Sunday, January 6, 2019

Second Debate with a “Thinking Christian”

It’s been a year since my exchange with the “Thinking Christian,” so over the holidays I dipped back into that blog and found an article called, The Death of God, the Descent of Man, the Death of Humanity, in which Tom Gilson argues that ironically, instead of killing God, naturalism kills humanity by explaining away our godlike traits of consciousness, freedom, and reason, and by obscuring our God-given purpose in life. I posted a response and we had an interesting discussion until Gilson derailed it by posting an article about the incuriosity and hubris of atheists like me who dare to attack God’s character as though even Christians had to accept that criticism.

Here, then, is a record of my side of the exchange. If you enjoy reading debates, do check out the threads on his blog for both sides and for the full context. Honestly, though, Gilson didn’t put much effort into his comments and this post will be long enough as it is. It’s best, then, to focus here on the more interesting part of the discussion, which happened to be supplied by me. Note that I add a few explanatory notes within square brackets. Note also that the exchange has continued, but these are the highlights.


We “know” Nietzsche’s atheism and reductive naturalism are false, because of “undeniable self-awareness and experience”? Is that the same intuitive basis that led us to believe Earth is geometrically central to the universe, because just look: even the sun revolves around us! Or are those intuitions of human freedom, purpose, and cosmic worth associated with the dozens of cognitive biases and fallacies we inherently perpetrate, as shown by cognitive science? We “know” we’re meant for something greater, because we feel that that should be so. And we should go with our gut, because truthiness matters more than truth.

This is an argument from unpleasant consequences. To be up-front and honest about your argument, you should identify as a pragmatist and say—along the lines of Pascal’s Wager—that we’d much prefer for there to be a God, an afterlife, and perfect justice, and that that preference is all that matters because utility outweighs considerations of objective truth. But that would be crass, wouldn’t it? You’d rather have it both ways: the pretense that Christians alone care about truth and reality, and the shameless appeal to intuition and to what feels right even when that feeling flies in the face of naturalistic science (of Darwin, cosmology, cognitive science, etc).

You’re also strawmanning Nietzsche. He understood perfectly well that atheism is horrific, that unpleasant reality is too much to bear for most people and that the truth could indeed destroy humanity. That was the whole point of Thus Spoke Zaruthustra. People aren’t ready for the atheistic prophet’s message. Most people aren’t strong enough to stomach the natural truth, which is why, for example, the “Last Men” will distract themselves with superficial pleasures to avoid facing the harsh facts (that there’s no god, afterlife, or cosmic purpose or justice, and that it’s up to us alone to create meaning). This is the problem of nihilism, which Nietzsche said atheism (i.e. natural reality) threatens us with.


Your appeal to humanness [in saying that theistic intuitions belong to humanness] looks like the No True Scotsman fallacy. “No real American would eat fancy cheese.” “Real human nature is as we intuit it, or as I arbitrarily say it is: rational, free, and made in God’s image.”

A better way of making your point would be to pick up on the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars’ distinction between the manifest and the scientific images of human nature. What you call humanness is the manifest image, the intuitive one we all experience through pre-reflective introspection. Then there’s the scientific set of findings which often contradict the way we naively see ourselves.

For example, we often we think we’re great thinkers, but it turns out we’re not as inherently rational as we like to believe. According to the cognitive scientific image of our nature, our intuitions are heuristics, rules of thumb, stereotypes, or snap judgments that evolved to work in desperate situations but that lead us more often to comforting or to otherwise emotional hunches, reinforcing what we want to believe, than to how the world really works.

There’s the Dunning-Kruger effect, according to which the more you know, the less confident you’re likely to be, and conversely (and disastrously) the less you know, the more confident you’re likely to be. So the most ignorant and least qualified individuals are likely the loudest voices in the room. That’s an example of how the scientific image can undercut the manifest image.

True, cognitive science is eminently rational, but that doesn’t show that human commonsense is inherently rational. Science is a relatively recent institution that grows out of some human traits (curiosity, the lust for power, the penchant for organizing the world with mental maps) while conflicting with others, such as with our preference for our intuitive self-models. If scientific methods were intuitive or reflective of “humanness,” we’d have been doing modern science (testing hypotheses to bypass our subjective biases) for hundreds of thousands of years. Instead, Isaac Newton practically invented the systematic procedures of scientific reasoning, so the scientific image emerges largely from early-modern culture. (The Presocratics were doing protoscience, as were skeptics and inventors in ancient China, India, and elsewhere.)

As such, scientific findings are free to contradict commonsense as they often do. See, for example, quantum mechanics, cosmology (the universe is far larger and older—not to mention more indifferent to our plight—than we’d have believed based only on intuition and direct experience), and evolutionary biology (we’re genetically and historically related to the other animal species in that we have a common, not a special origin).

I agree that many critics of religion add philosophical interpretations to science. Some scientists, such as Jerry Coyne and Neil deGrasse Tyson themselves add scientism, which biases them against both philosophy and religion. The science is what it is, though. Mind you, the science can easily be made compatible with religion, because we’re free to reinterpret scriptures since the latter are often vague or poetic.

Most biologists don’t think natural selection is the only evolutionary mechanism, but these same biologists also don’t find that we have a special origin, that we were created directly by a deity as opposed to evolving like all the other species on the planet. So that’s the biological part of the scientific image of our nature. It’s not just philosophical interpretation that precludes the theological view; rather, the religious judgment that we have a unique and divine origin and that we’re meant to be above the animals isn’t scientific in the first place, because it’s not testable, quantifiable, or empirically meaningful. 

The bottom line is that you want to defend the manifest image against the scientific one. I do as well, to some extent, and the trick is to do so without strawmanning science or philosophical naturalism.


Your argument about the bias of biologists looks to me like a red herring. I suspect you’re right that most biologists have liberal attitudes towards sex. Rhetorically, you could use that association to convince intellectually lazy folks that there’s nothing more to Darwinian biology than that liberal bias. That would be a case of demagoguery.

