Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Bitter End of “Christian Thinking”

I’ve decided to post the rest of my debate—such as it was—with the “thinking Christian,” Tom Gilson, and with some of his more capable Christian readers, because of the intriguing way the debate appears to have ended. What follows, again, are mostly highlights just from my side of the exchange since my opponents said little that would pique a philosopher’s interest. But near the end I do post Gilson’s angry sign-off, followed by the aftermath and an afterward where I present some lessons I drew from the discussion. Again I include a few explanatory comments in square brackets, and here’s the link to the entire thread on Gilson’s blog, which contains both sides of the commentary. Also, for convenience, here’s my presentation of the first half of this debate, and here’s the first run-in I had with Gilson a year ago.

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Tom Gilson,
I said my “Christian” comments “demonstrated I have more than a working knowledge of Christianity,” meaning that I have more than general knowledge of the religion. I’m not saying I know everything there is to know about Christianity since no one does, least of all a non-Christian. There’s no one Christian answer to any question of Christian theology. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” comes from a Charles Wesley hymnal.

You say, ‘I’m opposed to you speaking as if we should accept it as the same, with no argument, with only a story and with “given that…” ’

But I did argue for it when questioned about it—at great length, remember? If you’re looking for stories, with plainly fictional characters and fantastic deeds, read the Bible. You see how easy it is to argue by assertion, like you do? I demonstrated that the criticism of Yahweh’s personality isn’t an arbitrary whim of new atheists, but ironically goes back to Job, Gnosticism, and so on. Then I gave you a logically independent explanation of why we should expect Yahweh’s character to be rigidly tyrannical (it’s due to the nature of syncretism in that part of the ancient world, etc), and I based that explanation on the standard critical historical account of the rise of Jewish monotheism. And I distinguished between assuming awareness of a criticism and assuming general agreement with it.

It’s just baffling that you say I haven’t argued for my position, when I’ve done so at great length and you’ve argued here only by assertion. You’ve even conceded you “didnt specify where your account went wrong because that was never my purpose here,” and that “I suspect you must think me unreasonable for not answering more of your questions.” You say “Bare assertions, stories, and pronouncements are not arguments.” The thing is: you have to know what an argument is to be able to identify one. As I showed in comment #13, you mixed up those two, logically separate arguments and took at most only 24 minutes to digest that long post. Pearls before swine, I suppose.

By the way, I just noticed that in your censored posting of my comment #3, you posted it twice. 

***

Tom Gilson,
Numerous times now you’ve taken issue with my use of the expression “given that,” when I said in the Nietzsche thread, “We’re supposed to have dominion over the planet because of our godlike attributes, but how should we expect godlike creatures to act in the world, given the Bible’s depiction of our maker?” I was linking human irrationality to the apparent irrationality of the OT God. I’m aware the Bible says God is wise and compassionate, but the Bible also says that God’s ways are beyond our understanding and that God is jealous and wrathful.

In any case, I was taking my views as given for me, not for everyone. That’s what “given” means in an argumentative context, as Dictionary.com points out: “assigned as a basis for calculation, reasoning, etc.” When I said, “given such and such,” I was saying that if we assume as much, here’s what follows; it’s a matter of taking something for granted for the sake of argument. Of course, you’re entitled to object and to put forward an opposing argument. Again, it goes without saying that a Christian wouldn’t agree with my characterizations. That’s what a debate is for. What’s supposed to happen is that the two sides present their opposing views. I did so, and you did less and less so as you derailed the discussion with this ad hominem, red herring thread.

You say I should have been more curious to learn from Christians, but this isn’t a school and I’m not your student. If you think I’m missing out on some important knowledge, go ahead and say what it is. If you think I’m not worthy to learn from your majesty, go ahead and withhold your wisdom.

Over and over again, you say the standard critical history of the formation of monotheism I alluded to in the comments is just a “story.” And you’ve clarified what you mean by that: “You make an argument, but you base it on unfounded premises. Your story of the history of monotheism is no basis for an argument.”

So you’re using “story” as a weasel word, to drain the word of meaning by stretching its content beyond all utility so that when a critic charges the supernaturalist’s defense of the biblical narrative with being sheer fiction, that criticism too will lose its force. The naturalistic, syncretistic account of monotheism is standard in secular, scientific studies of the Bible. That account is an explanation, not a story, because it accounts for the evidence and adds to our understanding, without appealing to mysteries and miracles, and without trying merely to comfort, entertain, or instruct.

You can find the premises and outlines of that explanation everywhere from Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible to the Anchor Bible Dictionary, not to mention Wikipedia. Here, for example, are some relevant passages from the former two.

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From Eerdmans (916-917): “With the inception of urbanization (ca. 5th millennium), Mesopotamian religion began to exhibit a tendency toward unification of the divine. Before the Akkadian empires Mesopotamia was comprised of a series of independent city-states, each centered around a temple complex with at least one patron god or goddess. These deities were organized in families along kingship lines. The glory of each divinity was manifest in the glory of the city and its temple; as one city gained political power and extended its sphere of influence, its patron deity was elevated to a position of prominence over deities of the subject cities and towns. The higher deity tended to take on the attributes of the lower subject deities…

“The text of the OT is the product of a long and complex process of literary growth, and presents an idealized portrait of Israelite religious belief and practice. Any reconstruction of Israelite religion must, therefore, draw on the material remains of ancient Palestine as a balance to the biblical account. Inscriptions discovered at Kuntillet Ajrud/Horvat Teman and Khirbet el-Qom permit an association between Yahweh and the goddess Asherah, suggesting that Yahweh may have at one time been worshipped along with a female consort. Monotheism in Israel, at any rate, appears to have developed over a long period of time, beginning about the 10th century up until the end of the Babylonian Exile.

“Early Israelite monotheism most likely began in the highlands as localized tribal religion in which each tribe worshipped its own patron deity. The ancestral narratives in Genesis presuppose this sort of tribal religion (e.g. Gen.24:27; 31:5, 53). With the centralization of the state under David and Solomon, there emerged certain advocates who elevated Yahweh as supreme God over all other divinities (including El, Asherah, and Baal), thus making Yahweh the “God of Israel.” The combination of religion with political might provided the monarchic state the means to exert further authority over the people, while continuing to tolerate the worship of other gods. Gradually the concept of covenant became an expression for the mutual relationship of blessedness between Yahweh and the monarchic state (1 Kgs.8; 2 Kgs.12 [cf.11:17]; Pss.2, 72, 89, 110). The continual fostering of literary activity in the royal court and temple was instrumental in promoting Yahweh as the God of the entire cosmos who possesses all the positive attributes previously associated with the traditional gods and goddesses. With the work of Second Isaiah toward the end of the Babylonian Exile, Israelite monotheism took on a more forceful form of expression.”

And from Anchor:

“When in the OT texts the form ‘Elohim” is used instead of ‘Yahweh” in this or similar ways, this mirrors different types of theological reflection, in an attempt to place one’s own tradition of faith and of the name of God in a context of an increasing challenge manifest through different religions and other divine names. The differentiation in the Priestly writing between ‘Elohim’ (= pre- [and extra- ?] Israelite) and ‘Yahweh’ (= genuinely Israelite) is only one attempt, in the crisis of Israel’s dispersion among the nations (in the Babylonian exile), to transform the faith in one primarily national Yahweh into a new form which tries in a conscious and an increased manner to incorporate into one’s own tradition the experience of the supranational and international…

“Under these presuppositions of “Yahweh’s baalship’ it is not surprising that in the OT psalms Yahweh is worshipped with terminology similar to that used of the Canaanite Baal in the epics from Ugarit-Ras Shamra, that is, as the one ‘who rides on the clouds’ (Ps. 68:5; 104:3; Deut.33:26), who manifests himself in thunder and storm (e.g. Ps 18:14-15; 77:19). Behind Psalm 29 could be hidden an entire Canaanite hymn to Baal which was transposed into a hymn to Yahweh. This “baalization” of Yahweh should not be understood as if by it the specific Israelite tradition was abandoned; the epithet baal does not replace the divine name Yahweh. Rather, this entire development reflects the natural attempt of a young nation to learn from the cultural experience of older nations. This cultural religious process of learning had received an enormous impetus from the fact that David had established the capital of his kingdom in the ancient Canaanite-Jebusite city of Jerusalem, and that his son Solomon had erected there the royal palace and the Yahweh temple with the help of Phoenician builders. In doing so the Phoenicians were not just suppliers and workmen; rather, they conceived and erected the temple in Jerusalem as if they were building a Baal temple in their own homeland…” (IV, 1006-1007).

“Perhaps in the time of Moses, as certain biblical references suggest, El was equated with Yahweh, who probably was originally the Midianite god of Mt. Sinai. Whereas the OT abominated Baal, it was happy to equate Yahweh with El, who was the supreme creator god noted for his wisdom, and was not associated with the fertility cult in the way that Baal was.

