Friday, January 31, 2014

Mind the wheelhouse--theology sees philosophy as theirs

Without having to go into a long-winded discussion about my stances on various aspects of philosophy, I would like to make yet another point in the vein of why it is reasonable that the "New Atheists" have taken a "scientistic turn," to borrow a phrase from Massimo Pigliucci. Before doing so, let me clear up a few loose ends on those matters.

I don't hate philosophy

First, I honor and value philosophy where it should be honored and valued. For a philosopher nearest to my own opinion about the role and value of philosophy, please see Daniel Dennett, whom I respect greatly. I agree with nearly everything I've read from him concerning the importance and role of philosophy (which isn't the same as saying I agree with everything he says more generally). His Intuition Pumps is a great resource in this regard. I also happen to think philosophy, aside from its value, is very interesting and thus a worthy endeavor to engage in for that reason as well.


Second, I recognize that there is "scientism" of various sorts going on. I could write a post about the many faces of scientism, I suppose, but that would be off my purpose here. I do not, however, think that it is the least bit productive to bring up, discuss, squabble about, or even use the word "scientism," particularly with regard to the "New Atheism movement."

Here's the bulk of why: there are a handful of philosophers and others who are likely to be using the term both carefully and correctly (whether or not Massimo Pigliucci is one of these, despite his frequent vocalizations of it, including in peer-reviewed philosophical papers, is debatable but not on the table at the moment). There are more philosophers--and others--who are not.

By far the most egregious abusers of the term are seeking to shield one of the following from proper criticism: theology, the supernatural, or pseudoscience (see Dennett on "scientism," incidentally; this, e.g.). Those people are bolstered profoundly by making it appear that there is a more legitimate debate about "scientism" than there actually is. Pretty much everyone needs to stop helping them!

"New Atheism"

Third, "New Atheism" and "New Atheism movement." Seriously? If there is such a movement, it is about helping people do better about demanding good reasons for their beliefs, ditching faith, and embracing rational, informed skepticism. That some people seem to translate this into a quasi-religion about science (with Neil deGrasse Tyson as a figurehead) is an issue but separate from the point. Atheism will typically follow from informed skepticism and breaking the reliance on faith as a justification to defend beliefs. There is no need for an "atheism movement" except in certain political regards (American Atheists is working on visibility and Constitutional issues, e.g.), and even there it's a bit shaky to call it an "atheism movement." To go to a "New Atheism movement" is even more bizarre.

Of course, much of my end of the present discussion arises from reactions to my reaction to Pigliucci's paper talking about the "scientistic turn in the New Atheism movement" (will he also write a paper about the the counter-turn to overbearing insistence on everyone becoming savvy at philosophy, including engaging theological sophism like it is serious philosophical material, lest otherwise they be branded anti-intellectual, sloppy, or whatever the going brand at the time is, as it develops? I wonder). Pigliucci insists that the key identifying feature of the "New Atheism movement" is its "scientistic turn."

This is pretty bogus. While there may be a "scientistic turn" going on, there are two key identifying features of what's passing as "New Atheism" with a sidecar that could perhaps be linked to that infamous "scientistic turn." These are, with sidecar listed as number three,
  1. An outright rejection of having to kowtow to religious institutionalized authority, particularly the whinging religious type that demands everyone respect their beliefs and shut up about anything like justifiable criticism of them;
  2. Enhanced attention on the harms of religion historically and today;
  3. (Sidecar) Notable scientists being many of the most vocal voices, bringing their scientific expertise in fields like cosmology and evolutionary biology primarily (no surprises about the reasons why...) to the table instead of lurking quietly and sticking to their peers, and this sometimes, but not always, includes attempts to say things like that "philosophy is dead" (Stephen Hawking, incidentally, not participating in this conversation at all). (PS: Philosophy isn't dead. It can't be. It's too busy trying to kill itself with all this nonsense to be dead.)
The sidecar here has led to what could easily be understood as an overappreciation of science among some notable figures and mostly among bobble-heading, but loud, people who do not have an expert-level grasp upon either field. And welcome to the Internet in the Social Media Age. These people exist everywhere in every kind of discourse now, and so the relevant question is, what would we rather have them yammer about (since measured, self-restrained silence is not a realistic option), something like "science is right; religion is wrong" or "take theological arguments seriously" or what??

That is enough about the loose ends for now. Now to the point.

Theologians treat philosophy as part of their wheelhouse

We know that philosophy kicked theology out pretty much from the get-go (though, oh, how some philosophers feel the need to stick their toes in the dark arts anyway...). We also know that much of what the theologians try to pass off as philosophy is really sophistry (when one hears "sophisticated theology," sophistry is the proper word to use to understand what is being said). We also, also know that they, theologians and apologists, don't see it that way. Indeed, they treat philosophy as their "handmaid." How much sense does it make to indulge that situation?

The reason philosophy is part of the theological wheelhouse, in an important sense, is because all arguments for theism are of philosophical type. All of them. Pause for a moment to let the gravity of that sentence sink in.

Ask any believer enough questions about why she thinks her beliefs are rational or justified, and you're either going to get back to an honest, but unsophisticated, admission of faith or you're going to get into some kind of philosophical-type speculations (usually about metaphysics or ethics). "Show me why your beliefs are true" always returns either something of philosophical-type or something that depends upon it, unless an honest admission of faith, read: "I don't know that they're true, but I believe them anyway."

A brief aside about staying out of the wheelhouse

Take a moment to realize what a disaster of an endeavor it is to engage an apologist in exegesis of any religious text or scripture. It is these people's jobs to twist those documents to mean whatever they need it to mean. Even an expert counter-apologist with profoundly deep knowledge of scripture and doctrine cannot often win an exegetical battle with a theologian because they have had centuries to practice twisting it all to their purposes. Exegesis of religious texts is in the center of the wheelhouse for apologists.

Treading into exegetical analysis of religious texts is a mistake for a few reasons. First of all, as many of us have experienced, theologians will turn the passages on their heads to make their cases--and how can it be stopped (their bar for success is merely "a possible reading is this," which is always obtainable)? Second, they are very practiced at this very art. Third, it gives up more than needs to be conceded: namely that the texts under examination deserve this kind of attention in the first place. To get into an exegetical analysis with an apologist is to start out losing and with weapons made by Nerf.

Stay out of the wheelhouse. That's where they are strongest, or in this case, that's where they can keep arguing their case with a veneer of respectability. (It's worth noting that most people who will be listening are not going to be philosophically adept and are likely to be taken in by the argument that sounds the best in the sense of agreeing with them already.)

And back to it

Philosophy is very nearly the same.

It doesn't matter that many of the best anti-religious arguments are philosophical--maybe the best ones are. It also doesn't matter that all science depends upon philosophy to mean anything or get going with its business (pardon this, but duh! Move on!).

Philosophy (or arguments of the philosophical type) is how theologians and apologists justify everything, including their exegesis. My recent Faith Discussion with Tom Gilson, in fact, pushed him into starting a series to analyze in detail the reasons "justifying" his faith--the evidence for why he believes. Look at the list of his proposed topics (Link--follow the first two provided to see that they are not actually evidence but preliminary materials he wrote--also, parenthetical annotations in bold are mine):
    • Humanness
      • Consciousness
      • Identity
      • Rationality
      • Morality
      • Free Will
      • Existential
        • The Human Condition
        • Meaning, Purpose
        • Failure and Recovery
        • Personal Experience in Christ
    • Teleology
    • Cosmological
      • Aquinas
      • Leibniz
      • Craig
  2. Historical
    • Resurrection (Requires Christian metaphysics, philosophy)
    • Biblical (Requires Christian metaphysics, philosophy)
      • MSS
      • External
      • Internal
    • Too Good Not To Be True (Philosophy--solipsism?)
    • Christianity Down Through History
  3. Theological (Philosophical-type)
    • Uniqueness of Christ
    • Uniqueness of Christianity Among Religions
  4. Response to Objections (Philosophical)
    • Legend Theory
    • Hume
    • Naturalism
    • Anti-exclusivism/Truth Relativism
    • Christianity’s Moral Record
Despite some real eye-crossers on there, Gilson's entire list of evidences is either philosophical or directly riding upon a particular philosophical interpretation of metaphysics combined with theology. The whole list, except maybe "Christianity down through the ages," which is, I'm guessing, an appeal to the fact that Christianity has worked for lots of people and done lots of good things throughout the ages and therefore is still a philosophical-type argument. Note also that Gilson is going to somehow either beat or usurp Hume!

All religious arguments for the justification of their beliefs depend entirely upon philosophy (or sophistry so disguised) at every level. All of them. Again: "Philosophy is rightly the handmaid of theology." (William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed., 2008, p. 48).

If philosophy is the best counter-argument to any or all of these arguments, using it comes at a cost: going into their wheelhouse. (That they are wrong doesn't matter--to them, which is all that matters here.) I'm utterly convinced at this point that theologians will philosophy away good philosophy forever (Hume is on Gilson's list!), and dealing with their philosophical arguments just keeps the conversation going and pushes them to ever slipperier ones (sort of--they still trot out old favorites that are centuries old too).

Let me make this abundantly plain: all theologians and apologists can do to defend their belief in God is to make philosophical-type arguments, so engaging in those carries an element of going into their wheelhouse.

Indulge a ridiculous thought experiment (that I don't suggest at all) for a moment. What would happen if pure philosophical-style arguments were taken off the table? How much of a case could an apologist make?