None of which would change the fact that the “natural laws” in Feser’s Aristotelian view of metaphysical purposes aren’t scientific concepts, because they’re intrinsically normative. A final cause is a design based on the designer’s intention to do some good. So if natural regularities were intelligently designed, those patterns would be something like moral restrictions, meaning that God would have made the universe to be good, as Gen.1:31 says. Thus, natural laws would be moral commandments and so the distinction between descriptions and prescriptions would collapse.

Alas, science as it was shaped by the Scientific Revolution deals with descriptions of objective patterns in nature, not with evaluations of how things should be. For that reason, many scientists and philosophers have come to the realization that “natural law” is a euphemism and a hangover from early-modern deism. It makes more sense to speak of scientific models and probabilities than of natural laws which are easily confused with value-laden commandments.

Objective, quantified normality isn’t the same as normativity. So attributing final causes or purposes to natural events isn’t scientific. On the contrary, science is in the business of circumventing all subjective value judgments, to show us how things objectively are. Arguably, the scientific worldview is therefore limited, since subjectivity and value may be real too. It’s just that scientific methods aren’t useful in telling us about them. That’s what art, religion, and the humanities are for.


I agree that Feser would consider teleology a matter of metaphysics, not science. My point was that academic biologists aren’t biased against teleology; rather, they discount teleology because the concept of a “final cause” or of a built-in purpose in nature is value-laden and thus unscientific. Scientists only explain how things actually happen or predict what will likely happen. They’re not in the business of telling us what should happen or what’s good for all things, so they’ve no use for teleology (for scientific purposes). That’s the alternative to your allegations of bias and a culture war (or a spiritual battle).

If by [asking me whether I believe there’s any] “real knowledge,” you mean absolute representations of facts that mystically agree with reality, I regard that concept of knowledge as confused and meaningless. I’m pragmatic about knowledge, so I have no trouble saying there’s nonscientific knowledge, that is, that there are useful models and maps that help us achieve various nonscientific goals. I’m even open to religious knowledge in that respect, although I combine pragmatism with an aesthetic respect for creativity, so I’d prefer novelty to conformity.

I take it you think the Christian creed, though, counts as real knowledge in that the Christian propositions reflect the facts in some complete or absolutely adequate way (as far as humans on earth are capable of; the full account will arrive only in Heaven). But what exactly is meant by speaking of absolute adequacy? Take a step back and look at the concepts involved in any account of reality and you’ll find much that’s parochial. Our conceptions are all-too human, which means that comparing them to inhuman facts is like comparing xylophones to bicycles. Can a xylophone capture the reality of a bicycle? Or can a watermelon agree or correspond with a dinosaur? How, then, can a neural spasm or scribbled ink “represent” the truth of anything else?

There’s natural meaning in the sense of information conveyed in effects about their causes, but that’s the stuff only of practical detective-work, not of mystical adequacy or Truth.

Now you’ll want to say that Christianity isn’t mere human projection, along with all our other “representations,” since God revealed the Truth to us. God inspired the New Testament’s authors and so Christian propositions magically agree with reality. And that appeal to divine revelation would put the obscure miracle in the Christian’s version of the correspondence theory of truth.


I’d like to go back to the point I think you were making in your article, so I don’t miss the forest for the trees and since not even a skeptic like David Hume would say there’s no such thing as rationality. If we include in human nature all our capacities, then of course logic, evidence-testing, and even institutional science are natural to humanity. They’re things that people can do.

But that would be moving the goal posts from how you were thinking of humanness in your article. Your article contrasts two interpretations of humanness, the naturalist’s and the Christian’s. The naturalist conception of what we are—according to which we’re animals with no absolute dignity, supernatural freedom or cosmic purpose—spells the death of what you’d prefer to call humanness as such, namely our elevation above the animals on account of our being made in God’s image. So you’re arguing that Nietzsche and Darwin and the other naturalists generally kill not just God but “humanity” in that Christian sense.

Thus you say, “We know — not from philosophy or theology, but from our own undeniable self-awareness and experience — that we’re meant for something greater.” And you say that we know about that supernatural purpose and “nature” of ours “based on the most direct evidence of all: our own constant experience.” That’s your appeal to intuition, to introspection, and to what Sellars called the manifest image.

Alas, you say, liberal culture is dangerously confused because naturalism is ironically self-destructive for humanity. That’s why you say social justice warriors are clinging to politically correct pseudo-identities, because atheism has pulled the rug out from under them.

Now the obvious response is that you’re only shooting the messenger. It’s not the naturalist philosophers that have undermined our self-serving beliefs, but natural reality on which they’ve merely reported. That’s why to avoid simply begging the question, you appeal to intuition and to introspection to explain how we know it’s not objective reality which blows up our delusions of grandeur, but wrongheaded naturalists who willfully ignore the evidence provided by commonsense (that we’re superior to the other animals and made for a great purpose).

What, though, is the basis of your trust in commonsense? Is it mere expedience? If you’re aware of the findings in psychology that commonsense misleads us all the time and that our inherent powers of reasoning and emotional problem-solving didn’t evolve to present us with The Truth, you must be presupposing that God gave us commonsense as part of our telos. And of course the naturalist will deny that assumption.

Moreover, if God did implant commonsense in us, God is not the benevolent fellow Christians make him out to be, as is clear, for example, from the Aeon article, “The bad news on human nature, in 10 findings from psychology,” by Christian Jarrett. In short, our commonsense is animalistic and barbaric, not angelic. For example, we naturally—as part of our ingrained human nature—take pleasure in other people’s suffering. And we’re naturally biased against strangers and foreigners. And we’re naturally dogmatic, hypocritical, and vain. And we naturally prefer our leaders to have psychopathic traits.

Indeed, that’s why Jesus had to fight against human inclinations, to point out that God has much higher standards. Whereas we’re naturally prone to think the worst of each other, even if we manage to act well, God expects us to love our enemies. Paul says the natural man is incapable of appreciating the gospel and that only with the Holy Spirit’s guidance can the natural man be transformed into a spiritual being that can live up to God’s lofty plans for us. So there’s a biblical case against your argument too. 

