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Just Say No to Apologetics

March 25, 2015
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When I was younger I was fond of reading books of apologetics – that is, books which focused on the reasons why Christianity was right and other ideas were wrong. In fact, when I was a teenager I considered it almost a Christian duty to read these books. More recently I’ve become significantly less fond of them.

Part of this is that many modern apologetics books aren’t very good. It’s not any too difficult to find a book claiming that it presents solid reasons to believe in Jesus only to discover that it presents solid reasons to suspect that the author needs to expand his knowledge of philosophy, history, and sometimes even basic writing skills. If this were all I wouldn’t dislike apologetics book in general, I’d just dislike a particular sort of apologetics book (and I do still have something of a soft spot for books that cover ancient and medieval apologetics). Instead, I find that I dislike the whole concept of writing an apologetics book.

It would be easy at this point to accuse me of hypocrisy. Several of my articles here could be considered apologetics articles. However, what I specifically don’t like is a focus on apologetics. The best apologetics are done by accident and attempting to do apologetics is a good way to do it poorly.

One of the dominant myths in Western society is the war between religion and science. This is a myth both in the sense that it gives meaning and structure to many Western beliefs about the world but also in the sense that it is wildly exaggerated. However, within this myth there is a simple story about knowledge: religion starts by knowing what it must conclude and figures out how to work to that point whereas science starts by knowing nothing, figuring out how to best learn things, and then uses those tools to reach conclusions. This isn’t true in general but if it were it would be a pretty damning charge – it would amount to saying that all of Christian intellectual life is devoted to propping up statements of unknown worth. However, the area that gets closest to this parody is apologetics. An apologist starts with some known conclusion and defends this.

To be clear, apologetics doesn’t exist solely in the realm of religion. There are apologists for and against global warming and vaccines, for instance. The people defending these various position feel that their position is so well backed that they can stop questioning it and move on to figuring out why arguments against their idea are wrong. This can be just fine – if I were to deal with a large number of people who argued that I don’t exist I would argue against them in much that style. I know I exist, the only real question is why someone would question the truth of my existence.

However, I still have an issue with apologetics. This issue can be explained in two points.

First, apologetics almost never starts at the beginning. An apologist is a Christian for some reason and it is very, very rarely because that apologist read a document anything like the one they are writing. However, the supposed aim of the document the apologist writes is to cause others to follow the apologist into faith. This is an odd way to go about things. It is a bit like climbing a mountain and then, from the top, advising people to take a different (untried) route up. Now sometimes in both mountain climbing and personal growth one does wish to say, “Now that I am here I see that I took the painfully long route to get here, try that route instead,” but it is odd how few people seem to end up Christian by following the route the apologists lay out.

I believe that the central issue here is that modern apologetics tends towards modern modes of thought. Most Christians are not Christian for reasons that sound good to others. They involve things like personal feelings and being swayed by the grace shown by other Christians rather than cold, hard, “serious” facts. (For that matter, many atheists take a similar track away from Christianity.) However, if that is actually what drives people (and I believe it is) then we should start taking it seriously. It does little good to say, “I wish humans were beings of pure logic and I will address them as if they are.” Instead, facing reality and addressing real people is the smarter course. If an apologist knows how they got to be a Christian they should tell us. If they know that what they then discovered studying Christian is fascinating and answers problems they should tell us that, too. But there’s no point in flipping the order of things and claiming that what one finds out after becoming Christian made one Christian.

Second, apologetics demands a stable point to defend. My own dislike of apologetics in its normal form came about through a slow death of one thousand cuts. I would take a position on a text, on a philosophical issue, on a matter of history in order to make a certain sort of argument. Later I would realize that the position I had taken was shakier than I had realized. However, I had now tied myself to that position through an argument that I had, in turn, tied to my whole faith. If I admitted that Paul’s missionary journeys might have taken a different route than I had first supposed (to pick a random example) I might end up pulling bricks out of the great structure that I insisted held my faith up. There are three choices at this point. One is to stop learning, to freeze the whole edifice of belief as it is right now. Of course, this means freezing some things into perpetual error. However, it does give one fixed points to argue from. Another option is to allow small cracks to destroy one’s entire faith. Were the casualties at the battle of Ai in the book of Joshua rounded? Well, time to abandon the faith! A third option is to realize that growth means that some points will move and that it’s a good idea to allow that to happen and rework ideas when necessary.

A short aside is necessary here. The whole idea of allowing points not to be fixed sounds to many people like saying, “Well, I may well be wrong about everything.” However, when we are actually sure that some things are true we don’t worry too much about treating them as fixed points. For instance, I’m not much concerned if someone needs to rework our current understanding of gravity to make it mesh with quantum physics. A good theory will eventually circle around to something that looks a lot like gravity because gravity is obviously there and in need of explanation. The explanation may change but the phenomenon is real. Similarly, there are articles of faith that I may end up explaining very differently in the future but I don’t worry too much about that because I’m sure a good theory will eventually have to get around to explaining them.

This brings me to my final point. All of my own best apologetics has come about by doing something else entirely. For instance, I may be thinking about why the Church has consistently insisted on the spiritual disciplines and come to some realization about the faith that then spills over into commentary about why I think Christianity explains something better than the other options. Some of my more recent articles probably look like they are aimed outward – they cover issues of what religion is and what gods are and undermine a common atheist claim to be unique and distinct from religious people. However, that line of thought came from thinking about how things other than God can demand allegiance in the Christian life. More specifically, some of those thoughts came from considering whether a rather common tactic in preaching whereby passages about idols are used to launch into discussions of modern “idols” like money, power, fame, or even your favorite hobby was the product of deep insight (these things really do claim the allegiance that ancient statutes of gods once claimed) or a sort of dumb way to deal with passages that were about ancient customs that we don’t practice anymore in the West.

