Anti-Humanistic Atheism, or, “Do you really see Christians that way?”

Could atheism be anti-humanistic?

Yesterday ScottinOH wrote a comment asking, among other things, about the love of God. He wrote,

Jesus’s short-term self-sacrifice (and God the Father’s short-term sacrifice of His Son) is only laudable in the sense that a mob boss or an abuser “sacrifices” something in order to convince himself not to blow up a business or hit his wife. The whole game is about God’s/Jesus’s self-interest.

Now in answer to that, I could ask Scott, “Do you really see God that way?” But I know the answer to that already. He’s stated his position, confidently and clearly. I have another question for him: “Do you really see Christians that way?”

Which way is that, you wonder? Let me put Scott’s statement in a broader context, and I think you’ll see what I’m getting at.

For centuries upon centuries, Christians have worshiped God for his love, they have written about his love, they have studied and philosophized about his love, and they have quoted from the Bible, God is love. All these many years, they’ve pointed to the Cross of Christ as the chief example of God’s love.

They’ve had it all wrong. All of them. From the beginning.

For all their study, their philosophizing, and their devotion, none of them realized what’s clear to me: “The whole game is about God’s/Jesus’s self interest.” God is no more loving than a mob boss or a spouse abuser.

You see, Scott’s statement—as confident as he is in it, and as black-and-white as he communicates it—isn’t just about God and Jesus, it’s about Christians down through the centuries. He seems quite sure we’ve all gotten it wrong: millions upon millions of us have gotten it wrong. We’ve been fooled. In fact, we’re fairly idiotic: billions of us, actually in the world today and in times past, including many of the greatest philosophers, scientists, novelists, poets, musicians, and artists who have ever lived. For all the attention we’ve given to it, we’ve never even noticed that where we thought God’s love was most genuinely demonstrated, that’s where it was most obviously a sham.

So Scott, I ask you now, Do you really see Christians that way?


I’ve heard this kind of thing from other atheists on other topics including shellfish and stonings. I hope Scott will answer and speak for himself. Meanwhile, though, I want to enlarge the context around the issue, to explore the question I raised at the beginning: could atheism be anti-humanistic?

I don’t know how many atheists would describe themselves as humanists. I know the contemporary humanist movement is overwhelmingly atheistic, but I’m not sure it works the same the other way around. I don’t know about Scott’s views on humanism, specifically. I’m not even sure Scott would call himself an atheist, but he has at least opened the door for me to raise a broader question.

Humanism wasn’t always the secular movement it is today. There was a time when it was chiefly marked by its love and respect for humanity, culture, and learning, especially that which came out of the classical age of Greece and Rome. Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), the “Prince of the Humanists,” was a priest who never wavered in his belief in God and in Christ, and who employed his classical learning in the production of a Greek New Testament. This humanism was neither anti-Christian nor pro-atheism.

Scott’s position seems anti-humanist in those terms. You see, either he is unaware of the long, deep, rich heritage of Christian discourse on the love of God at the Cross, which is to deny ages of human scholarship; or else he considers vast, vast numbers of his fellow human beings to be total and completely moronic for not seeing what’s obvious to him—even though we’ve been gazing at it, collectively, for centuries.

I’m not just speaking of Scott, but also of those who think they can find plain, obvious idiocy in Christianity. To hold that position is either to be careless or ignorant about the old knowledge, or else to hold an astonishingly negative view of billions of one’s fellow human beings.

Isn’t that anti-humanistic of them? If not, then how should we view it otherwise?

(For those who want to know, I have a direct answer to Scott’s view of God and the Cross in my free ebook What is Christianity?.)

Comments 89
  1. Dave Capp

    Have you considered Join Piper’s sermon “Is God for us or for himself?”

  2. Ordinary seeker

    I’ve never really understood the whole “Jesus loved you so much he died for your sins” thing. It’s just never made sense to me. It seems so unnecessary, or pointless. According to the story, both he and his “father” (who is really him) knew he wasn’t going to really die. Did he suffer? Sure. Him and a lot of other people who were crucified. But, how was that really helpful to anyone else? It’s not unless you’re already invested in the story.

  3. OS

    That’s your opinion, Tom, and I don’t appreciate you applying your beliefs to me in that way, as I’m sure you wouldn’t if I applied mine to you.

    If it doesn’t make sense to me, why should the fact that it makes/made sense to others matter to me? Capital punishment has made sense to millions, for more time than the Christian story has, yet the fact that millions before me believed in it, and that millions still do, doesn’t make me believe in it more or think better of them.

  4. Tom Gilson

    You’re invested, OS, whether it is your belief or not, whether it makes sense to you or not, whether you appreciate it or not. I’m not talking about your beliefs. I’m talking about your reality: everyone’s reality. Feel free to disagree, I’m not expecting you to believe it. That’s not what this is about.

  5. SteveK

    both he and his “father” (who is really him)

    Who teaches you this nonsense, and why do you choose to believe it?

  6. John Moore

    Just because you point out an error does not mean you are showing disrespect to those who made the error. In fact, if you see an error and fail to point it out due to some misplaced sense of propriety, that is truly showing disrespect. We need to respect the truth above all.

    How do you think Copernicus felt? Was he laughing and scoffing at the many generations of scholars who believed in the geocentric model even though they had been gazing at the same sky, collectively, for centuries? Certainly not. But those scholars were still wrong! Just because they were many and ancient, that did not make them right.

  7. Gavin

    There is nothing anti-humanist about thinking that many people have been mistaken about something that is now fairly clear. The misidentification of non-Christians as evil is understandable, in part because it is so self-serving, in communities where Christians knew few or no non-Christians— a situation that has been common historically, but is less common in the modern world.

    People make mistakes. Humanists understand that.

  8. Tom Gilson

    “There is nothing anti-humanist about thinking that many people have been mistaken about something that is now fairly clear.”

    I agree. Indeed, that would have been a very foolish thing for me to have suggested, if I had.

  9. Gavin

    Indeed, I it would have been foolish of me to suggest that you had suggested it, which I didn’t.

    You did ask a question, “Could atheism be anti-humanistic?” Atheists believe that a lot of people are mistaken, which is not an especially anti-humanistic belief. That is all.

  10. Tom Gilson

    I have several questions for you, Gavin. I’m going to ask you to answer them one by one, in order, if you don’t mind. The temptation otherwise would be to take the whole lot of them in one glance and say, “Tom, you’re reading too much into this.” I’m open to being shown that I’m doing that, but if I am, I think it will come out in the answer to these questions.

    Frankly I’m confident of the answers to the first five of these. The final three could be open to some interpretation, so I’m open to alternate views on them.

    1. Do you think that Scott’s statement shows an awareness of centuries of intense Christian scholarship on these topics, which are possibly the most core beliefs we hold—the most frequently studied and most deeply examined of them all?

    2. Do you think it demonstrates any awareness that there might exist a carefully and thoughtfully considered alternate view?

    3. Do you think it expresses any respect for the possibility that Christians might have considered the position he proposes?

    4. Do you think it displays awareness that, having considered that position, we might have discarded it for rational reasons?

    5. In other words, do you think it shows any respect at all for the possibility that Christians might have ever thought about anything at all? For if there is anything we have ever thought about, it’s these very topics; so it follows that if we haven’t thought through these topics, then we’ve never really thought about anything we believe.

    6. Considering the way in which he spoke it — the matter-of-fact, anybody-knows-this way in which he casually dropped it into the discussion — do you think he might have communicated (at least inadvertently) that Christians should have known it, too?