Notice, by the way, that natural selection explains why our instincts are barbaric and fallible, because they evolved in a hostile environment in which we had to prioritize our mere survival and couldn’t hope to afford to be moral and angelic or philosophical. The better angels of our nature evolved only imperfectly and by accident. By contrast, Christians are saddled with the barbarity of our nature as part of the problem of evil, which they answer by saying we’re guilty of original sin. Either way, appealing to commonsense (as William Craig likes to do too, when it suits him) is dubious for philosophical or for spiritual purposes.


By referring to your comment #6, I take it you’re asking me to address your presuppositionalist argument that naturalism is incoherent since it entails the end of humanness (in the Christian, intuitive, manifest sense of humanness) while also inadvertently demonstrating the reality of the traits of humanness (consciousness, reason, freewill, and our superiority to the other animal species owing to our God-given purpose).

But naturalism prohibits only miraculous versions of these traits, and most naturalist philosophers aren’t eliminativists about consciousness, reason, and freewill. Also, once you appeal to a miracle to make sense of consciousness or freewill, it does you no good to charge naturalism with incoherence, since any worldview that affirms that a miracle occurred or that describes some trait as obscurely supernatural will likewise be incoherent. So for the sake of argument I’ll focus on the last trait which is the one that most plausibly conflicts with naturalism.

Naturalism does indeed deprive us of an objective, intended purpose in the sense of one that’s built into the whole universe and that we don’t merely choose for ourselves. We did evolve with the other species and no species is absolutely greater than any other. Still, there can easily be objective biological comparisons, because some species might be better at achieving certain tasks, depending on their body-types. So fish are obviously better at swimming than birds, while birds fly better than fish. Likewise, social mammals are better at thinking and learning than, say, insects. And our species is obviously great at what we do: taking control of the evolutionary process, breaking free of the biological life cycle, and acquiring godlike knowledge and power. No other species that we know of does that, so a naturalist has no problem saying that we’re objectively superior to the other animals in that relative, instrumental sense: we’ve proven superior to the rest in achieving those goals (which we set for us).
By the way, I don’t see any theistic advantage in saying that that superiority or that any of our other traits (consciousness, reason, freewill) is illusory rather than real, since the theist posits a hidden ultimate reality, God, relative to which everything else is false, flawed, and misleading. Hindus call nature “maya” (illusion). Following Plato, Christian Orthodox theologians likewise regard nature as comparatively unreal.

As for the naturalistic eliminativists, their error is to confuse emergent constructs with illusions, in which case the only reality would be the simplest forms of matter (e.g. two-dimensional strings, according to string theory). So planets and stars would likewise be “illusory” just because they’re made from elements. There’s a fallacy of division in assuming that just because a whole is made up of parts, the whole has no independent features or causal power or reality. That’s what we find throughout nature: orders of complexity and creative (and destructive) processes. So consciousness, reason, and freedom are produced by the brain, and the brain in turn is made up of complex chemistry. If the brain can be a real product of chemical and evolutionary processes, the brain’s functions can be just as real. Much of this talk of reality and illusion is only semantic or definitional.

As for the question of whether our species loses its dignity, given our evolutionary background and animal nature, the theistic conception of our superiority was ironically an excuse for us to behave in a more beastly fashion than any other animal species is capable of. 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? If the biblical God is a jealous, irrational, sadistic tyrant, wouldn’t the specially-created children of such a deity be expected to make a mess of the planet, to squabble over territory, enslaving and exterminating billions of people, not to mention more recently, with factory farming, torturing and killing domesticated animals on the scale of an ongoing holocaust? And isn’t that just what we find, that we’re vain in deeming ourselves worthy of controlling the planet, because while we’re great at empowering ourselves with knowledge and technology, morality doesn’t come easy to us precisely because of our fallible, animal nature? Again, you can explain that nature by positing a godless evolutionary process or you can assume we fell from God’s grace or that we were produced by a monstrous deity (as the Bible implies).

In any case, the naturalist has no problem reestablishing our dignity by reminding us of the epic struggles for life that fill out our evolutionary past in deep time. The timescale required to generate our species by a mindless evolutionary process is much more awe-inspiring than the theistic notion that a human-like deity produced us in a flash by the equivalent of waving a magic wand. The latter, theistic myth is just a verbal trick, since as Dawkins likes to say, positing God is supposed to explain humanity whereas God would already have all our mysterious attributes to an even more mysterious, infinite degree, and so theism only pushes the mystery back to the need to explain God. The former, evolutionary account, though, is a working theory.

Granted, atheism is horrific in that we should feel alienated from the mindlessness and pointlessness of the forces and elements that formed us over that vast evolutionary period. But once again, as implied by Rudolph Otto’s analysis of the concept of holiness, the theist has no advantage here since God would be just as horrific as nature, which is why “faith in God” was often synonymous with “fear of God.” Properly conceived of, God is a fascinating and terrifying mystery, as Otto puts it. Just as many secular humanists and new atheists prefer to whitewash the Nietzschean, horrific aspect of naturalism, plenty of Western Christians whitewash the mystical aspect of monotheism, turning God into gentle Jesus.

In any case, the presuppositionalist argument is invalid, since while naturalism may entail that we have no cosmic purpose, naturalists don’t inadvertently show, after all, that we have such a purpose. By exercising their consciousness, reason, and freewill in arguing for naturalism, they need reveal only that they have no miraculous versions of those traits, and by excelling as godlike creatures, we indicate only that we’re superior in that relative, instrumental sense, not that the whole universe is intended to fulfill some grand design. You certainly haven’t shown there’s any such performative contradiction, because you haven’t shown that intuition and introspection prove there’s a miracle afoot.

At best, our being godlike makes us as monstrous as the monotheistic deity depicted in the Bible (and evidenced in nature’s indifference to life), which accounts for the horrors we’ve perpetrated throughout the Anthropocene. But mindless, inhuman nature can easily substitute for a psychopathic deity, so Occam’s razor would call for pantheism at that point.


