Thursday, March 31, 2011

אֱלהִים עֵץ וָאָבֶן / Gods of Wood and Stone…and Paper and Ink

The Bible chides those who construct their gods of wood and stone. In describing the vanity of creating an image, an idol the author of Deutero-Isaiah states the following:
The smith maketh an axe, and worketh in the coals, and fashioneth it with hammers, and worketh it with his strong arm; yea, he is hungry, and his strength faileth; he drinketh no water, and is faint. The carpenter stretcheth out a line; he marketh it out with a pencil; he fitteth it with planes, and he marketh it out with the compasses, and maketh it after the figure of a man, according to the beauty of a man, to dwell in the house. He heweth him down cedars, and taketh the ilex and the oak, and strengtheneth for himself one among the trees of the forest; he planteth a bay-tree, and the rain doth nourish it. Then a man useth it for fuel; and he taketh thereof, and warmeth himself; yea, he kindleth it, and baketh bread; yea, he maketh a god, and worshippeth it; he maketh it a graven image, and falleth down thereto. He burneth the half thereof in the fire; with the half thereof he eateth flesh; he roasteth roast, and is satisfied; yea, he warmeth himself, and saith: 'Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire'; And the residue thereof he maketh a god, even his graven image; he falleth down unto it and worshippeth, and prayeth unto it, and saith: 'Deliver me, for thou art my god.' They know not, neither do they understand; for their eyes are bedaubed, that they cannot see, and their hearts, that they cannot understand. And none considereth in his heart, neither is there knowledge nor understanding to say: 'I have burned the half of it in the fire; yea, also I have baked bread upon the coals thereof; I have roasted flesh and eaten it; and shall I make the residue thereof an abomination? Shall I fall down to the stock of a tree?' He striveth after ashes, a deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul, nor say: 'Is there not a lie in my right hand?' (Isaiah 44:12-20).
Hence, the idol’s maker plants the tree and oversees its maturation only later to draw from the same raw material, the wood, for both fuel as fire wood (a symbol of vanity or transience, Hebrew “chavel”) and a god from which he implores deliverance. The author here illustrates what he thus sees as the irrationality of idol worship: the same raw materials used for fire become the deity receiving worship.
They know not, neither do they understand…He striveth after ashes…[with] a lie in [his] right hand
Though far less concrete, this metaphor can be extrapolated to describe modern-day fundamentalism. The Christian fundamentalist* is characterized by a reliance on a wooden biblical literalism. She believes that she can define, though not necessarily formulate, God by the Bible. The word “definition” is itself a loan-word with etymological roots in Latin through French. Its root word is Latin finitus meaning “limit” or “boundary.” Hence, to define something is to set boundaries, to circumscribe, to set limits. In fact, the 14th century French use of definicion can literally be defined as “a setting of boundaries.” Through the Bible, the Christian fundamentalist feels that she can circumscribe God for what God is and what God isn’t. She constructs her “image” of God from the Bible. Developing this metaphor further, the Christian fundamentalist begins her process of circumscribing or constructing God with paper and ink—the Bible.

Driven by the belief that her reading of the Bible is guided by the Holy Spirit, she extracts her raw materials from the Bible, from the paper and ink with which she encounters the Bible, weakened as it is in translation. Putting aside questions of exegesis and hermeneutics versus devotional encounter, she constructs her image not from wood, but from words encountered on paper and written with ink. Though her resulting definition and image of God is not a concrete idol that is physically enshrined, her construct is nonetheless an image and an idol, a recipient of worship. The fundamentalist Christian is hence left with an image, a construct, a circumscription of her own creation, pieced together through what generally is an uncritical use of the biblical texts, and a recipient of her devotion and worship.

To make this more concrete, construct a mental picture of an idol of wood versus an idol of folded pages torn from the Bible, Bible origami. How is what the fundamentalist Christian does different than what the maker of the wood idol? Are not both likewise shot through with irreparable though humanly-necessary subjectivity? Of course the fundamentalist will argue, “The Bible is God’s self revelation.” Though, really, unless everyone that reads the Bible comes to the same construct of God, this point is utterly meaningless.

