Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Is blogging an ethical act?

From Goosing the Antithesis:

Alison really hit the nail on the head when she told me the real issue was that people actually believe in the act of belief itself. Indeed, the Christians have been positioning themselves as being part of the "belief-based" side and that they support religion against atheism, instead of their regular exclusivism. Because of this, a most vital debate that should be taking place right now, and which people like Dawkins and Harris are starting, is "is belief an ethical act?" (and by ethical we mean: as a social rule or judgment, group norm, etc, as opposed to personal judgments)

That is the real issue that should concern all of us, atheists and religious alike.
Francois Tremblay's writing is very interesting to me, because despite the fact that I rarely agree with his conclusions, he is indeed very adept at cutting to the heart of an issue. The problem with this issue, however, is that he seems to be making some assumptions that I don't completely agree with.

Actually, almost more than the assumptions, the thing that I have issue with is the definitions of the words used in the question. If "ethical" is taken to mean "...a social rule or judgment, group norm..." then the default answer is "Yes!" and really can hardly be anything else. As most if not all societies throughout the world are composed of a religious majority, the answer becomes a default. It seems to me that Tremblay (being an atheist) must either be sarcastic or far more lax in his wording than his usual writing in the above piece.

So I'll make some assumptions of my own to try and simplify the issue just a bit. The easy assumption is, from the larger context, that by "belief" we mean here "religion", that is, faith in a higher power of some sort. That being the case, however (or even if not) I question the use of the word "act", as belief, while something that oftentimes leads to action, is not really an action in itself.

Restating the question as "Is belief ethical?" still leaves us with items to sort out, though. Actually, it may be the reason that Tremblay phrased the question in that manner; are we asking if belief leads to ethical behavior, or if belief itself is ethical? Furthermore, are those two issues at all separable? Most religions come with a code of ethics built in, but such ethical codes may have difficult wrinkles in them that seem to be flaws: The God of Israel forbade human sacrifice, but ordered Abraham to kill his son. What happens when a supposedly moral God (who demands obedience as part and parcel of His moral code) orders a person to do something apparently immoral?

That issue in turn leads to another, probably more important one. How do we effectively define ethics apart from belief? There are many people who feel that there is a need for a supernatural basis for ethics and that without such a basis, ethics is meaningless. This has never been proven to me in a satisfactory manner, and as many an atheist has pointed out in one way or another, taking such a position robs us of our ability to reason out the true nature of ethics. (If you can't say that God is at least possibly immoral, then how is it meaningful to say that God is moral?) It seems that ethics need to either be relative or anchored in something even more fundamental than a supreme being. If a theist wants to propose otherwise, they would need to explain why, rather than take it as a given, I think. However, at the same time, moral relativism is something that needs some explaining; as one person implied in the comments of the original post, if morality is relative, then you once again are not able to say that God (or anyone else) is immoral.

A further wrinkle that I don't believe came up in the comments is that there is perhaps an assumed false dichotomy. If the answer to the question is "No", does that mean that belief is immoral? What if the answer is that belief is amoral? Indeed, I have heard it claimed by devout Jews at times that belief in God is not a prerequisite for being a good Jew; the Torah contains laws that are mostly prohibitive, and among those remaining laws that are requirements, belief in God is not one of them, so even the religious can believe that belief itself is not an ethical issue. If belief is amoral, then what does that imply? Does it make the question more important, or less?

While Tremblay's post is truly meaty food for thought, I fear that the question he raises has no obvious answer in the end.

Monday, November 18, 2013

No one really believes in my blog

A long time ago, I was a guest blogger on the atheist blog Goosing the Antithesis. It was a pretty sharp blog, and I think it showed a degree of open-mindedness that they allowed me as a Christian to make an occasional post there. The blog however is no more; that is to say, while it's still there for anyone to read, there hasn't been a new post since January of 2009, and there clearly is no intention of changing this. Still, every once in a while I drop in there to peruse posts and reminisce a bit, and that final post by Francois Tremblay in particular has a lot of potential for encouraging thought, and I thought it might be interesting to address some of the issues it brings up.

...[N]o one really believes in God. How could you? It's impossible to even conceptualize the idea of God, and you can't believe in what you can't conceptualize. The person who says "I believe in God" believes in some image in his head which he believes is the image of God, but which cannot in any way have any relation to what God is actually supposed to be according to the theologians. They believe in a father in the sky, not an abstract absolute existing in Dimension X.
This is an interesting statement on many levels. One thing that makes it interesting to me is that you will find theists who demand the exact opposite is true. Maybe not in the fine details, but on the whole, there are a lot of theists who don't believe that any atheist can seriously, in full honesty, say that they don't believe in God, but rather are in some state of fancy theological denial. I just note this as interesting, though, as I do not share this belief. I'm willing to accept that any given atheist or theist is fully sincere in stating their disbelief or belief in God.

Yet Tremblay has what seems like a valid point to be made here, and many theists will agree there's something to it. There are qualities that God possesses that are in essence infinite, and infinity is not really something that the human mind can fully grasp in a meaningful way. Indeed, I think most of us will at times have a mental image in our heads of what God is like, and that that image by necessity must be lacking in comparison to God's true nature. So how can we believe in that which we cannot truly fathom?

I think the answer to that is to be found in the subtleties of the way religion is expressed in practice. I've had discussions with many people ever since I became a Christian about how both Judaism and Christianity forbid idolatry, and yet to an outsider might seem to be practicing it all the time. What church is there out there that is not at the very least adorned by a huge wooden cross which everyone faces while in worship if not ornate stained glass figures of famous historic saints? What synagogue fails to exhibit great fawning reverence for the Torah as a physical object? How is this not idolatry? Aren't we taking our inability to grasp the concept of God and refocusing our religious reverence on physical objects?

There's an important distinction to be made here, and it's the distinction between idolatry and iconism. Idolatry is taking a physical object like a statue and saying, "This is my God." Iconism is taking a physical object like a cross, or a picture, or a book and saying, "This is how I access my God."

The term "icon" is a very telling one in the computer age, too. It's my experience that there are very few people who understand Microsoft Excel, and in fact, when you talk about Excel as a full concept in code built from the ground up, there really is probably next to nobody who understands it. Despite this fact, all a computer user has to do to use Excel is click on its icon, and then they have full access to all of Excel's functions and features, even if they don't understand them. Clearly, the greater the depth of understanding a user has of Excel, the more they will likely get out of it, but even the most basic user can get something out of it.

Why does a Jew revere the Torah? Because he believes that it is through the words written on that Holy scroll that he will better come to understand the mind of God. Why does a Christian revere the cross? Because it reminds her of a physical act of sacrifice that God performed that gives her insight into the heart of God. We all know that full understanding is impossible, but that does not change the fact that we have access to God in a very real way. Because we are helpless to fully understand God, God has condescended to give us the tools we need to come closer to him in a very real way without that full understanding.

No, perhaps nobody really believes in God, but we believe in God's goodness. We trust in God's character. We follow God's will. We study God's word. And in the end, God believes in us, which is all that really matters.