[Note: this is my first comment on the second thread, the one called Why Don’t Atheists Show more Curiosity about their own Beliefs?****** The previous comment provoked Gilson to write up his response as an article on his blog. Note also that the following comment provoked Gilson to censor it extensively in his comment section. He went through it line by line so that instead of it saying, for example, “Here, then, is the more interesting explanation for how decent people can worship the inhuman deity portrayed in the Bible,” he had it read, “Here, then, is the more interesting explanation for how decent people can worship the {hateful critical adjective deleted} deity portrayed in the Bible.”]

You ask how an atheist such as me could be so apparently incurious as to imply that Christians who don’t seem like bigoted theocrats or clueless about their religion—since they often attempt to follow Jesus and do good in the world—nevertheless worship the psychopathic deity portrayed in the Bible. You suggest this line of criticism of the biblical God raises a paradox.

Actually, the paradox is pretty easily explained away, and there’s an interesting third option. Mind you, some Christians, especially many white evangelical American Trump-supporters aren’t easily described as Christ-like. But these are also low-information folks who don’t know much about the Bible. (Remember the 2010 Pew survey that found that on average, atheists and agnostics know more about religion than do Christians in the United States. So the presumption about who should be asking whom about the nature of the biblical god goes the other way around.)

Again, there’s the Dunning-Kruger effect, so these loudest voices in the room, that is, many of the “evangelical” Christians might indeed consent to worshipping the psychopathic deity—they idolize Trump, after all—if only they cracked open the Bible once in a blue moon. Thus, some American Christians do indeed plainly fall into one or the other or both of those categories: their character isn’t much better than the (negatively represented) biblical god’s and/or they don’t know much about the Bible.

But that’s not the most interesting explanation. First, though, let’s dispense with your minimization of the criticism that the biblical god is a thoroughly unpleasant character. After all, you say, I’m “not alone” in making this criticism, since “Richard Dawkins led the way in it in The God Delusion, and I’m sure others beat him to it, though not so famously.” None as famously as Richard Dawkins did, eh?

How about Second Isaiah, in which the Old Testament emphasizes for the first time that God works in mysterious ways and that, by implication at least, God needn’t conform to human notions of morality? (See, for example, Isa.6:9-10; 40:10-31.)

Or how about the Book of Job? In Job God is shown to be more powerful than just and even to have been corrupted by his omnipotence. Far from following any code of morality, Yahweh is caught gambling with an innocent man’s life: he has Job tortured after a petty wager with Satan, and Job’s conscience remains pure to the end even after God tries to terrify the man into submission, forcing God to atone by doubling Job’s fortune.

Then there’s fatalistic Ecclesiastes, according to which God is incomprehensible rather than just or righteous, since God is author of “all things under the sun,” including human suffering. “In my vain life I have seen everything; there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evil-doing” (7:15). Backing up Job, the author of Ecclesiastes advocates a philosophical, Stoic approach to life rather than any headlong love for God.

Let’s not forget Jesus who I suspect is more famous than Dawkins. Jesus criticized the Pharisees and by extension Judaism and the Tanakh for being too legalistic in their morality, for caring more about obedience to the law than about the need to soften their mindset regarding their fellow humans and especially foreigners and the downtrodden. (We’ll see in a moment why many Jews were driven to such legalism.)

Paul also implicitly condemns the narrowness and tribalism of Judaism, by calling for a new religion to replace it. Faith in Christ sufficed for salvation, he said, and the Jewish Law was no longer needed even for Jews. This condemnation of Judaism culminated in the ugliness of the blood curse (Matt.27:24-25), of Jesus calling the Pharisees children of the devil (John 8:44), and of the Fourth Gospel’s going out of its way to blame Jews rather than Pilate for Jesus’s death.

Then there was the Gnostic Christian condemnation of Judaism, such as Marcion’s identification of Yahweh with the tyrannical demiurge and his formation of the first Christian canon—without the blasphemous Old Testament. As we know from history, a different version of Christianity won the day, although the heretical Gnostic criticism of Yahweh endured for centuries.

The Catholic, universal, or orthodox version of Christianity that prevailed maintained that the gods of Judaism and of Christianity are one and the same, and so the Christian and Jewish scriptures were combined to form a single religious text. The trick of the Trinity doctrine was to both contrast the character of Jesus with that of his Father, with the Israelites’ creator God Yahweh, since otherwise there would have been no need for a New Testament or a new religion, and to affirm that these divine persons are nonetheless essentially the same being.

Here, then, is the more interesting explanation for how decent people can worship the inhuman deity portrayed in the Bible. It’s a bait and switch operation. Hook them with meek and mild, selfless Jesus, then hit them with the dark reality of monotheism: a transcendent, sexless God would be inscrutable (Isaiah), absolute power inevitably corrupts (Job, Marcion), and the believer should be skeptical and stoic rather than a blind lover of God (Ecclesiastes). After all, God’s monstrosity 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.

We need only turn to the historical formation of Jewish monotheism to see why we shouldn’t be surprised by the biblical god’s monstrous character. Yahweh became the highest god of the state religion by syncretism, by absorbing the qualities of the other gods of the ancient Near East. Thus, whereas the polytheistic religions depicted their versions of the storm god as defeating the chaos dragon, the Bible downplays or obscures that myth, by having God internalize the forces of chaos. So God only hovered over the face of the waters when he created the universe, instead of explicitly creating it from the carcass of the defeated chaos monster. And implicitly, God made the serpent that tempted Adam and Eve, which began the mystery of God’s justice. Also, evil or dangerous rival deities are demoted so that they play the role of an obedient angel, Satan, who rebels against the one true God.

Different kingdoms elevated different gods in their pantheons to the highest position, and so there was conflict and competition between the various religions. When the Israelites became monotheists, Yahweh had to absorb the pettiness, hostility, and combativeness that were responsible for those conflicts. This is why Yahweh is a “jealous God” (Exodus 34:14) even though he’s supposed to be the only god that exists, because on the way to Jewish monotheism he absorbed the personalities of rival deities from the surrounding tribes and kingdoms.

