Begging the Question: A Call for Counter-Apologetic Reform

The bible is infallible. The bible attests its own infallibility. Therefore, the bible is a trustworthy source about the nature of reality.

Ever get frustrated when debating somebody who thinks that way? I have. Facing such people is akin to hitting a brick wall. There is a full stop. Conversation ends. Do not pass Go. Do not collect 200 dollars. The sheer frustration of such circular logic puts us in a place where we lack the words to progress dialogue; so we pick up our toys and go home.

The fallacy of such appeal is called begging the question, or BTQ. Such a fallacy exists wherein a conclusion is wrongly stated as a premise. The claim to the bible’s infallibility is the desired conclusion of the Christian apologist. To state it as a premise is to jump the gun in order to force a desired belief. It’s a frustrating, mind-bogglingly unappealing, and endlessly unproductive fallacy – and one of my least favorite fallacies altogether.

Surely, counter-apologists are above such nonsense!

Well, maybe not. But there is hope for us all the same.

By definition, a supernatural event is one which follows rules beyond the standard materialistic model. As many counter-apologists have pointed out, anything which can be explained ceases to be a supernatural event. Lightning, once thought of as punishment from the gods, is now as natural an event as the rain – though admittedly (and thankfully) more rare.

At the same time that counter-apologists point out the erosion of the supernatural, we put the burden of proof on the religious claim. Since the religious story is the incredulous one, so we say, it is the duty of the theist to prove the existence of god, rather than for the nontheist to prove the nonexistence of god. Even taking questions of status-quo defenses aside, the impossibility of proving a negative demands such an approach.

Independently, the two phenomena would be totally fine in argument. Together, however, counter-apologists have put themselves in a place where they are begging the question with their religious peers. The logical propositions seem to be as such:

1. A supernatural event is that which cannot be explained through natural means.

2. A supernatural frame of reference should not be adopted without proof using natural means.

3. Therefore, because a natural frame of reference has failed to prove the supernatural, the supernatural does not exist.

For what it’s worth, there is much more to this argument – the natural/supernatural distinction, for instance, takes place more within the labeling conventions of the human mind than in the world which exists externally to us. And there are plenty of theists who would contend that all of the cosmos – gods and all – should be treated as on the same plane. However, the counter-apologist, in rejecting the existence of gods, seems to force a dichotomy.

So what is the way forward? We could, I suppose, agree to disagree and call it a day. But that isn’t satisfying and it’s cognitive dissonance to end it there. I’ve rejected the existence of god with what I have – to suggest that what works for me won’t work in argument seems disingenuous (though worth consideration).

Rather, I suggest that we need to start using words other than supernatural. Theists won’t benefit from it, because the first counter-apologetic premise does well to indicate that the supernatural is just a matter for the god of the gaps. Moreover, the ability of religious dialogue to survive the elimination of the supernatural label ought to be enough to justify the change. The “one-storey universe” model is more than appropriate enough for apologetic purposes.

Likewise, counter-apologists need the terminological switch in order to stop begging the question. The issue isn’t whether gods are magical, green, or bearded – it’s simply whether they exist. We lose nothing by pushing for the “natural god” debate, save a few embarrassing fallacies.

What I’ve proposed is merely a change in terminology. It certainly doesn’t end our problems. Perhaps I’m even wrong to suggest that we’re begging the question. Here, then, are two questions:

First – am I correct to suggest that this line of counter-apologetic thinking does, in fact, beg the question?
Second – what other changes in terminology might be productive for both sides of an apologetic debate?

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Rorty and the end of a quest for answers

One of the biggest problems in the religious dialogue we face is that we misunderstand the implications of a search for answers. According to the Christian worldview, there must be an underlying truth as ordained by God’s order. I hypothesize that this worldview can remain even after deconversion and is a blind spot of the apologist. This accounts for charges of “moral relativism,” “putting Man before God,” and “devil worship.”  If the world’s being is one ordained by God, any regression in the search for truth must be a move towards that which is evil. The imposed spectrum becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, at least within polemic terms. This is why I think it is so very hard for Christians to truly entertain the point-of-view held by a well-seasoned atheist. One can possibly entertain the hypothetical possibility of a godless universe, but to entertain a different worldview – especially one often left unarticulated – is an entirely more difficult matter.

