Friday, June 26, 2009

Response to Masoni's Appeal of Religion Part 1

By Rob R

The following is a response to the first part of Masoni's post, titled “The Appeal of Religion." I have written two responses to him before on The Barb Wire, but those topics also stood alone as independent treatments of those topics and did not require a reading of his posts. This one is not so independent, so to get the fuller context of what I'm responding to might require a reading of his post here.

I don't know that I will always post a blog topic here in response to all of Masoni's posts in his series on "The Appeal of Religion." It's just that this was a long response by me and I'd have to split it up since Masoni's blog is allowing only 4000 characters.

The idea of security or hope is indeed an important part of religion and specifically Christianity. The presence of hope demonstrates an epistemic virtue of religion. This was highlighted by Pascal's Wager. [ed. note by Barb to those who've never heard of Pascal: Pascal is the philosopher who suggested there is a wager or gamble involved in belief vs unbelief. He concluded life lived with faith is meaningful and profitable and HOPEFUL even if the faith turns out to not be based in fact --whereas a life lived as an atheist may turn out fine in this life but will be horrible beyond the grave, if Christianity is true. In other words, if atheists are right, neither side loses; but if Christianity is true, the atheist loses everything.]

Granted Pascal's wager has its limits as it doesn't tell us why one should become a Christian and not a Muslim. But this is not a problem if we know its place, and for other religions, we'd have different considerations.

So if Christianity is true and one follows Jesus, then he has gained everything, but if atheistic materialism* is true and there is no afterlife, little is lost. But atheists say that a full and rich life is lost to one of superstition and religious chains. The thing is, that claim is not consistent with the experience of many including myself. I've known unethical and/or unhappy atheists or secularists who live with little to no regard for religion who lived terrible lives and I've known exceedingly happy Christians. I myself am content, though I know I've got some ways to go. The fact that there are miserable and evil Christians whose shallow or distorted religion only makes their lives worse, and ethical and relatively happy atheists, is beside the point. The point is that it isn't consistently true that atheism leads to worthwhile living and Christianity doesn't.

In short, the atheist objection doesn't work, as it is one that is rooted in a non-universal subjective claim.

Pascal's wager may be construed as an argument demonstrating that when considering two views, even if the one that gives the least hope may be more likely to be true, it is still better to hold the view that gives more hope.

Now there is another problem with Pascal's Wager, however, and this also translates to a problem with Masoni's theory on the development of religion. Pascal's Wager, like much of modern Christianity, may emphasize life after death to the point where Christianity becomes a death cult where the whole focus is on what happens after death and apart from this world.

To demonstrate how wrong this is, we need to look at the historical development of the doctrine of life after death.

To many people's surprise, most of the Old Testament does not clearly teach life after death and, in fact, demonstrates that the ancient Jews did not think there was much of a life after death. They spoke of Sheol, but that was barely an existence, if at all.

Some examples are as follows:

The dead do not praise God,

5 No one remembers you when he is dead.
Who praises you from the grave (psalm 6:5)

10 I said, "In the prime of my life
must I go through the gates of death [a]
and be robbed of the rest of my years?"

11 I said, "I will not again see the LORD,
the LORD, in the land of the living;
no longer will I look on mankind,
or be with those who now dwell in this world...
18 For the grave [c] cannot praise you,
death cannot sing your praise;
those who go down to the pit
cannot hope for your faithfulness.

19 The living, the living—they praise you,
as I am doing today;
fathers tell their children
about your faithfulness. (Isaiah 38)

The dead pretty much don't do anything:

5 For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even the memory of them is forgotten.

6 Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun.

7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun— all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, [c] where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. (Ecclesiastes 9)

So the ancient Jews mostly did not look forward to life after death. What they hoped for were blessings in this life and immortality through their children and a good name that would be remembered.

So why did they give a hoot about God and their religion? Because God was active in their history in explicit ways. God provided them with blessings and warned them that their unfaithfulness would lead to curses, and because their identity was based on their membership in Yahweh's people.

It was a few of the later prophets, particularly Daniel, who started to speak of life after death and resurrection in particular.

So what were these reasons for life after death? Just living forever is actually not a very high one. One reason was because they believed that the nature of God's love was so intense that he would preserve them after death. Specifically the view of bodily resurrection actually arose in part because of one of the reasons for believing that there wasn't life after death. That is the goodness of God's creation. The creation wasn't something to be escaped as some Christians today and ancient gnostics yesterday held. But the restoration of creation, of this world, is a part of the Jewish belief, and resurrection became a part of that expectation.

Another reason for resurrection that arose during the intertestamental period was vindication for someone who died a terrible and unjust death. As the tyrant Antiochus attempted to get the Jews to abandon their law by making them eat unclean food, he tortured 7 brothers to death, and their mother who witnessed this called out “[The] Creator of the world who shaped the beginning of humankind and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of the law.” (2 Macc 21-3)

Most relevant to the heart of Christianity, the heart of the gospel, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is not that He did so that we could live forever (an important implication, but not the central point). It implied many things God was showing us-- that Jesus was right in what he taught and that he is the Messiah who will bring God's Kingdom in fullness to this world. It was also showing us that through Jesus, God has begun to renew the created order.

Now Masoni proceeded to compare the relationship with God to an imaginary friend. I'm not confident in the comparison, knowing little about the psychology/sociology of imaginary friends. I didn't have one as a child and my sister had one which did not function in all of the god-like ways that Masoni's “vlad” functions. What we remember is that her imaginary friend, “Mousey” was her scape-goat, so when she was accused of something wrong, she'd reply, “My mousey did that.”