When they counter "what about you? Without philosophy you can't prove evidence matters!" throw a glass of water in their face to wake them up to the fact that evidence matters to everyone willing to be honest. That tactic is bullshit and they know it as well as you know it, and so should philosophers that try to trot it out while complaining about "scientism."


Philosophy is taken by theologians and apologists to be the central tool in their wheelhouse, and so a "scientistic turn" is justified if we want to be effective at working outside of their wheelhouse. Thus, any "scientistic turn" that has cropped up within the "New Atheism movement" is not only not surprising but probably wise.

This isn't a condemnation of philosophy or a statement that it isn't important, valuable, or awesome in its own ways. This is a statement that philosophy doesn't change the conversation the way that other tactics might, and in particular, cries of "scientism" from philosophers (which are usurped and wielded by those with a desire to protect theology, supernaturalism, or pseudoscience) aren't helping matters much and might be hurting them.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Published on Richard Dawkins Foundation Website with Peter Boghossian

Just a quick post to let people (who might miss it otherwise) know that I co-authored a piece with Peter Boghossian (of A Manual for Creating Atheists) about the upcoming debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham about whether creationism is a valid way to think about the world. We don't think the debate is really about that. The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science published our piece.

I present "Creationism, Faith, and Legitimizing Bad Ideas."

(I also wonder if there has ever been a debate with fewer letters in the names of the two participants with 13 total between the two of them and just four syllables.)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A telling sentence from Massimo Pigliucci

A couple of weeks ago, Massimo Pigliucci wrote a paper in the journal Midwest Studies in Philosophy criticizing the "scientistic turn" in "New Atheism." At the beginning he points out two main characteristics of the "New Atheism movement," one extrinsic (public popularity) and another intrinsic (scientism).

(NB: Apparent scare quotes are actually uses of Pigliucci's terminology, for as I have expressed in the past, I think an "atheism movement" of any kind is probably an error, though it may be necessary at present to change the social tide. The real goal is demanding good reasons for beliefs from which atheism naturally follows.)

One might think that the extrinsic characteristic is based upon another overlooked intrinsic characteristic: an intense intentional effort to popularize "New Atheism," which is itself based upon yet another intrinsic characteristic: raising the visibility of the unacceptable harms of religion as a prime modus operandi, using only the fact that the religions aren't based on truths, rather cherished supertruths, to illustrate the utter failure implied by these harms.

These topics are not my intent to discuss, though, and neither is "scientism" itself, so I will leave them to talk briefly about what Pigliucci identifies as the intrinsic and defining characteristic of "New Atheism," its "scientistic" turn. He reveals very early in his paper that he feels that philosophy is critical to the "New Atheism movement."
The second reason is intrinsic [to New Atheism], and close to the core of my argument in this paper: the New Atheism approach to criticizing religion relies much more forcefully on science than on philosophy. (p. 144)
Maybe philosophy is that important. I won't dispute that here. There is, however, an important point that, perhaps, Pigliucci isn't considering with enough seriousness. He mentions atheistic philosophers like David Hume and Bertrand Russell, among many others, mentioning specifically that,
There [does not] appear to be anything particularly new [about New Atheism] from a philosophical standpoint, as the standard arguments advanced by the New Atheists against religion are just about the same that have been put forth by well-known atheists or agnostic philosophers from David Hume to Bertrand Russell. 
I wonder if Pigliucci has wondered much about why this might be.

The answer is easy: clearly it didn't work.

Religion, as a strident atheist and outspoken atheistic intellectual like Pigliucci must realize, is still something of a major problem. He cites 9/11 as a possible cause for the surge in popularity of New Atheism (leaving sociologists to work out the reality), and he's probably right. Why? It tragically put in dramatic relief the problems with continuing to espouse ancient-religious mindsets in an era including airplanes (as a symbolic technological advance that represents also machine guns, plastic explosives, missiles, and nuclear warheads).

Philosophy had hundreds of years of primacy between Hume and 9/11/2001 and many tens between Russell and that now-infamous date. The goal was to settle the problem, to reach the public in a way where the terrible grip of religion was broken. Hume's arguments should have been sufficient. Russell was a hammer. Religion didn't even blink.

What Pigliucci is missing is a fact that is likely to be taken as both impolite and cold to point out, but it remains. I'll add double emphasis it to make it stand out: Most people do not care enough about philosophy to revise their beliefs. In all likelihood, they never will, no matter how many papers like his are published.

The reason for this is also simple--and it's not a statement that most people don't care about philosophy as much as they should. William Lane Craig identified it in 2008 in his book Reasonable Faith (p. 48): "Philosophy is rightly the handmaid of theology. Reason is a tool to help us better understand and defend our faith; as Anselm put it, ours is a faith that seeks understanding." I'm reminded of the opening scene in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince in which Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge is conversing with the Prime Minister of Britain, who wonders why the wizards cannot contain Voldemort with their magical powers. "The trouble is, Prime Minister, the other side can do magic too," Fudge explains.

To put that in plainer language, since theologians are often less concerned with being right than with defending their cherished beliefs, and this trait is shared perhaps even more strongly by lay believers, philosophy leaves for them a doorway that is open far, far too widely, allowing a dead debate to continue. And hence they continue to believe their beliefs. They still defend the Kalam Cosmological Argument and Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology, for instance! And some atheist philosophers intentionally help them do it! (Are they drunk with the intrigue of interesting and clever arguments?)

It is a metaphysical position (philosophy) that God exists, and as a metaphysical position, it is effectively unassailable to those who accept it (as I have insisted, axiomatically). On this metaphysic (philosophy) is attached a sense of telos (philosophy) through God, and to that believers cling. Many believers accept deontological moral values (philosophy) that come from God, hiding effectively unassailable behind the shield of nuanced moral philosophy, and to these believers also cling.

Philosophy may be an excellent tool to dismantle these arguments, perhaps even the best tool to do it, but they don't care because philosophy offers up enough of a defense to  keep the conversation going hundreds of years later. (And meanwhile, the harms pile up and totter toward unimaginable potential heights.) Philosophy, in fact, may be the only tool to settle these arguments, but it faces the problem that among believers, it doesn't settle the arguments; it perpetuates them.

What's the difference with science? Physical evidence. The rock of reality. The epistemological salience of evidence cuts through theological bullshit, to quote Christian apologist and philosopher (with research interests in epistemology) Tim McGrew, "like a buzzsaw through balsa." (NB: McGrew was talking about the techniques in Peter Boghossian's book A Manual for Creating Atheists, which urge to stay focused upon the epistemological claims at the center of religious belief, which he rightly notes that they cannot defend.)

The other side may be able to do "magic" (philosophy in this case--not to imply that they are the same, it's just a literary allusion to make a point) too, but the evidence is the evidence--and it doesn't care a whit about anyone's beliefs. This difference is important, particularly when one side doesn't value getting things right as highly as continuing to believe.

Science has changed the world, and the effect in the last century is overwhelming and undeniable. We all have grown up in this situation now, and despite the growing distrust for science, we all recognize the incredible potency of science to get right answers to hard questions that matter.

Philosophy can do this too, but the door is too open; the rock is too subtle, and thus beliefs do not change. This isn't a discussion about whether or not science can answer every question, or even about scientism, but rather about explaining a clear reason why "New Atheism" relies more heavily upon science than philosophy. To quote Richard Dawkins in a way that Pigliucci certainly won't approve of--it works, bitches.

Look at the situation realistically. It's almost impossible to get devout believers even to accept evidence that repeatedly bangs itself against their faces. They deny evolution, to their peril if taken seriously. They deny climate science, to all of our peril, because it's so easy to tie that political agenda to their beliefs. They are caught in a web of confirmation bias that allows them to distort evidence in their favor whenever they can. Even the rock of the world, even when it rains disaster upon them, cannot so easily change their minds. It's part of God's plan, don't ya know, (philosophy); He knows best (philosophy); it's the wages of sin (philosophy); and who are we to question Him (philosophy)?

Though he may disagree, I would hope that Pigliucci has noticed that the "New Atheism" effort has had an unparalleled--which is not to say anything like complete--level of success at reaching people and helping them out of their beliefs. Its nearest rival is probably the God-Is-Dead movement of the 1950s which was largely based upon a "scientistic" public attitude, along with economic prosperity, which is key to rendering religious beliefs less relevant. Of course, that movement mostly led to dormancy in beliefs, leaving open the door to revival, which appears to be less likely following the overt stridency (and rebellion against institutionalized authority) that better characterizes "New Atheism" than any other characteristic. This rebelliousness is obviously resisted, but while philosophy may be able to guide and referee science, it cannot overturn observation.

The reason is straightforward if one understands the role philosophy plays in theology. It is possible to philosophy away philosophy, and it is possible to philosophy away evidence, but the latter is harder and gets more difficult as evidence mounts. Real evidence is always salient, and so disconfirming evidence is far more glaring to beliefs than contravening philosophy. It appears suggestive that the "scientismists" may have kept their hands folded and mouths shut, respecting the traditional narrow boundaries of science, for far too long.

I'm not saying that philosophy isn't a good or important tool in the effort to free our societies of the toxic grip of religion, but I am saying that while most people do not care enough about philosophy to change their beliefs, many more do care that much about science. This should offer a clear explanation for Pigliucci and others for the "scientistic" turn of the "New Atheism movement," and perhaps give him an opportunity to consider again if it is "not at all positive."

