Sunday, June 27, 2010

Back to Basics: Discussion with an Atheist named Brap Gronk

Brap Gronk is probably a new reader of my blog. He's asking good questions and making good comments, except that if he had been a long time reader he would know the answers because these things that I think long time readers know I talk about a lot. Maybe I have not talked about them in a long time so I guess its' time to introduce this batch of regular readers to my idiosyncratic take on things.

Brap Gronk said...
Part 1: Here is how I look at the Courtier’s Reply. Let’s go back in time to when the only part of today’s Bible that existed was the Pentateuch. (If that’s not the general consensus on which books were written first, feel free to substitute whatever book or books were written first in place of “Pentateuch.”) If a person of that era is presented with the Pentateuch and told it is the word of God, inspired by God, or whatever, that person can decide whether to believe it or not.

So, why would this person believe the Pentateuch is the word of God? One reason might be because this person already believes in one or more false gods who are allegedly responsible for various natural occurrences, so a story about a one true God, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, seems quite plausible.

He's arguing that the basis for the Christian belief system is bankrupt and thus, the emperor has no clothes. Well there are several things wrong here. First that he doesn't understand eh courtier's reply the way I do, as an excuse to justify ignorance of theology. That may just be a difference of opinion. Looking at the basic attack upon the Christian tradition, I understand the rationale for the approach, but what it's missing or failing to understand is crucial. He takes the Bible as the basis of Christian belief. He takes religious belief as a rational proposition. If there is no immediate surface reason to accept the proposition then there is no basis for the belief. The problem with this is the Bible is not the basis of the tradition, and Judaism is not the place to start. This approach is basically treating ancinet Hebrews like fledgling Christians. The reason for doing that may be technically correct, Christianity evolved out of Judaism but that's no reason to treat ancinet Hebrews as proto-Christians. Belief in God in the ancinet wold would entail a lot of different information than it does now but in neither case would accepting the Bible as a verifiable proportion of historical accuracy be part of that reason. That's basically just codifying the fundamentalist mentality as "the christian tradition" rather than what it really is, a part of the larger tradition which includes much more than just accepting the Bible literally.

For the ancient Hebrews belief in God was bound up closely with being in their culture. To be a Hebrew meant worshiping the Hebrew god. It's a paradox of  our time that atheists are no longer intellectuals. Because intellectuals would have to accept this as culturally relative. But modern atheists see it as something condemn because it stands our from the way we do things. They totally ignore the fact, or they know not the fact that our modern understanding of individual autonomy is based upon ideas that came out of the enlightenment, not upon the universal nature of humanity. The ancient Hebrews did not base their beliefs upon how truly the Bible fit history or scinece, this what not even in the cards. They experienced God in the way that people all over the world do, through the sense of the numinous. They had the same reason to believe in divine power that anyone in any culture at any time does; that the reality of divine power is experienced by them. But the claims of their specific faith were wrapped up with their tradition the narrative story of their people. Writing the story and preserving the writing of it was not the reason to believe it was the outgrowth of belief. They didn't view the bible as proof that their claims were true. They weren't worried about it. They knew their claims were true in the say way they knew they were Hebrews. To disparage this cultural ferment is to misunderstand the nature of religion to begin with.

Religion is an outgrowth of culture in the sense that experience of God has to be understood through language. But our experiences of God transcend language. To make sense of them we must encode them in culture. It's the cultural filter that colors the appearance of a religion and makes it the religious tradition that it is. The psychological studies done about religious experience prove that people all over the world, in all times and all places have the same basic experiences of God and even relate to those experiences in the same way, but they must encode them in culture to talk about them and it's the cultural aspect that makes them all different. So to answer the question the reason to believe the Pentateuch way back when those books were the only form of Bible is because one was  Hebrew that's what Hebrews believe. That is not to say that the reason for being a Christian is also the same. Christianity has developed along with, and to a large extent nurtured and developed, modern secular culture. Being a Christian in the modern world is not a function of coming form a particular culture, like any other bleieve system in modernity being a Christian now means one's own experience, one's own existential position, one's on sense of the numinous.

