Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Why I really don't care if Jesus existed or not

A while ago, I wrote a post on here about why I don't care whether or not Jesus existed (except, perhaps, as an article of historical interest, something like the footnote it probably should be). The reason is simple enough: God doesn't exist, Christianity is false anyway, and so it doesn't matter if Jesus existed as a historical figure. Sure, I mean, it's interesting, but I don't care for the reason that anyone might think it's important, which is to say that I don't think it's important because it's irrelevant where it's relevant. I care about whether or not Jesus existed in a way similar to whether or not Socrates did, which is to say that it has absolutely no bearing on my day-to-day or even academic existence to find out a positive or negative answer to that question--that is, it's trivia.

Of course, that post--and this one--was motivated by an upsurge in discussion about Jesus mythicism, the position that Jesus (very probably) did not exist and is simply a mythic construction. As historian and highly motivated atheist Richard Carrier is both very interested in this topic and in a sphere of activity bordering my own, the discussion that prompted the first post I made on this topic probably followed from something he did. This one certainly does, as Carrier recently published a book specifically about the historicity of Jesus, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, published last month by Sheffield Phoenix Press.

To be clear, I haven't read Carrier's new book. (Why would I? I'm not kidding when I say that I don't care about whether or not Jesus existed.) I don't say this to dissuade anyone from reading it or taking it seriously (though the latter would be a separate topic to the one I'm talking about here). It's just full disclosure, not that it matters because I'm not going to argue or even talk about his book beyond noting that it seems to have stirred up a conversation on a topic that I hold a controversial view--not caring a jot.

I will note briefly that I think the Jesus mythicism discussion is kind of a non-starter in any discussion with a Christian. The only thing that's needed to accomplish all the work desired by Jesus mythicism when it comes to talking to Christians about their faith--unless we obtained absolutely solid evidence that there was no Jesus (which is probably impossible)--is done simply by the idea that it's possible that there was no Jesus. Peter Boghossian's questioning approach to bring honesty about what we can claim to know is more than enough: How do you know Jesus really existed? Isn't it weird that there aren't any reliable sources for his existence outside of the Bible? What exactly is it, other than the Bible, that leads you to conclude that Jesus must have existed? Those kinds of questions do all the work of Jesus mythicism where it matters (unless you are a professional historian working in this field) unless something settled the question absolutely one way or the other--they introduce honest doubt in a position that Carrier undersells in his subtitle.

So here, extending from the fact that Christianity is false anyway, whether a historical Jesus existed or not (honestly, it's ridiculous), I'm going to talk about why I (really) don't care if Jesus existed or not.

I don't know what "a historical Jesus existed" means.

This isn't me playing dumb. I don't think you know what it means either. The reason is that it could refer to about a bajillion different things that would qualify accepting the idea that a historical Jesus did exist in very different ways. For instance, is a historical Jesus a character exactly as portrayed in the Bible (which Gospel, or maybe Paul's epistles?)? Is it some character upon whom those stories are based? Is it some movement that got Jesus as a figurehead, maybe fictionally symbolic? Is it a fictional character with inspiration found in various real-life ones but made totally fictional by the Evangelists or other early Christians?

Flatly, I don't know what is being talked about, then, when someone starts talking about a historical Jesus, so I don't know (or care) whether or not it makes for evidence of a real historical figure. Unsurprisingly, the religion is totally the problem here, and it is why it seems disanalogous to the similar question about Socrates, who was mentioned earlier. Note that it really doesn't matter if Socrates existed or not--the information we have about him from Plato, and everything we've done with it, is every bit as useful and interesting in either case. The same would be true about Jesus if it weren't for the fact that Christians believe it as if it were literally true, which is isn't.

What I want to do here is talk about different ways that we might conceptualize "a historical Jesus existed" and see kind of what's wrong with each of them.

Did Gospel Jesus Exist?

This question asks if the character portrayed in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, particularly in the Gospels, existed or not, as portrayed. This, by the way, is exactly what most Christians believe to be the case, and not only is it unlikely, it's so staggeringly unlikely as to be beneath serious consideration by all but believers and Sophisticates™. The character portrayed in the New Testament is clearly legendary, at the very least, especially once we grow up enough to recognize that God doesn't exist, which sort of neuters the whole thing.

Yeah, but did a real character that the New Testament tries to portray exist?

Really, though, it's way worse than that. Though it sounds like irritating pedantry or even trolling to ask, the question "which (New Testament) Jesus?" is of profound relevance. Even a cursory read through the New Testament, even at times through Jesus-Colored Glasses, reveals that there's no way the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and John are talking about the same figure. Indeed, it's unlikely that Mark, Matthew, and Luke are talking about the same guy either. And then there's the rest of the New Testament--we get yet another Jesus from Acts (though very Lucasian as "Luke" authored both books) and another from Paul's epistles (and arguably another still in Revelation). Compounding this problem, even a cursory glance at Christians both past and present and their umpteen heresies and umpteen-thousand (no joke) Christian denominations, each with their own unique take on the Gospel Jesus, leaves us staggering to figure out who any "Gospel Jesus" is or what he might have actually believed or taught.

Now, there is one Christian scholar, E.P. Sanders that I have read rather extensively on the topic of a historical Jesus carved from the New Testament accounts of that character (which is really all we have). Sanders makes clear that there are real issues considering the John-Jesus to be of the same mold as the Synoptic-Jesus. Even this more reasonable figure (or group thereof), though, he whittles down considerably in The Historical Figure of Jesus (Penguin, 1996) to try to get to a believable character that might have existed in history that can be drawn from the (synoptic) Gospels. Not surprisingly, Sanders is not universally accepted by Christians in his historical figure, many of the critiques indicating that he cuts away far too much.

The New Testament of the Bible, though, is a Christian manifesto. It's very difficult to take this character seriously, particularly given that the Bible portrays him doing impossible things. Perhaps a real character can be extracted from this, as Sanders seems to do rather conservatively (until he gets all weird at the end of that book and just takes the Resurrection nearly whole cloth). I don't care, though, because the ridiculous claims of Christianity don't hold water and aren't true anyway, which is to say that any Jesus character that might be real that can be extracted (at great effort) from the New Testament accounts isn't the Jesus of Christianity.

