religion

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Sunday Quote!- The Invention of Religion

mrv-cavanaughEvery Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!

The Invention of Religion

One book which has influenced my thought quite a bit was The Myth of Religious Violence. I recently reread the book and thought I’d share a rather poignant quote:

There was a time when religion, as modern people use the term, was not, and then it was invented. (81)

The notion that religion is a socially constructed concept is essential to Cavanaugh’s work, and he argues meticulously towards this end. His point is not that all so-called “religions” are false. Rather, his point is that the notion that there is such a thing as a secular/religious dichotomy is itself a construct with a historical development. Moreover, this construct, he argues, has been useful for creating an “Other” who is then deemed “religious” in order to separate this Other from spheres of influence. It’s a highly interesting book, and one I recommend strongly. I have reviewed it here.

What do you think? How might you define “religion”? If Cavanaugh is right, how might this notion influence your thought?

Links

The Myth of “Religion”: Constructing the Other as an enemy– Here, I draw out more of Cavanaugh’s claims regarding the usage of the term “religious” and how it is used at times to create an “Other” to repudiate.

Book Review: “The Myth of Religious Violence” by William T.  Cavanaugh– I review the book which has led me to discuss the ways the category of religion is used to stigmatize the other and also forced me to rethink a number of issues. I highly recommend this book.

Source

William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (New York: Oxford, 2009).

SDG.

Book Review: “In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism” by Winfried Corduan

ibg-wcRarely does a book come along which forces a reader to completely rethink how they’ve viewed a whole slew of interrelated topics. Winfried Corduan’s latest work on the origin of religion is just such a book. I’ve waited some time to finish writing the review simply because it’s taken a while to reflect upon its content and reread and absorb many of the arguments to support the conclusions Corduan provides. Here, I offer some thoughts which can only touch upon the wealth of information in this fantastic book.

The Thesis

Winfried Corduan’s central thesis is simply stated:

Regardless of how one explains the origin of human beings, one cannot get around the fact that the first religion of human beings was monotheism, the recognition and worship of one God.

The way Corduan defends this claim is initially through analysis of competing claims of major thinkers in the past and present on the origin of religion. He then provides a positive case for original monotheism.

Critical Examination of Competing Views

Corduan surveys a number of major thinkers in anthropology who have proposed various ways that religion may have arisen and developed. A central thought throughout many of these thinkers is the notion that cultures, like organisms, evolve. Thus, the thought was that the earliest stages of religion would be “primitive” while later stages of religion would be more complex and perhaps people would even move beyond religion.

The various theses Corduan examines are each interesting in their own light. Max Müller’s theory that mythology is corruption of human language is wonderfully imaginative, though ultimately bereft of real evidential backing. E.B. Tylor’s application of Darwinism to the development of religion remains highly influential but also provides insight into how a paradigm may corrupt and even create evidence. Andrew Lang set the stage for later thought about how religion may have developed, but unfortunately his theory suffered from assumptions that anyone not “developed” like the Europeans was clearly inferior or lower on the evolutionary scale. Thus, his theory suffered from its own brand of self-confirmation and key blind spots.

A telling critical insight Corduan provided which applies to many of the evolutionary perspectives on the origin of religion is that the field evidence gathered for these hypotheses operated under a critical assumption: “nineteenth-century anthropology proceeded on the premise that the ancient past has preserved itself. We can still see it in full bloom in the cultures of tribal people. Human beings who are now living on a stone-age level must have preserved stone-age culture, they argued.

But of course this doesn’t follow at all. It is perfectly possible for such “stone age” societies to in fact be extremely complex and advanced. In fact, Corduan provides much evidence to suggest that this is exactly the case. Highly complex rituals and traditions are often found in these allegedly primitive societies. Moreover, many of these societies show kinds of vestiges of original monotheism, which itself provides counter-evidence to the hypothesis that these societies support the notion of evolution of religion.

A Case for Original Monotheism

Corduan’s case for original monotheism incorporates many aspects of Wilhelm Schmidt’s work. Thus, he dedicates a few chapters to analysis and defense of Schmidt’s theories. Schmidt’s theories are based off of his analysis of how cultures shift. Corduan provided fascinating and practical examples to look at how cultural movement works. One application of this to the origin of religion is that societies shift and push competing cultures either to adapt and integrate or to be pushed more to the fringes. Early settlers are often supplanted by later explorers who stayed in one place and developed before moving on. Allegedly primitive societies are often found in the deserts or at the outskirts of society because they were the first to move on and thus developed only as they settled in ever-distant areas. However, this cannot be used to support the notion that a “stone age” level of a society today entails the preservation of cultural behaviors and practices from such a time period.

The shifting of cultures through “culture circles” thus is used to evaluate how religion may have developed and moved across the Earth. Most importantly, Schmidt worked with the anthropological data that other researchers used, but he approached it without the dogmatic stance that the development of religion must have been Darwinian. This assumption led many other researchers to reject or downplay aspects of the observational evidence because they did not fit the theory. Schmidt discovered, however, that a number of cultures had vestiges of monotheism from earlier times. This resulted in Schmidt hypothesizing that one possible explanation for the shared original monotheism of these cultures could have been an actual deity.

Corduan then provides analysis of a number of critical responses to Schmidt as well as more modern evolutionary or simply agnostic approaches to the origin and diversification of religion. Finally, he surveys a number of world religions to see if aspects of original monotheism may still be found therein.

religious-symbolsInteresting Avenues to Explore

Other avenues are opened as Corduan analyzes specific cultures, such as Egypt or China, and finds that Egypt’s brief affair with “monotheism” may not have been as significant as some take it or that China’s modern religious thought perhaps reflects an original monotheism beneath the surface.

The application of various aspects of anthropological research and the rejection of agnostic approaches to the origins of religion also open up new avenues for research and exploration. If we don’t assume that we can’t know something, how might we approach the project of discovering how religion may have originated and spread? Corduan, of course, provides Schmidt’s theories as one way, though he also integrates insight even from those scholars with whom he disagrees. Thus, he provides a rather integrative approach to the question.

The analysis of various anthropologists who have thought on issues of the origins of religion also open up new ideas to explore, books to read, and evidence to consider.

Avenues for exploration like this are found throughout the book in droves. I mean that: there is so much in this book that makes me want to know more, to learn more. That is coupled with the fact that it made me realize, again, how little I do know regarding entire fields of research and study. In the Beginning God is a call not only to re-evaluate one’s presuppositions, but also a vast treasury of topics to explore.