Moreover, the Old Testament was formed as part of the imposition of monotheism on the Israelites in the post-exilic period, after the Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered Israel and after the Babylonian captivity, when the Assyrian ideal of a world empire and the grandeur of Zoroastrianism evidently rubbed off on the captives. The priestly editors of the canonical Jewish scriptures promulgated monotheism by retroactively having Yahweh punish the Canaanites for their polytheism. Thus Yahweh is obsessed with obedience and purity, to the point of being plainly tyrannical, because the editors molded the scriptures into object lessons.

Their task wasn’t just to insist that there’s only one god; the challenge, rather, was to demand monotheism in the context of predominant polytheism, and so the story of the Old Testament is almost entirely about punishment. Yahweh, therefore, is the blinkered taskmaster, the jealous deity who scolds and punishes his followers for their lack of faith even though there aren’t supposed to be any other gods and an all-powerful god should have nothing to fear and would be responsible for everything he’s made.

That is, Yahweh (and thus the one God behind the Trinity that has his incarnation in Jesus preach hellfire) comes off as tyrannical in the full sense. The biblical God isn’t just vengeful; he’s also deluded and overcompensating (which were the grounds for the Gnostic criticism), and that’s because the priestly editors had to graft their monotheistic message into the older, polytheistic Hebrew texts. So in the Tanakh as it’s come down to us, there’s only one God but there are also lots of other gods, and the character Yahweh has to live out the madness of such conflicts with foreign deities that are supposed to be fictitious.

Hence also the legalism of Pharisaic Judaism, since by the first century CE, Jews had been afflicted by the strictness of their monotheistic religion, by its obsession with purity and punishment for waywardness, and by the need to distinguish themselves from foreigners to avoid any appearance of backsliding into idolatry. They had to follow every letter of the law because, for the reasons I’ve laid out, their scriptures depicted the one true god as an all-seeing tyrant and taskmaster. 

Let’s turn now to the psychological question of how a decent Christian can accept such a religion. Again, there’s the bait and switch element of indoctrination, which should lead to some discomfort or cognitive dissonance in the believer. Plenty of Christians do ask too many questions and lose their faith, while most are baited (with the tales of saintly Jesus) at a young age, so they can’t abandon Christianity without effectively condemning their childhood and their parents. Hardly anyone would want to do that. In addition, there’s Stockholm syndrome, the condition in which victims make excuses for or even grow to admire their tormenter. If a battered wife can maintain that her vicious husband is really a good guy and can refuse to leave his side, Christians can summon the imagination to put the best face on their religion, especially when the Bible is full of poetry and ambiguous myths that can be endlessly reinterpreted.

The harsh historical reality is as I’ve just laid it out, but if you’re looking to be a Christian, because you’ve been raised as one or you live in a Christian nation, you can always find excuses and apologies in the Bible’s poetic language. You can say the Bible is all about a progressive understanding of God’s nature, so that the Jews mistook God to be vengeful, but it turns out this same deity was loving and merciful like Jesus all along. This is how official Christianity made sense of the transition from Judaism to Christianity, by positing the Holy Spirit and an evolution of our knowledge of God.

The problem with this theodicy, though, is that it refutes biblical literalism and inerrancy, and leaves the door open to Islam to continue that evolution. If we had to spend centuries learning what God’s like, because for some reason God couldn’t just reveal his nature to everyone once and for all, maybe we’re never done learning and so Christianity should be replaced with Islam, or Islam with some new religion. By contrast, if you want to take the Bible seriously as a basis for religious faith, you’re stuck with the monstrous god depicted on its pages.

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 demented tyrant 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. And one way or another, the Christian has to live with the disquieting discrepancies.  

Incidentally, if you’re confused about how Christians can live with their religion, I wonder how you explain how millions of Muslims live with theirs, given that in a Stream article you wrote that Islam “was founded in blood, conquest and rape, and continues to mandate death to gays.” I suppose you’d blame it on inadvertent devil worship? There are no literal demons or devils, though, so I’d naturalize the human weaknesses that are actually to blame for the grotesqueness of monotheism. As for how Jews stomach their religion, most do so by replacing theology with ethics, because of what they learned from the likes of Job and Ecclesiastes—not to mention all the injustices they suffered over the centuries.


I have no problem with you censoring my post. Indeed, by doing so, you inadvertently remind us of an important reason why Christians in particular could have avoided dealing with the sort of harsh criticism I made, which is that for centuries, people who voiced doubts about God were persecuted, tortured, or killed as heretics or unbelievers. Now you have the power only to remove some words on the internet, but it’s not hard to see how average Christians could have remained comfortable in their faith if critics were forcibly silenced. So that’s one way some of the brightest Christian minds down through the ages “could have failed to notice” that harsh criticism of the Bible: for centuries, anti-Christian thoughts and writings were forbidden in Christian lands.

But the reason I wrote at length as I did is to show that your question isn’t nearly as interesting as you seem to think it is. To pretend that you’re asking a pertinent question, you have to maintain that it’s only the likes of Dawkins and me who make that criticism of the Bible. Thus again you wonder how it’s possible that I could assume that Christians down through the ages “could have failed to notice all the things that you and Dawkins treat as if they were obvious.” And you ask, “Do you honestly think there’s only one answer, and that you and Richard are the suppliers of that answer?”

But what if the criticism goes back to ancient Judaism itself, as I demonstrated? What if the criticism is implicit in Christianity’s departure from Judaism? All by itself, Gnosticism, the early Christian movement that was eventually deemed heretical, in part, for equating Yahweh with the demiurge, proves it’s not just the likes of Dawkins and me. So if that’s the case, it’s not a question of some random atheists’ “incuriosity.” Instead, you’re asking merely how it could be that one large group of people retains its beliefs even though that group is opposed by another group that’s harshly critical of those beliefs. You’re asking, in other words, merely how social conflict is possible. So if millions of Christians condemn Islam as a barbaric death cult, and millions of Muslims aren’t deaf or blind but are aware of that criticism, how could those Muslims persist in worshiping Allah and reading the Koran? Or if capitalist Americans condemned the Soviet Union on various grounds, calling it an evil empire, how was it possible for Russians to go on being communists? And you could ask the same question about any of the other billions of deep historical conflicts between groups or individuals.