Is this pared-down character what is meant when people say "a historical Jesus existed"? I'm not sure, but I'd be very, very surprised if any but the most liberal (or desperate) Christians accepted it, which is to say that without going very far at all (just removing all of the magic, as did Thomas Jefferson in The Jefferson Bible), we're already past the point of irrelevance on the question of Jesus' existence.

As an aside, Jefferson considered Jesus to be the most inspiring moral teacher of all time, which is plainly ridiculous as well. Jesus advocated all kinds of cultish, weird, and abjectly stupid things to do (like cutting off your own testicles in order to get to go to an imaginary paradise after you die, casting "bad branches" into (eternal) fire, being unconcerned with investment for one's future, giving up everything you own and begging (which not everyone can do for obvious reasons), and hating one's own family to follow him). I don't know what character Jefferson was talking about even after having read The Jefferson Bible if he thinks that Jesus was a great moral teacher of any age, much less a timeless one, but it is possible that the Jefferson Jesus was a real person, not that it matters.

Maybe the New Testament narrative, including Jesus, is based upon something real, though?

Honestly, I think this is the most plausible case, but, as I keep saying, I don't care. There are a number of ways that a character that became the Jesus of the New Testament, through much story-telling and tall-tale-telling, plus religious doctoring, might have "existed." 

Maybe there was a cracked apocalyptic Jewish teacher, of the ascetic Essene sect or otherwise, at the time whose name was Yeshua (the Aramaic equivalent of the Greek "Jesus"). Maybe there was a whole movement of such a cult, with John the Baptist somehow integrally related, or not. Maybe some of both was going on, meaning that there was a character named "Jesus" in such a cult, with Jesus not particularly special within it though the whole thing stuck out a little. Maybe those got lumped together into figurehead that was real or fictional, called "Jesus" in the New Testament. Like I said--I think something like this is probably the most plausible scenario, not least because of Christopher Hitchens's astute observation that the outright fraud in the Gospel birth narratives (which is obvious) is possibly best accounted for by assuming a real figure that needed to be squared with an unreal story somehow.

Here's the relevant question, though, because we've gotten pretty far from the New Testament to accept any of this: Is this a "historical Jesus"? Is this what we mean by that phrase? I'm not sure, but a case could be made that it would qualify, particularly if someone is desperate enough to believe that they'll grasp any straw that seems to make their beliefs distantly possible.

Particularly, consider the case of there being no real Jesus, or a very unimportant member of this particular charismatic movement/cult named Jesus, but that this whole movement got summarized under the name of Jesus when writing the Gospels down. That's pretty damn far from "a historical Jesus existed," in both cases, and yet it kind of qualifies in that it would imply that the Jesus narrative is at least (fairly loosely) based upon real historical events. Who cares, though?

Anyway, is this what people are talking about when they say "a historical Jesus existed"? I doubt it, even if it is, to me, the most plausible scenario regarding the question. Certainly, we've gone way beyond relevance to Christian beliefs since this would equate them with following the beliefs that evolved out of some failed crackpot apocalyptic cult that might or might not have even included a member by the relevant name.

Maybe it's even looser than that.

This is going to sound ridiculous, but I think to be fair to an examination of the meaning of "Did (a historical) Jesus exist?", we must go even further. Consider, then, if you will, a similar question: Did (a historical) Albus Dumbledore exist?

Surely this looks flippant, but I'm quite serious. Obviously, we know that J.K. Rowling created the character of Albus Dumbledore for her Harry Potter series of fantasy novels. (Technically--we don't know this. Rowling could have been moved by the real version of the magic presented in the story to write an inspired text about real characters outside of her own knowledge, or she could have written the story aware of the reality of it only to have her memory modified by a well-placed obliviate memory charm, so even Rowling's insistence that the story and its characters are fictional creations lies outside of our epistemic horizon, which kind of makes meal of that whole line of argument to ignorance for Jesus.)

Here's the catch, though, that's more relevant than that long parenthetical thought: Rowling has explained plainly that her inspiration for the character of Albus Dumbledore, benevolent and wise (and fictional) headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, was partially one of her own school headmasters as a girl. That is to say that there was a real character upon whom Albus Dumbledore is based as a fictional extension. Does that mean that there was a historical Albus Wulfric Percival Brian Dumbledore, then?

Strangely, and hopefully you're following me here, the question isn't so ridiculous anymore. In parallel, in order to qualify in the case of Jesus, we'd need only to know that some original source material, some purveyor of oral tradition, or any of the Evangelists, particularly Mark, or even Paul or John (the author of Revelation), was using a real person as a basis for a fictional extension called Jesus.

I know this is a common technique in writing fiction--many (perhaps most or all) fictional characters have some basis in real characters (or combinations thereof) in the author's life. Thus, even if there wasn't even a real apocalyptic movement that bears Jesus' name now or anything remotely like what we'd accept as a historical figure of Jesus at all, it is plausible that the authors of those stories had someone real in mind when they wrote about Jesus, or perhaps someones. Would that qualify as a "historical Jesus"? (I don't think so, but given that we're talking about something that isn't true anyway, Christianity, why on Earth not?)

Seriously, I don't know what it means

So, I'm not kidding when I say that I have no clear idea of what people are talking about when they ask me if I think a real/historical Jesus existed. I guess ultimately, they're asking me either
  1. Do you think some particular (usually "the one I'm thinking of myself") character of Jesus was a real historical figure or not? To this question, I don't care because Christianity isn't true anyway, and that's really the only reason it matters in the usual context, which is to say that any such character that might have existed isn't relevant to the spirit of the question. (Note: History is interesting and all, but we don't need to find out Jesus wasn't a real historical character to realize that much of Western culture and thus world history was based upon Christian fiction, really. Clearly, it was.) Or,
  2. Do you think any character that we could argue ourselves into calling "a historical Jesus" existed? To this question, I don't know but would guess a qualified "probably, but why should I care?" The qualification is everything though: any that I think have a chance of existing--since Christianity is false anyway--again are irrelevant to the usual spirit of the question.
Since both of these cases could entail about a bajillion possible things for what is meant by "a historical Jesus," I don't care. Since it doesn't matter anyway, I really don't care. I simply don't think the historicity of Jesus constitutes an interesting question (besides as a historical footnote) because I have no clear idea what is meant by that question and, no matter what is meant by it, it's pretty irrelevant to the spirit of the question, which seeks to establish that Christianity might be true. It's not.