PS: This may be a philosophical argument as it is, but it's also a falsifiable, discoverable psychological/sociological fact about the world.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The other fact almost all Christians miss

The other day, I made a post about the one fact that almost all Christians miss, referring to the fact that what they claim to be truth is merely an interpretation of the Bible, with unresolvable epistemic differences between that interpretation and truth (that is, they cannot know that their interpretation, or any, is actually true). I spoke too soon, though. There's at least one other fact that almost all Christians miss.

This second fact requires a little motivation. Though I don't know if it is connected to his discussion with me or not, I was made aware that Tom Gilson posted a quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's, The Idiot,  Part II Chapter IV, translated by Eva Martin. He notes that the italics are in the original.
“As to faith,” [the Prince] said smiling, and evidently unwilling to leave Rogozhin in this state—“as to faith, I had four curious conversations in two days, a week or so ago. One morning I met a man in the train, and made acquaintance with him at once. I had often heard of him as a very learned man, but an atheist; and I was very glad of the opportunity of conversing with so eminent and clever a person. He doesn’t believe in God, and he talked a good deal about it, but all the while it appeared to me that he was speaking outside the subject. And it has always struck me, both in speaking to such men and in reading their books, that they do not seem to really to be touching on that at all, though on the surface they may appear to do so. I told him this, but I dare say I did not clearly express what I mean, for he could not understand me.”
This quote reveals a second fact that almost all Christians miss: If there is no God, they're talking outside the subject too.

Let's take in hand for a moment the not that hard-to-imagine idea that there is no God. What, exactly, are Christians talking about when they talk about God? The obvious answer is: not God, which is to say something else. (I have something to say about this something else, but that will have to wait for later.)

Since Christians presume their God, they think that they're talking about it, but since they cannot know that their God exists beyond the acceptance of a presumption, they cannot know they're talking about it either. Hence, it's easy to say atheists aren't talking about "the subject" (obviously--no one is), and it's easy to say that anyone else any particular Christian doesn't agree with isn't talking about "the subject" (because it's trivially true). The other fact that almost all Christians miss, though, is that they can't know that they're talking about "the subject" either.

Interpretation and truth, where are the discussions?

I had it pointed out to me this morning, from someone who read my post yesterday about the one fact that almost all Christians seem to miss, that there's a pretty good reason to suspect that I'm right. The behavior in typical churches (Universalist churches are necessarily excluded from this observation) seems to support my contention.

I've been to a number of churches, but I haven't been to all of them, of course (there are about a dozen within two miles of my home, by road, so there are obviously way too many to visit them all). The number I've been to is probably about 12-15 over the years, which probably doesn't constitute a representative sample, but I'm not making a hard-line case here so much as just pointing out an observation I've had that seems to indicate what I was talking about yesterday. (I also checked with several friends who indicate that their experience with non-Universalist churches has matched mine in this regard, which may raise the total number of churches visited to nearly 50, though obviously this doesn't constitute good data.)

No church I have ever been to devotes any significant amount of time to teaching rival interpretations (and certainly doesn't call those "the truth"), asking the congregation present for spirited debate or to choose the one they think is the most truthy--hence the exclusion to the Universalists.

Indeed, every not-Universalist church I've attended for long enough, perhaps a dozen sermons will do it in many cases, eventually takes time to makes the point that one doesn't get to choose about "the truth." One shouldn't be a "cafeteria Christian," I've heard it called. "The truth," they say, "is the truth," and that doesn't leave open room for choice or discussion.

Of course, as I pointed out in the post yesterday (and, according to the comments, was apparently completely  missed), jumping from interpretation to "the truth" is exactly where I think Christians are missing the fact about the interpretation. The point is that none of them can know that they are right, yet the vast majority of them speak and act as if they do know this. (I'd say that they do know it, as they esteem the situation, but I'll get the "evidence-free assertion!!1" card laid on me again for saying something like that.) To keep it relevant to things I talked about in other recent posts, I think that faith is exactly the mechanism that makes this jump for them.

I think if Christians were being honest about the observation that their understanding of the Bible is an interpretation, without jumping the gap (by use of faith) to "the truth," then we'd see churches more and more frequently teaching various interpretations--noting that they are all just interpretations of what might be the truth--and inviting their members to believe whatever they want from among those.

Interesting questions arise here:
  1. Other than Universalists, are there Christian churches or denominations that preach this way? Which ones?
  2. Is it a stable model outside of the small groups of people who want their religious experience to be Universalist to preach this way?
  3. Do the pastors of the churches that do not teach this way know that they're just teaching an interpretation, or do they think, via faith, that they are teaching the right interpretation? How do they know?
  4. If I'm right, does this reveal a primary way that faith is pretending to know what you don't know, or what?
Let me know what you think in the comments.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The one fact almost all Christians miss

So far as I can tell, there is at least one fact that nearly all believing Christians miss--a very simple fact. That fact is every reading of the Bible is an interpretation.

Whether we're looking at hyper-liberal Anglicanism, evangelical Protestantism, mega-fundamentalist literalism, Christian-Left Catholicism, C.S. Lewis's creedal "mere" Christianity, or anything between or beyond, every one of them requires a reading of the Bible that is an interpretation of the Bible.

When I say "almost all" and "nearly all believing" Christians miss this fact, what I am saying is that to take one's own take on Christianity, however nebulous or strict, as being the truth, one has to miss the fact that it is based upon an interpretation of the Bible. Indeed, that intrepretation of the Bible defines what passes as being "true Christianity" and it is the role of faith to glaze over that fact.

This, then, brings us to the central question posed of all religious believers--a question that they cannot answer: How do you know your interpretation is correct? And it generalizes: How do you know any interpretation is correct?

Every believer in every faith tradition, here focusing on Christianity, has a cherished reading of their scriptural texts, and every believer in every faith tradition has rivals that say that they are wrong. How can these debates and accusations of heresy be settled?

Note that science, depending upon evidence and perhaps a smattering of the philosophy of science, effectively settles interpretive debates eventually. The reason is that they rely upon evidence that becomes less and less subject to varied interpretation the closer one looks.

Now, I've argued before that we cannot know for certain (see Dot, Dot, Dot) that scientific models are "true" descriptions of reality. I'd say all that we can conclude is that they possess sufficient explanatory salience and predictive power to be comfortable calling them "descriptions of reality," carrying the ever-present qualifier of "provisional," where the provisions can be laid out by the philosophy of science and reinforced to some degree by statistical confidence in the predictive power presented.

What matters with regard to these interpretations is that we have a way to claim that we're justified in calling them knowledge. We try to break them on the rock of evidence. To paraphrase the great Richard Feynman, it doesn't matter how beautiful or cherished a hypothesis is or how great the scientist championing it; if it disagrees with evidence, then it is wrong.

Evidence the the final arbiter in science, no matter what. If an idea disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. This is a reality check, and it works wonderfully.

Faith lacks this reality check while pretending it has it, and this is the one fact that almost all Christians miss.

Edit (3 June 2014): William Lane Craig responded to this blog post. Read his response here.
I've written a few thoughts about Craig's response that can be read here.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Philosophers must oppose the bogeyman called scientism

“[A]ccording to Dawkins, belief in God is childishly unreasonable. But Dawkins doesn’t enlighten us as to what aspects of the fairy philosophy of life rival the mature philosophy of Christianity,” wrote emeritus professor of biochemistry William Reville in an opinion piece titled “Philosophers must oppose arrogance of scientism” in the 16 January 2014 edition of The Irish Times. Of course he doesn't, though, because that would be absurd.

The point is that if he wanted to he could, because exactly as much is known about fairies as is about God and given enough time and literary raw material, a mature philosophy could be made out of just about any fiction. For that reason, scientism, especially used in the defense of theology, is a bogeyman, a scream in the dark at nothing more than standards of informed debate being elevated from possible speculations to verifiable facts.

Like all bogeymen, scientism cloaks itself in shadows. Where Reville writes, “Scientism comes in stronger and weaker forms. The robust form claims that science is the only valid way of seeking knowledge. The weaker doesn’t go that far, but it inappropriately applies science to a wide range of questions,” he packs an awful lot into the smoggy twilight of reasonable-sounding obscurantism.

There is, of course, a realm into which science cannot actually go. As a mathematician, it is one that is clear to me, and it is understandable that Reville would be calling to philosophers to raise the alarm about it--for it concerns some of them for a similar reason. That unscientific realm (in which we can still claim something like knowledge) is the realm of the abstract.

The catch is, mathematics and much good philosophy do not claim to be making statements about reality but rather about abstractions within axiomatic systems that are hopefully useful for providing depictions of reality. Certainly, some axioms are drawn very closely from reality, rendering the distinction difficult, but the fact stands. Those talking about the abstract are talking about the map, however good a model it makes of the terrain. Bad philosophy blurs the distinction and treats it as a bogeyman to scare away any who seek to clarify.

Reville, though, isn't even really talking about scientism, neither of the strong nor the weak types. He is using it as a shield, thus showing it to be a bogeyman. There is no indication from him that he is interested in potentially fruitful debates about how deeply science can hope to inform fields like history, limited in statistical precision by the fog of that which has been forgotten; literature, being intimately subjective; or the abstract, tethered only to reality to the degree that the underlying axioms are self-evident descriptions thereof. Reville, instead, is worried about the supernatural.

