Archive for the 'Catholicism' Category

The Logic Police: Wilson vs. Hitchens

After having been made aware of this film — containing an extensive debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson — I found the internet correspondence which prompted its recording. The issue concerns the question of whether Christianity is, in Wilson’s words, “good for the world”. The internet communication contains a number of arguments and counters which will be broken down and presented by my particularly analytically skilled, and as I’m continually informed, small head… Ok, maybe it’s just small.

Hitchens’ first argument:

Although Christianity is often credited (or credits itself) with spreading moral precepts such as “Love thy neighbor”, I know of no evidence that such precepts derive from Christianity. To take one instance from each Testament, I cannot believe that the followers of Moses had been indifferent to murder and theft and perjury until they arrived at Sinai, and I notice that the parable of the good Samaritan is told of someone who by definition cannot have been a Christian.

To these obvious points, I add that the “Golden Rule” is much older than any monotheism, and that no human society would have been possible or even thinkable without elementary solidarity (which also allows for self-interest) between its members. Though it is not strictly relevant to the ethical dimension, I would further say that neither the fable of Moses nor the wildly discrepant Gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth may claim the virtue of being historically true. I am aware that many Christians also doubt the literal truth of the tales but this seems to me to be a problem for them rather than a difficulty for me. Even if I accepted that Jesus—like almost every other prophet on record—was born of a virgin, I cannot think that this proves the divinity of his father or the truth of his teachings. The same would be true if I accepted that he had been resurrected. There are too many resurrections in the New Testament for me to put my trust in any one of them, let alone to employ them as a basis for something as integral to me as my morality.

The Logic Police’s Reconstruction:

  • P1. If moral behaviour predates Christianity then Christianity is not a necessary condition for moral goodness.
  • P2. Moral behaviour predates Christianity.
  • Conclusion. Christianity is a not a necessary condition for moral goodness.

Hitchens is also making the claim that:

  • P3. The existence of a Human Society is a sufficient condition for the existence of some moral goodness.

This is good news for Hitchens since if Conclusion and P3 are true he has denied Wilson the possibility of claiming that Christianity is a necessary condition for moral goodness.

Wilson’s first counter:

Your first point was that the Christian faith cannot credit itself for all that “Love your neighbor” stuff, not to mention the Golden Rule, and the reason for this is that such moral precepts have been self-evident to everybody throughout history who wanted to have a stable society. You then move on to the second point, which contains the idea that the teachings of Christianity are “incredibly immoral.” In your book, you make the same point about other religions. Apparently, basic morality is not all that self-evident. So my first question is: Which way do you want to argue this? Do all human societies have a grasp of basic morality, which is the theme of your first point, or has religion poisoned everything, which is the thesis of your book?

The second thing to observe in this regard is that Christians actually do not claim that the gospel has made the world better by bringing us turbo-charged ethical information. There have been ethical advances that are due to the propagation of the faith, but that is not where the action is. Christians believe—as C. S. Lewis argued in The Abolition of Man—that nonbelievers do understand the basics of morality. Paul the apostle refers to the Gentiles, who did not have the law but who nevertheless knew by nature some of the tenets of the law (Rom. 2:14). But the world is not made better because people can understand the ways in which they are being bad. It has to be made better by Good News—we must receive the gift of forgiveness and the resultant ability to live more in conformity to a standard we already knew (but were necessarily failing to meet). So the gospel does not consist of new and improved law. The gospel makes the world better through Good News, not through guilt trips or good advice.

The Logic Police’s Reconstruction:

Notice that although Wilson alludes to Hitchens’ first argument he does not, at first, address it directly. Wilson avoids doing so because he believes that two of Hitchens’ premises are in logical contradiction:

  • P3 (Wilson’s altered version). The existence of a Human Society is a sufficient condition for the existence of moral goodness.
  • P4. Many Human Societies are incredibly immoral.

By accusing Hitchens of believing both these premises, Wilson makes it seem as if Hitchens is claiming that a society’s existence guarantees its moral goodness, which, in turn, rules out the possibility of it being ‘incredibly immoral’. Since this involves a contradiction, either P3 or P4 must be false and Hitchens must decide which to abandon.