    7. Considering that we have the same factual information to work with as he does, doesn’t this imply that we’re unbelievably stupid to conclude the opposite of the truth that he considers to be so obvious?

    8. Considering further that these are probably the most carefully studied topics in all Christianity, and considering also that we have been armed with all the relevant facts right from year one, does this not further imply that every Christian throughout all time must have been unbelievably moronic in the same way?

  11. BillT

    os,

    Perhaps I can rephrase Tom’s statement this way. If God is the objective reality of the universe then you subjective opinion about Him is of little, if any, value. In other words, it’s not you beliefs that matter it’s the nature of reality that matters.

  12. Gavin

    Tom, Did you meet an atheist who is an anti-humanist jerk? I’m not surprised. I’ve met some. They are a vocal minority.

    I’ve meet some Christians who are un-loving jerks too. Are you surprised? These encounters raise the question, “Could Christianity be un-loving?” I don’t think it is a very interesting question.

  13. Tom Gilson

    Gavin, this isn’t about being surprised or not surprised. This is about correcting a very anti-human view of Christians and Christianity, which is actually quite a frequent occurrence on the Internet. It comes in the form of atheists picking out things Christians believe, or that they think or claim Christians believe, then holding those things up for public display to say, “Isn’t this just obviously wrong?” To repeat myself, “I’ve heard this kind of thing from other atheists on other topics including shellfish and stonings.” It’s very, very common in the gay marriage debate. Look at the four images here.

    My opening question was, “could atheism be anti-humanist?” The answer is, “Yes, some of it very definitely is; even on terms that most atheists claim to value, like scholarship and fair treatment of others.” I won’t quibble about whether “some of it” means more or less than 50%.

  14. Steve

    Ordinary Seeker:

    I’m an electronics engineer and design wired and wireless communication systems for the reliable exchange of information, but I also teach Sunday School at my church. My task is to use the best age appropriate means with my students (average grade is sixth) so they understand the whole “Jesus loved you so much he died for your sins thing.” Since you’re a seeker I will invest some words and time on the following post in light of Hebrews 11:6. I’m a newbie at this so please bear with me.

    Following some discussions and after reaching consensus with my students that both physical and spiritual domains actually exist in this universe, I ask them some questions that touch on what they absolutely know for certain in the physical domain. First, were they born into this physical world; to which they reply – yes. I follow-up with, were you given a vote or any say on whether you would be born into this world; to which they reply – no. Second, is there such a thing as the Law of Gravity; to which they reply – yes. I again ask, were you given a vote or any say on whether there would be a Law of Gravity; to which they reply – no.

    I also ask what we can learn from the previous dialog. We usually come to the conclusion that there are physical domain states (conditions) and laws over which we have no say. In practice, we simply have to “get over it” and accept both facts (that we were born and that we must deal with the effects of the Law of Gravity) whether we like it, agree with it or not.

    I then turn to the spiritual domain and ask if there may be states (we were born into a fallen world as free-willed humans and are sinners by nature) and laws (the penalty for sin is death in both the physical and spiritual domains) which, according to the bible, we must simply accept whether we like it, agree with it or not. My sixth graders reply – yes; they get it.

    Now on to the penalty part of the law. But first I ask my students, how well are laws obeyed when they aren’t enforced; to which they reply – they aren’t obeyed very well at all. On the surface, the penalty for sin (death) seems harsh. However, God the Father established a means (a free pardon no less) to escape the death penalty. Namely, the shedding of innocent blood by a willing member of the same type of creature that did the sinning (i.e., an innocent substitute willing to take the punishment for the guilty). I wouldn’t have designed a pardon provision of the law that way, but as we’ve seen, there are certain states and laws we simply must accept, if true.

    God the Son (aka Jesus, not the same person as the Father) was willing and agreed to be that innocent substitute (Hebrew culture would later refer to this substitutionary member as a kinsman redeemer). He took on flesh (to become a kinsman), and though innocent of any sin, Jesus willingly accepted the placement of all of our sins on Himself and experienced the supernatural wrath of God the Father before and during His crucifixion at Golgotha. God’s wrath against sin was exhausted on Jesus. His crucifixion was unlike any other in its intensity and cruelty. His innocent blood also was unlike any other. It really did matter (in accordance with the spiritual law of the substitute kinsman redeemer) and is truly helpful (unlike any other crucifixion) to all who trust in that innocent shed blood as a means to escape the death penalty.

    For my sixth graders, I tried my best to come up with an analogous story. I used a prince and princess concept, with which most of my sixth graders were familiar, to drive home the point. Please keep in mind that since this is a story dealing with humans, certain parts of the kinsman redeemer analogy with regard to Jesus (the God-man) can only be approximated.

    The Prince (a story of substitution)

    “A king discovers someone has stolen from his treasury. He calls all the nobles of his kingdom to gather before his throne. He announces that the guilty party has been found out; it is the betrothed of his son, the prince. The penalty for such a crime is to be whipped while tied to the pillory post and will be carried out immediately.

    The betrothed bursts into tears, runs to the throne and falls at the feet of the king, crying out for mercy and forgiveness as she confesses to the act. The prince motions for the king’s counselor. They talk privately and after a brief time the counselor returns to the king to quietly convey the message from the prince.

    At the order of the king, the betrothed is taken, weeping, to the the pillory post and tied. The back of her robe is torn down to her waist; her back is laid bare.

    As the punisher takes his whip and approaches the betrothed, the prince stands and raises his hands. He cries out, “stop; another has agreed to take the punishment.” The prince removes his crown, signet ring and royal robes, approaches the pillory post and wraps his arms and body around his betrothed.

    The king motions to the punisher who then rips the garments of the prince down to his waist, exposing his bare back. With a nod of the king’s head the punisher proceeds to administer the king’s just punishment.

    The tightened embrace of the prince at each stroke on his back demonstrates the depth and breadth of his love for his betrothed; she in turn reacts to each tightened embrace with increased and undying devotion.”

    Ordinary Seeker, I hope you are also a true seeker; for if you are, God the Father will reward you (with eternal life). Whether you want it, like it or not, you are invested in these spiritual laws because they (like the Law of Gravity) apply to us all. By exhausting His wrath for your sins on Jesus at Golgotha, God the Father has no more wrath for you, unless you reject the free pardon and refuse to trust in the willingly shed innocent blood of Jesus. If that’s the case, you’ll have to stand before God the Father without that pardon and take the punishment (eternal damnation) yourself. All my sixth graders understand it; they get it and accept the pardon. I hope and pray that you do too.

  15. Gavin

    Tom, You are talking about the marriage equality debates where same sex couples are frequently called unnatural and compared to pedophiles, right? I feel your pain.

    Look, I’m a scientist and a science teacher. I am frequently confronted by people, often Christians, who say that various well tested theories are obviously wrong—the Big Bang, evolution, climate change, even relativity. Do these people actually think that, for example, evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics and for 150 years no scientist noticed? Do they think we are that stupid? Perhaps they do. So I have to explain, again and again, why we know these things.

    The right way to view these challenges is to understand that these theories are obviously wrong. What is not obvious is that they are actually right. It is obvious that I am not related to a strawberry, but there is a huge amount of evidence that shows, in a non-obvious way, that we are related. Getting past the obvious mistakes to the non-obvious truth is my job as a scientist and as a teacher. Peers and students voicing their obvious objections is how we confront misconceptions and improve understanding. They demand evidence, as they should, and I give it.

    In the same way, it is obvious that a loving father would not abandon a child to eternal torture. Providing a non-obvious explanation for why he would do that will be a big job. Good luck. I don’t see any reason why your claim should be given the benefit of the doubt when your position is, on its face, extremely shocking.