“In his identification with El, Yahweh also appropriated ‘the sons of El,’ so that ‘the sons of God’ formed his heavenly court (cf. Job 1:6; 2:1). The notion that they were seventy in number lived on, since Deut 32:8 states that ‘the Most High…fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God’ (so LXX; 4QDeut), from which evolved in Jewish apocalyptic literature the notion of seventy guardian angels of the nations. Thus, as absolute monotheism took over from monolatry in Israel, those who had originally been in the pantheon of the gods were demoted to the status of angels.

“In being equated with El, it is not surprising that in syncretistic circles Yahweh also appropriated El’s consort Athirat, or Asherah as she is known in the OT…

“Although the OT condemns the Baal cult, it nevertheless adopts some of its motifs. Hosea, who is at pains to emphasize that Yahweh, not Baal, brings fertility to the land (Hos.2:10-Eng.2:8), applies the imagery of death and resurrection to Israel’s coming exile and restoration (Hos.5:14-6:3; 13:1-14:7)…

“The OT also appropriates the motif of Baal’s conflict with Leviathan (also called ‘dragon,’ ‘twisting serpent’) and Yam and applies it to Yahweh. Sometimes the imagery is associated with the creation of the world (e.g. Ps 74:12-17), and this can also be demythologized so that it is simply a case of God’s controlling (rather than fighting with) the waters, as in Genesis 1. Sometimes the imagery is historicized, so that the sea becomes a term for the hostile nations (cf. Ps 144:7) and the dragon can symbolize a particular nation, such as Egypt or Babylon (e.g. Isa. 30:7; Jer.51:34). Again, the imagery can be projected into the future and eschatologized (cf. Isa.27:1; Daniel 7). A related theme to that of the divine victory over the waters is divine kingship. Just as Baal became king following his victory over Yam, so the OT associates Yahweh’s kingship with his defeat of the chaos waters (cf. Ps 74:12; 93:1-2). The name of Baal’s sacred mountain, Mt. Sapan, is applied to Mt. Zion, the seat of Yahweh’s dwelling in Ps 48:3—Eng 48:2, ‘the heights of Zaphon’ (cf. Isa 14:13). Moreover, the description of Yahweh’s manifestation in the thunderstorm tends to echo that of the storm god, Baal, and this is particularly striking in Psalm 29” (I, 835).

“Israel had to learn how mysterious, unteachable, and beyond manipulation was its God.
1. God beyond Human Measure. The psalmists know that God does not judge according to a strict pattern. God is ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in merciful love…he does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities’ (Psalm 103:10; cf. Psalm 130:3; Exod.34:6-7). God does not act as humans do. Hosea recalls Israel’s long history of infidelity to God (11:1-9). But, despite centuries of disloyalty, God will not destroy Ephraim ‘for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy” (11:9)…

“One of the elements of the ‘common theology’ of the ANE [Ancient Near East] that Israel shared with her neighbors was that the ‘high god’ rewards and punishes according to a strict pattern. The previous paragraph has shown that the true Israel did not accept this standard theology. Jeremiah and Job explicitly contest it. Jeremiah does so in his ‘confessions’…The beginning of his private debate with God may be rendered: ‘Just you are YHWH; even so I will argue with you; yes, there are cases I would like to discuss with you. Why do the wicked prosper?’ (12:1). God replies in two proverbs (12:5-6). God does not solve the tension between belief and reason for Jeremiah. He demands Jeremiah renounce any ultimate insight into the ‘why’ of life and that he give himself in complete trust to the will of God, known only by faith…

“Israel, united and divided, was a monarchy for four-and-a-half centuries. The cult of YHWH was conducted in the temple built by the king. It was natural, then, that YHWH and king be linked. The cry, ‘Marduk is (has become) king,’ had been echoing for centuries in Mesopotamia. The cry ‘El is king,’ ‘Baal is (shall become) king,’ was echoing in Canaan where Israel lived. Baal had battled with the monster Yam (the sea); he had conquered; his temple was built; he had become king. But no, proclaimed Israel in polemic. It is YHWH, the God of Israel, who is king, not El or Baal…” (II, 1046-1047).

“Royal ‘wrath’ is not necessarily a personal or idiosyncratic emotion but rather a programmatic orientation and, indeed, duty; it is a matter more of official policy than of private sentiment.

“Because royal policy is often met with opposition and accompanied by (sometimes brutal) violence and warfare, one may infer that personal and emotional distemper is a factor. However, it may be that these references to royal ‘wrath’ actually served rhetorically not to humanize and familiarize the king by focusing on his emotionalism but rather to aggrandize and distance him by suggesting that royal policy is accountable to no factor other than the king himself (cf. Ezek.20:8-9, 13-14, 21-22). The wrath of the king is not to be viewed like the wrath of other mortals; it is not one of the vicissitudes of being human, it is one of the prerogatives of being king; it is not of the passion type, but of the pathos type…

“To what extent was Yahweh viewed as a king programmatically extending divine rule—the fate of opponents being not a matter of personal enmity between them and Yahweh but a matter of Yahweh exercising the prerogatives of power in truly omnipotent fashion, i.e., without apology or explanation? On the one hand, there is no doubt that in those passages where Yahweh becomes angry at Israel for covenant violations, Yahweh is clearly portrayed as Israel’s equivalent to a ‘king.’ On the other hand, however, those passages which depict mythological creatures as the object of Yahweh’s ‘wrath’ also suggest that Yahweh’s wrath is a component not of emotion but rather of omnipotence (Job 26; Ps 89:5-13). God has a prerogative to act ‘in anger’ because, at creation, God was able to extend sovereignty over the powers of chaos (Job 9:4-13). Thus, in order to destroy all his enemies, God ‘in anger’ can deal with creation as a sovereign (Isa.30:27, 30).

“In this regard, it is possible to suggest that the anthropopathic portrayals of Yahweh’s ‘wrath’ had the effect in ancient Israel not of ‘humanizing’ Israel’s god but rather just the opposite, of exalting Yahweh…In this sense, we can likewise speak of God’s omnipotence as entailing at least a certain type of ‘apathy’ (a ‘royal aloofness’), thereby necessitating, at least to some extent, a figurative interpretation of the anthropopathic language used of God” (VI, 995). 

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Now if you want to call that sort of scholarship mere “story-telling,” which forms the backdrop for the premises in the arguments and explanations in those comments of mine, you’re obliged to do two things: define your use of the word “story,” and present your alternative, Christian account of Jewish monotheism’s origins in such a manner that your account doesn’t foul afoul of being a story even in your sense of that word. Meanwhile, I’ll go ahead and take as given—given for me and for anyone who goes along with my argument, needless to say—the difference between stories and scientific, naturalistic explanations.

Regarding whether Jesus was only gentle, meek and mild, you seem to be forgetting that I said God’s bad side (to understate the matter) “persists in the New Testament, with the hell doctrine (infinite punishment for finite sins) which Christianity added to Judaism, so the Christian can’t avoid the switch by ignoring the Old Testament,” and that, “If only Jesus were a fresh, independent deity, as Marcion said, the Christian wouldn’t be saddled with the crude inculcation of Jewish monotheism in the Bible or with the Trinity. But as I said, [the bad side of God] speaks through Jesus too, especially in the doctrine of eternal punishment for nonbelievers. Jesus was merciful when he came the first time, but because he was scorned he’s expected to come again, whereupon he’ll be wrathful. Bait and switch.”

So the contrast between Yahweh and Jesus is one of emphasis. The NT’s focus is on love and forgiveness, whereas the OT’s focus is on wrath, justice, and purity. The bait and switch operates in both sets of texts, because both divine persons display both the inhuman traits associated with human sovereigns (who are naturally corrupted by their absolute power) and the admirable traits we expect from a father figure or epic saviour. But overall, the NT functions as bait for both testaments, for the Christian, which is why most Christians can afford to be literalistic in their faith, whereas most Jews are secular, pragmatic, or mystical. Were Jews to be literalistic in their faith, they’d be forced to emulate Yahweh and so would repulse much of the rest of the world with their antisocial tendencies even more than they have done throughout history.

You say, “The henotheistic view you propose is easily explained from within the monotheistic Hebrew framework.”

If that monotheistic account appeals to the existence of God, though, it won’t be any sort of explanation, that is, it won’t be any exposition “made to clarify something and make it understandable” (as the dictionary says). The theistic narrative (dare I say story?) will mystify rather than illuminate, because that’s what religious miracles are supposed to do, to strike us with awe so that we bow down and grovel and live in fear of a transcendent power. That’s why it’s so ironic you’re calling the secular, syncretistic account a story rather than an argument or explanation.

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RobertNotBob,
You’ve mixed up infinitude with the potential for long-lasting consequences. I agree that a crime can have bad consequences that extend well after the act of the crime. As long as those consequences eventually become negligible, though, say tens or hundreds of years in the future, the crime as a whole, including all of its effects, will be finite. Long-lasting effects are finite as long as they’re not everlasting.

Also, the more we focus on the effects of a bad action, the more diffuse the responsibility since that action will only be a partial cause of what happens in the future, especially if we’re talking about effects in the distant future. So to punish a rapist for all the problems suffered by the victim’s grandchildren might be unjust, since those problems will have various causes, including some the rapist has nothing to do with.

