Skip to content

Because I Said So

September 29, 2014

Since I covered evolution last week I thought it would be appropriate to put up this short thought this week. This thought starts with a simple incident every biology professor seems to have experienced. You put a “why” question on a test. It may be, “Why do flowers have brightly colored petals?” or, “Why do cell membranes need protein ‘gates’?” but it’s a “why” question. It’s also a question that is supposed to be answered in an evolutionary context where a more efficient or effective design outcompetes a less efficient and effective design. However, someone in your class dislikes this evolutionary line of thought even though it isn’t explicit in the question or answer and just writes, “Because God made it that way.”

It’s a bad answer. In fact, it’s not merely bad but bad in a multifaceted way. First, it’s obviously not the answer that the question is looking for. Second, it’s generally not advisable to both blow off studying and then cover for not knowing the answer by trying to obliquely engage the professor in a fight about evolution. Thirdly, it’s crappy theology.

There are a lot of ways to answer “why” questions that are technically correct. For instance, the expected answer to, “Why do flowers have brightly colored petals?” is something like, “To attract pollinators so that the plant increases its odds of reproducing.” However, “Because they grow that way,” is also technically an answer to the question. Most of us would realize that it’s not a good answer though – we want to know why plants grow brightly colored petals rather than dull petals and simply stating that they have them because they grow them never touches on the crucial comparison. Similarly, “Because God made it that way,” avoids the crucial comparison. Much like, “Because they grow that way,” it is a statement about how something came to exist that never explains why it came to exist in the way that it is rather than some other way. This is where the bad theology comes in. “Because God made it that way,” is a good answer under only one scenario: God’s motives are beyond knowing.

In some sense it is of course fine to say that God’s motives are beyond knowing. God is not immediately comprehensible to us and no amount of study reveals to us all that God is and knows. However, when one is faced with two alternative designs for a biological part and one is clearly more efficient or effective than the other claiming ignorance of God’s reasons for going with the more efficient and effective design constitutes not merely a denial of having knowledge but of actually knowing that whatever God’s motives are efficiency and effectiveness could have had nothing to do with them. In other words, if X is clearly more efficient than Y and we believe that God chose X saying that we don’t know why God chose X means specifically that God is not interested in efficiency and so our knowledge about the efficiency of X is worthless.

While this is odd theology I actually think it is fairly common. A lot of people seem to think of God not as a being with reasonable motives but as a black box out of which come decisions with no clear internal logic. Why did God give us the Bible mostly as narrative? Because He did. No need to ask whether narrative is especially appropriate to God’s work because God isn’t comprehensible like that. Why didn’t Jesus use his powers to seat himself on the throne of Rome and fix the Roman social order before he was crucified? No reason, he just did it that way. There’s nothing to be learned about the limits of governing power here.

The odd thing about all of this is that it actually undermines God as an authority figure. Some time ago I discussed the nature of authority and the fact that authority exists in at least two pretty distinct flavors. Command authority forces compliance whereas expert authority is followed because following experts produces better results than ignoring experts. If God’s main answer to many problems are “Because I said so” (as this theology I have been outlining suggests) then God has command authority without expert authority. “Because I said so,” is a mere assertion of power to command without any rationale. Asserting that God has command authority but not expert authority takes some of God’s authority away – orthodox theologians have always claimed that God has both sorts of authority. The trick to taking away God’s expert authority is that God has not issued precise commands about everything. Instead, God has taught us about the nature of things. If we must listen to God as an expert and not just a commander we must listen to a great deal more.

There’s one more troublesome aspect to this. People with command authority but no expert authority are usually bad commanders. They tell you to do things that turn out to be really stupid. It’s hard to trust a commander who isn’t also an expert in the area in which they command you. A God Who is a black box from which arbitrary commands are issued isn’t nearly as trustworthy as a God Who is an expert on the universe He has shaped and is guiding you with His expertise.