Of course another extremely interesting thought to examine is that if monotheism were the original religion of people of all sorts, might this have implications for apologetics? Ultimately, Corduan answers in the affirmative. He argues that at least some aspects of this study point to the existence of a monotheistic deity as a possible explanation for the data. He does not think that the anthropological study provides a comprehensive case for the Christian truth, but he does ultimately argue it can be one factor among many to show the truth of Christianity.

A Final Defense

The immediate reaction of some might be that Corduan’s bias yields his results. Similarly, in Schmidt’s time, some alleged that missionary influence led to the purported evidence for original monotheism. However, it should be clear that although everyone has a bias, the evidence presented by Corduan seems impossible to dismiss as simply the wishes of a theist. Rather, he has provided sound reasons for thinking that original monotheism is a relevant hypothesis which perhaps outstrips its opponents in terms of explanatory scope.

Conclusion

In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism  is a simply incredible read. Each new layer of the text provides new insights and discoveries, each of which builds off the body of the text already perused. Corduan has provided critical insight into the state of modern anthropology regarding the origins of religion. He has also established original monotheism as a significant rival theory to those schools of thought. The book will shift paradigms, cause wonder, and provide resources for you to explore and engage with wonderfully exciting topics. Corduan has truly created a masterwork, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Sigmund Freud, Totemism, and the origin of religion- Who cares about facts?– I analyze some of Corduan’s comments regarding Sigmund Freud’s theorizing about the origin of religion.

Sunday Quote!- Is Monotheism from Egypt?– I provide a brief quote from Corduan’s book and note how it may interface with some theories related to the source of monotheism.

Source

Winfried Corduan, In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2013).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Sigmund Freud, Totemism, and the origin of religion- Who cares about facts?

ibg-wcIt is amazing, even before Freud’s psychoanalyticial theories were discredited as such, that this idea was ever accepted as anything but an utterly groundless fabrication. (134, cited below)

Oddly, a challenge I still sometimes see to Christianity (and indeed religion in general), is the notion that somehow it is merely cosmic project of some strange psychological phenomena. Although the idea didn’t originate with Freud, his theories seem to be the most popular. Freud’s idea for how religion came to be was essentially a wish-fulfillment of his own: he turned humanity’s religion into a kind of Oedipus complex.

For Freud, religion clearly often involved a father figure. Thus, he reasoned, religion must have come about over some conflict with a father figure which later caused guilt and the lifting up of a kind of father in the sky- God. The conflict, he proposed, came about due to the notion that the dominant male was the only one allowed sexual access to the women in the primitive family (I’m not making this up!). Winfried Corduan’s latest book, In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism, analyzed a number of aspects of origin of religion theories which are relevant to this thesis. Freud’s theory does not survive empirical analysis.

First, Freud’s notion of shared sexuality and group sex among alleged primitive societies was a popular theory at the time, but one utterly unfounded and based upon essentially no observable evidence. Corduan noted the notion of group marriage was largely derived from presuppositions about how the origin of religion and social institutions “must have happened” (114-115). The theory itself was put forth by L.H. Morgan and not based upon observation but rather “his support of evolution and Marxist-like social theories in which he construed ordinary social conventions… as late inventions in human history” (116). Some anthropologists in the field bought into the theory and thus allowed their observations to be directed by the theory, rather than using their contradictory observations to revise the theory. In fact, their theory-driven research resulted in confusion over the actual social constructs which they were observing (116ff).

Second, Freud’s analysis of the way religion developed is itself mistaken. The climax of Freud’s story is the cannibalistic totem feast upon the Father figure as a way to honor the Father and begin the worship thereof. But Freud’s story is again bereft of observational evidence. Freud acutally used the concept of the totem feast to try to discredit Christianity with its teachings on the Lord’s Supper (communion/Eucharist). However, totem feasts are, themselves, extremely rare in totemistic societies (133-134). Totem feasts were observed in  only a few societies, but then–as Corduan noted was often the case–the irregular was applied generally and so reporting on the various societies began to rely upon the rarity rather than the norm (if indeed a “norm” can ever be said to apply to wildly diverse practices). Moreover, there is simply no record whatsoever of a cannibalistic totem feast. The very notion was invented by Freud to discredit Christianity.

Freud’s generalized application of an extremely rare and unusual practice to a theory made up through psychoanalysis of peoples who left no record and no longer exist is unfounded. His use of his theory to attempt to discredit Christianity seems to actually teach us more about Freud’s psyche than the actual origins of Christian practice.

Anyway, I’m finding this book highly informative. I highly recommend it. I have found it to be extremely thought-provoking. It is interesting to see how many things we have simply assumed to be true about the origins of religion stem from unchallenged (and unsupported) theories proposed around a hundred years ago. Perhaps it is time to revisit these theories. So far as Freud goes, it seems his bell has tolled.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Source

Winfried Corduan, In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2013).
SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Sunday Quote! – Is Atheism Wishful Thinking?

tls-feserEvery Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!

Atheism as Wish Fulfillment

I’ve been reading through Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. Feser is a Thomistic philosopher (one who follows in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas) and so he approaches these questions from a slightly different perspective than that of other theists who have responded to the challenge of the New Atheism. I’ve only just begun the book, but I found this quote juicy:

It is true that a fear of death, a craving for cosmic justice, and a desire to see our lives as meaningful can lead us to want to believe that we have immortal souls specially created by a God who will reward or punish us for our deeds in this life. But it is no less true that a desire to be free of traditional moral standards, and a fear of certain (real or imagined) political and social consequences of the truth of religious belief, can also lead us to want to believe that we are just clever animals with no purpose to our lives other than the purposes we choose to give them, and that there is no cosmic judge who will punish us for disobeying an objective moral law. Atheism, like religion, can often rest more on a will to believe than on dispassionate rational arguments. – Edward Feser, The Last Superstition, 10

Feser’s point is that atheists are just as capable of allowing their desires to cloud judgment when it comes to matters of philosophical judgments as are theists. Everyone has desires; the question is what the evidence is to support those desires. What do you think of this quote? How would you respond to those who assert that religious people are merely seeking wish fulfillment?

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Guest Post: “The Presumption of Popular Atheism” by David Glass– In this post, David Glass, himself an able response-man to the New Atheism, highlights one primary argument atheists make regarding theism: that theists have all the burden of proof on their side.

SDG.

