Sunday, January 20, 2008

Talking God and such

just a discussion in the comments

3 comments:

Ben said...

Trying to keep this on point, I'll just respond to a few important things you said and ask a few questions I think are important. I'm just trying to keep the conversation from expanding ever outward, but if you think I'm ignoring something key, feel free to call me on it:

-You say marriage has always by definition been between a man and a woman, but hasn't it in some cultures been between a man and numerous women?
Furthermore, is that necessarily its most defining trait? Didn't marriage used to be, by definition, a way property was transferred between families? A way for parents to make sure their daughters would be financially supported? A way for opposing factions, royal families, etc. to ensure peace? Those were all extremely important to the definition or marriage, yet they are antithetical to modern marriage in the U.S., at least the civil kind. Marriage today is by definition and by law a joining of equals based entirely on their consent and on the financial terms of their choosing. My point being that marriage has changed a lot over the years and wasn't even always and everywhere between one man and one woman. I buy that one man and one woman was an important part of the definition in many cultures, but not that it was THE definition.

-You say "nothing bad came from scipture," "the standard is perfect," etc. Isn't this circular logic? If everything that comes from Scripture is by definition good, there's really no point in debating the issue, because we have a definitional problem. To me as a non-believer, it's the equivalent of us discussing food and you saying "that food can't be bad, it came from the perfect cookbook."

-When I talked about great ideas that didn't come from Christianity, I wasn't only talking about other religions. I'm also talking about things that have little or nothing to do with religion (at least the modern ones). Like science. Or stuff that came before Christ's birth. Here's a few great things that pop to mind that definitely didn't come from Christianity: democracy, writing, philosophy, astronomy, irrigation, gunpowder, mathematics, the scientific method, feminism.

-You have every right to bring your religious values into the public sphere, but you have a responsibility to make arguments that aren't simply "because the Bible says so." In a free and pluralistic society, that doesn't fly. The common value we're supposed to share, the one that has proven it works, is that we argue in ways that respect where other people are coming from, that draw on reasoning that takes into account culture, history, evidence, etc., not just religion. That doesn't mean we have to let gay people marry. And it doesn't mean you can't vote against it based solely on the Bible. But it does mean that in a democracy where the church is not the state, we have to engage each other in broader terms. I thought you agreed about that.

-Which leads me exactly to my next point. I'm not sure why you think to tell me that I can't judge Nazis, to use your example. If you'll permit me to use a slightly different example, since the Nazis were allegedly Christians, lets talk about the Taliban. Sure it's easy for you to judge them and say "God says you're supposed to do X." To which they'll respond, "No, God says we're supposed to do Y." And that's pretty much the end of your debate. I can judge them by saying "Your treament of women is wrong because your arguments for why women must be covered and abused and dehumanized and so on contradict the evidence. Here are examples of women participating in societies as mens' equals. Here is scientific evidence that women can do almost all the same things a man can do. Here is basic logic that tells you that the same arguments you use to abuse women could be turned back against you." When I judge anybody, I rely on the basic values that human beings want to be happy and free and care very much about the well being of our friends and family -- values that every single one of us who is not mentally ill shares, regardless of religion, because it's deeply rooted in humanity -- and I apply historical examples, evidence around me, and logic. And of course religions thinking is a great aid in the process. Of course that process is mroe complicated than just having a book inform me what is right and what is wrong. But it allows me to talk to people who don't believe in that book. So it puts me in a better position to judge others for their wrongdoing.
Furthermore, the evidence to me is overwhelming: the only countries left in which public debate is dominated by interpretations of a holy book are repressive Islamic states. It's no coincidence that our public debates transcend such issues in the west.

-But here's my one big question for you: Sure, it's easy to judge others and know what you should do when you have a guidebook in scripture. But how do you know scripture is right? Humans are not born believing in the Bible. We're taught it and/or we choose it. If there is no way to determine what is right and wrong beyond scripture, how do you decide whether to accept scripture? It strikes me as a catch-22. Something beyond scripture must motivate you to accept that scripture is right. Which implies there is morality that matters beyond scripture.

-One more question, on the marriage issue: If you are married, did you get married in a church? Do you believe that being married in a church, in a union consecrated by God and all that, is the only true form of marriage? I've got to assume so, since scripture is so important to you. And therefore I've got to ask, why does the definition of civil marriage matter so much to you? It doesn't effect the rules in your church. Surely you accept that there are and should be lots of differences between civil laws and religious rules. If there are no demonstrable harms to society from same sex marriage -- and you haven't pointed to any -- why in the world does it matter to you? It's not changing the definition of marriage because marriage is a union before God. Right?

will said...

