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Sunday, April 03, 2011

Yes, You are a Stamp Collector: God, Lawrence Krauss & "Non-Stamp Collector"



Why Lawrence Krauss, "Non Stamp Collector" and other skeptics miss the point when they say, "We just disbelieve in one more god."

A popular argument is making the rounds in the skeptic memosphere.  "You Christians deny all gods but one!" It is said.  "We atheists just go that step further, and apply your skepticism about Zeus, Apollo, Kali, Thor and Allah to that obscure Hebrew deity called 'Yahweh.'"

This argument often shows up in surprising places: among leading scientists like Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins, who see it as a trump when the scientific arguments just don't strike paydirt, in "historical Jesus" debates, and commonly among the peasantry of the skeptical on-line community.

Where does the line come from? Its origins are humble. It seems to have come from an otherwise unknown (at least to me) Internet presence. A fellow by the name of Stephen Roberts claims credit for the quote in its present form, from an on-line discussion in 1995:

"I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." I responded to an older version of the meme that Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett use in The Truth Behind the New Atheism. I also gave some of the anthropological evidence undermining the assumptions it is based on, first from China in True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, and then the rest of the world (in response to Karen Armstrong's History of God) in chapter 9 of Jesus and the Religions of Man.

Let's deal with the latest version. I'll begin by offering two examples of how this argument is used, first from Dr. Krauss, in his recent debate with William Lane Craig, then from the popular "Non Stamp Collector" site. I'll then explain several ways in which the argument not only fails, but (as often with skeptical arguments) when the evidence is closely examined, strongly supports the Christian faith.

I. Krauss vs. Craig Dr. Lawrence Krauss is an eminent theoretical physicist who teaches at Arizona State University, and is author of The Physics of Star Trek. Recently he debated William Lane Craig on the existence of God. During the Q & A period, almost exactly two hours into the debate, a questioner asked him which was more plausible, the general argument for God, or the argument for any one particular idea of God within a given religion. In response, Krauss immediately said:

"The only difference between an atheist and a Christian is that a Christian is an atheist about every other religion. And if I call myself an atheist, that is just one more religion I don't believe in.

Krauss went on to admit that he found the idea of deism, of a God who got things running, a "plausible postulate" to explain things like the origin of the universe. "The universe is an amazing place."

However, "Everyone who is fundamental in their religion, believes fervently that their religion is right and everyone else is wrong. And they can't all be right." Krauss concluded by saying he thought that instead, they were all wrong.

So be encouraged! (Or afraid!) What you say in a casual on-line conversation, may wind up in the mouth of famous people speaking at important events.

II. Non Stamp Collector vs. the Stamp. Non Stamp Collector is an Australian who's sometimes clever animated attacks on Christianity have been watched by as many as 400,000 viewers on U-Tube. His cyber name is itself a species of this argument: "Atheism is not who I am," it suggests, "any more than saying that someone doesn't collect stamps tells you who he is."

The funny thing about "Non Stamp Collector" is that he seems to spend a lot of time "not collecting stamps," and has built up quite an identity for this non-hobby of his. It would be a serious philatelist indeed who dedicated as much time to his craft as NSC: like Russell, Dawkins, and Loftus, he seems to have "gone pro," or at least viral, with this business of not believing in God. How much clearer could the flaw in NSC's analogy be?

But let's set this existential inconsistency to the side (for now), and attend to NSC's argument. One of his U-Tubes is called, "Atheism: How many gods do you not believe in?" This is a short stand-up comic routine: "If atheism is a religion, then bald is a hair color. If atheism is a belief, then off is a TV channel." "Allah? No, that's a don't believe for you guys."

Now actually I agree with Non Stamp Collector's basic point here -- that atheism is not a religion. I think it is an element in many religions -- communism, secular humanism, hedonism, nihilism. And I think all those "religions" involve a lot of "faith." But I'll leave those (oddly controversial) claims for some other day.

III. Why NSC is a stamp collector, after all -- and so is Dr. Krauss. The main problem with the "one more god meme" is the profound, multi-level ignorance it displays of religions in general, and of the Christian religion in particular. .

* First of all, perhaps someone should break it to these skeptics (gently, please) that "Allah" is Arabic for "God." Allah is who Arab Christians pray to. Allah was the name of the Arab high god before Mohammed ever claimed to receive his revelation.

* This points to a general phenomena: God is usually recognized by people within different cultures when he is named and described within some other culture, as the one God of all the universe. This is not limited to Christians. God was known by many different names among different tribes of Australian aborigines, in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific.

It is a common story in missions history, that after the natives have decided not to kill and eat the missionary, and have spun him wild yarns about the gods, when he begins to talk about the God Christians believes in, a hush falls over the crowd and they say, "Atahocan! He is speaking of Atahocan!"

This particular example of the phenomena comes from G. K. Chesterton, in his great book Everlasting Man, written almost a century ago, now. Chesterton misattributed this story to Austalia -- I think he got it from Andrew Lang, who told the story in at least two of his books, but in one case was a little confusing about where it happened. The story actually seems to have occurred among the Algonkin Indians in Canada.

The same thing has happened many times, though. In ancient China, a western people conquered the Shang Dynasty, and founded the Zhou. They readily accepted the Shang name for God, Shang Di (上帝), as meaning the same as their own Supreme God, Tian (天). Two millennia later, a group of Jews arrived in China, and borrowed both words for Yahweh.

A few more centuries passed, and the great missionary Mateo Ricci arrived, and argued forcefully not that "My religion is right, and your's is wrong -- I'm an atheist about all your religions," but that the Chinese had known about the true God from time immemorial. And to this day, tens of millions of Chinese Christians call him Shang Di.


* The same thing happened in the West. First, meditate on the fact that the word we use, "God," is NOT Hebrew. Someone, somewhere, recognized that the word could be used to describe the same God that the Bible talks about -- but it wasn't anyone who wrote the Bible.

But step back a few paces. What word is used for God in the New Testament? Usually, theos (θεοσ). This is a term that referred to the kind of gods Homer wrote about -- tossing thunderbolts from Mount Olympus, tricking fair maidens and rugged youths into precarious love triangles with the immortals, starting wars over apples and keeping poor Odysseus from his beloved Penelope out of pique or loneliness. But by the time of Christ, philosophers had begun to use the term, and sometimes Zeus, the ruler of the gods who owned the thunderbolts . . . .
Well, let's see how they used the terms:

"Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful, Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law, Hail! It is right for mortals to call upon you, since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God's image, we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth."

This is from Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school of philosophy. Stoics are supposed to pantheists, and not believe in prayer . . . apparently Cleanthes forgot his own theology long enough to write this hymn. Cleanthes adds that the universe goes where "Zeus" leads it, that "all works of nature" came to be established from chaos by his "thunderbolt," and that mortals will be happy if only they listen to "God's universal Law." This is not Homer's Zeus.


For the early 2nd Century Stoic slave Epictetus, humanity exists to be a "spectator" and "interpreter" of God and his works. He "perceives" all things, indeed it is impossible to conceal our thoughts from Him. Our duty is to sing hymns of praise and thanks as we plough and eat:


"What else can I, a lame old man, do but sing hymns to God . . . I will not desert this post, as long as it may be given me to fill it; and I exhort you to join me in this same song." It is with people like this to whom St. Paul preached when he arrived in Athens. In fact, he seems to have borrowed some of their lines in his sermon. And that is how the West was won for the Christian God -- by God getting there first, and preparing the minds of those who heard.

* Krauss is wrong, then, to suppose that for Christians (or really for anyone with sense), the truth of one religion means "everyone else is (just) wrong." No doubt everyone IS wrong, to some extent -- and not just "everyone else." But the first Christian doctrine -- the one he was arguing about with Craig -- is one that Christians agree about with probably most of the world.

* I have argued, in two of my books (and in my dissertation, yes I do see light at the end of the tunnel, thank you) that the most orthodox Christian perspective on the religious traditions of humanity is something called Fulfillment Theology. FT doesn't mean that Christians just meekly affirm all the stupidity and cruelty that human beings produce in the name of religion. It does mean people are usually aware of God, at some level. And often, the deepest truths in a given culture point to Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of what is good and beautiful within that culture. There's some amazing stuff, hidden in that last sentence. But don't get me started -- we'll be here all month.

* So what is the difference between a Christian and an atheist? More importantly, what is the difference between the gods none of us believe in, and God whom some of us say we believe, and others say they don't? I'm not going to spoil the moment by spelling it out. Why? Not because it's a secret, but because it is no secret at all. Everyone knows it, including Lawrence Krauss, and Not a Stamp Collector, who spends so much time pretending not to do what he is quite obviously doing all along.