Thinking deeper about Christianity will (if you believe Christianity is true) produce better apologetics naturally. Shallow Christianity is hard to defend. It is silly, bogged down in weird ideas that come from nowhere, and can’t get to grips with hard questions. Deep, thoughtful Christianity has answers to the whole first line of basic questions without doing any additional work. I think it is best to focus on Christianity first and its defense to the outside world second.

The Gods Behind the Names

February 18, 2015
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In my last article I discussed the idea of identifying gods not by the overt claims made by their worshippers as to the identity of said gods but by their actions. This is to say that when someone claims to worship Jesus or to worship the creator of humanity (or, for that matter, the god of thunderstorms) this tells you less than you would hope. Learning what these gods demand is much more important in many ways.

Given this, we can now deal with “hidden” gods. By this I do not mean unfound, unworshipped gods. Polythesisms and animisms can lose track of gods (there are, after all, so many) or simply have never discovered some of them (if every habitat on earth is populated by a set of unique gods then it would be rather hard to find them all). Indeed, in some ancient societies the expectation was that some gods remained to be found. Cybele was imported into Rome from Anatolia (at the direction of an oracle) and while this was a rather big deal the big deal was not that the Anatolians had a goddess that Rome didn’t but rather that the Romans were generally sure that their versions of everything were best. If one had said to an ancient Roman that there were even more gods out in India or Russia or Chile the biggest issue one would face is explaining where those places were. The idea that they might have undiscovered gods would not seem surprising – the Romans had their gods (stolen from the Greeks, by and large) and other people had theirs.

However, when I speak of hidden gods I mean gods that are hidden in plain sight and are recognizable by the actions of their worshippers. Take modern neo-paganism. Where I grew up associating oneself with neo-paganism or Wicca (which may be different but my high school friends weren’t the ones to know) was a pretty popular way to piss one’s parents off. Now, granted that my knowledge of modern neo-paganism comes largely from high school students who were often recent converts but a couple of things stuck out to me. First, while modern neo-paganism claims to trace its roots back to ancient British paganism it mostly doesn’t. Old-school British paganism was properly polytheistic (i.e., the gods didn’t necessarily like each other and had real differences in attitudes and desires) and rather bloody. None of my supposedly neo-pagan friends ever sacrificed a horse let alone a human being. Moreover, my friends would express to me that their religion was a nature religion. Again, it was far to sanitized. Nature is, to be frank, terribly brutal. Snowy owls have more young than they can support in anything but a very, very good year. The oldest youngster solves this by killing, and sometimes eating, the youngest offspring, moving up the chain until there is enough food for all the young owl who are left. A significant fraction of fish swallow their prey alive, leaving it to die as it is digested. Rather more prosaically, note that we’ve never found an animal with a sensible “off” switch for pain. In a kind, merciful world a doomed animal would switch off pain and die without suffering. But that’s not the real world. In a larger scope, seeing “nature” itself as a sort of persona, nature makes things work mostly by allowing everything living to produce too many offspring and then killing off the ones who don’t fit. Nature greases its wheels with blood to such an extent that I think one of the best arguments against the Christian vision of the world is that the world is a terrible place full of things that will kill you for any mistake and care nothing for your suffering. And yet my friends who practiced a supposed nature religion were all about altruism and kindness, rather the opposite of nature itself.

Let’s be frank: my friends had not resurrected the old polytheistic gods to worship them. The old polytheistic gods don’t fit modern Western sensibilities. Instead, my friends had made a weakened (and often incoherent) version of the dominant monotheism in their culture (Christianity). Sure, Christianity had some moral rules they didn’t like so they borrowed some of the old god’s attitudes towards sex (properly sanitized of all the rape, of course) and maybe a few other things. They didn’t care for Christianity’s totalizing claims to uniqueness and so they went in for a world of multiple gods that might be kinder towards incorporating other deities but, in fact, was not. The true incorporation of other deities would have involved bringing in their viewpoints which would have left us with an old-style pantheon that fought within itself. Instead, I heard about various schemes in which there were multiple gods (the number ranged widely, from two to an uncountable multitude) who acted more like the appendages of one great being than separate entities. There was, in fact, a hidden god behind my friend’s attempts at novelty. Some great monotheistic, moralizing deity hid being the façade of polytheism and do-it-yourself religion. There were rules – kindness, love, respect – but they didn’t come naturally from the frameworks being presented. They belonged, instead, to the god my friends were fleeing from.

The same is (oddly) true of any number of attempts to be entirely non-religious. The simplest of these to explain is humanism. Humanism is about humans – that’s right in its name. However, humanism is not the science of discovering what humans are like but rather an assertion about the value of every human and an (admirable) attempt to uphold that value. Oddly, however, that value has no basis. In the world before Christianity it was taken as a given that some people were worth less and some were worth more. The gods were thought to not only accept this but approve of and support this. Sometimes this worked out as class structures (kings are worth more than peasants) and sometimes as tribal structures (everyone is your brother in this tribe but those people are nothing but animals) but the basic logic was the same. Indeed, it is basic logic. In a world with uncaring gods, or without gods, why is it actually worse for me to stab a human than stick the same knife in a block of wood? After all, from my perspective it is better that I stab him now than that I allow him to come to the same conclusion and stab me. It was Christianity that brought the idea of worth in low-class, useless others. If God loved even the deformed child of a foreign peasant then it wasn’t permissible to kill that child without thought. The argument “but that child is human” which had been no argument before now became the argument “but that child is made in God’s image and is loved by God”. And so again we have a hidden god. The humanist, or in many cases staunch atheist, who says that a human is ultimately reducible to a collection of atoms without a need to bring in anything else treats a human unlike any other collection of atoms.