However, and here is the logical sleight of hand, Wilson can only make this accusation after removing Hitchens’ existential quantifier in Premise 3 — the word ‘some’. Without doing so P3 and P4 are not in direct logical tension since an ‘incredibly immoral’ society may contain some moral goodness. Of course, this is precisely what Hitchens believes. In removing the requisite quantifier Wilson has violated the principle of charity and either intentionally misrepresented Hitchens’ argument or committed a relatively shabby logical error. The contradiction is spurious and, as a consequence, provides no legitimate challenge to Hitchens’ original argument.

Wilson then goes on to concede Hitchens argument, the conclusion of which being that Christianity is not a necessary condition for moral behaviour. The theist has no need for despair, however, since Wilson’s second paragraph provides us with a counter argument:

  • P1. A necessary condition for the world being a good place is belief and conformity with the Christian Gospel.
  • P2. A pre-Christian world cannot, by definition, believe and conform with the Christian Gospel.
  • P3. A world in which there is belief and conformity with the Christian Gospel is better than a world in which the Christian Gospel does not exist.
  • Conclusion. The post-Christian world is a better place than the pre-Christian world.

Unfortunately for Wilson P1 and P3 are both question begging. That is, they take for granted the idea that the world is a better place because of the Good News contained within the Christian Gospel. This, however,  is precisely what needs to be proved. As a consequence Wilson has failed to deliver a rebuttal to Hitchens’ original argument.

 As it stands the score is as follows:

  • Hitchens: 1   Wilson: 0

Make sure you check back for the Logic Police’s second instalment of the Wilson Vs. Hitchens debate!

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Kindergarten Con

A gaudy crucified Jesus, painted blood flowing down his wilted body, stared down at me in the silent classroom. My Italian classmates, also staring at me, sat around a circle of dilapidated desks that looked to be built out of detritus reclaimed from one of Mussolini’s tanks. The teacher was waiting for my reply. Under pressure to defend my doubts about the existence of God, I was trying to translate something my father had once challenged me with:

If God is omnipotent, can he create a stone so large he cannot move it?

I scratched my head. What was this? It sounded like a trick; maybe he was trying to make me look stupid.  If God could create such an object he was not omnipotent, and if he couldn’t, he had the same problem. I thought it through again. The answer confirmed my suspicions. It was a trick, the old smug bastard. Maybe this was part of the ruse though… Maybe he was still going to come out on top? I stayed silent. He took the fag out of his mouth and looked over at me, “Well?”

I explained my problem with the question. “What does that tell you about God then?” he asked. I still didn’t get it. Best keep quiet. “It shows that there is a problem with the idea of omnipotence.” It was slow to dawn on me but I finally got it… there was a problem there! Furthermore, it was one without an immediate solution. Well, at least one that a dull eight year old could think of.

Anticlimactically, however, delivering the Problem of Omnipotence had no discernible epistemological effect on my Roman Catholic teacher and comrades. There was no problem, they replied, God can do whatever the blue fuck he likes, whenever he likes. I tried to explain that that was precisely the problem. But it was no good; they’d grown up in a tiny village in the mountains with catholic parents, teachers and priests. Some of them believed that clouds were made out of cotton wool and that metal teaspoons would float in water.

Of course, this is the problem with children: they’ll believe any old shit. Unfortunately, however, this is not a feature particular to children. The Revd Jan Ainsworth, the Church of England’s chief education officer, believes that parents have a right to raise their children in any philosophical or political framework they wish. Here she is on the issue:

If parents wish their children to be brought up as Christians, or, for that matter, atheists, what right do others have to stop them?

And again:

It is surely central to the role of a parent, whether committed to a religious faith or not, to want to pass on to their child the things they value most, the beliefs and world view that shape how they live. It is also consistent with that role to want to have those beliefs and world view acknowledged and affirmed as part of their children’s education.

First off, it is worth noticing Ainsworth’s rhetorical ploy in her first quote. The inclusion of Christians and atheists in the same question is a deployment of the same tired old rhetoric that there is no relevant epistemological difference between these positions: both are fundamentally faith based. However, as I’ve argued before, this is false:

To have faith is to detach belief from any evidential issue; belief becomes evidentially invariant. That is to say, no change in evidence brings about a change in belief. Atheism, by indexing belief on the evidence, does exactly the opposite.