The point is that even if we include all the bad consequences of a sin, the sinner is only ever partially responsible, which means his or her guilt is finite, not absolute or infinite. We shouldn’t confuse our freewill with omnipotence. You twist the badness of a sinner’s “nature” into a reason for infinite punishment, saying the sinner will continue to sin forever in hell. But that detracts from the biblical significance of Judgment Day. The New Testament clearly says hell is a punishment for sin judged on one momentous day, after Jesus returns to Earth.

Also, Luke 16:19-31 makes it hard to see how sinning is possible in hell. The rich man’s great sin was living in luxury while beggars starved and suffered. Presumably, there would be no life of luxuries in the lake of fire. The rich man in hell looks up at Abraham and says he’s in torment and is reduced to begging for a drop of water. So if the rich man still sins while begging for mercy in hell, that would mean the beggar, Lazarus, sins in this life, in which case Lazarus wouldn’t deserve to go to heaven. Otherwise, the point of the parable is that sinners who are dominators in this life become the downtrodden victims in the next. The strong become weak, the aggressors become tormented, the joyful become the miserable, and so on. But you’re saying the sinning would remain constant, which would conflict with the asymmetries that are crucial to the NT’s statements on hell and divine judgment.

Moreover, as soon as we blame our nature for our deeds, we’re no longer talking about freewill, since much of our nature was formed when we were children and our brain wasn’t fully developed. So once again, we’re only ever partly responsible for our nature. Indeed, God would have to be at least partly responsible for our nature, for creating the conditions for the environment in which our nature (or set of psychological tendencies) is formed. So to punish us for original sin or for God’s choice of creating this particular world would be unjust. Again, it’s the contrast between our fallibility and finitude and partial responsibility, on the one hand, and the absoluteness and irreversibility of divine judgment, on the other, that seems bizarre and unjust.

Finally, you say, ‘all sin is against God and is against Him always and forever. It is not “finite and forgotten”.’

If you’re saying sinners are punished for injuring God, and so the punishment must be everlasting because the injury is everlasting, God being eternal and infinite, there’s still the above problem that we’d only ever be partly to blame for that injury. Our freewill is greatly limited, unlike God’s which would be absolute. But you’ve also raised a problem for God’s omnipotence, since you’re implying that God’s creatures could injure God, and that even the slightest injury to God is all-important. This would make God’s omniscience into quite the vulnerability, since God would be like one of those tormented geniuses with an inability to forget anything. The slightest unpleasant memory becomes a scar for life. Would omniscience be more a curse than a blessing, in that case? Indeed, I think omnipotence would certainly be a curse, since as far as human experience shows, power inevitably corrupts, which is why in comparing God to a king, the OT often depicts God as tyrannical. The question, then, would be why we should expect perfect justice from a tormented tyrant.

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Bill T (#45),
Your entire post is a strawman fallacy. I don’t believe God is a hateful tyrant, because I don’t believe the universe has a personal creator. What I was referring to throughout this thread is “God as depicted in the Bible” or, for short, “the biblical God.” For example, I asked, “We’re supposed to have dominion over the planet because of our godlike attributes, but how should we expect godlike creatures to act in the world, given the Bible’s depiction of our maker?” So what you’re doing is what Tom Gilson did, which is to assume that atheism is impossible, that the atheist secretly believes God exists and only hates the deity, thusly deserving hell for the rebellion and dishonesty. As I showed, that’s exactly like what Tom Gilson was accusing me of doing throughout this thread: taking it for granted that Christians accept an anti-Christian characterization of their God.

In any case, your theodicy or progressive interpretation of hell ignores the plain statements on hell in the NT. The NT says hell is punishment for sin, so it’s not a matter merely of “Mr. Cain thinking” ‘he’s being “sent to hell” or people are being punished by God.’ You explicitly say, “However, that’s not what’s going on.”

The parable of the sheep and the goats disagrees: “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matt.25:46). The Greek for “punishment” is “kolasin,” from “kolazo,” which means ‘properly, to dwarf, mutilate (curtail); used of punishing slaves to incapacitate them; hence, to punish (cause agony) to curtail ("dock/check," Abbott-Smith), i.e. in a way that restrains (impedes, restricts)’ (Strong’s Concordance) or “to lop or prune, as trees and wings; to curb, check, restrain; to chastise, correct, punishment; to cause to be punished” (Thayer’s definition).

What’s the punishment for, according to that parable? Is it to give sinners exactly what they want, namely departure from God? No, it’s because, “ ‘I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me’ ” (Matt.25:42-43).

But to make sense of hell as a just punishment, you somehow have to come to believe the sinner wants to be there, because then the divine judgment can be squared with the Christian idea of a loving God. God’s only giving sinners what they crave and the notion of hell as torment or punishment is only subjective. In short, God creates two heavens, one for Christians, the other for nonbelievers, so the unrepentant sinners will love their eternity away from God. Hell will be their “personal paradise,” as you say. If they come to be tormented, realizing the full consequence of their “choice,” that will mean they’ve changed their mind, in which case you’d have to explain how God could be just and loving if he doesn’t remove souls from hell as soon as they feel any torment, as opposed to feeling the pleasure of being in a personal paradise. That interpretation of hell would then conflict with the biblical assertions that hell is eternal.

Has the atheist “chosen to live out eternity without God”? Only in the same way you’ve “chosen” to live without any of the billions of gods you don’t believe in or in the same way you disregard the prospect of living with a fictional character such as Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter. So if someone said you hate Darth Vader, as opposed to hating a movie’s depiction of a fictional villain, wouldn’t you think a strawman fallacy had been perpetrated against you? Or if someone said to you, “By choosing to reject eternal life with Luke Skywalker, you’ve chosen to spend eternity with Darth Vader,” wouldn’t you deem that a gross perversion of what you’ve done in regard to Star Wars?

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Tom Gilson (#42 and #44),
I’d like to clarify some things for the last time before turning to a more important issue you raise in comment #44.

“Given that” doesn’t mean “given for me, not for everyone,” as though we were talking about something subjective like taste in food or music. The phrase means “this is what I’m assuming in my arguments and it’s what you all should assume too.” Of course I knew I was writing in a Christian forum and so most readers here wouldn’t automatically accept my arguments. Thus, instead of just asserting a negative characterization of Yahweh’s personality as depicted in the Bible, I added “given that” as a better way of saying “In my opinion…”

Your statement that “it was odd how uncurious you were about intellectual history” is baseless and preposterous ad hominem. Your OP alleges that atheists who criticize Yahweh’s personality must be incurious because they presume Christians are too ignorant about the Bible to renounce faith in that sort of deity, and so atheists must themselves be grossly ignorant of the history of Christian interpretation of the Bible. I’ve shown at length in my comments that that’s preposterous. The criticism of the Jewish scriptures goes well beyond new atheists, since it’s based in ancient Jewish mysticism, pragmatism, and secularism. And I’m well aware that many Christians are not ignorant of the Bible and have their own way of interpreting problematic biblical passages. There are plenty of psychological mechanisms and ulterior motives that could be operating there beyond mere ignorance. Moreover, I demonstrated that I can think like a Christian, whereas you didn’t show you can think like an anti-Christian.

You mix up your points about the “story.” Remember that what you call a story was itself an argument supporting my negative characterizations of Yahweh. I showed that the criticism goes beyond new atheists and explained why we shouldn’t be surprised that the OT God has a certain personality, because of how monotheism historically emerged. You say I “treated that story as the basis for an argument; yet you gave absolutely no reason to believe your story was true.” But that historical account of monotheism’s development was the supporting argument, and it was meant to support not itself but the negative characterizations of Yahweh’s personality as that was depicted in the Bible.

So now you want an argument to support that supporting argument, and then you’ll ask for another argument supporting that second argument, all while chastising me for the length of my comments. But that’s why I cited authoritative sources like Anchor and Eerdmans, to terminate that line of criticism. If my account is based on quality, standard OT scholarship, I don’t have to go any further. Certainly not in a mere blog’s comment section.

You say regarding Genesis that “The textual evidence argues from the beginning for God as supreme, unique, the one Creator, the one true God.”

But that assumes that Genesis in its current form was written earliest just because it comes first in the OT. That’s not how critical historians view the Bible. The origins of that text are indeed quite old, since the biblical text is based on the Babylonian creation myth (the Enuma Elis). However, the Torah as a whole was rewritten and edited in the Persian period only four or five hundred years BCE. Moreover, there’s polytheism in Genesis that slipped through the fingers of the Priestly redactors, as in 1:26, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.” The next verse then contradicts that, saying, “So God created man in His own image.” That’s the sort of jumble I was talking about, because of how Jewish monotheism emerged from polytheism through syncretism and politics.

But that’s enough of those red herrings. The more interesting issue you follow up on is whether theism qualifies as an explanation. Gravity wouldn’t serve as an explanation if no one understood the concept of gravity. Indeed, this is the position of quantum mechanics, which has led to the problem of interpreting that theory’s meaning. The crucial difference here is between a tool that works in achieving some purpose, regardless of whether anyone understands how the tool works, and an account that increases our understanding by explaining some ideas in terms of simpler ideas. The problem with pseudoscience, for example, is that a fake theory can only pile up obscurities to hide behind complexity that doesn’t shed light on the phenomenon or help organize our worldview by showing how our concepts should be connected.