Indeed, this goes so far that many attempts in the West to attack Christianity are attempts to attack Christianity using Christian ideas. Does Christianity oppress women? Well, why should anyone care unless God loves men and women equally? Oppressing women is, in fact, a natural occurrence that has happened in thousands of societies given some rather minimal preconditions (or, perhaps, non-oppression requires a strict set of conditions). Have Christians supported bad wars? Sure – but the only reason we care about this as a moral issue (instead of a logistical issue about what’s best for us) is because we believe that “the other” has value. And why? One of the most basic, natural instincts in humans is to band together in tribes and fight the other.

This issue of hidden gods is hardly restricted to the West. I live in the West and see it in the West but I know semi-Muslims and semi-Hindus who worship different hidden gods. I know many Westerners who have embraced semi-Buddhism, or have straightforwardly lifted a general idea of non-attachment from Buddhism and dropped it into a different context. To be sure, there are people who really do detach from the gods they were brought up with and don’t side with imported ones either. However, there are far more gods hidden behind other facades then are normally detected.

The Gods By Any Other Names

February 11, 2015
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In my last article I mentioned, more or less in passing, the difficulties in identifying whether two people worshipped the same god. In this article I wish to expand upon that.

The difficulties come in two flavors. The first is the establishment of a “neutral” pantheon within which to assign gods. The second is determining whether two people’s gods match.

I’ve treated the issue of a neutral pantheon in more depth elsewhere but this issue deserves some recap here. When I say “neutral pantheon” (a term you won’t find in the article I just referenced) I mean that we need to attempt to match gods without favoring any set of claims. The more usual way to match gods is to pick a base set of claims and attempt to match gods on to that. This is how some people’s gods end up as other people’s devils – one group assumes that they are right and matches the other group’s gods to their own devils. I’d like to point out that this is perfectly sane. If you believe, as I do, that God’s basic nature is expressed in His self-sacrificial love then a god who is depicted as being in favor of human sacrifice (especially that of unwilling victims) must be either a terrible figment of the human imagination or a demon. Religious neutrality as such is often held to be a value in the modern world but it is ultimately also moral neutrality. You really don’t want to embrace most of the Mesoamerican gods with open arms.

However, in the attempt to match gods religious neutrality may be required to do the job right. If I were to seriously test the Islamic claim that we worship the same god but I’ve got the details wrong then I would need to establish a religiously-neutral intellectual space for me to work in. I would need to assume that either one of us could be wrong, or that both of us could be getting some third option wrong (note that the option “everyone is correct” doesn’t exist unless everyone agrees already). Now, this claim of religious neutrality is often made in modern society but it rarely actually done right. Instead, a less-defined but equally dogmatic religion is used as the reality to which all else must be matched. In many cases that base is essentially monotheistic, or even monist, and holds that most religions are basically wrong except where they all agree which will almost inevitably force the identification of all major deities with one another. This, of course, ignores central claims made by the religions being treated about what is actually important.

This leads naturally to our second issue. Assuming that we’ve done a decent job being properly neutral (and since we’re only human let’s not pretend we did better than “decent”) we can now ask whether god A is the same as god B. The classic place to start is names. This is often a fairly stupid place to start as well.

The first issue with names is the term “god”. Monotheistic deities and polytheistic deities both get called gods but are really entirely different species. Monotheistic deities are, by definition, the only gods. They are almost always omni-everything (omniscient, omnipotent, etc). Polytheistic gods are more like superheroes. (Of course, one of the better known polytheisms, Hinduism, isn’t like this because it isn’t technically polytheist. Instead, each smaller god is an aspect, sort of, of a larger god and eventually every single thing in the universe can be rolled into one thing. This is very different than a traditional polytheism where the gods squabble, kill each other, block each other’s designs, and exercise limited powers over particular types of issues.) Monotheistic gods also tend to get named “God” because they are the only one around. So, for instance, Christians in the West normally think of “Allah” as the name of the Islamic god but in some areas of West Africa it’s the name Christians use as well because it’s the only word that mean “monotheistic deity” available.

The second issue with names is that they aren’t necessarily unique identifiers. Revelational religions claim that a god (or gods) revealed themselves to humans and presumably used some names for themselves. In that case maybe the names are useful – unless one posits that these same gods used other names in other languages. In other sorts of religions is less clear that the gods are supposed to have directly passed along their names. Certainly the Romans and the Egyptians seem to have occasionally believed that other people worshipped the same gods as they did but under different names, in some cases apparently under the assumption that these people noticed the presence of these gods but didn’t know what to call them.

Given this it’s worth looking at other identifiers. If we were discussing a possible mutual acquaintance and were unable to determine if they were the same person based on name we might start with descriptions. Of course, descriptors like, “About six feet tall with red hair,” don’t work for a lot of gods in the modern world. Even in the ancient world where characteristics like, “The head of a wild cat and feathered wings,” might be thought to be useful identifiers there seems to have often been the impression that gods were able to choose to look different. However, even with people we often use non-physical descriptors – “Works as an IT specialist and builds intricate replicas of WWII aircraft in his spare time”. (With people and some flavors of gods one might also use familial relations.) These sorts of descriptors are what is actually useful for the identification of gods. This is one reason why no one is likely to identify a god who demands regular human sacrifice with Jesus, for instance.

