My principal problem with the “God as Heavenly Father” analogy

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FATHER AND SON PLAY ON SHORE AT SUNRISE.

Image from Reuters

In Christianity, it’s common to describe God as being a kind of super father character. He always watches over you, knows you better than you know yourself, protects you, helps you grow through giving you challenges, etc…  These mostly sound like the sort of things that good fathers do, and they’re things that I aspire to as a father myself*.  I do want to know my son extremely well, protect him, and give him challenges that offer him the opportunity to expand his mind and learn new things about himself and the world every day.  And since he’s my son, I especially want to ensure that he has the opportunity to get to know me – if anything to help him learn what I’ve learned and not repeat my mistakes.  In these ways, I can certainly understand the “God as Heavenly Father” analogy.  But it has long occurred to me that there’s one major problem with this analogy right up front.

And it’s this: My son has no reason to be uncertain about the fact that I exist.  I’ve ensured that my existence is unambiguously clear to him.  Why?  Because it’s the crucial first thing I need to establish in order to be a father.  I can’t get to know my son, protect him, or help him grow if he doesn’t even know I exist in the first place.  So I’ve worked to remove all doubt from my son’s mind about this.  If I failed to ensure that my son knew I existed, I think it would be fair to call me an abysmally awful father.

So how well does the Christian God do in this regard? Has the Christian God removed all doubt of his existence from the minds of his children?  The answer is a resoundingly simple “No.”  The existence of non-believers, as well as believers in non-Christian religions**, is all we need to conclude that the Christian God has failed to remove all doubt from his children’s minds about his existence***.  And this is a problem given the other common descriptions of God – namely that he is all powerful, knows all, and is infinitely benevolent towards his creations.

So either:

  1. God wants us to know who he is but can’t, or
  2. God can show himself to us but won’t.

Option 1 means that God isn’t all-powerful or all-knowing. Option 2 means that God isn’t infinitely benevolent (i.e. not the super father character he’s described as).

Now, when I present this criticism to believers, the consistent response is that God would be violating our free will if he removed all doubt from our minds about his existence. We have to choose to follow him, their response goes.  As my criticism is a variation on the Argument from Divine Hiddenness, I can’t say I’m surprised to see people responding this way.  But when I ask believers why it’s ok (if not mandatory to being a good father) for me to remove all doubt from my son’s mind about my existence, but not ok for God to do it for his children, I get blank looks followed by some variation on it requiring faith to believe.  And that, of course, leads to other interesting discussions.

 

*Except for the “always watches over you” part. Kids need unsupervised time to grow and develop their own self-worth and capacity to solve problems on their own.  The last thing my son needs is for me to be watching over his shoulder all the time.

**See Hinduism, certain variations of Buddhism, folk religions, etc…

***I suppose that you could go so far as to doubt the sincerity of all non-believers and non-Christians and argue that they really do believe in the Christian God – but are just denying it.  You’d need to have really good evidence to back up that claim, though, and I haven’t encountered any influential theologians or mainstream Christian apologists who are willing to go that far.

 

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Science vs. Religion – An Epistemic Cage Match

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In this post I’ll be discussing the value of the scientific method when coming to conclusions as compared to the religious method.  It is split into two complementary halves.  The first half is in a basic discussion format, while the latter is in a syllogism format that might be more enjoyable (and easier to critique) for the philosophically inclined readers.

Wrong-Distance-Estimation

Image from Topbow.net

Discussion

How important is accuracy?  Well, I suppose it depends on what your target is.  If it’s a series of circles like in the picture above, it’s probably not a huge problem if you miss.  You can just keep practicing.  If your target is something that’s trying to kill you, however, your ability to reliably hit your target becomes crucial.  The same could be said for the accuracy of your beliefs.  If the question is whether the Taco Bell down the street is open for breakfast, the accuracy of your belief that Taco Bell is open for business probably isn’t that crucial.  If it isn’t open, you can just drive over to a restaurant that is open for breakfast.  Likewise, if the question is whether to devote your entire life to the service of an invisible all-powerful deity, the accuracy of your belief about the deity’s existence (and commands) becomes crucial.

Given the above, I think it’s fair to say that the importance of accuracy increases as the importance of the target increases.  Hitting a target with a bow and arrow is far from easy.  It takes time and a great deal of practice.  Arriving at beliefs that accurately describe the world around us is similarly difficult.  For, as physicist Richard Feynman famously said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

We are, indeed, very good at fooling ourselves.  Our species is well known for arriving at conclusions that confirm what we want or expect to be true (also see “motivated reasoning“).  We are very good at ignoring anything that conflicts with what we have already concluded.  And if we do become aware of something that suggests our conclusions may be questionable, we can even continually deny it outright such that – over time – we can begin to internalize and actually believe our denials.

