Alex’s Heresies – embracing a physical reality

news, commentaries and articles dedicated to a non-dualistic view of the world

Comment: Atheism and Losing God

At the conclusion of my atheism course I was challenged by one attendee to respond to the loss of the fundamentals of religious faith, those common aspirations that sit beneath all rituals and texts of religions. He and others saw comfort and hope being fundamental to religious offerings.
 
Our everyday experience can be frightening with its apparent pointlessness – contingent nature of our existence, daily routine work, familial deaths, regular disappointments, and relationship heartaches. Even Plato, some 2,500 years ago and prior to Christianity, sought to imagine something eternal and perfect, separate from the transitory existence of our world and our lives. He saw extant physical things as imperfect and transitory copies of eternal templates or forms: all trees are imperfect copies of the ideal perfect tree. Augustine of Hippo, many years later, christianised this thinking with us as imperfect and fallen copies of God. Most atheists would see these as implausible ploys for offering certainty in an uncertain, transient world; we call them religions. So, what are the common ‘losses’ for atheists?

 

Hope for a future ‘beyond’

Let’s start with the big one. The mundane and short nature of our lives, some eighty years if lucky, seems a cruel trick of nature to play on self-aware beings. And worse, we soon realise that once dead we shall fade into the forgotten mists of time, lucky to be remembered one generation later. Believing in a caring, eternal god with an after-life offer some comfort;  ’see you again in another life’ at a funeral epitomises this hope.

Atheists who reject an afterlife, and some don’t, see the life ‘here and now’ being the main game in town: building families, cultivating friendships, pursuing meaningful activities, engaging in personal reflections, and seeking general well-being of others to name a few concerns. Seeing this life as a mere staging post for some sort of imaginary future eternal existence – constant blissful or torturous – seems an abdication of life. Life is winning the most improbable lottery of all and one to be seen as offering promise and hope; that’s an atheist response to our existential absurdity, not religious delusion.

 

Assigned purpose in life
‘Make your own purpose’ is a common response from an atheist. The idea that a God has ordained a purpose for individuals and for humans in general – a linear (or Eastern cyclical) pathway to enlightenment or salvation – seems contrary of all our experiences, as atheists see no necessary or automatic progression to an ‘ideal’. Our lives are bound up with family and friends, as we have evolved as strongly social creatures, seeking the company of others. These interactions provide genuine meaning and purpose, not ancient scriptural interpretations of a Christian god or an Islamic god or a Jewish god or tribal gods.

 

Given moral compass
Without gods and religions we would not know good from bad; we could do bad things unknowingly; and without god’s carrot and stick we would want to do bad things. The faithful need religion to be good, to do the ‘right’ thing. Atheists must rely on their own moral sense without god’s help; they see moral sensibilities coming from some combination of biological evolution shaped by culture. And, guess what, religious faith makes little difference for doing good and bad things. Other factors seem far more important.
 
We evolved the biological structures to co-exist and cultures shaped the behaviours. Sharing, fairness, others reactions, and tit-for-tat all seem wired in as common denominators throughout all people. Cultures – different social groupings – then produce a bewildering array of acceptable and unacceptable moral behaviours, varying across cultures and over time. Today’s immoral racism replaces yesterday’s moral and often religiously-justified racism. Was that a change of God’s mind or better communication from God some 1500 to 2500 years after Jewish, Christian, and Islamic sacred texts were written? Atheists look to secular principles like ‘minimising harm’ when deciding moral disputes and, in reality, so would most religious people in a Western country like Australia. In practice even many religious people give lip-service to religious authorities when deciding most moral issues. Thank god!

 

Final Comments
Atheists argue that we should be mature enough to stand upright in our world without a prop from a god belief (or delusion). Engaging with life,  family, and friends gives genuine fulfillment “here and now” with a sense of continuity. Guilt-provoking though comforting religions are too high a price for most atheists to pay. Religious hope equates to a lotto-style dream with a high price tag. It’s a poor substitute for the reality of living.