I hope we can agree that accepting the Pentateuch base on that line of reasoning is less than great, since it’s based on false beliefs. 
 Not necessarily. He's assuming that its false merely because people believed it as an outgrowth of culture.I don't see why that makes it false. I see why that means the reasons for believing it are culturally relative and would not be deemed relevant to our own cultural context today. I don't see how that proves they are baseless. The Bible doesn't say we have to have the same reason for believing they had back then. But in terms of the sense of numinous people have always had that and they still do. That's basically the real reason why people believe and it will always be the reason. But the sense of the numinous has to be loaded into culture to be talked about. That being the case there will always be cultural differences in belief systems and in religious traditions.

Another reason this person might believe the Pentateuch is the word of God is because he has been searching for answers to explain the natural world around him, and he thinks there must be a supreme being who is in charge of it all and created everything.
In my opinion that line of reasoning is similar to the first reason, since those false gods were created for the same reason, to partially or wholly explain the natural world. It doesn’t seem much different than God of the Gaps, since at that time it was all gaps. (No need to shoot down God of the Gaps for me. I’ll remove that last sentence so we can move on.)
two classic problems here:

(1) "word of God" is a reformation category, not a ancinet Hebrew category.

In the OT the prophets many times say "the word of God came to him saying..." The word of God for them was the word God spoke not the written words on paper. Scholars show that the guys at Qumran has four different retentions of the OT running side by side and they didn't care. They had no problem with that because they did not have the idea that the written words on paper were the word of God had to be totally literal.

(2) explaining nature is not the explanation of religion.

 This is an old nineteenth century mistake that atheists have been making since the days of August Compt (early nineteenth century), It's true that people sought to explain nature, and it's true that they often appealed to religion since that was their understanding of the world, that is not to say that the invented religion to explain nature. They invented religion because they had a sense of the numinous. Religion evolved out of the sense of the numinous then came to be used to explain what they didn't understand in nature.

Riligious Belief Does not Serve as Explaination

Are Religious Beliefs Explanations?
Norman Lillegard


"...Scientific explanations get started generally with hypotheses (at least on a Popperian account) which are then put to various tests in attempts to get independent evidence for the explicans. Now there surely is something quite odd in the suggestion that such a religious belief as that God created the universe, or guides its development, is in any way a hypothesis. This belief is normally acquired in "dogmatic" contexts, it is not held in a tentative fashion, and its function in a believer's life is, arguably, quite distinct from the function of hypotheses, and thus of explanations, in the lives of scientists. Does this show that religion and science simply bypass one another? Perhaps. It will no doubt be argued that even if religious beliefs are not hypotheses they still have a definite cognitive content, are true or false, and thus are capable of contradicting scientific claims. To deny this would seem to be tantamount to endorsing some kind of emotivism with respect to religious belief, and in fact suspicions of emotivism have undoubtedly contributed to what I think are premature dismissal of Wittgensteinian approaches in the philosophy of religion. ... I will argue that the dynamics of belief change in the sciences and in religion are distinct in ways that support the idea that religious beliefs do not generally function as hypotheses or indeed function as explanations at all."

3) Humans Have always exhibited religious tendency.

Evolution of Modern Humans

The Biological and Cultural Evolution
of Archaic and Modern Homo sapiens
Dennis O'Neil, Ph.D.
Palomar College
San Marcos, California


"The Cro-Magnon people of Europe regularly decorated their tools and sculpted small pieces of stone, bone, antler, and tusks. Necklaces, bracelets, and decorative pendants were made of bone, teeth, and shell. Cave walls were often painted with naturalistic scenes of animals. Clay was also modeled occasionally. From our culture's perspective, these symbolic and naturalistic representations would be referred to as art. However, that is an ethnocentric projection. For the Cro-Magnon who made this art, it was very likely thought of as being something different, or at least much more, than we think of as art. For instance, it may have had magical and/or religious functions." "Upper Paleolithic European art began by at least 35,000 years ago and became intense 15,000-10,000 years ago. Perhaps, the most prominent portable art was in the form that has become known as Venus figurines . These were small carvings of women that could fit into the hand. They were not portraits but rather faceless idealized representations of well fed, healthy, usually pregnant women with large buttocks and breasts. Because of these exaggerated sexual characteristics, they are thought by most paleoanthropologists to be ritual objects symbolizing female fertility. Many of these stylized carvings are reminiscent of modern abstract art. Venus figurines were made from 27,000 years ago down to the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago, from Western Europe all of the way to Siberia."

