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Michi’s blog » Picking fights over religion

 Picking fights over religion

  • February 4th, 2009
  • 10:16 am

I suspect this will be a flame war magnet. On the other hand I feel compelled to write it.

First a bit of backstory. My wife enjoys, often and with engagement, discussing theology with her new friends. One of them, a pentecostal christian, gave her the book I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek. I picked it up while visiting her, looking for some book to read, and have forced myself to read through most of it since.

The authors try to prove the correctness of Christianity over all other religious attitudes, but most importantly, prove that Christians are right and Atheists are wrong. And the way they do this is oftentimes insulting, very often ignorant of how to deal with the logical tools they try to use, and constantly reeking of a lack of objectivity in their purportedly objective exposition.

I’ll point out a few points which really grated when I read them, or which came across as just purely obnoxious in this post, and discuss why I take such issue with them.

Bad background research

I later learned that my expectations were too high for the modern university. The term “university” is actually a composite of the words “unity” and “diversity”. When one attends a university, he is supposed to be guided in the quest to find unity in diversity – namely how all the diverse fields of knowledge (the arts, philosophy, the physical sciences, mathematics, etc) fit together to provide a unified picture of life. A tall task indeed, but one that the modern university has not only abandoned, but reversed. Instead of universities, we now have pluraversities, institutions that deem every viewpoint, no matter how ridiculous, just as valid as any other – that is, except the viewpoint that just one religion or worldview could be true. That’s the one viewpoint considered intolerant and bigoted on most college campuses.

(emphasis as printed, G&T p 19)

First off, the stated etymology is false. The Online Etymology Dictionary states

c.1300, “institution of higher learning,” also “body of persons constituting a university,” from Anglo-Fr. universit

36 People had this to say...

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  • Ulrik
  • February 4th, 2009
  • 10:44

I really applaud you for your perseverance! I would have tossed the book after reading that introduction. But maybe you found some strange, masochistic delight in torturing yourself by reading this?

All of this reminds me that Theology is still a university subject, and so (one would presume) the field has some good scholars. So is the field of Apologetics still active, or are all the university theologians de facto atheists or agnostics by now?

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  • Aloysius
  • February 4th, 2009
  • 15:48

I haven’t read this book but it sounds pretty poor from your description.

Weak approaches like this are very unproductive and I don’t think they should be attributed to the larger Christian community. Many Christians honesty and with an open mind try to reconcile spiritual beliefs with the reality they experience. Works that make it easy to dismiss or attack those efforts make that more difficult.

However, and I do know two wrongs don’t make a right, Christians are not unique in producing poor arguments for their cause. A short tour into the world of Islamic science as it stands today makes me wonder how they are credited with saving Greek and Roman knowledge from the dark ages. Also, I’ve read many arguments against Christianity, and religion in general, from atheists who employ the same poor rhetorical techniques you’ve mentioned above, the most popular being ad hominem and straw man. These guys didn’t invent the Roadrunner Tactic.

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It’s a thorough work, but not flame bait. As we discussed in person about this book, in this corner of the web flame bait consists of suggesting that religious people might not be completely insane after all.

But yes, the idea that some people who hold religious beliefs might be reasonable, and maybe even above mockery and derision at every turn doesn’t preclude that these two are nutjobs.

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Yikes. As someone who is a Christian and also a computer scientist and mathematician, I’d like to apologize on behalf of Christians who spout such disingenuous and insulting nonsense. It makes me angry too.

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  • Michi
  • February 4th, 2009
  • 17:40

Ulrik: While I have a few friends in theology (back in Germany), I do not actually know much about the academic field myself. I would however strongly imagine that academic theology doesn’t have all too many atheists in it, while academic religious studies would be absolutely littered with atheists and agnostics.

Everybody: I know several sane, coherent, interesting and well-spoken Christians, some of whom are in this comment thread (hey John!) – and while a firm non-believe myself, I have absolutely nothing against believers of belief in Christianity or anything else.

I do dislike stupidity though. And I abhor willfully manipulative stupidity like this.

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  • Mattias Bengtsson
  • February 4th, 2009
  • 19:10

I found this both entertaining and sad at the same time. Especially the 5 step argument from infinite sets to the creator was hilarious.

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You’re overreading my position, Michi. I never said I “believed”, but rather that (a) I believe that the core tenets are beyond rational analysis, and (b) I know many people who aren’t fundamentalist, literalist nutjobs that don’t deserve the spite I see lobbed at them.