I’ll take it as a given that, in principal, none of us want to fool ourselves.  So how do we avoid it?  How do we safeguard our beliefs from inaccuracies, or at least reduce the number of inaccuracies ?  The best answers so far come from psychological studies like those linked above, as well as from the hard sciences.  We’ve learned that we have to first be aware of our biases and then figure out how to lessen their effects.  We have to develop a method that makes it very difficult for our biases to affect our conclusions.  This takes work.  And the more important the question, the more important it is that we put in the work to make sure we’re getting as close to an accurate conclusion as we can.

Thankfully, psychology and the hard sciences have gifted us a variety of tools that make this process much easier.  Firstly, knowing that our biases can affect us without our being aware of it, we should always give provisional acceptance to any belief.  That is, we should always be willing to revise or discard a belief if we later find better explanations.  Secondly, our beliefs should be predictive of other ideas.  The more specific the predictions the better, as this allows us to more easily observe whether our beliefs actually pan out* in reality.  Philosophers often call this process falsification.  When we do this, we are much more likely to arrive at a consistent set of beliefs.  Thirdly, we should expose our beliefs to the marketplace of ideas.  Oftentimes, other people are much better at seeing our biases than we are.  Lastly, we should follow the advice of William of Ockham (see Occam’s Razor, or the Law of Parismony), who advised that we not add unnecessary elements to our explanations.

After reading the above paragraph, try to think about the last time you encountered a scripture or heard a modern religious leader that encouraged any of the above methods?  If you can think of many, then that’s awesome!  Leave a comment and let me know which scripture or religious leader this came from, as I’d be genuinely interested!  If you can’t think of many (or any), then ask yourself why this is.  Why wouldn’t our religious traditions encourage this kind of accuracy in how we form beliefs?

And as a follow-up question, I would ask you to think about how many of our religious traditions threaten punishment for those who openly doubt or question them.  Does the western religious concept of Hell ring any bells?  Everlasting torture** for those who are not convinced of God’s existence?  Ever sat through a sermon about “Doubting Thomas,” or listened to someone describe how the Devil works to deceive us into questioning God’s word and losing our salvation forever?  Ever heard Pascal’s Wager, in which we are strongly encouraged to bet on the existence of one particular version of God so as to avoid His punishment and enjoy salvation?  These kinds of threats aren’t just a failure to encourage good methods for arriving at beliefs.  They aren’t neutral.  They are, in fact, actively opposing the kinds of methods that help us weed out inaccurate beliefs.  Ask yourself why that is.  Why would anyone develop a religious tradition that encourages its members not to carefully assess their beliefs.

When you’ve arrived at your answer, I suspect you’ll have a very good sense for why religious methods for assessing beliefs should be discarded in favor of the scientific method.

And now for something completely the same: the syllogism half of this post.

Syllogism

Premise 1:  All beliefs exist along a scale of accuracy, with “Increasingly Inaccurate” on one end and “Increasingly Accurate” on the other.

Belief Accuracy

Premise 2:  It is preferable to hold beliefs that fall more towards the “Increasingly Accurate” end of the scale.

Premise 3:  Some epistemological methods are more successful than others for arriving at beliefs that fall more towards the “Increasingly Accurate” end of the scale.

Conclusion 1:  Therefore, it is preferable to revise or discard epistemological methods that are found to be less successful for arriving at beliefs that fall towards the “Increasingly Accurate” end of the scale when compared to other known methods.

 

Premise 4:  Religious belief is a kind of belief.

Conclusion 2:  Therefore, it is preferable to revise or discard religious epistemological methods that are found to be less successful for arriving at beliefs that fall towards the “Increasingly Accurate” end of the scale when compared to other known methods.

 

Premise 5: Due to its strong emphasis on provisional acceptance, predictive power, bias mitigation, observation, falsifiability, consistency, and parsimony (see Occam’s Razor), the scientific method is demonstrably the most successful method currently available for arriving at beliefs falling more towards the “Increasingly Accurate” end of the scale.

Premise 6: Religious epistemological methods are not required to incorporate any of the above characteristics of the scientific method noted in Premise 5.  (In fact, they are often diametrically opposed to the characteristics noted in Premise 5.)

Conclusion 3: To the extent that they fail to incorporate the characteristics noted in Premise 5, religious epistemological methods should be revised or discarded in favor of the scientific method.