Just to tie up the loose end: I also don't care if people like Richard Carrier or other historians want to try to sort this out--more power to them. And so far as a matter of history is concerned, though I referred to it as a footnote, it is of some importance, I suppose. But it is only of any importance at all as a point of historical fact and thus is profoundly unimportant in the ongoing discussion about Christian beliefs in our contemporary world (which I guess is the main motivation, particularly for outspoken and ardent atheist writers and speakers like Richard Carrier). So, I'm not saying people shouldn't care about the question as a matter of history, but they should do so realizing that without absolute proof one way or the other, they aren't doing anything terribly important in the cultural debate about religion.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Christians say the darnedest things--the Insider Test for Faith

In the spring of last year, John Loftus published a book called The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion is True (Prometheus, 2013) in which he developed an argument that first appeared in the early chapters of his magnum opus, Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (Prometheus, 2008). The basic premise of the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) is simple and yet devastating to religious belief: examine your religious beliefs as if you were an outsider, the same way you do for religious beliefs that you do not already hold. It is a simple call for intellectual honesty when it comes to one's religious beliefs.

Predictably, and lamentably, it has created a whirlwind of religious gibbering about why (a) the test must somehow be illegitimate and (b) even though the test is illegitimate, Christianity passes it. I ran into something decidedly funny the other day, though--someone claiming not only that Christianity passes the OTF but also that it passes the (made-up) insider test for faith. (I'm not linking to it because I don't want to give it undeserved attention, but for the hunters out there, it was on the Patheos network.)

Of course, the word "test" in "insider test for faith" strikes me as hilarious, the kind of patently ridiculous thing that only the tragically pitiable could come up with. How does Christianity (of course) pass the "insider test"? By "cohering with spiritual experiences and religious desires."

This reminds me ever so much of the famous analogy by the wonderful Douglas Adams, in The Salmon of Doubt,
This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.
The entire notion of there being an "insider test" for faith is a tragedy. Faith is the glue holding the insider inside. All insider tests for faith will necessarily confirm the faith because that's what faith does. It's simply another lie of the faith to think that it could do otherwise. The Outsider Test for Faith is a call to intellectual honesty; the insider test is a way to keep circling the drain of self-delusion.

Of course, the insider can't usually see that faith is a cognitive sinkhole, a system of biases and "trust" that keep the faithful believing the articles of faith, and that is the real tragedy. Mucked-up thinking like this is merely a symptom of the bigger problem, which comes down to relying upon an epistemological framework that protects articles of faith from legitimate challenges, which is rationalizes away.

Talking about materialism and naturalism is a waste of time

An annoying and common request from people who want to believe in certain kinds of supernatural entities, usually God, comes in the form of denouncing materialism. The usual approach is ham-handed, as we should expect, asking for "positive evidence for materialism." As is often the case, a certain tendency of philosophers lies at the root of this irritating, persisting problem (which is nugatory, as I intend to discuss).

First, what is materialism? I'll keep it brief, not really going into detail but rather just giving a succinct definition (with which I have some issues).
In philosophy, materialism is the doctrine that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications.
So immediately we see both the problem with the unreasonable demand for "positive evidence for materialism" and with the notion of materialism, as defined philosophically, itself. I'll address each of these issues in turn.

Positive evidence for materialism? An annoying dodge.

"Positive evidence for materialism" is an annoying dodge, one designed specifically to distract people from the fact that we very apparently live in a material universe and to suggest that there's anything like "positive evidence" for any alternative. All of the evidence we have, by the very definition of evidence, supports the existence of the material world. None, incidentally, supports the existence of anything non-material (or, specifically, "spiritual").

Worse, if we look at the definition of the philosophical position called materialism--that nothing exists except matter, etc.--we immediately run upon the problem that "positive evidence" is basically a demand for something impossible. To provide "positive evidence" for materialism would require us to definitively prove empirically that nothing at all, anywhere, ever, is anything but matter, its movements, and its modifications. (I trust that energy is contained within those via Einstein's famous connection between the two.) An appeal to ignorance is all that's needed to defeat any claim to "positive evidence" for materialism, so it's a useless dodge, a waste of time, to even bring it up.

Thus, I think of this demanding "positive evidence" for materialism to be more of what I have called a talisman meme than anything of any substance. When people spout talisman memes--easily repeated ideas of little or no worth waved about to ward off ideas they don't like--they're attempting to distract from productive conversations that would be destructive to things that they want to believe.

"Positive evidence for materialism" is one such talisman meme, a disingenuous call for something impossible that hopes to distract people from the fact that the material universe is all we know exists in order to try to mitigate the damage that fact does to particular cherished belief systems.

What's wrong with materialism?

Oh, philosophy, this is how you shoot yourself in the foot all the time. First, note that the philosophical definition of materialism is that it is a doctrine. How obsolete. Second, note that it applies a universal--all is matter, nothing else. How obsolete too.

This, though, is a common bane of philosophy, aiming to provide humanity with the "right" doctrines that apply universally. It is a bane for at least two reasons, both of which amount to giving people reasons to argue over things that are ultimately pointless, as demonstrated by people demanding "positive evidence for materialism." (The other is that people don't really think that way, in terms of picking and choosing particular universally applicable doctrines and remaining purely consistent with them, or at least they don't think that they do and are thus prone to ignore the doctrines when it comes to it. Of course, philosophy goes on to create even more of a public relations nightmare for itself by gleefully pointing out when people are failing to be consistent with doctrines that they think they espouse.)

The point isn't--and never should have been--to declare a doctrine that says all is material and then adhere to it. The point is that all we've ever observed is material, or can be accounted for materially (e.g. thoughts in the latter category). In other words, an assumption of materialism is provisional and thus not really an assumption that we've used to paint ourselves into a corner.

Oh, and literally all of the evidence points us toward accepting that something like materialism is very probably true. Do you see the difference? We're not aiming for a doctrine here that applies like a supertruth but rather for a best-guess about the world we live in. We don't need stupid assertions that "nothing exists but" when we can just keep doing as we're doing, looking at the world and seeing what we see, taking it for what it is, whatever it is.

I don't think it needs to be that way, though. I think our fictional accounts are fully demonstrative of innumerable ways in which non-material, by which I mean "spirit" or "magic," entities can be imagined to interact with the world in a meaningful way, a way that we could, in principle, detect and make sense of. The fact is, though, that despite a lot of looking for such, we never, ever find it. (We may, of course, but it really need not be mentioned.)