Political philosopher Jay Budziszewski talks about "What we can't not know." He's referring to morality. But I think there are other things that we can't not know, too. There are paradoxes that bite because they are so self-evidently true, and others that go viral because they are so obviously and pleasantly not the case.

Objections By e-mail. "If philatelists spent as much time, effort, and resources trying to convince the rest of the world to take up stamp-collecting as the religious spend trying to convert others to their particular flavor of belief, I'm sure you would see a lot more"non stamp collectors" out there making careers out of arguing against philately. Really, it's simple supply and demand.
Perhaps. But obviously, the best-known evangelical atheists see their atheism as something pretty important about themselves. The stamp collector analogy does not do justice to the fervency of a Dawkins, Hitchens, Marx, Freud, or Russell.

"You are correct in stating that atheism is not a religion. But your supporting argument is flawed, since "communism, secular humanism,hedonism, nihilism" are not religions, either."

Well they are, the way I (and many other scholars of religion, but not all, maybe not most) define religion -- close to Paul Tillich's "ultimate concern." But that's a naked assertion on my part, not a "supporting argument."



(Does Allah mean "God?") "True in a trivial sense, but try telling a radical muslim that Allah is the same being as the Christian God. And you might want to be wearing a Kevlar vest and steel collar when you do. If the two are not identical to the Muslim, than they are not identical."

Islam recognizes that Judaism and Christianity worship the true God. This is in the Koran: it is a non-negotiable part of orthodox Islam.

Also, I'm not sure what you mean by saying "if the two are not identical to a Muslim, then they are not identical." No two concepts of anything are exactly alike. You see the moon from Oregon, I see it from Washington, through different clouds, and a slightly different face. Maybe your view is somewhat obscured by radioactive mist from the Fukushima planet, and you see it wrongly, to some extent. But our planet only has one moon, we agree on that.

Christians, Muslims, theistic Hindus, Confucianists, and tribal people, agree there is one supreme Spirit who created all things, is good, and calls us to righteousness.

"God is usually recognized by people within different cultures when he is named and described within some other culture, as the one God of all the universe." Actually that's a leap to a conclusion.

"What that really shows is that the brains of human beings are probably hard-wired to believe in causality, so, left to their own devices, they will seek a causal explanation in most circumstances.

"Many cultures have therefore evolved the concept of a universal causal principle, or "first cause", and many have labeled that presumed first cause "God", or some variation of same. This does NOT, however, mean that they have "recognized" the existence of some actual anthropomorphic superbeing, nor that they necessarily have a rational basis for their belief in the causal principle."


There tends to be more to God than just that: for instance, the idea that He should not be worshiped with idols, seems fairly common, and that He should be called "Father" or (sometimes) "Mother."

It's OK for atheists to tell themselves a story about how this common idea arose -- what surprises me is how seldom and how grudgingly they recognize the facts. It's also interesting how often they make the opposite argument: because God is never the same in different cultures, he must be just a cultural construct. Then when it turns out people in different cultures do recognize One God, the argument is suddenly Null and Void.
(Update: I have since developed what I call TACT, Theistic Argument from Cultural Transcendence.  Here's a recent post on this subject, answering objections from the quantum physicist, Don Page.)

186 comments:

Crude said...

Glad to see someone else noticed Krauss' strange comments about deism. If he thinks the bare existence of God is plausible, then it seems to me he concedes 90% of Craig's own arguments - since the bulk of Craig's efforts is aimed at establishing the existence of some mere divine being/creator.

But more than that, I'm glad to see someone else giving a reply to the "you disbelieve in all the other gods" schtick. For years, I've found that bizarre for more or less the reasons you say. Do I as a Catholic believe in a 'different God' than a Lutheran? Does a Thomist believe in a different God than a Scotian? Or do we all believe in the same God, but have different understandings about him?

To use another example, look at Abraham Lincoln. There are various opinions about Lincoln's character, his thoughts and opinions, etc. Does every historian who disagrees with the other believe in some distinct Lincoln?

David B Marshall said...

Crude: Insightful comments, as usual.

One sees expressions of support for deism in odd places -- if I remember right, even from Dawkins. Hume and Voltaire were deists, which perhaps by definition makes the position respectable. But I am more and more convinced the hostility to Christianity among many intellectuals is partly a reaction to an impoverished model of religions that often goes by the name of Christian. The irony is, properly understood, the divine Logos enlightens not only every man who comes into the world, but the truth within every tradition.

Neil Bates said...

First, hello Crude. I'm not surprised you're here, but I don't see you at PZ's madhouse (unless you post under another name.) Good points as usual, about the execrable use of descriptions as entities. The Krauss v. Craig debate is discussed at Pharyngula, with my starting tirade as "Neel Bee" per TypePad. My basic point: There is a problem, why does this "possible world" exist and not others? It's like the number 137 (inside joke) picked out and having a soul for no reason. OTOH, if "everything exists" then there is a Bayesian mess (see my comment for more.) The only way out I see, is an ultimate reality behind that to give order and pick out some worlds to really exist for some purpose. You folks might find it interesting, starting point is existing philosophy but I put in my own twist.

David B Marshall said...

Neil: Sorry you had trouble posting. My "agency detector" (Spam Inquisitor) took you for a pornographer or a terrorist, or something. I will give it a dressing down.

doc johnny said...

It seems that your point is that all these different religions are worshipping the same god or at least the concept of goodness and creation.

I would like to object to this on a few different levels.

First, the Christian god specifically prohibits the worship of other gods before him. This proscription seems superfluous if all gods are the one god.

Second, while I agree that there is a certain amount of commonality between differing creation myths, there are also wide divergences. In a number of creation myths, the creator of the universe is not the creator of mankind. For example in one of the various Chinese mythologies, Pan Gu creates the universe but dies and the fleas and lice on his corpse becomes mankind.

Thirdly, reducing all the different gods to an universal godhead leaves you with more of a philosophical concept of goodness rather than a god. Divorced of personality and context which are provided by the individual religions, what is left is unobjectional philosophy plus possibly the deistic god which most atheists would not object to.

David B Marshall said...

Doc: Good to hear from you.

(1) My point isn't that all gods are one: it is that the One God is known by many names. (Including some used by ignorant skeptics who borrow this mantra.) In other words, while gods clearly are cultural creations, God just as clearly seems to transcend cultures, and therefore (if we follow the logic used by skeptics like Dawkins) likely to be real.

(2) I'm not talking about myths: I'm talking about the character of God. Pan Gu is not God in Chinese: Shang Di and Tian are. While there is not a very strong concept of creation associated with them, there are hints. One of the odes in the Book of History, for instance, says "Tian made the mountains." Tian / Shang Di is also said to "give birth to the many people." A stronger version of creation appears in a remarkable Ming hymn at the sacrifice to the Supreme God.

(3) God is not "divorced of personality or content," that is what is so remarkable. He OUGHT to be, by skeptical lights. Skeptics ASSUME He is - but He's not. One finds the same traits ascribed to God in hundreds or thousands of cultures, in Africa, Australia, the Americas, Asia, and the South Pacific. This ought to give sincere skeptics pause.

I can point you to books (aside from my own, above) that give the evidence for this, if you like.

Neil Bates said...

Doc: we're talking the abstractions here of the definition of "God." The different descriptions are not, see e.g. Crude's good framing, examples of separate "entities." God is defined as some ultimate being that the universe requires for existence, shows purpose etc. We might debate how "like a person" it is, if literally omnipotent (even Aquinas conceded that God couldn't change math) etc, but "God exists" per such a definition transcends all the supposed versions. If there is a "supreme being", that's what counts in the general theistic argument. If there's more to "God", then whichever religion has that down best is right because it is the best *description*, not because they worship the "best God" among many in any sense.

Let me add another of my own arguments about all that:
The "god of the gaps" complaint, a fave of Krauss et al, is flawed as complaint against theistic first cause. The laws that supposedly explain events are in effect a way of talking about the events and how they happen (as Hume noted.) So, asking "why the laws" is not a second level of explanation for which we should expect extrapolation of "naturalistic explanation." That question is itself the complete first-order question, "why these laws with their associated phenomena, and not some other set of laws-phenomena as a complete alternative unit." What *inside* Nature could explain that? It's like looking around in a hexagon to see why a hexagon is there instead of a pentagon: all you're going to find is what it's like to be in a hexagon.