Originally, animism and theism might have been protoscientific, as James Frazer contended. If the concept of God is taken literally, so that there’s no hiding behind mysteries, miracles, or mysticism, the idea that the universe was created by a superhuman person would make sense, as far as it goes, since this idea extends our knowledge of how intelligent, social creatures can use technology for creative purposes. The limitations of that literalistic explanation are obvious: living things originate from other living things, and we don’t know how life comes from nonlife, so that account raises the question of the superhumans’ origin. Do the gods have parents, and do those divine parents have parents, leading to an infinite regress? Polytheistic cosmology is limited because it doesn’t explain one set of concepts in simpler terms, but only posits more of what we’re already familiar with: the creativity and squabbles of intelligent, social beings.

If we interpret the divine beings as transcending our comprehension—which was the Jewish innovation—the appeal to God loses its explanatory force, since it no longer clarifies as much as it humbles and terrifies. That suggests that monotheism and mysticism (as in the Eastern religions, for example) are more like working tools than like explanations that compete with scientific theories. This pragmatic interpretation of religions raises the question of the purpose served by the concept of a transcendent God, and there are numerous possible answers ranging from the protection of mass happiness, to population control, to political exploitation, to various diversions.

What monotheism and mysticism should do is show the limit of our attempts to explain and to understand the world. Again, that’s the point that emerges from the Jewish scriptures. And on my blog I challenge naturalism with this “cosmicist,” Nietzschean interpretation of the upshot of science’s decentering of life within the universe. Christianity represents an attempt to bridge monotheism and polytheism, and I’d argue that that religion offers only pseudo-explanations, since it obscures more than it enlightens.

Anyway, this is a big problem with the new literalistic religions: they lose their purpose by attempting to emulate science. Religious texts excel at being myths, that is, at telling a special kind of story. What they don’t do well at all is to enhance our understanding of how the world really works. The problem is that with the rise of science and scientism, many members of exoteric religions have forgotten what religion and myths are for. They want to control other people the way scientists and engineers control nature. These religionists use their stories not to improve their character or to learn why we should be humble and compassionate, but to exploit others’ weaknesses, to dominate out of arrogance, vanity, or resentment. In short, these secretly science-centered religions become spiritually bankrupt.

***

Tom Gilson (#47),
Regarding hell and the burden of proof, I think your first two points are fair. Indeed, your first point that Christians ultimately concede that God works in mysterious ways is precisely why monotheism doesn’t have explanatory power. That’s not to say monotheism has no power at all, since clearly religions have social, psychological, and political power, as I explained in my previous comment.

As for your third point, about the nature of justice, there’s obviously been a lot of thought on that in the West, going back at least to Plato. One necessary condition of justice is fairness or balance, the giving back of the equivalent of what’s been received. No matter what anyone does on Earth, no matter how far the terrestrial consequences go, we’re dealing here with finitude. This world will end one way or another, even if it’s billions of years in the future. Billions of years still add up to a finite amount. (So you err in saying my statement that “Long-lasting effects are finite as long as they’re not everlasting” is only a matter of “opinion.” Rather, the statement is analytic. I was just defining the difference between the finite and the infinite, and applying the definition to the matter at hand.) 

But the NT explicitly says the punishment of sin is eternal and everlasting. To me, that’s a trace of the older Jewish way of thinking: the Christian idea of hell puts the Yahweh in Jesus, as it were.

You can say the effects of sin don’t “dissipate, become diffuse, etc., in the mind of God,” but then you’re faced with the awkward theological implications I outlined. Are you saying God’s not powerful enough to forget about sin? Are you implying that our sins injure God, that the memory of sin is a permanent offense in God’s mind? Does God suffer as a result of our sin and is he doomed to suffer forever, which is why he must punish sinners forever?

More importantly, if God doesn’t and can’t suffer at all from our sin, what’s the significance of his taking offense at sin? Granted, a compassionate God would be offended on behalf of the human people who suffer because of sin, but that would call only for finite punishments to match the finite harms done to finite creatures in a finite world. Also, why would God be so appalled by human sin when he’s the one who would have made us imperfect? He’d have made us fallible creatures (animals with certain godlike capacities), so isn’t it irrational and unjust to expect the impossible?

The example of saintly Jesus is no help, since he was supposed to have been the only begotten Son of God. If we all had God rather than any human as one of our parents, presumably we could be perfectly moral (assuming for the sake of argument Jesus was perfect in that respect). Why, then, should Jesus be the model for human behaviour? Isn’t that like asking an ant to fly to the moon? Jesus was a man, but he was also supposed to have been God himself. No other human can say as much, according to Christianity, so it’s apples and oranges, Jesus and the rest of us.

You can say that’s precisely God’s plan, to determine who’s fit to be adopted as his children in the heavenly kingdom, but that would amount to conceding the point that prior to the transformation from our animal nature to our new spiritual bodies, we’re not demigods so it’s plainly unjust to judge us as though we could be as perfect as God Almighty. If he’s judging us for the harms we do to ourselves and to each other, hell would have to be finite or rehabilitative to fit the magnitude of the crimes (even conceding that our sins can have very long-lasting harms). Just because God’s displeasure might be infinite (on behalf of the people who have suffered because of finite sins), that wouldn’t by itself justify infinite punishment of sin, unless God’s displeasure were an infinite injury to God. If God can’t suffer, because he’s omnipotent, his memory of sin or his attitude toward human immorality wouldn’t be one of the damages done by sin. No harm, no foul. No foul, no just punishment. If the harms are finite, so must be the punishment, so sin’s being against God would be a red herring if God can’t suffer.

Regarding your claim that “Your previous attempts to show that you understand something about Christianity are pretty much all wiped out by your suggestion that we might even possibly teach that God could suffer injury,” I was merely trying to understand what Robert’s #43 post was saying, since he was comparing God to a raped woman. He asked rhetorically, “Shouldn’t she just get over it, forget it and move on?” even though the consequences of the crime might be long-lasting (but still finite, contrary to what he inferred), and then he used the same language with respect to God: ‘all sin is against God and is against Him always and forever. It is not “finite and forgotten”. And #2, no one will be punished in Hell for a sin in their past that God “should just get over.” ’

What does it mean to go “against” God if can’t feel the slightest injury? And what does it mean to say God “can’t get over” sin if God can’t suffer in any way? In the rape victim’s case, she’s unable to get over the trauma, the harm done to her. If God can’t be traumatized, what can’t he get over? Where’s the analogy if God can’t suffer? Indeed, how can God be compassionate if he can’t empathize or feel bad on behalf of other people when they suffer, which would entail that God can suffer even if it’s only suffering from unpleasant emotions.

By the way, your continual claim that I “don’t know what Christianity teaches” presupposes that there’s only one such set of teachings or one Christian religion, whereas there are a multitude of Christian sects and interpretations on every conceivable issue. So my talk of whether God can be injured was an attempt to understand Robert’s Christianity.

You ask whether I can “prove” hell is unjust. Dude, get over yourself. This is a comment section on a blog, not a Ph.D. thesis.

***

RobertNotBob (#48),
Yes, an adult eventually helps define his nature as he develops, but he doesn’t do so from birth. Who’s responsible for setting up the environment in which we develop? Who included the serpent in Eden? Who made the heavens and the earth? Yeah, I’m afraid God would be largely responsible for all of our natures, for having created the world in which we develop and eventually act with limited freedom.

If someone forever raises a fist against a mountain, and the mountain can’t suffer, because it’s a mountain and suffering is only for finite creatures, the raised fist does no harm to the mountain, so that act of raising a fist is irrelevant as a justification of hell’s eternal duration.

The reason the rich man doesn’t repent in hell is because he knows doing so wouldn’t do him any good, because the sentence of hell on Judgment Day is supposed to be irreversible. The NT’s claim about hell isn’t that hell may or may not be everlasting, depending on whether the sinner finally repents—and of course suffering hellfire after death when God’s existence would be blindingly obvious would drive any sinner whatsoever to repent in a nanosecond. No, the NT doctrine is that hell is eternal. So knowing that that was his sentence, despite the necessarily finite harms following from his sins while on Earth, why would the rich man repent in hell to a God who wouldn’t be listening anymore? 

Have a look at my comment #54 for more on whether God can or should suffer. Remember that you’re the one who compared God to a raped woman who can’t get over the trauma, so you’re the one who led us down that rabbit hole. If you know so much about God, can you explain what it means to say God “can’t get over” human sin, given that God can’t suffer in any way even to the extent of having an unpleasant memory or suffering from empathy (feeling pain on other people’s behalf)? And can you explain how it’s possible to move “against” an immovable object?

