights movement and feminism were fighting against.

Also, I tend to think that people overestimate the direct influence of religion in the abortion debate. The Bible actually has very little to say about the conditions for personhood or at what stage that status is achieved. It is much more clearly misogynistic in ways that most Christians would today reject. It seems to me that the relationship between abortion and religion is very complex, and that while religion is a major reason why many Christians (especially Catholics) view abortion as immoral, the further arguments attempting to also show why we should outlaw it are not necessarily so explicitly religious in nature.

**Of course, if someone does have an argument against gay marriage not explicitly based on religious beliefs, or if they can explain why in a liberal democracy like the U.S. I should pay attention in this way to their religious beliefs, I would be interested in hearing it. And I mean this seriously, as it is distressing that so many people don't believe in something that seems so blindingly obvious to me as gay marriage, and more generally, equal rights for homosexuals.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Possibility of Insurance

There is a great article by Ezra Klein in the American Prospect describing some of the models of successful health care systems used in other countries--making it clear that the real problem with American health care is political, not economic.

I've been without health insurance for almost my entire life. Except for four years in college, when I had to borrow money to pay for insurance, it's always been out of pocket on the rare occasions I've gone to the doctor. It is sad that with this background it still came as a shock that the U.S. doesn't have a particularly good health care system, let alone the "best in the world."

There is a weird sort of cognitive dissonance common to Young Republicans like I was--we acknowledged that there is a health care crisis, but then just sort of look at it in bemusement, as if it were an act of God--just an inevitable result of the expensive health care needs of modern society.

That is why it was encouraging to discover that it is actually possible to provide both good health service and universal coverage, but discouraging that structural elements of American society (i.e. the insurance companies, Big Pharma, etc.) seem able to prevent us from putting a rational system in place.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Father Judge

For the last several years it seems that most evangelical political leaders have streamlined their social policy demands to two issues: abortion and gay rights. Obviously other issues catch their attention, things like school prayer, abstinence, flag-burning, immigrant deportation, and other vital matters, but most of their political offense, at least rhetorically, has been directed towards changing abortion policy and preventing homosexuals from gaining any more acceptance in society than they already have.

They've been relatively successful in combating abortion in recent years, with their most notable success being the appointment of Roberts and Alito to the Supreme Court, heralding many years of nail-biting split decisions to come. One of the first came down last Wednesday when the Supreme Court voted 5-4 in Gonzales v. Carhart to uphold the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. This decision was notable for several reasons (as pointed out here), but two in particular are worth pointing out.

1. This isn't the first Partial Birth Abortion Law to come before the court. The last one, Stenberg v. Carhart was struck down (among other reasons) because it did not include an exemption for the health of the mother. Undeterred, Congress sent back another ban, still not including a provision for the mother's health, but the new Supreme Court has now ruled this ban constitutionally valid. The importance of ignoring the health of the mother in making such decisions is that it comes very close to recognizing the rights of the fetus--thus laying the groundwork for even more restrictive abortion laws in the future.

2. The paternalism towards women on display in this decision is striking. It is difficult to understand how Judge Kennedy's reasoning is meant to square with the liberal underpinnings of American democracy. As Judge Ginsberg writes in her dissent (which is worth the read):
Revealing in this regard, the Court invokes an antiabortion shibboleth for which it concededly has no reliable evidence: Women who have abortions come to regret their choices, and consequently suffer from '[s]evere depression and loss of esteem.' Because of women's fragile emotional state and because of the bond of love the mother has for her child,' the Court worries, doctors may withhold information about the nature of the intact D&E procedure. The solution the Court approves, then, is not to require doctors to inform women, accurately and adequately, of the different procedures and their attendant risks. Instead, the Court deprives women of the right to make an autonomous choice, even at the expense of their safety.

This way of thinking reflects ancient notions about women's place in the family and under the Constitution ideas that have long since been discredited. (h/t Feministing)

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Geeks and Nerds

According to Wikipedia the term "geek" originally came from "circus geeks," sideshow attractions who attract audiences by swallowing live animals or biting off their heads. Evidently Ozzy was taking notes. Evidently the connection was bridging by viewing people who were overly obsessed by technology as akin to circus freaks and hence deserving of social scorn.

Obviously this has changed. The closest I've come to true geekdom is my SF fandom. But if someone were to call me a geek I would regard it more as a term of approval than as an insult. Like many other pejorative names it has been more or less adopted by techie obsessives as signifying those who are curious and knowledgeable about science and technology.

What is interesting is that the migration in meaning seems to mirror changes in society. I think if you were to call someone a nerd you still mean to imply a tendency towards social awkwardness. Certainly no one who is particularly skilled social would be a nerd--at least not outwardly. But I don't think this implication holds any longer for "geek." So much of our interaction with other people is or can be online that many geeks are in fact much more socially competent than more ordinary types. And perhaps more importantly, part of the social stigma originally associated with these terms was because most people thought of these techie or intellectual interests as peripheral to ordinary life. However, with the increasing importance of computers and the Internet in the economy, the job market, entertainment, and communication a basic understanding of these technologies has become necessary for almost everyone. Thus people value the interests of geeks more than they used to. This is no doubt why the term "nerd" still holds most of its original meaning--there has not been a corresponding rise in interest in bookish or purely intellectual pursuits.

