Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Of pagan statues, Zeus and other gods

When the pagans figured out that a statue was not God they faced a choice. Either there was no God or God was not a statue. Wisely, most have concluded that God is not a statue and human religion has moved on.

Many atheists point to the apparent roots of today’s religions and struggle to reconcile what appears to be the pagan origins of some it. It is hardly a surprise that as religion and theology evolved peoples’ thinking was influenced by their socio-cultural environment. In the machine vs soul discussion Lee outlines a path of evolution for the concept of the soul. While some may propose other paths, Lee asks how I as a Christian can accept a concept apparently born in paganism. I reply that I have no difficulty.

The "God is not a statue" thinking has prevailed and the concept of a spiritual life with a god or gods has given rise to the major religions of the world and hence a theist majority in the population. This does not suggest blind acceptance. Rather, it means that a multitude of the wise and scholarly of many religious persuasions have pondered the question and decided, on the weight of evidence, that they should continue to seek to better understand God

The multiplicity of religions shows that their thinking has not yet converged on a single theology. However there are signs that convergence is taking place among liberal theologians across the religious spectrum – interestingly around the simple core of Christ’s not unique core message.

Perhaps some atheists have not managed to reject a particular religion/denomination while retaining a belief in God – pity really; after all we devised religions as vehicle for our relationship with God, not the other way round.

Those atheists (like Lee?) who came to atheism by rejecting the fundamentalist evangelical Christian (or other) model of God were right to question doctrine. They conclude, and to a large extent I agree, that the fundamentalist God is not a really good working model of God – it does not stand up to scrutiny.

Atheists then make a choice different from mine. They decide that as the model of God that they have is flawed, there is no God. I decide that just because the model has its faults does not mean there is no God. I reject the model and keep looking for a better one - one that stands up to scrutiny.

Why do I do that? Firstly it is the valid deduction to make. Secondly, the overwhelming weight of anecdotal and circumstantial evidence requires only a small leap of faith to acknowledge there is a God. To dismiss all the evidence – albeit anecdotal and circumstantial – and conclude there is no God requires a leap of faith way too big for me!

Hamba kahle - peace


Pete Chown said...

"When the pagans figured out that a statue was not God they faced a choice."

This choice seems to confront believers every time new evidence emerges. It happened much more recently when Darwin showed how life could evolve without the need for a creator. Other scientific advances have created similar dilemmas.

While we can't rule out the existence of a god, these scientific advances show that he can't have much influence on the world. Liberal Christians who accept Darwin are forced to accept that God has had less influence on the world than our ancestors might have imagined.

Similarly, the development of the scientific method has forced us to accept a god who hides when we try to test his existence. The Bible says that it is sinful to test God, but what happens if someone decides to commit that sin? Well, experiments designed to measure the effect of God end up seeing no effect at all. If God exists, He is hiding from the scientists.

"... convergence is taking place among liberal theologians across the religious spectrum – interestingly around the simple core of Christ’s not unique core message."

What specific part of Jesus' message did you have in mind?

Isn't your claim tautologous anyway? If this message isn't unique to Christianity, then by definition it is shared by other religions.

"... The overwhelming weight of anecdotal and circumstantial evidence requires only a small leap of faith to acknowledge there is a God."

If the leap of faith is a small one, then I suppose your beliefs are almost logical. ;-)

akakiwibear said...

Hi Pete, pleased to see you back
Isn't your claim tautologous anyway? If this message isn't unique to Christianity, then by definition it is shared by other religions. oops yes!

If the leap of faith is a small one, then I suppose your beliefs are almost logical. ;-) …. …. oops yes ;)

forced to accept that God has had less influence on the world than our ancestors might have imagined. … again yes … and your point is?

Other scientific advances have created similar dilemmas. ... I don't it as a problem - we have learned something new, great!

Certainly there is a move away from holding God directly responsible for everything that does or does not happen. There is recognition that our freewill makes us accountable. There is recognition that evolution works – my digression to Lee in the soul vs machine discussion on the topic of the evolution of an information system that could transmit DNA speaks to the point.

Interesting is Dawkins comment in River Out of Eden "Never say, and never take seriously anyone who says, 'I cannot believe that so-and-so could have evolved by gradual selection.' I have dubbed this kind of fallacy 'the Argument from Personal Incrudulity." Time and again, it has proven the prelude to an intellectual banana-skin experience." (p.70) So God could have evolved – now there’s a thought!