*I am referring specifically to fundamentalists of Protestant-Evangelical heritage and the epistemological implications of the doctrine of the priesthood of the [individual] believer

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hostile Honesty and Dishonest Apologetics

A hostile witness can be a wonderful learning tool. Back when I was in the throes of confusion, toggling between evolution and young-earth creationism, one of the issues that I had a hard time settling was who to trust. If my theology was correct, and humanity was sinful, at enmity with God, and bent on raising its fist to God, I weened, “How can I trust the ‘data’ the ‘raw facts’ that mainstream evolutionary science produces? How do I know that the information is not being perverted and the real truth concealed to justify rejection of God’s authority?” With such thoughts I would often settle my doubts about young-earth creationism by calling into question the integrity of secular science.

However, when I encountered University of Chicago and Harvard educated, PhD Kurt Wise who argued his dissertation under Stephen J Gould, I found a young-earth creationist that was qualified in his field (paleobiology) and honest with the data. Unlike other creationist brainwashing machines (Institute for Creation Research, Answers in Genesis, Kent Hovind, et. al.), Wise admitted when the field data was in favor of mainstream evolutionary science and where it challenged young-earth creationism. And, humbly, Wise admitted a lot of evidence in favor of evolutionary models. In The God Delusion, Dawkins, I was later to learn, even gives honorable mention to Wise for his honesty with the data, calling him an “honest creationist.”

Todd Charles Wood is another young-earth creationist that I respect for his qualifications (PhD in biochemistry) and honesty. Like Wise, he does not attempt to hide data or twist it to favor his young-earth models. He rather honestly concedes that the evidence overwhelmingly favors mainstream evolutionary models, and he honestly concedes that his reasons for maintaining belief in young-earth creationism rest solely with his reading of the early chapters of Genesis. Honest indeed—he does not feign the data to favor his faith in fatuous fables such as the Fall and the Flood.

Earlier this year Wood wrote a series of posts on his blog critiquing Reasons to Believe (RTB) – another creationist ministry. Unlike Wood and Wise, RTB along with Hugh Ross and Fuz Rana are old-earth or progressive creationists. Progressive creationists reject biological evolution, but they accept the standard geological natural history of the Earth. They maintain that each new species that arises on earth is a distinct special creation by God (including the some thirty now extinct species of elephants – not a very efficient God). I attended one of Fuz Rana’s seminars in early 2005 with my ex-wife where he promoted his book Adam and the RTB model of human origins. In the RTB model, modern humans or homo sapiens sapiens are the only hominids created in the image of God. The first homo sapiens sapiens were Adam and Eve, and all other hominids were soulless animals without an eternal, immaterial spirit. The sickening dualism aside, their model is hinged on the discontinuity between homo sapiens sapiens and earlier hominids and primates. Hence, they attempt to discredit the chimp genome project which uncovers an over 98% genetic commonality (even among pseudo-genes and “junk DNA”) between chimpanzees and modern humans.

Wood wrote these following eight articles to illustrate the inconsistencies and non-responsiveness to the current, relevant data that RTB exhibits in order to maintain their model. Wood proceeds with a great deal of respect. For example, where RTB and Rana seem to intentionally ignore relevant information that would utterly falsify their model, Wood gives them the benefit of the doubt (though he admits it is not always easy). Wood himself cannot explain the > 98% genetic similarity between humans and chimpanzees within his young-earth creationist model, but he at least is willing to honestly concede that the data is what it is. If anyone would like to have an expose in the dishonest antics often taken up by Christian apologists, I recommend these articles. They are also a terrific introduction into the current data on human evolution and our shared primate ancestry.