He shows his cards by harping that scientists are too quick to be “fundamentalist materialists” who argue that “the supernatural doesn’t exist and religion is nonsense.” (That religion is nonsense even granting the supernatural seems to have escaped him.) To this accusation he replies with unabashed irony, writing, “materialism [the philosophical belief that nothing exists except the material] is a philosophy that has not – and probably cannot – be proved.”

Upon this irony he heaps another, arguing, “since materialism is unproven, materialists must accept that, no matter how improbable it seems to them, there is a possibility they might be wrong and a supernatural dimension might exist.” No one, though, is under any requirement to entertain any possibility as if it is likely without evidence, something the supernatural lacks in total.

If he takes the open-minded position that accepts that at least the natural world exists, surely Reville has noticed that this street, which we have been driving along for centuries, is one-way. As neuroscientist Sam Harris aptly has pointed out, no religious explanation has ever replaced a scientific one. Wherever that leaves supernatural “explanations,” it certainly is not in the category of knowledge, unless we wish to drop the mystique and identify them as abstractions in their own right.

Astonishingly, Reville is unclear on this point and says so. “Materialists are therefore obliged to respect the position of religious people who believe in the supernatural but accept all that science has and will discover.” Twaddle! Materialists are obliged to do nothing more than remain very skeptically open to the immeasurably remote possibility of the supernatural, and in the circumstances this lands far short of commanding anything like respect. It is simply not respectable to parade unfounded speculations about as if they are knowledge.

It could be deemed madness if it weren't blindness. Reville opened his piece with “The modern world runs on science-based technology, and nobody seriously disputes the importance of science.” Except that they do. Lots of "nobodies" do, in various fashions, some holding high offices in nations like the United States. Worse, the bulk of them do it, like Reville, to patrol the collapsing fence that protects the dwindling respect for religious fancy as a claim to knowledge. They aren't often so brash as to blurt it out openly, but they, like Reville, promote ideas like the bogeyman of scientism that are corrosive to public trust in science at a time when it could hardly be more important.

Why, Reville asks, aren't philosophers causing “a storm of public protest” to oppose this bogeyman? I'd say that maybe they know better, or at least I would have if he didn't have at least one notable bedfellow in wanting to hide something dear from the harsh light of scientific inquiry. Philosopher, mathematician, and scientist Massimo Pigliucci just published his own anti-scientism piece aimed at New Atheism this week. In "New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the New Atheism Movement" published in the journal Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Pigliucci calls upon the bogeyman to condemn, with surprising scorn, New Atheism explicitly for being overtly identifiable with scientism.

Pigliucci, a noted and strident atheist, is most certainly not crying out about scientism under the banner of a theological bogeyman, but bogeyman it is still. His case seeks to protect certain halls of philosophy, if we're plain about it, from the ever-encroaching grasp of scientific understanding. In particular, Pigliucci appears mostly to want to maintain the primacy of moral philosophy with regard to the determination of human values. (If we think about it, this isn't so different from the religious motivation to protect the imagined explanation for their deontological moral values, among a few other things.) Instead of taking an attitude of letting science show for itself where it is useful, Pigliucci stands like a doorward to tell us it where it may not pass, maligning his natural allies in one of the most important debates of our time in order to do it.

As I noted above, there is no doubt that there are limits to the degrees of confidence with which we are able to claim knowledge of certain kinds--historical, artistic and literary, and philosophical--and there are realms in which science can merely hope to inform us how reflective of reality our underlying axioms are--philosophical and mathematical. There is plenty of important work left to do for philosophy in these cases, and Pigliucci tries to construe his paper as a defense of philosophy's ability to do it. He points directly at the bogeyman in the end, though, when he concludes that,
What the atheist movement needs, therefore, is not a brute force turn toward science at the expense of everything else, but rather a more nuanced, comprehensive embracing of all the varied ways--intellectual as well as experiential--in which human beings acquire knowledge and develop understanding of their world.
Like with Reville, Pigliucci is engaging in the banal endeavor of protecting something subjective from a purely objective treatment and then using the resulting agreement with the obvious to place a barrier around a cherished domain of thought. This is the creation of a bogeyman: scientism, the destroyer of nuance and undue respect given to bad ideas for bad reasons.

What is truly curious, though, is the matter of why Pigliucci is desperate enough to make his point that he turns to a theological point, seemingly for no better reason than to impugn specific New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Victor Stenger, who have dared to treat the existence of God like a hypothesis. This stretch is interesting enough to merit a lengthy aside.
The real issue is that Dawkins (and most if not all of the New Atheists) does not seem to appreciate the fact that there is no coherent or sensible way in which the idea of god can possibly be considered a “hypothesis” in any sense remotely resembling the scientific sense of the term. The problem is that the supernatural, by its own (human) nature, is simply too swishy to be pinpointed precisely enough.
I would strongly disagree. Indeed, I think the bulk of this claim, if we are taking "supernatural" to mean that which is beyond scientific testing, to be a standard problem of confusing the abstract with a non-material real, whatever that means.

If we see abstract articles, including God, as they are, then indeed, as noted previously, science cannot really touch them. At those times, "hypothesis" is the wrong word and wrong idea. If we allow for the theological axiom, "(something people call) God exists," to pass merely as an axiom, all science can hope to do is examine the natural world for any signs of a basis for it and restrict their commentary thusly. (This isn't so strange: we already do it with the abstraction implied by the Axiom of Infinity when we wonder if any physical structures can or do exist that are infinite in scope.)

Treating God as an abstraction that proceeds from an axiom has certain consequences, of course, and one of those is to undermine at a single stroke the whole notion of God's existence in a real sense. Pigliucci seems too caught up in this line of thought to notice that God's apologists only use this axiom card as a defensive ruse and do not actually accept it. They just say they do at need.

To take theology more seriously than it deserves is to allow that God is not to be considered an abstraction but instead some actual part of reality. In this case "hypothesis" is the right word to use. Further, this "God hypothesis" can be investigated at every single intersection point where the alleged immaterial, supernatural God is said to meet the real world in which it interacts.

Since he rejects the notion that the God hypothesis is a coherent idea, surely Pigliucci thinks of God at best in the abstract. Still no devout believer does, and so when New Atheist "scientismists" are willing to treat God as a hypothesis, it is a tremendous concession by scientists to the faithful, not an attempt to usurp their "field of study." To this point Pigliucci seems surprisingly blind unless he too, as I suggest, is using it to point at a bogeyman.

And we have to wonder at this misuse of the abstract since Pigliucci remarks that we can have knowledge of facts about triangles to go on to argue that Sam Harris "needs to be much more careful" on how he handles the term "facts," as it makes for "too heterogeneous a category." Pigliucci seems unlikely to be truly confused about the distinction between what we call knowledge concerning abstract objects and knowledge of real ones, though, and so this objection seems disingenuous. It's easier to draw the conclusion that he points at a bogeyman here, at least, than that is he is making a substantive point.

For whatever validity there may be to science attempting to overassert its value as a discipline, there is a serious objection to the characterization of the phenomena called scientism. In both forms, strong and weak, these cries are raised over science—or really scientists—having the temerity (or is it curiosity?) to use science to inform us in fields that have long and proudly set themselves apart as above the reach of scientific inquiry. Many of these hallows rattle like dead leaves upon their branches, particularly those most invested in metaphysics, or meta-anything for that matter, and their clattering voice sings an anemic battle hymn for the cause of keeping blurred the line between what depends upon belief and what can be considered to be known. Leading the march is the bogeyman, scientism, meant to scare us away from the clarity of demanding good reasons before having the cheek to say that we know something about the world, and with the rest of us, philosophers must oppose it.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Finding gold while being raked over the coals of hell by Christians

Yesterday I wrote a post indicating something I was musing upon about hell. I will summarize the entirety of the post in a sentence.
If Christianity were verified to be true, I think we would be likely to see a concerted effort on the part of all responsible stewards of that truth not to teach their children about hell until after some age of accountability because they would be likely to see it as unduly abusive to a child's mental well-being to do otherwise.
At the end of that post, I went on to write the following paragraph, which some Christian interlocutors to and with whom I was not talking have decided to rake me over the coals (of hell) for on the account of being uncareful with how I said it (and, to be frank, because I have apparently touched a nerve of theirs about evidence-based claims-making).
And note that this isn't typically what we see. (1) Among those Christians who believe that Hell is a reality, there is a perceived ethical imperative in the other direction--to teach children about Hell before they can handle the idea. (2) That suggests that the Christian ethic places a higher value on securing the belief than on the mental well-being of the child--something that would be unlikely to be the case if Christianity were true. (3) This suggests something sinister and abusive about the practice of teaching Hell to children, even if abuse is not the intended effect of the ones doing the teaching. (numbers added, emphasis original)
A commenter requested that I back up the numbered statements with evidence before I am qualified to make them, but he did so in a way that was sufficiently unclear that I thought he was talking about wanting evidence that it is common that children are first taught about hell at a very young age (easily argued to be too young). As I assumed--to my error--that the commenter was attempting to troll me instead of asking a valid question, I treated him in that way and paid a price (one shouldn't feed the trolls even when they're not trolling).

Somewhat in my defense

Observe a couple of points before I proceed. First, notice that regarding (2), adding in the word "could" at the beginning, "That could suggest...," would cause the contention against that statement to evaporate. From that change, adding a qualifier of less than certainty to it, (3) follows from (2). My point with the post was to speculate in a particular direction, not to make a definitive statement about the state of the world. I should be more careful with my wording, then. Noted.