Evolution and Sin

September 22, 2014

I know plenty of people who believe that one cannot be a Christian and believe in evolution. I know plenty more people who believe that one can be a Christian and believe in evolution but regard these beliefs as belonging to essentially separate spheres of knowledge. I don’t know all that many people who believe that one can be a Christian and believe in evolution and have these ideas interact significantly without seriously modifying one or the other belief. Despite this, I find that my evolutionary thinking and my Christianity frequently run together.

Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist who wrote many books and articles aimed at laypeople, referred to the relationship of religion and science as “non-overlapping magisteria”. In this idea science and religion both have a place but they have separate places that do not interact. A great deal of Christians think about evolution in these terms. They may permit evolutionary thinking but it is supposed to stay on its side of the line between theology and science. One may argue that the creation accounts in Genesis are not world-building guides (I’ve done this at some length) but often the goal is not to let evolution touch anything else.

I find this rather odd. I find it odd first because this is just not how we handle knowledge. If I learn that people work a certain way then I incorporate that into my Christian anthropology. If I learn that a particular economic policy has a certain effect then I use that knowledge when reading the Torah’s guidelines on trade. I also find this odd because I use evolutionary thinking all the time.

Christians talk about the Fall and sin quite a lot. The sinfulness of humanity is a central Christian doctrine and one that I think is hard for anyone with eyeballs to deny. Despite this, there are people who deny this doctrine. The idea that we are all pulled towards evil seems to be a stretch for them. Where are the societies that have devolved into endless torture and murder? Part of this is historical illiteracy – there have been some truly horrific cultures on earth. However, part of this can be attributed to expectations. If we are all drawn to evil are we all drawn to maximize evil? If we were all cut loose from all our better impulses, if common grace failed us entirely, would we all immediately begin plotting the most intricate tortures and betrayals?

I think not. I think, instead, that we should consider evolution for a minute. Evolution tells us that creatures do whatever maximizes their reproduction. Within evolutionary thinking altruism does not exist. Cooperation exists if it aids both parties but true altruism, where a creature puts itself at risk or endures a loss to benefit another creature without any return benefit, cannot. Ultimately evolution tells us that creatures should be supremely selfish. This doesn’t always look like maximizing evil – in modern society the best selfish action is often to stay within the legal and societal rules so that one does not suffer the consequences of breaking those rules. However, in societies where these safeguards fail, or for individuals for whom the safeguards do not work, this does lead to evil. Does evolution push a victor in war to be merciful to the defeated? Only if this is directly beneficial for the victor. More often it makes more sense to loot everything the loser has, kill any of the losing population who might pose a threat, and engage in rather indiscriminate rape to up the odds of successfully passing those winning genes on. This looks a lot like most of warfare in most of history.

Warfare isn’t the only example (although I’ve just been reading about ancient warfare so it’s on my mind). Evolutionary thinking finds sexual harassment unsurprising. It finds greed unsurprising. Nepotism makes perfect sense if all one is ultimately concerned with is the perpetuation of one’s genes. Short-sighted thinking that produces gains for you now but hurts other people down the road is perfectly natural in evolutionary thinking.

I think that one of the great advantages to evolutionary thinking is that it explains what sin is about. If you strip away noble goals and religious commitment you get predictably selfish creatures – creatures that have crawled right out of any evolutionary biology textbook. In some sense sin is a reversion to this state, a rejection of these odd human things we bring with us like moral consciousness and philosophical probings of the meaning of goodness.

I’m not sure how much of this would have actually been news to anyone in the ancient world. I have a sense that the edge-of-survival type of life of ancient people put them into much closer contact with a world in which you making choices to better yourself and your family at the expense of others is more clear. However, for people who feel a long way away from a world of constant struggle to survive I think it is useful to stop and think about who we are with our best intentions stripped away. What do we look like when we become depraved? Are we perhaps exactly what a good evolutionary biologist would have predicted?

What Do We Lose if We Lose the Trinity? Part II: Divinity

September 15, 2014

In part one of this short series I examined the issues involved in splitting the Trinity into three separate gods. In this one I will address a different approach to resolving another problematic aspect of the Trinity: demoting Jesus to a secondary figure, perhaps a powerful angel.