As for theology, pretty much every student I knew from the Divinity school while I was at Yale was at least as agnostic as I am.

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  • David
  • February 4th, 2009
  • 21:18

There’s garbage being produced all over the religious spectrum. I would argue that Dawkin’s The God Delusion is just as unproductive as this. Neither work is going to convince anyone with different beliefs, both make logical errors and sweeping generalizations (okay, Dawkin’s errors are generally more subtle), and both seem to exist primarily to say “you’re so smart for believing what you do; the people who disagree with you are stupid.” As a Christian and a mathematician, I find the whole argument a bit embarassing.

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Not that I would want to stand up for the text, but I think that perhaps your anger at its genuinely poor points may have carried you away. I single out this statement in particular:

By finding some statement, whatsoever, from an enemy that they can somehow bend into a contradiction, they proclaim victory over all arguments that enemy uses.

Surely, as a mathematician, this sounds reasonable to you? If I am reading a math paper and I find, somewhere in the middle of it, a minor statement that is clearly false, then I might be inclined to believe that it is just a local error, or to try to patch it up; but, on the other hand, I’m certainly logically justified in claiming that the existence of even a minor falsehood in one step destroys the entire argument. For example, there are many number of undergrad-style multivariate calculus problems that find extrema where there just are none—because of the simple, tiny mistake of cancelling an x from both sides of the equation without first checking that it’s non-0 ….

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  • Michi
  • February 4th, 2009
  • 23:44

Jade: No, it does not sound reasonable. Not when applied outside mathematics and the rigor and communication conventions used in mathematics.

If it was a question of a chain of arguments containing a contradiction in it, then it would have been a completely different question – and in that case I give you right. But that is by far not how G&T use the device in question. They are much fonder of grabbing any kind of categorically stated heuristic – such as “Truth is unknowable”, and just bending that particular extracted statement into a syntactical contradiction – such as “If truth really is unknowable, how can you know that truth is unknowable?”.

And this is what I mean by finding a statement that can be bent into a contradiction. It is, to their argument, completely irrelevant what alternative statements are given as illustration or argument for the point a person is making (and if you’ve read philosophy lately, people tend to be very fond of expressing the same idea with many different formulations, in order to get their _point_ across), thus willfully ignoring the actual exposition in favour of grabbing any single sentence in the exposition they can knot up in this way.

And since the sentences they grab tend to be expository, or summarizing in nature, they end up ignoring quite significant portions of any statement they’re up against just to be able to proclaim a win.

It is not that they invalidate an argument chain after finding a shallow self-contradiction. It is that they invalidate all arguments associated to the same text or the same author as contained the self-contradiction, citing this self-contradiction as reason enough. It’s a bit like saying that since I have made errors in the blog posts I’ve written, no research I ever perform will be worth paying any attention to.

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No, I’m sorry, I agree that I was probably being a little glib; certainly, I agree that the argument device is suspect, and I find your response to me a convincing explanation of why even though I didn’t think the same of the original post (probably because the (admittedly minor) point didn’t seem worth detailed explanation in the larger context).

To continue with the nit-picking, though, I’m still not happy with the example that you cite. (Hurry to the rescue, someone on the Internet is unhappy!) To me, “Truth is unknowable” really is a useless, though not self-contradictory, statement. I’d buy a Gödelian “Some truths are unknowable”, which maybe a broader reading of whatever-passage-it-is-we’re-discussing would reveal to me, but it really does seem to me that the absolute statement you mention, taken at face value, simply asserts the futility of any search for truth—which I find more offensive than even the most logically fallacious argument.

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  • Michi
  • February 5th, 2009
  • 0:56

Jade: I wasn’t at all invested in the particular statement “Truth is unknowable”. It was an example I grabbed out of thin air right now, and it was grabbed the way it was in order to illustrate both the nature of the condensed claims G&T setup as their straw men and the nature of their actual attack. I certainly don’t agree, myself, with the sentiment “Truth is unknowable”, but I find their way of dismissing similar statements to be childish and deliberately obstructing any kind of potential communication.

The lack of explanation in the post is also partially due to that I wrote it while suffering slight insomnia at 1am. I think it ended up lucid enough, but it was written in a slightly rambling manner.

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  • Rikard Johansson
  • February 5th, 2009
  • 2:14

Decreeing God is outside logic robs you of all responsibility for providing a rational argument. How splendidly convenien.