On (1), I have a very hard time explaining the fact that children frequently are taught about hell very early on (in the Pentecostal tradition, in which I was quasi-involved for a time, the proper time to teach children about hell is, effectively, as early as possible). I, and my commenter, and most people I found talking about it on the Internet when I searched, along with every friend I asked, all learned about hell before memory. The oldest ages I was finding in my search were around eight years old for first learning about hell (readers are encouraged to search for themselves for information on when it is appropriate to teach children about hell).

My (Christian) commenter indicated that he believes that no child should be taught anything (I'll add a qualifier of "except at great need" to be charitable to him) before an age that they are able to handle it. If his view is typical among Christians, then we have three possibilities to consider. Either (a) there is an assumption that children are ready to learn about hell at a time that may be too early (research is therefore indicated), (b) too-young children are learning about hell incidentally (at church, maybe?) with parents playing cleanup on this problem, or (c) there is a perception of great need to teach children about hell at an age that may be too early, one that seems most likely to be justified via the religious ethic.

In case (a) there is a problem--this assumption needs to be clarified and, if warranted, corrected. It remains to be determined, and very likely needs to be determined, at what age (read: maturity level) first introducing an idea like hell is appropriate. In case (b) there is a problem that is very difficult to nail down but that also may imply that teaching slightly older children about hell, with them unable to understand why they shouldn't teach younger siblings, friends, and other children about it, may be inappropriate as well. In (c) there is the problem that I indicated, which essentially points out that the religious ethic values belief more highly than well-being, which I'm not sure can even be considered controversial since the religious ethic considers belief to be a necessary part of well-being.

Ultimately, though, most of this is away from my point--hence a fair amount of my aggravation. My point was to raise the question of why it isn't a universal (or even more common) ethical standard to withhold religious teachings like the doctrine of hell until after an appropriate maturity level is reached. Indeed, my post would have done fine without that paragraph at all, and were I less committed to honesty, I'd have deleted it or changed the wording, made a short note of that, and deleted all of the ugly comments, which I have left there partly to my own indictment.

I should also note that I found that as time wears on, with it both that fewer and fewer Americans believe hell is real (~60-65% of Christians, I believe, is the statistic) and that a more informed ethic is reaching a wider audience, we are hearing a louder call to this question from more sides, including many Christians, apparently. That, at least, is good news, though often it seems the answer given is in the 5-8 years range, which I suspect is far too young.

An important aside

To make a poignant aside, though, since it came up. To quote my commenter,
I am willing to state that no child should be exposed to anything at all for which they have not reached an appropriate level of mental and emotional maturity. That's easy.
In that case, one must wonder if he is admitting that no child should be taught about Christianity, or at least that it is the truth. Somehow I suspect not, hence my extension of "except at great need" clause to be charitable to his view. Although observe that this case implies that there is an ethical imperative in the religious ethic to secure belief before an appropriate age for evaluating something so substantial as a religion has been reached.

(NB: Catholics have two coming-of-age rites. The first is First Communion, and it is at roughly 8 years old. That time is considered to be the earliest time at which a child is likely to be able to recognize the significance of the Eucharist. This is telling concerning age-appropriateness of religious articles. The second is Confirmation, at 12-13 years old. It is when a child is first considered mature enough to make the decision for herself about whether or not she will accept the religion, so using that as a guide, we could say that the Catholics, at least, feel that 12-13 is an appropriate minimum age at which a person is mentally and emotionally mature enough to evaluate a faith and 8 years old is a minimum age at which a person is able to make sense of religious articles at all. By the comment, no person should be taught to accept a religion as true before age 12-13 and should not even be introduced to religious articles taught as truth before age 8. That is easy.)

Doing my homework

I take these things very seriously, not least the requirement that our claims to knowledge are based to the best degree possible on evidence. I also readily admit to being willing to change my mind when shown to be wrong. Thus, I spent a long time last night reading comments about my alleged dishonesty betwixt taking the time to hunt down and investigate what research has been done in this direction. Unsurprisingly, very little has been. Of course, my post from yesterday was actually intended to be part of the growing call for that research to be done--something I should have stated more plainly--but it has been dragged off that point by a combination of factors that do not least include my own misjudgment.

Finding gold in the coals

What I want to share in this post, then, is the fruit of that investigation, which is the work of Dr. Marlene Winell, author of Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Formal Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion. Dr. Winell has spoken about what she is calling Religious Trauma Syndrome at psychological professional conferences as well as at atheist/freethought conventions. Should Religious Trauma Syndrome clear the hurdle of official recognition based on her growing body of cases, a door may very well be opened into conducting the kind of research that so sorely needs to be done.

About Religious Trauma Syndome, Winell has written about the cycle of abuse that effectively drives it,
The doctrines of original sin and eternal damnation cause the most psychological distress by creating the ultimate double bind. You are guilty and responsible, and face eternal punishment. Yet you have no ability to do anything about it.

You must conform to a mental test of “believing” in an external, unseen source for salvation, and maintain this state of belief until death. You cannot ever stop sinning altogether, so you must continue to confess and be forgiven, hoping that you have met the criteria despite complete lack of feedback about whether you will actually make it to heaven.

Salvation is not a free gift after all.

For the sincere believer, this results in an unending cycle of shame and relief. It is a cycle of abuse.
The cocoon

She also describes the phenomenon as being like a cocoon (See Leaving the Fold, Ch. 2). Within the cocoon, which is to say with one's religious beliefs intact and unchallenged, the trauma is far less apparent or fails to manifest clearly, but one also cannot move out of that cocoon without experiencing it. This, incidentally, would create an additional psychological pressure to maintaining one's beliefs if her observations are borne out.

This seems to accord with an observation that I have had--but have no empirical evidence for--that among formerly believing atheists, a sense of psychological damage from their religion, especially from patterns taught in early childhood (fear, guilt, and shame being the most common, though there are others), is extremely common, and yet from still believing religious people, it seems nonobvious.

Until now, I had assumed that the most likely explanation for this phenomenon was the rationalization of the harm on the part of the religious, and that may be a part of it. I now suspect more strongly, though, that they may actually be blind to it since the beliefs themselves insulate them from experiencing much of it overtly. Note that this is not really something that could be considered a protective effect of religious belief.

Phobia indoctrination

A most useful term that Winell employs to describe at least some of the mechanism leading to Religious Trauma Syndrome is "phobia indoctrination." This seems to be a very apt term for religiously inculcated ideas that are likely to induce fear that prevents rebellion, doubt, or apostasy. The problem, of course, is that we do not consider phobias to be a healthy state of mind, and we do not consider indoctrination to be a healthy way to convey information. And yet, Winell points out that teaching these kinds of articles to children unable to process them and too likely to trust them seems to meet the criteria for both of these terms.

Aside: It strikes me as relatively obvious that if the religious articles are not true, and we can be quite confident that they are not, then fears of these religious articles are irrational by their very nature. Of course, there is a huge body of philosophical literature debating whether or not holding false beliefs, if religious, constitutes being irrational, and I'm not interested in getting into that debate, one I personally feel concedes more than we can justify to the religious position (which lacks epistemic soundness).

When I first found this term, I became very hopeful that a body of literature surrounding it would be easily found, perhaps regarding cults who also use the technique (though more often on vulnerable young adults and adults than on children). Some effort has been made in that direction using the term, but I suspect the term itself is new (and perhaps due to Winell herself) and has not found its way into the literature yet. (Much of what can be easily found on that term talks about cults and Mormonism, with a few asides into Scientology.) Since the study of cults has a rather thorough body of literature behind it, I would not be surprised to find a similar phenomenon under a different name in that literature, but I have not had time to look into that yet.

Though not all religion is likely to be passed on in this way, I feel like it is plausible that a great deal of it is. I was raised Catholic by not terribly seriously religious parents. It would therefore be far from the mark to consider my indoctrination into religion severe. (I tried to inflict a more severe indoctrination upon myself a few times while of college age for what I recognize now to be primarily social reasons, but it didn't take very deeply.) And yet even with this very moderately religious upbringing, I suffered a regular struggle with the fear of hell, among other modest issues, for thirteen years after walking away from Christianity, and I'm not sure I'll ever be totally rid of it. To call this a "phobia indoctrination," which must have been very passive if it was one in my case, hits the mark very closely for my experience as I now understand it.

Too narrow

On that last point, my biggest objection to Dr. Winell's work, though I think I understand it, is the focus on fundamentalism instead of religion more broadly. Fundamentalism, I do not deny, is the most severe and damaging form, and Religious Trauma Syndrome is likely to be most prevalent and most severe in those cases (Winell notes patients and contacts who are unable to function in day-to-day life because their Religious Trauma Syndrome is so severe, and attempted and successful suicides are not unheard of).

I do think, however, that in typically lesser degrees, it is far more prevalent, extending in fair likelihood to many, if not most, if not all, believers. Perhaps it is only visible when something shakes them, even slightly, from their belief cocoon (judging by my experiences with hundreds or thousands of formerly religious atheists but not empirical data). In that regard, I hope via fundamentalism that Winell can get a toehold for Religious Trauma Syndrome that then leads to a much broader investigation. This needs more attention than it gets.

A call to compassion

If Winell is correct about her assessment of the "safe cocoon" provided by beliefs, then there is a major call to compassion here for those of us who are strident against faith. The religious, particularly the deeply religious, are trapped in their beliefs--which, being untrue, are likely to create cognitive dissonance in addition to other issues (see Winell)--by potentially serious psychological consequences connected to moving away from those beliefs, sometimes even slightly. In working with believers, then, especially in the effort of disabusing them of their belief systems, we must be compassionate to this psychological state of affairs.