BTW anyone, quote and use this argument as desired, just give me credit. I note that I am rather tentative myself and not much a "person of faith" (I more use philosophy and intuition, not "revelation") albeit spiritual in many ways and respectful of religiosity per se. I don't like seeing poor arguments used from those who are so strident about their supposed superior rationality.

ellenjanuary said...

One thing that definitely annoys me about atheists. It's as if they're all CIA, clinging to plausible deniability. Such forceful opinion on a subject matter is a function of positive belief, yet spoken by he who lacks belief.

David B Marshall said...

Ellen: I know what you mean. But in Doc's case, I think he's pretty fair-minded.

B.R. said...

"Then when it turns out people in different cultures do recognize One God, the argument is suddenly Null and Void."

Um, no it's not. Did you actually read said argument? The whole point is that just because some peoples believe in "One God" doesn't prove that He/She/It is anything more than a cultural concept. Unless you can prove god's existence, this argument stands tall. Something is not null and void just because you want it to be.

Neil Bates said...

B.R., no. You're mixing up two different arguments. Let's say X argues against Y, and they deploy various arguments. If X uses a logical fallacy, Y should expose that per se. The "gods" argument is a fallacy, since "God" in the argument is defined by logical role as creator of the universe. That means that a person who "doesn't believe in other Gods" is not like a person who is not a citizen or loyal to other real nations. It means, he believes he is right *about* the one God that exists. (Now if there *really are* more, that is a problem, but you'd have to admit there actually is at least one in order to complain because it is not a logical feature of the concept per se.)

So that fallacy needed disposing of. But that leaves for separate argument, how to prove that there is even that one God, as defined, in existence. So that requires further work using other arguments. And sure, whatever people believe wouldn't prove that, any more than it would have proved multiple gods if they really believed in that. As old hands know, defeating a fallacy from the other side doesn't prove you are right, it just removes a particular opposing argument from consideration.

B.R. said...

@Neil Bates;

I think you lost me. The point is that David makes a very big non sequitur at the end of this post. He completely fails to respond to the argument in bold and then proclaims it "Null and Void". WTF? That makes no sense. Sure, the God concept is common throughout different cultures, but so are ideas like human sacrifice, dragons, and vampires(or undead vampiric beings).
It doesn't make arguments against them "Null and Void" merely because they were held by many far-flung cultures. Look at David's final paragraph; that's essentially what he's saying.

Neil Bates said...

B.R.: First, I think you still don't get my point that for Y to say X's specific argument is void is about its particular quality. It's not proving that all arguments from X are bad or that Y has no more positive-effort work to do.

Second, when Marshall refers to "void" he is decrying a hypocrisy from the antitheists. He says, *they* considered it important that different people believed in different concepts of God. (That's not relevant to the independent logical argument anyway.) But if they are told "those people really beleive in the same concept after all", the antitheists don't care much.

When a writer says, "then it doesn't matter anymore" in reference to people he criticizes, he means *they* don't think it matters - it's a figure of speech and well accepted as a norm. So this is decrying someone else's inconsistency, not about the substance as an independent subject. I don't think David thinks that people believing in one or many gods or whatever tells us anything about whatever really most deserves to be called "God."

I suggest you review debating sites, see how arguments work.

B.R. said...

This point is irrelevant to my argument. How many times do I have to point out the obvious non sequitur here? This has nothing to do with correcting faulty arguments(which I was not disagreeing with in the first place, but nice straw-man). David Marshall offers no proof whatsoever that god is anything more than a cultural construct, but this did not stop him from dismissing the opposing argument with a wave of his hand.

Take, for example, the qualities he lists as "proof" that there's more to God than that; just layers added to the "first cause" by primitives, nothing more. Afterwards, on this shaky basis he tries to denigrate the last argument in bold as a mere "story" that atheists tell themselves, without refuting it.

Am I the only one who sees the logical jump? The only inconsistency I've seen thus far is this hand-waving.

"I suggest you review debating sites, see how arguments work."

I already know, thank you very much; that's why I noticed David's little magic trick at the end there.

B.R. said...

"God is usually recognized by people within different cultures when he is named and described within some other culture, as the one God of all the universe." Actually that's a leap to a conclusion. What that really shows is that the brains of human beings are probably hard-wired to believe in causality, so, left to their own devices, they will seek a causal explanation in most circumstances. Many cultures have therefore evolved the concept of a universal causal principle, or "first cause", and many have labeled that presumed first cause "God", or some variation of same. This does NOT, however, mean that they have "recognized" the existence of some actual anthropomorphic superbeing, nor that they necessarily have a rational basis for their belief in the causal principle."

D.M.; 'There tends to be more to God than just that: for instance, the idea that He should not be worshiped with idols, seems fairly common, and that He should be called "Father" or (sometimes) "Mother."'

B.R. said...

Continued...

'It's OK for atheists to tell themselves a story about how this common idea arose -- what surprises me is how seldom and how grudgingly they recognize the facts. It's also interesting how often they make the opposite argument: because God is never the same in different cultures, he must be just a cultural construct. Then when it turns out people in different cultures do recognize One God, the argument is suddenly Null and Void.'

No supporting evidence whatsoever, as I said before. Those qualities are pretty typical of mythology, and the fact that different people had very diferent ideas of what this One god represented doesn't do much to prove that god is anything more than a construct, along with dragons, zombies, vampires, shape-shifters, imps, fairies, and sea monsters.

Neil Bates said...

B.R., I already explained the legitimacy of deposing an opponent's argument. Even if he is not warranted in further argument of another tack, the first part holds as a put down. Again, he was getting on them for inconsistency, not saying their own argument was void - they are pretending that different ideas about God are a problem for theistic philosophy, as if multiple "entities" that need separate proof or disproof. Well, they aren't, got that?

As for further argument about why we should believe in God or not, whether it's more than a cultural construct, well that's another subject. We'd have to make other points, and people do and it's a separate conversation (and on other blog posts.) Note that people's cultural constructs neither supports nor casts doubt in yadda existing, it just doesn't prove anything and we get that. The point of bringing it up was to make a self-consistency critique, no trick there since it is a key part of debate.

There is only so much time I can waste if your are so obdurate that you just can't even appreciate what people are saying. If you can't, then your criticisms "aren't even wrong." Look that up.

B.R. said...

"B.R., I already explained the legitimacy of deposing an opponent's argument. Even if he is not warranted in further argument of another tack, the first part holds as a put down."

That is an amusing straw-man, Neil. I wasn't even talking about the first part of the post; you would do well to actually *read* my comments.

"As for further argument about why we should believe in God or not, whether it's more than a cultural construct, well that's another subject."

Go back and read my comments, Neil; this is the ONLY subject that I've been talking about on this page.

"We'd have to make other points, and people do and it's a separate conversation (and on other blog posts.)"

There is absolutely nothing "separate" about it; David tries to dismiss the final argument in bold through hand-waving, as I have already clearly shown; read my comments. If you can't refute an argument, don't try to dismiss it.

"Note that people's cultural constructs neither supports nor casts doubt in yadda existing, it just doesn't prove anything and we get that."

Without evidence, cultural constructs(myths, in other words) are self-refuting. Vampires are even more wide-spread than the God concept, yet there is no evidence for their existence, and the myths surrounding them are easily explained. If David Marshall used the same arguments to try and establish the existence of vampires, would you give it any credence?

"There is only so much time I can waste if your are so obdurate that you just can't even appreciate what people are saying."

And there is only so much more my patience can take while I wait for you to produce something more substantial than straw-men. David Marshall makes a very clear non sequitur at the end of this post, and all the special pleading in the world does not change that. If he can't prove that god is anything more than a cultural construct, then he fails.

What is so difficult to understand about this?

David B Marshall said...

Gents: The confusion may be partly my fault. Let me try to clarify things with a few simple points:

(1) Skeptics sometimes argue that because the concept of God or gods varies so much in different cultures, God is just a cultural construct. Here, for instance, Richard Dawkins:

"Not surprisingly, since it is founded on local traditions of private revelation rather than evidence, the God Hypothesis comes in many versions." (God Delusion, 2006, 32)

Implicitly, Dawkins is arguing that the variety of images of God is evidence that God is culturally constructed and arbitrary, rather than founded on evidence.

Similarly, Emile Durkheim argued:

"The very fact that the way in which this reality has been conceived has varied infinitely in different times is enough to prove that none of these conceptions expresses it adequately." (Elementary Forms of Religious Life 420)

(2) This may look like an instance of the generic fallacy, but I think has some vallidity as an inductive argument. If God is real, it is more likely that the truth about Him will be recognized in many different cultures without evidence of diffusion. In the same way, we recognize the moon as round in different cultures, even though we have different legends about it, because it shines on us all.