"The Cro-Magnon people are, perhaps, most well known for their paintings on the walls of caves. Although, this cave art is most abundant in southwest France and northern Spain, it was made elsewhere as well. With the cave art, we see the first large scale, concrete symbols of human thoughts, feelings, and perhaps even beliefs about the supernatural. Over 150 Western European caves have been found with these ice age paintings on their walls."

"Most of this cave art was made deep inside caves, in hard to get to dark areas with good acoustical qualities. It is assumed that because of the locations, these areas were very likely sacred and that the art was inspired by concerns with the supernatural. The majority of the figures are herd animals, many of which are shown either wounded or pregnant. A number of paleoanthropologists have suggested that the artists were most likely performing imitative (or sympathetic) hunting and fertility magic. This would have been particularly important when this art was at its peak in sophistication since at that time (ca. 15,000-10,000 B.P.), the last ice age was winding down and the herds of game animals were dying out and moving away to the north. Some of the animals depicted in the caves were predators rather than prey--e.g., cave bears and lions. Drawing and painting them may have been a way of obtaining protection from these dangerous creatures or even a way of taking on their ferociousness and skill to increase human hunting success."
Sense of higher presence universal human experience

William James, Varities of Religoius Experience (The Gilford Lectures)


"It is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call 'something there,' more deep and more general than any of the special and particular 'senses' by which the current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed. If this were so, we might suppose the senses to waken our attitudes and conduct as they so habitually do, by first exciting this sense of reality; but anything else, any idea, for example, that might similarly excite it, would have that same prerogative of appearing real which objects of sense normally possess. So far as religious conceptions were able to touch this reality-feeling, they would be believed in in spite of criticism, even though they might be so vague and remote as to be almost unimaginable, even though they might be such non-entities in point of whatness, as Kant makes the objects of his moral theology to be.The most curious proofs of the existence of such an undifferentiated sense of reality as this are found in experiences of hallucination..... "

The Origin of Religion in the Sense of the Holy

Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) produced his own notion of the religious a pariori based upon the experience of the numinous or the Holy. This sense "combines both rational and non-rational elements. In his book The Idea of The Holy "Otto saw the origin of religion in what he called the mysterium tremendum et fascinans...some particular experience, usually for primitive people some confrontation with natural forces, but for the more sophisticated some depth of personal relationship, where simultaneously one is both attracted and repelled by a sense of awe..." [R. Jones "Numinous" Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology..(405)]

a) Criticisms based on the primative

This is apt to be taken as a disproof by internet atheists. The argument would say that the sense of awe at encountering the holy is merely the fear of the unknown experienced by primitive people.while it no doubt does contain that, the argument is merely reifying the experience. First, it is centered upon a prejudice against primitive people; O, they don't have science so how can they know anything? Secondly, it is reducing the experience to an alleged coutner causality which we have no right to do. The "primitive" who intuited a sense of awe is taken for a dummy  only frightened by the thunder. But that is merely modernist prejudice. Primitive people know what thunder is, the encounter it all the time, it is the added element of what they attach to nature that the sense in thunder (or whatever the case may be) so there is an added dimension that we are reducing and losing in the "explanation" (and explanation which is just ideologically based).

Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences Abraham H. Maslow
Appendix I. An Example of B-Analysis

Maslow talks about the psychological necessity of being able to maintain a tranformative symbology. He is not merely saying that we should do this, but that we do it, it is universal and through many different techniques and psychological schools of thought he shows that this has been gleaned over and over again. What Jung called the Archetypes are universal symbols of transformation which we understand in the unconscious, and we must be able to hold them in proper relation to the mundane (the Sacred and the Profane) in order to enjoy healthy growth, or we stagnate and become pathological. It is crucial to human psychology to maintain this balance. Far from merely being stupid and not understanding science, striving to explain a pre-Newtonian world, the primitives understood this balance and held it better than we do. Religious beleif is crucial to our psychological well being, and this fact far more than social order or the need for examination explicates the origins of religion.