    With that in mind, here are the answers to your questions: 1-5. No. 6. Perhaps. 7-8. No. There is no “anti-human view of Christians and Christianity” that needs to be corrected. People are articulating the fact that your claims are obviously wrong. That isn’t anti-human, it is healthy skepticism.

  16. Tom Gilson

    Gavin, you’re contradicting your own principles here. You say that science demonstrates some things that are not obvious, such as, we’re related to strawberries; which by the way took a lot of science to demonstrate. Then you say these statements about Christianity need to be taken seriously because they’re obvious, and as for showing that the Christian view is right after all, well, “good luck with that,” since “that will be a big job.” What if someone had said to scientists, “that will be a big job,” and “good luck with that”?

    Scott’s statement showed no awareness of Christian thinking on God’s love and the Cross. Neither do you, Gavin, when you say, “In the same way, it is obvious that a loving father would not abandon a child to eternal torture.” That’s a short, easy slogan. It takes just a second to think about it, only a few more to type it.

    But what you haven’t reckoned with is just how right you are: it is very, very, very obvious that a loving father would not abandon a child to eternal torture. What you’re saying, just like Scott and just as demeaningly, is that for all these centuries Christians have overlooked the obvious. We’ve studied and studied and studied, we’ve read our Bibles over and over again, we’ve filled libraries upon libraries with ruminations, philosophications, lucubrations, arguments, and controveries on this and other related matters, but (duh!) that one slipped right past us!

    Consider this, Gavin, which I’ll bet you didn’t know. Child abandonment was extremely common in the first century, especially with girls. A man named Hilarion wrote this to his wife, Alis, while away on business:

    Know that I am still in Alexandria. And do not worry if they all come back and I remain in Alexandria. I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I receive payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered of a child [before I come home], if it is a boy, keep it, if a girl discard it. You have sent me word, “Don’t forget me.” How can I forget you. I beg you not to worry.

    With these casual words he instructs his wife to dump the baby if it’s a girl. But do you know who led the drive to end this travesty? Christians. Do you know who’s leading the drive now to end the brutal killing of babies in the womb all over the world today? Christians.

    But still you think we just kinda didn’t quite see that, ummm, God abandons children all the time, and gee, well (why didn’t anyone ever tell us earlier?) that’s not such a good thing for a daddy to do.

    No, Gavin. There are two things here that are obvious, actually three:

    1. It’s obvious that loving fathers don’t abandon their children.
    2. It’s obvious that this is so obvious that Christians must have at least thought about it.
    3. It’s obvious that you haven’t entertained in your own mind the possibility that Christians have thought about it.

    Now, can you explain to me how that isn’t being not just anti-humanistic, but actually bigoted towards Christians? Please don’t try to answer, it’s not bigoted because (again), “your claims are obviously wrong.” That’s precisely the same prejudicial statement that you need to find your way out of—preferably by rejecting it.

    For the truth is, Gavin, Christians really have thought about these things, in depth, at length. That should be obvious to you, if you would only give it some thought.

  17. BillT

    In the same way, it is obvious that a loving father would not abandon a child to eternal torture.

    But, Gavin, speaking of things that are obviously wrong this view of Christian theology is obviously wrong. God doesn’t abandon His children, they choose to abandon their Father. So here we have you lecturing us on things obviously wrong and you don’t know the very basics of that which you criticize. Seems your obvious wrongs cuts both ways.

  18. Tom Gilson

    By the way, as in the original post, I’m still focusing on one thing and not the other. That is, I’m not focusing here on Christians’ answers to Scott’s and Gavin’s questions. I’m focusing on correcting the strange and anti-human belief some people hold about Christians, that we and our predecessors have spent all these centuries overlooking the obvious.

    For a first look at how we would answer some of these questions, see the ebook referenced at the end of the OP.

  19. Ray Ingles

    Is it anti-human to hold that all atheists and agnostics over the centuries have overlooked the obvious fact of God’s existence? (C.f. Romans 1:20)

    Humans – even really smart humans – can be very wrong and overlook things that are obvious in hindsight. Newton was almost unprecedentedly clever and simultaneously quite devoted to the study of alchemy and the occult. Some very smart people are young-Earth creationists, and devote a huge amount of intellectual effort to try to prove that true.

    Believing that people can be fundamentally wrong about things does not require believing that they are also stupid or contemptible.

  20. Tom Gilson

    Believing that people can be fundamentally wrong about plainly obvious things when in full possession of the relevant facts and while studying them at great depth over the course of hundreds of years does not seem to require believing that they are also stupid or if not contemptible.

    What other explanation for it could there be, given those circumstances?

  21. Gavin

    Tom, You have completely misunderstood my comment. Perhaps it was poorly written, but that is not the only problem. It was also poorly read.

    What you’re saying, just like Scott and just as demeaningly, is that for all these centuries Christians have overlooked the obvious. We’ve studied and studied and studied, we’ve read our Bibles over and over again, we’ve filled libraries upon libraries with ruminations, philosophications, lucubrations, arguments, and controveries on this and other related matters, but (duh!) that one slipped right past us!

    No, I did not say any of that, nor do I believe any of it.

    But still you think we just kinda didn’t quite see that, ummm, God abandons children all the time, and gee, well (why didn’t anyone ever tell us earlier?) that’s not such a good thing for a daddy to do.

    No, I don’t think that, nor did I say it.

    3. It’s obvious that you haven’t entertained in your own mind the possibility that Christians have thought about it.

    I have not only entertained it, I know it is true, which is why I did not say anything to the contrary.

    Again, it may be that I failed to communicate my point clearly, but it is not my fault if you are offended by things that I did not say.

    I will try to think of a way to better express my point. Perhaps in the meantime you could reread my comment. It will make more sense if you read what I wrote, rather than making stuff up. Every insulting, bigoted thing you attributed to me was a product of your own imagination.

    Finally,

    Consider this, Gavin, which I’ll bet you didn’t know.

    What is the point of this baseless dig? Were you having a bad day?

  22. toddes

    Ray @ 22,

    “Is it anti-human to hold that all atheists and agnostics over the centuries have overlooked the obvious fact of God’s existence?”

    ‘Overlook’ connotes that it was not done on purpose. (i.e. “I wasn’t paying attention, so I overlooked the existence of God.”).

    Are you claiming that your insistence that there is no God or that there is no evidence of God really a case of ‘overlooking’?

  23. Tom Gilson

    Gavin, apparently I did misunderstand you badly. I’m curious, though: did you know, or did you not know, what I wrote about infant abandonment in the first century, and Christians’ initiatives to end it?

    I know you didn’t say the other things you remind me here you didn’t say. I don’t know quite how to escape the conclusions I came to, however. You wrote,

    In the same way, it is obvious that a loving father would not abandon a child to eternal torture. Providing a non-obvious explanation for why he would do that will be a big job. Good luck. I don’t see any reason why your claim should be given the benefit of the doubt when your position is, on its face, extremely shocking.

    It sounds to me like you’re telling us,

    1. The Christian doctrine implies that God, the supposedly loving father, abandons children to eternal torture.
    2. Explaining why he would do that will be very difficult.
    3. In the meantime, there’s no reason to give our claim the benefit of the doubt.

    Is that wrong?

    Now, to paraphrase my response to you, the subtext of your message must be that there’s no good reason to suppose that Christians might be able to offer a reasonable answer to this rather obvious question. That’s how I interpret, “no benefit of the doubt;” for if you thought it were at least possible that we might be able to propose such an answer, you ought to at least take a wait-and-see, provisional benefit-of-the-doubt attitude toward that possible answer. Rejecting the benefit of the doubt means (I think) rejecting the possibility that we might have something to offer.