Of course attributing less to God does not reduce God it merely defines different roles for God - and us. Developing - or evolving - a better understanding of these roles is important to me.

I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of God meddling in every little thing - if I jump without a parachute its my problem and I can't make it God's ... equally it would be a silly way to test God's existence.

Proof of God would deny our freewill choice to believe - yes it looks as if God has stayed true to that choice given us by hiding from the scientists.

I also suspect we could put our time to more productive use than testing God's existence, a test which by definition will fail - at least according to freewill theology.

Hamba kahle - peace

Neil Turton said...

Hi Akakiwibear,

I'm guessing the majority of Pagans were quite aware that God was not a statue and simply used the statue as a symbol in their worship. For example Zeus was supposed to live at the top of mount Olympus but his statues were in various temples in different places. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if Zeus is at the top of the mountain, he can't be a statue elsewhere.

Or maybe not. After all, Catholic orthodoxy states that Jesus is in heaven but that the communion wafer is Jesus. So Catholic orthodoxy still hasn't figured out that the physical object used in worship is not God. Perhaps, then, the ancient Zeus worshipers had a debate similar to the one about transubstantiation where some people thought that the statue represents Zeus and others thought that the statue is Zeus while maintaining the physical properties of a statue.

Having said that, I agree with you that the origins of an idea don't discredit that idea. For example, mathematical ideas have been developed by the Babylonians, Greeks, Islamic societies etc... I don't accept everything which those societies believed, but I don't feel the need to reject mathematics just because those societies played a role in its development. That's because I have good reasons for believing that mathematics being true which don't depend on it having certain origins.

In the case of the soul, you have reasons (which I don't think are good ones but that's beside the point) for believing that the soul exists and those reasons don't depend on the origin of the belief. Instead they depend on OBEs and NDEs.

"So God could have evolved – now there’s a thought!"

Yes. He says as much in The God Delusion.

"Atheists then make a choice different from mine. They decide that as the model of God that they have is flawed, there is no God."

I did become an Atheist as a result of rejecting fundamentalist Christianity (You can read about some of the wacky things I believed in on my blog). I avoided falling for the false dichotomy you describe though. In fact, I tried several liberal churches before rejecting Christianity.

My belief that there is no God is based on Occam's razor. Put simply, given the lack of firm evidence that there is a God, the simplest explanation is that God doesn't exist, so that is probably the most accurate explanation.

The closest we have to evidence for the existence of God is the collection of reports of miracles and NDEs. Both of those force me to admit that I don't know what's going on and I'd have to admit that I didn't know what was going on even if I did believe in God and souls.

Perhaps the evidence will improve and I'll be force to change my views. That's fine with me. It's just one of the occupational hazards of having an open mind.

Peace, Neil.

akakiwibear said...

Hi Neil, I apologise for the length of this comment, but I read your blog with interest and ... well it just flowed ...

One often hears people talk about their belief in God as having ‘head’ = a reasoned component and ‘heart’ = an emotional and/or faith component. For most people exposed to Christianity (and I suspect any other religion) as a child they are given a simple ‘head’ model and a ‘heart’ faith tied to their family etc and is not personalised.

When they get to growing up there is a massive transition to make, from the former to a ‘head’ model that stands up to scrutiny and a ‘heart’ relationship that is personal.
Some, get into the happy-clappy evangelical bit which gives them an emotional high – it feeds the ‘heart’ relationship much like a teenage infatuation would- feels really good but may have little substance.

ALSO the evangelicals have done nothing to develop the ‘head’ side. Now some people remain satisfied with the Sunday school level theology they grew up with – indeed some (most?) denominations only offer the Sunday school version.

So what we tend to find in the average Christian adult is a Sunday school theology coupled to either the faith they got from their parents (part of their parental relationship) or the emotive buzz of the evangelicals. I am not being critical of these people, if it works for them great. I was there and I was content … for many years

BUT then something comes along (usually with a strong emotional element) and rocks the boat of our inherited faith (or the buzz) AND it challenges the theology. In fact the rocking of the ‘heart’ boat may well be because of the flaws in the Sunday school theology I believed that if …. then God …. and I prayed …. then …. but it did not turn out that way – God let me down - its all wrong … and the bible isn’t all true … and they say they are Christian but look at what they did … … etc etc

It turns out we can no longer believe in that God, furthermore we have demonstrated to ourselves that the belief we had is false. WOW this can be a big blow to us – followed as it may perhaps be bt underwhelming support for those close to us, rather they think we are idiots/lost/damned etc and want to condemn and scare us back into the fold.