"For practically all primitives, these matters that I have spoken about are seen in a more pious, sacred way, as Eliade has stressed, i.e., as rituals, ceremonies, and mysteries. The ceremony of puberty, which we make nothing of, is extremely important for most primitive cultures. When the girl menstruates for the first time and becomes a woman, it is truly a great event and a great ceremony; and it is truly, in the profound and naturalistic and human sense, a great religious moment in the life not only of the girl herself but also of the whole tribe. She steps into the realm of those who can carry on life and those who can produce life; so also for the boy's puberty; so also for the ceremonies of death, of old age, of marriage, of the mysteries of women, the mysteries of men. I think that an examination of primitive or preliterate cultures would show that they often manage the unitive life better than we do, at least as far as relations between the sexes are concerned and also as between adults and children. They combine better than we do the B and the D, as Eliade has pointed out. He defined primitive cultures as different from industrial cultures because they have kept their sense of the sacred about the basic biological things of life.

"We must remember, after all, that all these happenings are in truth mysteries. Even though they happen a million times, they are still mysteries. If we lose our sense of the mysterious, or the numinous, if we lose our sense of awe, of humility, of being struck dumb, if we lose our sense of good fortune, then we have lost a very real and basic human capacity and are diminished thereby."

"Now that may be taken as a frank admission of a naturalistic psychological origin, except that it invovles a universal symbology which is not explicable through merely naturalistic means. How is it that all humans come to hold these same archetypal symbols? (For more on archetypes see Jesus Christ and Mythology page II) The "primitive" viewed and understood a sense of transformation which gave them an integration into the universe. This is crucial for human development. They sensed a power in the numinous, that is the origin of religion."

Mystical experience at the root of all religions

Transpersonal Childhood Experiences of Higher States of Consciousness: Literature Review and Theoretical Integrationm (unpublished paper 1992 by Jayne Gackenback


"The experience of pure consciousness is typically called "mystical". The essence of the mystical experience has been debated for years (Horne, 1982). It is often held that "mysticism is a manifestation of something which is at the root of all religions (p. 16; Happold, 1963)." The empirical assessment of the mystical experience in psychology has occurred to a limited extent."

a). Core of Organized Religion

The Mystical Core of Organized Religion

David Steindl-Rast

Brother David Steindl-Rast, O.S.B., is a monk of Mount Savior Monastery in the Finger Lake Region of New York State and a member of the board of the Council on Spiritual Practices. He holds a Ph.D. from the Psychological Institute at the University of Vienna and has practiced Zen with Buddhist masters. His most recent book is Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer (Ramsey, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1984).

"If the religious pursuit is essentially the human quest for meaning, then these most meaningful moments of human existence must certainly be called "religious." They are, in fact, quickly recognized as the very heart of religion, especially by people who have the good fortune of feeling at home in a religious tradition."

b)What all Religions hold in Common.

Cross currents

Thomas A Indianopolus
prof of Religion at of Miami U. of Ohio


"It is the experience of the transcendent, including the human response to that experience, that creates faith, or more precisely the life of faith. [Huston] Smith seems to regard human beings as having a propensity for faith, so that one speaks of their faith as "innate." In his analysis, faith and transcendence are more accurate descriptions of the lives of religious human beings than conventional uses of the word, religion. The reason for this has to do with the distinction between participant and observer. This is a fundamental distinction for Smith, separating religious people (the participants) from the detached, so-called objective students of religious people (the observers). Smith's argument is that religious persons do not ordinarily have "a religion." The word, religion, comes into usage not as the participant's word but as the observer's word, one that focuses on observable doctrines, institutions, ceremonies, and other practices. By contrast, faith is about the nonobservable, life-shaping vision of transcendence held by a participant..."

Smith considers transcendence to be the one dimension common to all peoples of religious faith: "what they have in common lies not in the tradition that introduces them to transcendence, [not in their faith by which they personally respond, but] in that to which they respond, the transcendent itself..."(11)

Brap Gronk:

Are there any other reasons a person of that era might believe the Pentateuch is the word of God, based on the evidence available at the time? I don’t know.