This idea is quite old and is one of the most famous heresies in Christianity, Arianism. However, while its fame may cause people to steer away from it is not always clear to everyone why Arianism is such a problem. One way to address this is to start from an even less Trinitarian proposal, Adoptionism. In Adoptionism Jesus’ status was granted to him by the Father at some point during his life on earth. That is, Jesus was not always the Messiah but was adopted as the Messiah. Most people can see why this is problematic. For one thing is makes God seem rather poorly planned. For another it means that God adopted some poor sap and sent him to the cross. One of the worst of the bad atheist arguments against Christianity is that Christians believe that God killed Jesus to satisfy His wrath, somewhat like a drunk father coming home and beating the family dog instead of his children. Adoptionism has very little defense against this argument. However, I’m not sure classical Arianism does either. In both cases God is selecting some other being to be killed to make things right. God is not fixing the situation personally but doing so by proxy. There are times when this makes sense but in this case it would look like God was not willing to get His hands dirty and used His power to make someone else put up with the worst parts of His plan.

Part of the power of Christianity is that God Himself took on our sufferings. God did not merely arrange for a lifeboat for us but actually came to bear our burdens with us. Arianism removes this – God just sent someone else. While this sometimes seems like a nice way to deal with the issues of Trinitarianism it’s a radically different view of God. It’s a picture of a puppetmaster God Who never involves Himself directly in the puppet show but merely steers other characters around the stage. This is an idea that’s actually very common in the modern world but not one that fits well with traditional Christianity. In many ways it’s a more Islamic picture where some tasks are too demeaning for God, one where God would never let his prophet die a demeaning death. It’s a vision that runs contrary to Jesus’ own teaching on servant leadership unless we assume that servant leadership is a “because I said so” rule and not a reflection of the true nature of God’s power. (This probably deserves a great deal of expansion but I think that Jesus is telling us something about God’s nature when he tells us that the greatest is a servant. After all, orthodox theologians all assert that if God ceased His continual care of us we would simply cease to exist.)

There’s another major argument that I find less compelling. It’s often stated that since only God is sinless then God Himself must be the sinless atoning sacrifice. However, most Christian theologians also think that at least some angels are sinless (this mostly depends on whether you lump demons in with angels) and so it would appear that archangels would fit the bill as well. More compelling, I think, is a view coming from a Christus Victor model of salvation. Here the emphasis is not on Christ’s sinless status as sacrifice but on his great power and the impossibility of his death. When death tries to claim God it fails and in failing breaks itself. It’s less clear that this would make sense if Christ were an archangel or similar being.

One of the interesting things about all of these arguments is that it’s easier to show why the alternatives to the Trinity have problems than why the Trinity itself makes sense. Indeed, the reason there are alternatives to the Trinity is because the Trinity doesn’t make a great deal of sense. This is often a major objection to the Trinity but I think that it is actually a selling point. As I’ve discussed before we sometimes imagine that major doctrines came into being “just because” and without any thought. In reality we know that doctrines all came about through discussion and debate. For the Trinity some of this debate is even recorded for us. So why did discussion and debate land on this odd statement about three persons in one that most people can’t even properly comprehend? I would say that this is a strong suggestion that the other solutions were worse. If you can’t split the Trinity into three gods and you can’t demote Jesus to a non-divine being you have to compromise. That compromise is the Trinity. In some sense I think early theologians were backed into a corner by the obvious flaws with other proposals.

Does this impact us any? I think it does. Yes, the Trinity is hard to understand. But maybe that’s OK. Maybe we can understand why the Trinity is still a better solution than any other idea even if we find the Trinity itself to be confusing.

Mythbusting Jesus as Myth

September 8, 2014

I promised part two of “What Do We Lose if We Lose the Trinity?” today but events have intervened. Specifically, I’ve been seeing a lot of articles suggesting that some noticeable number of biblical scholars have decided that Jesus is probably entirely made up. Since these seem to be a popular topic right now I’m going to interrupt my other series to make my comments now.

So, what should we make of these claims? The short version is that they are severely lacking. There are several reasons for this.