RTB and the Chimp Genome Part 1

RTB and the Chimp Genome Part 2

RTB and the Chimp Genome Part 3

RTB and the Chimp Genome Part 4

RTB and the Chimp Genome Part 5

RTB and the Chimp Genome Part 6

RTB and the Chimp Genome Part 7

RTB and the Chimp Genome Part 8

Monday, March 21, 2011

This Atheist Believes in God (and Does Theology)

Looking back temporally from where we as a species stand today, we can identify at least three significant starting points or origins in our universe: the origins of the physical, the origins of life, and the origins of mind (consciousness). The origin of the physical universe, in this present iteration, encompasses all matter and energy. The origin of life encompasses only those domains where life actually emerges. The origin of mind and consciousness extends only to the domain of thought—the noosphere, which may in fact encompass only our planet. Hence, with each new origin, with each new emergence, the features become less universal and far more local. The human creations of philosophy, politics, piety, and ethics belong to the realm of human thought, the noosphere. The concept of God is likewise an emergent property of the noosphere (Morowitz, p. 134). The emergence of mind, the emergence of consciousness, the emergence of the noosphere are the emergence of God.

Samuel Alexander, Jewish philosopher and influence on Alfred North Whitehead, stated in 1918,

As actual, God does not possess the quality of deity but is the universe as tending toward that quality… Thus there is no infinite being with the quality of deity; but there is an actual infinite, the whole universe, with a nisus toward deity; and this is the God of the religious consciousness, though that consciousness habitually forecasts the divinity of its object as actually realized in an individual form (1920).

God hence is not a realized being, one that possesses independent personality and volition; rather, God is a naturalistically emergent property of the universe, specifically of the noosphere. And, only insofar that human consciousness exists does God (or do gods and goddesses) exist. Deity is dependent on and co-existent with the noosphere. This is what theologian Phillip Clayton calls radically emergent theism in which “God” is concomitant with human consciousness, is a quality that the universe comes to have increasingly over time, dwells in the noosphere, and is the universe expressing self awareness (2008, p. 95; 2004, p. 90).

Theology as Anthropology

Theology then, it should be pointed out, is not the study of an ethereal being. Theology is a form of anthropology. As humans are the biosphere’s master symbol makers, the study of theology is the study of ideas, symbols, and arch-types that are variously expressed in human culture(s). But, it ought to be asked, does the God of the noosphere influence humanity? The answer is most certainly yes. Though God only exists in the human mind, God concepts (memeplexes) assert tremendous influences on human thinking and culture in top-down causation. There can be no question that God is the inspiration behind many of the most incredible human accomplishments—both the good and the bad. Hence, God is active in history as an idea, a variously expressed memeplex that influences the direction individuals, groups, and nations.

Worshipping the Divine

Allow me to close this post with the following words from Morowitz (2004):

Ethics, morality, and religion have their home in the noosphere. Since the mind has volitional properties, some aspects of the local universe are under our influence. Prayer may be directed inward to our volitional selves, or public prayer may be directed to the public noosphere. We may stand in awe of the God of immanance; we may struggle to understand the mind of the God of emergence; and we may put our bodies on the line to fulfill the potential of the God of transdencence for the world of humans. … But transcendence shows no evidence of going beyond the human mind… Transcendence is the divine in us. To choose good, not evil, is our responsibility (pps 134-136).

This last quote touches on the properties of the divine and human religiosity that remain meaningful for me as a non-theist. When I say a prayer, it is not being offered up to a capable potentate ready to respond to my request and grant me my wishes. I worship “God” not as a miracle-maker; I revel in “God” as an outgrowth of culture and community. I take on a “God-perspective” as a powerful means to otherness, to see myself from a third-person set of eyes. This “God” though is utterly naturalistic, an emergent product of the universe and the human symbol-making capacity. I may be playing with fire, but fire, if this metaphor works, was a major step in hominid evolution.

Works Cited:

Alexander, Samuel. Space, Time, and Deity: the Gifford Lectures. London: Macmillan, 1920.

