On the Death of America’s God

One of the many things that Jim and I share in common is the fact that we are often assumed to be Christians because of the serious (I’m tempted to say reverent) way in which we approach questions of God and morality in discussions with believers.  As an atheist, you get much further in discussions about any particular religious puzzle when you bracket the BIG question of God’s existence in favor of the smaller questions that arise when you grant the assumption that the Bible (Quoran, etc.) is Divinely-inspired.  People are more interested in having a discussion about belief with you when you don’t start by taking a jackhammer to their epistemic foundations, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise to me that thoughtful Christians might use the same tactic in order to facilitate productive discussions with non-believers.  Still, I was somewhat shocked to come to the end of this essay which decries the shallowness of many Americans’ faith and concludes that “America’s god is not the God that Christians worship” only to find that that it was written by a man named the “Best American Theologian of 2011” by Time Magazine.

Stanley Hauerwas’s essay, “The Death of America’s God” is not one of the most philosophically persuasive pieces that I have read this year.  He makes at least a half-dozen assertions that I find questionable and a few more that seem plainly wrong.  That being said, his thesis is fascinating, and I find his predictions almost perversely exciting.  Moreover, it is genuinely comical that a man who is so thoughtful and observant as a social critic seems so plainly lacking in self-awareness when it comes to his own beliefs.

Hauerwas’s core assertion is that Americans view the relationship between God and Justice differently from the rest of the world.  His thesis is that America’s faith in God is threatened by America’s crumbling faith in the Justice and/or intrinsic Good of our society.   His prediction is that the current political climate will force a reformation of the Protestant Church.

I think much of Hauerwas’s characterization of American thought is roughly correct.  Politicians in other developed countries usually do not get elected by talking about their personal relationship with God, but in the U.S., politicians are more likely to be perceived as trustworthy and honest when they claim to have submitted their will to an all-powerful entity with whom they have a deep, interactive relationship.   Hauerwas is right that most Americans believe that they have free will, that freedom is the quintessential element of a just political system, and that this is unproblematically compatible with belief in and submission to an omniscient, omnipotent god.  I don’t know how we could possibly assess the causal direction between faith in God and faith in Justice/Freedom, but obviously Hauerwas is also right that Americans have a tendency to see these things as interconnected.

So, now to the fascinating-if-unprovable thesis:  Are we nearing the point in history where the failures of our political system will force a religious reformation?  I am skeptical.  I don’t think that revolutions of any sort occur just because people realize that the institutions they trust to make their lives better are founded upon false principles and full of corruption.  I think revolutions only take place when those institutions are so dysfunctional that they no longer provide people with enough protection/peace/order to justify their existence.  Still,  the idea that our religious institutions actually depend upon other types of American faith – faith in democracy, faith in freedom, faith in the basic virtue of the common person- in order to promote faith in God is really interesting.  And Hauerwas’s prediction that our crumbling political order will force a religious reformation seems urgent even if it so vague as to be ultimately unverifiable.

Hauerwas takes the standard historical account of how the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment spawned the American Revolution and folds it back over onto itself.  According to this narrative, the failure of European Catholicism created the foundation for American democracy (and whatever it has become today), but the failure of American democracy (and, of course, by that I mean the failure of modern-corporate-oligarchy-disguised-as-republicanism) will bring about the decline of American Protestantism.   This is exactly the sort of analysis that I would expect out of a Marxist or someone who believed in historical inevitability, but I wouldn’t expect it from a theologian because the tacit implication here is that most Americans’ faith has nothing to do with God’s actual existence and everything to do with cultural affectation.

Hauerwas may be a Christian, but his assessment of American religious life as shallow, contradictory, and cultural (rather than considered) is as damning as anything an atheist could write.  I expect that Hauerwas’s own beliefs are more theologically-sophisticated and perhaps better justified than those of his American Protestant peers.    But there is still something deliciously ironic about the fact that Hauerwas knows that most people believe in God for bad reasons -his entire argument depends upon it- and yet he holds his own faith up as a solution to this problem, concluding with his hope “that God may yet make the church faithful.”   I don’t know if Hauerwas is correct that American atheists are not interesting because “the god most Americans believe in is just not interesting enough to deny,” but I am certain that his argument is more interesting because he is a believer.

