Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Can Religion tell us anything important? (part 2)...

In part 1 of, Can Religion tell us anything important?, I described how a materialistic view of the world is incapable of accounting for the origin of abstract realities, such as morality. Tautologies result when one attempts to rationalize the existence of morality within the confines of personal taste. For instance, if a relativist were to posit that his definition of right and wrong is simply the result of a combination of physical events, such as culture, education, electrical impulses in the brain, etc., and that the next fellow’s definition of right and wrong is also the result of a combination of physical events (albeit different events), then he’s at a loss to give any compelling reason why his morality should trump the other fellow’s. That could be disheartening, especially if the most noble act in the other fellow’s system of morality was that of killing and dismembering the relativist. What argument could he use to try and prevent the other fellow from going through with such an act of violence? If he claims that killing and dismembering another human being is against the law, the other guy could respond that his morality doesn’t recognize the law. If he claims that such an act is opposed by the majority of the populace, the other guy could respond with “so what?”. If he claims that such an act intrudes on his love of life, the other guy could respond that his morality tells him that such an act will actually free the relativist from the confines of this corrupt, physical world, while also uplifting him spiritually. When you get right down to it, in a world of relativistic thought, there isn’t anything he can say to prevent this person from committing such an act. What’s more, the very act of attempting to dissuade the murderer illustrates that the relativist considers one form of morality to be better than another and, in so doing, the relativist steps over his own relativistic line in the sand. In everyday discussion this foul occurs whenever the relativist announces that the opinion of the majority overrules the morality of the individual. Once he has stepped over the line the relativist has betrayed his initial assertion that morality is relative – he has appealed to some standard that the other fellow must adhere to, whether by choice or by force. The tautology is complete. As J. Budziszewski tells us in, What We Can’t Not Know, the proposition that all meaning is relative is self-defeating, for if the proposition all meaning is relative was true, then the proposition itself would be relative. If the proposition is relative, then it carries no weight. Unfortunately, in the past week we have been witness not to a potential scenario of right vs. wrong, but to a real-life example. A question I like to propose to the purveyors of relative morality has to do with the individual who tortures and kills infants simply for the pleasure. I propose that such an act is wrong, it has always been wrong, and it will always be wrong. For those lost in the quagmire of relativity, though, while they themselves consider the act to be wrong (usually), they find that they cannot commit to declaring that the act is absolutely wrong. After all, they say, how can one be sure? Terrorists kidnap, torture, and murder children in Belsan, Russia. Putin said that the hostage-takers had begun to shoot children out of boredom. The believer in transcendent morality understands that people can’t not know that such acts are evil. Meanwhile, the relativist is left thanking his lucky stars that the majority of the populace, for now, are still of the opinion that such acts are wrong. How well do these opposing worldviews address the realities of the world which we view? UPDATE: Check the post, Dostoevsky and the Demonic, over at Moteworthy.com, for an insightful commentary on the terror in Russia. ...to be continued


Rusty said...

Bonnie - well, mere strong belief in any number of things does accomplish this; ask any single-minded businessman, athlete, or other succesful individual. For that matter watch a Tony Robbins infomercial.

However, most things just don't lend themselves to making profound changes for good or bad. I am passionately of the belief that the average American cheese should be reclassified as a petro-chemical byproduct. But that doesn't seem like the basis for fundamental changes in my personality.

Religion, on the other hand, pretty much *requires* that change, so of course it will (often) lead to changes - I cycle to work and it has led to changes in my fitness, but I could scarcely fault my friend's religion because it hasn't, as that isn't what religion is about.
Paul | Email | Homepage | 09.16.04 - 3:35 am | #


Paul, the changes I'm talking about are deeper, longer-lasting, and farther-reaching than running a successful business, getting an Olympic gold medal, or shedding some pounds. I think you know that. They're also about more than "the power of positive thinking."

Plus, we're talking fundamental changes of heart, of will, of thinking - not of personality. Personal characteristics, maybe, but not core personality itself.

We're also not talking "religion" -- (I'm not trying to shoot you down, but we are, after all, discussing terms and definitions of terms, so it behooves us to be specific). The only change "required" by faith in God through Jesus Christ (which is what I think you mean by the term "religion") is one of will; any other changes happen as a result.

Hey, let's send Katie Couric some American Cheese
Bonnie | Email | 09.16.04 - 1:00 pm | #


I agree we are talking about more fundamental changes than winning an Olympic medal. But the few succesful athletes that I know *are* affected more fundamentally - their work ethic, their focus, their relationships with others, one might even say their entire worldview, are all deeply changed by their strong belief in something (i.e. their position in their sport).