The question is like asking why the sky is blue. Plainly, two sides won’t agree if they don’t see the issues the same way. I interpret the Bible from my critical, historical, naturalistic viewpoint. Most Jews came to share similar doubts about the implications of monotheism, as is apparent from Job and Ecclesiastes and from the anti-theological attitude that’s been so prevalent in Judaism. Jews came to excel in professional fields because they set aside theological speculations and focused on this-worldly concerns. So the evolution of Judaism towards its current grounding in secularism shows how many “bright, intelligent, caring, empathic people have searched for those answers.” They saw that monotheism leads to mysticism and they chose not to waste their life wondering about the unknowable.

Christians went in a different direction…

Anyway, instead of asking a deep question, you seem to be using this line of questioning—which is actually a red herring and a diversion from the Nietzsche thread—as an excuse for me to confess my ignorance about Christianity, to give you an opportunity to witness for Christ. As you said, “And if any atheist actually wanted to know what Christians have thought on these matters, he or she would be most welcome to ask.”

Instead of asking, I’ll be the Christian and you can be the nonbeliever:

“Your rage against Christianity shows the hollowness of your naturalistic worldview. You’ve no spiritual bedrock to support your values, so your values are arbitrary, leaving you anxious about your ultimate fate and liable to lash out at any proven way of being happy. For two thousand years, Christians have spread the good news that God sent a light into the world to testify that all isn’t as dark as it might seem. We have a special purpose and that’s to live by principles that are older than nature, by the principles of God’s society. If Christ seems the opposite of Yahweh in certain respects, those differences show only that our knowledge of God is limited in this life, that the ancients needed metaphors to grasp a transcendent truth. That’s precisely why God chose to reveal himself in a new way, not just by inspiring the message of certain prophets, but by incarnating as a man. Jesus could have conquered the planet with God’s power to see into the heart of everyone he met, but what would that have accomplished? God isn’t a tyrant, contrary to how he may appear in the Old Testament to skeptics who don’t understand God’s plan. God protected the Jews by force and by commanding them to adhere to a stringent moral code, to nurture and spread the precious word of monotheism. There’s only one God and thus all people should be united in gratitude towards that maker. Instead of Christ superseding the Creator, the divine persons work together to redeem Creation.

“Why should we be grateful rather than merely fearful of God’s power? Because of whom God revealed himself to be in the person of Jesus. Jesus showed that God loves us in spite of all our faults. He loves the sick, the weak, and the poor—and that’s all of us compared to God Almighty! Jesus’s life and death reassure us that God isn’t concerned only with justice. God is merciful and loving, and that’s the primary reason to be joyful in this world that’s fallen from sight of God. Our creator could have left us to our devices, to conduct our absurd, godless ventures in our vain attempt to be gods or in servitude to some idol. God could have left us to realize the truth all too late, which is that although we’re special creatures, our godlike freedom and creativity only testify to an awe-inspiring source without which we wither and die. Instead of abandoning us, the source of nature manifested as a healer and as a uniter. Christ’s message conquered the Roman Empire and much of the rest of the world, not primarily by force but because God saw what we all hunger for: the comfort of knowing that we don’t suffer for no reason, that our cries for help are heard, and that God has prepared an astonishing inheritance for us.

“All we have to do to receive it is to show God that we want to be on his side, that we’re thankful he didn’t leave us to rot with the animals or to languish in a permanent state of godlessness when our consciousness reforms after our physical death. God needs us to prepare ourselves, in turn, to be fit for his gifts. He needs to know we can give up our delusory pride in our ability to go it alone out of spite or sadness that God’s not always there to hold our hand. God came part of the way towards us by showing with his incarnation as Jesus that he isn’t nearly as interested in our material success as he is in our spiritual orientation. Are we attracted to our supernatural source or merely to his passing handiwork? Do we confess that Jesus is our lord and saviour or do we stubbornly resist his message, because we think we find fault in some abstract theological argument? The nuts and bolts of the perennial debate between theists and atheists are irrelevant. What matters is the choice that remains to pick a side. Are you for God or for nature? Life everlasting or certain destruction?

“I know you’re an atheist who thinks all this is claptrap. But there’s no scientist or philosopher living or dead who can reckon with the miracle of how intelligent life could have sprouted from the void. Either mindless nature somehow creates and sustains itself and life emerges from nature, or life is primary, and consciousness, reason, and love give birth to a universe of artifacts, to natural stars and planets as so many backdrops on which the drama of life can play out. Perhaps God seeded nature with the conditions for life to emerge and evolve because he wants to share the wonder of being alive with creatures, which is why we should be grateful. But whatever the divine reason, the naturalistic alternative is spiritually bankrupt and metaphysically incomplete. You can cite whatever logical arguments and scientific studies you like. The incompleteness and amorality of naturalism will still leave you with the choice to pick a side, to put your faith in some final answer to the question of what it means to be alive in this world. You’re responsible for that choice, so you should ensure it’s one you’d be willing to die for, because your life depends on it.”

Your turn, Tom. Explain to me from a naturalistic standpoint why Christianity is garbage.


Your vague references to mistakes in my earlier post mix up two things. There’s the claim that the criticism of Yahweh’s character goes back to Judaism, which I support by talking about Isaiah, Job, Ecclesiastes, and so on. Then there’s the historical explanation I offer of why we shouldn’t be surprised to find Yahweh’s character to be unpleasant and quite different from Jesus’s. You say my account of the “history” doesn’t demonstrate anything (even though you don’t specify where it goes wrong), and you conclude, “So the criticism doesn’t stand, as you say it does, going all the way back to Judaism.” That shows you didn’t understand the argument, which isn’t surprising since as the time stamps show on the posts, you took at most exactly 24 minutes to read the 2,100 words, think up your response, write it, and post it.

