Monday, July 26, 2010

Thinking About God is Not Great

I do not set myself up as a moral exemplar, and would be swiftly knocked down if I did, but if I was suspected of raping a child, or torturing a child, or infecting a child with venereal disease, or selling a child into sexual or any other kind of slavery, I might consider committing suicide whether I was guilty or not. If I had actually committed the offense, I would welcome death in any form that it might take. This revulsion is innate in any healthy person, and does not need to be taught. Since religion has proved itself uniquely delinquent on the one subject where moral and ethical authority might be counted as universal and absolute, I think we are entitled to at least three provisional conclusions. The first is that religion and the churches are manufactured, and that this salient fact is too obvious to ignore. The second is that ethics and morality are quite independent of faith, and cannot be derived from it. The third is that religion is—because it claims a special divine exemption for its practices and beliefs—not just amoral but immoral. The ignorant psychopath or brute who mistreats his children must be punished but can be understood. Those who claim a heavenly warrant for the cruelty have been tainted by evil, and also constitute far more of a danger.

-Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great

I am four chapters into Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and probably the most surprising thing about reading this book is how much I agree with what he is saying. Now, of course, I don't agree with his larger points or his primary arguments, but it is delightful to see Hitchens take on child abuse in Rome, blood transfusion-phobia in the Watchtower, Catholic demands that condoms not be used in AIDS-destroyed sections of Africa, and radical Protestants who would rather pray over their child's dying body than go to the doctor. Hitchens takes the scattershot approach (so far) listing off all of the grievous sins of religion and then grouping all religions together as a demonstration of how bad all religion really is.

My reaction to this is twofold: My first thought is, what about religious systems which can be demonstrated not to fall under his criticisms? At no point in this book have I felt like my own beliefs have been reflected in his criticisms. Perhaps I am more influenced by modernism and rationalism than I care to admit, but in either case he has grouped all religions together, and these things must be done with more care.

My second thought is surprise that Hitchens experiences so much moral revulsion. In fact, I can honestly say that virtually every single page of this book is a series of consecutive moral judgments upon different religious systems. Certainly he is angry at the Catholic church's cover-ups of abuse, as we all are, but given what set of morality? From where did he get this system of moral values? And is it objective, such that he can actually say that, regardless the society, child sexual abuse or circumcising infant boys (he argues that circumcision is abusive) is always wrong? My suspicion is that in the end, Hitchens' morality reduces to relative conventions. But I'm only four chapters in, so maybe he'll surprise me.

Hitchens' revulsion is a great example of the Christian claim that everybody stands on the solid ground which is accounted for in the Christian worldview. Only the Christian worldview can account for all the transcendentals which underly logic, morality, induction, etc. Hitchens isn't immoral, he just can't adequately account for why he is moral while remaining consistent with his larger worldview commitments.

I'm not going to call this a series, but I will probably be periodically writing about my thoughts on this book, because I am going to continue reading it, and I know I'll share more thoughts as they come. Also, it's a little embarassing to think that Hitchens has a new book on the way, and I'm just now getting around to reading this one, which everybody else and their dog has already read. Nevertheless, I press on.


  1. Adam, I understand why objective morality, laws of logic etc require a theistic worldview. However, I do not see that there is anyway to take the next step and say they require the Christian (Triune God of the Bible) worldview. I think in this point presup apologetics have the problem of getting to X but not the Christian God without some kind of leap in the argument.

  2. Now, Baird, I'm not going to be GREAT at expressing this next point, but let me give it a shot.

    Remember, presuppositional apologetics - as you know - is interested in defending the Christian worldview, and that entails Trinitarian theism. So the claim is, for example, knowledge can only be possible in a universe where all is not one, where there is a plurality, in other words.

    Can Islam, with its absolutistic monotheism account for distinctions in nature? Well, it believes there are distinctions in nature, but if God were only one God and not three persons, then the anchor of all reality would not have distinctions within Himself. Without a God who makes distinctions within Himself, then we have monism, because all of reality becomes a neoplatonic emanation from God. We would be left with a pantheistic universe.

    Now, Islam is not monistic (nor is Judaism), but this is why I argue that just like the atheist, the Muslim borrows the foundations of the Christian worldview which can account for a universe where chaos is held in check by a deity, and yet monism is held in check by the universe's trinitarian foundation.

    Don't mistaken this as an argument for natural revelation revealing the Trinity. I would never argue this. All that I am showing here is that revealed Christian Trinitarian theism accounts for the necessary preconditions for knowledge.

