Saturday, July 01, 2006

Dissecting my Opposite Day Entry

Well, I thought I'd finally get around to responding to my Opposite Day entry, in which I argued Why Christianity is True. I received positive feedback for it and I myself find it more convincing an argument than any I've read by actual Christians. (That doesn't mean it's superior, only that it plays to my biases, which makes perfect sense as I was the author.)

I suggest reading the original in its entirety first to get the full impact. I want to emphasize that when I was writing this, I wasn't deviously planning logical fallacies or calculating how to be deceitful, I was just starting with what I believe to be true and trying to work towards proving Christianity.

Anyway, here goes:

First, there seems to be no plausible explanation for true free will without the supernatural.

I begin by finding a troubling implication of science, which is religion's main competitor. Nobody wants to believe we don't have free will, yet it's difficult to see how we could have it without invoking supernatural explanations.

Although it's therefore tempting to argue that there is no free will, it's obvious from everyday experience that there is.

I then appeal to "common sense," a technique often used by the unsophisticated to argue against counter-intuitive realities. To be precise, when we say "it's obvious that there is free will," what we're really saying is that it "feels" like we have free will. Science has repeatedly demonstrated that what feels true isn't always so.

If there is a supernatural being behind every human, it stands to reason that there is an even greater supernatural being of which the smaller beings are a part, or are split off of somehow.

A little sleight-of-hand. I say "it stands to reason," but I merely make an unexplained logical jump.

This is exactly what Christianity teaches. What is Christ if not part of the Greater Spirit (God) combined with a human one?

In fact, it's not "exactly what Christianity teaches." I'm also using the phrase "Greater Spirit" dishonestly, to make it sound like God is the same thing as a soul, only bigger.

In fact, the very notion of the Trinity reflects the metaphysics which makes most sense based on simple observation.

Another appeal to "common sense."

God, or the Spirit, is united but at the same time has different manifestations. God is God the Father, the Creator, while at the same time the Son, the human. There is also the pervasive Holy Spirit which fills all of Creation.

Here I'm shoehorning complicated Christian theology into the metaphysics I argued for based simply on the apparent existence of free will. This has strong emotional impact because it takes one of the most difficult aspects of Christian theology -- Trinity-based monotheism -- and turns it on its head. This will really hit the pleasure centers of a believer's brain. ("Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones." The Political Brain.)

It's clear that the Old Testament began with a people who were prepared only for a tribal Deity, not the real Monotheism of later Christianity. In the Old testament, God acts like a polytheistic God - angry, jealous, loving, vengeful... in other words, human, but bigger. He is a nation's God, rather than the only God. He says, "worship no other Gods before me," not "I am the only God who exists."

Throwing a bone to the skeptics, saying, "See, I'm reasonable. You can trust me." "Arguing against interest" is a time-tested way to build credibility.

Judaism paved the way for Christ's message. Jesus was himself both God and Jew, and so formed a new covenant, this time not with one nation, but with anyone willing to accept Him. At this point, the people had been weaned off of primitive, pagan-like sacrifices and ritual laws of kashrut and the like were no longer necessary. Christ showed people how to interact directly with God without needing such primitive intermediaries.

Neatly doing away with the most foreign bits of the Old Testament as well as sucking in those who are disaffected with their Judaism and those uncomfortable with the idea of "the chosen people."

Some claim that Jesus did not exist. This is almost certainly untrue. He is a recent enough figure and he shows up not just in the four gospels, but in extra-Biblical documents like Josephus and the Talmud.

Straw man. I find a weak claim made by some non-believers and trounce it. Even so, I make it sound like the issue's more settled than it is. The Talmud refers to the Jesus who is worshipped, not the actual man, and Josephus may have been hearsay.

Some point out that the gospels contradict each other in places, for example with the details in the story of His resurrection. I agree that there are contradictions, but that this is to be expected when hearing a story from four different sources. I don't believe that the NT (or the OT) were dictated from God...

Another bone for the skeptics. "See, I'm reasonable!" A non-literal understanding of the Bible also allows me the freedom to interpret it as necessary to fit with my pre-existing beliefs in the present as well as the confidence that I'll be able to continue to "update my understanding" of it as science finds more results in the future which contradict a literal understanding.

...but it's clear they were inspired from the comfort they give to millions.

Non-sequitor. Medicine, movies, and Harry Potter novels give comfort to millions, but nobody claims they were "inspired."

The OT paved the way for Jesus Christ. There are many prophets before Jesus, but the OT also speaks of the Messiah.

Disingenuously implying that the OT's predictions lend credibility to Christianity. Simply because the OT prophesizes a Messiah doesn't mean that any particular person claimed to be the Messiah is.

If the Old Testament has any truth to it, there's no way the Second Temple could have been destroyed with no Messiah coming for over two thousand years. Even when the nation of Israel was being punished, it was only for four hundred years! It's clear from the OT that the Messiah would be coming sooner rather than later.