“Star Trek: Into Darkness” – A Christian Perspective

Star_Trek_Into_Darkness_35I had the chance to go see “Star Trek: Into Darkness” recently. As a big Trekkie (and Star Wars Fan–I cover all the bases of nerdom), I was extremely excited to see the film. Here, I will survey a number of worldview-level issues in the film. There will, of course, be SPOILERS in what follows.

Primitive Religion

I was a bit taken aback by the portrayal of primitive religion in the movie. At the very beginning, the crew of the Enterprise is engaged in an effort to save a primitive indigenous population. Kirk steals a scroll, to which the natives were giving obeisance. It is apparently something they worship, and when he finally unrolls the scroll to slow them down, which causes them to stop and worship, the situation is shown to be absurd. Once the Enterprise reveals itself, however, the natives immediately forsake this scroll and worship an image they draw in the dirt of the ship.

I may be a bit hyper-critical here, but I can’t help but think that this picture of primitive religion is a bit off. Sure, it’s science fiction, but the people are clearly human-like and it is easy to uncritically imagine the scene as a facsimile for how human religion may have played out. I cannot help but be extremely skeptical of this scenario. First, the notion of a bunch of simplistic idiots whose faith can shift from one moment to the next was odd. Second, the notion that primitive persons automatically worship whatever they see or cannot explain seems inaccurate. I admit that I have not studied the formation of religion as much as I hope to one day, but even what reading I have done reveals an enormous amount of debate on how religions formed and developed. No work I have read, apart from that of those with clear agendas (and little interaction with the archaeological, sociological, and anthropological evidence), has suggested that religion developed just by people seeing a bird and immediately worshiping it. Granted, the Enterprise is more than a bird, but it still seemed odd. Third, I can’t help but think that rather than immediately forsaking their holy scroll, the people would have turned to it to find guidance to discern the meaning of the events they had witnessed.

Again, I realize I am here being extremely critical, but I feel that if a movie is going to engage with religion, it should attempt to do so in an honest fashion. Trek‘s portrayal was, I think, a bit disingenuous.

The Prime Dire… wha?

Star Trek’s metaethical system essentially centers around the “Prime Directive.” The Prime Directive is complex, but essentially boils down to the notion that people should not interfere with lesser-developed cultures. Those who have seen “Into Darkness” know that in no way did the main characters follow this. But as Maureen Moser at Reasons to Believe pointed out, the Prime Directive essentially entails a kind of moral relativism wherein no one is capable of judging other cultures as morally evil. But of course this seems absurd. If, for example, one ran into a lesser-developed society which was exterminating certain groups, it seems obvious that this is a morally wrong action.

In the case of the film, one is forced to wonder–as it seems Kirk did–whether it really is morally satisfactory to allow an entire society to be destroyed simply for the sake of not being seen by that society. Is it morally right to ignore the fates of other societies?

Looking more broadly at the Trek universe one sees again and again that the characters cannot operate within the constrictions of ignoring the ills of other societies. Should we?

star-trek-into-darkness-teaser-posterEvil

Admiral Marcus seemed to lack any kind of motivation other than a desire for militarizing the Federation. I thought this was particularly hard to believe, especially when that motivation made him not even hesitate to carry out atrocities in front of his daughter. Frankly, I saw no real reason for him to go as insane as he did, which made this part of the film harder to believe.

Khan, of course, was the big “secret” going into the movie. I called it back when the character was first shown. Of course it would be Khan. But why did Khan do what he did? He was fairly clearly motivated by revenge, but there was more to his character behind the scenes.

It was revealed that Khan was a war criminal who was conducting a genocide against any whom he found to be “imperfect.” I can’t help but think that this line, was was basically incidental to the plot, is one of the better talking points from the movie. After all, is the destruction of the “imperfect” is exactly what is taking place within our society with issues such as abortion and euthanasia. On the other side, we see the unwillingness to “give a handout” to those who are hungry or in need. Our culture is steeped in a notion where we do not value the “imperfect,” whether they be elderly, unborn, mentally disabled, or poor. Moreover, one must wonder: who defines perfection? I can’t help but think that a character like Khan is not that different from the evils which are occurring each day within our society.

Miracles

When Kirk has given his life to save the crew of the Enterprise, one crew member comments that “It was a miracle.” Spock responds simply, “There are no such things.” I admit that I was baffled by this comment. After all, the series of events which had just occurred in the space of the previous 5 minutes of the film were so over-the-top that the only reasonable explanations were either Hollywood meddling (of course, this was the case) or the hand of the divine.

I vividly remember someone a few rows down in the theater audibly scoffing when Spock said this. Why would this be a reaction to a line like this? Well, simply put, some things are so beyond probability, luck, and circumstance that they cry out for explanation.

Conclusion

Overall, I enjoyed the film. But I realize that I enjoyed it more as a Trekkie than I did at a worldview level. It seems as though the writers attempted to raise some tough questions, but never got around to providing satisfactory answers. When answers were easy to see (as in the case of miracles), a main character like Spock flatly contradicted it. Those who watch the film with worldview-glasses on will find much to discuss. I think the film is worth seeing simply to start up discussions about miracles, relativism, and even some specific ethical issues. I could see the clip at the beginning used as part of a larger discussion on the history of religion. Of course, as a Trekkie, I also think it is worth seeing for the sake of its place in the Star Trek canon. Let me know what you think.

Links

Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason.” I often ask questions for readers and give links related to interests on this site.

Be sure to check out my other posts on movies (scroll down for more).

Star Trek’s Prime Directive and Moral Relativism– I found this post fascinating. It explores the Trek universe to discuss the metaethical view of relativism.

Engaging Culture: A Brief Guide for movies– I reflect on how Christians can engage with popular movies in order to have meaningful conversations with those around them.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 6

love-winsI have been reviewing Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, with a particular interest in his theological views and how he argues for those views.  I have not read the book before, so each review is fresh: I am writing these having just completed the chapter the post is on. This week, I look at Chapter 6: There Are Rocks Everywhere.

Chapter 6

Outline

Rob Bell begins with a number of stories illustrating how we often come into contact with what some people take to be God or some kind of abstract “love.” He ponders this and wonders “are we alone in the world?… what does any of this have to do with Jesus?” (142). He argues that the rock which Moses struck in the desert from which the people drank was Jesus, utilizing 1 Corinthians 10:3-5 and applying it back to Exodus 17. He asks: “That rock was… Christ? Jesus? Jesus was the rock?” He notes that Paul interprets the story to show how Christ was there.