 

 

*A hypothetical example: If I arrive at a belief that gold reliably forms alongside a specific type of mineral (let’s say calcite), I can then more easily determine how accurate my belief is.  I merely need find some calcite deposits and look for gold.

**or utter annihilation,  depending on the religious tradition.

The Regressive Left and its Opposition to Muslim Reform

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Arshia Malik, blogging for the Times of India, recently wrote a piece  titled “The Battle with the Regressives.”  In it, she castigates a section of the western political left* for prioritizing the opinions and concerns of Islamists over their victims.  She calls this section of the western political left the “Regressive Left,” a term seeing increasing use since being popularized by Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz.

As she and many others have suggested elsewhere, the Regressive Left is characterized by its criticism of those who argue in favor of reform for Islamic theology and culture in favor of secular human rights.  The Regressives do this while simultaneously ignoring Islamists who are actively working to impose their theology upon societies all over the world.  Instead of focusing their energies on people who support laws that criminalize blasphemy, mandate death for apostasy or amputation of the hand for theft, allow child marriage, protect practitioners of female genital mutilation, and various other extremely harmful policies; Regressives act as though the best use of their time is to focus on the people who oppose these policies.

Recent examples include:

  • Goldsmiths University’s LGBT society aligned itself with Goldsmith’s Islamic Society after its male members heckled and attempted to bully Maryam Namazie, a female ex-Muslim reformer who had been invited there to speak.
  • Nathan Lean, Research Director at Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding**, wrote an article highly critical of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Nomani.  When publically challenged by Nomani to explain why he uses abusive language towards Muslim reformers, Lean refused to answer.
  • Nathan Lean later wrote another hit piece against Maajid Nawaz in the New Republic.  His primary interview sources in the article: members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamist group that Nawaz left during his de-radicalization process.  (Because people who want to impose their religion upon everyone else are reliably objective sources, right? )
    • Nafeez Ahmed and Max Blumenthal – yes that Max Blumenthal – wrote a similar hit piece in AlterNet.

An uncharitable reading of these pieces suggests a willingness to support religious fascists and bullies over those pushing for universal human rights.  Nathan Lean, a non-Muslim, even argues in his article criticizing Hirsi Ali and Nomani that Nomani’s work to increase gender equity in Mosques might be imposing equality upon those women who prefer a more traditional (read: gender apartheid) worship service.  To me, this sounds like someone who believes that universal human rights aren’t really universal – that cultural norms should be prioritized over human rights.  This is an extremely slippery slope that leads very quickly to excusing all kinds of abuses in the name of “culture.”  About to be forced to have your genitals mutilated?  That’s a shame little missy, but we wouldn’t want to impose our imperialist western “human rights” on you.  Had acid thrown in your face for being disinterested in some jerk who thought he deserved you as his wife?  Well, Miss, we can’t really speak out against the perpetrators because some women you grew up near speak well of honor cultures.  You’re a child forced to marry someone much older than you?  Sorry, ma’am, but that’s just how things are done in your country.  It would be awfully indecent to speak out against your culture’s norms.

On the other hand, a charitable reading of these examples might suggest that these Leftists are so concerned with combatting anti-Muslim bigotry that they have drawn the line at anyone who says something that might be used as ammunition by right wing racists and bigots.  But even with this charitable reading, the effect seems rather chilling when it comes to honest discussion.

If we pursued the same policy in other areas, we’d soon be condemning nearly every piece of literature or spoken word the world over.  It is trivially easy to derive violent theologies from the Bible, Quran, or the Bhagavad Gita.  Likewise, history shows that it takes very little mental effort to derive anti-human philosophies from the writings of Marx (e.g. Soviet Communism) or Nietzsche (e.g. Hitler’s Aryan superiority).  Each of these works contain material that can be used as ammunition (or even further inspire) bigotry when read in certain ways or within certain cultural contexts.

Unfortunately, we can’t directly question the writers of these works.  But we can do so with members of the current Muslim reform movement.  And they are not hiding their motives or their purpose.  Useful resources include:

*Full disclosure: I consider myself a leftist in most areas.

**That’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Tala of Saudi Arabia – the foremost exporter of Salafi (read: extreme Sunni fundamentalist) theology to the world.  Which means that Mr. Lean’s funding is coming from someone invested in promoting an ideology directly opposed to the Muslim reform movement.

What is religious faith?

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What is religious faith?  And how does it differ from faith in a more general sense?  In my years of discussing faith with people from a variety of religious backgrounds, as well as in my readings of theology, I’ve come to understand that people mean at least one of the following four concepts when they use the term “faith.”