The first reason is simple: the media is, in general, terrible about reporting issues of serious scholarship. This goes for science, for scholarly discussion on literature, and for Biblical studies. Real scholarship takes time and often edges slowly towards consensus without dramatic fireworks. (Sometimes not – there are some great examples of fireworks as well.) It’s not uncommon to find that reporting in my field has failed to identify who is an expert, who has published in peer-reviewed literature and who has published a study elsewhere because none of their peers took it seriously, what the conclusion of the research was, and how widely-accepted the claims are. I have little reason to think that the media will do a better job in Biblical studies. In fact, several of these errors have cropped up in articles I’ve read. For instance, one article listed scholarly experts who believed Jesus was a myth and pointed out that one of them even had a PhD in a relevant field. In other words, the list of scholarly experts included only one scholar in the field. So the fact that there have been several media reports this week that Jesus-as-myth thinking is on the rise may not actually mean anything.

The second reason we should think very little of the claims made about the non-existence of any sort of historical Jesus is linked to a larger problem in Biblical scholarship: very little quality control is done on methods. In science one can publish an entire paper just on a new method for finding something out. One does not need to find anything new, one can test a method on a set of data that everyone already knows backwards and forwards, but merely developing a new method to analyze or collect data is worth publishing. (For those unfamiliar with academia the whole point of research is to publish a paper. It is in prestige terms the equivalent of coming up with a patentable invention for an engineer.)

Biblical scholarship often lacks methods testing. Methods are proposed based on the thinking of the authors and very rarely put to rigorous tests. Most of the claims that are supposed to back up the idea that there never was a historical Jesus suffer from this problem. Let’s look at a two examples.

  • There are no non-religious records of Jesus for quite a long time after he dies. This sounds pertinent but it’s actually unclear if we should expect any. Ideally we’d have a set of similar figures we knew existed and we could examine the records of their existence to determine how many records we should expect of Jesus but we can’t really do this (in part because the figures we know existed may just be the ones who had unusually large numbers of records about them survive to the present day). Anecdotal evidence suggests that Jewish Messianic figures may be generally under-reported. There’s reason to suspect that there were a number of them around the time of Jesus but there are very, very few records pertaining to any of them.


  • The existing records don’t match well. Again, this assumes that we know how well ancient records of someone should match. In fact, this particular claim involves a huge amount of highly subjective interpretation. For instance, some of the people making this claim attempt to deduce an idea about what Paul knew about Jesus. To do this they must decide on Paul’s theology (a controversial matter even amongst Christians), decide on how he will argue, and then infer what he did or did not know by what he mentions and what he didn’t. Ideally we would take a known figure and find some objective way to compare the accounts of their lives to give us a baseline. This does not appear to have been done.

The third reason not to take these claims seriously is that the mechanism they propose has never been shown to be possible. If there never was a Jesus then Christianity arose out of something else but invented a central (and non-existent) figure. Moreover, early Christians put a great deal of weight on the existence of this figure and frequently spoke of witnesses to this figure. This seems fairly odd. It’s one thing to make up a figure who lived and died centuries ago and is beyond the reach of eyewitnesses but making up a figure who is supposed to have lived recently and been seen by many living people seems extremely incautious. (So, for instance, the relatively popular claim in some circles that Jews invented Abraham and Moses from whole cloth does not run afoul of this problem because that claim also involves the invention of Abraham and Moses centuries after both men would have been dead. That sort of invention is more like renaissance writers inventing pre-medieval kings.) Now, if this is all I had to say I would be offering evidence of the same quality as those who think Jesus was entirely made up. However, my point is that we cannot name a religion with such a central figure who was entirely made up. We can name a number of religions with important prophets or other central figures (Buddhism, Islam, Baha’i, Mormonism, and dozens of cults) but which ones made those figures up? For some of these I’m sure someone will claim that the central figure is made up but again the evidence will be of the same quality as the evidence that Jesus was made up. Find me some modern cults that made up central figures – new religious movements spring up constantly and we really can observe the methods by which they form. For instance, most people think Scientology makes some pretty strange claims but nobody thinks that L. Ron Hubbard didn’t exist.