Here I see us having a baby and bath water choice akin to the pagans’ and their statue.

AS you know from my early posts I have stood at the cross roads and I have ventured down the atheist path. Here you and I differ in how we responded to what we found – perhaps we found different things.

I suppose I may have adopted a somewhat heuristic approach, but I found evidence that while individually inconclusive, while being circumstantial and anecdotal lent itself to the cut of my own Occam’s razor – the simplest explanation that made sense at all was that there is a God.

It required less of a leap of faith to tie the bits together to form a picture than to dismiss all the bits.

But I do not make light of either the disillusionment that pointed towards atheism nor of the re-learning prompted by the many challenges of atheist thinking.

What came out of the experience for me was a more sophisticated theology that proposed a quite different God from the Sunday school version.

I found a lot of ‘head’ help at the NZ Catholic Institute of Theology. They had heard all questions before, knew the bible was not literally true, knew there were questions about the life of Jesus etc – I wondered why I was only now learning what theologians had pondered for hundreds of years! I have now found in our local Catholic parish priests who articulates theology for adults – e.g. in a study group one of them drew our attention to the parallel between the Hindu & Christian trinity and what it may mean for our theology.

The next step was to find a religion that provided a vehicle for the ‘heart’ or relationship side to grow. While this is clearly a personal relationship there is a collective/community element that benefits from belonging to a church – for me, right now, the local Catholics seem to get it more right than wrong.

Religion (Christianity and I suspect others) seems not have come up with a transition process for taking children and beliefs appropriate to their cognition through to adults without dipping them in atheism along the way – the path I travelled is well worn.

Hamba kahle - peace

Neil Turton said...

Hi Akakiwibear,

A negative emotional experience can act as a wake-up call. It sounds like both of us have had that. The question is what you do with it.

You say that you use Occam's razor, but the conclusion you come to when using it is different from the conclusion I come to. At least one of us has got it wrong. Occam's razor isn't supposed to be a tool for confirming your opinions. It's supposed to allow us to test our opinions objectively.

Peace, Neil.

akakiwibear said...

Hi Neil,

It seems we are getting to the point here. So we have both had what you describe as a ‘wake up call’. The negative emotional experience has, if I may surmise, left you hurt and somewhat bitter towards a religion that certainly seems to have let you down.

Subsequently you have come to realise that some of the “truths” of this religion are not in fact truths – the Sunday School theology you were given does not stack up.

Clearly you have sought the truth, but I suggest that your searching has been coloured by the hurt you sustained. You want more than ‘proof’ you want proof to counteract the wrongs you had to endure. Absolutely reasonable - I accept your position.

But now I will a bit tougher on you. There is evidence, albeit anecdotal & circumstantial, that suggests that there might really be a God, but to accept this challenges you to accept the religion you have examined and correctly found wanting.

Let us be careful to separate the issues
1 – Your religion let you down – true
2 – The religion (Sunday School theology) you were taught is flawed – true
3 - Neither of these impinges on the existence of God – true, I think you will concede

Religion is not God, in the same way a pagan statue is not God … so now about the existence of God and the use of the razor.

We have had discussions around topics that either point to the existence of God or some alternative unproven explanation.

Let me review just three of these:
a) Miracles as attested to in the canonisation process – explanations: conspiracy, incompetent examination of the facts, outright falsification of medical records etc
b) Conversion experiences, specifically Paul on the road – explanations: he imagined it, he invented it to put himself in line for persecution; metal illness, it never happened as Paul did not exist, grand conspiracy etc
c) Near death out of body experiences – explanations: conspiracy, research fraud or incompetence etc

Now the above are complex explanations which lack any evidence and involve convoluted arguments to sustain. There is one simple explanation that fits in all cases – God. Now which does Occam’s razor point to?

Occam’s razor requires that we add nothing to the minimalist explanation.

The simplest enduring explanation for all of the above is God. When you have to add a multiplicity of unsubstantiated explanations to explain all the above I think you deviate from the point philosophical argument attributed to the dear old monk.

Now I am sure you will argue with me about my application of the rule – so be it.

But you have given it an importance in your life beyond any such claim it has in mine - you have chosen it as the foundation of your disbelief in God.
I ask if it is any steadier a foundation than Sunday School theology?

Hamba kahle - peace

Neil Turton said...

Hi akakiwibear,

I'm glad we're getting to the point. Perhaps we can use logic and reason to analyse the issue and one of us will then humbly admit to being wrong. I'm not wanting to prejudge the issue but in a way I do hope it's me as I'll then have learned something and I do like to learn things.