Bell then turns to the notion of that “There is an energy in the world, a spark, an electricity that everything is plugged into” (144). It has been called the Force, life, “Spirit” and other things. Bell argues that there is such a force and it is found in the “Word of God,” for “God speaks… and it happens. God says it… and it comes into being” (145).

Jesus, Bell argues, shows “what God has been up to all along” (148). God is bringing all people together under Christ.

Moreover, according to Bell, “Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that [sic] existed in his day” (150). Jesus came to draw all people to himself, a point Bell emphasizes through repetition and restating it in numerous ways.

Regarding this drawing all people, Bell argues for “inclusivity” which he defines as “exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity. This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum” (155). Jesus, Bell argues, leaves the door “wide open” which provides the possibility for any to enter.

Bell notes that we must wonder what people mean when they say “Jesus.” Do they mean “tribal membership, the source of “imperial impulse,” or some kind of “political, economic, or military system through which they sanctify their greed and lust for power?” (156).

No one has “cornered the market” on Jesus. We cannot contain him. Bell reemphasizes the importance of not pre-judging people’s eternal destinies. He writes, “it is our responsibility to be extremely careful about making negative, decisive, lasting judgments about people’s eternal destinies. As Jesus says, he ‘did not come to judge the world, but to save the world’ (John 12[:47])” (160).

Analysis

There is much to commend in this chapter, just like I pointed out in my review of Chapter 5. First, Bell rightly warns against trying to bottle Jesus in one form or another. It is not an individual denomination which owns Jesus. Second, Bell again makes the very important point that it is not our place to say whether one person’s eternal destiny is heaven or hell. We do not know how God may be working on that person. Third, he is correct in emphasizing Jesus as the “only way.” Finally, he is right to note how some people attempt to make Jesus into a slogan or a cry for some specific cause they are doing. Doing so undermines the message of Jesus and should be avoided.

Yet there are also many areas to critique in this chapter. First, there is the notion of questionable exegesis. For example, Bell cites John 12:47 to show that Jesus is not about judgment, but fails to cite the very next verse which states: “There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day” (NIV). Bell spends the whole section centered around 12:47 and how God isn’t about judgment, but rather “exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity.” One wonders, then, why he fails to read the next verse of the passage he cites in context. I find this a gross example of proof-texting wherein a part of a verse is ripped from its context and used to rant against the very thing the next verse affirms. The importance of looking at the entire context of individual verses is paramount, and Bell continues to fail to be attentive to the evidence against his positions.

Again, Bell emphasizes the notion of an “open door.” We discussed this at some length in my look at Chapter 4. Once more, the “open gates” in context show a city without any enemy. That is, the enemies of that city have been utterly defeated. Yet Bell takes it to mean wide openness in the sense that people can always come [and go?–does Bell imply that we can leave heaven if we so choose? Is our salvation not secure?]. He emphasizes this over and over again, but then he has yet failed to cite Matthew 7:14, in which Jesus describes the gate and the road to eternal life “narrow” and says “only a few find it.” Why this emphasizing on some texts while ignoring others? Certainly, we need to balance these Biblical teachings, but we cannot ignore one at the expense of the other. Bell seems to do the latter time and again. He cites a text out of its context and ignores anything in the text which goes against his own interpretation. He doesn’t interact with the other parts of the text, he just pretends they don’t exist. I find this highly problematic.

I am also wary of Bell’s statement that Jesus is beyond any one religion. Clearly, Jesus saw himself as a Jew. Making this argument would take me well beyond the scope of this post, but suffice to say that Jesus’ language and imagery regarding himself as the temple places him exactly within the Jewish religion. Yes, he interpreted things in startling ways which led Jews to call him blasphemous, but other Jews saw his resurrection and what did they do? They began to proclaim Christ glorified as the Son of God. Did Jesus really come to overthrow religion, as Bell seemingly implies? Again, such an assertion abuses the Bible. I say this in strong words because it needs to be said. What does Jesus actually say about the religious system in place at the time? Yes he criticized it, but when it came down to the core of the Hebrew faith, the Torah, Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” Matthew 5:17-18 NIV

That doesn’t sound to me like Jesus overthrew that religion. Instead, he argues he came to be the reality of that faith. Jesus came to fulfill the expectations of the Law. Again, Bell’s selective reading of the texts undermines the core of Christian teaching.

Conclusion

There are many positive things to say about this chapter of Love Wins. Bell has rightly emphasized a number of themes to which Christians should be attentive. We need to avoid making Jesus too small and turning him into our personal example or slogan. Yet Bell has also continued to perpetuate a number of errors, and his exegesis is very selective. The way he reads texts seems to have theological blinders on. When he finds the verse he wants, he uses it to trump anything else. We have seen how problematic this is in a number of examples. Next week, we will explore Chapter 7.

Links

Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason”

The book: Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Preface and Chapter 1– I discuss the preface and chapter 1 of Love Wins.

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 2– I review chapter 2.

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 3– I look at Chapter 3: Hell.

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 4– I look at Chapter 4: Does God Get what God Wants?

Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 5– I analyze chapter 5.

Love Wins Critique– I found this to be a very informative series critiquing the book. For all the posts in the series, check out this post.

Should we condemn Rob Bell?– a pretty excellent response to Bell’s book and whether we should condemn different doctrines. Also check out his video on “Is Love Wins Biblical?

Source

Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The Myth of “Religion”: Constructing the Other as an enemy

The myth of religious violence should finally be seen for what it is: an important part of the folklore of Western societies. It does not identify any facts about the world, but rather authorizes certain arrangements of power in the modern West… The myth also helps identify Others and enemies, both internal and external, who threaten the social order and who provide the requisite villains against which the nation-state is said to protect us. (William Cavanaugh, 226, cited below)

I recently discussed a phenomenal work by William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence. It has forced me to rethink a number of issues. The fact of the matter is that although that which we generally term “religious” often may be involved in violence, the categories of “secular” and “religious” are themselves social constructs which have been used in the West to stigmatize the religious Other.

The Myth Played Out

The religious other is said to be violent. Religions cause violence due to their scary propensity to link with irrationality, absolutism, and divisive. Religion caused wars and chaos. Religious persons engaged in wars for God over nothing but minute doctrinal differences raged across the time of the reformation and at other times as well. The rise of the secular nation-state and the squelching of religion in the public square allowed for the cessation of violence and for man to live in peace. Such goes the myth of religious violence. Cavanaugh refers to this myth as a “creation myth” of the nation-state (123).

