David M. Brown's Blog

March 28, 2010

When good or bad people make bad arguments

Filed under: Bible stories,Philosophy,Society and culture — davidmbrowndotcom @ 1:00 am

Blogger John Hawkins suggests that “bad people” and “non-Christians” are coextensive groups, which I guess also means that “good people” and “Christians” are coextensive groups. With respect to the age-old question of why God allows bad things to happen to good people (bad things meaning things like hurricanes, rape, murder, the Obama presidency, arguments like the following, etc.), Hawkins argues:

First of all, if God wanted to remove all doubt about his existence, He could do so—but, He doesn’t because the cornerstone of Christianity is faith.

Imagine what would happen if bad things DIDN’T happen to good people. What if when an airline crashed, only the non-Christians died while all the believers walked away unscathed? What if the moment someone became an atheist, he was immediately struck by lightning and killed? What if every rape, murder, robbery, and painful illness only happened to non-believers? If that were the case, then no faith would be required to be a Christian.

Let’s forget for just a moment that, according to the Bible’s own “reporting,” God is a mass-murderer (see the story of Noah, for starters), and that a code of morality based on the value of human life (the requirements of which give rise to the need for a moral code to begin with) would condemn mass murder as immoral. After all, according to Christianity and other monotheistic religious world views, Almighty God is the font of morality, such that the premier ingredient of moral conduct for human beings is obedience to him, regardless of the practical implications for mere mortal survival and well-being. We need not concern ourselves with objective, this-worldly foundations for morality so long as our faith-based pipeline into the mind of God provides us with adequate information about what God expects of us. To the extent that there is any overlap between the practical requirements of living on this earth and the true morality of obedience to God, hey great; but obedience to God is what trumps.

Let us also forget for just a moment that there seems to be no way to double-check faith-based assertions except by reference to other faith-based assertions, so that when two sets of faith-based assertions contradict each other, no resolution of the contradiction is possible even in principle unless “all doubt” about the faith-based conclusions were somehow expunged, presumably by God, presumably by means of an unassailably veridical personal appearance in which he disowns the incorrect faith-based conclusions and endorses the correct faith-based conclusions.

No, let us ponder instead the question raised by the assertion of what the horrible consequence would be if God always prevented bad things from happening to “good” people (i.e., Christian believers), what the horrible consequence would be if the statistics were so clear-cut (“Hmm…this resurgence of the bubonic plague killed off only the non-Christians, with 100% of all bona fide Christians surviving unscathed, according to Reuters”) that the only possible logical conclusion is that there is an omnipotent supernatural overlord watching our every move and routinely intervening in the course of events to safeguard Christians at the expense of non-Christians. The horrible consequence would be that “no faith would be required to be a Christian.”

I would be unhappy to learn that a guy with such limitless power and such evil inclinations were running around murdering anybody sensible enough to be, for example, an atheist (and in the very moment of becoming one, too). But from the perspective of jihadists like Hawkins, it is apparently no big deal that a God making himself unambiguously manifest would be hurling lightning bolts with such incontinent abandon. So why, then, would the sudden irrelevance of faith with respect to belief in God be such a bad thing?

For Hawkins, it is self-evident—so self-evident that no explanation is required—that faith is a virtue in and of itself. (“Faith,” here, meaning an unsubstantiated belief in something for which no actual evidence exists, “belief in things not seen,” the alleged features of which may in fact contradict what we do know of the world, as is the case with all supernatural entities said to have the power to magically overrule the laws of identity and causality.) If we had unassailable evidence that God exists, the sort of evidence that would convince even those of us not susceptible to inchoate appeals to “intelligent design” and the like, then, somehow, on this view, belief in the supernatural boss-man would be tainted. Rational belief in such an entity would not be as virtuous as faith-based belief.

This is a very mysterious claim, one among the many from religious quarters that I suppose we must take on faith. We don’t normally conclude that if we have good evidence that the earth is an oblate spheroid or orbits the sun, that so-and-so is worth marrying or that the store is a mile and a half away, then our beliefs in these conclusions are therefore tainted or illegitimate or wrong. We are, indeed, quite happy if we reach the store after walking in the right direction for a mile and a half. Now we can pick up the milk and bread so crucial to replenishing the cupboard! The evidence-based approach was successful! The methodology worked! We would be upset if, having no actual information about the location of the store, on the basis of mere faith we went walking in the wrong direction and never came across any store. We might then say to ourselves, “I should have exercised the virtue of attending to the requirements of getting to the store. I should have looked up the location in a phone book and clicked into Google Maps. I expected to reach the store by walking at random, as if by magic. I could kick myself for my credulity, stupidity and sloth. The facts as diligently discovered by me must be my guide, not just hopes, wishes, and groundless assumptions!”

Of course, if there were a God and this God were to make himself unambiguously manifest to even the staunchest rationalist, no religious persons who believe that God is the font of morality could raise any objection. What could they say? “God, God, God…what are you doing? What happens to the virtue of believing in you on faith, now? What happens to the elite club of those of us who were so gullible as to believe in the reality of you on the basis of nothing more substantial than inherited religious notions and our own psychological need to believe? Now everybody with a lick of sense knows that the only way to get to heaven is to kowtow to you. This is very disappointing. Very disappointing.” Would God not smite them on the spot?


1 Comment »

  1. Three years ago in Little Saigon in Orange County, California, on seeing an age-indeterminate Asian woman panhandling at restaurantgoers who were loitering outside, waiting to be seated therein, a Russian-born colleague transliterated that she was “lost.” I had to agree. In a metaphorical sense, she had lost her way and had taken the wrong path in life. In a psychological sense, she also had lost herself in her jungle of contradictory premises and could not see herself beyond doing what she had to do to subsist.

    Now your observation that there are “good” people, such as John Hawkins, who take faith as a virtue in and of itself, raises the “lost” problem to the epistemological level. These “good” people are psycho-epistemologically lost. Not only are they in a jungle of falsehoods but their very methods for clearing the jungle only get them more disoriented. This is the worst of the worst.

    I don’t have a stake in helping the random beggar anymore than helping the “good” people. But if I knew the above woman or were related to her somehow and knew that she had made some bad mistakes and had lost her way, I would know how to help her, by guiding her through reasoning to see her errors, maybe.

    But how do you solve a problem like the “good” people’s? Again, though I know of and am acquainted with plenty of Bible-thumping believers, I don’t find a need to persuade them otherwise. But if their psycho-epistemological errors affect my own life negatively somehow, if, say, they are the in-laws and I have to confront the problem directly; short of impersonating a smiting God, how is a guy to reason with them gently that faith is not a virtue? Or are they eternally lost?

    Comment by Tom — March 31, 2010 @ 3:34 pm | Reply

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