So I don’t know what you’re asking me to defend. The account of monotheism’s origins in Judaism (how Yahweh absorbed the characteristics of other gods such as Baal and El and how those gods were demoted in the OT; the influence of Assyrian imperialism, the Babylonian captivity, and Zoroastrianism) is standard among critical scholars of the Bible. You can find the details in Mark Smith’s Origins of Biblical Monotheism, Baruch Levine’s “Assyrian Ideology and Israelite Monotheism,” James Anderson’s Monotheism and Yahweh’s Appropriation of Baal, and so on. As for the claim that monotheism was imposed on polytheists or that the Israelites and Judeans practiced polytheism while the Torah was being assembled in the post-exilic period, this is also the standard critical view after the collapse of the documentary hypothesis in the 1970s. As for the claim that this common critical (non-traditional or theological) account of the origins of Jewish monotheism explains the unpleasantness of God’s character as found in the OT, that’s my inference.

In any case, that historical explanation is logically independent of the claim that the criticism of God’s character goes back to Judaism. The Book of Job is especially relevant there, since God’s amorality is only implicit in Isaiah’s saying that almighty God transcends our comprehension, whereas Yahweh’s unpleasantness is on full display in Job. (See Jack Miles’ God: A Biography for a good discussion of Job.) But as I made clear, I don’t have to go nearly as far back as Judaism to refute your preposterous minimization of the criticism. As I said, the Gnostic identification of Yahweh with the demiurge carries the full force of the criticism of Yahweh’s character. All by itself, the existence of Gnosticism shows this is no arbitrary projection of an atheist’s bad feelings or “hatred” of God. The Christian Gnostics literally regarded the God of the OT as evil and demonic. But Gnosticism was forcibly eliminated by the prevailing Church, which is why the Nag Hammadi library was buried for safekeeping.

You wonder how “atheists such as yourself can keep telling your own preferred versions with such hubris, acting as if they are the only conceivably true renditions, and as if Christians have never even considered the problems you raise.”

How is it hubristic to voice your opinion? When did I declare or imply that Christians have no answer to the claim that Yahweh is an unpleasant character? This red herring of yours was in response to an offhand comment I made in the Nietzsche thread, regarding the dignity of our species, where I said, “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? If the biblical God is a [insert some naughty allegations here], wouldn’t the specially-created children of such a deity be expected to make a mess of the planet, to squabble over territory, enslaving and exterminating billions of people, not to mention more recently, with factory farming, torturing and killing domesticated animals on the scale of an ongoing holocaust?”

The point is: Where did I imply anywhere in that thread or this one that there’s no Christian response to my comments? It’s up to you or your readers to supply that response, though. Instead, you went off on this tangent about my alleged hubris and incuriosity. Once again, I don’t regard this line of questioning as serious, relevant, or particularly interesting.

You say, my ‘representation of a Christian’s questioning is so wide of the mark in the first paragraph, it deserves no answer. No Christian with any knowledge would speak of Christ seeming the “opposite of Yahweh.” That you could think so is one more sign of how much less you know than you think you do.’

Obviously, I was writing from a Christian viewpoint in opposition to an atheist (like me) who’s making the criticism of Yahweh’s character that I’d put forward. Remember that that was the exercise, to ask a Christian for the Christian’s viewpoint on whether Yahweh’s character is objectionable. You wanted me to ask you about it. Instead I asked myself. Do try to keep up, Tom. It seems you’ve got an itchy trigger finger, but I don’t think you appreciate how restrained I’m being in these comments on your blog.

I know you were offended by my remarks about the OT God’s character. I’m afraid that amuses me greatly since I’m Jewish whereas you’re Christian. Can you not see the chutzpah involved in a Christian’s taking ownership of the Jewish scriptures and charging a Jewish critic of Judaism with hubris for daring to voice his concerns about Yahweh’s character? I mean, wow.

If you’re going to take me up on the challenge to speak from an opposing viewpoint, I hope you’ll take this as it’s intended, as a real test of your ability to think without presuppositions. I’m not interested in reading any cut-and-paste selection of other people’s arguments. The question is how well you know both your opponent and the weaknesses of your worldview. As I’ve written on my blog, I think the existentialist’s argument for God’s existence is the best one, so I emphasized the need to take a leap of faith. I wonder how you’d argue against Christianity if you were a naturalistic philosopher.


If you want to resolve the OP’s question, it’s very simple. In speaking ill of the personality of the OT God, I assumed you were aware of that criticism since it goes back at least to Gnosticism and isn’t just what new atheists like Dawkins say. What I didn’t assume, obviously, is that you agree with that criticism or that there’s no Christian response to it. So I assumed only that you were aware I was speaking from my atheistic perspective, not that that’s the only perspective that exists. There’s nothing whatsoever in my remarks that implies otherwise. You’re mistaking the bluntness of my language with hubris.

If you disagreed with my characterization of Yahweh, all you had to do is say something like, “Your insults are biased, baseless, and refuted by the following, more reasonable characterization of Yahweh’s personality…” Instead you started an ad hominem thread about my alleged incuriosity and hubris, on the preposterous presumption that I’m unaware there’s such a thing as a Christian interpretation of everything.

You said I’m “acting as if” mine is the only perspective. But you’re not aware of my actions; you’re dealing only with my written comments, so that’s an unfalsifiable, subjective standard for hubris which allows you to imagine what’s behind the language I used. I have a regular feature on my blog in which I write non-satirical dialogues from multiple perspectives, including from that of a conservative Christian (the feature’s called “Clash of Worldviews” and one of the Christian characters is named Lindsey Rowe). I read Plato as an undergraduate and so learned early on the importance of caring more about knowledge than opinion. By writing at length from a Christian perspective in the above comment #7, I’ve demonstrated I have more than a working knowledge of Christianity and thus don’t need to ask you for a theological explanation of how Yahweh relates to Jesus. It’s up to you what you want to say from your Christian perspective, just as it’s up to me what I say from my point of view. I don’t have to ask you what Christians would say about the matter. I know there’s a Christian take on it since I know that Christians exist! Moreover, I myself could supply various Christian answers to the question, whereas you have yet to show you can see matters from the opposing viewpoint.