    Lets turn our attention to the Trinitarian foundations of ethics. You might argue that ethics is by definition something which happens in a community, and that Christian ethics is rooted first and foremost in the economic relationship between the persons of the Trinity. They regard one another with perfect and selfless love, and this ought to be reflected in our own communities which are to model the Trinitarian relationship. (By the way, the best things you could ever read for background on this are Jonathan Edwards' Unpublished Essay on the Trinity and his book The Nature of True Virtue.

    There is nothing speculative about this. It is true. The Christian can trace the foundations for morality to God's regard for himself within the Trinity before God even created anything. Can Mormonism account for this? Can Islam? Can Judaism? They can, but my claim is that in doing so, again and again they borrow necessarily from a specifically Trinitarian basis of reality.

    The same approach can be taken with reference to the laws of logic, and I would explore such a theme if called upon. I'm interested in what you make of this, Mr. Baird.

  3. Scratch the sentence that begins with "They can, but my claim..."

    Replace it with this:

    "They can assert these things, but they cannot account for them. In their assertions, they again and again borrow necessarily from a specifically Trinitarian basis of reality."

  4. I guess I still do not understand why a monistic God (e.g. Allah) could not imagine/contemplate distinctions in nature and thereby bring distinctions about. Unless the idea is that somehow, by necessity, the creation of a monistic god would have to be a part of that god and therefore not disctinct from that god. However, I do not see why that would be a necessary conclusion to come to.

  5. You know, Baird, part of me thinks that if I push myself right now, I might be able to cogently give you an answer right now. But then again, I am literally on my own right now, where I am answering a question I have never heard answered before. As such, I have no canned answers. AKA, I have no easy answers. Although I know the structure of my answer, I can't substantiate it any further than I have so far.

    You must admit, I have given you the gravy of the argument, but not the meat of it. Let me do something. I want to spend some time listening to Greg Bahnsen's seminar on the Transcendental Argument, and I'll get back to answering this question when I'm better informed.

    I'll drop you a line once I respond.

  6. A fellow named 'Ben' on the Puritanboard posted something which I believe to be quite relevant:

    The triune God of the Bible is one God and three persons, so there is unity and diversity in the being of God. The finite human consciousness cannot exhaustively comprehend the being of God, i.e., intellectually comprehend the one and the many in the Godhead. The apostate human consciousness, in rebellion against God and having established its own mind as ultimate, does not accept the possibility of anything that its mind cannot exhaustively comprehend, so it rejects the truth of the Trinity. The regenerate consciousness acknowledges that its mind is not ultimate, and also that it cannot exhaustively comprehend the being of God. But it can ethically affirm the truth of the Trinity and understand that there is no tension or problem in the being of God, even though the finite mind cannot comprehend it.

    All created reality, because it is created by the Trinitarian God of the Bible, reflects His being in terms of the One and the Many. Everywhere we turn in creation, we are faced with one and many, or unity and diversity. Some aspects of this feature of reality are: Transcendence/Immanence; Knowability/Incomprehensibility; Objectivity/Subjectivity; Laws (systems)/Facts; Being/Becoming; Necessity/Chance; Rationalism/Empiricism; Ideas (abstract)/Objects (concrete); Determinism/Freedom; Permanence/Change; Theory/Practice; Authority/Independence; Rationality/Irrationality; Order/Chaos.

    This dialectic, or the problem of the One and the Many, is the controlling problem in all unbelieving thought. Just as it is impossible to exhaust the Being of God with our finite human minds, so it is impossible to exhaustively penetrate the dialectic of created reality, since it reflects God�s being. This limitation is not a result of sin, but rather it is a result of finitude. Neither the One nor the Many is more fundamental in the Being of God. Thus, Biblical Christianity is neither a fundamentally monist system, nor a fundamentally dualist system. It is a Trinitarian system. The apostate consciousness, having rejected the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity, is doomed to forever crash against the rocks of one or the other poles of the dialectic, or to try unsuccessfully to force them together by brute intellectual might. The unbeliever's solution to this problem will control every field of investigation that he undertakes: philosophy, politics, economics, science, theology, mathematics, history . . . The history of human thought is the record of unsuccessful attempts of rebellious men and women to reconcile the two poles of the dialectic that they find everywhere they turn in reality, but refusing to submit to the triune God of creation and revelation.

  7. Another post on Puritanboard which seems quite relevant:

    A Question Regarding Presuppositionalism - Why Only Christianity?

    I would like to do some more in-depth studying on this issue, but if you read this post, you'll find an interesting discussion where something interesting about my approach I'm taking here becomes helpful. It may be that by running Islam through the same presuppositional "gauntlet" that I run atheism through that I am committing an error.