On the other hand, why might our ancient person not believe the Pentateuch is the word of God? There could be any number of reasons to reject it, such as being generally skeptical of anything or anyone, having a dislike for authority, etc. These reasons are not based on any evaluation of the Pentateuch but are instead personality traits, so no need to consider those as being valid. But why might he reject the Pentateuch based on the available evidence? I can think of a few things he might say:

The kind of reasons have nothing to do with the way ancient people thought. But the problem is he expects the fundamentalist view of the bible to the true way that ancient Hebrews looked at it. The Bible, those who accept are supposed to stay the same while modern with it secular types change with scinece and progress. What he's ignoring is the fact that modern religious people are as much products of the modern age as he is. His ego tells him "I am more scientific than they are." But the truth is we all products of our own culture and he no more than I. Modern reasons are not the same as ancinet one's The modern view of the Bible is nothing like the ancinet Hebrews viewed. The concept of the Bible being true literally and representing history is the sloganism of a particular sect that made a knee jerk reaction to the nineteenth century, but even knee jerk reactions to modernity are products of modernity. There are larger Christian sects and camps and parts of the tradition that are not shaped by a fear of evolution. It is not historical Christianity to think that the Bible must be literally historically actuate in all it says.

Then Brap gives a list of reasons that he would find as reasons. The only thing this list tell us is what his reasons would be.

- This is just some oral history you people finally decided to write down. Why should I believe it came from a god?
 No one in the ancinet world would think this way The ancinet Hebrews would tell him "you shouldn't because you are not a Hebrew now get lost."

- How convenient of you to write a story about how God has selected you as his chosen people and promised you some land. I wish I had thought of that first.
 an ancient person would not say that. An ancient person would say "Of cousre you God selects you our gods selected us, so what?" He thinks he's dealing the support pegs these are not the support pegs. He's not knocking out the pegs he's only telling us about his own habits.

- This God character really cares about the minutiae of our lives, doesn’t he? There are so many rules in there that I’m more inclined to think this is an attempt to justify enforcement of your rules of behavior, not God’s rules.
 Ot is dealing national building as well as a religious tradition and personal ethics. These were all the rules of the whole culture. We are not rule oriented now days, the Christian tradition is not based upon the ritual purity laws of OT worship. That pertains to worship in the temple not modern belief systems.

- Your stories about God seem to stress rewards for those who obey him and nasty consequences for those who do not. Since I can’t verify this god of yours really did any of these nasty things to those who allegedly deserved it, this looks like a bunch of empty threats intended to make me fearful of not obeying your god.

actaully they did not. this is a good reason to think he has not read the bible. The OT doesn't have hell. It never says anyone is being punished in the after life. People got killed for doing evil. They thought if calamity befell them it was because of what they did to others. But there is no injunction that if you don't believe in Judaism you will go to hell. That was a foreign idea and they got itt from the Greeks. That's right, the pagan Greeks brought hell to the Jews in the time of the Seleucids who inherited Alexander the Great's empire.

These seem like reasonable objections to me, and I think it’s safe to say that if a group of people today came up with a story about how their god has selected them as his chosen people, promised them some land in rural Montana, and gave them a bunch of reasonable rules to live by, they wouldn’t be taken very seriously by anyone of any religious belief.
They seem reasonable to you because they are modern concepts. They are not the way ancient world people thought and no ancient person would ever make such arguments. By the same token those are not attacks on the supports of Christianity.

So I am suggesting we consider only the Pentateuch, and any theology based solely on the Pentateuch, when evaluating whether or not the Pentateuch was divinely inspired. Feel free to call it the Ancient Courtier’s Reply. If that’s considered unfair, keep in mind that that’s all our ancient person had to go on, too.
 That's proof theological method. First because there just isn't' that much in Christian theology that's based only upon the Pentateuch, not outside the fundamentalist camp. Secondly because the idea that the big issue facing the Christian tradition is the inspiration of a part of the bible is just regressive and wrong headed.

No Jesus, no resurrection, no atonement. The Ancient Courtier cannot tell our ancient non-believer to wait because it will all make sense in a few hundred years after God sends his son to Earth.

This is a strange idea but it seems oddly to have no real meaning. It is based upon a false concept of the nature of Biblical inspiration and is just another quasi fundamentalist straw man. For one thing he mistakenly thinks since Genesis is arranged to com first in the canon then it mut be lynch pin. It's not. Jesus is the lynch pin. Maybe the thinks since Genesis is th easiest to attack, with the world wide flood and six day creation in the same book. But that just doesn't make any difference. Modern Christians can recognize these are myths.Mythology is not a lie, mythology communicates truth in a way that speaks to the psyche through archetypes. but doesn't have to be literally true. So I think he needs to do something to understand the basis of modern theology. Say now it's that exactly what I was saying about the courtier's replay?

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