***

[I’d typed up another response to Bill T and attempted to post it, but I noticed the webpage didn’t load the new comment as usual. Instead it just took me to the top of the page. I tried posting it again (and then again the next day), and got the same result. Then I noticed that Gilson had already responded to my last two responses to him (I posted those two at 10:26 AM and 10:27 AM, and his was posted at 11:02 AM, so once again he couldn’t have read it with any care or have thought much about it). Here, then, is the response to Bill T which it turns out Gilson's website prevented me from uploading to his comment section.]

BillT (comment #52),
You say the gospel is “a fair and just warning from believers to those who are not. If you chose not to believe that warning that’s fine but you were fairly warned.”

But that’s my problem with your account. The warning wouldn’t be fair because the warning would be issued in double-talk. Is the potential Christian supposed to believe the plain language of the NT, that the unsaved will go forever to suffer in agony in the place reserved for the forces of absolute evil? Or should she believe your understatements and muddying of the water, where you say that the thought of eternal separation from God might seem like “your own personal paradise”? Should she assume hell is punishment for unsaved sinners or should she interpret hell as being only God’s “allowing” them to have exactly what they want?

This is like saying to the convicted murderer: “The electric chair isn’t capital punishment in the sense of retaliation. No, the government is only gracious enough to give the murderer what he wants, namely separation from society. If that separation should just so happen to involve sending a powerful electric current through every cell of his body until that body is smoking dead, that’s only an unfortunate result of trying to live outside of society.”

The reason a government might resort to such political pussy-footing around the purpose of the electric chair is to protect its image of governing a civilized society. Retaliation, after all, is jungle law; it’s as primitive as the instinctive mechanism of self-defense, and as the infantile bitterness of not getting what you want. To sustain the myth that the government has more elevated concerns, capital punishment can be downplayed and spun so as not to seem so primitive.

That’s what’s going on with your defense of the NT’s account of hell. Could it be you’re resorting to such double-talk because you appreciate the apparent conflict between the type of God you see as being revealed by Jesus, and the NT ghoulish statements about hell?

By the way, the reason I was ignoring the complication that hell is for those who reject God’s offer of salvation through faith in Jesus’s sacrificial death is because that’s superfluous in this context. The choice to reject Christianity must itself be a sin, on the Christian view, or else the person’s eternal destination in a moral universe shouldn’t hinge on that choice. And if unbelief is a sin (such as the sin of pride), you’re only adding one more sin to the pile (albeit an important one), so it would still be true that hell is punishment for sin.

Alas, punishing someone isn’t the same as “allowing” something unfortunate to occur, so who knows what to believe? So much for the “fair and just warning.”

***

[This is what I thought was Tom Gilson’s final reply, copied and pasted from his blog.]

Tom Gilson says:
January 12, 2019 at 11:02 am
I need to get over myself? You’re the one who’s written almost 16,000 words on this thread (not including 3,200 recently on other threads) Just for perspective, at 250 words per page (as is average for a Ph.D. dissertation), your input on this page equals about 63 pages. You’re halfway there, given one researcher’s finding that the modal length of a dissertation is about 130 pages. If you’re not trying to make a point with all those words, what are you trying to do?

You say,

By the way, your continual claim that I “don’t know what Christianity teaches” presupposes that there’s only one such set of teachings or one Christian religion, whereas there are a multitude of Christian sects and interpretations on every conceivable issue.

Let me specify: You don’t know much about the Christianity you’re ostensibly engaging with here, which is historic, orthodox, creedal Christianity. Sometimes I hone in further on my own specific evangelical beliefs, but usually I’m defending the Christianity of the centuries, of the great creeds. I don’t care what you know about heterodox doctrines. I don’t care if you can refute them. I’d rather you not send us off on squirrel trails over them. This blog is about historic, orthodox, creedal Christianity.

If you understand that Christianity, you haven’t demonstrated it. And honestly, I have no problem with it when people don’t understand Christian beliefs. My problem with you is that you keep saying you do understand it, while demonstrating clearly you do not.

You ask lots of questions. I have told you already, I am not going to try to match you word for word, much less answer-for-question, since answers take so many more words than questions. And I have no confidence you care about Christian answers, since you know it all already anyway.

Show me I’m wrong and I might engage again.

***

[I wanted to see whether Gilson was blocking me individually for some reason or whether he'd somehow shut down the whole thread, so I tried to post this message under a different name and email address, and it too seemed to be blocked, although I later found out it was only being held in moderation because it was the first post of a first-time user].

John Hue says:
January 13, 2019 at 10:22 am
Cain asks whether it’s possible to move against an immovable object. Of course you can! But the effects of doing so would only backfire. You’d be running in your tracks and the immovable object would remain exactly as it was, since the mover would leave no impact.

It’s the same with the sinner and God. The unsaved sinner’s rebellion harms only that person, not God, and that’s what hell is: the sinner’s self-injury, the backfiring of his life of futile rebellion against his maker.

***

[I thought that would be the end of the exchange, but Gilson put on his Sherlock Holmes hat and posted the following comment on his blog.]

Tom Gilson says:
January 13, 2019 at 12:28 pm
“John,”

You’re a liar. No denying it; this one’s a smoking gun.

I quote from Benjamin Cain here:
So Gilson angrily accused me again of not understanding Christianity and refused to engage with me further unless I show him he’s wrong in thinking I don’t care about Christian answers. I’ve noticed that no one else has posted another comment in that thread, so Gilson has apparently shut down the thread. (To prove that that’s what he did, I tried posting a Christian-sounding comment under a different name and email address, and that comment, too, wasn’t uploaded.) Presumably, Gilson’s point is that only if I show him I’m open to receiving Christian answers in comments on one of his other articles might he deign to converse with me. But for now, he’s going home and he’s taking his ball with him, preventing the side conversations on hell with Bill T and Robert from going forward. Instead of admitting that that’s what he did, though, he leaves the thread with his challenge so that a reader might reasonably conclude that I proved incapable of meeting it and fled from the exchange (since Gilson has prevented me from posting anything else there).
Your comment came from the same IP as this one from Benjamin. You’ve violated the discussion policy, “John,” (number 11 here) and for that you can expect your fake email address to be blocked from further commenting.

Benjamin, several things.

First, my previous comment to you wasn’t angry, as you said in your blog post. That’s not what anger looks like. Your accusation is what projection looks like sometimes, but that’s just a possibility; I won’t commit to an actual accusation, as you did with me.

Second, I haven’t shut down the thread. If I had there’d be no comment box.

Third, I didn’t prevent anyone from posting here. Every new commenter’s first comment is held in moderation until I see it and release it, which I did immediately upon seeing it. I went through my usual work routine upon opening up my computer, and that was first on the list. A few minutes later I came across this blog post of yours.

Fourth, you have a lousy standard of proof if you think your comment from “John Hue” was proof I’d shut you off from any conversation here.

Fifth, I don’t play the kind of shenanigans you accuse me of, letting readers think you wouldn’t respond to me.

Sixth, Now that you’ve played your own shenanigans of this sort with me, I actually am going to block you from further commenting. You get one more chance to have the last word, and it will remain, provided it complies with the agreed discussion guidelines (see the sidebar for the link that’s always there, or click here for convenience. I still reserve the right to delete for cause, based on those guidelines. I reserve the right to let any comment stand, too, as I did with “John’s.” So write accordingly.

Seventh, You jumped to a whole lot of conclusions based on false interpretations of very thin evidence. Do you like doing that?

Eight, You can feel free to copy and paste this comment on your blog. You can even describe it as angry if you like. This time it’s true. But don’t enjoy it too much — I’ll be over it in a few minutes, and moving on to more interesting things.

***

[So I bid Gilson the following farewell on his blog.]

Yes, I wrote the “John Hue” comment. Did you wonder why I would bother to do that? It’s because my response to Bill T’s #52 comment didn’t go through, meaning it never appeared in your comment section even though I sent it three times yesterday and today. So I wanted to see if any comments were getting through. I’ve since posted that response to Bill T on my blog.

If only the first comments from new posters are held in moderation, why wasn’t my response to Bill T posted? I gave you the benefit of the doubt and assumed you’d somehow shut down the whole thread, but if that’s not so, it looks more likely that you blocked me individually from posting. That would be shenanigans.

I wrote the John Hue comment only after you’d apparently blocked my response to Bill T, so as usual you mix things up when you say, ‘you have a lousy standard of proof if you think your comment from “John Hue” was proof I’d shut you off from any conversation here.’

But whatever. I don’t respect you as a thinker or as a Christian, so I’m done with you too. Congratulations on finding your pretext to ban me.

***

[He then explained that he didn't intentionally block that response to Bill T, but it was automatically blocked because it used a word that triggers his prudish website, namely the "pussy" in "pussy-footing." But he's still banning me, despite the mere misunderstanding.]

Tom Gilson says:
January 13, 2019 at 5:23 pm
Your comments yesterday inadvertently hit an automatic-delete flag. Early in my blogging career I was plagued with comments making rude, wrong, and disturbing references to female anatomy. So long, long ago I must have set one of those words as triggers for immediate comment deletion. I can’t post the trigger word here or it will delete again, so I’ll just make it close enough for you to recognize it: You wrote “pu$$y-footing,” and the system said, “There’s that word I can’t permit …”

I didn’t block you, in other words. But I will now. Yes, I understand the frustration. I am sorry your posts were deleted. But I don’t think that constitutes adequate evidence for the sweepingly negative conclusions you reached about me.