  • Belief
    • Example: “I have faith that God exists.”
  • Trust
    • Example: “I have faith that that my child is being honest with me.”
  • Hope
    • Example: “I have faith that everything will turn out ok.”
  • Loyalty
    • Example: “I have always been faithful to my spouse.”

 

Whenever I talk with someone about what they mean by the word “faith,” I always try to ensure that I understand which one (or which combination) of these concepts they’re expressing.  And what I’ve found is that many faith statements, when broken down into their composite pieces, start to sound quite odd.  Consider the following common statement of faith:

“I believe that God exists through faith.”

Could this use of faith include the concepts of “loyalty” or “trust”?  That seems a bit like putting the cart before the horse, as someone would have to believe that God actually exists before swearing fealty to or trusting in God.  And I suspect that folks willing to make the above statement aren’t using faith to mean “hope” here either.  “I believe that God exists through hope” doesn’t seem a particularly compelling foundation for one’s religion.  Which means that we’re left with “belief” as the only remaining option.  That leaves the restructured statement as follows:

“I believe that God exists through belief.”

Restated with greater clarity, the statement becomes a meaningless tautology.  In my experience, this is a very common consequence of asking for more precision when it comes to statements of faith.  And it need not be arrived at through argument or debate.  Politely asking people to break down what they mean by these statements into less ambiguous terms, and periodically summarizing what you’re hearing them say, is often one of our most powerful tools for revealing underlying confusion.  You can even try it on yourself!

The Muslim Reformation and Obama’s Realism

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I’ve long considered religious faith, when understood as a method of coming to conclusions about reality, to be among the worst problems plaguing humanity.  I’ll expand upon my reasons for that in a future post, but suffice to say I’ve long been motivated to help people reason their own way to this conclusion as well.  I think the world would be a significantly more prosperous, egalitarian, and peaceful place were this to happen.  But recently I’ve begun to think that helping people to move away from religious faith, while still admirable, isn’t alone necessarily the best and only path available to us.

Last year I read the excellent Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz.  In it, Nawaz points out how tremendously unrealistic it is to think that the solution to Islamist extremism is to de-convert the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.  And he’s got a point.  Cultural change takes time, especially when the beliefs needing revision are strongly held.  As much as I’d like to say that the solution to Islamist extremism is to engage people in dialogue and help them work through the problems that accompany their religious faith (see Street Epistemology), a broader multi-pronged approach seems more likely to be effective/practical at this point.

As a result, I’ve come to agree with people like Maajid Nawaz, Asra Nomani,  and Maryam Namazie who favor an Islamic Reformation.  And I’m not the only one.  Well known atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and many others have shifted their efforts to more unambiguously support Islamic reformers.  (Nawaz’s well-articulated distinctions between Muslims and Islamists appear to have been extremely helpful in this regard.)

Interestingly enough, Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent article in The Atlantic presents President Obama as coming to very similar conclusions – albeit from the opposite direction.  From the beginning of his presidency, Obama has echoed the patently absurd notion that Islamist extremism has nothing to do with Islam.  This, despite the never ending stream of specifically Islamic theological justifications that Islamist extremists offer us through their propaganda on a daily basis.  Or the violence that makes absolutely no sense in the absence of Islamic theology (Throwing gay people from rooftops, the recent attacks on Christians in Lahore, Pakistan during Easter celebrations, or the murder of Asad Shah).

Obama’s concern about naming Islamism as an underlying causal problem appears to be that it could enflame the xenophobic bigotry of the political right in the U.S., further stigmatizing non-violent Muslims and putting them at greater risk of violence.  And that’s certainly a concern I share.  But I agree with Nawaz that failing to be straightforward about the situation at hand only feeds a narrative that Obama – and liberally minded folks in general – doesn’t understand what’s really going on.  And this comes across as classic denialism.  As a result, the only people willing to loudly talk about the problem of Islamism are the xenophobic bigots.  And so, we liberals have ended up ceding the discussion to some of those least capable of constructively addressing the issue.

I am pleased to see that, privately, Obama appears to recognize Islamism as a significant underlying problem.  I’m not convinced that he’ll be publically forthcoming about that during the rest of his term.  Nor am I convinced that either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders will publically recognize it if either of the two of them are elected.  But perhaps they might find other, less publicized, ways of supporting a reformation in Islamic theology?  Perhaps they might nudge the prodigious power of the US media voice to support reformers?  Perhaps they might find ways to fund organizations seeking to confront Islamism’s theology, or assist refugee Muslims with assimilating into their newfound cultures?  I’d prefer that this be more broadly coupled with a publically stated opposition to Islamist theology.  But it would be better than the head-in-the-sand denialism of the “nothing to do with Islam” canard with which we’ve so far been inundated.