Clayton, Phillip. Adventures in Spirit: God, World, and Divine Action. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

Clayton, Phillip. “Panentheism in Metaphysical and Scientific Perspective” in In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004

Morowitz, Harold J. “The Trinitarian World of Neo-Panentheism: on Panentheism and Epistemology” in In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Destroying the Idols of Local Truth

Moral philosopher Immanuel Kant’s first formulation was that of normative behavior. He posited,

Always act according to that maxim whose universality as a law you can at the same time will.”
Stated otherwise, behave as though the decisions you make would be acceptable to you if made by everyone, everywhere. Hence, if buying ones wares is a behavior that you can universally will or abide, then do not exempt yourself by theft. This is sometimes called the “universalizability test.” When the “universalizability test” is applied to epistemology, we find that the only way of knowing, the only paradigm that can stand is naturalism or methodological naturalism.

Religious Fundamentalism—Local Truth Systems/Privatized Truth

How does a religious fundamentalist know—what is her epistemology? Using the example of theistic religions, the Christian or Muslim fundamentalist knows by the same means that everyone else does—by use of the senses. However, fundamentalist epistemology diverges when it comes to authority and subjectivity. The fundamentalist’s primary epistemological commitment is to remain faithful to the “faith/truth once given” generally in the form of apodictic revelation like the Bible or the Quran. Fundamentalist truth is static, and the fundamentalist is not able to abide or abet revisions to dogma (Clayton, p. 33). Hence, fundamentalism is characterized by “tenacity, authority, a closure of inquiry, and an absence of growth” (Anderson, 3030).

Fundamentalism privatizes truth. It appeals to the authority of scripture or to subjective experiences. It is closed to criticism, walling itself up into privatized, localized truth systems, and the fundamentalist exempts her dogma, her truth from criticism, sheltering her beliefs in a veil of ignorance. She maintains her local shrine and protects it from criticism.

Science—Global Perspectives

Unlike privatized, localized truth systems, science seeks to find the realities, the truths that cut through and transcend subjective contexts. Science is a process, a way of knowing, and an epistemological commitment. By definition scientific knowledge is empirical, fluid, and continually open to revision. It does not cluster around sacrosanct ideas, it does not enshrine and wall in the sacred; rather, it exposes all ideas to criticism and to the rubric of empiricism and naturalism.

Dogmatic Epistemologies are Immoral

When we apply Kant’s first formulation, the “universalizability test,” to fundamentalist epistemology, we find it immoral. The scientist and scientific epistemology seek to “discover a single underlying framework that belongs to every possible observer” (Clayton, p 41). This single framework is naturalism—the paradigm that everyone can share in regardless of birth or life position. The fundamentalist seeks to create and defend a local truth system, a shrine, a set of impassible truth and unalterable knowledge that is exempt from the same criteria she would apply to other truth systems.

Would the fundamentalist Christian, for example, abide and abet the Muslim believer in making the same gratuitous assumptions and defenses of the Quran that she makes for her own view of the Bible? No, she exempts her local truth shrine from criticism, from the universal acid of naturalism, that she would gladly apply to her neighbor’s local truth shrine. If there ever were an idolatry, it is that of local truth systems, that of fundamentalism.

In light of Kant’s first formulation, the only responsible and ethically consistent epistemology is that of methodological naturalism and/or science. Every other epistemology is local, non-universal, and exempts itself from the stream of progress.


Works Cited

Anderson, Douglas. "Pierce's Common Sense Marriage of Religion and Science" in The Cambridge Companion to Pierce. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Clayton, Phillip. Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Ecclesiastes and Agnostic Destinies

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath (רוּחַ); so that man hath no pre-eminence above a beast; for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all return to dust. Who knoweth the spirit (רוּחַ) of man whether it goeth upward, and the spirit (רוּחַ) of the beast whether it goeth downward to the earth? Wherefore I perceived that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his works; for that is his portion; for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him? (Ecclesiastes 3:19-22)

The above passage is rich in reflective material.

Unlike other passages in the Bible that delineate a body-soul dualism in which the soul, the animus, survives death in a disembodied state (see Revelation 6:9; Luke 16:22; et. al.), this passage softens or even eliminates dualism. It does this by comparing the mortality of humanity to that of beasts—placing humanity on a similar footing with the rest of the animal kingdom.