Notice the themes that run through any discussion of religion and violence. The general theme is that religion causes division through doctrinal matters. Because person A believes x and person B believes y, they argue, Furthermore, because neither x nor y has sufficient rational grounds for A and B to resolve the issue, they must fight in order to determine is right. After all, religion deals with absolutes. A and B square off about salvation–their eternal souls are at stake!

Often, religious persons are tempted to come back and counter that those who are non-religious are often violent too. However, this is itself a reaction to the same factors that drive the notion of religious violence. Namely, the myth of religious violence is used to stigmatize the Other. It constructs temporary categories of “religious” and “secular,” groups people based upon that, and then delegates the worst types of violence to that which is called religious. The myth is part of the justification for the nation-state and nationalism. The Nation is that which protects us from the Others in our own society. Without the protection of the State, we would turn to violence to try to subjugate others for our own purposes. Therefore, the State becomes a sacred object. Its symbols become cultic objects, and we ritualize specific aspects of the State. After all, the Nation is our savior from violence of religion. People will willingly lay their lives down in the name of their country, but for their religion? Certainly not! The State is worth dying for because it defends all people, but a religion is an internalized, personal object.

Thus, those things deemed religious are stigmatized and forced into the personal sphere, while those deemed secular are allowed for public debate. As such, specific aspects of a person’s worldview are forcibly separated and parsed. The religious person is expected to act “secular” when it comes to the public sphere, but is allowed to do whatever he wishes in the private realm. The problems quickly become clear.

Religion as a Myth

Religion itself is a social construct. I have seen this personally in a number of works dealing with “religion.” Rarely do authors attempt anything more than a working definition, and even then the definitions do little to outline real differences between that which is “secular” and that which is “religion.” The definitions are either extremely vague or too specific.

A survey of literature on religion shows that this problem is pervasive. The problem is with the notion of religion itself as a category that can somehow cordon off that which is secular. It may be much more useful to speak simply of ideologies or worldviews. Thus, a side-by-side comparison of differing worldviews can indeed be made. There is no fast and hard distinction between secular and religious, for such a distinction is nothing but arbitrary.

How does one define religion in such a way that Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam all somehow fit while Marxism, Communism, Nationalism, and the like do not? It seems an impossible task. Some who read my site may notice that I frequently file things under “philosophy of religion” [including this post!]. I’m not suggesting that “religion” is an entirely useless word. What I’m suggesting here is that we must admit that the category is a construction, pure and simple. When I use “religion,” I use it pragmatically to review to an arbitrarily dilineated set of worldviews. Ultimately, “philosophy of religion” is a philosophy of worldviews: putting them side by side for comparison.

By challenging the reigning paradigm of religion as a real, transcultural, category we may thus turn to the question of violence, rationality, and the like as an empirical, philosophical, and existential study. By stripping away the prejudices that come up when someone uses the word “religious” or “secular,” we may focus upon the actual data at hand. Regarding the question of violence, we can ask questions like: “In what circumstances will worldview turn to violence?” or “Is worldview more prone to violence than others?” As such, extremism like that of Marxism which has killed untold millions with an atheistic paradigm can be set up alongside extremism like that of Islamicism. Thus, categories outside of “religion” can be used to analyze these cases. Surely divisiveness, absolutism, and irrationality are involved in both cases? What causes them to arise? How do we slow that tide? How do we reason with the Other?

The category “religion” is a construct of the person utilizing it. As such, it can be wielded as a weapon. And, I charge, that is exactly what the category “religion” has been used for.

Controlling the Other

Those who argue that religion causes violence are, in particular, wielding the phrase as a weapon. The religious Other is irrational, violent, and to be feared. It is “us” or “them.”  One can observe this in the literature. Some endorse violence against specific religions just because they assume that the myth of religious violence will apply to the view at large.

It is this kind of mentality that the construct of religion perpetuates. It is the Other which we must fear. We, who are rational, need to fear the irrational Other. The Other causes violence, they cannot be reasoned with, and they want absolutist control over society.

The key to this discussion is that the notion of a hard line between “secular” and “religious” is a social construct. The notion of religion is indeed a construction.

The myth of religion is therefore one step towards the myth of religious violence. The key is to construct a “religious other” who is irrational, divisive, and dangerous. Thus, we can feel free to stigmatize and fear this Other. We need to make sure that the Other does not threaten us, and indeed part of this may be to use violence against the Other. After all, they are incapable of reasoning and will not listen to our sound arguments. The only thing they are capable of understanding is violence, which they have used to try to subjugate us to their views.

It is in this way that the myth is used most dangerously. The religious other is a fearsome enemy, one who must be avoided and perhaps even destroyed in order to prevent one’s own destruction. By perpetuating the notion of religion as a transcultural, transhistorical, real entity distinct from that which is secular, the possibility is made to make the religious other the enemy, while glorifying those categories which one decides are not religious. It undermines the empirical study of the way violence comes about on particular worldviews.

An Alternative Way Forward

Rather than using the category of “religion” in order to stigmatize, I suggest that we instead discuss “worldviews.” In this way, all worldviews are on the same plain. Violence may arise in certain worldviews more easily than others, whether it is nationalism or a particular worldview which is deemed “religious.” It may be extremely difficult to avoid using the term “religion” so I will not even attempt to do so. The category is a construction, so it can be used as a useful fiction. Because it is indeed a temporal, cultural distinction, I can use “religion” in a meaningful sense so far as when I say it people will tend to think of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and the like.

However, it is just as important to focus upon all worldviews, not those which are somewhat arbitrarily deemed “religious,” when discussing truth claims. As such, it is important to avoid the secular/religious distinction and instead focus upon factual debate and discussion over the coherence of particular views. By doing so, we can advance the discussion about worldviews while avoiding the use of the myth of “religion” to stigmatize the other.

Links

Book Review: “The Myth of Religious Violence” by William T.  Cavanaugh– I review the book which has led me to discuss the ways the category of religion is used to stigmatize the other and also forced me to rethink a number of issues. I highly recommend this book.

Source

William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (New York: Oxford, 2009).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Alien Life: Theological reflections on life on other planets

I have two general beliefs/feelings when it comes to life on other planets which are in conflict. Part of me is extremely skeptical. The probability of their being life on other planets given the extremely precise conditions needed to sustain life is exceedingly, vanishingly, absurdly low. Sure, there are unimaginably numerous planets in our universe, any number of which may be earthlike, but I just do not see why we should think that life is inevitable or even likely. On the other hand another part of me thinks that God could just as easily have brought life forth in various places throughout the universe, utilizing it much like an artist uses a tapestry. Our universe could be teeming with life, just waiting to be discovered.

