Thursday, February 11, 2010

Self-Serving Definitions

In response to my claim that some atheists use a self-serving definition of "The Christian god of the Bible", a member of the studio audience said:

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 authoritative source is.

It is important to recognize that the term 'they' in this response refers to only a subset of those who use the phrase, 'the Christian god of the Bible', and is adopting only one specific way of using that phrase. So, any assumption that this definition that 'they' use is the one and only use of the phrase and thus the one true and correct definition of the term – rather than one definition among many – is false.

I will agree that this accurately describes the definition that the atheist I was referring to use. However, I do not see any argument against the claim that the decision to use this definition, as opposed to any of the multitude of other definitions, is not self-serving.

It is even question-begging, in a sense. It assumes that the Christian God of the Bible is a character in a work of fiction.

If I were to try to make a moral assessment of Gollum, in The Lord of the Rings, or of Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean, I would begin with the assumption that the text that the author has given me is authoritative. The author may not have provided me with all of the facts, but that which the author has provided are to be taken as true within the context of the story. I cannot turn to a passage in which the character performed an action that contradicts my assessment and say, "That did not really happen," unless the author himself indicated that the events took place in the context of a dream or a vision.

This quest becomes particularly challenging when we have several authors who have all written stories about the same invented character. Let us, five hundred years from now, take all of the assembled versions of the Robin Hood myth and assemble them into a book, attach the assumption that all of the texts are authoritative, and see what we can then determine to be the true of this character Robin Hood.

However, if I were to pick up a biography, I would use a different set of assumptions. It is no longer the case that the words of the author are authoritative. The author can make mistakes, or for personal reasons attach a particular spin to the events that he is reporting that serves some personal end or feeds some personal bias

Against this, the criticism would be that it is not the atheist who is claiming that the text in the Bible is authoritative. It is the Christians themselves who say this, and the atheists were simply following that assumption to its conclusion.

First, some Christians say this - but not all. There are Christians who take the Bible to be a work of human history that has all of the problems that any other account of human history might have. While they hold that a God exists and that the texts of the Bible were an attempt by man to accurately capture the actions of such a God, that text simply cannot be trusted to be true in all cases.

This, then, relates back to my claim that atheists use a self-serving definition of the Christian God of the Bible. They are using a definition that some Christians use and showing some problems with that definition. However, this does not show that there is a problem with 'the Christian god of the Bible' the way other Christians use the term - as when it means, 'The deity the Bible refers to but which the Bible may not report on with perfect accuracy'.

Second, even here there is a difference between a text being authoritative in the way that a work of fiction is authoritative, and authoritative work of non-fiction. The authoritative work of non-fiction still has to correspond to an external reality, while an authoritative work of fiction does not.

Anybody who reads a line of text has an infinite number of interpretations that they can apply to that text. After all, a line of text is nothing but an image containing a particular pattern of squiggles that can mean just about anything. The interpreter must then throw out whole sets of possible interpretations to get to the correct one. If he takes the text to be authoritative non-fiction, then any interpretation of that text that contradicts known facts must be rejected.

In other words, the reader of a line of text must bring a whole set of mental baggage with him if he is ever able to even begin to read the text. There is simply no such thing as getting all of the meaning of a line of text from the text itself. There is no such thing as treating the Bible as authoritative in the sense that the reader's interpretive software has absolutely no relevance in determining what the passage means. Readers must necessarily bring a certain set of assumptions with them that will be relevant in determining the meaning the reader assigns to that text.

Since an authoritative work of non-fiction cannot have a false claim, the reader must then come up with an interpretation that is not false - that does not contradict known facts. If, for example, one of those facts that the authoritative fiction cannot contradict is that God is perfectly benevolent, then no interpretation of a biblical passage that is inconsistent with the view that God is perfectly benevolent can be correct.

Many atheists are guilty of taking the Bible as being authoritative in the 'work of fiction' sense, to reach conclusions about the moral qualities of the God character, and then using that to criticize others who take the Bible to be authoritative in the 'work of non-fiction' sense, where a whole different set of rules apply.

I agree that the Bible is a work of fiction, and the God character of the Old Testament a morally irredeemable tyrant of the worst order. This character is an self-centered, egotistical, violent, infinitely cruel dictator. The New Testament was at least an attempt to replace this morally repugnant father-God with a Jesus-God that at least had some morally redeeming characteristics. It reflected a few thousand years of progress in human moral thought. Yet, this Jesus-God was still a human invention reflecting the moral attitudes of his inventors - substantially ignorant peasants living under the rule of a foreign dictator.

However, any claim that I may make about 'the Christian God of the Bible' unerstood as a fictional character invented by a bunch of primative and substantially ignorant tribal members a few thousand years ago, even if true, would not remain true if one changed the definitions of the terms. Substitute instead a phrase that means, 'a perfectly benevolent entity', where this is used to determine which interpretations of Biblical pasages are 'literally true' and which are not, and you get an entirely different result.


Concerned Reader said...

Good stuff. I've been following for about two years, and found your content very useful.

My real comment is that you need an editor. When you leave it to readers to correct your typos, you give them the opportunity to misunderstand you. From what I've read in the comments in the past, people don't need any help on that front.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I have made that comment myself.

I do much of my writing at night when I am having trouble staying awake. And my attempts to edit turn into wholescale revisions that replace entire blocks of text.

I would be most appreciative of an editor, trust me.

Philosopher's Mess said...

I'm new to your blog, but I liked you analysis of the ideas presented. What you described is something I have encountered in my own debates on the subject, and basically this equivocation in the concepts of God leads to a lot of "tail chasing". Thanks.