 
Alex McCullie
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Letter: Please research my God

I received the following letter:

hi,
i was reading your blog, and i highly disagree with your god vs. santa first of all santa is faux and god is a very wonderful and real thing. You may belive what you wnat o to byt a wise man once said he who belives will live eternally in a pkace of gold and wonders with me. Heavens roads are made of gold and youll never thirst again for i am all you need.I dont think your quote to ponder is corect either. It hurts me when people don understaind christ, do me a favor and research god then see what you think. Because whether you like it or not god loves you more than you could imagine.
Fel than emptiness in you, its the hole that can never be filled without jesus.
Thanks,
Aynonomous

The more I think about the language of religious believers and those of non-believers, the more I realise that we perceive vastly different realities or world-views and, essentially, do not share the same language. I discussed these issues during my recent ‘Problem of Evil’ course at CAE in Melbourne. We listened to debates between intelligent, caring people who presented views of the world that were diametrically opposed. Religious people talked of a superior reality with God that framed Earthly suffering as a challenge of understanding God’s will. Naturalists (and atheists) spoke of the superfluous nature of God in explaining the extensive, indiscriminate nature of pain and suffering in our physical world.

The writer, quite naturally, tells me to research his God with the implication that I shall know his God. But my God is the philosophers’ God – an intellectual concept that can be analysed and criticised. I do not get the religious experience that is of primary interest to the writer. I even suspect my very reasonable intellectual understanding of the Christian scriptures and early Christian history would mean little to him. Ultimately I don’t see what he does. Of course it is easy, perhaps all too easy,  for me and fellow atheists to retort how can we as it doesn’t exist!

Alex McCullie

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Comment: Problem of Evil (3) – Religious View

Unlike naturalism, a traditional Christian religious view conceives of a conscious, eternal reality over-arching our mundane world. This reality is conceptualised as God – a God who created our transient world; who is needed to maintain it; and who is intimately involved in all its workings. As God is perceived as all-perfect, our world must have also been created all-perfect and, most importantly, for a purpose. So why do we have suffering?
Humans were created physical, like other animals, but also uniquely endowered with the ability to “find” God, a spiritual side. However wanted people to freely choose God, so he created us with free-will to choose or reject God. So, within a religious view, people are freely able to do good or to create harm and suffering. That is the cause of “moral evil”. “Natual evil”, suffering from natural causes and suffering of other animals, is the dramatic backdrop or environment needed for true human moral growth, so-called “soul-making”.
If all this seems confusing, we need to realise that it is presumptious and arrogant to apply human moral standards and expectations to God’s will. By nature we are limited physical beings with finite knowledge of our physical existence. God’s will is infinite by nature and so far beyond our conprehension.
So, ultimately, a religious response to the problem of evil is to suggest people were created with “free-will” so that we would willingly find God. The apparent imperfections of the world arise from the choices we freely make – good and bad – and from our inherent lack of understanding of God’s infinite motives and workings.

Problem of suffering as seen within a religious view – will of God

Unlike naturalism, a traditional Christian religious view conceives of a conscious, eternal reality over-arching our mundane world. This reality is conceptualised as God – a God who created our transient world; who is needed to maintain it; and who is intimately involved in all its workings. As God is perceived as all-perfect, our world must have also been created all-perfect and, most importantly, for a purpose. So why do we have suffering?

Humans were created physical, like other animals, but also uniquely endowed with the ability to “find” God, a spiritual side. However God wants people to freely choose him and so gave us free-will, the ability to choose or reject God freely. So, within a religious view, people are freely able to do good or to create harm and suffering. That is the cause of “moral evil”. “Natural evil”, suffering from natural causes and suffering of other animals, is the dramatic backdrop or environment needed for true human moral growth, so-called “soul-making”.

An alternate explanation involves achieving a greater good. Like a caring parent who administers bad tasting medicine to a sick child, God has to allow some suffering to achieve a greater goods that more than compensates to associated evils.

If all this seems confusing, we need to realise that it is presumptious and arrogant to apply human moral standards and expectations to God’s will. By nature we are limited physical beings with finite knowledge of our physical existence. God’s will is infinite and so far beyond our comprehension.