Taking an argument against Judaism and turning it on it's head. Also disingenuously confusing the issue of the original Resurrection with the Second Coming.

Arguments against the Old Testament from science are irrelevant. The Old Testament was never supposed to be a literal history of the Universe. It was an introduction to God for a people who did not yet know Him. He spoke in their language, according to what they could accept at that time. Later, in Jesus's time, he updated the teachings to include the rest of humanity.

Big, tasty bone for the skeptics as well as those uncomfortable with the concept of "the chosen people." Also plays on the fact that the New Testament was indeed written for a more recent audience than the OT.

Did evolution happen? Of course it did. Is the universe billions of years old and unimaginably vast? Of course.

Mmmmmmmmmmm. Skeptic bones.

These things only prove God's existence all the more so! Evolution is far too intricate to lead to a being as astounding as the human without being guided somehow.

Deliberately vague and misleading. Even atheists agree that evolution was "guided somehow" -- by natural selection!

A 4-billion year old Earth with a long, winding path towards the human reveals an incomprehensibly powerful God.

Assuming facts not in evidence. There's no evidence that the human is the goal of evolution, let alone the purpose of the Earth. If we manage to kill ourselves in the next few hundred thousand years, we may even be one of the shorter-lived species to have arisen. Note that I'm also turning a knock on religion -- that the history of the world is much more complex than imagined by the author(s) of the Creation story -- into a plus.

And what of Christ's teachings? Can anyone deny that his words carry immense wisdom?

And I quote the verses that liberals love. Moreover, that Jesus (the person or the character) had some wisdom is not under debate. The overwhelming majority of wise men are not God.

Were not these teachings shown to be wise by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.? Who among modern figures are more revered than those two who so closely followed Jesus's teachings.

Continue appealing to the liberals. Ignoring the 99.9% of other people who interpreted Jesus's teachings a little... differently. Moreover, Gandhi wasn't even a Christian.

Oh, you will say, so much harm has been done in Jesus's name. This is true, I agree, but those so-called followers of Christ aren't doing any following.

No True Scotsman fallacy. Moreover, some of them are very much following the New Testament, which isn't exactly modern in its opinions on homosexuality, women, or non-believers.

Christ predicted such hypocrisy and gave us the only test we need for discovering who the real Christians are. He said, "By their fruits you shall know them."

A line I've always admired.

In other words, if one praises Jesus but steals from the poor, he's not a Christian. If one praises Jesus but agitates for war, he's not a Christian. If one praises Jesus but bilks the faithful out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, he's not a Christian.

Bones for the liberals. Note that according to this statement, the majority of Americans who call themselves Christian are not in fact Christian.

Mankind is flawed, and Jesus came to rescue us from ourselves.

Who can argue that we're flawed? Who doesn't sometimes wish someone would rescue us?

His sacrifice mirrors the primitive use of the (literal) scapegoat in the old testament, but reinvents it for a more enlightened humanity.

Implying that the parallelism is evidence.

Even to the gravest suffering, stand up for what's right, is his message. In the OT, the faithful kill the scapegoat. In the NT, the most faithful one IS the scapegoat. Don't strike, but turn the other cheek.

More liberal bones. Is that really the message of the crucifixion?

When we all follow Jesus, there will be no war.

Or when we all follow Buddha or Gandhi or Ralph Nader.

And what of our sins? What does it mean to say Jesus died to save us?

Very good question. This really doesn't make much sense.

By his death he teaches that living isn't the most important thing, how you live is. He modeled for us even as he was dying the perfect behavior.

Very simplistic interpretation. If this were really the moral to the story, Jesus should have died by saving drowning children or something.

"Forgive them Father," he says, referring to his murderers, "they know not what they do." Christ died teaches us the alternative to hatred.

Of course, I left out "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"


To sum up:

1) I found an emotionally unsatisfying implication of scientific materialism, which I argue that Christianity solves.
2) I disarmed the skeptics by admitting evolution and a non-literal interpretation of both the OT and the NT.
3) I created a satisfying metaphysics, based loosely on Buddhism, which I shoehorned into Christianity.
4) I disarmed the liberals by focusing on Jesus's liberal teachings.
5) I dismissed a straw man argument to make skeptics look weaker.
6) I used the No True Scotsman fallacy to get around the horrible things done in Christianity's name.
7) I reinterpreted the meaning of the crucifixion as if it were the moral of an after-school special.
8) I made it sound like Christianity is the solution to war.
9) I ignored all parts of Christianity which actually contradict science or contemporary morality.


shlemazl said...

LoL. You are a Talmudist. Well impressed by you ability to argue for both sides.

On a side note - did you steal the colour scheme of my blog? :-)

Jewish Atheist said...

LoL. You are a Talmudist. Well impressed by you ability to argue for both sides.