In short, I doubt that these mutterings will turn out to be much of anything. In fact, since these articles coincide with one of the central figures in the Jesus-as-myth movement releasing a new book I suspect that this is more book review hype than scholarly reporting. The rise of more militant flavors of atheism also makes it more likely that we will continue to see extreme denials of Christianity on the rise in popular writing. However, the evidence behind these claims is lacking.

What Do We Lose if We Lose the Trinity? Part I: Unity

September 1, 2014

Recently I was catching up with a friend and he mentioned that another friend of ours had left the church he was going to over a conflict that had begun as a discussion of Trinitarian theology. While I agreed that the conflict had probably reached the point where stepping away was a good idea the whole incident prompted the question “Why do we care about Trinitarian theology so much?” After all, Trinitarian theology is extremely confusing. It’s easy to get into conflicts about because it’s so confusing and it’s actually pretty easy to make statements about the Trinity that have been deemed heretical in the past. (Get a pastor to give you an analogy for the Trinity – odds are the analogy will suggest something heretical. Normally people give multiple analogies with non-overlapping problems to get around this.) So why don’t we just say that Trinitarianism is confusing and leave it at that except for a few more specialized theologians? Why is Trinitarianism at the center of so many historical Christian disputes? In this article and the next one I intend to tackle the theological implications of breaking with Trinitarianism. (A separate issue, and one I’ve covered somewhat before, is what the Biblical rationale is for believing in the Trinity.)

To deal with this idea we need to briefly discuss the central problem in Trinitarianism and its two non-Trinitarian solutions. The problem is that while almost everyone can figure out a way to make the Spirit and the Father go together (the Spirit is, after all, God’s spirit) making the Father and the Son go together is more difficult. Jesus talks to the Father as if they are separate entities and the Incarnation appears to limit Jesus in ways that separate him distinctly from the Father’s infinite power. One solution to this is to de-divinize Jesus, to make him a powerful angel or some such being. I intend to discuss this solution next week. The non-Trinitarian solution I will discuss this week is to split the Trinity into three separate beings.

This is actually how the Mormons deal with the Trinity – they simply split it into three gods who work together. This seems to be a pretty rational approach to many people, as many people effectively treat the Father and Son as separate anyway, so what exactly is the fallout from this position?

A short side note: three gods is definitely a position that comes after the Trinity. As I pointed out previously, the Spirit is so seriously neglected in so much Trinitarian theology that nobody proposes that there might be three gods until well after the default position is Trinitarianism. The older version of this is to split the Father and Son apart as two separate gods.

Now, the very oldest of these proposals is also strongly anti-Jewish. Various flavors of Marcionite teaching denounced the god of the Old Testament and upheld the god of the New Testament as a better replacement. It’s certainly not necessary to do anything like this if one feels compelled to split the Father and Son from one another but it is impossible to come very close to Jewish Scripture.

The Old Testament spends a lot of its time on the oneness of God. This is one reason not to drop this theme off of the edge of the world. However, the connection between the Old Testament and the New Testament also depends on a single actor in both Testaments. The Old Testament makes sense to Christians because it depicts a single deity who makes promises and then follows through on them in the New Testament. If the Old Testament god was separate from the New Testament god then the Old Testament god is, rather inevitably, a screw-up whose mess gets cleaned up by the New Testament god. While one could seek to de-emphasize this by speaking of cooperation between gods it’s hard to avoid this implication entirely. Indeed, once one accepts the premise that there might be different gods in each Testament Marcion’s claim that the Old Testament god isn’t very good seems rather inevitable.

Let’s examine some scenarios here. What if the gods were friends? The Old Testament God (hereafter the OTG) would then be responsible for making the world and getting it to the point of the New Testament. That is, this god would be responsible for creating a world that almost immediately breaks, coming up with a plan, and having that plan not pan out. The New Testament God (hereafter NTG) would then come in and help a friend out and set things right. Several questions would immediately arise: would the OTG be worth worshipping? Could we blame current problems on things the OTG did that were so messed up that even the NTG couldn’t fix them entirely? These aren’t questions that arise in classical Trinitarianism.