The trick here is that we often deal with cases where gods are identified by rather useless characteristics. With people we know better than to say, “Two eyes, arms, has hair on his head, does not have fangs,” and expect that to be helpful. With gods it’s not uncommon to find people pointing to the most common characteristics of gods and using those to identify them. This is based on a failure to establish a neutral pantheon – if one walks into the task assuming that gods are all the same because gods often match in some basic characteristics then one will match almost all gods together but only because of one’s assumption. To do a better job the assumption that the commonalities between gods are important must be examined. It may be instead that the commonalities between gods are the result of natural forces. A religion that says, “Murder all your co-religionists,” disappears quickly while a religion that says, “Help you co-religionists,” has a better shot at making it. Similarly, religions that evangelize do better on the world stage than ones that don’t. Monotheisms probably have an inbuilt advantage over polytheisms when it comes to philosophical plausibility. Some of the ideas that are supposed to be evidence that all religions hold similar ideas are accidents of history. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share some ancestry and yet are also fairly familiar in the West. (Similarly, Hinduism is the root stock for Buddhism.) Comparing them and finding that they share characteristics is completely unremarkable. When biologists compare lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars (thought to share an ancestor relatively recently in geologic time) they are generally not amazed that all four cats have bones, legs, strong canine teeth, shortened faces, and whiskers but are instead interested to note the variety of color patterns and social organizations within this group as well as changes like a leopard’s rearrangement of some limb structure to allow it to climb better or a jaguar’s incredible bite strength. The differences between related descendants is what is most intriguing.

Of course, some similarities might be important. However, weighing similarities carefully is worth doing. For instance, I expect all monotheistic deities to be designated as creator of the universe. Failure to attribute the creation of the universe to a monotheistic deity would indicate one of two things: 1) a belief in an uncreated universe or 2) a rather sorry sort of monotheistic deity. I would not use that particular characteristic to match up gods.

Most importantly, we must recognize that even gods with the same name might not be the same. In the West lots of people claim to worship Jesus (as I said in a previous article being able to claim the tradition of Christianity lends gravitas to all sorts of religious claims). However, their worship can differ widely. Now, if we were discussing people this would be automatically suspicious. If both you and I took orders via email from a person named Richard Smith and I received emails urging me to be extremely cautious with money and you claimed to receive emails telling you to spend money wildly I would suspect that you were either lying or were in contact with a completely different Richard Smith. With gods this is, for some reason, often treated as a rather insulting assumption. If I get totally different orders from my god than you get from yours I think it is probably fair to question whether they are the same deity. However, in much of modern Western culture that is considered offensive.

This is particular idea can be extended again into another interesting realm, the detection of “hidden” gods. However, this article is far too long already and so I’ll deal with that topic next week.

Identifying Religions to Species

February 3, 2015
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In my last article (rather longer ago than I meant – this is why I should have a buffer) I joked about identifying gods to species. The title came from my insistence that my students identify things to species – it’s not enough to say that something is a beetle, what kind of beetle? It’s a common way I insist that my students get beyond vague concepts and really identify functional units of ecology.

Ironically, identifying what religion a given religion is really is identifying a religion “to species”. I am not here discussing identifying what religion in general is. That is difficult but, as it turns out, almost no one believes in religion in general and so one is normally tasked with identifying a specific religion without having to identify that it is a religion first. This task has some of the same challenges as identifying biological species. Biologists find two issues difficult in identifying species: first, species can be internally quite variable and one can run across cases in which population A can’t breed with population C but both can breed with population B just to make things worse. Second, biologists are generally agreed that any good species definition has to deal with species changing over time. Religion runs across similar issues: some religions are hugely variable (e.g., Hinduism, which has more internal variance than exists between several religions normally considered to be separate religions) and in some cases we have group A who is sure that group C is a different religion (and vice-versa) but both A and C recognize group B as being slightly odd members of their religion. Religions also change over time, sometimes sort of accidentally and sometimes because they announce things like “a new age will come and everything will change” and then someone announces much later that yes, the new age is here.

Religions also get treated like species in another way. The Western world treats religions as both static and inherently worth preserving, much like traditional customs or biological species. We speak of preserving biodiversity (which I’m strongly in favor of) but we also want to preserve religious diversity. This is important because it involves treating religions as mere customs and not as statements about the truth. We allow statements about the truth to fight each other to the death and then we cheer the winner. (This is called progress.)

Before I treat the “how” let me deal with the “why do we care?” The answer is simple: people fight about this quite a lot. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses say they are Christian but many other Christians deny this. A friend of mine recently complained that one group of Christians had effectively disowned another, claiming that they were separate religions. I know someone who is for all intents and purposes a secular humanist but who insists loudly (and angrily) that he is a Christian. (This is hardly an issue for Christians only. I know several Muslims who appear to be Muslim deists and at least one self-identified Muslim who is probably close to Oprah on the religious spectrum.) Some people really fight about this: the Shiite-Sunni conflict involves what Westerners tend to call two branches of the same religion who are involved in a process of disowning and then killing each other.

I outlined above the issues of diversity and change. The diversity issue is pretty straightforward: there are lots of shades of religious belief and so there are a lot of disagreements. There are plenty of people who say they are Christians who I don’t want to share that label with, some because I think they are a horrible affront to Christ (the Westboro Baptists) and some because I think they just need to admit that they are something else entirely and stop using the name “Christian” to give themselves unwarranted gravitas. Some of these people also don’t want to share with me (the Westboro Baptists, I dearly hope) and some do. When they don’t want to share with me that seems simple enough: we’re different and we agree on that. We one of us wants to share things get tricky. One typical way to resolve that fight is to go to gods (one reason we can’t talk about religion without defining gods). If it turns out that we worship different gods we’d be different religions. But, of course, what makes gods different? If we both worship someone named Jesus is that good enough? What if we believe totally different things about this guy (see, again, myself and the Westboro Baptists)? We end up looking at a gradient trying to decide where “off-white” ends and “gray” begins.