We are in a position where the world may depend upon breaking the spell of religious belief, and it seems likely that doing so will entail a major need for compassionate psychological care for many as it happens. On a case-by-case basis, we must also recognize the psychological trauma that has to be dealt with as people leave their faiths. Supporting these endeavors to shine the light of psychological research on problems of this sort, then, is likely to be of high value, so I encourage readers to research them for themselves and make decisions that seem fitting.


It is worth noting here that, though empirical studies have not been done on this matter for whatever reasons, the body of observations of Winell in her professional work (which is connected to but not exclusive to the psychology of religious harm) leads her to conclude with confidence that teaching children these kinds of religious articles constitutes a form of child abuse. That isn't to say that she's guaranteed to be right without some kind of empirical study to strongly back her up, but it is more than enough to be strongly suggestive.

These matters deserve research so that they do not have to depend on speculation and a growing body of strongly suggestive cases. Connected to that directly, the people who suffer in these ways deserve the dignity of having the matter treated with seriousness--not dismissiveness and obfuscation--until and after the research bears on the matter.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Hell, child abuse, and if Christianity were true

For a moment, I want to pretend that (some) Christianity is true, one that goes the whole cloth and asserts in eternal paradise in Heaven for the saved and eternal torture in Hell for the lost.

The reason I want to entertain this nonsense is because I think if (some) Christianity were true, we would see a very different treatment of Hell in how it gets discussed than we do now. Indeed, that Christians are ready and eager to teach their children about Hell, other than as an abysmally poor and desperate attempt to control their behavior, seems to be an indication that Christianity is not true and that Hell is not real.

If (some) Christianity and Hell were true, to the degree that Christians were responsible stewards of that truth, I expect that we would see a concerted cultural effort toward keeping Hell quiet and not a part of childhood, breaking the bad news first to teenagers at the earliest. I also expect that among those Christians who would seek to be ethically responsible, we would hear calls of agreement with Richard Dawkins's assessment that teaching children about Hell, and thus terrifying them with it, is a form of child abuse.

I can even imagine parents talking about the matter, perhaps after a tense Sunday morning in which a rebellious child acted out in church or created the usual pre-church fuss to an unusual degree. 
"Let kids be kids," an exasperated mother might say. 
"They can learn the hard truth when they get old enough to understand it, when it won't terrify them," a resigned father might concur.

In this situation, because the unnecessary terror of a child is very difficult to justify--and because I am assuming that the God of any true Christianity is not so tyrannically sadistic as to eternally torment a child for being on the wrong side of what he could not yet understand--there would be a strong ethical imperative to wait until some sort of coming of age of to mention Hell for the first time. 

Psychologists would offer sound research about which ages, in which situations, seem best. Some parents would dread the moment and seek to delay it. Others would celebrate it as an opportunity to glorify salvation. Only the most desperate, or the cruel, would subject a child to such an idea, though, before an age at which it could be handled relatively soberly and maturely. And those would be rightly noted as being on the wrong side of parental responsibility and the ethics of raising a child.

Note that this isn't so much of a stretch of the imagination. Though it is hardly formalized, and though it is a mistake routinely made, we generally have a sense that properly scary horror movies are not appropriate for very young audiences. This isn't just an arbitrary moralizing judgment either. Too many, maybe almost all, parents have suffered the agonizing pain of the nighttime terror of a child who, a year or two too early, watched a properly horrifying film. In fact, as with eventually comes up in some cases over Hell, many have also suffered the unnecessary expense, stress, and unfortunate stigma associated with requiring mental health interventions as a result. (I'm forced to recall a particularly awful month at a friend's home during which her seven-year-old daughter screamed in tormented terror beyond consolation throughout the night--with psychologist's orders to let her scream it out--merely for having watched the 1980s movie E.T., hardly a horror film.)

If (some) Christianity were true, and if we could count on Christians to be responsible stewards of the truth, then I conclude that Hell would be a topic for discussion on the adult side of some age of reason, and that these truth-bearing Christians would agree with Richard Dawkins's assessment that to do otherwise constitutes a form of child abuse.

And note that this isn't typically what we see. Among those Christians who believe that Hell is a reality, there is a perceived ethical imperative in the other direction--to teach children about Hell before they can handle the idea. That suggests that the Christian ethic places a higher value on securing the belief than on the mental well-being of the child--something that would be unlikely to be the case if Christianity were true. This suggests something sinister and abusive about the practice of teaching Hell to children, even if abuse is not the intended effect of the ones doing the teaching.

Nota bene: The comments below are a trainwreck. Readers are invited to read them, of course, and in the interest of honesty and transparency--which I value--I have chosen not to delete them. I misunderstood what commenter Tom Gilson was asking of me and made the mistake of failing to ask him for clarification. This led to me getting very annoyed with what I took to be him attempting to troll me. It's not exactly pretty. 

At any rate, I do not think his objection substantially impacts what I am getting at with this essay: a note that if Christians are to be ethical stewards of what they consider to be the truth, they should not be teaching children about hell before the age of accountability/reason. Indeed, on this point, Gilson agrees with me, though I don't think he agrees with (a) what is likely to be the valid age in this regard and (b) that it will be shown to constitute child abuse to scare children with Hell at a young age.

Nor do I think his objections impact in any serious way the gravity of this issue or the call for research that directly addresses this question. Indeed, this research is sorely needed, at least to offer dignity to those who claim to have been psychologically harmed by being raised religiously, especially in a tradition that teaches about Hell and teaches it early.

Congratulations, Tom Gilson. You have successfully trolled me, whether you originally intended to or not. Take a bow.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Is faith trust?

I want to talk for a moment about something that came out of my (now very long) Faith Discussion, and in particular I want to take a tack with regard to something Phil Vischer has definitely said and I'm pretty sure Tom Gilson has also said (though at this point, I'm not willing to dig back through everything to find out if he's said exactly this kind of thing or not).

Vischer (and I think Gilson) have sought to characterize the word "faith" in terms of trust. I have obviously tried to illustrate that I do not think that trust is justified. Here's what I'm getting at with that.

When is faith trust?

Suppose my wife promises to buy milk while she's out later today. She's pretty reliable and generally keeps her word, and I've found that I can rely upon her through repeated satisfaction of other small and large promises she's made to me. I think this is analogous to the trust that Vischer (and Gilson) want to put in God (and by extension, Christian scripture and literature). 

Never mind at all for the purpose of this discussion that I know my wife exists, I have evidence that she's been reliable in the past, etc. Vischer (and Gilson) feel exactly this way about their God, so these appeals apparently have almost no chance of hitting home with them.

To continue, then, I can trust my wife's promise. I can hope she will buy the milk she said, and I know there's some chance she'll forget. Indeed, I know there's a chance that she'll remember and renege anyway--perhaps finding it a task that isn't worth the hassle. I factor those possibilities into my trust in her promise to get milk from the store later. 

The difference

When I was a Christian--when I believed in God--I believed the usual things about God. One of those is that God is perfect. In being perfect, I believed that God never forgets and never turns his back on his promises. This, indeed, seems to be how Vischer (and Gilson) have characterized God--as a completely reliable fulfiller of all his promises--and so I do not think I am taking unfair advantage of anything for me to proceed with this assumption. 

This raises a question for them, then. I find my wife to be highly reliable. If she tells me that she will buy milk at the store later, I know there is a very high chance that it will happen, which is the same as saying I know there is a very low chance that it will not happen, no more than a few percent. The question I would like to hear Vischer (and Gilson) address is: What chance--for any reason whatsoever--do you think there is that God will slip or renege on his promises?

The thing about this

If they assign a value of "no chance" to this possibility, then I conclude that they are doing at least four things:
  1. Using that trust--which they identify as faith--as a claim to knowledge;
  2. Using that trust as a knowledge claim to pretend to know something that they do not know;
  3. Using that trust to conclude with at least the same certainty that God must exist and must have certain attributes; and 
  4. Therefore, since they use that certainty that God exists to justify the trust, engaging in circular reasoning if they use that trust to justify God's existence as well.
I will note, for the sake of completeness, that if there is so much of a shadow of a doubt in their minds that God might not exist--that is if they do not claim almost sure knowledge that God does exist--then it is not possible to conclude a higher probability that God will fulfill his promises because not existing is a valid reason (in this context) for failing to keep them.
Gentlemen, friends--you have the floor. What chance--for any reason whatsoever--do you think there is that God will slip or renege on his promises?

Sunday, January 19, 2014

When is God a hypothesis?

Many people on both sides of belief in God reject the idea that "the God hypothesis," famous to Richard Dawkins and Victor Stenger, is coherent. Many atheists, at least, view the question of God's existence as a valid hypothesis, though. I would like to offer some clarity on this point.


For the purposes of this discussion, I will be using the term "presupposition" and "axiom" effectively interchangeably and prefer the latter term because it strikes harder to my point that I think God is an abstraction, not an entity. An axiom is a formal starting point of a reasoning process, and though they are not strictly statements that are self-evidently true, they are statements often used as if that is the case, at least for the purposes of that particular reasoning process.

I wish to define a "God Axiom," then, as a presupposition that "there exists a Deity defined or described in some specified way." A particular God Axiom will, of course, specify in what way God is intended to be understood.

