Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Christian God of the Bible

A member of the studio audience wrote in a comment:

One belief that you have expressed that you don't think is "insanely stupid and destructive" is the belief in the Christian god of the Bible.

Did I say that?

Actually, I would say that the phrase "the Christian god of the Bible" is vague and the insane and destructive stupidity of believing that such a being exists depends on the meaning that one assigns to the term.

On the question of meaning, I hold that the meaning of a term is determined by the ideas that arise in the mind of the listener or speaker by the use of a term in a context in which that term was used.

As a writer, I generate theories about what ideas will appear in the brain of a reader with each term or phrase I adopt. To the degree that I can accurately predict the ideas brought up in the brain of a person hearing or listening to a term, to that degree I can be an effective communicator.

I do not think that I have ever used the phrase, "the Christian god of the Bible." I would be reluctant to do so precisely because it would raise a whole glob of different ideas in the brains of different readers. Which means that the term cannot be used in clear communication. You would not be able to say anything that was true of all, or of even a substantial majority, of the ideas the term will cause to spring into the minds of readers and listeners.

I find certain atheists to be rather self-serving when they use the term. They protest that "the Christian god of the Bible" has all of these despicable characteristics, but then define the term "the Christian god of the Bible" in such a way that it has all of these characteristics. It is like proving that atoms have no parts by defining the term "atom" as "the smallest particle of matter that, itself, has no parts."

Naturally, the first protest one reads when an atheist makes these claims is, "That is not what we mean by God. You atheists are creating a straw man, inventing a concept of God that is easy to attack but has nothing to do with what we understand by the term 'God'. If you want to criticize God why do you not criticize the God we actually believe in?"

Against the specific claim that the Christian god of the Bible did this or that evil, the response these accusations always get in return is that, while God knows the whole story that explains why He performed this or that action, we only have a part of the story. It is always possible to make up additional facts that make an apparent moral transgression into something that is morally permissible.

In fact, there are a number of works of fiction in which the author presents their lead character as somebody who appears to have done some great evil, only to reveal in the final chapter that his reasons for that action are such that they were, in fact, extremely virtuous actions. It is not at all difficult to imagine a book in which the author presents the actions of a character as apparently evil without actually ever revealing the facts that would show that the agent was actually extremely virtuous.

Another part of the reason why I hold that belief in the Christian god of the Bible is not necessarily insanely stupid and destructive is because none of us have the ability to hold all of our beliefs up to the light of reason. We have to use shortcuts that give us reliable (but fallible) beliefs. One of those shortcuts is to adopt those beliefs that are dominant in the society in which one lives. After all, those beliefs have not destroyed society yet. There is reason to believe that those beliefs are not entirely destructive.

None of us have beliefs that are entirely guided by reason. We cannot have. How, in fact, could we have acquired those first beliefs if we could only do so by holding them up to reason? And how can we evaluate future beliefs except to evaluate them in relation to those earlier beliefs - beliefs that we could not hold up to the pure light of reason.

Given the fact that we can hold only a certain subset of our beliefs up to the light of reason, we need to perform belief triage. We need to look at those beliefs that are relevant to matters with a great potential for harm or benefit first, and save the examination of other beliefs for another day . . . if ever.

Because the concept of The Christian god of the Bible is so vague it can always be molded to fit our other beliefs. For that reason, at least for some people, it may not need much examination. The agent will simply modify the belief to correspond to those important conclusions he draws from the rational examination of beliefs that do have direct real-world implications.

Somehow the Constitution has come to be the Cliff Notes version of the Bible even though one speaks of a right to freedom of religion while the other speaks of killing those who worship other gods. Even though one speaks of a right to freedom of speech while the other speaks of heresies being punishable by death. Even though one says that the child will not be punished for the sins of the parent while the other hands punishment down for three to five generations beyond that of the original transgressor.

This has been the way of many Christians for at least the last 400 years - of taking any and all discoveries and moral advances of the real world and changing their concept of "the Christian god of the Bible" accordingly.

A concept of the Christian god of the Bible that is so easily changed can hardly be called a dangerous. If it is dangerous in one generation, it will be modified and changed in the next.