    And if it’s not possible that we have something to offer in answer to the challenge, that means that we’ve gone all these centuries having nothing to offer in response to the challenge. We’ve missed an obvious problem with our own faith for two millennia now: even though the problem you’ve raised is right at the heart of our faith. We must be terribly blind, or stupid, to have come all these years without even a decent proposal to offer.

    That’s the conclusion I drew from what you wrote, and that’s how I drew it. Please explain to me what you really meant, if I got that wrong.

  24. JAD

    I wonder if maybe most of the atheists who stop by this blog perhaps share the same prejudice about religion and Christian theism that Richard Dawkins has:

    I have not studied theology in great detail, nor should I, because the premise of theology is that there is a God who exists, and if I am rejecting that for very good reasons then there is no point in becoming learned in theology. You might as well say you have got to be learned in ‘leprechaun-ology’ before you dismiss leprechauns!
    http://www.sbs.com.au/dateline/story/transcript/id/600352/n/Interview-with-Richard-Dawkins

    Or, maybe they just assume we are completely uniformed in our beliefs so they don’t have to be informed about what we believe.

  25. Gavin

    Tom,

    It sounds to me like you’re telling us, 1…2…3… Is that wrong?

    That is about right.

    …the subtext of your message must be that there’s no good reason to suppose that Christians might be able to offer a reasonable answer to this rather obvious question.

    No. I fully expect you to have a reasonable answer that is pretty well thought out.

    Rejecting the benefit of the doubt means (I think) rejecting the possibility that we might have something to offer.

    No, it means “I hold this view strongly and I’m not going to give it up until I have a really good reason.” You may have something to offer, but having something to offer is not the same as closing the deal. I’m holding my view until I see a really compelling argument.

    We must be terribly blind, or stupid, to have come all these years without even a decent proposal to offer.

    I’m sure you have a decent proposal to offer. I was an active, engaged, studying Christian for 35 years. I have studied many careful Christian arguments on many issues. Some are profound and true. Some are tremendous intellectual feats, but are still mistaken. It is not because of blindness or stupidity. Understanding the world is hard. I have great respect for the Christian thinkers who made these attempts, but the failures have made me skeptical. That is why I don’t give Christians the benefit of the doubt when they say things that are, in my view, obviously wrong. I know Christians have a strong argument to offer, but I don’t think they have a great record of being actually right.

    Smart, careful people make mistakes. Recognizing that isn’t the same as calling them stupid and blind, and is not anti-humanist.

  26. BillT

    JAD,

    That has certainly been true of a great number of posters we’ve seen here. At least Dawkins makes no pretense that he cares about making good arguments. Then we have someone like Gavin who seemingly has a solid background but can’t articulate a clear position (neither Tom or I could understand his point in #18 and #28 didn’t make things any better) or speaks in broad brush strokes like this “That is why I don’t give Christians the benefit of the doubt when they say things that are, in my view, obviously wrong. I know Christians have a strong argument to offer, but I don’t think they have a great record of being actually right.”You would think he’d be interested in pointing out what those “obvious wrongs” actually are in relation to this subject but just stating and restating that Christians are obviously wrong seems enough for him.

  27. Chris

    ” I know Christians have a strong argument to offer, but I don’t think they have a great record of being actually right.”

    Exactly.

  28. Billy Squibs

    Exactly

    OK, so we now know you agree with Gavin. Fantastic. Can either Gavin or yourself give us some specific examples that support the statement?

  29. Larry Tanner

    Is atheism anti-humanistic? Let’s check.

    First, let’s find an acceptable definition of humanism. Here’s one found in a simple Google search:

    an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.

    So–

    Is atheism opposed to (that is, anti) any outlook or system of thought that attaches prime importance to to human rather than divine or supernatural affairs?

    No, or at least there seems to be no inherent reason for an atheist outlook to be opposed to humanism in this sense.

    Is atheism opposed to any belief that stresses “the potential value and goodness of human beings,” that emphasizes “common human needs,” or that seeks “solely rational ways of solving human problems”?

    No, or at least there seems to be no inherent reason for an atheist outlook to be opposed to humanism in this sense.

    Now, I think the question is whether Christianity is anti-humanism. So–
    Is Christianity opposed to any outlook or system of thought that attaches prime importance to to human rather than divine or supernatural affairs?

    Yes, probably. You would argue that primary importance should be given to divine or supernatural affairs, right? I don’t wish to mis-characterize, but I am not saying anything wrong here (even if you might wish for more nuance to mitigate the impact of the bottom line of Christianity’s ultimate anti-humanism in this sense).

    Next, is Christianity opposed to any belief that stresses “the potential value and goodness of human beings,” that emphasizes “common human needs,” or that seeks “solely rational ways of solving human problems”?

    Again, I think the answer must be yes–or at least more yes than no. Christianity does not stress the goodness of humanity; it stresses the fundamental sinfulness of all people. Christianity does not stress common human needs but rather God’s commands. Perhaps you can argue that common human needs (get saved from the super-fires of HELL [roar]) are aligned with Christianity, but I think this is a legalistic rather than clear/actual alignment–in other words, you have to squint your eyes in just the right way for the two ideas to mesh. Finally, Christianity certainly does not seek solely rational ways of solving human problems. Christianity certainly has a tradition of exploring and using rational inquiry, but Christianity emphasizes faith, prayer, and such as much as or more than reason, so it’s not right to say it’s completely aligned.

    In the end, atheism and humanism can be fully compatible, while Christianity and humanism cannot be. In some senses Christianity is inherently anti-humanistic.

  30. Billy Squibs

    Was Tom talking about Secular Humanism? If not it seems you are off to a shaky start because that quote appears on Humanist sites.

    It seems to me that while Christianity may acknowledgment a fundamental relationship between mankind and sin, it also affirms the worth of each and every individual. While an atheist may believe in the goodness of mankind (by a given definition of “goodness”) there is absolutely nothing inherent within your rejection of the existence of God that compels you to do so.

    Finally, what exactly would a “solely rational way of solving human problems” look like? I know that as a godless heathen you possesses superior levels of “rationality” to the rest of us so do tell. (Oh, and the little slap your got in about rational inquiry being on one side of the room (your side funnily enough) while faith is on the other would play well to Boghossianites but around here I think most people will consider it trite nonsense.)

  31. Larry Tanner

    Billy,

    The question of the OP concerns whether atheism is anti-humanistic. I used the first available definition of humanism, and this ‘humanism’ seems to me to match the ‘humanism’ that Tom discusses:

    I don’t know how many atheists would describe themselves as humanists. I know the contemporary humanist movement is overwhelmingly atheistic, but I’m not sure it works the same the other way around. I don’t know about Scott’s views on humanism, specifically. I’m not even sure Scott would call himself an atheist, but he has at least opened the door for me to raise a broader question.

    Humanism wasn’t always the secular movement it is today. There was a time when it was chiefly marked by its love and respect for humanity, culture, and learning, especially that which came out of the classical age of Greece and Rome. Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), the “Prince of the Humanists,” was a priest who never wavered in his belief in God and in Christ, and who employed his classical learning in the production of a Greek New Testament. This humanism was neither anti-Christian nor pro-atheism.

    Would you like to modify the definition of humanism that I use, or would you like to offer a different definition? Otherwise, I don’t understand the problem.