Reading a couple books recently, along with the recent exploration of Mars, have turned me to reflect on the implications of life on other planets for Christian theology. One book, Vast Universe [link at bottom of post], was on Christian theology of life on other planets. Here, I shall be setting aside my extreme skepticism about life “out there.” Instead, I shall consider the following statement: “If there is other life in the universe, what does that mean for Christian theology?”

Science and Christianity

The topic is so oft-discussed that I will not dedicate too much time to it. What would the discovery of life ‘out there’ do for science and Christianity?

I think that Christian theology already has the resources built in it to adapt itself to life on other planets. Although some would be disturbed by such a possibility or reality, I do not see how such a discovery would be damaging to Christianity as a whole. The real problem would lie with those willing to abuse the text of the Bible in order to try to make it say there is no possibility of life outside of Earth or that our planet is the focal point of all creation. Theologies which take such a path those would indeed suffer greatly.

Humanity’s Place in the Universe

The discovery of life on other planets would almost certainly remove the notion that humanity is some kind of privileged being in this universe. It was not all created by God for us. What would that mean for Christian theology?

Again, I do not think this would be very damaging. Although the notion that humanity has a special place in the universe has a traceable line throughout the history of Christian theology, it is hardly a necessary component. In fact, life on other planets would be a great illustration of another thread of Christian theology: the notion of God as a cosmic artist who delights in creation. On this view, God takes such pleasure in the creation of and interaction with various living species that He caused them to arise across the universe. Furthermore, our discovery of these other living creatures could be a reflection of His providence, having set up the world in such a way that we could discover other life and marvel at His creation.

Salvation

What about salvation on other planets? Did Jesus go to other planets in His incarnate form and save them as a human? Was there more than one crucifixion? Thomas O’Meara, in the book I mentioned above, reflects upon questions just like these. He argues that “All three persons can become incarnate because incarnation is one aspect of boundless divine power… The divine motive for fashioning a universe of galaxies is God’s goodness; the same motive brings incarnation” (47, cited below). He establishes the notion of more than one incarnation as a live option throughout Christian history (63ff).

It therefore seems as though other life in the universe would not destroy God’s salvation plan. The Bible tells us about God’s salvation history for humanity. We know God is good, and we therefore know that God would providentially interact with other beings at their own levels and needs.

Finally, one thoughtful reader pointed out to me one area I had forgotten to add in here. There is the possibility that if there are aliens, then they have not fallen. Perhaps they have lived in communion with God instead of in rebellion against God. The possibility is very real, and must be considered in this kind of speculative theology. Such aliens would possibly be corrupted by meeting humanity; but they may also have much to teach us. As O’Meara notes, they may be some kind of “Star Mentors” with spiritual insights we may miss in our fallen state.

The Sentient Alien and other faiths

What kind of challenge would a sentient alien present to Christianity? What of their faith, their religion?

As far as other sentient species’ religions, I think that Christianity could interact with them in the same way that Christian theology has considered other human faiths. Seek truth where truth exists, and critique where it is untrue. (For my fuller vision of world religions, check out my post on A Vision for Christian Apologetics to World Religions.)

Some could even argue that a Christian interaction with other sentient races should be open to their own incarnations and truth in their religion as revealed by God. What of an alien Bible? Again, it seems that a good God, as we know God is, would interact with all life in a way that reflects His omnibenevolent nature. God’s providence would extend to life across the whole universe.

Alleged Disproofs

Would life on other planets somehow discredit Christianity? What of panspermia? How should we treat the discovery of life in the universe, were it to happen?

The Bible does not seem to make any kind of statement about life outside of our planet. However, it does make it clear that there is a spiritual realm of angels and demons. Thus, there is at least life outside of our easily accessible realm. No verse in the Bible states that there is no life elsewhere in the universe. It seems that the possibility is certainly open.

Furthermore, I don’t see any reason to think that life on other planets would somehow justify belief in panspermia or some other pseudo-scientific explanation of the spread and origins of life. We would have to deal with the same questions about life on other planets that we must deal with on our own.

Created life and the universe

Overall, I think that as a purely rational standpoint there is reason for immense skepticism about life on other planets. Although many express optimism and point to the sheer volume of planets in our universe as somehow necessitating life elsewhere, I am not convinced that sheer numbers somehow increase the likelihood of life on other planets. To put it plainly, it is my opinion that the only rational way to hope for life elsewhere in our universe is to conjoin that hope with belief in a God who loves creating and interacting with created life.

A final disclaimer

I realize that many of the points I wrote about in this post are likely to be extremely contentious. What I want to say is that this has been an exercise in speculative theology. I have been writing about something which is a mere possibility and offering possible answers to a number of questions from a perspective which takes this possibility seriously. I am quite possibly wrong on any of these. What I have tried to do here is offer a number of things for Christians to think about when they consider life on other planets. For a great post on the possibility of life on other planets, check out this guest post by Greg Reeves on that very topic.

Source

Thomas O’Meara, Vast Universe (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Shoulders of Giants? -Philosophy and Science in Context, or, “Lawrence Krauss jumps off!”

If I have seen further [than other scientists/philosophers] it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.- Isaac Newton

We act as if they’re [philosophers without current knowledge of science] authorities about something; they knew nothing!- Lawrence Krauss

Lawrence Krauss recently appeared on the English [UK] radio show “Unbelievable?” In this radio program, Krauss and Randy Holder, a Christian, were in dialog about “A Universe from Nothing?” [not necessarily Krauss’ book, but the subject in general]. The dialog, unfortunately, showed that Krauss continues in his ignorance of the importance of philosophy to his own subject, as well as his own flippant dismissal of generations of scientists.

At one point in the program (around the 26:00 mark), Krauss says the following:

I don’t [indiscernible–he may say “also”] care about what Mr. Leibniz said… we refer to philosophers who wrote at a time when we didn’t know that there were a hundred billion galaxies. [So?] Who cares what they say? We act as if they’re authorities about something; they knew nothing!- Lawrence Krauss

Really?