You’re welcome to respond one more time.

Afterward

Tom Gilson, "Thinking Christian"
So Gilson angrily accused me again of not understanding Christianity and refused to engage with me further unless I show him he’s wrong in thinking I don’t care about Christian answers. Assuming he's not lying about intentionally blocking my response to Bill T to make it seem as though I'd run from his challenge, there was then a misunderstanding caused by his website's prudishness, which he decided to use as a pretext for banning a critic who'd evidently humiliated him with a devastating critique. 

In one of his last messages Gilson does ask a pertinent question: “If you’re not trying to make a point with all those words, what are you trying to do?”

The answer is simple: I was using Gilson’s comment forum as an opportunity for me to write down some interesting thoughts on Christianity so I could collect them and post them on my blog, which is what I’ve done. I had no illusions about convincing anyone there of anything, and I certainly didn’t intend to enter into a student-teacher relationship, with me as student and Gilson and his Christian readers as my teachers. I went there to debate, because unlike Gilson, I’m a genuine thinker. That’s why I read and write a lot, because I care about philosophical ideas and I have a lot to say about them. A real thinker would be concerned more with the quality than with the quantity of some piece of writing, and clearly wouldn’t whine about the length of comments (which should only have given Gilson more rope to hang me with, from his perspective) while simultaneously demanding I “prove” all of my assertions with arguments. That’s precisely what I did (even though, as I said, a blog’s comment section isn’t a fitting place to prove much of anything decisively).

Gilson’s blog is called “Thinking Christian,” and the reason I spent so much time obliterating his articles and sophistical assertions and evasions is because the misnomer of that title is so galling. A thinking Christian wouldn’t ban politics from his blog’s comment section, to avoid the embarrassment of having to defend the connection between the Republican Party (and especially Donald Trump’s presidency) and evangelical American “Christianity.” But that’s what Gilson does, as I criticized a year ago. And a thinking Christian couldn’t be so easily exposed as a fraud, which is what I’ve done with my participation in his comment sections. Moreover, a genuine thinker would jump at the chance to talk to an articulate fellow with an opposing viewpoint, rather than quibble over red herrings, stoop to cheap personal attacks, and look for excuses to ban a critic who had shot to pieces his reputation as a “thinking Christian.” Just marvel at how weak his religious faith must be for him to have to micromanage comments on his blog with a battery of rules and regulations. It's as though his evangelical Christianity were a business. 

Indeed, a real thinker wouldn’t be an exoteric Christian or monotheist in the first place. That’s not to say there are no intelligent monotheists. But monotheism is about the limits of thinking. In short, monotheism leads to the kind of cosmicist mysticism I present on my blog. From the likes of Job and Ecclesiastes, the thinking monotheist learns to be ethical in a secular, anti-theological fashion, which is what most Jews and Muslims take from the call for faith in a transcendent, quasi-personal source of everything that can be rationally comprehended. A respectable theist understands the humiliating implications of such a God’s “existence,” and so doesn’t mistake her sacred texts for philosophical arguments or for rational explanations. Instead of accusing my arguments, for example, of being “stories” in a pejorative sense, as Gilson did, a responsible theist would have eagerly acknowledged that her religion is all about profound stories, that is, myths, not about arguments or explanations, and that those myths are meant to convey the deflationary lesson that our attempt to understand and control the world is all-too limited and possibly self-defeating. God is supposed to be that which we can never understand, and we naturally fear the prospect of such a permanent unknown.

But it’s not just the “Thinking” part of Gilson’s blog’s title that’s phony. As I explained in my first evisceration of his articles, the Christianity on display there is a form of Americanism that bears no significant relation to the best of what’s in the New Testament or in the tradition of esoteric Christian thought. Needless to say, a real Christian wouldn’t resort to using a misunderstanding as a pretext for banning a critic from commenting on his articles. On the contrary, a real Christian would offer up the other cheek, confessing that he has no business feigning to excel in matters of worldly or natural wisdom, since he’s set his sights on the transcendent.

Christianity, though, was tainted practically from its inception, which is why it’s the world’s worst religion. The kind of Christianity which became conventional in the West was manifestly a betrayal of Jesus’s message. Far from taking to heart the cosmicist lessons of monotheism, of the conflation of all gods and powers into a supernatural source, Jesus was deified, leaving Christians with a jumble of monotheism and polytheism. Like Scientology, Western Christianity became a brainwashing system, a bait and switch lifestyle. (Eastern Christianity is more mystical and Gnostic in its doctrines and methods.)

The New Testament character named Jesus wanted his followers to sacrifice their earthly life because of the alleged imminent end of the world on Judgment Day or at least because of the insignificance of that world compared to God’s kingdom in which everything would be turned upside down (that’s the slave morality Nietzsche railed against). All authentic Christians, then, are omegas. But Catholicism sold out Jesus by teaming up with the failing Rome Empire to become such abominations as the “Roman Catholic Church” and the “Holy Roman Empire.” Even when Protestants rebelled against the inevitable corruption of such an arrangement, many of them, too, would compromise for earthly power and happiness, missing entirely the esoteric message of monotheism and failing to develop the concomitant respect for horror, humility, and compassion. Thus we have the blasphemy that the superpowerful, wealthy, materialistic United States, that haven for alphas, shallow extroverts, and consumers is predominantly a “Christian” nation. But “American Christian” is practically an oxymoron, especially if we’re talking about the “conservative” variety.

Of course, Gilson’s particular interest in thinking is Machiavellian, as he indicates on the About page of his blog where he thusly states one of his “passions”: “what I care about most is equipping Christians to be strong in their faith, knowledge, thinking, and strategies so that we can be more effective in reaching others everywhere with the life and love of Christ” (my emphasis). Like the theocratic “Christians” in the US who “study” at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, gaining an academic degree as cover so these theocrats might be installed in powerful positions in what’s constitutionally required to be a secular government, Gilson, the Campus Crusade for Christ, and now his blog and his work at a conservative news website (The Stream) only pretend to care about thinking, that is, about being philosophical. They use the trappings of philosophy and rationality to persuade those who see themselves as modern to embrace the premodern Christian excuses for existential inauthenticity. Aligning themselves, in effect, with the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoevsky’s parable, these charlatans mean to reach out to members of sophisticated, science-centered cultures with sophistical theological arguments, helping to prevent an outbreak of existential sanity.  

At any rate, that’s what I took from my exchange with a “thinking Christian.” I took my writings which I posted on my blog, and I reinforced my suspicion not just that Gilson is a fraud, but that the very notion that a genuine Christian would devote herself to rationally defending her faith is wrongheaded.

Lastly, Gilson wants to know whether I’m interested in “Christian answers” to my critical questions. My response is: not especially, since I’m interested in thoughtful, honest, philosophical efforts to arrive at the truth. So while Gilson is waiting for me to not laugh while he hypocritically recites his childish creed, I’ll be waiting for Gilson to prove to me he’s not an egregious fraud. Until then, I’ll use his example as fodder for satire.

25 comments:

  1. Or...

    You could assemble the 60+ pages into a PDF, as I would enjoy reading the back and forth tremendously. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I could do that, since I've already saved a copy of both of the threads. But while I hope my side of the exchange is thought-provoking, I'm not sure the debate as a whole deserves that kind of treatment. In particular, Gilson was evasive and disingenuous in that he was posturing to protect the faith of his Christian readers. In that respect, the debate was one-sided and thus not a real debate. As is clear from both the quality and quantity of my comments, I showed up to debate. Gilson, not so much. But perhaps a PDF edition would work as a sort of satire. I'll see what I can do...

      Delete
    2. https://www.thinkingchristian.net/copyright-information/

      Delete
    3. Looks like there won't be a PDF that includes the whole exchange, because Gilson copyrights the worthless sophistries and evasions that pass for his comments on his articles. Evangelical Christianity is only a business and a con, after all, so it's got to be handled as such.

      Delete
  2. That is.. The best unintentional comedy of the evening. Tom supplied the zinger after the credits.

    Speaking of PDFs are you still publishing recent collected essays? Are you due (beware including Tom's haha)?

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    Replies
    1. Note that I've updated the article to reflect the aftermath that's occurred on Gilson's blog. He says he didn't intentionally block my comment, but his website did so automatically because my response to Bill T used a trigger word: "pussy" in "pussy-footing." But he's still banning me, despite the mere misunderstanding. So which is funnier, that or his copyright policy? It's hard to tell.

      Delete
    2. I forgot to respond to your question about the ebook editions of my articles. I stopped putting them out about a year ago, I think, because I had less time to write new articles, let alone compile the old ones. I still mean to put out a second big volume on Amazon. I'll see if I can start the free ebooks again.

      Delete
  3. Benjamin,

    In the gist of your reply you say "Should she assume hell is punishment for unsaved sinners or should she interpret hell as being only God’s “allowing” them to have exactly what they want?"