Missing the point

Materialism, then, as a philosophical position, misses the point. The point isn't to declare that we've figured out how the universe works and then dance around with our unknowable supertruth, squabbling endlessly with people who have adopted different ones. The point is that everything we see points us in a direction that's like materialism without the dogma inherent in it.

More than that, talking about materialism as though it is important to do so misses the point (this goes also for the similar "naturalism," a philosophical viewpoint according to which everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted). As soon as someone brings these words up, I instantly distrust whatever they're about to say. What we (effectively, which is to say almost surely) know is that the material world exists, nature exists. We do not know more than that, and there's nothing gained by pretending that we do by asserting ourselves as adherents of doctrines like materialism or naturalism, though there's lots to be lost--these stupid arguments about whose assumptions are better are, to put it plainly, a grand waste of time and talent and an open invitation to keep talking about the world and our knowledge of it in the wrong ways.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Thinking philosophically

I fired a trio of tweets (on the Twitters) earlier that I think deserve a little elaboration--something Twitter is pretty flawed-awful for. They are
  1. I think most people should learn to think philosophically, but most people, including many who do it, shouldn't be philosophers.
  2. And yes, I think most people should learn to think scientifically, but most people, including many who do it, shouldn't be scientists.
  3. And also yes, I think the fact that I felt a need to qualify the first tweet with the second implies a turf war between the fields.
Thinking philosophically

When I say that I think most people should learn to think philosophically, what I mean is that I think most people should learn to think seriously, reflectively, with an open mind to ideas that deserve consideration, honestly, as logically and rationally as possible, clearly, and, critically, critically.

Thinking in this way is a prerequisite to doing philosophy, but it isn't required to do philosophy, and it does not entail thinking like a philosopher, which is something I think most people should not do. Thinking like a philosopher is very specialized and should only be engaged in by philosophers, and doing it well is hard enough to formulate the second half of my opinion in that first statement--even many philosophers shouldn't be philosophers. It's simply too damn hard to do good philosophy for most with the title to do well by it, and bad philosophy is a humongous problem (for philosophy most of all, probably). Doing philosophy (qua philosophy) badly is virtually guaranteed to yield fruits that are simultaneously bombastic and nugatory, a potent and dangerous mix that can make one drunk with self-importance, particularly when what one is really best at "philosophically" is lawyering for one's thoughts, beliefs, and arguments.

Most people would benefit from thinking philosophically, but to think like philosophers would, in most cases, make them insufferable because they would also, mostly, be bad philosophers. Encouraging that by making them actual philosophers, whether for institutional reasons--someone has to teach those Phil 101 and intro logic courses to angry freshmen who don't care or want to be there, after all--or otherwise) would be even worse.

Thinking scientifically

When I say that I think most people should learn to think scientifically, I first mean that they should be thinking philosophically, per the above, since in a manner of speaking, the sciences are a specialized subdomain of philosophy. In addition, scientists must think very skeptically with a constant eye to observation, particularly observations that would falsify hypotheses. Scientists must also think statistically, and, even more than philosophers, must be ready and willing to abandon ideas that observations disconfirm.

Being a scientist, though, is also hard, especially being a good one, but it's hard in a different way than philosophy. I don't want to say that there are no bad scientists out there, or that there aren't people doing bad science--clearly there are both--but the barrier to entry into many of the sciences is significant, particularly the "hard" sciences like physics and chemistry, along with biology to an increasing degree. Particularly, one has to be good at mathematics, versed in the relevant scientific principles, and competent juggling theoretical and observational approaches, even if one specializes in one or the other.

This brings us to an important difference between science (as a specialized subdomain of philosophy) and philosophy. Being a good philosopher is hard; becoming a scientist at all is hard. This doesn't create an ideal situation for science, where we have only good scientists and good science, obviously, but it does provide a weed-out mechanism by which bad scientists are often kicked out of the system before becoming a professional in their field. (And, of note, many of the issues with bad science boil down to ethical quandaries, some of which have their deepest roots in having too little money for the research that people are doing.)

Most people, though, still shouldn't become scientists, even if they should probably think scientifically and definitely become at least basically scientifically literate (this being a necessity of the modern world, if we're honest). Not everything is research--someone has to actually go out and build things, and sell things, and do services, and so on and so forth, and science is just one niche in a working community filled with specialists that needs to be filled.

Turf war

The reason I added the second tweet, and thus the third one, is because I expected blowback from my matter-of-fact statement about philosophy saying that I'm attacking philosophy when, indeed, I'm not. Indeed, I expected the "scientism" brigade to come down upon it in force (at least in principle, as I think they largely ignore me now for misunderstanding me on this point). At any rate, what I mean by all of this is that I expected the first tweet about thinking philosophically versus being a philosopher to be misinterpreted as another shot fired "for science" in the ongoing turf war between those two fields, a false dichotomy if ever there was one.

Though it often gets denied, it seems rather clear to me, sitting outside of it, that there is a turf war between the sciences and philosophy. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that scientists don't see themselves as a specialized kind of philosopher (and thus brand the philosophical endeavor as a waste) and that philosophers (to the degree that they're not also scientists and thus not equipped to work that way) don't like to give up their primacy in fields that they've long been the chief guardians of that branch of human knowledge.

Sam Harris, though, is right: "the boundaries between disciplines are mere conventions and that we inhabit a single epistemic sphere in which to form true beliefs about the world." In this sense, the war seems futile, petty, and institutional to the point of being almost tribal. I do hope we can get past it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

How it goes with "sophisticated" Christianity

Last night, I was checking around and stumbled upon a short piece in Publishers Weekly about Terry Eagleton, a "left-wing intellectual," by his own description. It stuck out at me enough to warrant a quick look because a good and thoughtful friend of mine, about two years ago, pointed out to me that nothing that the New Atheists were putting out seemed to be addressing the kind of sophisticated Christian views appealed to by folks like Terry Eagleton. Do note that Eagleton is a Marxist and thus most likely to be an atheist himself, but he has taken a huge issue with New Atheism and, true at least to his Catholic roots, seems to have a soft spot for "sophisticated," reflective Christianity. (To my eye, it's hard to tell exactly what Eagleton is after other than to tell pretty much everyone that they're wrong.)