I can’t think of a more galling statement for a contemporary cosmologist to make. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, for those who don’t know, happened to be one of the men who discovered infinitesimal calculus. He also (among countless other contributions to mathematics, science, social sciences, engineering, and philosophy)  developed a calculator, contributed to the development of binary language, was one of the first to posit that space was relative, and developed the principle of sufficient reason (which supports all scientific investigation).

Yet, according to Krauss, because he lived in a time before we know how large the universe was, he “knew nothing!” You see, Krauss, and some other scientists and thinkers with a scientistic/physicalist bent, too often throw out the very basis of their thought. How far do you think Krauss could get in his cosmological research without infinitesimal calculus? How would Krauss go about investigating the causes of various natural phenomena without the principle of sufficient reason?
The answer is pretty simple: he wouldn’t get anywhere.

Krauss, like those before him, stands on the shoulders of giants. But, unlike those who are humble enough (or who know enough about philosophy and history?) to admit it, Krauss says “We act as if they are authorities about something, they knew nothing!”

Really, Krauss? Let’s see how well your next research project goes if you throw out all the contributions they made to your methodology. Next time you do an experiment, try to do it without parsimony or inference to the best explanation. Write to me how that goes!

What’s happened with people like Krauss, and I can think of others (like Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins) who do the same thing, is that in their gusto for the marvels of modern science, they have forgotten the very basis for their methods, their research, and their rationality.

Without philosophy, there would be no way  to infer causes from effects; without the principle of sufficient reason, there would be no reason to think that causes even have effects; without a well developed notion that what will happen can be inferred from what has happened, these scientists could not even get going. But then they have the absurd tendency to turn around and reject philosophy. They say things like the quote Krauss fired off above.

Here’s the thing: science is utterly dependent upon philosophy to survive. If we didn’t have philosophy–if we didn’t have the developed notions of rationality, inference, and the like–there would be no science. Other theists (and philosophers) have contributed things like parsimony/Occam’s Razor to the wealth of philosophical methodological backbone which makes the scientific enterprise possible. In fact, there is still debate over whether we can reliably make inferences from science (for one example philosophically defending scientific inference, see Wesley Salmon, The Foundations of Scientific Inference). Some scientists have now apparently become those who sit in the ivory towers, blissfully ignorant of how their own research depends upon others’ outside of their field.

I suspect a multifaceted problem behind the motivation of those who throw philosophy out the window once they’ve embraced full-fledged empiricism. First, many of these thinkers have demonstrated they don’t actually know what empiricism means as a–that’s right–philosophical system. Apart from Krauss and Hawking, one could cite the recent example of Richard Dawkins admitting that he doesn’t know what “epistemic” means. Note to those who embrace that philosophical system of Krauss et al.: without epistemology, you would not even be able to justify inferences to best explanation. How’s that for a dose of reality?

Second, there is a kind of blatant ignorance of–or even intentional trampling on–the historical development of scientific inquiry. I hesitate to say that philosophy makes a “contribution” to science, because that’s not what it is. A simple study of schools of knowledge reveals that science, by its very nature, is utterly dependent upon epistemological research. Without such development, there would be no scientific method.

Third, these scientists constantly make philosophical claims, apparently in complete ignorance of the fact that they are philosophical claims. For example, in the same dialog Krauss argues that “the universe certainly doesn’t care what I like…” and throughout the discussion points out that it doesn’t matter what we think, the universe is revealed in a certain way by research.

He apparently seems utterly oblivious to the fact that that, in itself, is a philosophical position. One could take a rival position and argue that the appearances of nature don’t actually determine reality because everything is mind-dependent (idealism, solipsism, or other schools). It’s not enough to just point at nature and say “see, this is how things are!” because if that’s all one does, then someone could say “Your ideas about how things are are dependent upon your mind and ideas, and therefore don’t have any access to reality.” No scientific research could rebut such an argument, only a philosophical position in which nature can give us a reliable record for rationality can ground science.

Krauss dismisses philosophy very nonchalantly. It seems as though he (and others like him) is oblivious to the fact his entire system is philosophical. Consider the claim that “science can examine reality.” How does one go about proving it? One could argue that one could simply make a test and show that over and over again in circumstances y, x result happens, so we are justified that when we assert that if y, then x. But of course we would have to justify that a test can be connected to reality; we’d have to figure out what it means to have “justified” belief; we have to show that our scientific method is trustworthy; we have to assume that mathematical truths are true; we have to operate within a rational perspective; etc. All of these are philosophical positions. Some of them are debates within philosophy of science, in fact. The bottom line is that whenever someone does science, they are utterly reliant upon philosophy. By simply taking the empirical world as something which can be explored, they have made a number of philosophical assumptions, whether realized or not. Scientists take much of the philosophical development as a given before they even start their research. And then, some of them, like Krauss, have the gall to turn around and dismiss philosophers as though they “know nothing.” Suddenly, he has undermined his own system of thought, without even acknowledging that it is a system of thought.

Frankly, some of these scientists are just confused. Thankfully, many scientists operate with a system that respects the contributions of philosophy to science and encourage the interplay between the fields of knowledge.

Here’s the bottom line for those scientists who agree with Krauss: your entire field of research can only proceed if you grant over a thousand years of philosophical development. One major contribution was made by Leibniz, whom people like Krauss casually dismiss. But without the theistic philosopher with the awesome wig, scientists would have nothing. Thanks, philosophy! Thanks again, Christianity!

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Can we evaluate worldviews? How to navigate the sea of ideas.

Think about it this way: worldviews are supposed to be reality. If a worldview does not match reality, how can it be reality?

I recently began a series on the truth claims of Mormonism. In that post, I asserted that there is positive evidence against the truth of the Book of Mormon. However, there is an important step to take before offering arguments against other religions. Namely, one must establish that evidence against the truth claims of a religion should rationally lead one to abandon that religion. (A related but similar point would be the positive evidence for religion leading to rational belief.)

Thus, before I continue to offer critiques of other religions, I offer some epistemic groundwork.

Truth Claims and Worldviews

First, it must be noted that worldviews are not mere matters of feeling, regardless of what the supporters of the varied views claim. For example, if one says “You can’t analyze what I believe, it’s just a matter of faith” they are making a claim about reality–that their faith cannot be analyzed. Similarly, if one claims “Israelites sailed to the Americas from the Middle East,” [Mormonism] or “There is no God” [atheism] they have made a claim about reality.

Such truth claims are capable of analysis, by definition. Statements are true or false. All worldviews make claims about reality, which are therefore true or false. Simply stating that one’s belief is “just faith” or “obvious” does not exclude it from making claims.