You're right that I felt bitter about being let down by my religion. Clearly I was let down by evangelical Christianity as a result of their simplistic teachings. I was also let down by the village church Christianity which was vague and woolly and left me vulnerable to the evangelicals. I agree that the religion I was taught is flawed and that these things don't impinge on the existence of God. I am quite aware that a critique of evangelical Christianity says nothing about other forms of Christianity except for aspects they hold in common.

"You want more than 'proof' you want proof to counteract the wrongs you had to endure. Absolutely reasonable - I accept your position."

That's not my position. We're not going to make any progress here until we start listening to each other. I want accurate beliefs and so I want a reliable way to obtain accurate beliefs. I don't want proof to counteract wrongs. That doesn't even make sense to me.

"But you have given it an importance in your life beyond any such claim it has in mine - you have chosen it as the foundation of your disbelief in God. I ask if it is any steadier a foundation than Sunday School theology?

You can reject Occam's razor if you like. I just think that it's a sensible principle to use in order to gain accurate beliefs. Maybe you don't want accurate beliefs in which case you're free to use any basis for your beliefs which you like. If you do want accurate beliefs, you'll need a principle to guide your inductive reasoning. Occam's razor is a principle which has been found to be effective at guiding inductive reasoning over the years and so it's sensible to use it when it is applicable. What principle do you use instead?

Peace, Neil.

Neil Turton said...

Hi Akakiwibear,

I've explained before why I don't think "God did it" is an explanation so I won't repeat myself here. Instead, I'll take you at your word. If "God did it" is an explanation then surely "Nature did it" is also an explanation. Now I expect you'll just come back and ask "How did nature do it", but that wouldn't be a fair question. After all, you haven't explained how God did it.

Let's have a look at which is the simplest. On the face of it, they look pretty much equivalent. One explains our observations in terms of an entity called "God". The other explains them in terms of an entity called "Nature". However, there is a big difference between God and Nature. We known that Nature exists but we don't know that God exists. In other words, the explanation "God did it" includes an assumption which the explanation "Nature did it" does not.

And so the explanation "God did it" is actually short-hand for the explanation "An alternative realm exists and God exists in that realm and God did it". Clearly that is a more complex explanation than "Nature did it" and so it cannot be the simplest explanation.

I think the most useful form of Occam's razor is that the explanation with the fewest and most reasonable assumptions is the most likely one. If I get the time, I'll give a more serious analysis of the situation, listing the assumptions made by each side.

Peace, Neil.

akakiwibear said...

Hi Neil,

I agree that “Nature did it” appears to have as much/more appeal as “God did it” in terms of simplicity. Nature is a known with a body of scientific knowledge to explain how it works. Certainly it is valid to say that if an event is unexplained by nature that we simply don’t have the knowledge to explain it.

Some events fall into the scientific “not yet known” category – we have a body of knowledge that we acknowledge to be developing and expect that events cannot be explained as natural phenomenon now, fill be in the future. I am happy to accept “nature did it” as equally plausible to “God did it” on these cases.

However there is another category - phenomena that are not explained by science, but are also contrary to our existing knowledge.

So the dilemma is this. The simple explanation is “nature did it” – but the events are in contravention of how we know nature to behave. Could we have our knowledge of nature wrong? Yes but then the “nature did it” explanation ceases to be simple, it becomes …
… ‘in addition to the accepted laws of nature with any known scientifically explainable exceptions, there exists another set of laws applicable to any branch of science covering a set of phenomena that behave outside the accepted laws, behaving according to another set of laws that we don’t understand, are not certain exist and cannot formulate and would violate the basis of our proven scientific concepts.’ Now we can still, when referring to these events say “Nature did it” and live with the implicit scientific contradictions or we can say “perhaps God did it”.

The latter is only acceptable as an alternative to “don’t know how it happened – but contrary to the laws of nature, nature did it” if there is a body of knowledge that links events explained as ‘God did it’ – commonality, causality etc.

This is not quite the God of the gaps theory; call it the God of the scientifically impossible theory.

Hamba kahle – peace of Christ be with you at Christmas

Neil Turton said...

Hi Akakiwibear,

Happy new year.

I thought your comment was very thoughtful. I just have a few points to make.