It is worth noting the bias in most English translations at this point. The same Hebrew word translated “breath” and “spirit” is the Hebrew word רוּחַ transliterated as ruakh. This word carries the meanings of breath, air, spirit, etc. Because English readers tend to anthropomorphize “spirit” to refer to the disembodied soul, the immaterial “true you” that survives death, it is uncommon for most English translations to translate ruakh as “spirit” with reference to non-human animals. Hence, “spirit” is generally reserved as the translation for ruakh only when it refers to humanity or God. Notice in the first occurrence of ruakh above the translators used the word breath, and it is only when the ruakh is described leaving the body that it is applied in parallel to non-human animals and humans. Hence, it is worth noting that “they all have one breath” in verse 19 is actually referring to the spirit/ruakh shared between metabolic biological life on Earth.

After meditating on the “one spirit” that equalizes humanity with the rest of the animal kingdom, we learn that we all have the same fate. The mortality of the beast is comparable to the mortality of the person. This passage might suggest a dualism with the upward mobility of the human ruakh contrasted with the downward, “to the earth,” direction of the non-human ruakh, but this is posed as a question. The author is actually presenting himself as agnostic on this matter—unsure of whether there is a difference between the destiny of humanity and animals. Rather than despairing of hope and purpose in the absence of existence or awareness beyond the grave, the author concludes that “there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his works; for that is his portion…”

Naturally, most fundamentalist scholars and apologists will neutralize this passage’s message. They will posit progressive revelation so that the author was unable to know about the promise of the resurrection. Or, they might state that this was written in despair and with appropriate genre consideration, that this passage is not authoritative. In making these hermeneutical maneuvers they may maintain the integrity of their dogma and belief systems, but they lose the texture of the Bible and they mute biblical authors who disagree with their status quo. This passage is incredibly agnostic about human purpose and destiny. It does not hold out the hope of eternal life which is no surprise considering that a maturely articulated life-after-death schema was not present in the religion of Israel until during and after the Babylonian Exile (see Daniel 12:2 for an example of a passage heavily influenced by Zoastrainism).

However, as a non-theist who does not believe our purpose is contingent on the dictates of gods or other such external authorities nor on the eternal destinies that our minds fancy, I find a lot in common with this passage. I realize that there is futility, a vanity that permeates my existence. Yet, I enjoy life. I work hard; I enjoy the fruits of my labors. According to the Preacher (the author of Ecclesiastes, see 1:1), I am participating in the best of life. Do I agree with this conclusion? I do in part, but enough has been said for this post.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Killing in the Name of the Wrong God

In the book of Leviticus, the children of Israel are commanded not to offer or sacrifice their children to Molekh, presumably a Canaanite deity. One text reads,

…thou shalt not give any of thy seed to set them apart to Molech…(Lev 18:21)

This prohibition is restated and further developed in Leviticus 20:1-5 where the death penalty is prescribed for the one who so offers his seed or offspring to the Canaanite god. Armed with modern, egalitarian sensibilities of the value of human life, many readers find the idea of human sacrifice, let alone sacrificing one’s child[ren], to be unduly abhorrent. Of course YHWH, the god of the Hebrews, would proscribe or prohibit human sacrifice, the thinking goes. How could a good God call for the killing of another human, let alone innocents? However, as this post will develop, the prohibition against child sacrifice here is not rooted in the value of human life but in the seemingly minor ritual detail of what god the sacrifice is being made to.

Deuteronomy 7:1-2 instructs the children of Israel to commit genocide, to wipe out seven nations from existence:

When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and shall cast out many nations before thee, the Hittite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; and when the LORD thy God shall deliver them up before thee, and thou shalt smite them; then thou shalt utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them.

Now it is highly noteworthy that the words translated “utterly destroy” (transliteration: ha’chareim t’chareym) here are often translated as “devote [to destruction].” Without addressing all uses of cherem, it is worth noting that this word is loaded with cultic or ritual meaning. An example of its cultic or ritual use is to be found in Leviticus 27:28:

…no devoted thing (cherem), that a man may devote (ya’charim) unto the LORD of all that he hath, whether of man or beast, or of the field of his possession, shall be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing (cherem) is most holy unto the LORD.
In this passage a person voluntarily devotes or makes cherem something unto YHWH (“the LORD”). He is not permitted to redeem it or to sell it, it must be given over as “most holy” to YHWH. An example of this in action would be a man devoting his fatted ox as an offering to YHWH. Once dedicating or devoting an object, thus making it cherem, it must be offered to YHWH. A similar use is found in I Samuel 15:21 where the devoted items are offered in sacrifice as burnt offerings to YHWH.