I'd also argue with your comment on the power of positive thinking. I'm naturally more optimistic than my wife, and that colors many of the things I do. She has picked up some of this tendency from me, and once again we're looking at a major shift in her worldview. I'm not talking about smiling more at the person who makes her coffee, but a different way of approaching life's challenges. Literally life-changing, in fact. And there are many other ways that we can decide to do something differently, and gradually become profoundly changed by it.
Paul | Email | Homepage | 09.16.04 - 1:25 pm | #


I'm still pondering your comment about faith in your god, but for now do you really not think that the things I've mentioned above are deep, long-lasting and far-reaching? I'll happily agree that belief in a god can do that for a person (though obviously I think it's the belief, not the god, that is the important part).
Paul | Email | Homepage | 09.16.04 - 1:26 pm | #


Paul, on "fundamental changes": of course a person's life can be profoundly affected by some sort of discipline or pursuit, but I really don't think that at the core it makes a person more altruistic, less jealous, or any number of other things that motivate personal behavior. I.e., I'm not convinced these things truly bring about "worldview changes."

Besides, you said a few posts up, "most things just don't lend themselves to making profound changes for good or bad." So are your "single-minded, successful individual" examples the exceptions?

(A discussion of what "successful" means could be beneficial here too but maybe we'll postpone that one for the moment )

Bonnie | Email | 09.16.04 - 9:54 pm | #


I'm not denying that many different influences can bring about profound changes, but I still hold that none of these changes equals what an authentic faith in God through Jesus can bring about.

The other thing about it is, so many of the tenets of this faith are things that really go against the grain of human nature*; it's too incredible for me to believe that the folks who wrote these things in the Bible just came up with them. How did they manage to get them passed down through the generations, when people continually abandoned them so readily? How could a mere "belief" (in God, both BC and AD) have kept reappearing so many times throughout history and have had so much power? Where did it come from?

*See my comments on the post "The Question of God" above. Things like "bless those who curse you," etc. Which seems like an idiotic thing to do, right? Until you try it, and see what wisdom it really is!
Bonnie | Email | 09.16.04 - 10:12 pm | #


I appreciate you don't feel that these things can change a person's worldview. I disagree. I've personal experience of how events with no relation to god made me a more patient person, for example. But you can't truly grasp that any more than I can grasp the change that a belief in god may bring about.

Of course my succesful examples are exceptions - most people's views aren't changed by anything, including religion, except in the normal growth of an individual, where everything makes a difference.

As to your other point, I don't think they go against one of the main grains of human nature, which is to aspire to be better than we are. Now quite why those things are picked over others is an interesting question, but it isn't one that depends on god.
Paul | Email | Homepage | 09.17.04 - 9:30 am | #


But you can't truly grasp that any more than I can grasp the change that a belief in god may bring about.

Paul, you can't know this, not knowing me. I think I can grasp it, because I haven't always been a Christian. I also think I've observed enough human behavior, my own included, to be convinced that the only thing that can bring about a fundamental change in core motivation is turning oneself over to God.

Bonnie | Email | 09.17.04 - 9:46 pm | #


As to your other point, I don't think they go against one of the main grains of human nature, which is to aspire to be better than we are. Now quite why those things are picked over others is an interesting question, but it isn't one that depends on god.

Well, let's look at that question then: how would mere aspiration for betterment lead to discovery of those ideas? Do you think it's plausible that mankind came up with them on his/her own?

And then there's the question, why DO people aspire to be better than they are? (Actually, that's a question I'm hoping to address on my blog - sometime )
Bonnie | Email | 09.17.04 - 9:47 pm | #


Bonnie - OK, I'll use your argument on you. You can't grasp how fundamental the change in me was, not knowing me. So you still haven't demonstrated that faith is a different kind of change, or even that such a thing is knowable.

Humans are very inventive - I have no doubt that they could come up with pretty much any idea that is thinkable. So clearly I think it's plausible (given that it's what I believe happened).

Why people aspire is a huge question, but here's one possibility. If we didn't aspire, we'd still be clubbing animals to death and grunting a lot. We wouldn't be where we are if we didn't aspire, so the question should be "How could modern man NOT aspire?"
Paul | Email | Homepage | 09.18.04 - 5:13 am | #


Hey Paul... no, you're right, I don't know you. But I covered the issue already: I have observed many people, I know many people, I've read about many people - those with relationship to God similar to mine, and those not. Also, Paul, for 1/2 of my life, I did not know God like I do now; I was an atheist/agnostic. So I don't think I'm completely without a frame of reference.