Hi Ben, here is my response. There is a lot here and I felt like I had to be brief on almost every answer as a result (probably meaning that my answers are inadequate). Maybe on future posts the person asking questions can limit them to one or two at a time to allow for a full response. Anyway, here goes:


>>You say marriage has always by definition been between a man and a woman, but hasn't it in some cultures been between a man and numerous women?

I think that historically these would be multiple marriages not a single marriage. In other words, I think that the definition has remained the same. One man could join together with one woman and that would be a marriage. Some cultures, would then allow someone the same man to then do a second marriage (that is a man could marry a second woman) but it was always one man and one woman. A marriage ceremony would look the same.

>>Furthermore, is that necessarily its most defining trait? Didn't marriage used to be, by definition, a way property was transferred between families? A way for parents to make sure their daughters would be financially supported? A way for opposing factions, royal families, etc. to ensure peace? Those were all extremely important to the definition or marriage, yet they are antithetical to modern marriage in the U.S., at least the civil kind.

I think you are confusing how marriage was used and what marriage was. I would argue that the reason that these ancient marriages are still recognizable as marriages (despite the many various ways in which it was used and practiced) is that the marriage definition remained the same. They were not defined by romantic love between two people; they were vows of marriage between a man and woman.

>> Marriage today is by definition and by law a joining of equals based entirely on their consent and on the financial terms of their choosing.

No, what you have described are the rules we have that surround marriage now (quite different from the rules of 1000 yrs ago) but they are not the definition of marriage. When a man and a woman got married in the Middle Ages they had a certain set of rules; a man and a woman have a different set now. The rules are not the marriage.

>> You say "nothing bad came from scipture," "the standard is perfect," etc. Isn't this circular logic? If everything that comes from Scripture is by definition good, there's really no point in debating the issue, because we have a definitional problem.

I think you missed my point. My point was that we need a standard outside ourselves. We can’t base our understanding of good and evil on our collective opinions and the spirit of the time (zeitgeist). History has show that this is like having no standard at all. Societies can’t be corrected by zeitgeist because they follow it by default. Nazi Germany was following their own warped zeitgeist. So a standard is needed. That was my point.

Once the standard is chosen, the standard then needs to be accepted as perfect. You can’t say that the standard is the guide and then reject the standard where you don’t like it. If you do you might as well not have the standard. How would you possibly judge it? Zeitgeist?

Now it is possible that the standard is wrong of course. I am quite open about the fact that I do not accept the Koran to be true despite the fact that many people believe it is perfect. So, it is important that we pick the right standard. I believe the Christian Bible is the true standard for a variety reasons that we have not really touched on yet.

>> To me as a non-believer, it's the equivalent of us discussing food and you saying "that food can't be bad, it came from the perfect cookbook."

Not unless you believe that right and wrong are matters of personal taste. If you believe that, you cannot stand in judgment of Hitler (or people who oppose gay marriage). What we are talking about is the basis of morals and human rights not food.

>> When I talked about great ideas that didn't come from Christianity, I wasn't only talking about other religions. I'm also talking about things that have little or nothing to do with religion (at least the modern ones). Like science. Or stuff that came before Christ's birth. Here's a few great things that pop to mind that definitely didn't come from Christianity: democracy, writing, philosophy, astronomy, irrigation, gunpowder, mathematics, the scientific method, feminism.

I don’t remember saying that all great things came from Christianity. I think your question was, “Where's the evidence that religious individuals and societies are more ethical?” I pointed out the fact that ideas have consequences. If Christians follow a standard that says, ‘don’t kill the weak’, ‘all humans have worth,’ ‘kings are subject to God,’ and, ‘eternal judgment comes upon those who abuse the poor’ than the world will be better for the weak, and the poor and kings will be called to respect all people. That was my point.

I am fully aware that great things have come out of non Christian cultures (although a bunch of the things you listed did come from Christians in Christian cultures but we don’t need to get into that).

>>You have every right to bring your religious values into the public sphere, but you have a responsibility to make arguments that aren't simply "because the Bible says so."

I agree fully agree that if I am going to convince anyone to vote, for example, pro-life that is not a Christian I might not get very far quoting chapter and verse. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I have no clue as to the political process. But I can vote pro life because “the Bible says so”. And I can tell other people that accept the Bible is the standard to vote pro-life because the “Bible says so.” I can also work to convince people that the Bible is true and then explain to them that they need to vote pro-life because the Bible says so.