    The answer is yes. You are asking two questions and there are two answers.

    First, as far as the Christian perspective of spending an eternity away from God, we warn those who would contemplate such an act that it will be an eternal punishment. Second, as far as it being just, it is perfectly just for those who choose to live their eternity outside of God's presence that they be allowed to do so.

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    Replies
    1. Bill T, I’m glad you found my reply.

      If there are two answers and the answers depend on perspective, then the answers are subjective, as I said. The question is whether hell is in fact punishment for sin, as the NT says. You say the NT is written only from a Christian perspective, which seems to mean the NT isn’t objective or factual.

      Regardless, if hell is punishment only from the Christian viewpoint, whereas it’s a personal paradise from an unsaved sinner’s viewpoint, this must mean hell needn’t involve any suffering since it would all depend on perspective. Only if a _Christian_ soul were sent to hell would that soul be tormented, whereas the unsaved sinner would love the separation from God. So it would be as I said: God would have created two kinds of heaven.

      If instead you want to say that the unsaved sinner is _objectively wrong_ to expect everlasting separation from God to be a paradise, and that hell is _in fact_ punishment for sin, you’ve got to give up your statement that God only allows these sinners to have what they want, namely separation from God, since they would obviously want that separation not to involve unrelenting torment in hellfire. No unsaved sinner wants to suffer forever, so that’s just evasive double-talk, to suggest that hell is a loving God just giving these sinners what they most want (in a way that no one but a merciless, tyrannical deity would want).

      Your problem is that your account of hell is self-contradictory. Either hell is punishment for sin (and therefore requires suffering as retaliation) or hell is a compassionate submission to the unsaved sinner’s desire for pain-free separation from God. You can’t have it both ways. That’s why the Trinity splits up these concepts by separating tyrannical Yahweh from merciful Jesus. That’s the bait and switch: you lure prospective Christians in with a love-bombing interpretation of hell, according to which God’s only graciously giving everyone what they want. Then you hit them with the totalitarian objective fact that God cares only about getting his pound of flesh, so the Christian Heaven turns out to be like the North Korean dictatorship, with all the saved souls having to smile before the tyrant and ignore the everlasting torment of most of humanity.

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  4. You continue to conflate two completely separate questions.

    First is eternal separation from God an eternal punishment. The answer is yes. Of course, you have to believe in the existence of a just, benevolent God for this to be true. That's the Christian perspective I referenced.

    Second, is it just for God to so punish those who reject him. Yes. people who reject God and his offer of salvation do so of their own free will. They choose to separate themselves from God and God allows them to make that choice. Thus, their his act is just and justifiable.

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  5. And you continue to misconstrue my prior statement about separation from God be a "personal paradise". I was presenting to you a hypothetical question. You claimed God was an (expletive deleted) God. I asked you the hypothetical question if God was a (expletive deleted) God, why would you think eternal separation such a terrible punishment. I never said it was true that eternal separation from God would be a personal paradise. I asked you why if you believe God is an (expletive deleted) God wouldn't it be so for you.

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    1. I don’t see why eternal separation from God would count as a punishment only for those who believe in God. If the Christian is correct, when the atheist dies, she’ll be judged as an unsaved sinner and so she’ll be punished forever. At that point, of course, she’ll know God exists, and assuming she’s being tormented in hellfire, God will be retaliating for her sins. So the punishment she’d undergo throughout her afterlife would be objective. She doesn’t have to trust in God as a Christian to feel pain from hellfire. She doesn’t even have to accept that the suffering is punishment for her sin. She committed the sins and she’ll feel the pain; that’s all that’s required for hell to be punishment for sin.

      So let’s leave aside the subjectivist interpretation and turn to something else you said: “people who reject God and his offer of salvation do so of their own free will. They choose to separate themselves from God and God allows them to make that choice.”

      This is extremely dubious. Just ask yourself whether you could freely choose to reject eternity with Luke Skywalker. If it turned out the Jedi is the true God and he casts you into hell with Darth Vader, saying to you, “You freely chose to reject me while you lived, so hell is what you deserve,” would you respect Jedi “justice” or would you think reality is absurd?

      Obviously, you don’t freely choose to reject that which you rationally come to believe is unreal. You don’t freely reject the idea of spending eternity with Luke Skywalker, because you’d regard that notion as insane.

      But you’re obliged to say nonbelief in Christianity is a choice or else you couldn’t regard atheism as a sin. If atheism and the rejection of Christianity aren’t sins, hell would be unjust since the NT says divine judgment hinges on our response to what Christians call the gospel. The problem is that the notion that our response to Christianity is a free choice is as preposterous as the notion that our response to a fiction like Star Wars or Harry Potter is a free choice. If you could force yourself to accept as true that which you rationally think is false, you’d be on a sure path to insanity (like in the dystopia 1984, where Big Brother forces Winston to deny what he knows is true).

      You ask, If God is so tyrannical, why shouldn’t an atheist welcome separation from God? As I explained, I don’t regard God as tyrannical, because I doubt that nature has a personal creator. What I said is that the character Yahweh as portrayed in the OT comes across as tyrannical, because of the conditions under which those texts were written and edited.

      But in any case, the answer seems clear: just as the victims living in North Korea have to put on a fake smile to avoid being beaten or killed by their dictator, an atheist wouldn’t welcome eternity apart from a tyrannical deity, since just such a deity would be liable to punish nonbelievers forever out of spite. Hence the hell doctrine. If what were offered were eternal separation from a tyrannical God that wouldn’t involve the worst suffering imaginable, that would obviously be preferable.

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    2. "I don’t see why eternal separation from God would count as a punishment only for those who believe in God."

      I don't know how many times I have to say this but I never said "eternal separation from God would count as a punishment only for those who believe in God." Again, I asked why someone who believes God is an (expletive deleted) God would think it so.

      Your Luke Skywalker analogy doesn't really make any sense. Luke Skywalker doesn't claim to be God. Belief or non belief in them has nothing to do with belief or non belief in God.

      But I'll play along. You've convinced that belief in God is as nonsensical as belief in Luke Skywalker and that's fine. However, taking your analogy, if I'm wrong about Luke Skywalker I realize that if they do turn out to be as powerful as God what I believed about them won't change that. I'll be subject to their judgement no matter.

      So, if you'd return the favor and indulge my point of view. If you're wrong about God and God does turn out to be real what you believed or didn't believe about him won't change that. You'll be subject to his judgement no matter.

      It's not about who has the better arguments. It's about whether you chosen correctly. Believing or not believing in God doesn't mean he does or doesn't exist. I'm confident that believing in God aligns with reality better than non belief (or even belief in Luke Skywalker). I'm willing to face the consequences if I' wrong. How about you.

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    3. I’ll leave aside whether some of what you said implies a subjectivist interpretation of hell, because I don’t think you grasped the more important point I was trying to make about whether atheists freely choose to separate themselves from God. The point isn’t to beg the question of whether God exists. Rather, we’re talking about the atheist’s mental state. The point is that the atheist’s attitude towards God is the same as yours towards Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter. So if you can’t reasonably be said to freely choose to separate yourself from what you believe are fictional characters (supposing someone interpreted the fictions as calling for union with them in the afterlife), neither can the atheist reasonably be said to voluntarily separate herself from the Christian God.

      It’s just a misnomer to which you’re committed to protect the image of your deity. If the rejection of Christianity, for example, isn’t voluntary, because the critic’s reason and sense of the evidence force the issue, that means hell would be not so much a punishment of sin but the result of a gross misunderstanding: God would have supplied us only with deeply problematic, ambiguous evidence for theism or the gospel, at best; moreover, some people are more gullible than others or are raised in Christian households and so have an “advantage” over others, and factors like those would account for the distribution of who winds up in heaven or hell.

      In that respect, it’s rather like the innocent misunderstanding that Gilson pounced on as a pretext to ban me from commenting on his website. His website blocked one of my comments because the comment used a forbidden word in a non-forbidden way (“pussy-footing”). That led me to post under a different name to see whether any comments were getting through. Despite the truth coming out about the source of this confusion, Gilson’s maintaining the ban. There’s no hint of justice there, but only of absurdity and the weakness of his religious faith.

      Likewise, the evidence for Christianity is mixed, at best, rather than anything like overwhelming, especially within the Age of Reason. So lots of people are reasonably led to believe the Christian God is fictional like Luke Skywalker. So whether God exists or not, that’s the state of these atheists’ minds, and so they can’t freely choose how to respond to what they’re rationally led to believe is nonsensical, just as you can’t freely force yourself to affirm that Luke Skywalker exists if you rationally believe that character is only fictional--not unless you want to drive yourself crazy like Winston Smith in 1984 or like a brainwashed victim of the North Korean regime.

      So yes, if God does exist, atheists would be subject to his judgment, but the question is whether that judgment would be just or more like Gilson’s decision to enforce the ban based on a mere innocent misunderstanding (i.e. on a mixed bag in terms of the evidence for theism or for Christianity’s respectability).