What if, instead, the OTG and the NTG collaborated to come up with a plan? In this scenario the division of labor is the same except that both gods would have agreed to the whole plan. In this case we couldn’t claim that the OTG was less competent at planning a world than the NTG (since both of them would be in on the planning) but we could still ask whether the OTG was worth worshipping since it would still be the NTG who saved us. Indeed, the division of labor would strongly suggest that the OTG was incapable of pulling off salvation.

The other issue here is that (like many flavors of popular Protestantism) all of this pretty much writes off the Old Testament. Marcion himself simply tossed out the Old Testament. Almost no Christians today suggest this but if this suggestion isn’t on the table then the Old Testament must have value for us now. Now I suppose you could think of some way in which the OTG and the NTG cooperated so closely that every action of the OTG must be scrutinized so that its significance in the New Testament could be determined. However, at this point we’ve also removed most of the reason to split the Trinity. If we split the Trinity we don’t have to deal with the oddness of the Old Testament – and in doing so we write off the Scriptures that Jesus and the disciples used. If we force ourselves to deal with the Old Testament we remove a powerful reason to split the Trinity.

But what if you agree that it works best to insist that one deity planned everything and that the whole plan is a single indivisible unit but you find it difficult to believe that Jesus is the same being as the one he calls “Father”? There’s an option to deal with this that doesn’t involve splitting the Trinity into separate gods: Arianism, the denial that Jesus is God or a god and making him God’s second-in-command. This, however, circles back to the issues with denying that Jesus is divine. I will discuss these issues in next week’s article.

Internal Criticism

August 25, 2014

I recently read an interesting article about the problems that Christian movies face. I don’t know all that many people who think that Christian art of any flavor is leading the field and so while I’m not familiar with most modern Christian movies I thought the article was interesting[1]. I also read a response to that article which caused me to bleed IQ points.

Now, there’s a lot wrong with the response article[2] but I’m not really interested in dissecting the article point by point[3]. Instead I want to focus on one particular objection that is relevant for this blog: the objection that people who criticize Christian movies don’t criticize “lefty” message-driven movies with the same rigor. (Specifically, the author of the response says he “highly doubts” that these critics are as even-handed as he wants.) I’m going to ignore the assumption that “lefty” and “Christian” are opposite (as long-time readers of this blog will be aware that I think that some “lefty” issues are very Christian and that others are very much the opposite). However, the whole idea that in-house criticism should be balanced by criticism of external opponents is an interesting one. It’s also not a principle I follow here on this blog.

Now, I have certainly written articles criticizing parts of the philosophy opposite to my own (namely new atheism) but I haven’t written all that many. I write much more criticism of the way Christians do things. I intend to continue in this vein. The reason why is simple: I’m interested in seeing Christians do better. I’m not interested in seeing the new atheists do better. I think they have a terrible philosophy (made much worse by the failure to recognize its own philosophical elements) and I hope it sinks like a brick. I don’t stop and think about how I should offer constructive criticism for a philosophy I hate.

The difference between constructive criticism and criticism aimed at undermining an idea seems pretty straightforward to me. When I write an article like the short series I did on inerrancy I write it with the aim that Christians will find and correct odd inconsistencies in their thinking. I point out problems so that they can be fixed and generally propose solutions. When I write an article like “Magical Contradictions” (also an article about inerrancy – specifically the odd way in which many atheists embrace inerrantist reading styles) I write it with the intention that people will read it, see the holes in new atheism, and reject it. In other cases, like “The Problem is You”, I begin with a short critique of a position opposed to mine and then move on to in-house criticism and discussion. In these cases part of the point is that I think the value of finding mistakes in others is learning from them.

Despite this, I understand why some people want to see balance in criticism. In fact, I suspect that there are two reasons for this view. The first is simple: it feels fair. We often insist on even amounts of criticism or other treatment in political discourse (which is a way of privileging the political groups who get to be in on even treatment) and we generally think that even is fair. Now, whether it really is fair is a complex issue (fairness is a somewhat slippery concept when one gets into details) but in reality there will almost never be an equal number of things to criticize on both sides of an issue. One side will make more sense or one side will offend more egregiously. Imagine for a second that we insisted that federal prosecutors prosecute Democratic and Republican politicians in equal numbers. In any given year one side will lead the field in offenses and so prosecutors would be forced to let some unpleasant characters off the hook or trump up charges against innocent people to meet this demand. Insisting on even criticism can actually be a very strange thing to do.