A similar, but perhaps even crazier, thing happens when religions change. Most religions have some sort of change mechanism built in. Perhaps some of the Eastern ones with more fixed cosmos don’t but Western (i.e., really Middle Eastern) religions tend to have this idea that God is going somewhere and will occasionally butt in and update us on where we are now. (Take a moment to wonder how many prayers amount to “Are we there yet?” “Tell my brother to stop poking me,” is also a favorite.) Sometimes these change mechanisms are run through a hierarchy and the change seems well-organized and sometimes it comes from outside the official channels and makes a mess.

Imagine, for the sake of having a truly insane example, that a religion exists which holds as its one official and unchanging doctrine that every hundred years the gods rotate and so every hundred years some obscure group of priests identifies the new god on duty, anoints a new priesthood for that god, and then fades back into obscurity. Again for the sake of absolute lunacy we’ll imagine that this religion can change drastically in these shifts – one god might want us to be nice and kind and give to the poor and the next god might demand the still-beating hearts of infants on his altar every morning. Now, we’ll tend to identify this as one religion even through the shifts. Even if the religion changes its name at every shift we’ll give it some unifying name so we can discuss it across history. But now imagine that an issue arises. A change comes up and about a third of the people in this religion say, “You know, I’ve been part of this religion my whole life and I’ve always worshipped Numpy. I don’t know about this new guy T’Kinter and I’m just not too sure about this whole god-swap business. I’m not swapping.” Who belongs to the original religion, the ones who made the change or the ones who didn’t? Both will make the claim that they represent the old ways. One group will say, “We always knew a change was coming and we stayed true to that.” The other group will say, “We’ve always done it this way and we’re staying true to that.” Something like this happens every time a new group splits off an older religion. The new group claims to be the change everyone was waiting for, or a reversion to the way things always should have been, but some version of “doing it the right way that everyone should have known it should be done” and the old group claims to be doing it the right way just like they’ve always done it. This sort of thing leads to a lot of terminological fights.

The reality is that we actually deal with this sort of thing a lot. We just don’t do so in religion. If these were philosophies we’d have no problem identifying all the ideas presented no matter where on the spectrum they lay. “So-and-so is basically an existentialist, however he’s one of the new-school one who follow Bob’s re-reading of Kierkegaard and he’s got a few metaphysical ideas he borrowed from Chuck along with this odd idea about the nature of time that I think is all his own.” When schools split we name them things like “neo-Platonist” and move on.

However, we also treat philosophical schools seriously. We assume someone is right and someone is wrong. With religions the West more or less doesn’t think that any more (unless it thinks that all religions are charmingly wrong-headed). We attempt to line religions up as static entities with clear names but also to let people choose to mix and match from any of the options on the tasting menu and then to tell us what name to call them by. It’s a mess. We can’t do all of these things at once.

Identifying Gods to Species

January 5, 2015
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In my last article I said that it was remarkably hard to pin down a simple meaning for many commonly-used religious terms including both “religion” and “god”. In this article I intend to discuss the term “god” as a category. Many people use the word “god” to refer to a singular monotheistic deity but this makes defining other gods rather tricky. Singular monotheistic deities are, well, singular. They encompass a vast number of things in their being and no one has to ask which ones make them gods since there are no other gods. However, when we use the term “god” generically it might be nice to identify gods as a class of supernatural organisms, rather like angels (also, as it turns out, ridiculously hard to pin down clearly in modern parlance). To do this I want to take a suggestion that I have halfway-jokingly fielded before, that Santa is a god, and attempt to determine how Santa differs from a god. For the sake of this exercise I shall assume that all beings normally considered gods should be counted as such (not that they are necessarily real, merely that if they were they would be gods) and that all beings generally agreed not to be gods (like Santa) are not but that some alien anthropologist has mistaken Santa for a god and that we need to set this alien straight.

Santa does clearly share several key characteristics with traditional deities. He has a set of supernatural powers that include the ability to deliver gifts all across the world in a short span of time, to be seen in multiple places at once, and (so it seems) to control to some extent whether or not he will be seen at all. He also has a form of supernatural knowledge about the naughtiness or niceness of children. Additionally, alongside many traditional polytheistic deities, he has an unlocatable abode in a locatable place. Just as no Greek appears to have ever been troubled by the fact that a climb up Mount Olympus would not actually get one into Zeus’ court no modern Santa-believer takes issue with the fact that the North Pole has been visited and no workshop with a stable of flying reindeer was found. (The term Santa-believer is cumbersome but since Santa is a deity of polytheists no one is a Santa-only believer, a Clausist, but rather members of a broader religion in which Santa is a minor seasonal deity. We might term this larger religion “Consumerism”.) This places Santa rather firmly into the world of supernatural entities but that is a well-populated world, full of gods, angels, demons, Fae Folk, Norse trolls, ghosts, animist spirits, and, depending on one’s bent, aliens and one or more sasquatch. (Of course, this displays one of the issues with the term “supernatural”. Would a telepathic alien count as supernatural? Why or why not?) So is Santa a god or one of these other creatures?