    To some of your comments:

    It seems to me that while Christianity may acknowledgment a fundamental relationship between mankind and sin, it also affirms the worth of each and every individual.

    OK, I can buy your point here. I believe I said roughly the same thing.

    Then you say:

    While an atheist may believe in the goodness of mankind (by a given definition of “goodness”) there is absolutely nothing inherent within your rejection of the existence of God that compels you to do so.

    Again, sure. I said pretty much the same thing myself. Perhaps you claim that the lack of compulsion in atheism for humanity’s goodness is a flaw. I don’t think it’s a flaw, and I certainly don’t think it could be considered as great a flaw as the compulsion in Christianity for seeing humanity as fundamentally marked by sin.

    Next, you say:

    Finally, what exactly would a “solely rational way of solving human problems” look like? I know that as a godless heathen you possesses superior levels of “rationality” to the rest of us so do tell.

    Please calm down. That ‘solely rational’ bit is not mine but rather belongs to the definition. I guess it means that, for example, using an appropriate course of medicine to help an ailment rather than combining medicine and prayer, or medicine and charms.

    I am offended at your implication that I assert some sort of superior rationality to you or anyone else. Please stop that. It’s untrue and childish.

  32. JWDS

    What are the odds that an atheistic definition of humanism would be compatible with atheism? That’s not confirmation bias or anything.

    And the Humanist Manifesto betrays the same sort of ignorance with respect to the history of Christian thought that the Gnus do.

    “human RATHER THAN divine…”

    In Christian thought, that’s actually a false dichotomy. Since humans were created in God’s image and designed to be in communion with God, the divine matters are inextricably linked to the human matters. In fact, human matters (like, say, “potential” or “goodness” or “love” or “flourishing”) are only truly meaningful in reference to a divine perspective.

    Once this fallacy is revealed, the rest of the definition (and, of course, Larry’s application of it) become an exercise in question-begging, assuming hidden definitions to prove the point, when the exact point is those definitions.

    So, the potential value and goodness of humans? Christian thought says “Yes, absolutely.” Value and goodness is what we call “glory,” and the goal of human glory is exactly the reason for the work of God in history, most especially in the sacrificial actions of Christ. See, e.g., Hebrews 2:10, or 1 Cor. 15:42-49.

    Common humans needs? Well, Christianity says that the common human need is restoration to God, which brings with it the restoration of all other things. True justice and true community (especially for the oppressed) are major goals and aspects of the reign of God.

    Solely rational ways? Well, aside from the presumptive, question-begging, false dichotomy of the word “solely”? If rational means “based on or in accordance with reason or logic,” and God is 1) the basis of reason and logic and 2) the creator of human beings, then it might be reasonable to actually consult him and ask for his help in solving human problems.

    So, that definition and the application of it are essentially an exercise in question-begging and false dichotomy. Why is it, again, that the supposed defenders of “solely rational ways” tend to argue chiefly by elementary logical fallacies?

  33. JWDS

    Billy:
    “It seems to me that while Christianity may acknowledgment a fundamental relationship between mankind and sin, it also affirms the worth of each and every individual.”

    Larry:
    “OK, I can buy your point here. I believe I said roughly the same thing.”

    Seriously? What Larry actually said was:

    “Christianity does not stress the goodness of humanity…”

    On what planet are those the same thing?

  34. Larry Tanner

    JWDS,

    The simple way to resolve the issue is for you to give a better definition of humanism than the one I found and offered.

    Again, the question of the OP is whether atheism is anti-humanism. Is there some element of humanism (as humanism) that atheism necessarily opposes as a matter of principle?

  35. JWDS

    Of course, if studies indicate that prayer actually helps with recovery, then the use of prayer would actually be, well, rational.

  36. Larry Tanner

    JWDS,

    Just because Christianity does not stress the goodness of humanity does not mean that there is no acknowledgement of it at all. Can I ask you to read me more carefully and charitably?

  37. Billy Squibs

    I don’t have a definition of humanism to offer. However, offering one that is largely atheistic in nature and then mounting a case that says that atheism isn’t anti-humanistic seems to me to be begging the question.

    I believe I said roughly the same thing.

    And I though your statement could do with some clarification – to say the least.

    I could have said more. For instance, about your attempt to juxtapose “common human needs” against “God’s commands”. These are not necessarily at odds. In fact if there is a God, and by this I mean the maximally great God of Christianity, then Matthew 22:35-40, which Jesus states are the greatest commandments, clearly states the most important human needs (getting good with God and getting good with ourselves (though I also suspect this passage has another layer)). Even if you don’t accept that we should love God, and why would you, the earliest followers of Jesus were also told to love their neighbors, which I suspect we both think is a common need. So looking from within Christianity we see that common needs are the same as aligning ourself to God, and from outside Christianity there is quite a bit that non-Christians can cheer about.

    You chose the definition of humanism and you also chose to re-cycle the phrase “solely rational” and even expand on it. Considering the amount of time that has been spent here talking about definitions of faith it seemed to me to be an act of crassness on your part to bypass this conversation. But I was harsh towards you, Larry, and maybe I didn’t read with enough charity. For this I feel some remorse. So please accept my apologies. I’ll try not to read arrogance into your posts.

  38. JWDS

    Yeah, except that Tom had a definition or description of humanism in his OP.

    Tom:
    “Humanism wasn’t always the secular movement it is today. There was a time when it was chiefly marked by its love and respect for humanity, culture, and learning, especially that which came out of the classical age of Greece and Rome.”

    Larry:
    “…this ‘humanism’ seems to me to match the ‘humanism’ that Tom discusses”
    …and gives an obviously secular definition of humanism.

    Again, in what world do these match?

    And the burden is on me to resolve the issues? When Larry fails reading comprehension 101?

  39. JWDS

    Sure, I can read you charitably. But you asserted that you said something that you actually said the opposite of.

    You said:
    “…is Christianity opposed to any belief that stresses “the potential value and goodness of human beings”…?

    Again, I think the answer must be yes–or at least more yes than no. Christianity does not stress the goodness of humanity; it stresses the fundamental sinfulness of all people.

    And then claimed you said “roughly the same thing” as:
    “Christianity… affirms the worth of each and every individual.”

    And now you’re taking the moral high ground and pretending I didn’t read you charitably? What does the word “charitably” even mean?

    “Oh, Larry said not A. So, obviously, I should charitably infer that he actually means A!”

    Ridiculous.

  40. JWDS

    Let me just be clear:

    You first claimed that Christianity opposes the value and goodness of human beings. Then you agreed that Christianity affirms the worth of every human being.

    And you said these were “roughly the same thing,” and “please read me more charitably.”

    Can you admit that the problem was clarity on your part? Or are you going to insist that the problem is a lack of charity on mine?

  41. Tom Gilson

    JWDS @38, if valid scientific studies could theoretically be designed to study prayer, where there were control groups in which absolutely no one was being prayed for, and where proper double-blind standards could be applied to all participants including God, then the use of such studies to make those kinds of decisions would be rational.

  42. Tom Gilson

    Christianity affirms the value of human beings and our goodness in the sense of our being created by God for his good purposes, but not in the sense of our being ethically and morally good: we are deeply flawed in that dimension. Would you agree with that, Billy?

  43. Tom Gilson

    Larry @32,

    You’ve offered a common and acceptable definition of humanism. Here’s the question, though: does it live up to its own definition, or does it say one thing and do another? That’s what I’m claiming it does.

  44. Ray Ingles

    toddes –

    Are you claiming that your insistence that there is no God or that there is no evidence of God really a case of ‘overlooking’?