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The Problem of Free Will

There is no subject more divisive in my household than the question of free will.  Holiday dinners have devolved into screaming matches over abstract reflections on moral responsibility, and so it is with some reluctance that I broach the subject in this blog.  But, I haven’t done a post in a while, and Jim suggested that I write something on this essay, so I’m going to humor him.  I would like to recommend that all of the readers of this blog take the time to review Galen Strawson’s "Basic Argument for Determinism" as well as William Eddington’s response, "The Limits of the Coded World" (linked above) before continuing this post, but since you may not have time to do that, I will briefly review the relevant arguments.

Simply put, if we have no free will, then moral responsibility as we normally think of it (blame, praise, obligation, etc.) seems impossible.  This is bad news for the study of ethics because the arguments against free will are pretty compelling.  Whether we cash the story out in terms of mental states (desires, personality, beliefs) or pure physics, it looks like there’s no way around the fact that unchosen forces determine our actions.  It certainly feels as though I have a choice about whether to spend my last 20 dollars on food for my family or whiskey and cigarettes, but the choice is going to come down to the person I am (values, experiences, beliefs, and desires, none of which I choose) and the circumstances in which I find myself (again, unchosen).  Or, to reach the same conclusion in a different way, my brain states are as causally determined as all other physical phenomena,* so there is no place in the causal chain of neural events for an undetermined "free" choice.

I think that Strawson’s arguments for determinism are very compelling, which is unfortunate because the implications are devastating.  If my choices are actually illusory, then so too is my sense of moral responsibility.  I am not morally responsible for choosing whiskey over food for my family if I am not responsible for being the person I am, and there is a very good case to be made that I’m not. And of course, this same logic applies to all levels of "choices," some of which are great deal more heinous than alcoholic excess. Because the implications of determinism are so devastating, I am very sympathetic to philosophers who attempt to navigate some alternative route to moral responsibility which bypasses the problem of free will.  So, I really wish that I could agree with William Egginton.  Unfortunately, I just don’t think his argument works.

Egginton seems to think that the problem of free will and the corresponding question of moral responsibility are really issues in epistemology, not metaphysics.  In other words, he seems to believe that the fact that we don’t know our futures is somehow relevant to whether or not we have free will.  I would like to pick out one short sentence from his essay that summarizes this position, but unfortunately, for all of his references to Kant and interesting asides about neuroscience, I can’t find a single place where Egginton makes a complete argument. So, I am extrapolating a bit, but I think his point (largely borrowed from Kant) must be that because we can never have knowledge of the world from an omniscient perspective but instead must experience it temporally, the future, as it is to us, really is undetermined.  This leads him to conclude:

As much as we owe the nature of our current existence to the evolutionary forces Darwin first discovered, or to the cultures we grow up in, or to the chemical states affecting our brain processes at any given moment, none of this impacts on our freedom. I am free because neither science nor religion can ever tell me, with certainty, what my future will be and what I should do about it.

Now, as nice as Egginton’s conclusion sounds, it is clearly not logically sound.  The question of whether I believe I have a choice is certainly relevant and useful in terms of psychological motivation, but belief in moral responsibility no more corresponds to actual moral responsibility than belief in magic corresponds to actual magic.  Moreover, if Egginton’s argument is motivated by a desire preserve our intutions about free will, moral responsibility, and all of the ethical theories that depend upon them, then this "solution" to the problem of free will fails on that front as well.  We may not want to say that the child rapist is not responsible for his actions because he had no choice in his desires or impulses, but we certainly don’t want to say that the child rapist is only responsible for his actions because he feels responsible.

Free will is a metaphysical issue, not an epistemic one.  Epistemology plays an important role in ethics because belief justification is an important part of moral deliberation, but the mere fact that we believe in free will does not prove that we have it, and the mere fact that we believe ourselves to be morally responsible for our actions is not proof that we are.  If we are going to make sense of moral responsibility in any useful way,  we need some account of choice that can distinguish between non-cognitive action (impulse), delusional action, and deliberative, intentional action, and  Egginton’s story can’t do that.  I kind of wish it did.

*Also, just in case you skipped the recommended reading, and happened to see the colossally awful film What the Bleep Do We Know?,  no. Quantum Theory does not get you out of the problem of free will.