Monotheistic deities almost always issue moral codes. Does Santa? Sure – the naughty and nice lists presuppose a moral code which is enforced by Santa (although with less hellfire than some other deities use – but Santa is also a less-powerful entity). Moreover, many traditional gods do not issue moral codes, some do not act according to the moral codes issued by other gods (some of the Greco-Roman gods were quite fond of adultery), and some of the gods who might otherwise count as vaguely moral only enforce their own short-term interests. Of course, Santa’s moral codes do not affect one’s salvation in the sense of steering one towards or away from a particular sort of afterlife. But then again, many traditional gods have little or nothing to do with afterlives. Monotheistic gods do everything and so of course they are involved with this task but in many cultures most gods have nothing to do with the dead. Instead, a subset of gods handles the afterlife, perhaps with the aid of creatures like psychopomps (beings who guide the dead to their final destination). A Greek in Athens who primarily venerated the city’s titular deity Athena would expect to live (?) out an afterlife ruled over by Hades. Similarly, in Aztec mythology Mictlantecuhtli was the god of the dead (assisted by his wife Mictecacihuatl) and the dead passed out of the realm ruled by other gods and into Mictlantecuhtli’s realm (Mictlan – in case you needed more “Mict” names).

Surely, though, we can prove to our hypothetical alien anthropologist that Santa is not a god because gods receive worship, often in temples or other sacred areas, and Santa does not. Of course, it would be good if the Santa cult (I use the term “cult” in its anthropological sense and not its pejorative one) would stop erecting miniature depictions of Santa’s holy abode in shopping malls and would stop actively encouraging the belief in Santa by having its priests dress up as Santa and his helpers to receive messages to Santa to be passed on. Explaining why this Santa-focused activity, which ends in some households with a ritual offering to Santa of milk and cookies (often, as is also traditional in many communities of worship, eaten by the local priest of the cult) is not worship might be difficult.

Importantly, Santa is not regarded as real by really anyone in our society aside from small children. (Although our hypothetical anthropologist will be confused to see that some adults believe that Santa is made up but attempt to teach their children otherwise.) Santa, the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, and the personification of death (the scythe-holding skeleton in a hooded cape) are cultural symbols that are widely held to be unreal. No adult believes that Santa brings gifts, that the tooth fairy takes teeth and leaves change, that a rabbit runs around laying candy eggs, or that a skeleton in a cape starts hanging around you when you decide to skydive using a second-hand parachute. This might be the make-or-break point. However, it exposes an issue with the definition of gods. Some traditional deities (including some or all of the Hindu deities) are personifications of forces of nature or ideas of the world. Claiming that Santa is the personification of the holiday spirit (wait, are we going to need an article on spirits as well?) would be a stretch but Death certainly seems to be exactly that. Now, again, I don’t think almost anyone really believes that Death has a persona, that this part of the world actually exists as a skeletal creature with a cape and scythe. However, it’s also unclear to me that a Hindu mystic would say that the Hindu gods “exist” in the sense of being the beings they are depicted as being. (In fact, given the variations within Hinduism, there is at least one mystic who asserts that the gods are personifications of realities that are not at all personified in reality and another mystic who takes these personifications quite seriously.)

So far we have a list that suggests that gods are supernatural, receive worship, and …… um….. might have invisible abodes. Effectively all we have is that gods are supernatural beings that receive worship. (A number of dictators have demonstrated that one can be an entirely natural being that receives worship.) So does this separate gods clearly from other supernatural entities? I think so – saints and angels may receive worship but only to pass it along. I originally had thought that hierarchy might be the key (i.e., gods might just be the apex predators of the supernatural ecology) and while this might help separate gods from animist spirits that might be unnecessary and the worship criterion seems to work better. However, this isn’t perfect. Indeed, it suggests that gods might be a bit of a murky category for supernatural entities. If you believed in a fairy queen who lived in the woods behind your house and who you offered kind, chanted words and occasionally food to would this fairy queen be a god? Not in normal thought but only because she is a fairy queen, which suggests that “god” is a wastebasket for supernatural taxonomy. If it isn’t an ancestral spirit, the soul-force of a tree, the messenger of a higher power, or something with a clear, physical form it’s a god. Not surprising, it appears that some ancient cultures used a variety of terms for gods that overlapped with terms for other things. The Hebrew el (אל) can be used for God, pagan gods, or even heroes. The Greek term that we translate as demon (διαμονιον) was widely used for all sorts of supernatural entities, good and bad, including even some of the main Greek gods.

So who cares? I suggest that there are two reasons that Christians should care about this. The first is that it is not infrequent to hear people attack the idea of gods and, as this article suggests, that’s a fairly vague term. People should be made to be more clear about this, especially since many Westerners assume that all gods are effectively monotheistic deities (this includes polytheisms where all gods work together like one).

The second reason is that the vagueness around gods re-opens the question of what else might be a god. It’s common to hear pastors preach on idolatry and deal with the fact that there are very few people in modern American society who actually bow down to carved depictions of gods by broadening the term “idol” to cover all sorts of things that one cares a bit too much about in life. Part of me has always felt like this might be cheating a bit – is your favorite sports team, your passion for good food, or the Internet (I’m talking to you, blog-readers) an idol? However, this might be fairly legitimate. Now, none of the things I listed is a god in the sense that I have described above but there do appear to be more American gods than we thought. Some children no doubt actually do worship Santa (the objection to Santa’s classification as a god is based on adults) although at least some of them understand him to be a servant of a higher god. The Market might classify as a god for some people – it’s invisible, it even defines some people’s moral code, and it can be an object of devotion. (Adam Smith even granted the market an invisible hand – the arm of the market, bared in the sight of all the nations [hopefully no reader has gotten this far without developing some ability to detect satire].) I’ve run into more than a few people who worship their countries (and read about many more in history). While countries have land (normally) there are stateless nations, there are dispossessed nations, and there are claims that the actual governments of nations have betrayed the idea of the nation, placing the nation firmly in the realm of invisible, worshipped objects. In fact, almost any large idea might potentially become an accidental deity. This would be nothing but amusing (to me) silliness if it weren’t for the fact that these gods do appear to be able to compete with the generally-recognized sort. Jesus rather famously says that no one can serve both God and money indicating that money can compete (sometimes successfully) for allegiance with God. (And money is nothing if not an idea that grew legs and started running around stepping on things.)