I’m approaching the one year anniversary of my own deconversion. It’s surprising to me that so much could have changed in my life in so little time; I’ve moved (and changed jobs), bought a home, procreated, and undergone several philosophical revisions. And I’m making up for lost time. An acquaintance of mine, who was at one point a philosophy professor, loaned me about thirty books to read on my own time (under the condition that I argue with him after finishing each one; I’m only too happy to oblige). And after reading Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity by Richard Rorty, I feel that if I’m no better a writer I’m at least in a better position to articulate some of our mutual apologetic frustration.

Rorty’s book is concerned with two primary goals: first, the de-linking of metaphysics from political conversation, and second with the advocacy of a public/private philosophical divide – one in which allegedly contradictory beliefs can be held. This post will mostly deal with the first of Rorty’s goals.

As Rorty points out in Contingency, our language and our identity are both contingent, which is to say that they come not from any metaphysical rule that ordains our reality to be so but rather from a particular, unique social context. The values we hold exist because we come from a particular historical trajectory that happens to have put us where we are. Our identities are contingent on many factors beyond our own control. An appeal to metaphysics, with this understanding, is an appeal to a “final vocabulary” which is unique to our personality or culture, but not the product of some innate truth. Words such as “liberty,” “true,” “good,” or in our case “God” are words which can only be supported by circular reasoning – yet because they are foundational to our values, we routinely avoid giving them cause for such scrutiny. Those who realize the flaws of final vocabularies – those classified as Ironists – are often set on unstable trajectories of growth, but are at least (in theory) immune to appeals to the metaphysical.

Rorty predicts that the primary objection to his philosophy (and that of his predecessors) will rest on an appeal to “common sense,” which of course is really an appeal to a widely-shared final vocabulary. I believe that presuppositional apologetics fall under the same category of Rorty’s notion of common sense. These common-sense objections are appeals to circular reasoning, but are also immune to easy criticism as such, because criticism, by using the traditional language of argument, also appeals to the notion of some perfect final vocabulary. In other words, once one adopts the tools of the metaphysician, one is doomed to lose to the metaphysician. Use of words such as “true,” “beautiful,” or “just” may produce some meaningful social change – and awareness of contradictory dogma – but the cost of doing so is to make appeals to some underlying universal truth. Yet this truth rests upon some sort of worship of a god, an organizing force that gives order to our universe. Letting go of these metaphysical appeals, says Rorty, may not be satisfying – we are doomed to continue floating between answers that cannot give us closure – but such action at least empowers us to grow more freely.

This has caused me to change my opinion on some of the ways atheists engage in counter-apologetics. I used to dislike the “merely aesthetic” rebuttals of God’s existence. Such examples include theories of why the universe is more beautiful without God, or arguments that God is evil. Prior to reading Rorty’s book, I found that these counter-apologetics were the result of a failure to engage with the Christian perspective. Now, I believe that engaging with Christians on their own terms and chosen vocabulary is an uphill battle. This is not to say that traditionally logical arguments cannot or should not be put forth. However, it is to suggest that if we truly believe that there is no higher order, there is no limit or rule to how we can view the order of our universe.

This helps us to embrace the freedom of a positive counter-apologetic. But it does not yet give us a tool for helping the traditional Christian apologist to entertain our worldview, let alone embrace it. I suggest that we should first articulate – as in The Contingency of Language – how the terms put forth by Christian apologists beg the question even before the first argument is made. Claims to morality, for instance, are already metaphysical in nature. So too are claims regarding good and evil. When faced with the charge of moral relativism, we should – as Rorty says – not try to rebut the charge directly but explain how such a charge in itself is an unhelpful approach. Simply put, we need to do more than debate. We need to reconstruct the debate.

Those of us who have deconverted from our religion have the opportunity to embrace our own definition of meaning. With this freedom come many difficulties. We have forsaken the mantle of true moral authority, because we know that no moral authority exists. To pretend that we have it is to fall into the trap we mean to escape. Embracing the difficulty of an amoral universe, and to work to achieve human solidarity in other terms – say, the desire for mutual protection, or the right to grow in our own idiosynchratic ways, or to build a world our great-grandhildren may enjoy – is a far more enriching task. I also believe that once we do so, we will set a positive example for others to follow.