It's pretty clear that, for whatever purposes he clearly thinks will benefit the world, Eagleton is not sympathetic to New Atheism whatsoever. My friend, who I think matches Eagleton roughly in his views about Christianity (though this is to guess about both of them), insists that Eagleton has taken to task Hitchens and Dawkins (whom Eagleton "affectionately" combines into a single character, "Ditchkins"), neutering their critiques of religion. At the time, I read a little Eagleton and couldn't figure out what the hell he was talking about. It seems to me that neither is aware that Eagleton has done so on what amounts to a very long-winded and high-minded Courtier's reply, which is saying that "Ditchkins" hasn't engaged with serious and "sophisticated" theology and, thus, can be easily dismissed as blowhards.

I guess Eagleton has another new book recently out (Culture and the Death of God), which puts the total now at something over 40 of them, and that's why he's in Publishers Weekly, but reading him talking about his opinions got me thinking about "sophisticated" Christianity, and it is on that topic, not Terry Eagleton or his views in particular, that I want to say a few things.

"Sophisticated Theology" and "sophisticated" Christianity

These two ideas aren't exactly the same thing. Sophisticated Theology™ refers to the rubbery contortions of theologians and apologists, executed in an attempt to maintain a belief that the things they're talking about aren't ridiculous and, if examined fairly and clearly, patently untrue. Since theism is transparently false, Sophisticated Theology™ is a kind of sad quasi-intellectual game that smells more and more of dishonesty as time goes on.

"Sophisticated" Christianity is more like what Eagleton indicates when he praises "reflective Christianity" and when he indicates that Dawkins and Hitchens are "talking out of the backs of their necks" about Christianity, "relying on simplistic caricatures of Christianity that simply viewed religion and fundamentalist religion as the same thing." I will be focusing on "sophisticated" Christianity here, not the intellectually dishonest contortions of theologians hoping to get to keep talking professionally about "God" as if that was an academically respectable thing to do. Basically, Sophisticated Theology™ is a warped and nugatory intellectual effort while "sophisticated" Christianity is a warped and toxic cultural effort.

Eagleton's thinking reveals that there seem to be two kinds of Christians, the everyday rubes, who are largely indistinguishable from fundamentalists, and the cautious reflective kind who engage in their religion, if I'm reading him right, with more cultural and political savvy. Indeed, it seems his idea of "sophisticated" Christianity is more political than anything. In the short Publishers Weekly piece, he is quoted twice in that vein. The piece itself reads, "At Cambridge, Eagleton began to see a relationship between politics and Christianity, and he encountered a version of Christianity that 'made a sort of political and ethical sense to me.'" Later it quotes Eagleton more fully where he says,
The average view of Christianity is such a caricature, and Christianity is in large part to blame for that, but I wanted to point out that a new configuration of faith, politics, and culture can be born out of Christianity's recognition of itself as a this-worldly religion that, like Marxism, is concerned with the fight for justice, redemption, solidarity with the poor and powerless, and making a better world in the here and now.
How sophisticated.

Measuring "sophistication"

If we suppose Eagleton is right, I think we can see what makes "sophisticated" Christianity so "sophisticated" (other than being able to be construed to align with values that he, himself, holds). I think the operative element that determines how "sophisticated" a Christian (or other religious, as the case could be) interpretation happens to be is how little one cares if it is true or not.

The sin of fundamentalists and New Atheists alike, if I'm reading Eagleton's nuance correctly, seems to be concerning themselves with whether or not the religious beliefs in question are actually true. We must suppose that Eagleton and other sophisticates (here, that left-wing thing seems to rear up unpalatably, even for someone who is generally quite liberal, such as myself) are savvy enough to know that Christianity isn't true in the literal sense, but that doesn't matter because taken as a symbolic and cultural force, it can be tortured into making a lot of sense. It resonates with people, I guess, and therefore it doesn't much matter if it is true or not. Silly, crude New Atheists, just like fundamentalists, wasting their time with whether or not a thing is true before wanting to commit to it.

It seems profoundly weird, I must admit, to be arguing that religious fundamentalists and "New Atheists" are on the same end of some spectrum, but indeed, we are. We both consider the question, "Is said religion actually true?" to be one of significant importance, and thus we, diametrically opposed though we are, find ourselves on the same side of a fence, separated from sophisticates who realize that truth is so pre-postmodern. Finding oneself facing such absurdities, though, is what we can reliably come to expect when dealing with overly left-wing intellectuals, knaves and rubes are all of us huckleberries by comparison.

For clarity, I'll repeat: the measure of "sophistication" when it comes to religious views (at least when viewed from a distance, off to the left side) is how little importance one places in the matter of whether or not the religion is actually true. "Sophistication" when it comes to religion somehow means believing people shouldn't really believe the beliefs of a belief system because that would be, well, silly.

I used to be pretty sophisticated

As I am wont to do, I want to make sense of this apparent nonsense--the idea that someone can accept (or reject) something without particularly caring whether or not it is true. Luckily for this effort, I used to be pretty damn "sophisticated" when it comes to Christianity, so I might be able to tap into what's going on here.

Thinking back to the time I spent as a "sophisticated" Christian, during my long and slow deconversion from actually being Christian, what sticks out most is that I didn't think Christianity was literally true, or anything like that, but rather felt that it was symbolic. I went pretty far with this, though I never committed to finishing the project before my faith broke all the way.

I was quite sure that the Bible must have been written by enlightened men who were simply talking in a symbolic, metaphorical code about some very deep truths about our world, humanity, spirituality, and culture, and I went so far as to believe that terms like "Son of Man," "Satan," "Jesus," and even "God" were merely emblems for other ideas. If one could only come up with a way to translate, I thought, from the symbolic code the Bible is written in to what it really means, one would have at his fingertips profound, immutable truths of immense value. I really believed that. Moreover, I actually thought for a portion of this time that doing something similar for all of the world's major religions would reveal the same profound, immutable truths, if one could just get his magic decoder rings right. How savvy!

This isn't, of course, quite what Eagleton is on about, but it serves as a similar basis for that. In effect, I believed that the Bible--no, the contents of all of the religions of the world--should be understood symbolically and metaphorically, and in those senses is representative of what is "true." I was lying to myself. That's not what true means.