Part of the problem with deciding that some things just must be religious and that some things clearly aren’t is a blindness to the continuity between them. Just as I have elsewhere argued that separating religions from philosophies is difficult if not impossible I have argued here that separating one’s intangible, worshipfully-held ideas from gods might be nothing but wishful thinking. Even secularists live in a world full of gods. They’ve just renamed them to make them more respectable.

Terms that Shape the Debate

December 30, 2014
by

In my last post I suggested (not for the first time) that Santa might be thought of as a god. I mentioned a story one of my friends told me about a Hindu shopkeeper in India who believed that Santa was an American god. Over Christmas I had a short discussion with my brother (who is very interested in other cultures) about how one might correct this impression. He thought it might be impossible – Santa might fit within the definition of a god offered by causal Hindu theology in India. It was interesting to note that this definition of a god didn’t line up with the one at use in casual Western theology.

Last Christmas I was given N.T. Wright’s enormous book “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”. This Christmas I finally got close to the end (so close that I may even be done before this posts!). In this book Wright spends what feels like an excessive amount of time combating the charge of supercessionism. (Supercessionism is the belief that Christianity has superceded Israel – that Israel has been more or less bumped out of God’s plan by something called “the church”.) I say this seems excessive because Wright is attempting to spell out what Paul believes and yet the criticism of supercessionism seems not to be really about whether Paul might have believed such a thing but whether it would be “nice” of him to believe such a thing. Much of this debate is hung up in identities – of Paul, of first-century communities, and of modern Christianity and Judaism. Perhaps most importantly, the charge of supercessionism is only a bad thing from a perspective where Pauline Christianity is a separate religion from first-century Judaism (something that Paul almost certainly wouldn’t have agreed with and a statement that presupposes a unity of first-century Jewish practice that is also disliked by the same people who dislike supercessionism) and in which it is a desirable goal to retain religious diversity (in a way that nobody suggests it is desirable to maintain diversity in views of the center of the solar system, for instance)[1].

Moreover, the entire program of religious tolerance is built on a basis in which not only can Christianity and Judaism be cleaned separated and identified as religions (unlike, say, a belief in werewolves[2]) but one in which the modern program of religious tolerance with its value systems and beliefs is not itself a religion. This is counter to some conservative Christian ideas in which the modern liberal form of religious tolerance (as opposed to the ancient form, not punishing your neighbors for believing differently than you) is really a new religion attempting to take over from the religions it claims to be safeguarding.

Religious intolerance suffers from a similar problem in several of its forms. In intolerance between things generally recognized as religions there is the issue of separating one’s own religion from everything else. When Sunni Arabs kill (mostly) Sunni Kurds for supposedly religious motivations a different form of identifying religions is at work than the one I use. In intolerance of all religions one is required to be able to identify religions and separate them from non-religions and do so using a set of criteria that leave all religious mostly homogeneous in key aspects[3] (or at least easily grouped into a few main groups) so that all religions can be criticized without having to write a massive tome criticizing each and every religion. And, of course, many of the louder modern critics of religion sound a lot like religious zealots themselves and so they must be able to explain why their system of values which they evangelize so eagerly (and in which they claim to have found the salvation of the world) is not itself a religion[4]. Indeed, I recently read an article in which the author criticized religion for being stupid (literally stupid, not merely “stupid” as a generic insult) and then was identified in the tagline as the author of a work advocating “transhumanism”, a set of beliefs I consider to be a religion.

The point of all of this is that a huge portion of our modern world assumes that terms like “religion” (along with all sorts of related terms, like “god”, “worship”, “temple”, and so on) are clearly defined and makes pronouncements that depend upon having clear definitions. However, these terms are actually much less clear than normally thought. I’ve previously written about how hard it can be to separate a religion from a philosophy but how do we separate religions out from their branches and associated cults? When Judaism spawns Christianity and Islam (which themselves spawn Baha’i) or Hinduism spawns Buddhism at what point do we label the new branch a new religion? Why does Hinduism include a diversity of beliefs which is wider than the differences of belief between several other things generally considered to be separate religions? Why do most evangelical Protestants consider Seventh-Day Adventists to be Christian but Jehovah’s Witnesses to be something else? How is it that all of this diversity can be considered to be similar enough to warrant treating it under one heading either to embrace it or despise it?

Gods aren’t much better. How are angels and gods different? Why is the Tao not a god? Or, for that matter, why are the Fae Folk (fairies, back when they were considered dangerous magical beings and not magical butterflies on permanent sugar highs) not gods? If gods are central to defining religions it would be nice if we could decide what a god was!

As is probably rather obvious I think a lot of modern thought on these issues is hopelessly confused. In fact, in America I think much of modern thought uses categories from American-style Protestantism applied across a much more diverse world of ideas. I have in fact run across people who believed that all religions were effectively clones of one another with nothing but a few key names to differentiate them. While this sort of thing is close to true in many “tolerant” circles I am referring to this in a very strict sense – the person in question believe that Muslims believed that Mohammad was the Messiah, God’s Son, who died an atoning death to save the world and that Buddhists believed the same of Buddha and so on. The issue with thinking about these issues in a confused manner is that nobody in the modern West can really avoid dealing with people who believe differently than themselves. Some of these people may be friendly and some hostile but without actually thinking about the key terms we can’t have an intelligible conversation.