It's not uncommon for atheists to allege that God is like an imaginary friend or Santa Claus. The problem is that there are too many dissimilarities between imaginary friends and the Judeo-Christian God. Imaginary friends of children, as far as I know, may have magical powers, but they do not have God-like powers. But do they provide a source of meaning, of moral reckoning, with worth for individuals and communities? Are they attached to a history and plan for the redemption of the world? No.

God, like an imaginary friend, (and wind, the laws of physics, dark matter, the rules of logic and minds) is invisible. Of course an imaginary friend is personal, but those are about the only common features I see. Neither are they on the same epistemic footing as many atheists would like to imply. And I suspect that most children know on some level that their imaginary friend is imaginary. But the same cannot be said of belief in God. Even many atheists insist that once upon a time, they were real, sincere, genuine Christians when Calvinists say they weren't or when any other Christians suggest their faith just wasn't authentic enough to stave off disbelief.

Masoni notes that when he believed in God, he didn't really heed Him until he needed Him and it wasn't a daily consideration. But this doesn't display a problem with God. This is a matter of spiritual immaturity. It was noted that one would not hold to his Christian belief at a strip club or while cheating on a wife. These are instances of faithlessness and backsliding or just the fruits of a shallow faith. And unlike the imaginary friend, a Christian can't just pretend that God didn't see these things. If he could, there'd be no need for confession and repentence.

The bedroom in general was cited as a place where we wouldn't want God. The reality of our faith is actually different. God in the Old Testament actually mentioned that He didn't want the Jews mixing worship and sex like their pagan neighbors. But it isn't the case that God is not involved. Sex in the context of marriage is a Godly activity, but it is one where we are not focused on God but on the other person in our marriage... as God designed. This is why Paul suggested that couples abstain from sex for short periods so they may devote themselves to God on a greater level. But it was only to be short because sexuality is still an important part of Godly marriages.

The union of marriage, including the sexual relationship, is part of our design for what it means to be created in the image of God. This is why marriage is so sacred. The sacredness of marriage explains why the Old Testament prescribed extremely serious consequences for violating this relationship.

Some of Masoni's next criticisms have more to do with theological determinism and are thus not relevant for all of Christianity. It's not clear that God has a best exhaustive course of action for every detail of our lives as opposed to a range of good options for which we are free to pursue. Masoni asks the question: why should we bother praying when God already has everything worked out perfectly? Besides the consideration for some Christians that God doesn't have an exhaustive plan but rather has allowed his creatures to make plans as well, our prayer is an essential part of the point of just about everything, and that point is that God wants us to have a relationship with Him. Prayers of all kinds, including petitionary prayer, contribute to that relationship.

So if God answers petitionary prayer with an affirmative, He is then called an errand boy by Masoni. I don't see why this metaphor is the best one to describe this relationship. A better one is that God seeks to be our partner. This is not an equal partnership, but it is a partnership, nonetheless. God is hardly an errand boy when successful petitionary prayer often may require that we seek God's purposes in our situations.

Masoni goes on to suggest that when God changes a situation, before giving thanks, we should consider that God caused the situation to begin with. Again, this more consistently applies to the deterministic view of God. I've given an alternative view in my post ”Three Problems of Evil.”

* I include materialism because materialism brings with it the lack of an afterlife. Atheism could still be consistent with life or existence after death as in some forms of Buddhism.


ShitStirrer said...

This is most exciting. Thank you. It seems a shame it doesn't excite other people to the same degree. However, I will pray people will flock in in great abundance.

Barb said...

Very interesting these scriptures reflecting the Old Testament Jewish view of after-life. Shows how scripture is a mix of God's revelation and the history of man's failure to realize that revelation at times.

The Psalmist David said he would "dwell in the House of the Lord forever."

Hope in Christ's resurrection and His promise that we, too, shall live --is a great comfort and gives joy. The Holy spirit affirms this as truth to our souls.

I feel sure that Jesus rose from the dead --as His disciples became bold because of the risen Christ and His promise that they would also overcome death. Nothing else could have made them become brave after seeing Jesus crucified. Who could stand the thought of being thusly martyred for faith??? We can scarcely stand the thought for ourselves --even though we have faith. Imagine what could make the disciples brave except a resurrected Jesus? And if there is a resurrected Jesus, He is to be heeded on ANY topic --including life after death.

Rob R said...

Very interesting these scriptures reflecting the Old Testament Jewish view of after-life. Shows how scripture is a mix of God's revelation and the history of man's failure to realize that revelation at times.

I don't think the old testament failed to realize a revelation on life after death. It was at best too implicit and not obvious (though many scriptures were reinterpreted positively for an afterlife by Jews and Christians later on.)

These statements about the afterlife need not imply otherwise about the Christian belief about the complete truthfulness of scripture, but it does raise the question of what way scripture is true. For example, the psalm about the blessedness of the one who smashes a Babylonian infant to the ground speaks to the dehumanizing nature of oppression.

I think the Jewish developement of the belief in the afterlife at least reflects an important process which itself is very valuable.

Anonymous said...

To Barb and Rob R:

I have challenged you both to a friendly and good-natured debate on my blog.

I just installed a new comment system which should make our little debate bouts easier and more fun.

Thanks. M.

Anonymous said...

I finally responded.