Of course, it is possible that my understanding of the common usage of these terms is inaccurate. The people I know are those who would tend to be more sympathetic to the interests of geeks and nerds.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Taking responsibility

I watched Gonzales's Senate testimony on C-SPAN on Wednesday, and like most (even Republicans), was distinctly underwhelmed. As seems common when Gonzales has to defend his own actions, or the actions of the DoJ, or the administration, he relied heavily on catchphrases and slogans. One that I found particularly irksome this time was his repeated insistence that he "takes full responsibility" for the U.S. Attorney firings.

Soundbites like this can be annoying. They often oversimplify complex policies or act as code words to insult our political opponents. But, they still generally maintain a modicum of meaning. Gonzales tried to go even further in this case. He seems aware that as the head of the Dept. of Justice he is responsible for major decisions such as firing these attorneys and so repeated it several times. However, he seems to think this is merely a verbal formula, something to say, like "I'm sorry," rather than an actual acknowledgement and acceptance of consequences.

The point is that claiming responsibility for an action means that you are admitting your culpability, i.e. that you are willing to accept the consequences for that action. But that is exactly what Gonzales was trying to avoid in his testimony. He admits this entire brouhaha was poorly handled, but is not willing to do take what would seem to be the appropriate response in stepping down from his position.

After all, what would "taking responsibility" mean for Gonzales? That he apologizes? That he offers these positions back to the fired attorneys? That he change how he runs the DoJ? Well, in a normal situation we would say that taking responsibility would mean doing what you can to fix the problem you created. In this case, the problem created by Gonzales was a loss of confidence by the public and the Congress in the competence and impartiality of those running the DoJ. He can solve that problems--by either resigning or explaining in a manner transparent to all how there was nothing improper in his firings. Since he has been unable to do the second, for him to do as he claims he is in "taking responsibility," he must resign. Otherwise, his claim that he is "taking responsibility remains almost entirely content-free.

When Christians wonder why atheists aren't more like Christians.

It's been awhile, but I think I'm back. It seems like everyone has to weigh in on the VaTech tragedy, and inevitably that means that some people are going to say some silly things. Dinesh D'Souza is one such , opining shortly after the shooting that atheism is worthless in dealing with the emotional fallout from tragedies of this sort. There are many things to disagree with in his post, such as his assumption that statements made by one atheistic scientist are representative of atheists in general (nothing against the estimable Mr. Dawkins, but atheists were originally called "freethinkers" for a reason) and his egregious oversimplification of atheist responses to the problems surrounding human meaning and purpose in the universe, which are by no means unique to atheism.

However, I'm willing to agree with him that it would be crass for an atheist to respond to human tragedy by attempting to convince theists of atheism. After all, atheists generally claim that we should try to arrive at our beliefs about the existence of a deity on the basis of reasoned argument. It is difficult in the immediate aftermath of such tragedies to sufficiently distance ourselves from our emotional responses to fairly deal with the evidence of the case.

This shows the silliness of D'Souza's post. He claims the VaTech shooting is an example of a "problem of evil" for the atheist--that they are unable to provide comfort in the aftermath of tragedy. But the obvious reason for this so-called inability is that most people in the U.S. are not atheists. Of course a theist is not going to want to deal with rejecting a core belief after losing a friend, classmate, or child. Of course they will look for comfort in the system of belief they already accept. But this says nothing about atheism. After all, we also generally don't invite Hindu monks or Muslim imams to speak at these events. But yet they are not (usually) atheists. We don't do this for the simple reason that most people in the U.S. are neither Muslim nor Hindu. So there is nothing unique in atheism not having representatives at VaTech to comfort the community. This no more shows the inability of atheism to comfort the grieving victims of a tragedy than it shows the inability of, say, Zen Buddhism. What it really going on here is our tendency to look for comfort in the familiar--which for most Americans is Christianity, but could as easily be Jewish, or existentialist, or Jainist depending on where you live.

As further evidence against D'Souza's claim, and I suspect this is true for most atheists, I find it annoying when a theist tries to comfort me by talking about God or by telling me that he will pray for me. I would rather talk to Dawkins than Dobson about the real meaning of human tragedy. I can forgive them this as I know they are generally well-meaning and this is often the only way they know how to communicate their sympathy for my plight. But it still seems crass and manipulative when someone takes advantage of a painful episode in my life to preach at me.

It seems that D'Souza is unable to find atheism when these awful things happen because atheists have a quality that he should consider emulating: respect for other people's beliefs in times of tragedy.

Update: Fixed the broken link.