The lack of an intelligible conversation hurts Christians most in three ways: first, it allows both those hostile to Christianity and those who are false friends of Christianity to muddle it into a big pot called “religion” (perhaps “theistic religion” if such distinctions are even recognized) and then attempt to treat the pot without dealing with what’s inside. Second, many Christians internalize these ideas and cannot themselves understand how to think about these treatments of religion as a whole category. Third, it creates odd blind spots in Christianity. Another debate Wright engages with in “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” is whether Paul used language reminiscent of Rome’s own political language to undermine Rome’s claims. It is clear that this debate has been framed by many as a debate about whether Paul is doing religion or politics. Some want to “rescue” Paul from his unfashionable religiosity by making him an ant-imperial political activist and some (including Christians I know) seek to deny that Paul could have made political comments because he was a religious thinker but the fact that Paul didn’t face this sort of either-or choice (because it belongs to a later divide between religion and politics) is missed by many.

Given all of this I want to take time to explore some definitions. In the next articles in this series I want to looks at gods and religions and what these terms really mean. I have previously treated the topic of religion from one viewpoint and I have also discussed diversity in the ideas of afterlives (a component of many religions which is sometimes thought to be crucial and which is often treated as if all religions were popular-level Christianity). However, there are many other angles to be looked at and I believe the clarity will open up new angles on common cultural debates.

Read more…

Who Needs Christmas, Anyway?

December 22, 2014
by

You may have heard that there is a war on Christmas. Apparently it consists largely of saying “Happy Holidays” (which, as I’m sure I must have mentioned somewhere before, I had long assumed simply meant “Enjoy both Christmas and New Year’s”). There’s even a Christian movie fighting back against the war on Christmas[1]. Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of reason to think that Christmas is pretty terrible. Who needs it? Not me – the end of the semester is stressful enough without having to buy gifts for people, plan travel, and get all of my lab animals fed during all of that. (Note, for instance, the missed post last week.) I have a million things to do before spring semester begins and yet I will spend most of my time between the end of fall semester and the beginning of spring semester seeing family and celebrating Christmas, not getting my enormous to-do list any shorter. I love my family but all of this adds to my stress levels.

I’m hardly alone on this. Lots of people find the holidays stressful, both emotionally and financially. Celebration seems to be hard work. Did you get the right thing for everyone? Did you get enough for everyone? Will you see all your relatives (perhaps your own and your spouse’s)? Will you spend a lot of money traveling to do so? Will you hear some really awful Christmas music (yes – thanks, war on Christmas, for making sure only the really terrible tunes remain kosher for public playing)? Of course, it’s worse if you cancel Christmas. Not only does this make you a terrible, fun-hating Scrooge but it also leaves you alone at a time when everyone else is visiting family. For some people holding a celebration isn’t a option – there’s no family left or everyone is too far away to visit on the current budget and so Christmas is a time to be alone and really have your face rubbed in your loneliness.

So what if we all canceled Christmas? Who needs Christmas, anyway? I would enjoy a break, I would enjoy seeing my family, but who needs a mandated holiday? I don’t really need any gifts – I’d like them, but if Christmas wasn’t a thing I wouldn’t feel a gaping hole for lack of gifts. If I didn’t get assaulted by, amongst other things, my local grocery store’s mascot singing insipid Christmas songs when I went to buy milk I’d be happier. If I visited my family during the semester’s spring break that would work a lot better for me – but Christmas insists that I schedule my family time now.

This Christmas horrible things will happen. People will be killed in war zones in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. In the Islamic State captured women will be sold as sex slaves. In Bangladesh child slaves will be forced to work making cheap items to sell to the West. In our own streets drug deals will go down, murders will be arranged, and children will go to bed hungry.

Some of these people need Christmas. Some of these people need a God Who steps into history and takes charge. Some people need the Incarnation.

Christmas exists in two forms under two different gods. For many of us Christmas is ruled by Santa, the unswervingly generous task-master of holiday cheer and not forgetting to buy an insanely expensive gaming system for your children. For others, Christmas is a reminder that God has not forgotten us, that God is not an absent clockmaker Who has wound up creation and let it run itself down in His eternal absence. Calling Santa a god may seem insane but a friend of mine tells me about a missionary trip into India where a Hindu shopkeeper welcomed her around the Christmas season by pointing out that he had a statue of her god – Santa. We export Santa as a holy icon of our consumerism and we wonder, justly, who needs Santa’s Christmas?

A few days ago I read a long diatribe against religion. The author pointed out that religiosity is correlated with a country’s development status. More developed countries tend to be less religious. This, he said, shows that religion holds you back. Now, there are problems with his sample size and methodology but I’m not surprised by his finding that more developed countries are less religious. Who, with a middle-class income, a house, stability, and regular meals needs God? What coddled, middle-class Westerner needs the Incarnation? If the world was flipped upside down how many of us would be at the bottom? We’ve chosen a god appropriate to our national religion: Santa. He has no fixed morals to impose (although he rewards us when we’re nice), he punishes no one (except by withholding reward), and he gives out free stuff that we mostly don’t really need. I am not surprised that many of us don’t want Jesus. He’s not much like Santa. He’s disruptive, transformative, and He might try to fix us. Worse yet, He might succeed.

Christmas, in its Incarnational sense, is for the weak and the broken. It’s for the people who, when the world is flipped upside down, will be at the top. When I hear of the suffering in the world it breaks my heart. I want God to step in and set things right. Christmas reminds us that He has, that He does. Christmas is about a nation that longed for a savior, that waited for hundreds of years for God to answer them, and Christmas is about that answer. Who needs Christmas? All of us who feel the brokenness of the world. We need the Incarnation. We need that Christmas. Do we need the rest? Only if it serves the Lord and His purposes.

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