Moral criticism in this case requires tighter concepts and a more precise use of language than can be had by the phrase, 'the Christian god of the Bible'.

So, it is not, strictly speaking, true that I hold that a belief in the Christian god of the Bible is not insanely stupid and destructive. In some cases, when a person says that he believes in the Christian god of the Bible, further discussion will reveal that he does, in fact, have insanely stupid and destructive beliefs - the type of beliefs that deserve the condemnation of good and rational men. But others mean by that term something that is not so insanely stupid and destructive.

The term is far too vague to make any kind of blanket statement.

The final piece of evidence against the idea that a belief in the Christian god of the Bible is insanely stupid and destructive is that a lot of very not-dangerous people have a belief in the Christian god of the Bible.

Unless, of course, a person adopts a self-serving definition of 'the Christian god of the Bible'. However, when atheists do this they commit the Trus Scottsman's fallacy. They assert that Christians believe in a God that is cruel, selfish, blood-thirsty, vain, intolerant, and megalomaniac. When confronted with examples of Christians who do not believe in such a God they answer with the True Scottman's fallacy. "Then they are not true Christians, because true Christians believe in a god that has these qualities."

I have long found it depressing how quickly a group of people who profess such a love of reason and logic will embrace fallacies when it serves their purpose and protects their favorite beliefs to do so.

5 comments:

Pedro Timóteo said...

I find certain atheists to be rather self-serving when they use the term. They protest that "the Christian god of the Bible" has all of these despicable characteristics, but then define the term "the Christian god of the Bible" in such a way that it has all of these characteristics.

I agree that doing that would be dishonest, but I don't think that's the case with most atheists. Because when you say "the Christian god of the Bible", unlike simply "God" or "the Christian god", you have one supposedly authoritative source for his supposed actions and desires: the Bible. I agree that "God" can be defined as having the desires one wants, but if you actually say you're using the Christian Bible as the source, well, that source is available, and it's possible to get a picture of the character (which atheists believe to be fictional) by reading it. (It's also very contradictory, from book to book, in terms of God's character and desires, but that's a different point.) We're not "redefining" God so that he's a monster, we're simply using the source they claim to use.

Again, my point is that, if they claim to be talking about "the Christian god of the Bible" (instead of simply "God"), it's valid for us to go to that Bible as an authoritative source of what that god is like. They're the ones who indicated what their authorative source is.

Richard of Norway said...

Excellent article. I would have to agree with Pedro that when they specify "God of the Bible" that should be enough to show what type of character it is. But unfortunately for most Christians, they don't really mean "God of the Bible", they really mean "My version of Jesus/God" which is, as Alonzo says, often quite different from what the Bible teaches, providing one reads it ALL and doesn't ignore the parts that fail to suit personal taste.

Andy said...

Good post. Here is a presentation by Richard Swinburne on interpreting the Bible and responding to the charge that the God of the OT is immoral.

He argues not that certain passages of the Bible are false but that certain passages need to be re-interpreted (perhaps in a metaphorical way) to agree with the description of God as morally perfect.

Tshepang Lekhonkhobe said...

Do you mind defending/clarifying this statement:

A concept of the Christian god of the Bible that is so easily changed can hardly be called a dangerous. If it is dangerous in one generation, it will be modified and changed in the next.

What do you refer to when you say 'dangerous'? Do you refer to the acts committed in the name of such a being or something else?

Kip said...

Alonzo, I definitely appreciate your response to my comment. And, I agree with most of the points you made. (I do think it is evident from this post, that what I meant by my comment is mostly true -- but there's no need to belabor that point, I don't think.)

> A concept of the Christian god of the Bible that is so easily changed can hardly be called a dangerous.

Perhaps a quibble on terminology, but I wouldn't say those beliefs are "easily changed". They are so ingrained in the culture and upbringing of the kids in areas of this country, that it is very difficult for them to change. Because of that, so many beliefs that should be easy to change to reflect the current evidence and scientific understanding of things are not easy to change. We see it in Texas with the School Board fighting to put Creationism (Intelligent Design) in the classroom & textbooks. This is a ludicrous belief, that should be easy for people to change to fit the evidence -- EXCEPT for their belief in the Bible (that is believed to be "god-breathed" & inerrant).