This leads directly to the second reason: if year after year you found that your favored side was in for more legitimate criticism that would probably mean that you need to rethink your favorites. However, this is only true when criticism is summed across all categories. In Christianity we call externally aimed criticism “apologetics” and have no common term for internal criticism. However, most people also favor one or the other mode. The real question is not “Does this author favor apologetics or self-reflective criticism?” but “When we take all authors together have they discovered more serious issues in us or in our opponents?”

There is one exception to this: when an ideology is in a time of desperate warfare it makes sense to ask every able-minded thinker to rush to apologetics, to man the defenses. Yes, some self-criticism may be needed to make the ideology stronger internally but most resources will be aimed outward. And that’s actually the problem. In some way most people realize this. When you start saying, “No, we need you to defend us,” we are actually saying, “No, you don’t realize what a threat we’re under.”

Is Christianity under threat? Sure – while religiosity is hard to measure it appears that less people are going to church, that they are going less often, and that they take central Christian doctrines less seriously. Meanwhile the number of people identifying as non-religious has gone up and the number of aggressive atheists appears to have gone up as well. At the very least, aggressively anti-religious viewpoints are now part of the public discourse. However, I believe that this threat should not compel us to man the battlements of apologetics as if there was nothing to be done in-house. Good apologetics cannot and will not come if we expect apologists to defend things that have not been carefully tested and improved inside our communities.

In some ways this is an appeal like the ones heard about consumer confidence in economics. If consumers hear that consumer confidence is up it will boost their morale and consumer confidence will actually go up. If they hear that consumer confidence is down they will become unsure and consumer confidence will go down. In the same way if we tell people, explicitly or implicitly, that Christianity might be on its last legs we will create a problem for ourselves. Let’s not do that. Instead, let us focus on being the best Christians we can be, something that will require careful, constructive internal criticism.

Read more…

Syncretism and the Peacock Angel

August 18, 2014

For some time now the onslaught of the Islamic State against anyone they deem as non-Muslim (including quite a lot of people whom everyone else thinks of as Muslims) has dominated the news. One of the hardest-hit groups is the obscure Yazidi sect which has been singled out by the Islamic State as not merely non-Muslim but as devil-worshipping. While there are a number of things that could be said about this matter the one that is on-topic for this blog is the mechanism by which the Islamic State decided that the Yazidis worship the devil and the mechanism by which most Western news sources have decided otherwise.

The mechanism by which the Islamic State (and, unfortunately, many other Muslims throughout history) has decided that the Yazidis worship the devil is fairly straightforward. The Islamic State has taken both Islam and the Yazidi religion seriously: it has accepted as a base premise that both religions describe real beings. It has also taken a rather obvious move for a state that describes itself first and foremost as “Islamic” and has decided that where Islam and the Yazidi religion differ Islam is correct. One of the central Yazidi figures is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel, and the similarities between large parts of the story of Melek Taus and the story of the Islam devil, Shaitan, are strong enough that many non-Muslim non-Yazidi scholars believe that Melek Taus’ story borrows heavily from the Muslim story of Shaitan. If both Islam and the Yazidis worship real beings and Islam describes these beings more correctly then it would be fairly hard to avoid the conclusion that the Yazidis worship Shaitan.

However, most Westerner reporters deny this. This is probably an attempt at a neutral stance but it actually isn’t neutral. A perfectly neutral stance would be to say, “Yazidis worship a figure who the hardline Salafis of the Islamic State believe is the devil.” This tells us what both parties believe without stating whether either party is right or wrong. Instead, the reports I have read have all taken pains to tell us that the Islamic State is wrong. There are three possibilities if the Islamic State is wrong:

  • There is no devil and therefore Melek Taus is definitely not the devil.
  • There is no Melek Taus (only a figment of the Yazidi imagination) and so Melek Taus cannot be anything except his own imaginary self. Any attempt to identify him in another frame of reference is pointless.
  • There is both a Melek Taus and a devil but the differences between the two are substantial enough that they must be identified as separate figures[1].