    Well, I was phrasing it as politely as possible, not wanting to start a fight or get off-topic. Although, if you want to go that route… If we take Romans 1:20 and Tom’s comment #23 together – do you think atheists and agnostics are “stupid if not contemptible”?

    (BTW, if you could point out when I claimed “there is no evidence of God” it’d be helpful.)

  45. Larry Tanner

    Tom,

    If you are asking whether humanists tend to live up to the declared principles of humanism, well, I really don’t know whether they do (generally) or not. My focus has only been on whether atheism is anti-humanism. I say it isn’t.

    But if the question now is whether humanism is anti-Christian, then I say it isn’t, or shouldn’t be.

  46. Ray Ingles

    Tom –

    What other explanation for it could there be, given those circumstances?

    That they’re human?

    People rode horses – fought deadly serious wars on horseback – for thousands of years before anybody thought up stirrups. It took thousands of years to come up with a yoke that didn’t choke draft animals as they pushed.

    Humans today aren’t any smarter than the humans from ten thousand years ago. There’s still plenty of “why didn’t I realize/think of that” moments to come.

    Looking at things from a different perspective is not something humans do well, that’s all.

  47. Billy Squibs

    Christianity affirms the value of human beings and our goodness in the sense of our being created by God for his good purposes

    This reflects my understanding.

    but not in the sense of our being ethically and morally good: we are deeply flawed in that dimension. Would you agree with that, Billy?

    Now this is might be that point at which I begin give a little push back. If my wife, whom I love dearly, asked me, “do you think I’m morally good?” I would reply with a simple “yes”. I suppose what is going on in my head is a juggling act between the very human standards of goodness which are a reflection of God’s moral perfection.

    BTW, going back to Larry’s point about prayer and the “solely rational”. I’ve recently encountered an intriguing argument (perhaps it was on Unbelievable?) regarding atheists and prayer. In brief, given the correct circumstances, for example, the serious illness of a loved one, it is argued prayer for healing become a duty so long as they don’t absolutely rule out the possibility that there is a God of some sort of another who might be there to answer prayers. This is not an argument for theism or any specific God. Rather, if my understanding is correct, it simply suggests that the act of prayer may not be an irrational practice.

    (P.S. Tom, the technical issue we discussed is back on my end. It happened within the last 3 hour or so.)

  48. Jenna Black

    Larry, RE: #48

    Earlier, you proposed a definition of humanism that moved the discussion forward. You say this is your question/argument: “My focus has only been on whether atheism is anti-humanism. I say it isn’t.”

    In order to address your focus, could you also provide a definition of atheism? I ask because in my interactions with atheists, they usually insist that atheism is merely “a lack of belief in God.” I don’t see how a lack of belief in God per se suggests or requires humanism, so I’m not clear on what you think the relationship between atheism and humanism is. Could you elaborate?

  49. Tom Gilson

    Ray, you’re missing the point. Scott seems to have implied that the Cross is obviously unethical; and if Scott didn’t really mean that, then others certainly have (see my allusion to stoning and shellfish). Stirrups weren’t obvious. Yokes weren’t obvious. Scott (or other detractors) seems to think that Christians through the ages have always and consistently been unable to see the obvious, in spite of deep and prolonged study.

    Further, if your view of humans here is accurate, then how could you possibly believe that anyone knows anything at all about ethics? How could you possibly believe that Scott’s conclusion about the Cross is the correct one?

    What is it that privileges this generation on the topic? How is Scott more knowledgeable about the question than all the theologians and philosophers who have spent years studying it? What if the theologians’ understanding is right and Scott’s is wrong? How would you know, given that humans aren’t getting any smarter, as you put it?

    If “that they’re human” means that they couldn’t see some really obvious truth about the Cross in the course of all these centuries of deep study, then being human means no one can know anything about ethics; for if that kind of study is insufficient to see the obvious, then no amount of study could be. Is that consistent with humanism?

    All those questions serve to highlight what I think is really going on here, however.

  50. Tom Gilson

    Larry, my point is that atheism as expressed in the examples I gave here is anti-humanistic.

    (Humanism as defined by the various existing humanist organizations these days is emphatically anti-Christian. Humanism wasn’t always that way, but those who claim that name today certainly see it that way.)

  51. Tom Gilson

    In line with Jenna’s comment just now, which I agree with, I want to point out that I’m referring to atheism as expressed in the examples I gave; that is, my point refers to atheists who would say those things and/or agree with them. Whether that applies to all atheists or not, it applies to that group at least.

  52. Tom Gilson

    Gavin,

    That is why I don’t give Christians the benefit of the doubt when they say things that are, in my view, obviously wrong. I know Christians have a strong argument to offer, but I don’t think they have a great record of being actually right.

    Smart, careful people make mistakes. Recognizing that isn’t the same as calling them stupid and blind, and is not anti-humanist.

    I still don’t see it. This is about smart careful people supposedly missing the obvious for generation upon generation.

  53. Larry Tanner

    Jenna,

    I only said atheism was compatible with humanism. I did not say that atheism suggests or requires humanism.

  54. Gavin

    Tom, Sometimes smart, careful people miss the obvious because they construct elaborate, detailed arguments that the obvious is not actually true. That doesn’t make them morons. They are smart, careful and wrong.

  55. ordinary seeker

    Steve @17.,

    Thank you for your efforts. As a sixth grader, I might well have been taken by your story of the gallant prince. It’s not the idea of substitution that I don’t understand, though.

    I don’t understand why Christians think of humans as inherently “sinful.”

    I don’t understand why humans need “saving” from “sin.”

    I don’t understand why Christians think death is punishment for sin.

    I don’t understand why a father-figure would create a punishment for his children that he would then try to save his children from.

    I don’t understand why Christians “love” Jesus for doing this.

    Here’s my much simpler explanation:

    Humans make mistakes, and some–relatively few–humans sometimes do very, very bad things.

    Nothing can save us from this except, perhaps, in the far future, advances in medicine.

    Death is what happens to all living things and is not a punishment for anything.

    Good parenting avoids punishment altogether.

    I have no explanation for Christians loving Jesus.

  56. Jenna Black

    Larry, RE: #56

    I don’t think that you have addressed my question. Since atheist suggests or espouses no ethical system or paradigm for moral reasoning, I think of it as something like Type O negative blood. It’s compatible with anything, including some very evil ideologies. IMO, Tom chose to use humanism because many atheists do espouse humanism as a moral/ethical code. In the absence of any identifiable moral/ethical code and their claims to the non-existence of an objective, universal moral standard, it is difficult to reproach atheists for hypocrisy for not living up to one, so humanism is a logical option for Tom to have pursued.

    On what basis do you then argue that atheism is not anti-humanism since may or may not have an espoused ethical system? Tom is wise to narrow atheism in this discussion to this atheist’s specific critique of Christians. IOW, is it consistent with humanism for an atheist to argue that Christians overlook “obvious mistakes” as followers of Christianity?

  57. BillT

    Tom, Sometimes smart, careful people miss the obvious because they construct elaborate, detailed arguments that the obvious is not actually true. That doesn’t make them morons. They are smart, careful and wrong.

    More broad brush generalizations without evidence, argumentation or substance. Well done.

  58. Tom Gilson

    Right.

    Tom, Sometimes smart, careful people miss the obvious because they construct elaborate, detailed arguments that the obvious is not actually true. That doesn’t make them morons.

    Yes it does.

  59. BillT

    os,

    You do a really good job at objecting the a god that Christians don’t believe in, a theology that has nothing to do with Christian theology and creating a self serving reality.