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  6. Hey dude. I randomly stumbled upon your blog a couple of years back when i was searching for pieces that reflected on toronto's bland culture. I was impressed with the rest of your blog but the lengthy posts turned me off. I did save your pdfs for later reading however.

    Recently i was browsing theough my files and stumbled upon them. I came back to your website to find out you compiled a book, ans so i ordered it. I've been reading it, and damn, i love it.

    It articulates a lot of ideas i'vr had as well as coherently expands upon them. It has taught me so much already, and I appreciate it. It's truly valuable work.

    Though I disagree with you on some points, I have to say, I really dislike how you ended it. I wanted to write to you about your defeatist view towards life in the face of the undead. I wholeheartedly disagree that as someone that is not analpha or a beta, that your only choipersevereretreat into a sort of surrender. On the contrary, I believe that there is a sort of aesthetic in winning. The knowledge we have should amything but motivate you, and that is the truly transcended evolutionary mentality that one ought to adapt to once they have faced the void. If anything, you have a responsibility to your yourself to persevere and make something of the womderful knowledge the undead has revealed to you.

    Thanks for your work!

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    1. Thanks! I'm not sure what you mean by "how I end" the work. If you're talking about "Cosmic Horror for Clever Animals," it ends with a look at the farcical society which stands opposed to the outsider who sees through the theistic idols to the horror of the true God (living-dead nature) and who learns to adopt a posthuman vision of everything's aesthetic dimension. I've written a lot since 2016 that builds on the foundational articles that that book represents.

      While I haven't written self-help advice or a set of step-by-step instructions on how enlightened people should behave, I don't think I've said that omegas should just "surrender." I've said a comedic perspective can help enlightened individuals live with their unpleasant knowledge, and I've speculated that we're due for an unembarrassing hypermodern religion (possibly combined with transhumanism), but I haven't meant to have written the final word on the practical implications of my writings.

      I agree that we have a responsibility to persevere and to apply our knowledge somehow. That's why I've explicitly argued against suicide, antinatalism, and Scott Bakker's sort of eliminativism. I've certainly got more thinking to do, though, as to how an enlightened subpopulation can succeed, and what that success would look like. (See, for example, my "Necronomicon" writings about the fictional cult of Schulze.) I don't think that "success" would be fit for everyone. On the contrary, most folks would deem existential success a failure, because they're beholden to a farcical society.

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  7. You can engage in all the justification you like as far as whether God's judgement is just. I believe when (or if from your point of view) you face him you will find that he provided you far better than "deeply problematic, ambiguous evidence for theism or the gospel,". You have been given ample evidence for God's existence and the truth of the Bible and you have chosen to ignore it. You will have walked away from God's gracious love and you alone will bear the responsibility for that.

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    1. It's strange how you can't see that if this "far better" evidence for Christianity is supposed to come to me from the likes of you or Tom Gilson, the evidence can't be nearly as compelling as the mountains of anti-theistic evidence supplied by science and philosophy over the last several hundred years.

      If you and Gilson are average representatives of Christianity, and I embarrassed Gilson so that he had to scramble to find a pretext to prevent me from commenting further on his website, and you can't even plausibly explain how the rejection of Christianity is always due to a free choice, why should I be moved by these empty threats of yours? Doesn't it look more likely that your worldview is anachronistic, and you've got to grasp at straws to maintain some semblance of your self-respect--at least when you step outside your Christian bubble?

      Moreover, as I explained to Gilson, "What monotheism and mysticism should do is show the limit of our attempts to explain and to understand the world. Again, that’s the point that emerges from the Jewish scriptures...this is a big problem with the new literalistic religions: they lose their purpose by attempting to emulate science. Religious texts excel at being myths, that is, at telling a special kind of story. What they don’t do well at all is to enhance our understanding of how the world really works. The problem is that with the rise of science and scientism, many members of exoteric religions have forgotten what religion and myths are for. They want to control other people the way scientists and engineers control nature. These religionists use their stories not to improve their character or to learn why we should be humble and compassionate, but to exploit others’ weaknesses, to dominate out of arrogance, vanity, or resentment. In short, these secretly science-centered religions become spiritually bankrupt."

      You don't even see that in boasting about the strength of the "evidence" for theism and Christianity, you're following nontheistic science rather than a mystical fellow like Jesus.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by. Anytime you feel like scaring yourself with a glimpse of the truth, you know where to find me.

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  8. So, without anything of substance to say you resort to personal insults. I figured at some point you would go with that.

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    1. The substance was in the comment you ignored (the Jan 17, 8:30 AM one). What "personal insults" are you talking about?

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    2. By the way, Bill T, your claim that atheists "choose" to reject adequate evidence for Christianity because they prefer hell to eternity with God is a personal attack on atheists, and an obnoxious one at that. This is because that choice would have to be sinfully or selfishly motivated, so you're insinuating that atheists secretly know Christianity is true but they choose to go against reason because they love sinning more than God.

      So when you said, “You have been given ample evidence for God's existence and the truth of the Bible and you have chosen to ignore it. You will have walked away from God's gracious love and you alone will bear the responsibility for that,” you were personally attacking not just atheists but me, because you were insinuating I’m the type of devilish creature which could love sin and hell more than the God it secretly knows exists.

      You're apparently oblivious to the ad hominem nature of that claim, since you had the gall to accuse me of avoiding a substantive conversation and resorting to personal attacks. I take it the reason you're unaware that you'd already degraded the conversation by resorting to ad hominem back on Gilson's blog is because you were only repeating that Evangelical meme and hadn't thought it through, which is also why you avoided the substance of my Jan 17, 8:30 AM comment and threw down this red herring about personal attacks.

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  9. Mythical Father Figure sends imaginary entities to nonexistent bad place. Not worth arguing about.
    Ironically, this blog is about the punishing nature of being separated from God, following the realization that there is no God. And, no, from what I’ve read here, Ben doesn’t seem content with that state of affairs.

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    1. I'm not sure what you mean, Noel. Are you saying I'm not content with atheism? Or with producing a rigidly atheistic blog that avoids confronting religions?

      My blog isn't just about being separated from God. We're necessarily separated from a fictitious God to make room for the real gods we become (satanism, transhumanism, technoscientific mastery of nature). That's a Nietzschean irony I explore, which is that we deal with the death of God by worshiping idols; moreover, the theistic fictions might always have served as blueprints for our godhood, since we're the only known hyper-intelligent and creative beings who can look to our myths to know how to behave as we acquire more godlike abilities.

      I agree, though, the micro debate on the nature of hell is trivial compared to the epistemic abyss that separates the naturalist from the evangelical Christian. The reason I debate Christians, though, is to skewer their misunderstandings and vices, to uncover existentially significant ironies and absurdities. It's also just fun.

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  10. Bill said if hell is being separated from God then you should be happy there if you think He is a maniac. But here we are in a Godless universe and you don’t seem happy about it. Meant as drollery.
    More interesting to me are burden of proof and what counts as evidence. When people have a poorly supported yet cherished belief they usually insist that the burden of proof is on the disagreeing party, even if they have to ignore the usual standards for deciding such things: usually the positive claim has the burden, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Then what counts as evidence? Obviously not, “I really believe this is true.” But personal experiences can be real without being scientifically valid, so I believe there is a gray area for which the appropriate response is something like, “I appreciate that your experience seems real to you, but I need more evidence to believe it myself.” That is my response to religious types of beliefs that smart, sincere people share with me. But not the disengenous proselytizers you’ve been jawing with here - their arrogance is anathema to the kind of charitable discussion of purported evidence I’m talking about.

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    1. Ah, I see.

      There are some interesting philosophical issues with the burden of proof in a debate, but as I try to explain in "Theistic Proofs in an Echo Chamber," these issues are beside the point if we're talking about the conflict between naturalism and authentic religion. To talk about rational "proofs" of God's existence is to be inadvertently led into a science-centered worldview and thus into objectifying God, which misses the point of religious faith. Religion is about nonrational commitment to a collective way of life, not about rational explanations of evidence or logical arguments, since God by definition would be beyond all such things. In short, those with an authentic religious mindset are more mystical than scientistic or theological about their religious beliefs. So there's something wrong with the question of the burden of proof in this context.

      In any case, a nontheist needn't complain about taking up the full burden, since there's more than enough absurdity to go around in any of the monotheistic religions. That's because those religions (especially Christianity and Islam) try to have it both ways with respect to faith and reason (because of how the rise of science distorted the monotheist's view of religious knowledge), so there's all sorts of incoherence to clean up.

      Yeah, personal experience shouldn't count as objective evidence, since the issue is how we should live in general. Contrary to Sam Harris, reason won't provide the normative part of the answer so we have to latch emotionally onto something, as Paul Tillich said. Our experience shapes how we interpret or weigh the evidence.

      I agree that Gilson and co. aren't worthy philosophical partners. They are disingenuous and incurious. But it was fun for me all the same. I've been thinking of submitting my material to Patheos, so I could write religious columns on a regular basis over there. Unfortunately, I don't presently have the time to keep up with the YouTube videos to build my audience. Still, I might see if they'll take me on, since I'm pretty sure many of those readers would be interested in what I have to say about religion.

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