Only the last statement avoids stating that one of these religions is just plain wrong. However, it introduces a whole host of other issues since Melek Taus inhabits a universe of a very different structure than that of Shaitan – one would really need to make up a new religion to accommodate both figures without completely altering them[2].

If this were all, this article would be an extremely pedantic slam on Western media sources (which are not generally known for great reporting on religion anyway). However, what is more interesting is that the principle that causes the Islamic State to identify Melek Taus as the devil is frequently celebrated when it leads towards religious reconciliation. After all, what is happening is syncretism.

Syncretism is simple: one person takes two religions and identifies figures in each religion with figures in the other religion. Syncretism is actually incredibly old (there is some evidence to suggest that ancient Egypt dealt with neighbors who assumed that the Egyptian pantheon was the same as their own just under different names[3]) although for some reason many of its modern proponents believe they are breaking new ground. In many cases modern Western syncretists deal only with gods – they find a few monotheisms and identify all of the gods as the same god and ask why everyone has to disagree. The minor figures (angels, demons, the devil, etc.) get kicked to the wayside because attempting to syncretize them is too difficult.

However, as the Melek Taus example suggests, real syncretism can be quite hard. (Real syncretism indicates syncretism that starts from the premise that both syncretized religions are describing real beings and that the task is to match these beings up.) Syncretists inevitably run across serious disagreements between religions. The response of the syncretist to these disagreements places them in one of two camps: the “we’re basically right” camp and the new religion camp.

The first camp is where most ancient syncretists and the Islamic State belong (along with certain modern Christians who identify the gods of other religions as demonic figures in Christianity). In this camp when two religions differ in their accounts of a religious figure, one religion always wins. So, for instance, when ancient Greeks described the Persian gods they did so from the perspective that they understood the gods better than the Persians and so while the Persians might have additional stories about particular gods (and perhaps even extra unrecognized gods[4]) if the Greeks and Persians said irreconcilable things about a deity (for instance, if they claimed different things about the marital status of the goddess of wisdom) the Greek version won.

The second camp is the province of most modern Western syncretists although at least one religion (Baha’i) has sprung up via this route. In this case if two religions disagree neither is assumed to be right. Instead the syncretist either invents an entirely new answer or picks whichever of the existing answers they prefer (to be fair this preference may be a very rational one). The primary issue with this is that it doesn’t bring two religions together but creates a third.

Many syncretists hope for a third camp wherein all disagreements between two religions can be harmonized without picking and choosing. Unfortunately, this requires a world in which there are no substantial disagreements between religions. While some syncretists attempt to make disagreements between religions insubstantial by declaring one or another part of a religion to be primary and letting all other parts fade into the background this is actually a more aggressive form of new-religion syncretism: instead of creating a single new, syncretistic religion, three new religions are created – a new version of each of the old religions and a syncretized new one.

The short version of what I have said here is that syncretism doesn’t lead to real reconciliation. Indeed, syncretism is much like something practiced by orthodox Christians, Muslims, Baha’is, and Mormons: the incorporation of prior established religious ideas into a new faith. If this actually worked as advertised then all Jews would have become Christians and then all Christians would have become Muslims (since each of these religions offers explanations for the previous ones). (In point of fact, syncretism exists along a continuous scale and drawing a line here and saying that incorporating prior religious traditions into a new faith is not syncretism is somewhat arbitrary.)

Not only does syncretism not work as advertised but it can actually be quite dangerous. If I believe that all your religious figures are real and attempt to fit them within my framework there is no guarantee that I’ll decide they are all good or bad in the same way that you did. While it sounds nice to say that everyone should take everyone else’s religious beliefs seriously our society actually functions along a model in which we treat belief (the act of believing something) seriously but the actual beliefs someone has as completely unrelated to the real world.

Read more…


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25 other followers