I didn't think it was possible or polite, frankly, that Christianity could be false, so I lied to myself about both it and the plain meanings of simple words so I could square the circle. The reasons I thought it impossible that Christianity could be false aren't important and are the usual bad ones (it's so old! so many people believe it! it's ancient wisdom! there must be something to it!). What matters is that I was lying to myself. I couldn't imagine Christianity as false, so I made it "true" by making it false (by making it all metaphorical and symbolic).

The thing is, and I think this applies more generally than just to myself, I was pretending the truth of Christianity didn't matter because I knew it wasn't true but couldn't let it go. I wanted to fit in. I wasn't ready to break free of the Christian culture that reared me. Whatever. At bottom, I wanted to appear savvy and high-minded without ostracizing myself by being fully honest, which would have entailed rejecting Christianity. I was the face of "sophisticated" Christianity.

Yes, yes, reflective

Apparently, being reflective on Christianity, on one's own cultural context and the powerful (symbolic) ideas contained in the belief system, is critical to being "sophisticated." Reflective I was, though obsessive might be a better term for it, but what I wasn't was squarely honest. I was both warping the notion of "true" to the point of breaking and pretending it didn't matter, and a great deal of time and effort (that honestly should have been going into studying physics and mathematics) was being pissed away reflecting upon the "deep, hidden meanings" of Christian thought.

What being reflective meant, at least in my case, was working very hard to take what can be taken from the Christian stories and applying that to my own individual and cultural situation (inter alia, as I was studying other world religions at the same time to try to draw their ancient wisdom into it and make it all into one coherent set of profound truths). This is "sophisticated" belief--forcing what can be forced from religious nonsense onto one's views of one's own situation. What doesn't matter in this process is what is true and false, or what is helpful or damaging and misleading--all that matters is how the ancient wisdom can be shoehorned into a savvy, sophisticated, high-minded view of the world that, most distinctly, lacks in both intellectual rigor and courage.

Don't fall for it

High-minded nonsense is a siren's song. In the very way it presents itself, as if the "sophisticate" embracing it is smarter, more savvy, and more worldly than oneself, it trolls people into taking it seriously and engaging with it, or at least into giving it undue respect. This tendency is what caused the postmodernism crisis, and it is a pseudo-intellectual trap that needs to be avoided. Just a bit of forthright honesty is often enough to get around it since, quite often, "sophistication" of this kind can be effectively measured in terms of how unseriously the sophisticate is treating the notion that what they are talking about is actually true.

We're not under any obligation to pretend that "sophisticated" Christianity is any better than fundamentalist Christianity, or any other religion, except that to note that it has less obvious deleterious effects, which is really to say less crude ones. Where fundamentalism engages in yelling, shaming, hating, killing, and blowing up, the kinds of base physical problems that really stand out to us, sophisticatism rots away our intellectual and moral integrity by keeping the poison--for it is probably true that religion does, indeed, poison everything--in our veins.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Christian apologist and theologian William Lane Craig explains why the philosophy of religion is a waste of time

This video of well-known Christian apologist, Christian philosopher, theologian, and formal-debate specialist William Lane Craig is very illustrative to a point that I've been making repeatedly (one that is echoed by Peter Boghossian, John Loftus, and Jerry Coyne, amongst others): the philosophy of religion is a waste of time. In fact, it's probably worse than a waste of time, even when done by god-bothering atheists, but before getting to that, let's check out Dr. Craig.

So that it's clear, what I'm saying is a waste of time, or worse, is engaging in theological, apologetic, and otherwise philosophical arguments centered upon expressly religious objects and doing so on their own terms. Their terms are idiotic, so it's idiotic to engage with them on those terms. It's just playing their game, and hopefully Dr. Craig here will help us understand clearly why that's the case.

Immediately, when addressing what he thinks is how people facing doubts in their religious beliefs should handle those doubts, Craig says, so clearly as to be praiseworthy,
First of all, I think that I would tell them that they need to understand the proper relationship between faith and reason. And my view here is, the way in which I know Christianity is true is first and foremost on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit in my heart. And this gives me a self-authenticating means of knowing Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence.
Now, I have to play a little philosophical game here in order to make this point, so forgive me for indulging that nonsense. The reason is that philosophers of religion are mainly concerned with arguments, which they are likely to say isn't what Craig is talking about here in that he said "evidence." I have to point out that many philosophers of religion, and amateur enthusiasts of the field, seem to consider evidence in a peculiar way that directly involves arguments--we only can claim to know that something constitutes evidence for an idea via arguments to that fact. Indeed, some go so far as to indicate that the arguments themselves are what makes evidence into evidence.

I, of course, think this is all very wrongheaded (on what evidence means, on having evidence for an idea as opposed to having ideas that happen to be consistent, or not, with the evidence, and on the notion that arguments even remotely can constitute evidence). Philosophers of religion, though, should realize that what Craig is talking about here--"the proper relationship between faith and reason"-- is directly concerned with arguments for believing Christianity is true, including arguments for belief in God. That is, Craig is talking directly about the object of the philosophy of religion, and he says that the proper relationship is that such arguments don't matter because of a "self-authenticating means of knowing Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence," one apparently located "in [his] heart."

Craig is saying, then, and this is completely consistent with what he has written elsewhere, like in his book Reasonable Faith for which his entire website is named, that the proper relationship between faith and reason is that reason exists to support faith. Reason, in the form of the philosophy of religion, then, for him, exists as a "handmaid" (yes, he uses that word in RF) for theology. To put it plainly, the purpose of the philosophy of religion is to support faith. It does do, in my view, by giving the objects of faith undeserved intellectual legitimacy--legitimacy that is secondary, in Craig's view, to something that amounts to just "knowing" it is true.

Though it is an aside, note that Craig isn't alone here. Alvin Plantinga talks about the idea, tracking back to John Calvin, of the sensus divinitatis that effects basically the same end. Furthermore, Paul, as in the one that wrote about a quarter of the New Testament, is utterly awash in the ludicrous idea, something almost all Pauline believers have taken upon themselves, if not most everyone else besides.