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  • Michi
  • February 5th, 2009
  • 2:32

Rikard: I’m not entirely certain I understand your point. Is your comment directed at me or at G&T?

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At me, I’m pretty sure. He’s taken your cue that I’m “Christian” (despite me clarifying that it’s inaccurate) as meaning that I’m fair game for attack.

Rikard: I’m not going to have this fight on someone else’s turf. I’ll just say that you’re ascribing beliefs and goals to me when you have no grounds to do so. If you want to beat up on some straw man you’ve constructed in my image, fine.

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  • Michi
  • February 5th, 2009
  • 5:34

John: Apologies, again, for my mischaracterization. Do you know this guy from your own turf?

Rikard: To be quite frank, I am inclined to agree that questions of faith are inherently illogical, which makes the business of either proof of disproof of the existence of specific or general divinities silly.

That said, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t need religion and am quite happy with my atheistic convictions.

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No, I don’t, but it seems directly on-point to my comments.

I don’t expect to see him back, though. If he hasn’t commented here before then as likely as not he’s a flyby who saw an opportunity to jump up, take a swing at a silly/stupid Xtian, and congratulate himself on being so enlightened before slinking back to his cave.

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  • Rikard Johansson
  • February 5th, 2009
  • 11:34

Now who’s ascribing atributes to other persons here? It certainly isn’t me…

Yes my comment was directed at you John and it was supposed to be quote of this:

“I believe that the core tenets are beyond rational analysis”

However several persons commented in between (I was away doing some other things while reading and forgot to update. Sorry about that).

And to try to make my point again. To say that God, beliefs, religion etc is inheritly illogical/irrational is not a justification of it. That was my point.

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Rikard:
(1) I said you were likely a flyby, given observations of similar commenters in other threads. A smugly sarcastic line like “How splendidly convenien[t]” rather adds to the impression.

(2) I never said that my position “justified” belief. And “irrational” isn’t really the right term either (not that I expect you to care about the details). I’d go with “arational” if pressed.

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Argument from etymology is always a bad sign, never mind argument from incorrect etymology :-)

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  • Rikard Johansson
  • February 5th, 2009
  • 23:35

“He’s taken your cue that I’m “Christian” (despite me clarifying that it’s inaccurate) as meaning that I’m fair game for attack”

“as likely as not he’s a flyby who saw an opportunity to jump up, take a swing at a silly/stupid Xtian, and congratulate himself on being so enlightened before slinking back to his cave.”

“I’ll just say that you’re ascribing beliefs and goals to me when you have no grounds to do so. If you want to beat up on some straw man you’ve constructed in my image, fine.”

John. I don’t really have problem if you make guesses based on your experience on previous encounters with “people such as me”. However if you have a problem with people “ascribing beliefs and goals” to you, which i didn’t, i would recommend you revise you’re own argumental techniques. Clearly you must see that you’ve gone far more down that road than I.

Back to the actual argument again. I didn’t mean to say that you necessarily meant this but I’ve seen arguments like this from theists, not saying you’re one, before. You don’t mind if I rationalize a bit do you?
And regarding that specific topic i see no self-evident reason while _insert_any_specific_word_ should be immune to logical reasoning.

Also i’m curious about the difference between irrational and arational in your point of view.

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It’s the difference between “immoral” and “amoral”.

Oh wait.. if I say “moral” I’ll give people the impression that I’m a foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalist, won’t I?

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  • Rikard Johansson
  • February 7th, 2009
  • 12:43

No you wouldn’t. Morality has nothing to do with religion in my opinion. That is, religion is not the source of morality (though you often hear just that).

I still don’t get the difference though. Perhaps it’s because english is not my mother tounge. Could you perhaps demonstrate with an example?

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“Irrational” indicates something going against logic. “Arational” indicates something unrelated to logic.

Faith and reason are two distinct epistemologies. Many people think they’re opposed to each other, but I see them as more “perpendicular”.

An extremely loose analogy would be the way that the spin-up and spin-down states of an electron aren’t opposite each other, but orthogonal. The real state can be a bit of both.

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  • Sebastian
  • February 8th, 2009
  • 6:00

John, that strikes me as a mischaracterization of actual religion, and actual religious people. When you look at what people really do believe, and what religion really does lead to in practice, here in reality, it is just blatantly untrue that faith and reason are orthogonal.