I also know that I used to listen to people talk about the same kind of change I'm talking about and think, "yeah right," because I couldn't conceive of it! But when I finally decided to give it a try, well...I found out

BTW, what's so bad about clubbing animals to death and grunting a lot? Do you think those Neandertals, or whoever you mean, were aspiring to something greater? Like, meat-processing plants? No, seriously -who's to say that where we are now is so great, or that where we're headed is so great?
Bonnie | Email | 09.18.04 - 1:01 pm | #


Everything you say is true, I don't deny for a second that faith in god is unusually good at altering a person's worldview. I still assert that:

1. There are other things that can do the same (a near-death experience would be an obvious example, but there are others) and just because you haven't met people so changed, doesn't mean that they don't exist. I think I exist, for example.

2. You haven't said anything that means that the change is due to the existence of god, as opposed to faith in god. Faith in anything is tremendously powerful, but never requires the existence of the object of faith.
Paul | Email | Homepage | 09.18.04 - 4:14 pm | #


LOL I hope you exist; I'd hate to be wasting my time on an illusion

Paul, perhaps you can present some evidence to convince me that a near-death experience, or any other experience, can, in and of itself, transform someone from self-motivated to God-motivated. I can't imagine how anything other than submitting oneself to the true God can do it. We're talking a fundamental change of allegiance, from self-serving to God-serving. And no, it's not like flippng a switch, although in some ways it is. But it still has to be lived out; that's the hard part.

Are you saying you've had a near-death experience? I'd love to hear about if you're so inclined.
Bonnie | Email | 09.18.04 - 9:08 pm | #


As to your #2: there's a problem with having faith in something that's nonexistent or different from what's believed: it can't deliver. I think there's plenty of evidence for people believing in stuff that doesn't pan out.

I can only testify that, unlike anything else I've ever tried, faith in God through Jesus delivers.
Bonnie | Email | 09.18.04 - 9:11 pm | #


I have no idea if any experience can change somebody to god-motivated - you would know that better than me. I would have assumed that many things can, unless you're saying that the average christian wakes up one morning and says "You know what, I've got some time before the mall opens, I think I'll give my life over to Christ".

I do think, however, that there are plenty of experiences that can significantly and fundamentally change a person's worldview. It's a pretty common experience for the arrival of children to totally change how people see the world. In fact, I have a christian friend whose life has been totally overtaken by his child, and while I have no idea if it measures up to his faith (because it's physically impossible for me to know that), it's certainly a fundamental change.
Paul | Email | Homepage | 09.19.04 - 4:47 am | #


No, no near-death experience for me - I was hospitalized for a year as a child, and went from being an average student with good sports skills to being a physically inactive academic. How I approached things changed enormously (though I wouldn't claim it was a total change - my mother still new who I was, for example) and fundamentall, and it has shaped my entire life. You might not think that compares to faith in god, but then you weren't there.

I agree there's lots of evidence for faith not working out. But there's also a lot of evidence that it can - a very practical example is the placebo effect, and I'd argue that faith in self is perhaps most powerful of all.
Paul | Email | Homepage | 09.19.04 - 4:52 am | #


...unless you're saying that the average christian wakes up one morning and says "You know what, I've got some time before the mall opens, I think I'll give my life over to Christ".

LOL! Well, I wouldn't say it always happens quite like that, but, hey, I suppose it could! In my case, I sort of edged my way in, decision-wise, although I can definitely point to a moment, an occasion, when I consciously made a decision to stop, take my life out of gear, and seek the truth of God.

I will reiterate: I've no doubt that many things can bring about profound changes to a person's inner being, but I'm not yet convinced that any of them equal the depth, the root of a change wrought by allowing God in.
Bonnie | Email | 09.19.04 - 9:18 pm | #


That's totally fine, Bonnie, but your doubt doesn't mean that it's not true. This is probably my biggest problem with religious faith, in fact; ultimately it's about faith, rather than proof, no matter how deep that faith may be felt. That in itself is fine, but when it requires me to change my behaviour it is unpleasantly intrusive.
Paul | Email | Homepage | 09.20.04 - 4:23 am | #


Note for Rusty - I've noticed the comment count for this thread go from a high of 102 down to 99, even as I've added a post or two. Seems odd, so I thought you'd like to know (maybe it's just deleting spam or something?)
Paul | Email | Homepage | 09.20.04 - 8:14 am

Bonnie said...

Hi Paul,

Time to stop going around in circles, I'm getting dizzy! We've already been around the "proof" and "doubt" issues.

Perhaps the crux of the issue for you can truly be found in your last comment: "when it requires me to change my behaviour it is unpleasantly intrusive."

But before I comment on that, I'd like you to explain a little further. I will start a thread on my blog under "Discussion with Paul" and we'll continue there, OK?