You say that there are separate categories of "not yet known" and "contrary to our existing knowledge". I disagree. A large number of scientific developments fit into both categories. For example, Einstein's general theory of relativity was contrary to the existing knowledge of the time (Newton's theory of gravity) and yet was a new discovery - not yet known. The discovery was made by noting that the predictions of the existing theory were contrary to the observations made by experiment.

That could also be the case for miracles, OoBEs and conversions. For example with miracles, our knowledge that people don't spontaneously recover from certain conditions is based entirely on our observation that they don't. If someone did spontaneously recover then that would cast doubt on the original knowledge. So in case like that where observations are contrary to existing knowledge, it's always open to us to re-examine that knowledge and conclude that it's incorrect.

You say that "God did it" is only acceptable as an explanation if the events which are explained are linked by a body of knowledge. That sounds rather vague, but what's to stop the links between the events begin formulated as a scientific law? This is the law which we "cannot formulate and would violate the basis of our proven scientific concepts". It seems to me that you're contradicting yourself there.

In any case, by questioning the existence of the laws, you're going beyond the simple explanation "Nature did it". Perhaps we should be fair and do the same to the "God did it" explanation. The laws describe the behaviour of nature and the mechanism by which the events are explained. To be fair, then, we should require a description of the behaviour of God and the mechanism by which he performs his actions.

Peace, Neil.

akakiwibear said...

Neil, good analogy with relativity as a responce to my "not explained" category - it fitted all my criteria.

Back to the drawing board on this one.

With relativity we saw that classical physics lacked an explanation for events. We (OK Einstein – I admit I was not involved) started to develop a theory that explained the unexplained. He did OK too!

Now to our unexplained events (religious experiences) that are contrary to the existing laws of physics etc.

Two possibilities
1) We will develop new laws of physics that explain them, as with relativity OR
2) The events are not subject to the laws of physics and can be explained by another discipline.

To consider (2) we have first to acknowledge that it is possible that there is another discipline to which these events are subject - that physics (= laws of nature) does not have all the answers.

I suspect you will baulk at this, in which case for you the answer will always need to be bound by the limits of science. But I digress.

What would be the conditions for acknowledging this?
i) The events are not physical, taht is they don’t happen in a way that can be measured by our scientific interaction with the environment (i.e. there is no meter for registering religious experiences or ‘ectoplasm’ as in Ghostbusters) – they are ‘extra’physical in nature

ii) There exists a theory that does explain these events.

iii) The events are able to be classified into patterns complying with the theory.

The answer to my construction, as you would expect, is the metaphysical. The world of metaphysical occurrences is clearly not one that we would expect to be bound by the laws of classical, or even perhaps quantum physics, but rather of metaphysics – the grist of which is theology.

Now, the question is simple. Can one believe anything outside the confines of science?

If No … there is no God, the consequence of a choice to limit any answers to what fits within a particular and limited discipline. There is no point in continued exploration of the topic as any contra answers are by definition invalid.

If Yes … there may be a God, the consequence of a choice to examine all the evidence in the light of all possible explanations. There is a point to exploring the alternatives.

Consider the parallel to relativity. If we had limited our thinking and said that if an event was not explained by classical physics either the event did occur our we got it wrong, where would we be today? Fortunately for Einstein the events of interest to him were capable of physical recording – pity religious experiences have to rely on anecdotal reporting.

Hamba kahle - peace

BEAST FCD said...

Not every God of ancient antiquity was a statue: The God Ra was the Sun, and Poseidon was Goddess of the Seas. And then there are the druids of Scotland who worship unseen deities, kind of like what the Christians are worshiping.

It doesn't matter what God or Goddess you pray to, the truth is, there is no evidence that they exist.

Beast FCD

Neil Turton said...

Hi Akakiwibear,

I admire you for admitting that you need to go back to the drawing board. However, you've forgotten to include a factor in your new construction.

iv) The explanation is at least as simple as the available physical explanations.

So there we have it. As I see it, that's what stands between us - Occam's razor. It may seem like a small thing but it's important. Without it, we're free to believe whatever we feel like, subject only to cultural and personal whim.

Of course there's nothing to force you to use Occam's razor, but without it, your theories will get very hairy. ;-)

I'm going to bow out now. I need to spend more time on my own blog and other things. I'll let you have the last word.

Peace, Neil.

akakiwibear said...

Hi Neil,
I have enjoyed your company. I wish you well and God bless.

hamba kahle -peace

Neil Turton said...

Hi Akakiwibear,

Yes, I've enjoyed your company and I've learned a lot. Thank you for hosting. I wish you well too.

Peace, Neil.

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