(3) I argue that the premise of the skeptical argument here is wrong: a clear and consistent idea of God can be found in many diverse cultures. (continued)

David B Marshall said...

(4) This does not constitute deductive proof that God is real. However, it does make that reality inductively far more likely than it otherwise would be.

(5) This fact also rebuts the "we're just atheists about one more god" argument, by showing that the Judeo-Christian God is not culturally-conditioned or arbitrary, like many of the gods named in that argument. There are anthropological grounds (along with other good grounds) for preferring the Christian God over, say, Apollo.

(6) In addition, the "We're just atheists about one more god" proponent usually gets his data tangled, and fails to recognize the cultural transcendence of God by any name. He often makes the mistake of thinking that two different names for one God, means two different gods.

(7) Finally, the "Stamp Collector" fallacy (let's call it) tends to be wed to an extreme exclusivist theology, that makes it more akin to fundamentalism of the less attractive kinds. In fact it is atheism, not Christianity, that excludes all ultimate claims but its own. The Judeo-Christian tradition has usually recognized God by other names.

I hope that makes my argument a little clearer. Sorry for any confusion; it helps to be challenged to improve the clarity of this argument.

David B Marshall said...

As for the vampire argument, I have seen someone offer that counter before, and did not find it persuasive. When challenged to support his claim, the types he pointed to, to the extent they really were widespread and independent, did not seem to resemble one another that much.

But of course, the average reader wouldn't know that, and neither did I, until I began to look up some of the so-called "vampires" mentioned.

B.R. said...

Ah, David! You had me worried there for a while. Now, let the REAL debate begin.

1) Considering that many cultures can't even agree on the simple question of God's gender, or whether he wants human sacrifices of not, this isn't the most convincing argument.

2) "...we recognize the moon as round in different cultures, even though we have different legends about it, because it shines on us all."

Yes, and the same with vampires because while we may have different legends concerning them, they attack and drain us all.
Oh, wait...;)

3) See 1.

4) Same with fire-breathing dragons, amirite?;)

B.R. said...

Continued...

5) "This fact also rebuts the "we're just atheists about one more god" argument, by showing that the Judeo-Christian God is not culturally-conditioned or arbitrary, like many of the gods named in that argument."

Logical jump. Similar deities do NOT denote the same deity. Also, considering the massive persecution that Xians heaped upon "false gods", where did that come from? I don't recall attitudes like this prevailing until fairly recently, and only in some places.

6) I agree... partially. True, Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same basic god, but god's transcendence in other cultures is one part rhetoric and nine parts wishful thinking.

7) This is the refutation of the tired Fundy claim that atheism is a religion. It's only a fallacy if made by a rabid materialist.

"The Judeo-Christian tradition has usually recognized God by other names."

Fifty million dead pagans(give or take) don't agree with you. Nor do the Aztecs, Jews, or Muslims.

David B Marshall said...

BR: You mostly seem to be challenging my premises, here, and I don't think you know enough to do that. If you do, why don't you begin by refuting the arguments and data in my OP, especially in Part III?

As for vampires, I've already challenged your premise. If you want to continue with the Argument Ad Draculum, you'll need to "put empirical fangs," so to speak, on your bald assertions.

B.R. said...

Now, in response to your counter-vampire argument;

If your comment is true, then you're employing special pleading for your Cultural Transcendence Argument(C.T.A.).

Let's compare vampires to your god concept.

Vampires

*some merely drink blood, while others attack and dismember their victims.

*Some are dissolved by sunlight, others merely revert back to their dead state.

*Some can only die from impalement, whiles others only die from decapitation or burning.

*Some have red eyes and pale complexions, while others have glowing eyes and green skin.

*Some are shape-shifters; others are not.

*Some can control the weather and elements, and animals; some cannot.

*Some have fangs, while some still have normal teeth.

*Some have claws, and are fat from the blood they've gorged themselves on; others don't share these attributes.

B.R. said...

Part Two;

God

*Sometimes he is male, other times she is a female.

*Is sometimes all-powerful; is sometimes limited.

*Is sometimes all-knowing; in other versions, has limited sight/wisdom(Think Odin).

*Sometimes meddles with human affairs; other times, leaves us us to our own devices.

*Sometimes, he is the creator of the universe, but other times not.

*Sometimes is the creator of all life; sometimes not.

*He is occasionally held as being the only god, but other times has wives and children and/or siblings.

*Sometimes has affairs with mortals(like May), other times has no sexuality.

*Sometimes he damns all non-believers fo eternity, other times he saves everyone.

*Sometimes he is not associated with idols, other times he is.


And as with vampires, he has no objective evidence supporting his existence; kinda like dragons, fairies, and imps.

B.R. said...

What is the OP? And BYW< my lack of knowledge, according to you, hasn't stopped from demolishing your arguments in the past, and doesn't seem to be slowing me down now. It's very easy to accuse people of being ignorant; refuting their arguments? That's the hard part. Have fun sinking your teeth into my vampiric rebuttal. ;)

B.R. said...

The point; despite some minor differences, the vampire remains essentially the same; an undead being who must feed upon the blood of the living to survive. But because I am not predisposed to believe in the vampire, I don't see this odd coincidence as evidence for them. Likewise, despite some minor(and many major) differences, the god concept you argue for does not serve as it's own evidence. I can use your C.T.A. to "prove" the existence of dragons, fairies, and imps if I want to; it doesn't change the reality of "no evidence".

B.R. said...

By the way, the "number of comments" display is messed up. And am I the only one having trouble posting comments on Blogger lately?

David B Marshall said...

BR: Feel free to imagine that you have "demolished" my argument in the past. I sometimes find it it hard to imagine that you have understood them.

Here, for instance, you seem to have gotten it into your head that I am saying all ideas about gods are equally valid. How many times do I have to deny that? I'm talking about the hundreds of cases in which a clear and fairly consistent idea of God turns up outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition. I never denied that people often believe in lesser gods, or are unclear about God in some way.

Rather than offer an argument for the cultural transcendence of vampires, now you seem to be offering one against them. That's a step backwards, not forwards: or maybe you're conceding you can't back up your earlier claim about how widespread the concept is.

The world is, of course, full of parasites. Blood is the symbol of life in all cultures, because it gives life. Some parasites, like fleas, mosquitoes, and vampire bats, do drink blood to obtain life. There are also many human beings who make their living as parasites. So the idea of human parasites of some sort should be universal, and living off of blood would seem a natural expression of that. Your picture of a vampire needs to be much more specific than that.

Here's what you need to do. Show that there is a creature with many distinct traits corresponding to those of a vampire, that it shares between hundreds or thousands of independent cultures. If you can do that, you won't have "demolished" any of my arguments, or even challenged them. But you will have shown that while cultural transcendence may indeed make the reality of God inductively more likely, it doesn't prove deductively that the culturally transcendent God is real. (Not that I claimed that it did.) All this assuming, of course, that vampires really do not exist.

Lots of luck.

Neil Bates said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil Bates said...

B.R: I take as starting point your starting point which is your first comment. You say, clearly showing confusion:

"Then when it turns out people in different cultures do recognize One God, the argument is suddenly Null and Void."
Um, no it's not. Did you actually read said argument? The whole point is that just because some peoples believe in "One God" doesn't prove that He/She/It is anything more than a cultural concept. Unless you can prove god's existence, this argument stands tall. Something is not null and void just because you want it to be.


But as I had to patiently try and explain, David at the end wasn't saying directly that antitheist argument was null and void. He was saying they try a certain tack, and then if it starts not going their way, *they* act like that same factor, previously supposed by them to be of significance, is then "null and void." It's like political critics saying "The constitution matters so much to them, but when the other ox is being gored then it's no big deal." That is inconsistency on their part, it doesn't mean the author thinks it's no big deal. So right there, you clearly get confused about his point and don't appreciate David's rebuttal of the *inconsistency*, which is a separate issue from what else may be valid or not. You can't say "the whole point" is ______, that is too simple. Different things about an argument matter, and one of them is self-consistency.

But before that David argued separately against that idea, which is OK since there's nothing wrong with further critique. This may have been confusing, because he ends with a hit against hypocrisy after implying that the targeted idea (their concept of cultural relevance and its traits) really is a void argument itself. So that's confusing because it is two different senses in two different contexts. Also he is apparently not saying that to see that people actually have a more unified impression of "God" is like a proof. Rather, it seems more reasonable to him, that if that was true then their impression would be like that. That is more a case of saying, it's "consistent with" or supportive rather than a proof. And even if he fails to fully satisfy in his own argument, his hit against the other one stands.