  60. Tom Gilson

    os,

    If you have no explanation, then maybe it’s because you really don’t understand.

    And maybe somewhere in that part of reality you don’t understand you’re missing something important.

  61. Steve

    Ordinary Seeker @ 58:

    I don’t have much to say given your reply. I do commend you for keeping things civil and collegial and for being a seeker; I will pray for you. I leave you with what I think is an appropriate reference: Titus 3:1-7

  62. Gavin

    Tom, So anyone who disagrees with a basic tenant of Christianity is an anti-Christian bigot who thinks every Christian who ever lived is a moron. That must be a very convenient way to see the world.

  63. Tom Gilson

    It must be convenient to be able to distort a person’s position to make it seem as if they have a convenient way of seeing the world.

    Gavin, look through the post. Use your computer’s “find” function. See where I used the word “disagree” (once). See what I really said. Notice that it’s not what you just tried to make it seem that I said.

    I did not say simply “disagree.” That would have been moronic, and my friend, in spite of what you just tried to make me look like here, I am not a moron.

    Now, it’s at least conceivable that twisting a Christian’s words to make him out to be a moron is a bigoted thing to do. What do you think?

  64. Tom Gilson

    “Tenet.”

    Not “tenant.”

    It’s a very common error. I see it misused more often than I see it used properly. So you’re in good company.

  65. Larry Tanner

    Jenna at 59:

    I don’t think that you have addressed my question.

    Sorry. Not intentional.

    Since atheist suggests or espouses no ethical system or paradigm for moral reasoning, I think of it as something like Type O negative blood. It’s compatible with anything, including some very evil ideologies.

    I would not say “compatible with anything,” but I see your point and basically agree.

    On the other hand, why is atheism’s ethical neutrality a fault? Why should it be both a descriptive statement about ontology and a basis for grounding human morality? I don’t think atheism needs to be this.

    I also see your point that some evil as well as good ideologies have found atheism compatible. I think the same is true of many religions, including Christianity–that other political/social ideologies have co-opted them. Now, when I say something like this last sentence, I usually get sidetracked into an argument about those evil ideologies twisting Christianity or not using ‘true’ Christianity. I don’t want to have that argument again. Suffice it to say I see your point.

    IMO, Tom chose to use humanism because many atheists do espouse humanism as a moral/ethical code. In the absence of any identifiable moral/ethical code and their claims to the non-existence of an objective, universal moral standard, it is difficult to reproach atheists for hypocrisy for not living up to one, so humanism is a logical option for Tom to have pursued.

    Again, we are in agreement. If one is an atheist and also seeking to understand her or his own moral philosophy, one will have to look at outlooks such as humanism.

    On what basis do you then argue that atheism is not anti-humanism since may or may not have an espoused ethical system?

    On the basis of the definition of humanism given in comment 32. According to that definition, atheism does not appear to me to oppose humanism and therefore should not properly be considered anti-humanism.

    Perhaps you wonder whether atheism should be considered pro-humanism. I would probably say no, that it is not. Atheism is compatible, and there’s nothing in humanism–according to the definition I gave and my reading of it–that is inconsistent with atheism, but I don’t think there’s anything beyond this to be said.

    Neutrality giveth and neutrality taketh away: atheism and humanism may be consistent with each other (and that’s good), but atheism does not endorse humanism (and that’s less good).

    Tom is wise to narrow atheism in this discussion to this atheist’s specific critique of Christians. IOW, is it consistent with humanism for an atheist to argue that Christians overlook “obvious mistakes” as followers of Christianity?

    I think your question now is about humanists, not atheists. Your question is whether humanists act hypocritically if they argue that Christians are deluded about Christian beliefs.

    That’s a decent question. Let’s go back to the definition of humanism I used before:

    an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.

    I am having trouble seeing where the hypocrisy would lie. A humanist might argue strongly that Christian beliefs and strictures are not consistent with humanism. If you read my comment #32, you’ll see that I think there’s a basis for this argument.

    Maybe it’s the manner in which the argument is made, or the manner in which it is received/perceived. I certainly think that in criticizing specific religious beliefs and traditions, one can easily devalue the good things a good person will derive from such beliefs and traditions. The hypocrisy would then lie in a lack of empathy.

    I hope this answers your question.

  66. Ray Ingles

    Tom –

    Stirrups weren’t obvious. Yokes weren’t obvious.

    Well, you can claim that, but they spread awfully fast once someone figured ’em out.

    I’ll ask the same question of you that I asked toddes. Do you think all atheists are ‘stupid if not contemptible’? I’ll add a bonus question – do you think anyone who doesn’t flee an abusive relationship is ‘stupid if not contemptible’?

    Further, if your view of humans here is accurate, then how could you possibly believe that anyone knows anything at all about ethics?

    ‘Cause I think of ethics as more like engineering than mathematics. We keep finding better solutions to the problems of cooperating and competing humans over time. The fact that we might find better solutions in the future doesn’t mean that the solutions we’ve already found are totally invalid.

    We’ve also learned a few things about how to learn. The scientific method is an example. Engineering is not science, but we’ve learned there, too – what works to run a project, how to generate and test different potential solutions. We’ve learned – over a long period of time – to question received wisdom, at least once in a while. Long careful detailed study over thousands of years turns out not to be a guarantee of correctness. (What if the astrologers’ understanding is right and ours is wrong?)

    Doesn’t mean we’re perfect or at the end of any process. But while Newton said sarcastically, I can honestly say that ‘If [we] have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Saying that humans learn slowly is not the same as saying humans don’t or can’t learn at all.

  67. Gavin

    Tom,

    See what I really said. Notice that it’s not what you just tried to make it seem that I said.

    You certainly don’t like it when I try to make it seem like you said something you didn’t say. This is interesting, because your original post is trying to make it seem like Scott said something he didn’t say.

    Scott’s statement…isn’t just about God and Jesus, it’s about Christians down through the centuries…. [W]e’re fairly idiotic….

    No, Scott’s statement isn’t about Christians. Use “find” to locate what he says about “Christians” (nothing). You are quick to identify misattribution when it is directed at you, but you are amazingly determined to do it to someone else. You have some serious actor/observer paradox going on.

    I know you didn’t say “disagree.” I take that comment back. You responded with good advice, advice that you sould follow yourself.

    Thanks for the “tenet” correction. I’ve spent much more time as a renter than as a philosopher, so the wrong spelling always feels right.

  68. Tom Gilson

    Gavin,

    Scott’s statement was about this story Christian doctrine. For that reason it applies to Christians down through the ages. For that reason I don’t think that I attributed something to him wrongly, and if I did it’s certainly not for the reasons that you gave.

    I do like your explanation of the “tenant” spelling, though. 🙂

  69. JWDS

    Tom, @ 44

    Are you being facetious? Because if you’re being serious, then you’re espousing scientism of a very narrow and modern kind. It can be rational to believe in a whole variety of things that aren’t demonstrated by that kind of double-blind, etc. experiment.

  70. Tom Gilson

    JWDS:

    I was not being facetious. I was responding to what you said in #38, where you brought up the idea of using studies: “Of course, if studies indicate that prayer actually helps with recovery, then the use of prayer would actually be, well, rational.” My comment in #44 was intended to indicate that using “studies” to make that kind of decision was a bad idea.

    Maybe I was wrong to assume that you meant scientific studies, but in context, I think that probably is what you meant.

  71. JWDS

    Okay. I don’t want to hijack the comment thread, but I did want to clear something up on that:

    Notice that I made a conditional statement, meant to respond to Larry’s statement:

    “That ‘solely rational’ bit is not mine but rather belongs to the definition. I guess it means that, for example, using an appropriate course of medicine to help an ailment rather than combining medicine and prayer, or medicine and charms.”