Returning to the prohibition against human sacrifice to Molekh, we learn from Deuteronomy 7 (see also Deuteronomy 20:16-17), that it is not the human sacrifice component that is the root issue. It is not that YHWH values human life for its own sake. Elsewhere YHWH requires the genocidal devotion or offering (cherem) of entire people groups—men, women, children, and animals. What moral take away is there from this? We learn that killing is not always a bad thing—what is important is whose name one is killing in.

Most Bible believing and Bible reading Christians obviously will not accept this ethical conclusion. They, like much of the world, have moved ahead in our moral amelioration to accept the dignity of human life. However, it bothers me that so many of these same Christians will claim the Bible as their ultimate moral compass and final authority. Hypocritically they herald the Bible as their guide but they accept humanistic value systems which they, in turn, ascribe to God.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Atheism – An Incomplete Worldview

I am an atheist. What does that tell you about me? Can you infer from my statement that I am a Republican or a Marxist? Am I a moral libertine or straight-laced? Do I eat meat? Do I oppose abortion or am I pro-choice? Am I religiously literate or illiterate? Am I aggressively opposed to all forms of religion or do I encourage the practice of [non-theistic] religio-cultural ritual? It should be clear that by identifying as an atheist, a person does not immediately inhere to any given worldview or value system.

Philosophy professor and atheist Keith Parsons observes the following:


From the mere fact that one is an atheist very little else can be inferred.
Atheists can be political fascists, conservatives, libertarians, liberals,
communitarians, anarchists, or radicals. Their philosophical views can be
pragmatist, empiricist, rationalist, idealist, existentialist, postmodernist,
feminist, or almost anything else. … Atheism--whether it is taken as the claim
that belief in God is false, incoherent, or unjustified--just does not have
sufficient content to constitute a worldview. (p. 53).

Parson’s words above are immensely important. Atheism, in and of itself, is an incomplete and a negative world view. By negative I mean that it is a denial rather than an affirmation. It simply asserts that there is no God (and for many, like me, that there is no supernatural). It is important to note this because many fundamentalists jump to unfounded conclusions about atheism by associating it with just about everything they identify as evil and sinful.

My Worldview

I have had this conversation on numerous occasions with @Fizlowski—I do not like to identify myself merely as an atheist because atheism is a negative identification, a statement of what I am not. I do not like to identify by what I am not. I don’t call myself a non-female or unislamic. I prefer to assert what I am.

What am I? In reference to my view of the cosmos, I am a naturalist and a metaphysical monist. I assert that the material universe (or universes), the cosmos, in all of its grandeur, beauty, and hostility, is probably all there is—undifferentiated monism. Additionally, I am a humanist. I assert that human values and ethics are best developed in process with one eye on our evolutionary past and future and the other on the well-being and happiness of humanity.

I also participate in an independent, liberal religious community with ties to the UU denomination. In this community I enjoy the ritual of Sunday morning church attendance—something I enjoy due to my Christian upbringing. Because I enjoy religion and the study of religion and religious texts, I also identify as a religious naturalist. Religion for me is a human cultural creation, and I take out of it what I enjoy. I eat the date and spit out the seed. Not all of my atheist friends appreciate this aspect of my identity, but it is who I am. (For further information on religious naturalism consider reading Without God Everything is Holy by Chet Rayamo). I might develop this more in future posts.

So, in sum, I am a secular humanist, a religious naturalist, and a metaphysical monist. From this one should be able to infer that I am an atheist or an atheist agnostic.

Parsons, Keith. "Atheism: Twilight or Dawn" in Steward, Robert. ed. The Future of Atheism. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2008.