Sure, it is possible for people to share beliefs and for it not to be true. You are right, shared beliefs don't prove existence. You don't even need to bring up an example like vampires to show it doesn't. That's why it takes other tacks and additional effort to make the case, as for example about why the universe should exist at all, why the fine-tuning etc. So it isn't such a big deal whether the OP can make his whole opinion turn on getting that one little point to do all the work. You seem to think that every thinker must recapitulate their entire set of arguments in every single blog post or article, and that they can't focus on a particular issue or weakness of other arguments. That is absurd. It is not anyone's job to have to do that *each time they write*, but only as a body of work in service of a cause.

PS: "OP" can mean either "original poster" - the guy who put up a post, like the blog owner ("BO"), or less often the "original post" itself. Also, you aren't the only one having blogger trouble. Over and over, I get "sorry we cannot complete your request" (just now and this is retry) and have to submit again.

David B Marshall said...

BR: By the way, speaking of not understanding arguments, maybe you can explain this one:

DM: "The Judeo-Christian tradition has usually recognized God by other names."

BL: "Fifty million dead pagans(give or take) don't agree with you. Nor do the Aztecs, Jews, or Muslims."

First of all, which 50 million dead pagans are you talking about?

Second, how do you know they didn't agree with me? Or why shouldn't they?

Are you claiming Christians have killed 50 million pagans because they didn't believe in God? Even if so (though you'll have to prove it), how would that disprove my claim that Christians have recognized God by other names?

Lin Yutang, one of the greatest 20the Century Chinese literary figures, said that Chinese "pagans" have always believed in God. How do you know he was wrong?

Third, how can the Jews and Muslims not agree that the Judeo-Christian tradition recognizes God by other names, when Jewish Christians call him "Yahweh," and Arab Christians call him "Allah?"

David B Marshall said...

Neil: Well, I learned something. I thought "OP" always meant "original post." That's what I meant, anyway.

B.R. said...

"I sometimes find it it hard to imagine that you have understood them."

That's not what you said on your Confucius post. Remember?

For your first paragraph; mind providing these "hundreds" of examples? That might just lend the C.T.A. a tad more credibility.


"Rather than offer an argument for the cultural transcendence of vampires, now you seem to be offering one against them."

Actually, I did both. it's all right there in black and white.

"That's a step backwards, not forwards: or maybe you're conceding you can't back up your earlier claim about how widespread the concept is."

How is it a step backwards? Do you happen to understand the concept of an "analogy"? And since you claimed to to have done some research, I thought that by now you would know that vampires of all different kinds are found in the folklore of ancient Greece, Rome, Western and Eastern Europe, South America, and throughout Asia and the Philippines.

Your next paragraph really doesn't contribute much to the conversation.

"Here's what you need to do. Show that there is a creature with many distinct traits corresponding to those of a vampire, that it shares between hundreds or thousands of independent cultures."

I already have. Vampires are usually undead beings(ex-humans) who come back from the grave to feast on the blood of the living, and generally avoid sunlight because it kills them. Dragons are basically large reptilian creatures with scales stronger than stone, claws, wings, the ability to breathe fire, and a lust for gold. Etc, etc.

"Here's what you need to do. Show that there is a creature with many distinct traits corresponding to those of a vampire, that it shares between hundreds or thousands of independent cultures."

It's possible that they do; but claims made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

B.R. said...

"First of all, which 50 million dead pagans are you talking about?"

The general death toll of Christianity throughout history(see the Middle Ages). BTW, I didn't say that it was exactly fifty million; but it's probably close.

"Second, how do you know they didn't agree with me? Or why shouldn't they?"

I don't know; perhaps because they were tortured, hanged, burned, and beheaded by angry mobs of Christians who thought they were sub-human scum who deserved to burn in hell forever?

"Are you claiming Christians have killed 50 million pagans because they didn't believe in God?"

With the exceptions of the Aztecs and Incans, who were probably killed more for gold than god, I really can't think of another reason for religious fanatics to kill people. Of course, they also killed them for eating babies, worshiping Satan, and practicing witch-craft, but hose kind of tie in with reason #1; they did not believe in the Christian god.

"Even if so (though you'll have to prove it), how would that disprove my claim that Christians have recognized God by other names?"

"The Judeo-Christian tradition has *usually* recognized God by other names."

Not trying to change your story by any chance, are you? That little "usually" you slipped is more a product of recent times than anything else. And to this day, most Christians won't "recognize" god in other religions(they might even label you a heretic).

I don't; but I don't know that he was right, either.

Hmm, let's see; maybe the tens of thousands of Jews murdered by Christians back in the Middle Ages, or the ghettos, a Christian invention. Or maybe just the ceaseless persecution they were subjected to by Christians right into the twentieth century. As for the Muslims; maybe the Crusades, for starters.

Good night.

B.R. said...

@Neil; thanks for being patient. I ma used to David making leaps of logic wherever he shows up, but I should have gone through the post more carefully. Catch ya later.

doc johnny said...

I am certainly not an expert in these matters so I will defer to you on any religion other than those with which I am familiar.

I merely argue that having traits in common does not necessarily mean these gods are one being.

Also, if the followers of other religions actually follow God, then why the need to proselytize and convert?

Does the passage "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me." contradict the premise that all other religions are worshipping the true god?

Anyhow, thank you for the welcome. I've owned one of your books on the kindle long before we encountered each other on the amazon boards.

Neil Bates said...

B.R., thanks for finally acknowledging your confusion. That's very mature and we could use more people doing that, altho it sure took a long slog to get there. Doc Johnny: the semantics of postulated beings is very sticky and can be confusing. Like I said, it's better to think of a basic definition of a hypothetical, then argue over traits. Don't consider each variety of trait variations a "different entity." But it is still ambiguous whether other religionists "worship the Christian God." If we could get all of them to agree, "I am worshiping whatever is the supreme being, itself uncaused, that all else is contingent on" then maybe they are. But they might for example have in mind an idea (like a tribal deity that is imagined by them as "our god, not necessarily whatever made all this" etc. It's kind of like, what if someone said they worshiped "the universe" but when we asked them about that, said that this Earth was all there was and the supposed evidence of things outside were an illusion. Do they "really worship the universe"? They use the idea but are so wrong about what it is like, that it's questionable and some would want to say, "they worship the Earth and falsely think it is the whole universe." There is not necessarily a clear answer to what people mean to refer to. That can be from their own difficulty getting the point of what they mean, and/or it's intrinsic ambiguity etc.

doc johnny said...

Hello Dr. Marshall and everyone,

Sorry, I posted a response which got lost. Thus the above post was actually part two of two. Here follows my attempt to reconstruct part one of two.

I want to be sure I have accurately understood your argument so that I may reflect and respond to it rather than a straw man of my own devise.

Your argument seems to be as follows:

Premise:
1) Some if not all religions of the world actually worship the true god (the Christian God) under different names.

Support for premise:
2) A lot of different religions have a creator god which is seen as benevolent, and is described as father or mother and a proscription against idols exists.

Conclusion:
3) Thus the argument that Christians are atheists about other gods is untrue since those other gods are just God with another name.

4) The commonality of traits amongst the different religions serves as evidence for the existence of god.


If the above is indeed your argument then let me respond as follows.

1) I do agree if the premise is true then the conclusion follows. However I don't think the premise can be proven or disproven. All we can do is discuss how much commonality exists and whether that commonality is convincing enough to judge that the beings are the same.

2) There exist even among believers strong rejection of the premise. Christians such as Jack Chick denounce Muslims as worshipping a pagan moon god rather than the true god. Some Christians denounce judaism as devil-worship. Some imams have gone on the record stating that Christians do not believe in Allah.

3) You state "One finds the same traits ascribed to God in hundreds or thousands of cultures, in Africa, Australia, the Americas, Asia, and the South Pacific. This ought to give sincere skeptics pause."

I wonder if we are just experiencing a glass half-full/half-empty phenomenon. How much of the common traits are just the idea of a creator being?

I am no religious expert, but let me pick just a few more popular ones for example Vishnu and Shang-Ti from the Shang dynasty. Vishnu is a four armed mace-wielding blue god with a wife. Shang-Ti is a celestial emperor with a court in heaven and servants and functionaries who actually carry out the task of creating and administering heaven and earth. To my eyes these are significant differences from the somewhat impersonal ascetic Jehovah.

My point that is that it seems to me that the only common traits are creator and goodness. Even the proscription of graven images is not anywhere near universal. Vishnu is commonly depicted in statuary form. I am not aware of any proscription against depicting Shang-Ti, although my understanding is that he was not actually directly worshipped except by high status people such as the emperor.