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The Problem of Spiritual Consolation

The Washington Post has been running a series of essays by religious authorities in response to the recent earthquake in Haiti.  The idea of the series is to examine how people of different faiths explain the age old question of why bad things happen to good people.  I would like to say something about this tragedy as well, but I approach the issue from almost exactly the opposite perspective.   I do not believe that there is any good answer to the question of why terrible things happen, but I do believe that it is insensitive to explain away such calamities with fables or myths.  Moreover, I think that "spiritual consolation" becomes offensive when it implies that suffering could have been prevented through alternative thinking, praying, or other "spiritual" practices.

If you believe that God has a Plan or that there is a "cosmic order" to the universe then you necessarily believe that awful things happen for a reason.  This applies not only to natural disasters but also to diseases, acts of malice, and personal tragedies.  Of course, you may believe that particular events are exacerbated by evil human intent (or corruption) and that those who knowingly do wrong things ought to be punished, but this does not get you out of the deeper metaphysical problem of evil.

Let us start with the idea of God’s Plan.  If it is the case that God is omniscient, then God Knows that some priests are going to rape some alter boys.  It is an unpleasant but entirely necessary part of the gift of free will that God allows such acts to occur, just as it is a part of God’s Plan that every day thousands of people will die in accidents, epidemics, and massacres.  From a philosophical perspective, I do not find this position to be particularly problematic because I can accept that God could be omniscient and omnipotent but that His omnibenevolence is so far from what we imagine (usually some kind of cosmic Santa Claus) that it can contain atrocities and still be, ultimately, Good.   What puzzles me is why anyone would take comfort in believing in a god like that.  Moreover, the idea that praying to a god who already has a set plan will make any difference in the course of future events is both absurd and borderline offensive.  After all, if I accept that the same God that allows earthquakes and child rape occasionally answers prayers, then it looks as though I must accept that people who suffer devastation may, in fact, be responsible for their own suffering.  If prayer works, and some people still suffer and die from things God could have prevented, then they must not have prayed or prayed the right way.

So, to recap, the two religious alternatives appear to be that 1) Your suffering is a part of God’s Plan, and can’t be helped or 2) Your suffering is a part of God’s Plan but can be helped by prayer, so if you continue to suffer even after prayer, then it is your own fault.  In light of this, I can see why the not-religious might seek out some alternative form of consolation.  I expect that the appeal of New-Age self-help programs like "Heal Your Life" and "The Secret" has a lot to do with this.  The idea behind New Age thought seems to be that we can explain away our old suffering in terms of a cosmic order (usually something like Karma, but it varies) that we didn’t understand before, and that we can prevent new suffering by understanding this cosmic order and harnessing  "positive thinking" or "positive energy" in our lives.  On the surface, New Age thought seems appealing because it offers up all the reassurances of religion (ultimate meaning, a purpose-driven life, etc.) without a nasty god who may hold you accountable for all of the bad things you did in your miserable life.  Unfortunately, the "cosmic order" view doesn’t offer any insightful explanation for why bad things happen, and it is even more conducive to a blame-the-victim conclusion than the "God’s Plan" view.

What virtually every New Age system holds in common is the belief that "non-physical" aspects of people such as "positive" or "negative" beliefs, "auras", or "spiritual energy" have an effect upon the physical world such that they determine the health of the body as well as events in a person’s life.  For example, the New Age self-help guru Louise Hay claims that she cured her cancer without drugs or surgery through "an intensive program of affirmations, visualization, nutritional cleansing, and psychotherapy."  In other words, Louise Hay claims that she cured cancer by thinking differently.  Leaving aside the obvious empirical problems with this claim (and the serious philosophical problems, and the fact that she is lying), what is troubling about Louise Hay is that her program implies that those who suffer and die of illnesses such as cancer could have chosen to do otherwise (by thinking differently!)  and that, for this reason, they are ultimately responsible for their fate.   The same implication follows from the principle of the self-help documentary "The Secret" which suggests that economic success is not the result of mere fortune and labor but is instead the result of a mysterious "Law of Attraction" whereby individuals attract fortunate events and interactions through positive thinking.  Thus, people who live in poverty could have done otherwise and those who remain in poverty have failed to take available measures to improve their luck.

I understand that most people who offer up their prayers, thoughts, meditations, and/or "positive energy" to those who suffer do so with honest intentions and good will, but this is no excuse for promoting a position that blames the victim.  The people of Haiti did not make a deal with the Devil nor tip the Karmic scales so as to necessitate an earthquake, and no amount of prayer or positive thought could have changed their circumstances.  Consolations based upon spiritual conjecture are an insult to their injury.

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