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Cutting out the middle man

I used to be willing to hate.

When I was a Christian in seminary, I was a strong advocate for gay marriage. I didn’t believe that the bible condemned it, and I thought that even if I was wrong about the matter, that God wouldn’t send somebody to hell for one sin when Christians expect Jesus to forgive them from others.

But in order to hold that position, I had to also believe that if I were truly proven wrong, I’d be willing to jump on the bandwagon. In order for my promotion of same-sex marriage to have a moral high ground in my community, I had to state that I was willing to hate gay people if God called me to it. I had to say (and believe) that if God really wanted me to stone a sinner, that I would happily toss it.

Only from that position would I then be able to earn my audience’s trust in discussing the message of love that I said was in the bible. If I weren’t willing to follow god’s orders, I was approaching the matter with my own beliefs. And if that were true, I wasn’t an honest scholar of the bible.

When I deconverted, one of the first things I did was apologize to a former coach of mine – a gay man in his young thirties. I did not apologize for hating him, but rather for being willing to hate him. For the first time in my life, I recognized his humanity not because I felt an imperative from another, but because I felt a sense of human compassion. And that was the point when I started to make peace with being a nonbeliever.

I still grapple with strange moral questions. Do I hold my morals because of my upbringing? Social pressure? Some hidden divine law? Or is it simple cowardice? I can’t claim to answer – and I don’t totally agree with Sam Harris’s argument that morality can be scientifically derived. However, I do know that since deconverting, I feel like I’ve cut out the middle man. And just like cutting the middle man out of a trade increases pocket profits, I’ve felt like love is more meaningful.

I truly respected my brother and his live-in girlfriend. I didn’t need to make overtures to myself about concern for their supposedly sinful arrangement. I supported the rights of my gay friends, and I spent more time listening to them than combing arguments in the bible. And although I was saddened to learn that there was no eternal justice for villains like Pol Pot, I felt a sense of strength knowing that my distaste for tyrants, murderers, and rapists was my own. It is my understanding. It is my responsibility to cultivate it. And I don’t have to get a permission slip to fight for justice. Instead, I just have more time and energy to dedicate to that which is real.

I’m not going to say that everything has been happy, but cutting out the middle man has been one of the most helpful parts of my journey into nonbelief.

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Acknowledging Grief

In religious arguments, I have noticed a strong impulse to treat grief as an extreme in argument, regardless of its role. Believers may use it to indict nonbelievers as too weak in facing their grief, while nonbelievers tend to either act consumed by it, or to work at downplaying it in their own lives. I’ve found myself in all three stated positions at some point in my life. However, I think that for those of us who came to nonbelief through a grieving path, we benefit the most from rational honesty with its role. The human experience is somewhat biographical, and for those of us who consider nonbelief a component of self-identity, the sum of our experience should be a part of it, even if it doesn’t figure directly into our apologetics.

For me, a season of depression that was capped with a miscarriage in the family was the starting point for my nonbelief now. And although I have many reasons now why I do not ascribe to a religious dogma, I cannot claim to be rational and honest if I deny the personal origins of my present beliefs. Even beyond simple honesty, I find that personal experience belongs in the narrative that we share when asked why we are atheists.

The Christian Monopoly on Experience

There is, I believe, a certain Christian monopoly on experience. By this I do not mean that only Christians have experiences, or that experience is not a part of others’ narratives. However, in apologetic discussions and interfaith arguments, I have found that there is a strong attempt by Christians to monopolize the handle on experience. When I studied evangelism, I found that more than doctrine and text, the role of the personal story was the strongest tool for outreach. We were encouraged to write out our own faith stories in varying lengths: in our case, a twenty-second, one-minute, and five-minute autobiography limited to a religious context. Evangelicals at my school realized that as much as humans respect argument and abstraction, we have a sort of weak spot for personal relationships. It is no coincidence that the new age of marketing, “relationship marketing,” follows the same developments as evangelism studies.