>> In a free and pluralistic society, that doesn't fly.

Says who? As a member of this pluralistic society, I bring my views to the table. I think my views are right just like you think yours are. I have my set of morals (based on scripture) you have your set (based on your own logic and the morals of your social group).

>> The common value we're supposed to share, the one that has proven it works, is that we argue in ways that respect where other people are coming from, that draw on reasoning that takes into account culture, history, evidence, etc., not just religion.

Of course, I will not convince people that don’t follow the Bible by appealing to the Bible. We agree there. And quite frankly, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t understand that. But it is a marketplace of ideas right? If my plan for ending abortion is yelling at people to read relevant bits from the book of Exodus, I will fail to convince anyone and thereby be no political threat to anyone.

I think your problem is the cases where appealing to religion works (prop 8?). And in these cases, I would say it is fair game. If you can appeal to your standard and convince your friends, I can appeal to my standard and convince my friends. There is nothing in the constitution or anywhere else that says I can’t. As a matter of fact, I would argue that as a Christian it is my job to call other Christians to vote in ways that are consistent with the Bible.

>>That doesn't mean we have to let gay people marry. And it doesn't mean you can't vote against it based solely on the Bible. But it does mean that in a democracy where the church is not the state, we have to engage each other in broader terms. I thought you agreed about that.

The church is not the state. You are right about that. If Reverend O’Neil and the church Deacons grab guns and start enforcing Biblical rules, we have a problem. But there is nothing wrong with Rev O’Neill and the Deacons gathering together to convince others to vote in a likeminded way using any reasons they want (including appeals to the Bible). There is nothing in the constitution or anywhere else that says he can’t.

>> Which leads me exactly to my next point. I'm not sure why you think to tell me that I can't judge Nazis, to use your example. If you'll permit me to use a slightly different example, since the Nazis were allegedly Christians,

This is simply wrong. They were not. No serious historian claims this. Hitler’s religion was a strange spiritualized understanding of Darwinism; he despised Christianity. But ok, go on.

>> lets talk about the Taliban. Sure it's easy for you to judge them and say "God says you're supposed to do X." To which they'll respond, "No, God says we're supposed to do Y." And that's pretty much the end of your debate.

Right. We both have a “perfect standard” and the standards disagree. But the conversation would not end there. There are good objective reasons why the Christian faith is true and Islam is not. I do not believe that all religions are equally right. But we can get into my reasons for this later.
I will put on my Taliban hat to respond to your questions (in ways I don’t agree of course).

>>I can judge them by saying "Your treament of women is wrong because your arguments for why women must be covered and abused and dehumanized and so on contradict the evidence.

And they would respond, “We are not dehumanizing women. We are protecting women from dehumanizing sexualization. And if you don’t agree, look, the Koran says so.”

>>Here are examples of women participating in societies as mens' equals.

“But the Koran doesn’t say that this sort of coequal participation is a good thing, so who cares?”

>> Here is scientific evidence that women can do almost all the same things a man can do.

“But who says that is a good thing. The Koran says that women are not supposed to do all the same things men do.”

>> Here is basic logic that tells you that the same arguments you use to abuse women could be turned back against you.

“But the Koran says that we are not abusing these women but protecting them. And how could logic turn that back against us?”

>> When I judge anybody, I rely on the basic values that human beings want to be happy and free and care very much about the well being of our friends and family -- values that every single one of us who is not mentally ill shares, regardless of religion, because it's deeply rooted in humanity

I don’t think these values are in all sane people. I don’t believe that at all. I don’t think the Nazi’s were insane. They were actually quite logical. As a matter of fact, I think that for most cultures in most of the world cultures have had no respect for the little guy. Your arguments could not dissuade a Nazi from murder on this basis. Take a Nazi who has the following line of thought: “Evolutionary improvement takes place when the weak die the strong surviving and have babies. But Christian piety has brought an end to this process in humans by protecting the weak, building asylums for the insane, allowing the sickly to live, allowing inferior races to live among us etc. If we keep letting this go on the process of evolutionary advancement will not only slow but will reverse. This will be bad for everyone. So what we should do is sterilize the mentally ill. We should put the inferior races in ghettos. We should allow the sick to die. Ultimately, it may be necessary to kill some people but we will do it humanely and painlessly through gas chambers. Ultimately, this will make everyone happier and the world a better place.”

How exactly would your argument dissuade this madman? I know how I would do it.