There are people who accept some God Axiom or another, collectively known as "theists," though I do not like that word and tend not to use it, and there are people who do not accept any God Axiom, collectively known as "atheists," another word I do not like, but for a different reason. There are also people who deem that it is too difficult or impossible to effectively judge all of the possible God Axioms to take a side, and they are agnostics, in the usual parlance.

The primary reason that I see this presuppositional attitude as axiomatic is a statement I read from John W. Loftus in Why I Became an Atheist. This statement can be found online here and reads,
As a former student of James D. Strauss at Lincoln Christian Seminary in Lincoln, Illinois, I credit much of my approach to Christianity to three things that Strauss drilled into us as students, but in reverse. When doing apologetics, he said, "if you don't start with God, you'll never get to God." Strauss is not a Van Tillian presuppositionalist because he doesn't start with the Bible as God's revelation, but he does start "from above" by presupposing that God exists and then argues that God's existence makes better sense of the Bible and the world than the alternatives. Again, "if you don't start with God, you'll never get to God." Since this is such an important, central issue, I'll focus on why we should not start "from above" with a belief in God, but rather "from below" beginning with the world in which we find ourselves. If successful, my argument should lead us to reject the existence of the sort of God thought to confirm the biblical revelation. (emphasis mine)
This is consistent with the acceptance of an axiom--a starting place to a formal process of reasoning.

I will refer to a "God Hypothesis" as a hypothesis that "there exists a Deity defined or described in some specified way." It looks like this is saying the same thing, but the difference is that a hypothesis is a falsifiable article and an axiom isn't. In other words, we can test a hypothesis, where we merely must accept or reject an axiom.


Among those who accept the God Axiom, it is not possible to consider the existence of God as a hypothesis because the existence is taken as a given by the God Axiom. They have started with God. The question lying behind a God Hypothesis is rendered "Does this thing that exists exist?" becoming a tautology. This should serve to explain why theists typically reject the phrase "God hypothesis" and scornful of those who use it.

There is an interesting caveat here, though: there is not a unique God Axiom. Indeed, each believer is likely to possess her own distinct one. This caveat is superficially dodged for philosophical purposes by monotheists who claim to accept a Monotheistic God Axiom: "There exists a unique Deity that we define or describe in this specific way." It sounds good on paper, but we all see how that works out in practice. The most charitable thing that can be said for this is that if they are right, none of them can know it. (And they show it readily.)

This caveat is interesting because it shows that those people who accept some God Axiom typically reject at least some (often all) other God Axioms. That means that theists have to be treated, as some have noted, simultaneously as theists and as quasi-atheists--people who reject most, but not all, possible God Axioms. They accept their God axiom and reject the others. In the following discussion of the atheistic possibilities, this should be borne in mind and applied as fits the case.


There are two cases within those who reject God Axioms (usually on the grounds that they are not sufficiently evident or parsimonious to be philosophically justified axioms about the fundamental nature of reality). We could divide these in terms of people that hold various ideas, but I think it's more helpful to do so by the kind of God Axiom considered prototypical.

If the prototypical God Axiom being rejected is taken to be something unfalsifiable, like the Deist God Axiom or any that asserts God is purely beyond the physical world and totally supernatural, then it still makes no sense to talk about a God Hypothesis. Hypotheses, really, need to be falsifiable to make sense as hypotheses.

If the prototypical God Axiom being rejected is taken to be a Theistic God Axiom, one that posits that God somehow has or does interact with the world, then the relevant God Hypothesis is a completely valid way to consider the matter. That is to say, if someone sees God as being described in a way that involves interactions with the world but does not accept an axiom of that God's existence, then that person is right to view the matter of that God's existence as a hypothesis.

Of course, the problem here is that no God Hypothesis has ever withstood scrutiny by those who do not accept the relevant God Axiom(s). Thus, when Richard Dawkins (or I) talk about "the probability that God exists" or "the plausibility of the God hypothesis"--which I assert is almost surely zero--we are talking about the degree of confidence that we can put in claiming that these statements, viewed as hypotheses, can be taken to be true.

Despite theistic protests, this isn't a crafty way of redefining things in a way that is not fair to them. Offering to treat God's existence as a hypothesis, instead of just dismissing it as an unlikely axiom, is a major concession to their position which only deserves anything like serious inquiry on an ad populum. It only seems unfair because it doesn't work out for them--and if it did, we'd hear it from the hilltops and everywhere else.

The ongoing argument

This leaves theists in an unfortunate and perhaps dishonest position of having to shift between God Axioms at need. They wish to defend their acceptance of a particular Theistic God Axiom, but those who do not accept it are justified in seeing it as a God Hypothesis that has a very low plausibility or no plausibility at all. At best, the two groups are talking past one another, then.

To make their cases, though, apologists need to prevent people from seeing the fact that they are accepting an axiom that, if rejected, can be viewed as a hypothesis with no support for it. Only by switching as seamlessly as possible to another God Axiom--like the Deistic one (via cosmological arguments including the Kalam)--can they slide past analysis by rendering it temporarily inapplicable. (And how convenient for them that people have called all of these notions "God.")

Then, once the conversation or its observers are sufficiently caught up in treating an axiom like a hypothesis, the apologist will slide back to the Theistic God Axiom that they want to promulgate. This is apologia. This is the art called theology. To call this kind of behavior obscurantism is a kindness.

In summary

Theists are caught between two rocks and a hard place. Ahead of them, they have to subject their beliefs about God to the onslaught with which we evaluate hypotheses, and that they apparently cannot win. On the one side, their God may be real but is too remote to interact with the world. And on the other side, they have to take their God's existence axiomatically, which is a concession that what they believe in--so far as we can know--is an abstraction by which they interpret the world.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Jesus-Colored Glasses

Tom Gilson has done something I find commendable and very helpful: he took the time to conscientiously and sincerely lay out for us in some detail how he works with ideas. I think such an honest look into the Christian mindset is relatively rare, and I'm glad that he has taken the effort not only to make it plain to himself but also to share that with all of us. His essay, on his blog, is called "The Idea Workbench: Taking Ideas Apart and Putting Them Back Together to See How They Fit." I highly encourage people to read it.

There, Gilson quickly gets to offering an honest appraisal of himself:
It’s a matter of disposition. Apparently I’m not, primarily or by preference, a relayer and displayer of evidences. Evidences certainly matter to me, but they matter (along with all kinds of other ideas) as raw materials—raw materials for a kind of idea workbench, where I take ideas apart, put them together again, and check how they fit. (emphasis his)
This is, as he states, an article of self-assessment that he has arrived at due to our Faith Discussion, particularly the tenacity with which I and others have pressed the question of "how do you know your beliefs are true?" with a requirement for corroborative evidence outside of the belief structure. (This requirement, of course, has been deemed unfair by them and necessary by us--an impasse akin to their take that establishing an account for universal purpose is necessary while we say it is at best illusory and at worst vain.)

Gilson's metaphor

Gilson goes further and illustrates for us the central metaphor of his essay: the idea workbench, telling us how he takes ideas apart and puts them back together again, along with how he determines whether or not they fit. He offers the following description for how this metaphor works in the "recent negative example" provided by analyzing the thought that “[f]aith, by definition, is always belief without evidence,” which he draws from Peter Boghossian's analysis of the term. Before assessing the idea, he writes,
I put this idea on the test bench, and I pull out a few other ideas to test this one against. I am confident these other comparison ideas are solid, true, and widely shared; so if the new idea doesn’t fit with them it fails the test, and it goes in the junk pile. (emphasis mine)

He then assesses this statement about faith.
So, here’s how that worked out recently when I took the above-mentioned definition of faith to the workbench. I pulled some comparison ideas out of my “good” pile. These were solid, true, non-controversial and widely shared ideas, listed here as numbers 1, 2, 3, and 5. I fastened them together (numbers 4, 6, and 7) with the screws and nails of logic.
  1. Jesus Christ is universally regarded as a character (either historical or fictional) who promoted faith.
  2. His characters’ influence (whether historical or fictional) has been so great that for a great proportion of humanity for thousands of years, “faith” has been understood to be that which Jesus Christ promoted.
  3. The character of Jesus Christ is known (whether as history or as fiction) as one who presented evidences for faith everywhere he went.
  4. Therefore, for a great proportion of humanity for thousands of years, faith meant belief according to evidences: that’s how the word was used.
  5. Definitions are a matter of how words are actually, conventionally used.
  6. Therefore the definition of “faith” could never have been strictly and only, “belief without evidence.”
  7. Therefore it is not true that “faith, by definition, is always belief without evidence.” It can’t be: it doesn’t fit with other ideas that are known to be true.
Number seven summarizes the result: there was no place left in the assembly to include, “Faith is always belief without evidence.” That meant it didn’t belong in the good pile. It was a junk idea.
For an interesting exercise, observe his use of the word "fictional" in (1)--(3) and try to work through this seven-step process in that case. The mind boggles. Either way, I do, of course, find his conclusion a bit dubious.

For example, my general responses to his logical fasteners (4) and (6) are (4') Who cares? and (6') Who cares? If fifty billion people for fifty thousand years are wrong, they're still wrong. Boghossian is offering a contemporary analysis of the term, not an assessment of how it has been used or even how people think they're using it. If the "belief according to evidences" referenced in (4) is instead "belief according to  what was believed to be evidences but is not," there's a problem there in the meaning of the word--one that the believers at the time would have been blind to.