Whenever Christian apologists are backed into corners on matters of doctrine and burden of proof, the final retreat is to personal experience. And even when faced with claims that personal experience does not convincing evidence make, they stand firmly on it with little apology. I remember once saying that I cannot account for why a Muslim or a Hindu can claim a divine experience, but only that my own experience led me firmly to belief in Christianity. That experience is powerful, and even if it is not an effective retreat for an opponent or audience, it is a powerful self-aid.

At the same time, I have known people who left their religion after a sense of grief, only to be told that their experience explains away their claims. Of course, some have said (including me at one point), one might leave the faith after grieving. Those pesky experiences keep us from seeing the “truth” of God’s love. And in fact, it is this tendency – one I formerly practiced – that keeps me from acknowledging openly my grief.

This does not heal the issue. I do still grieve, and I suppose that it makes me stronger in some ways. Prior to a particularly rough spring of 2012, I was adept at explaining away the problem of evil.  Of course there is suffering, I had said – but it all plays out for the best. This life is short compared to eternity. Grief strengthens us. Where we grieve, Christ is present with us. I’d said it all.

But those arguments are only functional in the abstract. They offer comfort if one fixates away from the self, but when the grief becomes personal, it becomes an invasive form of self-reflection. Those abstractions offer little comfort, and any warning that my faith is insufficient becomes hollow. I can affirm that my rawest, most vigorous, most faithful prayer was prayed in a small hospital room. It is a memory that hurts, because I can also affirm that god was not present in that space. He never was.

My grief is not a proof of the non-existence of god. But it is a proof, at least for me, that I exist. I am a human being, and I find myself in a particular place and time such that I am capable of tremendous joy and sadness. My grief reminds me that the path to rationality is not always taken by pure reason, and it gives me an empathy for those who choose any walk in the religious path. I suppose that I consider grief to be endemic, if not a simple prerequisite for meaningful human existence. It is a part of my story, and it may cost me at some point. But I believe that if I am going to engage in apologetic arguments, I have to know why I do so. I debate against the existence of god because I affirm the existence of myself. Negating myself to negate god seems to miss the point for me. Acknowledging my grief openly, with all the vulnerability that it entails, is a necessity, whatever the consequences.

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An empty sort of Paganism

There is something profoundly autobiographical about any blog that discusses deconversion. Rather than try to ignore this influence, I believe it a more honest and forthright endeavor to write plainly from my own perspective.

This Christmas will be my first as an atheist. Reflecting on seasons past has me in an ambivalent mood. On the one hand, the free license to engage the holiday without restriction has me feeling hopeful. On the other hand, I have yet to find ample replacement for the sense of direction I once knew. This time last year, I was helping run several church functions, diligently renewing my bible study, and praying for a spiritual renewal in myself and those around the world. Even with the broader appreciation for the holiday, little compares to the hope I once held for the holiday.

In many ways, my ennui in this season is a sort of allegory for the deconversion experience. It is one that seems unique to the formerly religious; my friends who were raised without religion have a sense of understanding that reaches a threshold of compassion, but does not fully cross over into empathy. I hypothesize that one develops an existential sense of purpose in their formative years. If one was not exposed to religion at such a point, it’s easier to find peace with existence. For me, the Christmas holiday reflects how far I have to yet come to peace with myself. As much as I profess a sense of purpose in life, I have yet to believe myself.

Yet, I still believe that even divorced of the simple question of truth claims, there is an aesthetic justification for nonbelief in the Christmas season. My loss of purpose has been replaced with unforgivingly vast opportunity. It continues the allegory for nonbelief. We lose a sense of clear purpose, and are instead presented with a form we are forced to define. It is a painful process with yet-unrealized rewards, but it is a necessary one. And it can pay off immensely.

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Saturnalia was plenty meaningful for the “pagan” adherents who brought the holiday into human experience. And Christians saw enough standing merit in the holiday to choose it as a host for their dogmatic transfusion. And the season is ripe with other defined experiences, such as Kwanzaa or, to be more humorous, Festivus.