But Craig has a lot more to say on this topic, continuing from the above in one line of thought,
And therefore, if in some historically contingent circumstances, the evidence that I have available to me should turn against Christianity, I don't think that that controverts the witness of the Holy Spirit. In such a situation, I should regard that simply as a result of the contingent circumstances that I'm in, and that, if I were to pursue this with due diligence and with time, I would discover that, in fact, the evidence--if I could get the correct picture--would support exactly what the witness of the Holy Spirit tells me.
Putting it pretty plainly, Craig is saying, and I think it's absolutely clear that I am not making straw of his view, that his epistemic situation may be limited if we consider the evidence (including arguments considered persuasive) at any (contingent) historical time and place, so if they lead against what he believes the Holy Spirit is indicating to him, that's an unfortunate artifact of the circumstances of that time and place and thus not a legitimate reason to revise his beliefs about Christianity. That is, the witness of the Holy Spirit is what he has called "an intrinsic defeater-defeater," a way of knowing that automatically defeats anything (evidential or argumentative) that would defeat his belief.

To put it as I would, Craig (and those like him) are pretending to know something, that there is Holy Spirit and its witness in his heart is self-authenticating and not contingent, so strongly that anything that should lead to a revision of beliefs will not lead to a revision of beliefs. Why argue with him, then, on his terms?

If you proved to him that "God" is logically impossible or not morally perfect (which you cannot anyway because "God" is set up to be unknowable on points like these), it wouldn't change his mind or slow him down in the least. Your arguments might be apparently air-tight, but finding them persuasive would be a contingent circumstance that controverts the internal witness he takes as unassailable and which is the only real reason for his beliefs.

Don't argue with him on his terms, then. His terms are idiotic. They don't deserve to be engaged with, only disparaged and scoffed at. [NB: None of the following is what I just said: Craig is idiotic, we should disparage and scoff at Craig, we shouldn't engage with Craig, and we shouldn't say anything about Craig's arguments. I said his terms are idiotic; his terms should be disparaged and scoffed at; his terms shouldn't be engaged with; and we should say things about his terms, in that we should disparage them and scoff at them.] We don't even need to engage with the notion that the Holy Spirit is real and could really be doing these things. That's idiotic too. Don't bother; just scoff (at the idea, not the person!!).

Craig isn't done, though. Continuing,
So I think that's very important, to get the relationship between faith and reason right. Otherwise, what that means is that our faith dependent upon the shifting sands of evidence and argument, which change from person to person, place to place, and generation to generation. Whereas the Holy Spirit, and His testimony, gives every generation and every person immediate access to a knowledge of God and the truth of Christianity that's independent of the shifting sands of time and place and person and historical contingency. (emphasis his, gauging by tone of voice)
Let's highlight part of that for the god-botherers out there, shall we? [If we base our faith upon reason], what that means is that our faith dependent upon the shifting sands of evidence and argument, which change from person to person, place to place, and generation to generation. If that's not abundant clarity for you that the arguments of the philosophy of religion are not convincing to true believers, I don't know what to tell you. Notice that Craig isn't just a garden-variety true believer either. He's a noted theologian and Christian philosopher who is very insistent upon his philosophical credentials (whatever the academy thinks of them). Craig should be open to good philosophy above belief, as a philosopher, but he is not.

What this tells us is that evidence and argument do not preceded belief, they follow from it, rationalizing it because it doesn't square with our real experience of reality.  And note that "rationalizing" doesn't mean what a lot of people tend to think it means, making something truly rational. It means explaining away the inconsistencies and making excuses to keep on believing, like claiming unfalsifiable magic access to indefeasible knowledge of something unknowable.

The rest of the video is worth watching (I've quoted about the first half)--Craig talks about the existence of Satan, that Satan hates you (as the enemy of your souls), and that the best thing to do when dealing with doubt is turn to God, say by singing hymns, praying, and talking to other members of the church community to reinforce your beliefs. He grounds this on saying that "doubt isn't just an intellectual problem" because "there's always a spiritual component to doubt." I only really bring that up to point out to the philosophers of religion out there that intellectual doubt is, to the faithful, easily overcome by engaging in "spiritual" activities (in this case, those being ones clearly set to reinforcing the beliefs and isolating them from intellectual threats, like a form of group rationalization).

But that's only half of my thesis

If we take Craig at his word, there's little point to the philosophy of religion. It's pretty well useless, arguing over something that's simply the wrong thing (theism). Theism isn't even wrong, and it's time we stopped pretending that it is.

And on Craig's word, I think we should take him at it. I suspect, despite protestations of lots of atheists who can't believe that he keeps trotting out arguments that most of the rest of the world considers spurious, that Craig is a deeply sincere man. I don't think he's putting us on when he says he believes he has a self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit that tells him that Christianity is true beyond all reason and evidence. Of course, we cannot confuse sincerity for being right. Believing in something, even something that he thinks is self-authenticating and real, doesn't make it real.

That's not my whole thesis, though. My thesis is that the philosophy of religion is worse than useless. The reason I think it's useless, to be clear, is because theism isn't even wrong, so it's not a topic worth discussing seriously. The reason I think it's worse than useless is because lots of people don't know that yet--and this does offer some consolation for counterapologists who see the importance of what they're doing. (Yes, I see the value in counterapologetics, to a point, though this is a highly specific subdomain of a loose conception of what constitutes the philosophy of religion.)

On the one hand, there are true believers, which is a far broader category than fundamentalists being that it is just people who do truly believe in God, who (obviously) are not aware that theism isn't even wrong. These people are beset by a problem with how they determine what's true, largely driven by cognitive biases like confirmation bias that serve the purpose of confirming cherished beliefs, effectively no matter what. Engaging in the philosophy of religion gives a sense of academic respectability to the discussion about God's existence, respectability that is a jewel to theologians and apologists and that doesn't really exist otherwise. When you have masses of people that you want to help learn to think more clearly and honestly, giving them really good reasons to believe that there's a real debate on the matter keeps the door to their beliefs wide open for them.

On the other hand, there are other people who haven't figured out yet that theism isn't even wrong. Those people are encouraged likewise, and they get sucked into joining the debate on the wrong plane. It's like getting people to join your soccer team by decking them out in hockey equipment. The more people out there that are saying, "wow, theism... yeah, there really is something to that," the more people out there who are going to be able to see that there's lots of people saying that. God-bothering unnecessarily perpetuates and encourages the wrong aspects of the cultural discussion about religion. Why might otherwise well-meaning people do that? You can check that out here.

Seriously, then, listen to Craig. He's telling you why you shouldn't bother god-bothering, so don't god-bother.