My overall point is there may be common traits such as creator and goodness, but how can one be sure that is not an artifact of the human need for causality? Can the use of parental titles for a creator be just a logical byproduct of association rather than an independent trait?

Is some of this commonality an artifact of selection? We take all the gods, reject the ones without the traits of creator and goodness, and then remark that the ones that are left have these traits in common.

Anyway, thanks for inviting me to comment here. I enjoyed your book and look forward to your dissection of my response. Please make sure to correct any misapprehension that I may have of your position. I am not interested in "winning" any arguments. I am interested in clarifying what our differences are, if any.

doc johnny said...

Hello Dr. Marshall and everyone,

Sorry, I posted a response which got lost. Thus the above post was actually part two of two. Here follows my attempt to reconstruct part one of two.

I want to be sure I have accurately understood your argument so that I may reflect and respond to it rather than a straw man of my own devise.

Your argument seems to be as follows:

Premise:
1) Some if not all religions of the world actually worship the true god (the Christian God) under different names.

Support for premise:
2) A lot of different religions have a creator god which is seen as benevolent, and is described as father or mother and a proscription against idols exists.

Conclusion:
3) Thus the argument that Christians are atheists about other gods is untrue since those other gods are just God with another name.

4) The commonality of traits amongst the different religions serves as evidence for the existence of god.

doc johnny said...

If the above is indeed your argument then let me respond as follows.

1) I do agree if the premise is true then the conclusion follows. However I don't think the premise can be proven or disproven. All we can do is discuss how much commonality exists and whether that commonality is convincing enough to judge that the beings are the same.

2) There exist even among believers strong rejection of the premise. Christians such as Jack Chick denounce Muslims as worshipping a pagan moon god rather than the true god. Some Christians denounce judaism as devil-worship. Some imams have gone on the record stating that Christians do not believe in Allah.

3) You state "One finds the same traits ascribed to God in hundreds or thousands of cultures, in Africa, Australia, the Americas, Asia, and the South Pacific. This ought to give sincere skeptics pause."

I wonder if we are just experiencing a glass half-full/half-empty phenomenon. How much of the common traits are just the idea of a creator being?

I am no religious expert, but let me pick just a few more popular ones for example Vishnu and Shang-Ti from the Shang dynasty. Vishnu is a four armed mace-wielding blue god with a wife. Shang-Ti is a celestial emperor with a court in heaven and servants and functionaries who actually carry out the task of creating and administering heaven and earth. To my eyes these are significant differences from the somewhat impersonal ascetic Jehovah.

doc johnny said...

My point that is that it seems to me that the only common traits are creator and goodness. Even the proscription of graven images is not anywhere near universal. Vishnu is commonly depicted in statuary form. I am not aware of any proscription against depicting Shang-Ti, although my understanding is that he was not actually directly worshipped except by high status people such as the emperor.

My overall point is there may be common traits such as creator and goodness, but how can one be sure that is not an artifact of the human need for causality? Can the use of parental titles for a creator be just a logical byproduct of association rather than an independent trait?

Is some of this commonality an artifact of selection? We take all the gods, reject the ones without the traits of creator and goodness, and then remark that the ones that are left have these traits in common.

Anyway, thanks for inviting me to comment here. I enjoyed your book and look forward to your dissection of my response. Please make sure to correct any misapprehension that I may have of your position. I am not interested in "winning" any arguments. I am interested in clarifying what our differences are, if any.

David B Marshall said...

BR: I give a few examples of God recognized in non-JC cultures in the OP. You haven't tried to come to grip with those, so there's no use wasting my time giving more examples. If you want to pursue the subject, I might however give you some suggestions on books to read. I've written on this subject myself, including in Jesus and the Religions of Man, Truth Behind the New Atheism, True Son of Heaven, and in an articles for First Thing Magazine, print and on-line. My dissertation also touches some on this subject. You could also start with the classic description, Andrew Lang's The Making of Religion, Wilhelm Schmidt's books, James Legge, John Mbiti, and other books I can reccommend. I'm not going to type it all out here for you.

You have NOT supported your vampire claim. Good, you provide a definition -- actually, two:

"Vampires are usually undead beings(ex-humans) who come back from the grave to feast on the blood of the living, and generally avoid sunlight because it kills them."

Now you need to show that this definition transcends culture, can be found independently in more cultures than God -- which was your claim. The examples I remember from before, maybe from you, didn't do that.

Aside from which, notice that your definition only includes 4 items. The definition of God I am using includes between 8 and 10, each of which distinguishes God from "the gods."

"Dragons are basically large reptilian creatures with scales stronger than stone, claws, wings, the ability to breathe fire, and a lust for gold. Etc, etc"

"Etc" does not add anything to this definition.

Note that by this definition, too the Chinese long (龍), the best-known such creature in Asia, is not a dragon. It does not breath fire, and does not have any special fetish for gold. This is a perfect example of what I am talking about: get down to brass tacks, and such claims simply evaporate. There is nothing surprising in the fact that different cultures invent a flying reptile.

David B Marshall said...

BR: "The general death toll of Christianity throughout history(see the Middle Ages)"

You have a strange and ridiculous image of the Middle Ages.

Evidently you just made up the 50 million figure off the top of your head.

You should know, though, that the toll of the witchhunts was about 50,000. Witches were burned not during the Middle Ages proper, but during the Renaissance. And they were not burned because they used the wrong name for God, but because they were perceived as having sold out to the devil, or poisoning wells, shifting shapes, flying on broomsticks, etc.

"With the exceptions of the Aztecs and Incans, who were probably killed more for gold than god, I really can't think of another reason for religious fanatics to kill people."

Then read some history, for crying out loud. I'm not here to teach it to you.

The Crusades had nothing to do with denying that "Allah" was a name for God. Europeans were ignorant of Islam at the time. The reasons given, were Turkish invasions, tortures, the military threat to Greece, abuse of pilgrims, things like that.

"The Judeo-Christian tradition has *usually* recognized God by other names."

Not trying to change your story by any chance, are you? That little "usually" you slipped is more a product of recent times than anything else.

Nonsense. I never said "always." And your ignorance of Christian history is simply too sweeping for me to deal with -- read the OP, for crying out loud. Christianity recognized the legitimacy of the Greek philosophers' theos, logos, and even Zeus FROM THE 1st CENTURY! It is the ignorance that came later, after Europe endured centuries of foreign invasions.

I'm losing patience, here, BR. You obviously don't know anything about history, and don't want to learn. You haven't even bothered to carefully read the OP. You haven't backed up any of your claims -- vampires in hundreds of cultures, 50 million killed because Christians denied they worshiped God (or for any other reason -- you pulled the number from your backside, it seems) -- nor have you challenged anything I said in the OP, still less addressed the serious issues it raises.

If your ignorance is not invisible, then start by reading some of the books I recommended, please.

David B Marshall said...

Doc: Thanks for being patient with this troublesome software. You raise good questions.

God is distinguished from "the gods" in several ways, including: (1) transcends all other beings; (2) He is creator; (3) He is judge of humankind; (4) unique knowledge (omniscience); (5) unique power (omnipotence); (6) He is perfectly good (see Homer or Virgil for contrast); (7) He is incorporal; (8) but is called "Father" or (sometimes) "Mother" metaphorically, not literally; (9) He is not worshipped with idols; (10) He is eternal, and has no origin.

One of the things about these qualities, is that they define God in such a way that He is recognized across cultures. If two societies talk about a unique Creator who is above all Gods, cares for but judges humanity, is good, etc . . . they naturally recognize that Being as the same, since (for instance) there can't be more than one transcendent Creator God. (In some cases, they also think God has told them He is sending them His messengers. Let me recommend another book -- Eternity in Their Hearts, by Don Richardson.)

So why, if God is found in other cultures, send missionaries? The Gospel is not about the existence of God. It's about what God has done for humanity through his Son, Jesus. If you carefully read Paul's sermon in Athens, you'll find that what he said about God was easily accepted -- indeed, he was echoing the Stoics, in a lot of it. The resurrection of a Jewish rabbi was the real sticking point.

Thanks also for the honorary doctorate, but unfortunately, I'm not quite there yet. Got a late start.

doc johnny said...

My apologies. I actually have a few books with similar titles on my kindle. One is The Necessity of Atheism by Dr. David Marshall Brooks, and the other is yours. I must have confused your names.

David B Marshall said...

Doc: Your other questions are also very much to the point. It is possible that there is some internal coherence to these set of traits, such that having ascribed creation to God, the others will follow naturally. I am not saying the argument is foolproof: it's an inductive, not deductive argument, which makes theism more likely, but does not prove it.