Every religion I know of makes claims about the natural universe, and as such is subject to the same standards of reason and evidence as everyone else. In practice it’s even worse, it’s not just that they’re making unsubstantiated claims about the natural world and think they should get away with it, it’s all too often the case that they try to actively sabotage/interfere with the teaching of science (see contemporary USA and evolution).

Now, in theory you could have a faith that does not make any claims about reality, but that’s just not what happens in practice to any significant extent, and pretending that it is to avoid dealing with the ugly truth that there really is a substantial conflict here, is a big cop out.

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Sebastian: I didn’t say that it was a characterization of religious people as a whole. I said it’s how I regard the central tenets, and that things like the existence of God are not questions which can be answered rationally.

Oh and incidentally, you’ve never heard of Catholicism? Because it’s also their official position. See the papal encyclical Fides et Ratio.

For that matter, many mainstream Christian denominations are not literalist in their readings of the Bible. You just only ever hear about the fundamentalists because they’re the ones who make the most noise. So you’re willing to paint all Christians with that same brush. I admit, it bugs me that less objectionable groups don’t take a more public stance; standing up, pointing at fundamentalists, and saying “we’re not them”. But public relations are a different issue than what a given denomination actually claims.

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  • Rikard Johansson
  • February 9th, 2009
  • 9:26

@john. I get your point but i disagree. Irrationality is the abscence of logic and rationality. Something “completely” unrelated to logic would fall in the same category.

It seems to me this is just a semantic game and that you don’t like the marking irrational, and therefore try to replace it with something else.

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Well of course it’s a semantic game. Language is a semantic game, and this is language. What’s the point of having a language with a vocabulary as rich and mutable as English if you can’t use it for precision?

I’m sorry if you can’t see the distinction. Then again, if this trait extends to analogous situations I can have oceans of fun asking if you’ve stopped beating your wife yet.

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Certainly, a praiseworthy job you’ve done! You plunged yourself on that shit and you have kept your sanity. I think the main trouble with this kind of publications is that nobody can stand it to make a conscientious analysis and to separate the sheep from the goats…

I’ve tried the same with Erich Von Däniken a long ago, but he is by far a lot funnier. ;)

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  • Rikard Johansson
  • February 11th, 2009
  • 23:03

@ John. To clarify myself. I get that you see them as “perpendicular” and not opposed. This is however totally unfounded. You have nothing to ground that on other than your wish that it is so. That is, for electrons it is substantiated by experiments that the spin states are orthogonal.

Please go ahead and ask me if i’ve stopped beeting my wife (i don’t have to answer yes or no you know)

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Rikard, I’m glad to see that you understand that rhetorical example. It’s a shame you don’t seem to see the analogy.

And incidentally, the entire language of your example shows the depth to which you Don’t Get The Point. Unfortunately, saying anything else wouldn’t help. I’d suggest taking this as a koan, but that would be just as “irrational” (in your language).

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  • Rikard Johansson
  • February 12th, 2009
  • 20:17

And i might as easily say that you don’t get the depth of the argument, what a splendid way of trying to debate. Now we’re down to what we in swedish call “sandlådenivå”.

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Not quite. You’re the one claiming to understand my position enough to ridicule it. You haven’t even put forward a position to be called into question. How can you claim that I don’t understand you when your entire argument is the automatic gainsaying of whatever I say?

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  • Rikard Johansson
  • February 14th, 2009
  • 11:17

Unfounded accusations again. Please qoute where I’ve ridiculed you.

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“How splendidly convenien” carries a good air of ridicule. “[Your argument] is just a semantic game,” isn’t exactly congenial either. Your entire attitude form the beginning has been contemptuous.

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  • David J Green
  • February 18th, 2009
  • 11:04

Mikael, re academic theology in Germany: Germany is rather unusual in that large numbers of university students aren’t studying for a degree awarded by the university, but rather by the state (e.g. trainee teachers) or — in the case of theology — by one of the two state churches (Lutheran and Roman Catholic). So studying theology is basically vocational training for wannabe clerics — unlike the situation in the US or the UK. That’s why in the Catholic church was able to ban Hans Küng from teaching Catholic theology. Right now the Catholic bishop of Regensburg is threatening to suspend three theology professors for signing a petition critical of the Pope’s handling of the Williamson affair. He justifies this by his duty to defend the rights of theology students to teaching in line with the church’s official position (“kirchliche Gesinnung”).

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