    My point was that this is a false dichotomy, as well as a question-begging definition of “rational.” What would the anti-supernaturalist say if studies did suggest that prayer was in fact correlated to effective treatment? Would the use of prayer still not be “rational”? If so, then “rational” would, by definition, exclude the supernatural–which is exactly the question under discussion. To put it another way, could Larry’s type of humanist ever admit that some aspect of faith is in fact rational, or does his definition necessarily exclude faith from rationality? If the latter (which is my reasoned guess), then the discussion is pointless, because faith is a priori not rational, and we’re dealing with Boghossian-style doxastic closure.

  72. Larry Tanner

    JWDS,

    To put it another way, could Larry’s type of humanist ever admit that some aspect of faith is in fact rational, or does his definition necessarily exclude faith from rationality? If the latter (which is my reasoned guess), then the discussion is pointless, because faith is a priori not rational, and we’re dealing with Boghossian-style doxastic closure.

    Yes, I believe my type of humanist can admit that some aspects of faith are rational. I don’t believe the definition I have brought in necessarily excludes all aspects of faith (which I take your meaning to be ‘religious belief’ from rationality.

  73. OS

    I think having faith may be rational whereas the particular tenets of faith may be irrational. If one chooses to have faith because it improves one’s mental health, or ability to face problems, that may be a rational choice. If one chooses to have faith in order to belong to a community, that may be a rational choice.

  74. Tom Gilson

    OS, are you saying that a person can rationally choose to have faith in x for the sake of faith’s benefits, but cannot rationally choose to have faith because he or she believes that x is true?

  75. OS

    If one believes X is true, then it’s rational to have faith in X. The question is whether it’s rational to believe X is true.

  76. Jenna Black

    OS, RE: #77

    IMO, you have given us an example of the fallacy of equivocation in this comment. You the term “faith” with different meanings but implying that the term has the same meaning in both cases. I refer specifically to your phrase “the particular tenets of faith.” This phrase appears to me to mean the tenets of a particular religion, as in the tenets of “a faith” such as Christianity. Faith and religion are related but are not the same thing. For example, a person can have faith in Jesus Christ without necessarily knowing or accepting all the tenets of Christianity, or of a particular denomination of Christianity. Do you see what I mean? This is an important distinction, in my view.

  77. Tom Gilson

    os, I need clarification still: suppose one has faith in x because it improves one’s mental health, or ability to face problems. Could that be a rational choice?

  78. OS

    I’m not sure what you mean, Tom. Do you mean, having faith in Christianity because there is something about Christianity that improves my mental health? Well, my answer’s the same: If you believe that, then yes, it’s rational. But, the question remains, is it rational to believe that?

    I think I’m missing your question.

  79. Tom Gilson

    I don’t think you’re missing my question as much as you think you are. I’m trying to move toward an important point of clarification, and your answers are helping.

    You are speaking here of “faith in Christianity.” Earlier you had said, “I think having faith may be rational whereas the particular tenets of faith may be irrational.” Jenna has already identified the basic problem there in your equivocation on “faith.” These further comments of yours highlight the same problem further.

    Let’s think for a moment about what “faith in Christianity” might mean, and whether it might be rational to have that kind of faith while disbelieving Christianity’s tenets.

    “Christianity” is either (loosely speaking) (1)the set of doctrines and teachings wrapped up in Christian belief, or else (2) the social systems that have arisen in the name of Christ, the Church, etc.

    As for the first sense of “Christianity,” I’m sure you don’t think it’s rationally possible to place faith in any Christian doctrine-set while also considering the tenets of faith irrational. That would be placing faith in what one knows to be irrational. (See below for more on that.)

    As for (2), yes it’s possible to have faith in some social structure, as it’s possible to have faith in one’s friends, one’s own health practices, without attaching any higher metaphysical significance to them. Thus it could indeed be rational to have faith in “Christianity” the social structure, while rejecting faith in Jesus Christ, provided one was attached to some branch of Christianity that considered Jesus Christ to be of low importance to its core identity, beliefs, and practice. There are versions of “Christianity” that fit that description, though they have little to do with historic creedal Christianity, and hold on to that appellation more by force of historical inertia than by any present reality.

    Whether this is faith in “Christianity,” however, is debatable on other grounds as well. It seems to me that a person who takes up this stance is attaching his or her faith to his or her particular social structure,meaning that the social support that it gives, including relational connections, opportunities to help others, counseling, singing, etc.—none of which has any essential connection to any Christian identity. There could be an historic or cultural or artistic/aesthetic connection to some Christian traditions, maybe; but those connections are probably not what the person is placing his or her “faith” in.

    So I doubt this is really placing faith in Christianity. More likely it’s placing faith in Christian-influenced social systems instead.

    Finally, you wrote, “If one believes X is true, then it’s rational to have faith in X. The question is whether it’s rational to believe X is true.”

    I think that’s logically equivalent to, To believe X is true is rationally questionable, but if one believes X is true anyway, one’s faith in X is rational.

    Is that what you meant to say?

    I’m still on a course of clarifying terms, in case you’re wondering about the purpose of this analysis; specifically, I’m trying to help straighten out what “faith” really means. I hope you’ll stick with me through the process. Thanks.

  80. OS

    Tom,

    I agree with, “To believe X is true is rationally questionable, but if one believes X is true anyway, one’s faith in X is rational.” In fact, I think this is how many, many people operate regarding religion.

    I was also thinking that someone could think that believing in Christianity in particular (as opposed to other belief systems) was beneficial and so choose to believe in Christianity. For example, if there were studies that showed that people who were Christian were better able to manage stress than, say, people who were Buddhist, then someone might choose to believe in Christianity. Many fewer people doing that, though, I imagine.

  81. Tom Gilson

    OS, this is irrational:

    I agree with, “To believe X is true is rationally questionable, but if one believes X is true anyway, one’s faith in X is rational.” In fact, I think this is how many, many people operate regarding religion.

    You’re saying that, “To believe X is true is rationally questionable, but [in a certain circumstance] … one’s faith in X is rational.” Under what circumstances could it be rational? If “one believes X is true anyway.”

    So the rationality of faith in X depends on believing X is true, even though believing it is rationally questionable.

    Or, faith in X is rational provided one makes an irrational move toward believing X is true.

    Do you see the problem there?

    (I’m still trying to scope out an error of definition, specifically, something wrong with your understanding of faith.)

  82. OS

    Tom– there’s no problem there. “Rationally questionable” does not equal “irrational.”

  83. Jenna Black

    Tom, here is a study by Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College, Claremont, California that has a review of the literature comprised of a substantial number of research studies have found positive correlations between religious belief and the following variables (Zuckerman, 2009, p. 956).

    Positive mental health outcomes
    Fewer psychological problems
    Reduced levels of depression
    Descriptions of themselves as “very happy”
    Lower death anxiety
    Greater levels of hope & optimism
    Better adjustment to & coping with sad or difficult life events
    Better ability to deal with chronic illness or the death of a loved one
    More ability to cope with stress & crises
    Longer life expectancy

    Note that the purpose of the article is to argue that secularity and well-being correlate in countries such as Sweden. However, Zuckerman shows the integrity of all ethical researchers to present a review of studies on correlates between religious practices and well-being. Here is the full citation to locate the article:

    Zuckerman, P. (2009). Atheism, secularity, and well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions. Sociology Compass 3/6, 949-971.

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