Atheism, the probabilistic doubt in the existence of God, is a straightforward consequence of our knowledge gathering processes. The same processes would return a higher probability of his existence were there any good evidence. If God, in his infinite mercy, decided to unequivocally reveal himself to all of us miserable unbelievers tomorrow there would be none of us left by dinner time. However, as we already know, God works in mysterious ways. So mysterious, in fact, that he’s convinced a large fraction of the world’s population to not believe in his existence. Funny that. The salient point here though is that raising children as Christians is fundamentally different from the atheistic equivalent. Whereas the former requires threats of everlasting violence, manipulation and dogma to establish its primary ontological belief, the latter does not  –  as far as I can remember, I have never been threatened with even a mild kicking for a failure to believe in the non-existence of God.

The second, and perhaps more relevant, point is Ainsworth’s claim that no one has the right to interfere with what parents teach their children.  Does she really believe, however, that Ku Klux Clan parents should be permitted to “pass on to their child the things they value most, the beliefs and world view that shape how they live”? Is she of the opinion that many conspiracy theorists’ demented belief that our governments are run by a shape-shifting reptile bourgeoisie from the constellation Draco should be ‘acknowledged and affirmed as a part of their children’s education’? Of course not. None of us, apart from those in the grip of these delusions, think such things should be taught to our children. Why? Precisely because there is no good reason to believe them in the first place. If you want others to believe claims about the existence of gods, vampires, perpetual motion machines, shape shifting lizards or anything else for that matter, then you are shouldering the burden of proof.

The Dawkinsian point is that raising children in a religious framework, one based on faith and often other surreptitious methods of inducing belief, is taking advantage of a child’s cognitive vulnerabilities. Apart from the inherent dishonesty, Dawkins goes on to say that:

…the mental abuse constituted by an unsubstantiated threat of violence and terrible pain, if sincerely believed by the child, could easily be more damaging than the physical actuality of sexual abuse. An extreme threat of violence and pain is precisely what the doctrine of hell is. And there is no doubt at all that many children sincerely believe it, often continuing right through adulthood and old age until death finally releases them.

Making a child believe there is a hell where the misbehaved are forever castigated is a merciful and necessary favour if true. If it is false, however, and if there is no good reason to believe it, the theist has done the child a serious harm.

Bashing the Bishop

I’ve really got to do something about these post titles. But first, here’s the Catholic Church. (Yeah, the Catholic Church that opposes contraception; teaches people in areas where AIDS is at epidemic levels that condoms cause rather than help protect against the disease; helped get abortion banned outright in Nicaragua; threatened (for the sake of the kids, mind) to close adoption agencies in Ireland if the government insisted on making it illegal for them to discriminate against homosexuals; and so on and so on.) Perhaps predictably, it’s using its influence to try and keep abortion illegal in Portugal.

The opposition to the proposed law change has been led by the Catholic Church, and they remain hopeful that when people walk into the voting booths, they will remember the Church’s central message.

“Life is from the beginning to the end. If we give in and begin to consider that it is not really human life, if society, the state does not defend life – then where are we as a society going to end up?” asks Bishop Dom Carlos Azevedo plaintively.

So, “life is from the beginning to the end” is it? Well, from the beginning to the end of what? From the beginning to the end of life? Well, no shit. Just like Bishop Dom Carlos Azevedo’s cassock extends from the beginning to the end of Bishop Dom Carlos Azevedo’s cassock. I doubt the fact that things extend from their beginnings to their ends will come as news to anyone, but there’s not really anything else he can mean. Unless, of course, he’s presupposing that human life, even at its earliest stages, is an example of something that needs and deserves full state protection. In which case, it looks a little bit like he’s begging the question.

Moreover, “if we give in and begin to consider that [a foetus] is not really human life…” then… well, hang on. Who is asking anyone to consider that a foetus (or zygote) is not really human life? As far as I can tell, nobody at all is. But, anyway, “if society, the state does not defend life – then where are we as a society going to end up?” Well, nowhere very pleasant I don’t suppose, but, again, given that no one’s asking the state to simply stop defending life it’s not terribly relevant. Defending life: good! Not defending it: bad! Hoorah! Well, yeah, generally. However, it’s not as if the idea needs no further qualification.

But, nonetheless, Bishop Dom Carlos Azevedo asked these things and, apparently, asked them plaintively. As well Bishop Dom Carlos Azevedo plaintively might. I suppose that’s what you have to do when you want to influence state legislation to suit your sectarian, superstitious ideology because it’s not like you have rational argument available to you.