By one hearing of the tradition, the winter festival had its origins in fear. The shortening days and colder earth demanded that mortals huddle together in hopes that the bitter tides would once again recede. Perhaps the presence of a dying pine was a talisman. Perhaps it was a small comfort and reminder that life perseveres. Perhaps it was neither. Whatever it was, the Christmas tree became a symbol, and as a symbol it became political. Christians may say it is a sign of the eternal life we are promised in Jesus, or a sign that God’s promise is enduring. Atheists may see it as anything. I choose to interpret it as a bittersweet celebration of mortal life in this cosmos. The living tree stands in a cold and unforgiving landscape, yet for all our attempts to water it, the tree too shall die. But the Christmas memories shared under the tree remain. This year, our tree will play host to a memory of my weary heart.

I do not pretend that my thoughts on Christmas are anything resembling complete. Nor do I pretend that I will be as happy as my religious family this year. But at the same time, I hold that I recognize Christmas as a part of the symbolic politics that are a marker of our social existence. The holiday will grow as I grow. And I will grow as I explore the holiday.

This Christmas, for me, is an empty sort of Paganism: a celebration in mind but not in heart. It is a visual reminder that I have only begun to explore who I am, and a reminder that the roots of religion run deep.  But if those are the roots of the Christmas tree, I’m enjoying the climb up the branches.

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The Blogger Returns

The secular movement as a whole seems to benefit from the interconnectedness of “modern” society. With the ability to share resources and support, nonbelievers have found safe spaces where there are none. We have also benefitted from the ability to share intellectual resources, as – absent a central dogma – our apologetics run the risk of being non-unified.

These benefits are tremendous, and have gone a long way not only toward helping people explore their own beliefs, but building social acceptance in places such as the United States (and of course strengthening the acceptance in Europe, at least as far as I have seen). However, the internet has also provided a lensing effect. Not only do the online and abstract interpersonal capacities increase the vitriol of the conversations that need a serious tone, but the compartmentalization of the online persona creates identities that overly attach to the argument. By this I mean that I do not identify primarily as a nonbeliever; I think of myself as a cinemaphile, a coffee lover, a connoisseur of high-end beers, a fan of science-fiction and philosophy, a feminist, a husband and father, and a coach well before I finally come to the part of my identity I associate with being a nonbeliever. Yet whenever nonbelief is discussed, the identity put forth is typically only this small portion of myself.

It is also true that many spaces online are openly hostile. Reactionary rhetoric sells and drives page hits. It has the strongest coalescing effect. And selection bias means that atheists who are not as passionately anti-religion will have fewer materials online than people who drip with complete and utter disdain for their peers. The result of this is not only do believers wall themselves off (hurting the cause, to some extent), but nonbelievers are assumed to be hostile, confirming stereotypes and making our case that much harder to sell.

I suppose that part of this is a need to self-justify. Coming from a Christian context, I can say that deconversion is a traumatic process for those of us who were heavily committed to our religious beliefs before finding ourselves in the atheist or agnostic camps.  It is very tempting to flip from heavily evangelistic religious attitudes (which, in my experience, can derive from a desire to self-justify when it comes to having religious beliefs) to heavily evangelistic atheist attitudes.  It’s much easier to take comfort in one’s atheism when one is able to clearly delineate their intellectual enemies as evil oppressors.

The upshot of all this is we have a lot of people who are on the verge of deconversion, or who have lost faith, but who feel unwelcome. The process is more traumatic than it has to be. Plenty of believers empathize with the atheist argument for the absence of a god, but the emotional boundaries are heavy.  As atheists focus on logical arguments, there is a dearth of discussion on aesthetics. Occasionally, in rebuttal, one makes a claim or two about why being a free thinker increases one’s appreciation for the beauty of the cosmos, but I have yet to see a blog filling the niche I hope to fill.

Thus, this is a space for discussing aesthetics particular to a nonbelieving context. Doing so will necessarily put this blog at odds with religious beliefs and attitudes. I confess a Christian context, though i will attempt to speak to a plethora of religious beliefs. This blog also presupposes nonbelief – either actual or through the principle of charity. It is not a place for argument, as there are plenty of other spaces dedicated to these arguments. That means that this space will be slightly retooled from its old purpose (though commentary on apologetics will likely be a sideshow here).  I hope to make this a space that responds to the needs of the freethinkers out there who want something worth reading in its own right – not merely because of its ability to oppose the dominant worldview where we live. In order to do so, I’d love to make this into a conversational area.  I’ll be willing to engage in some good-faith argumentation, but debate, despite my background, is not the intended highlight of the blog. Nor will I permit it to become such.