So, ultimately, a religious response to the problem of evil is to suggest people were created with “free-will” so that we would willingly find God. The apparent imperfections of the world arise from the choices we freely make – good and bad – and from our inherent lack of understanding of God’s infinite motives and workings.

Alex McCullie

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Comment: Problem of Evil (1)

The ‘Problem of Evil’ powerfully challenges a belief in God. It argues that the existence of God, implicitly taken as all-powerful, all-knowing, and morally perfect, contradicts the presence of evil in the world. Such a God should be able to stop or prevent evil occurring and being morally perfect would will it so. Suffering continues so God does not exist.

The evil (or suffering) is pervasive and not just resulting from human immorality. People of all types and ages as well (as other living things) suffer terribly from natural disasters and diseases as well as the immoral acts of others. Suffering is distributed across the innocent and guilty, the religious and the irreligious with no obvious patterns. A similarly behaved parent, class teacher, military leader or political leader inflicting such pain would be charged with a string of heinous crimes. By any human moral standards the inflicted suffering would be comprehensively condemned. However God is supposed to be better than any person, morally perfect beyond our moral capabilities by an infinite measure.

This argument against the belief in God is compelling. The simplest logical argument is:

EVIL (1)   The world contains instances of suffering (evil)
GOD (2)   God exists – and is all-powerful (and therefore able to deal with it)
(3)   God exists – and is all-knowledgeable (and therefore knows of the suffering )
(4)   God exists – and is perfectly good (and therefore wills good and not evil)

If you affirm (2), (3) and (4) you are denying (1) or, alternatively, (1) contradicts (2), (3), and (4).

Most philosophers do not support this harshest form of the Problem of Evil: any evil or suffering  disproves the existence of God. Most allow for some suffering for a specific greater good, similar to a parent giving a sick child some bad-tasting medicine. Many support a probabilistic view that with the extensive and indiscriminate suffering in the world the Christian God is highly unlikely to exist.

The strength of the Problem of Evil has forced Christian thinkers for many years to justify the rationality of believing in the existence of such a God while accepting the presence of evil or suffering.

Comments

The ‘Problem of Evil’ attacks antiquated concepts of God and Evil, both inexorably linked to the Middle East of some 2000 to 3000 years ago. These ancient peoples were far removed from today’s protected lives – largely illiterate, tribal societies with superstitions, demons and evil spirits dominating short, hard, and brutish lives. Thirty years or more was old-age; five children per family were needed just to maintain the population; and a tooth absence was a death sentence.

Originally people worshipped gods to survive precarious existences with little interest in or conception of an after-life. They needed protection against a palpably real Evil. Worshipping one all-powerful god introduced problems of responsibility. How could a morally-perfect god create so many everyday hardships and calamities? Warring immoral gods never had that problem. Over time evil spirits and demons transmuted to a personified Evil, a powerful (not as much as God of course) Satan, seeking to undo God’s fundamental goodness. Even the after-life, never a personal part of most polytheist pagan religions and only a later development of Judaism, helped to shore up faith amongst seemingly indiscriminate hardships. Paul’s Christianity later institutionised that as an intrinsic part of Christian faith.

Over the years Christian thinkers have twisted and adapted God and Evil to suit the sensibilities of changing societies. St. Augustine rightfully de-objectified Evil to avoid a devastating dilemma – God, a morally-perfect being, having created Evil. So Evil, at least for the theologians, moved from fearful objective existence to “lack of goodness”, a deprivation – the metaphorical hole in the doughnut of God’s goodness.

So why study the Problem of Evil when the underlying concepts are so irrelevant to today’s secular society? Firstly, it is interesting intellectual puzzle-solving. Brilliant minds have contributed intricate arguments weaving newer and newer clothes for the emperor. Also, secondly, millions of conservative Christians still hold to these concepts.  Famously George W. Bush was one of those who saw very-real Evil lurking around every corner, only kept in check by faith in a super-human God.

Alex McCullie

References

Peter Kreeft, Christian philosopher

Notes on the Problem of Evil (Sandra LaFave)

Problems of Suffering (further arguments) Trevor Major

Video of a debate at University of Melbourne (Last month)

Audio debate on God and suffering with William Craig

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Comment: How powerful is all-powerful?