Shang Di was not, I think, worshipped with idols, though when the term Di was used within later polytheism, and the 5 Di were worshipped, they might have been. My old prof, head of the anthropology department at the University of Washington and an excellent China scholar, also an atheist, commented on my claim that the High God was not worshipped with idols, by noting that this was he thought even true of the popular Tian Gong in Taiwan. (Tian being the old Zhou name for the High God, "gong" being a kind of familiarization that would usually involve polytheistic degradation of the original concept.)

David B Marshall said...

Doc: I've noticed that book by David Marshall Brooks -- I'm curious, how is it?

doc johnny said...

Tien Gong (天公) means Sky Duke or something to that effect in mandarin and is sometimes just translated as "God". Tien (天) or Tian literally means sky and I believe that the Zhou belief in their God may not have been particularly distinct from the physical reality of the sky itself. I think Gong (公) was commonly used to anthropomorphize more general concepts. For example Lei Gong ((雷公) which turns thunder (Lei) to the duke of thunder, or thunder god.

My grasp of written chinese is limited so take this with a grain of salt.

And Dr. Brook's book would be unlikely to be convincing to you. I found it to contain a number of cogent arguments, but also to contain irrelevancies. I also don't know that I can agree that atheism is necessary. For me, atheism is a byproduct of rationalism not a means to itself. I suppose I could be described as a negative atheist, or an implicit atheist.

David B Marshall said...

Doc: "Duke" is a pretty literal and antiquated translation of 公 here -- "male" might be closer, as in 老公 or "husband," but it's a pretty common suffix for divinities in Chinese folk religion -- like 土地公, or 雷公, as you mention. My grasp of written Chinese is quite good, especially when it comes to religious language -- have you lived there?

天 as "sky" and as "God" were two distinct concepts, though the association was not accidental. Most often, in the oldest classics, the term is used in relation to God, not the sky -- though there are also a few cases which clearly do refer to the sky, as in a bird going up to heaven. (Even there, it was thought that birds brought signs from God, so the association may not have been purely physical.) Tian is personal, intelligent, hears prayer, creates, gives birth to humanity, judges evil, rewards good. Some later philosophers rendered him more material.

What's funny about David Marshall Brooks' book is that my middle name is Brooks! It's not surprising that there is some confusion.

B.R. said...

"I give a few examples of God recognized in non-JC cultures in the OP. You haven't tried to come to grip with those, so there's no use wasting my time giving more examples."

You just sort of vaguely say that lots of tribes throughout Africa and Asia believe in "God". I don't really see "hundreds: of examples here.

As for China--there's one valid instance.

"This is not Homer's Zeus."

Nor is it the Zeus of Greek mythology. Who was not all-powerful, all-knowing, or the "first cause" of nature. Do you have a source for this quote?

"Now you need to show that this definition transcends culture, can be found independently in more cultures than God -- which was your claim."

Well, that all depends on you, David. If you accept all of the various incarnations of "God" without dumping the ones that you feel are "mischaracterizations", then no, I cannot back up my claim. Of course, you haven't provided more examples of "God" than I have vampires, so you'll have to do that as well.


'"Etc" does not add anything to this definition.'

Nor was it meant to; I didn't feel like defining any more mythical creatures before I went to bed, thanks.

"There is nothing surprising in the fact that different cultures invent a flying reptile."

Nor is it surprising that primitive peoples in a chaotic universe invent a "first cause" to assure themselves that their lives have meaning and that everything's going to all right, when it is impossible to know for certain.

Doc Johnny said...

DBM: I never finished learning how to read Chinese with any fluency despite the admonitions of my parents. Now that I am older, I find I have regrets. I was born over there and lived there until I was school age.

My suspicion is that the separation of sky and God may be in part an artifact of translation and philosophical development, that to the earliest Zhou the sky was literally God. It is difficult to say when this may have changed. The fact is that the same pictogram is used for both concepts.

David Marshall Brooks' name is rendered by my kindle as Dr. David Marsha... which doesn't help matters.

B.R. said...

"You have a strange and ridiculous image of the Middle Ages."

http://notachristian.org/christianatrocities.html

Right, because it's not the Middle Ages were full of oppression and mass murder.

"Evidently you just made up the 50 million figure off the top of your head."

Evidently you love putting words in my mouth. I said "fifty million(give or take)". I say "give or take" because I seem to be having a hard time finding an exact estimate of people killed by Christians through the ages. Also, a slight retraction is in order--I forgot to add that among the millions killed by Christians, there are also other Christians who were denounced for "heresy".

All of those reasons really tie in with nor believing in god. But as I recall, I did not say that that was the only reason for the killings.


"Then read some history, for crying out loud. I'm not here to teach it to you."

Where did that come from? You're the one who doesn't like talking about Christian atrocities, not me.

By the end of the Crusades in 1291, Christians knew about the teachings of Islam and regarded it as a false religion, and still do. It's ironic that you talk about the few atheists who fail to realize that Allay and Yahweh are the same person, when it's Christians who make this mistake much more often. I've even seen some claim that Muslims worship Satan.

"Nonsense. I never said "always."

Nor did I say you did.

"Christianity recognized the legitimacy of the Greek philosophers' theos, logos, and even Zeus FROM THE 1st CENTURY!"

Hmm. Apparently, I'm not the one with a "strange and ridiculous" view of history. First off, that quote of yours is very suspicious without a source and does not represent the actual Greek view of Zeus. Secondly, Christians would have to be completely ignorant of Greek mythology to call god "Zeus". Unless you can provide proof that they worshiped him alongside Jesus...

"I'm losing patience, here, BR. You obviously don't know anything about history, and don't want to learn."

Pot, meet kettle.

"You haven't backed up any of your claims -- vampires in hundreds of cultures..."

You haven't backed up your claim that god is present in "hundreds" of cultures. And again, I haven't studied "hundreds" of cultures, so I don't know if vampires are that numerous or not. First back up your claim.

"...50 million killed because Christians denied they worshiped God (or for any other reason -- you pulled the number from your backside, it seems)..."

Stop putting words in my mouth. It is testing my patience. Secondly, considering your vapid "Zeus" argument, it's pretty ironic of you to accuse me of pulling something out of my posterior region.

"nor have you challenged anything I said in the OP, still less addressed the serious issues it raises."

What, the likelihood of god? Actually, I forgot to mention that.
On what basis do you reject some versions of god that don't conform to your Judeo-Christian bias and accept the ones that do? Any logical basis? Eh?

Thanks for your time.

B.R. said...

And Neil, my main problem was posting long comments without signing in first--then Blogger works just fine.

B.R. said...

Also, one last thing I'd like to add, David; Christians had a thousand years to "recognize" "God" in the various pagan religions of Europe, yet instead they persecuted them into extinction. The Church even instructed priests to destroy pagan idols and shrines. So much for "usually".

David B Marshall said...

Doc: The evidence points the other way around. Read the earliest classics, the Book of Poetry and Book of History, and 天 clearly depicts a personal God. The few references to Tian as the physical sky are clearly differentiated. It also sometimes referred to the abode of the faithful deceased, and (combined with other characters) to supreme political authority, as in the "mandate of Heaven." But most scholars seem to recognize its function as a theistic name in the earliest texts, and as a synonym for the Shang Dynasty term Shang Di.

In the oracle bones, however, Tian is not, I think, given this meaning. But that's Shang culture, not Zhou culture, and the Shang had their own names for God.

Neil Bates said...

Folks: I suggest it really isn't of utmost importance just how the Chinese, Mayans etc. think of "God." Their concepts vary. My own belief is based on the need for a prime Mover and ground of being (to include "mind"), a very basic concept. If It has to exist then it does, regardless of all those cultural variations or lack of same, in the way people think of God.

Doc Johnny said...

DBM: I am not sure if we are disagreeing or not.

My point is that I suspect that the reason 天 is the name for god/heaven is that these people literally believed the sky was god. The sky being an immaterial, boundless, all encompassing being. This fits with the concept of 天 as Heaven as both a place, a being, and a concept.

I have not found that 天 was clearly differentiated when referring to the physical sky. For example in
彼黍離離、彼稷之苗。
行邁靡靡、中心搖搖。
知我者、謂我心憂、不知我者、謂我何求。
悠悠蒼天、此何人哉。

天 refers to the sky but appears in the same form. Perhaps the clear differentiation is the fact that it refers to the physical sky. I am not well versed in the classics so I will not pretend any type of comprehensive knowledge, but is it possible these were a primitive people worshipping a literal skygod and we are injecting our own modern sensibilities into their language?