If you are a believer, and you wonder how an atheist can possibly enjoy hope and/or beauty, you will find this blog helpful.

If you are a nonbeliever, and you are going through depression or hopelessness on account of internalized oppression, a sense of ennui, or social pressures, I hope that I can be of use to you.

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Starving African Children and the Moral High Ground

One point of contention that often arises from the myriad of views in religious dialogue goes something like this:

“Your side claims to be good, but think of the starving african children.”

Often, it is accompanied by:

“Our side does more to help the starving african children.  Therefore, we have the moral high ground.”

From an atheist perspective, it functions on two fronts: as an indictment of church structures, and as a part of the problem of evil.  The first front essentially questions why the church ought to spend any money at all on buildings, potlucks, or even bibles while orphans starve in Somalia.  The second questions what role absolute poverty plays in the machinations of an allegedly all-loving, all-powerful deity.  Regardless of which path is taken, the desired conclusion of this line of thinking is that atheism cuts out the middle-man in matters of service; without the clutter of religion, charity need not concern itself with printing religious texts, taking time out for worship, or worrying about a cosmic plan.

From a [broad] Christian perspective, it functions to elevate the moral imperatives of a theistic moral framework: the Christian is commanded to feed the poor, and there are multitudes of religious organizations dedicated to wiping out disease and poverty.  Meanwhile, the atheist, even the empathetic one, does not stand under so strong an imperative.  The desired conclusion of this line of thinking is that Christianity holds the moral high ground because its imperative to serve trumps the atheist’s mere desire or preference for service (if that).

Both sides are also guilty of leaving these counters in abstraction.  Most economists will agree that the amount of money and labor needed to eliminate the basic problems of the third world is an amazingly small amount.  Nevertheless, while we debate the plight of those abroad, we do very little to alleviate this suffering.

This is a valid criticism of our personal level of commitment and basic human decency.  It is one that we should all take to heart, regardless of our side in a religious discussion.  However, it does not change the underlying argument, and in fact is often a veiled form of the ad-hominem fallacy.  Simply put, for me to point out that your church wastes its money rather than helping the poor should stand on its own merit, even if I give very little.  And for you to point out that I act without responsibility toward the poor does not change, even if I show that you haven’t done any more to help them than I have.

The question must be addressed from broad social perspectives – it isn’t a matter of how much you or I give, but on what the implications of belief are – and how they play out in large groups.  But even then, we face the matter of the relationship between pragmatism and ontology.  Regardless of which side is “better for the African Orphans,” the core question of whether or not a god exists remains unaddressed.  For what it’s worth, I believe that the theist MUST win the pragmatic argument (if belief in a god is impractical, this god seems to be a very poor designer), but even that brings into the dialogue my own values and beliefs – values and beliefs which the other person might not share.  All the same, pragmatics only represent a small portion of religious dialogue, and we often fall victim to the red herring fallacy, questioning the efficacy of a system without thinking through the question of foundational belief.

Even if secular philosophy is impractical, we ought to entertain it – if there is no god, no amount of impracticality will change that.  Impracticality, then, is only an indication that we must explore and improve our moral reasoning.  We can do so together if need be – but dialogue is the essential prerequisite to such improvement.

Moreover, the underlying problem with the argument is that truth can be bought.  If you donate more to help starving african children than I do, you must be a better person and therefore your personal belief must be superior.  It’s fallacious on a multitude of levels: you can’t perfectly compare experience, morality may exist in one area in spite of failings in another, if we agree on an underlying moral value you lack a monopoly on morality, and of course if you try to help just to prove that you’re right it raises questions about your motivation.  And even if you are completely selfless in your charity, it speaks more deeply to your personal reasons for action than the actual truth claim you make.

So, what is the takeaway of this post?  Basically, there are two:

1) We should be clear that the “starving african children” contention has limited value for both sides, and

2) We should probably do more to help – independent of the contentions we may have on the topic.

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