Christians, Muslims, and Jews – the traditional ones – quite happily refer to their God as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good without much reflection. And this seems natural and necessary for something deserving of unreserved devotion. These qualities of God are treated as perfection without peer.
So what does all-powerful mean especially in light of all-good? Do the concepts even make sense? Though believers in the pews seem unperturbed about these ideas, it has been the focus of intellectual activity by philosophers and theologians for hundreds of years. One famous paradox is God’s ability to create a rock so heavy that even God cannot lift it. The general consensus amongst theologians seems to be ‘no’. So that is the first limitation of all-powerful, only things logically possible.
How about 2+2 equals 4? Again the feeling seems to be that God cannot make 2+3 equals 4. Add that to the list of cannot do’s. This is one of many logical impossibilities that God cannot do. A person being both 25 and 40 years old at the same time is another.
How about past events? World War started in 1939. Can an event that has already happed be changed by an all-powerful being? Again the consensus is no. It seems that changing past events is beyond even something all-powerful.
Can an all-powerful God make a person freely choose an action? ‘Make’ and ‘freely-chosen’ seem necessarily contradictory. So that needs to be added to the list of restrictions.
So all-powerful seems to mean doing anything except
That is necessarily false (2+3=4)
Logically impossible (‘unliftable’ rock)
Completed in the past (WW2 started 1939)
Enforce ‘freely-chosen’ actions by people.
Finally, can an all-good, all-powerful God who commit evil? It seems not. It is necessarily impossible for an all-good God to commit evil even though all-powerful. We have the interesting situation that people are able to do something at God cannot do – commit evil. So in that limited sense we are more powerful than even the all-powerful God of the Christians, Muslims and Jews.
So what are God’s limitations? God cannot do the following:
That is necessarily false (2+3=4)
Logically impossible (‘unliftable’ rock)
Completed in the past (WW2 started 1939)
Force ‘freely-chosen’ actions by people.
Commit evil even though we can! (assuming all-good)
So, when do we reach a point that the religious see this God does not warrant unreserved devotion?
Alex McCullie

Christians, Muslims, and Jews – the traditional ones – quite happily refer to their God as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good without much reflection. And this seems natural and necessary for something deserving of unreserved devotion. These qualities of God are treated as perfection without peer.

So what does all-powerful mean especially in light of all-good? Do the concepts even make sense? Though believers in the pews seem unperturbed about these ideas, it has been the focus of intellectual activity by philosophers and theologians for hundreds of years. One famous paradox is God’s ability to create a rock so heavy that even God cannot lift it. The general consensus amongst theologians seems to be ‘no’. So that is the first limitation of all-powerful, only things logically possible.

How about 2+2 equals 4? Again the feeling seems to be that God cannot make 2+3 equals 4. Add that to the list of cannot do’s. This is one of many logical impossibilities that God cannot do. A person being both 25 and 40 years old at the same time is another.

How about past events? World War started in 1939. Can an event that has already happed be changed by an all-powerful being? Again the consensus is no. It seems that changing past events is beyond even something all-powerful.

Can an all-powerful God make a person freely choose an action? ‘Make’ and ‘freely-chosen’ seem necessarily contradictory. So that needs to be added to the list of restrictions.

So all-powerful seems to mean doing anything except

That is necessarily false (2+3=4)

Logically impossible (‘unliftable’ rock)

Completed in the past (WW2 started 1939)

Enforce ‘freely-chosen’ actions by people.

Finally, can an all-good, all-powerful God who commit evil? It seems not. It is necessarily impossible for an all-good God to commit evil even though all-powerful. We have the interesting situation that people are able to do something at God cannot do – commit evil. So in that limited sense we are more powerful than even the all-powerful God of the Christians, Muslims and Jews.

So what are God’s limitations? God cannot do the following:

That is necessarily false (2+3=4)

Logically impossible (‘unliftable’ rock)

Completed in the past (WW2 started 1939)

Force ‘freely-chosen’ actions by people.

Commit evil even though we can! (assuming all-good)

So, when do we reach a point that the religious see this God does not warrant unreserved devotion?