Yes, I'm sure my parents think their Day School education money was very well spent. ;-)

On a side note - did you steal the colour scheme of my blog? :-)

Just a standard template. Looks nice, though, eh? ;-)

UberPropagandist said...

Yet another great post.
Now can we do one for and against modern orthodoxy?
(I feel hasidism and ultra-orthodoxy to be too easy and irrational anyhow.)

Random said...

I'm intrigued as to why you felt it necessary to write this post (don't get me wrong, I think it's an excellent and intriguing one - as indeed was the original "opposite day" post) - did you have people questioning if you were really an atheist if you could write something like that?:-)

To be honest, I can't even pick any bones with it, appart from a couple of places anyway!

1) "No true Scotsman" - I have to say that I do think this is a valid argument. Or, to put it another way, the Spanish Inquisition no more invalidates Christianity as a belief system than the NKVD invalidates atheism.

2) "Of course, I left out "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?""

You shouldn't have. A true (ahem) Christian would point out that Jesus is quoting the opening line of the 22nd Psalm, which both appears to predict the crucifixion ("My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death. For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet. I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me. They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.") and the ultimate victory of the one being crucified ("All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee. For the kingdom is the LORD's: and he is the governor among the nations. All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul. A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation. They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.") Far from being the crisis of faith that some interpret this passage as representing, what Jesus is actually doing is reaching through his pain to teach those followers still with him that all that has happened was prophesied and meant to happen and that this is only the beginning of the story, not the end. Surely it's a sign of the truth of Christianity that even at the moment of his death Jesus is still struggling to teach his message? Would a mere con artist have bothered to do this? (Or at least that's how you could have put it in your "opposite day" post:-))

Jewish Atheist said...


Now can we do one for and against modern orthodoxy?

Hmm.. Maybe. :-)


did you have people questioning if you were really an atheist if you could write something like that?:-)

Nah.. I just thought it would be fun and instructive to take it apart. :-)

Or, to put it another way, the Spanish Inquisition no more invalidates Christianity as a belief system than the NKVD invalidates atheism.

Although it doesn't necessarily invalidate some potential ideal of Christianity, it, combined with the many other awful things committed in Jesus's name, largely invalidates Christianity as it's practiced. One could continue to maintain that there is a true (tm) Christianity which 95%+ of "Christians" don't follow.

I could then point out that Jesus, being God, should have known this would happen and done a better job of preventing it. :-) How about getting rid of the first two commandments and replacing them with "Thou shalt not forcibly convert anyone" and "Thou shalt not condone slavery." And He should have been a lot more clear about "Don't murder." ;-)

A true (ahem) Christian would point out that Jesus is quoting the opening line of the 22nd Psalm, which both appears to predict the crucifixion...

And a true Hebrew reader would tell you that it's a mistranslation (like Isaiah 7:14.)

הקיפוני כארי ידי ורגלי

means "like a lion, they are at my hands and my feet," not "they pierced my hands and my feet."

Some Christians will point to the Septuagint, which uses the word ωρυξαν, which apparently means "dug" rather than "lion." I don't read Greek, but from what I can glean online, "dug" doesn't carry the implication of "piercing." Although the Septuagint is older than the Masoretic text, I don't see any legitimate reason to translate the word as "pierced" when the original makes more sense in context (we've been talking about dogs and bulls and a lion was mentioned just a couple verses earlier) and translating it as "pierced" is a little too convenient.

David said...

>> I begin by finding a troubling implication of science, which is religion's main competitor.

Stop confusing science with physicalism/materialism.

Jewish Atheist said...

Absolutely right, David. I noted that on preview and meant to change it to "scientific materialism," but I must have forgotten.

Random said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Random said...

"One could continue to maintain that there is a true (tm) Christianity which 95%+ of "Christians" don't follow."

Something which just about every Christian who belongs to a church/faith tradition with less than 100 million members (approx 5% of worldwide Christianity) would agree with, frankly. Make of that what you will...

"And a true Hebrew reader would tell you that it's a mistranslation (like Isaiah 7:14.)"

Well, I'm no scholar of these things, but the online version of the English Standard version (which those who are scholars seem to believe to be the most literally accurate modern translation)reads "pierced" with a footnote that says "Some Hebrew manuscripts, Septuagint, Vulgate, Syriac; most Hebrew manuscripts like a lion [they are at] my hands and feet". I still think my interpretation of the episode holds up better than the crisis of faith one, though.

Juggling Mother said...

Wow! you left it a long time. I did the rebuttal of my opposite day post almost immediately. Didn't want anyone stumbling upon it accidently & getting the wrong idea (despite the disclaimer at the top & bottom of the post):-)

It was interesting reading yours - obviously written by someone with so much more knowledge of the bible than me:-)

It was a good experiment. I'd love to read some more.