>> Furthermore, the evidence to me is overwhelming: the only countries left in which public debate is dominated by interpretations of a holy book are repressive Islamic states. It's no coincidence that our public debates transcend such issues in the west.

Don’t make the mistake of saying all religions are the same. I would agree that the Koran is a bad standard. Also don’t assume the world is becoming secular. To the contrary it is becoming more religious. The myth of a secular world was recognized as myth by sociologists 20 years ago. For a great work on this subject, check out “The Next Christendom” by Penn State’s Phillip Jenkins. If any group is fading from the world, it is the secularists.

>> But here's my one big question for you: Sure, it's easy to judge others and know what you should do when you have a guidebook in scripture. But how do you know scripture is right?

This is a big and important question. The answer is really long but I will give a very brief outline and we can fill it in where you would like to know more. First, I think that there is a God and that the world was created by him. I think that the “fine tuning” of the gravitational constant, the speed of light, and the placement of the orbits cannot be explained without a Creator. Further, I think that a man claiming to be king named Jesus challenged the authorities of his day, was beaten, killed, and buried 2000 years ago. This unremarkable occurrence (there were many similar leaders killed in the same region and at the same time) became remarkable when the tomb was found to be empty three days later and hundreds of people reported seeing the man alive. Among these were his closest friends and allies who were understandably afraid and hiding (usually troublemakers were rounded up in groups so his followers might be next). But after the reports of Jesus being risen from the dead, his followers began to preach openly about Jesus as King again (not a smart move and certainly not something to do if the so called king is still dead). If this were not remarkable enough, even critics of Jesus came to believe that he was alive. Some of the earliest Christians (such as the Apostle Paul) were against Jesus prior to the resurrection but became followers when they saw him alive. So this resurrection was not a private affair witnessed by one or two people. It was a public affair witnessed by a cross section of the population ranging from friendly to enemy. There is no other suitable explanation for the accounts and actions of the people in the first century other than that the resurrection was a true event. And because the resurrection is true, I would argue we should probably ask the question who was Jesus? The New Testament is a collection of first century writings from the people that surrounded Jesus before and after the resurrection. They detail what he said, where he went, what he did and how the community reacted to him. And in studying these accounts, it becomes clear that Jesus made a radical claim: he was God. This radical claim was validated by the miracles he performed in life (again, these were public miracles in the face of opponents and friends) and, of course, by the resurrection. I am convinced that Jesus was God. If Jesus was God and Jesus chose the writers of the New Testament to be his disciples and to record and preach about his life, then it makes sense to me that we should be reading the New Testament. So, as I read the New Testament I see that the writers also say that Jesus is revealed in the Old Testament. This tells me that we should be reading the whole Bible.

Taking the Bible as a unit and reading it shows that it is an unbelievable book. The sort of book that God would write. It is one of beauty with amazing poems and canticles. It has great narrative coherence despite being written over the span of 1500 yrs by almost 40 different authors (contrast this with the Koran that is quite confused in its narrative despite having only one author). It contains amazing prophesy and detailed histories. This is a cool book.

>>If there is no way to determine what is right and wrong beyond scripture, how do you decide whether to accept scripture?

Let’s not confuse all knowledge (how do we know anything is true?) with a moral standard (how do we know what is right)? I think that logic and reason are good ways to figure out what makes sense. They are just terrible ways to determine morals. Think about it. Two of the most educated and scientific cultures of Europe in the 20th century were the bloodiest: Germany and Russia. Millions were killed not because they were stupid but because they were smart. Nazi logic is good but their morals are bad. Why? Wrong standard.

>> One more question, on the marriage issue: If you are married, did you get married in a church? Do you believe that being married in a church, in a union consecrated by God and all that, is the only true form of marriage? I've got to assume so, since scripture is so important to you. And therefore I've got to ask, why does the definition of civil marriage matter so much to you? It doesn't effect the rules in your church. Surely you accept that there are and should be lots of differences between civil laws and religious rules. If there are no demonstrable harms to society from same sex marriage -- and you haven't pointed to any -- why in the world does it matter to you? It's not changing the definition of marriage because marriage is a union before God. Right?

I will give a short answer to a long question. The Christian religion is a public religion. It is made to engage culture. Telling us that we can have our religion so long as we keep it in the confines of church walls is to ask us to stop being Christians. As far as who Gay marriage hurts, that is a long question that I would be happy to address in another post (it is late here).

will said...

Let me ask you a question. Where do rights come from?