    James White is a presuppositionalist, and yet he doesn't take the Bahnsen approach to deal with Islam. Instead, he critiques it to show that it is internally contradictory. Even if you don't believe that my all-in-one TAG against every worldview approach is right (it wouldn't work against a Roman Catholic, for example) then that's okay. Critique it on grounds of its incoherence instead.

    But my current belief is that as I said before, only the Trinity provides the preconditions for knowledge (solves the one-and-many problem), and that means that this approach is accurate when used against Islam, even if I can't get hyper-in-depth in substantiating the claim. It's still true; I just need somebody else to bring the beef.

  8. Adam,

    Bahnsen uses White's approach in this lecture:

    I haven't listened to this discussion but I should:

    Also, this lecture, by Bahnsen, on the problem of pain, suffering and evil is the best I've read or heard on the subject. It is in the same Getting Down & Dirty series as the first lecture I mentioned above

  9. I've also got this lecture on my pc

    I'll listen to it and let you know how Bahnsen approaches it

  10. Adam,

    Bahnsen used the contradictions argument again in the second lecture on Islam. He also ties the argument to presuppositional apologetics.

    It is well worth $1.99

    It is the link in my post just above this one

  11. Does he use the Transcendental Argument in the sense that I was attempting to, above? Specifially, James, does Bahnsen discuss the monistic tendency of Islam in contrast to the Trinitarian view?

    Thanks, by the way, James. I appreciate it.

  12. He doesn't use TAG nor does he go into Monism vs Trinitarianism

    Both of Bahsen's lectures were almost identical except he ties it to presup in the second lecture.

    BTW, I like your one & the many vs just one argument. A lot of food for thought there.

    Somewhere I have a series of lectures by Bahnsen in which he gives a matrix in which he breaks down how to argue with different worldviews. But it has been about five years since I have listened to them. Unfortunately they are on CD's and I haven't seen them since I moved two years ago. I bought them from DeMar but Covenant Media might have them since they have the copyright to Bahnsen's work.

  13. James & Baird,

    Here's what I am willing to summarize as far as my argument with Islam, if I was going to try and deal with Islam regarding the TAG.

    If pressed, I'm not sure I have the philosophical know-how (at this point) to really bring the meat to the table when it comes to answering in detail the monistic problem with Islam. However, I might put the challenge forth in a different way:

    If the one-many question must be answered, then the Christian has a consistent foundation from which to account for a solution to the one and many problem. Islam may assert the same conclusion, and yet its foundation does not consistently bear out such a solution.

    Christians can at least begin to work out the details of such an answer while remaining consistent with their foundations (aka their view of God).

  14. I am a little shaky on the idea of the one and the many. Can you recommend any good resources. I did listen to the Christ the Center "Drive by Theology" clip discussing the one and the many, but I am still prety confused about the one and the many problem.

  15. Baird, here is how Richard Hooker summarizes the problem:

    "All human cultures in some way have to deal with accounting for the myriad of objects and phenomena surrounding them. We live in a world of infinite objects that are constantly changing, yet even in this imposing world of objects and change, there seems to be an underlying unity and stability. For instance, every human being begins as an infant and then grows into an adult. Every adult is a different object than they were as an infant—in fact, they are unrecognizable as being the same object. Yet we recognize that the are the same object , that something has remained the same even though the infant has changed into an object that is nowhere close to its original state. Likewise a corpse is nothing like the original living human being, but we still recognize that something has remained constant. We can see the same stability and constancy even across objects. While the world is full of trees, there is still some constancy and stability to "treeness" which never seems to change.

    "This observation of the world of phenomena leads many cultures to believe that the infinity of things and their changes can ultimately be related back to a single object, material, or idea. The problem of finding the one thing that lies behind all things in the universe is called the problem of the one and the many. Basically stated, the problem of the one and the many begins from the assumption that the universe is one thing. Because it is one thing, there must be one, unifying aspect behind everything. This aspect could be material, such as water, or air, or atoms. It could be an idea, such as number, or "mind." It could be divine, such as the Christian concept of God or the Chinese concept of Shang-ti, the "Lord on High." The problem, of course, is figuring out what that one, unifying idea is.

    "Philosophy in the Western world begins with this question; the earliest Greek philosophers mainly concerned themselves with this question. As a result, the problem of the one and the many still dominates Western concepts of the universe, including modern physics, which has set for itself the goal of finding the theory that will "unify" (unify means "make into one thing") the laws of physics.

    "In China, the one thing that unifies the universe is the tai chi, or Great Ultimate. The Great Ultimate is divided into two opposite forces (yang and yin) and five material agents. Beyond this, the Great Ultimate is undefined. In Taoism, the "way" or Tao constitutes this Great Ultimate; it is equally undefined. "


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