How Do We Evaluate The Claims of Worldviews?

One’s beliefs should conform to reality, if one seeks to be rational. Certainly, one could say “To heck with the evidence, I’m going to believe x, y, and z! I don’t care if I can’t support the belief and that there is strong evidence against x, y, and z.” But if one were to say this, one would abandon their reason. Their heart could believe, but their mind could not. Ultimately, all truth claims can and should be put to the test.

Testing the claims of varied worldviews is no easy task. There must be objective criteria, otherwise one view will be favored over another. One cannot simply make their own view the default and argue that only by filtering truth claims through their position can truth be attained. Atheism, by no means, provides a neutral basis for evaluating religions, as I’ve argued elsewhere. In fact, atheism must past the standards for truth claims, just as any religion must. If one remains an atheist despite positive evidence to the contrary (or despite reasons to disbelieve the claims of varied atheistic worldviews like materialism), one abandons reason just as if one clung to a false faith.

Testing Worldviews as Hypotheses

In his monumental work,Christian Apologetics, Douglas Groothuis argues that worldviews can be proposed as hypotheses. Worldviews present themselves as answers to explain the phenomena we experience (Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 49). Groothuis therefore presents criteria for evaluating worldviews as though they were hypotheses about the world. Kenneth Samples similarly draws out nine tests which can be used to determine whether the claims of a worldview are true in his book A World of Difference (page numbers from that text, citation below). From these proposed methods, we can derive tests to evaluate competing worldviews:

1) Coherence– if a religion is contradictory, it simply cannot be true. For example, if a religion claimed that “Person Z is god, and person Z is not god,” that religion would be incoherent (Samples, 33). Furthermore, “If a worldview’s essential propositions are coherent… it is more likely to be true than if its essential propositions are not related in this way” (Groothuis, 55).

2) Balance– “A valid worldview will be ‘neither too simple nor too complex.’ All things being equal, the simplest worldview that does justice to all aspects of reality deserves preference (Samples, 33-34).

3) Explanatory Power and Scope– Does the worldview explain what we experience in enough detail? If a worldview does not explain our world, or it cannot account for certain phenomena, then it is lacks explanatory power (Samples, 34). Worldviews which make propositions which they cannot account for lose credibility (Groothuis, 53).

4) Correspondence– Does the worldview match the facts we know about the world to our experience of the world? If we know that the worldview in question promotes claims we know are false, it does not match reality (Samples, 34-35). Think about it this way: worldviews are supposed to be reality. If a worldview does not match reality, how can it be reality? We are able to test factual claims through empirical and scientific methods, so if a worldview continually is able to establish its essential claims by means of these methods, it is more likely to be true (Groothuis, 55).

5) Verification– Can this worldview be falsified? Worldviews which cannot be found to be false cannot be found to be true either.

6) Pragmatic Test– Can we live by this worldview? This test is less important, but still has credibility–we must be able to live out the worldview in question (Samples, 35-36). But worldviews should also be fruitful in the development of greater intellectual and cultural discoveries (Groothuis, 57).

7) Existential Test– Like the pragmatic test, this one is not as important as whether the view is factual, but it is still helpful. If worldviews do not account for inherent human needs, it is possible the view is false (Samples, 36). Again, this is not necessary for a worldview, but it helps measure a view’s completeness.

8 ) Cumulative Test– Does the worldview gain support from all the previous criteria? If a worldview is able to satisfy all the criteria, it gains credibility (Samples, 36-37).

9) Competitive Competence Test– If the worldview satisfies the previous criteria with more evidential power than other worldviews, it gains credibility over and against them (Samples, 37).

10) Radical ad hoc readjustment– Groothuis presents this as a negative test for worldviews. “When a worldview is faced with potentially defeating counterevidence, an adherent may readjust its core claims to accommodate the evidence against it. Various theories and worldviews can legitimately refine their beliefs over time, but radical ad hoc readjustment reveals a deep problem…” (Groothuis, 57). There is, as Groothuis pointed out, a line between refining belief and simply readjusting belief in an ad hoc way. If, for example, it were discovered that Jesus did not rise from the dead, then Christianity would be false (more on that below). If, however, one simply adjusted Christianity to say “Jesus spiritually rose from the dead,” that would constitute a desperate, ad hoc measure to preserve the worldview and count as discrediting Christianity.

These tests present objective criteria for testing worldviews. If, for example, one wished to deny their worldview had to be coherent, they’d have to affirm that which they denied, for in denying that criterion, they were attempting to make their view more coherent. The testing of worldviews is a legitimate task, and indeed one in which people should engage. Some things, if falsely believed, are harmless (for example, if one believed it rained yesterday when it did not). Worldviews, however, if falsely believed, are damaging on any number of levels. If one believed God didn’t exist when, in fact, He did, then one would be doing a great evil by not acting upon the truth of God’s existence (and the contrary). Thus, the testing of worldviews is no task to be skimmed over, but one which should be approached with fear and trembling. The criteria outlined above allow people to engage in this task and evaluate the realm of ideas.

Christianity Encourages Exploration of Reality

What I find extremely interesting is that Christianity, unlike many world religions, doesn’t discourage the discovery of truth, nor does it evade evidence by claiming that it is merely a faith or feeling. Rather, the founders of Christianity explicitly stated that it is based upon certain truth claims, and that if those claims are false, then Christianity is worthless. Paul, for example, wrote “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). The truth of Christianity rests exactly upon a testable claim: Jesus rose from the dead. If He did not, Christianity is false. Christianity’s scope and explanatory power are superior- it can account for the existence of contingent objects, persons, consciousness, life, and the like. Christianity corresponds to reality, satisfies existential and pragmatic needs, is simpler than many other explanations, its coherent, and it matches all the criteria. Christianity expects its adherents–and outsiders–to test the faith and discover whether it is true. I have found, personally, that it pasts these tests over and over.

Conclusion

Whether one agrees or not, it is simply the case that religions make claims about reality. These claims are, in turn, true or false. Not only that, but they must match with reality in several important ways. Christianity not only adheres to these tests, but it encourages them. It also passes these tests. Does your worldview?

Sources

Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2011).

Kenneth Samples, A World of Difference (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007).

Image Credit

I took this picture at Waldo Canyon near Manitou Springs, Colorado on my honeymoon. Use of this image is subject to the terms stated at the bottom of this post. The other image is the book cover from Samples’ book.

SDG.

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