Alex McCullie

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Comment: Armstrongs God Fades Into Irrelevance

Progressive Christianity writers, like Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, and Francis Macnab, seek to make God more reasonable within today’s scientific view of the world. God is now portrayed as an ineffable essence instead of a well-defined infinite being, now less conflicting with science. His influence is through personal experience and not physical interventions. The risk for Armstrong et al. is that they move God from unbelievable to irrelevant.

Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins submitted pieces to Wall Street Journal arguing this point (see link).

NZ Myers in his blog unabashedly declares that Saving gods by making them even emptier of meaning

I made a similar point about Progressive Christianity’s loss of authority by claiming so little at a recent public lecture to the local atheists society (and was taken to task by a member of the Progressive Christian movement).

Here are two formats of the presentation:
Atheist Society talk Sep 2009: Progressive Christianity pdf (right-click to save)
Atheist Society talk Sep 2009: Progressive Christianity (new web page)

Alex McCullie

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Comment: Quantum Theory – the Backdoor for God

As our view of the world becomes more physical and more causal, our understanding becomes less friendly to a free-wheeling God that seeks to operate outside of this realm. Well, that is until we discovered the craziness of the sub-atomic world of Quantum theory. This world offers new meanings to remote influencing, time travel and multiple space occupation by one thing not to speak of probablistic causality. For the religiously and mystically inclined this is “manor from heaven” (sorry for the pun) for God, consciousness, and, in fact, any new-age force or energy.

Here is an opinion piece from New Scientist along the same critical lines.

Alex McCullie

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Comment: Ancient Morality (Biblical Style)

I don’t quite know what to make of the Old Testament (Jewish scriptures) authors. I’m thinking of the morality of the ten plagues that God inflicted on the Egyptians.

You know the Bible story. The Israelites were enslaved and poorly treated by the Egyptians. Moses was commissioned by God to free the Israelites with God’s divine power. After some poor starts with his own people’s doubts and with ignored threats, Moses enacted the first five plagues with God’s help. Pharoah was unconvinced. So God changed his approach. Before enacting the worse plagues God ensured that Pharoah would still resist even against his own best interests (“hardened his heart”). Therefore God was able to inflict more pain and suffering on the Egyptian people as well as show his absolute supremacy over Pharoah as a rival “living God”. The final plague was a beauty with the killing all first born humans and animals.

I’ve always struggled with the US decision to drop the second atomic bomb over Japan to end World War II. Was the time delay enough for the Japanese to surrender? US argued it was. Here God wouldn’t allow Pharoah to surrender. Now, I don’t  hold any credence with this story – I’m not that gullible. In fact there is no or very little extrabiblical support for any Jewish captivity in Egypt let alone a mass escape to freedom. However these stories do say a lot about the religious authors of the Jewish scriptures and their moral values.

I know we need to be relativist when assessing the moral values of past generations. But it is hard to see how the forced infliction of pain could be venerated in scriptures. How would have these writers responded to our examples of evil – Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Idi Amin? Admiringly?

Alex McCullie

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News: 571 Proofs of God’s Existence

What can I say…

Hundreds of Proofs of God’s Existence (website)

Oh, it’s not serious!
Alex McCullie

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News: Sarah Palin – We’ll Miss You

The newspaper, The Age Online, has an amusing article about Sarah Palin’s future and the word from God.

Defeated Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin says she hopes God will “show her the way” before she decides on any future bid for the White House.

However the devoutly religious 44-year-old mother-of-five said that if God wanted her to run for the highest office, she hoped to be shown the way.

“You know, I have – faith is a very big part of my life. And putting my life in my creator’s hands – this is what I always do,” Palin said.

“I’m like, OK God, if there is an open door for me somewhere, this is what I always pray, I’m like, don’t let me miss the open door. Show me where the open door is,” she added.

“Even if it’s cracked up a little bit, maybe I’ll plough right on through that and maybe prematurely plough through it, but don’t let me miss an open door. (full article 11 Nov 2008)

If you understand this, I’d advise keeping it to yourself and not admitting to the fact.

Alex McCullie

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