Further, Gilson's conclusion (7) seems to contradict his statement in (5) since the implication of (5) seems to be ever-subject to an analysis of the term that may allow for the fact that the people who were using it were actually misusing it. I am not saying that Gilson's assessment is necessarily wrong here (even if I think it is); I'm merely pointing out that his confidence in it may not be as warranted as it appears--and this is without the most substantial observation about it of all, to which I will return shortly.

Gilson's confidence

Gilson, to be clear, is very confident in his assessment.
[L]ook again at what my approach offers that the usual evidential approach does not. It uses ideas that every halfway-informed person already has stored away in their “good” pile. Contrast that with an evidential approach, whereby, for example, we could argue for days over whether Suetonius serves as reliable near-contemporary attestation for the existence of Jesus in history. I don’t think the arguments against that are very good (I am informed about these topics, even if I don’t write about them), but that doesn’t mean the disputes couldn’t go on for days! No one, however, could rationally disagree with any of the “parts” I used to build my case against Boghossian’s definition. They’re all part of the common mental furniture of educated Westerners. If there’s a weakness in my case, it’s not in the parts, it’s in the assembly. (bold his)
I just did, quite rationally, I think, without getting to the big issue. At any rate, he doubles-down on this assessment immediately after, writing,
And I can’t think of anyone pulling together any strong objection to what I wrote, either to the parts or to the fasteners. Instead they said, “Where’s your evidence?” It’s a valid question, yet it has nothing to do with the case I had built.
I'll grant this all, though, about the case he built to get to the epistemic matter that forms the centerpiece of our discussion. His case is that Boghossian is using the word "faith" in an illegal way. My rebuttal is essentially that the analysis of the word faith offered by Boghossian hinges upon whether or not there is enough evidence for the Christian belief system--independent of that system--to accept that the historical use of the word "faith" was ever valid in the first place.

Here, I'll take a moment to talk about that use. I must note that Gilson asserts that the biblical definitions of faith, including as characterized in the book of Hebrews and the famous Doubting Thomas story, indicate that faith means trusting the evidences believed to be in hand while waiting for confirmation (of things promised) to come. We shall come back to this, and for all intents and purposes, I'm fine with calling this idea biblical faith.

Gilson, of course, is not a dealer in evidences, but he is quite sure they are there. He writes,
Still I have to face the fact that although I like my approach well enough, it frustrates people who really want the evidences. I’ve tried to satisfy them by saying, “Look around the shop—the evidences are everywhere! Go to the libraries—the evidences are everywhere!” But this frustrates them, too, since they want me to put the evidences on the bench for display. The problem is, that’s not me: I don’t display things that way. I take them apart and put them together instead.
First, a correction--at least for my part. I am quite familiar with the various kinds of evidences Christianity claims, so I do not expect Gilson or anyone else to put them on the bench for display. I have already found that sort of evidence unconvincing. One of the last things I want to do is read more of it without something more convincing to motivate me. Thus, I evidently want the kind of evidence some insist is impossible (because the claims are of the supernatural, which is, by definition, beyond nature and thus physical evidence).

That said, this is what I have to hone in upon: "Look around the shop—the evidences are everywhere! Go to the libraries—the evidences are everywhere!" This brings me back to the big objection to his seven-step rejection of the idea that faith is belief without evidence. The idea is too simple for Gilson to see it because Gilson is wearing Jesus-colored glasses and cannot see the glare of this five-word statement. It is this simple: Jesus could have been wrong.

"Jesus Christ is universally regarded as a character (either historical or fictional) who promoted faith," Gilson writes. What if Jesus was simply wrong to do so?

Take two quick notes before proceeding. One, the faith Jesus promoted is, I trust Gilson would agree, biblical faith. Two, if I've understood him right, biblical faith means trusting the evidences believed to be in hand while waiting for confirmation to come. Commenter Jenna Black refers to this as a schema by which the evidence is analyzed, offering a wonderful analogy of putting together a puzzle while looking at the picture on the box to know what the pieces represent.

Biblical Faith Looks Like Confirmation Bias

To get back to the question, what if the faith Jesus promoted, biblical faith, is what it appears so overwhelmingly clearly to be: an exercise in preparing oneself to be a victim of confirmation bias? Look at how it plays out:
  1. Take what you already believe you know to be true and consider it true (use it as evidence upon which to base trust);
  2. Listen to the claims of an authority (who may be fictional) about certain future events; and
  3. Wait until something happens that can be taken as confirmation of those claims, considering this, when it occurs, as evidence as well. (And repeat.)
And why should we believe that the stories recorded in the Bible (or any other scripture) are anything different than this? He'd remind us of his alluded-to libraries of evidences, I presume, but those who disagree with him have those too (see the Evidential Problem of Evil along with most of the other stuff in the library that isn't Christian literature).

At any rate, Gilson is correct to have assessed that this is how I would respond. I can use Black's puzzle metaphor, indeed, to do it. When putting together a puzzle,
  1. Assume that the puzzle you are working matches the picture on the box (say it's a puzzle of a vista of a blue sky mistakenly placed in a box for a cerulean lagoon puzzle--or even of another patch of sky);
  2. Use the picture on the box to interpret the pieces as presented, placing them where you think they will go; and
  3. Consider it a victory when any pieces fit and something to keep waiting for in faith when they do not.
As an aside, I should help Black out, though, because even this analogy isn't quite how reality works (so if she wants to keep using it, she will keep revealing the pretending to know bit caught up in the first step there). In reality, we don't have the image on the box to guide us. We don't even know what all the pieces look like or where all of them are, and there are enough of them that we can be easily misled by putting the wrong ones together with no obvious immediate consequences for the mistake. No one is helping us with this puzzle but ourselves.

Using the analogy of the box to guide the puzzle reveals that Jenna Black, like Tom Gilson, is also wearing Jesus-colored glasses. She, like Gilson, sees the world through the interpretive lens of the Christian belief system, and it appears that she, like Gilson, cannot do otherwise at this time. They don't realize that they're wearing glasses. The world just looks how it does to them, and it looks like Jesus.

Gilson predicts

As noted, Tom knew that I would say something to this effect, commenting to Black,
Now if I understand James Lindsay, he’ll say that what you call a helpful schema is actually a package of misbeliefs that we attempt to shore up through misattributed evidences
This isn't exactly what I am saying. I'm saying that we need to use great care in choosing the schemata we're using. In the case of Gilson's appeal to biblical faith, the simple question, "what if Jesus was wrong?" which is unthinkable to Christians, is enough to throw doubt upon the Christian schemata (here, plural for certain, as there seem to be many schemata, not all of which Tom Gilson would endorse).

I am, however, saying quite plainly something like what Gilson is asserting. In the  situation where someone is using a bad schema, they are very likely to misattribute evidence. Again, I'm asking Tom Gilson how he can claim to know--instead of just saying he believes it without knowing it--that his particular Christian schema is a good one. I'm quite sure it's not.

Gilson's Jesus-Colored Glasses

To make my point, then, I return to a couple of illustrative statements from Gilson that are suggestive to me that his Jesus-colored view of the world is likely to be fraught with confirmation bias of the faith kind. Facing the question of how he would disconfirm his belief in Christianity, Gilson writes this almost lucid statement,
I’ve been asked, “What could cause you to give up your faith in Christ?” Some Christians answer that question, “The bones of Jesus Christ, showing he didn’t rise from the dead.” I think that’s weak. It’s too safe, for one thing, because how could anyone prove they were his bones? My answer instead would go like this: Any fact discovered anywhere that seriously undermined the tremendous coherence I find in the Christian worldvew [sic]. (emphasis his)
What lucidity is here--his focus on the coherence of a worldview defined by an idea that serves to pretend to answer every "big" question coherently is a bit foggy--shines through to Gilson's eyes in distinctly Jesus-colored light, though, as he immediately reveals,
When I take ideas apart and put them back together again, they fit together best when I assemble them according to a biblically-based view of reality. ... When I try to assemble all those kinds of things in alignment with a Christian understanding of reality, they work.
They work in other ways too (arguably better--many apparently profound mysteries simply evaporate when not using any biblical account of reality), and so here's Gilson looking through Jesus-colored glasses. Here's Gilson plainly doing his puzzle while looking at a picture of Jesus. Whatever may be true of other kinds of eyewear, I think it is safe to conclude that it's hard to see clearly when your glasses are stained with the blood of Christ.

He attempts to glimpse around the edges of his glasses, though, to be fair. He writes,
No, it’s not flawless. There are a few pieces still laying on the workbench, puzzling me as to where they belong. But they come together that way a whole lot better than when I try to put them together in any other shape.
Notice here that Gilson's statement depends upon him apprehending what the other shapes look like. My assertion is that we don't actually know what reality looks like and are finding the shape as we go. With Gilson, not only does he appear to be assuming certain shapes, we are left wondering about those assumptions given that we know that he sees the world through Jesus-colored glasses. He reveals something of this problem to us, though not to himself, by going on with,
If I try to assemble an atheistic/naturalistic framework, for example, it leaves humanness orphaned on the workbench, with no place to belong. I can’t find a place to attach it—at least not without hammering it into an unrecognizable shape. (emphasis his)
This is a curious statement. Tom Gilson seems to be saying that he cannot make sense of humanness without his Christian beliefs, and that this particular hang-up is perhaps the biggest one he has. I will not try to convince Gilson of anything regarding humanness but instead will just let this point hang there as it is: humanness crucified on the cross of Christianity.