Note: Here again is what former philosopher of religion Keith Parsons had to say about the philosophy of religion and these conservative theologians, like William Lane Craig.
One of the things the really active conservative Christians covet enormously, more than anything else, is intellectual respectability. And they think they have found it in some of the arguments from these philosophers of religion. LINK

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Don't god-bother. Philosophy of religion is dead

I got asked (by Jeff Lowder) why I think god-bothering (that being my term for philosophy of religion) is dead. The answer is straightforward, so this will be a short blog post, but first, let's see what Lowder has to say about the field,
[T]he philosophy of religion is not “dead,” but it is in serious condition, if not on life support. This can be shown by counting the number of philosophy departments at secular colleges and universities which have faculty lines for philosophy of religion. (They are very rare.) Why is this? I think that one contributing factor to this state of affairs is the blatant partisanship which is very much the norm in the philosophy of religion. Many philosophers of religion, including both atheists and theists, function as natural theologians (if theists) or natural atheologians (if atheists). In other words, they act as if their job description says, “If you’re a theist, defend theism; if you’re an atheist, defend atheism.” It’s rare for philosophers of religion to engage in genuine inquiry and to spend equal amounts of time defending theism and defending atheism. But, if a philosopher of religion is going to act like a philosopher, not an apologist, they should be engaging in inquiry. LINK. (taken from John W. Loftus's response to this remark on his own blog, here)
So Lowder recognizes that god-bothering is in "serious condition," perhaps even on life support. Yes, life support is a good analogy: amateur enthusiasts like Lowder and a handful of university philosophy departments (like Notre Dame) are keeping alive a field that would die if they stopped. They should stop. It should be allowed to die while it still has some modicum of dignity remaining.

Why is god-bothering dead?

Simply, the philosophy of religion beats a dead horse. Though lots of folks believe in God via various religions and spiritual belief systems, the ghost has been given up on the academic front. To "get to God," you have to assume God. God is a presupposition, and that means God is an element of a model about reality, an abstraction. There's no reason to believe in a reified (or, in this case, deified) abstraction. There's no need to create arguments against something that we can be almost certain doesn't exist, arguments that have the severe vice of pretending to take the idea of its existence seriously so that they can wage war outside of our boundaries of epistemic reliability.

God-botherers typically engage in arcane arguments of dubious quality concerning some lifeless notion known as "theism," usually "classical theism," which has essentially nothing to do with the living, breathing God believed in by every spiritualist, particularly the religious ones, especially fundamentalists in the Abrahamic monotheisms. The philosophers' God gets you effectively 0% of the way to the personal God of any religion, but it makes it all the easier for smarmy apologists and biased theologians to slip in their individual religion's dogmas under the guise of detached academic respectability. But they're not even talking about the same thing!

Put simply, the arguments have been won. The debate is over. God-bothering, formerly known as the philosophy of religion, has died.

Why avoid god-bothering?

God-bothering gives a veneer of academic respectability to an infectious, problematic, false idea that deserves none. This is a real issue, and it can be likened to the intellectually dishonest move of rebranding creationism as intelligent design. What used to pass as theology got gussied up as religious philosophy and then sucked in atheists and turned them into "atheologians" (a term we should disparage because atheism is not a position and thus doesn't need to be studied or defended). The game on the part of theologians and apologists, all along, like all the way back into antiquity, has been to make other respectable people take their god-bothering ideas seriously, and they succeeded with the philosophy of religion. Consider what former philosopher of religion Keith Parsons had to say about it,
One of the things the really active conservative Christians covet enormously, more than anything else, is intellectual respectability. And they think they have found it in some of the arguments from these philosophers of religion. LINK
We shouldn't contribute to that.

Once you understand that theology and religious apologetics is just a game played by people to keep respectable people taking god-bothering ideas seriously, it becomes plain that we shouldn't indulge it any more than we should seriously dig into the philosophy of astrology or the philosophy of homeopathy.

When did it die?

I may have given the impression that I think the philosophy of religion died (and became god-bothering) a long time ago, invalidating a lot of what went on in recent decades. I don't. I think it died quite recently, though, of course, I'm not sure.

I am dating the death of the philosophy of religion (as a respectable academic discipline that belongs in serious philosophy departments) to the general cultural acceptance/acquiescence of Richard Dawkins's 2006 book The God Delusion. Once the juxtaposition of the words God and delusion became part of our cultural furniture--whether accepted by everyone or not--philosophy of religion died and became god-bothering. I don't know when this happened, but I would roughly date the shift in the zeitgeist to have occurred in 2010-2011, right when Parsons was hanging it up on the field.

(Note that this is not saying that The God Delusion killed the field. Cultural acquiescence to the existence of such an attitude--a zeitgeist shift--killed it. The God Delusion is only partially responsible too. There were other good books, debates, and the rest, that all needed to happen, and Christianity had to utterly ruin its brand with most young people by clinging to hate firmly enough to be identified with unjustified bigoted attitudes at a time when so many of these arguments and debates were becoming widely available to the younger segment of the public.)

Before then, I think the philosophy of religion probably served some use. Certainly there needed to be a general sense that there were strong philosophical rebuttals to much of the twaddle that theologians endlessly spawn in rationalizing defense of their idiotic beliefs. I just think that time has passed.

Why are there still atheist god-botherers, then?

I answered that the other day. You can read it here.

So, don't god-bother. The philosophy of religion is dead.

NB: This is meant as an offhanded explanation in plain language, not a "sophisticated" argument, though it may be responded to as the latter by people who appear unable to conceive of meaningful dialogue that isn't impenetrable philosospeak.

Edit: Another NB--I do not care how people spend their time with puzzles they find interesting. People, as individuals, are welcome to god-bother all the want, but they should keep in mind that, though a rear-guard of this kind may be a necessary component of helping people see why theistic arguments are fraudulent games of hide-the-turd, it is a real possibility that taking god-bothering seriously yields the result of getting people to take God seriously (after all, even smart atheists do!). When I say "god-bothering is dead," I am specifically referring to pursuing it or treating it as a serious academic discipline. Puzzles, word games, and a sometimes-useful tool in helping someone see how they've been misled is pretty much the line that god-bothering no longer has any business crossing. If you enjoy engaging in the arguments or trying to see where and why they go wrong, by all means, knock yourself out. Just don't pretend it's important, and don't forget that by taking god-bothering seriously, people will think you're taking the idea of the existence of a God seriously, which is ridiculous.