You move the goalposts when you say, “You can voice all the concerns you want about Yahweh’s character from your secular Jewish standpoint, but when you treat it as the one answer…that's still hubris.”

So now you’re opposed to anyone’s speaking as if he’s assuming his beliefs were true? There may be multiple answers but if there’s such a thing as truth, one answer will be distinguished by its being true, and that becomes “the one answer.” That, then, is a good way of silencing everyone, isn’t it? “Just make sure before you write anything that you’re not so arrogant as to assume that your beliefs are true (and thus that all opposing beliefs are false).” Has postmodern relativism rubbed off on you?

Then you say that what you found baffling is that I was writing on a Christian blog but neglected to qualify my remarks with deferential or lily-livered hedges like “In my opinion” or “I’m sure you’ll disagree with this, but…” I didn’t add such hedges because I learned in university how to write well. An effective writer doesn’t stutter like a teenager who has to say “like” every five words. He takes it for granted that he’s offering only his take on the matter, as in his belief that X rather than not-X is true. What else would he be offering?

You say, ‘But the key point remains: You treated your version of “the Bible’s depiction of our maker” as if it were settled fact.’

Yeah, you got me: in writing that Yahweh’s a tyrant, I assumed that’s a settled fact for Christians who obviously look instead to gentle Jesus as revealing God’s character. Actually, it’s language like your reference to my “hateful” rhetoric against God (in your censoring of my comment #3) that implies that theism is a settled matter for atheists, since many Christians believe atheists are fools who presuppose God’s existence and only hate the God they secretly know exists. Thus, you wrote, “Your adjectives describing God are critical in the extreme, and filled with hatred toward him.” So that’s some more chutzpah from your side of the table.

Yeah, I know, you walked it back by saying the comments were at least being hateful towards Christians. I suppose I didn’t expect the Christian faith around here would be as brittle as the self-esteem of the liberal snowflakes who need their safe spaces and who are mocked on The Stream. [Note that Tom Gilson is a senior editor at a website called The Stream.] As Alan Eason there writes, ‘We live in crazy times. People are yearning for places of safety. We are so desperate for them that we invent them. We put signs up. We throw campus speakers out. We pad the playgrounds and we gag the writers. We hover over the children and we compensate the adults — you know — the ones someone accidentally “offended.” ’ Or as Heather Wilhelm writes about “leftist snowflakes”: “Cowardice might not be fun, but for some, self-pity — cowardice’s common companion — certainly is.” It’s almost as if Christians were susceptible to having a persecution complex…

Plus, as I said, I was talking mainly about Judaism, and most Jews would be fine with that line of criticism. For example, I am, because Jewish monotheism taught me not to take seriously any personification of the transcendent source of nature. No graven images.

You offer a few explanations of my egregious lack of etiquette: “That either takes a lack of curiosity, or hubris, or perhaps mere undisguised contempt toward Christianity and its view of God. Is there a fourth option?”

Yeah, the fourth option is that I write well. I’m capable of saying what I mean and I respect the search for the truth and the listener’s capacity to argue in good faith. Your red herrings, personal attacks, and whining about “hateful language” are certainly beneath the dignity of any “thinking Christian.”


  1. There's a point beyond which too much charity can turn into actively enabling a degenerate lifestyle.

    Describing any exchange with the venal partisan hack Tom Gilson as a "debate" is unwarranted charity well past that point.

    At least when one debates with a dogmatist, who by definition is arguing in bad faith since he is obligated never to change his mind, the dogmatist can be counted on to state his ideas clearly and consistently, and their blogs frequently attract intelligent and interesting commenters willing to explain their factual and moral errors in detail.

    Gilson is a pure propagandist for white male grievance and a crypto-Nazi apologist who traffics exclusively in the only commodities his viewing audience wants to buy: ad hominem attacks, irredentist cultural whinges over lost privilege, ressentiment, and masturbation fantasies of persecution. I have never in almost a decade seen him put forward a concisely stated philosophical or scientific idea to be "debated" so much as he stacks little insults and coded applause lines on each other's shoulders and wraps them in a debate-shaped trench coat.

    I will say that, as always, I've enjoyed reading your edifying contributions, and hope you maintain a record of them for the inevitable eventuality of a purge and ban. That elegant bit of conversational judo vis-a-vis his censorship itself being a performative demonstration of your historical point was particularly nice, and did not go unnoticed.

    1. It seems like you may have had a run-in with that "thinking Christian." I agree that Gilson isn't philosophical in his handling of critical comments on his blog, so he's not responding in good faith. He's much more interested in winning points for "Christianity" and protecting his readers' "faith" (self-serving Americanized presumptions) and stereotypes about atheists and nonbelievers than he is in exploring ideas and getting to the truth. He's dogmatic because he thinks he's found the absolute truth, and he's quick to go ad hominem because he's a Christian of the American variety, so the cultural arrogance from dominating the planet with the world's biggest military rubs off on the evangelical American Christians. Thus the debate, such as it was was one-sided.

      What I get out of it mainly is my side of the writing which I've posted on my blog. I wonder, though, when you speak of "the inevitable eventuality of a purge and ban," do you mean from the Thinking Christian blog? He did come close to shutting down the conversation because of what he called my language which betrayed my "hatred" of God and Christians. This was in spite of the fact that I've been showing great restraint there. That doesn't matter, though, because the flock must be protected from unpleasant influences. This is why "thinking Christian" ends up being oxymoronic.

    2. It looks like you were prescient in speaking of "the inevitable eventuality of a purge and ban." Just a few days after you wrote that, Gilson found a pretext to ban me from commenting on his website.