David B Marshall said...

Neil: You may not find the argument I'm making so useful or personally interesting, and that's OK. I see it as immensely important, though, in three ways:

(1) For the philosophical reasons I gave earlier. If people in many cultures recognize God in a coherent, culturally-transcendent way, that gives us some (extra) reason to think God is not just a cultural construct.

(2) For theological reasons. Paul and St. Augustine both predicted that we would find this to be the case; whereas Hume, Tylor, Dawkins, and Dennett are all on the record arguing that it is not. I'm glad Paul and Augustine recognized the truth first.

(3) For historical reasons. Christianity caught on around the world, largely because people in diverse cultures already knew about God, and recognized the Gospel as a completion of truth they had already anticipated.

You can see this in Paul's sermons in Lystra and Athens, and in the writings of Greco-Roman intellectuals who became Christians, like Justin, Clement, and Augustine.

This is the secret behind Mateo Ricci's success in China. It helps explain Alexander Rhodes' even greater success in Vietnam. Christianity caught on in Korea partly because the Koreans worshipped Hananim, and recognized God as another name for Him. Even in Japan, where Christianity has generally not done well, a group of Samurai (raised on the Chinese classics) converted during the Meiji, one saying, "All my life I've worshipped God (Jotei) without knowing it." They deeply influenced reform in Japan; if they'd succeeded more, they might have stopped WWII in Asia.

Sun Yat-sen was also a convert to Christianity who believed the ancient Chinese had known God.

This phenomena is probably also partly responsible for the spread of Christianity in Africa.

So I think this is a tremendously important, and powerful, reality.

David B Marshall said...

Doc: I see you were joking about not reading Chinese well!

The poem you quote is generally interpretted as coming from an officer mourning over the desolation of the old Zhou capital. Legge notes here: "苍天 is used by metonymy for providence, the Power supposed to dwell above the sky."

This seems credible when you read the whole book, especially the second half. Heaven is usually thought to have especially to do with judgement on nations, and when a state is destroyed, while the rulers are to blame for their evil actions, it is Heaven that brings their doom upon them. (In response to prayers, and in outrage over the crimes they commit.)

These people were not that primitive. The civilization they belonged to had, in some ways, already been rather corrupt for more than 1000 years by this time.

There is a danger, as you say, of projecting our views on the Zhou. I think that's very much what neo-Confucianists did for quite a while, and it's still easy to read the Classics from later Chinese tradition. Many scholars remain embarrassed by the frankly theistic views of the Shang and the Zhou, and even of Confucius, Zhuang Zi, or (here's real controversy) Lao Zi. (Mozi is easier to dismiss as a flake!)

No doubt there are some differences: the focus is not as clear in these texts, as in the Bible, and creation is vague. But take the whole of the BOP and BOH, and what they say about Shang Di and Tian, and it's clear they perceived him very much as Christians see God.

David B Marshall said...

BR: Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus is well-known, and easy to find on-line. Nor was he the only Stoic who moved beyond Stoic theology to faith in a personal God. Nor were the Stoics the only philosophers: Plato's Timaeus was very popular with early Christians, for precisely this reason, and Cynics could, as I recall, be theists, too. This is not at all controversial: Richard Carrier cites a few ancient Greek theists who contributed greatly to the development of ancient science, and ties the two together. As you may know, he is no friend of Christianity.

Other examples? Let me recommend a few books:

* Andrew Lang, the Making of Religion.

* James Legge, The Religions of China.

* Wilhelm Schmidt -- he wrote a dozen or so books about God in primitive societies, two have been translated into English, and can be found in university libraries.

* Emile Durkheim admits the phenomena among Australian tribes, in Elementary Forms of Religious Life.

* Paul Radin admits the phenomena among North American tribes, in a couple books.

* Marvin Harris, a radical anti-Christian anthropologist, admits the phenomena, especially common among herding peoples.

* Mircea Eliade talks about it a bit in Patterns in Comparative Religion, also in his encyclopedia.

Not every one of these examples is crystal clear. But recognition of a Supreme God who generally fits the pattern I described is certainly very widespread.

David B Marshall said...

BR: I don't see you're saying anything of substance, here. You can't justify your 50 million "more or less" number, nor explain how it would prove that Christians deny that Allah, etc, means "God," even if you could justify it.

You admit, in fact, that that number includes Christians who killed other Christians. Are you claiming that French Christians deny that "Gutt" means "Dieu?" Or German Christians deny that "Bog" means "Gutt?"

This reminds me of a book from Islamic history, "The Incoherence of the Incoherence."

Yes, by the end of the Crusades, educated Europeans knew something about Islam -- which is why Thomas Aquinas recognized Maimonides and Avicenna as believers in God, even if they used Hebrew or Arabic words for Him.

Now you grudgingly admit your claim about vampires was just vamping. The dragons were apparently just blowing smoke. What's left of your argument? Please remind me; I don't see any targets left!

Doc Johnny said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doc Johnny said...

To DBM:

My grasp of written Chinese really is quite limited. Getting through poetry is torturous. I don't suppose that my point matters much since it would be next to impossible to truly prove or disprove whether at one point the Heaven/deity was considered to be literally the sky. It may just be cultural baggage that I grew up with.

Anyhow, to your main point. To clarify your argument, let me propose the following and see if you agree that it is an accurate representation of your argument:

1) There exists some important immutable conceptions regarding God.

2) A culture's god is said to be concordant with that baseline God if it has a percentage (X) of traits in common with proposition 1.

3) There exist percentage of total cultures with concordant gods Y

4) You propose that the percentage Y of concordant gods is significant enough to be a reason to believe in God.

Neil Bates said...

David, I do see you have a point and it's worth looking into, I was trying to note it's not the most important thing IMHO. You bring up Plato, and so I ask you: as I gather Plato, Aristotle etc. seemed to believe in some "unmoved mover" or ultimate reality behind all this. Can you elaborate/clarify/correct more as needed? Also, what do you think of the ultimate metaphysics of Plotinus, that ultimate plenum, c.f. ultimate simplicity and divine necessity etc? Thanks.

David B Marshall said...

Doc: Heh. An amusing formula. It's nice to have someone around who tries to bring order to chaos, even if a chaos of facts and ideas.

Here's how I'd rather put it, though.

Your ancestors (assuming you're Chinese -- from Taiwan?) knew about God. They recognized that there is one Being above all other beings, human or divine, who is good, who parented humanity and played some role in creation, who judges good and evil, should not be worshipped with idols, and who is not just an ancestor or a tribal deity, but transcends any culture.

Sometimes this knowledge was obscured (as Paul puts it: "They knew the truth, but suppressed the truth in unrighteousness"), it was often restricted to the elite, but it was never totally lost. God was worshipped annually at the Altar to Heaven. He was remembered by commoners in proverbs, and by the literati in the Classics.

I'm saying that Jesus brings near what had been far away. He brings the knowledge of God, and the 福分 of knowing Heaven to the common man (and woman). This is how many Chinese recognize God, and how Jesus has begun to reform China over the past couple centuries.

And the same thing, of course, goes for other countries. We are called by a God who transcends culture, to take part in a work that transcends history.

That's how I'd like to put it.

David B Marshall said...

Neil: I'm afraid I haven't read Plotinus, and not enough of Aristotle to say. Plato does seem to have believed in God, or at least put quite a sermon into Timaeus' mouth, to Socrates:

"Let me tell you then why the creator made this world of generation. He was good, and the good can never have any jealousy of anything. And being free from jealousy, he desired that all things should be as like himself as they could be. This is in the truest sense the origin of creation and of the world, as we shall do well in believing
on the testimony of wise men . . . "

But please tell us what you have in mind; obviously this is something you see as important.

Doc Johnny said...

David: (If I may call you that)

The reason that I created that formula is that I have found it useful to separate out the premises and the conclusions in a logical argument so that I can identify the specific issues that lead me to either accept as convincing or dismiss as unconvincing.

Sometimes a person can immediately judge how convincing an argument is immediately upon seeing it. But that first impression is a gestalt, and separating out the premises from the conclusions can really aid in understanding.

I understand that you would like to state your argument in a less impersonal way, but is that formula a fair representation of your argument? If it is not, could you identify the specific ways it is not?

I really enjoy discussing issues with people with whom I do not agree, and I appreciate the opportunity to do so.

B.R. said...

For your first comment;

Thanks for getting back to me, David. Here's the problem that I see here. You said very clearly that Christianity(and Christians) recognized the "legitimacy" of Zeus in the First Century, which is simply a logical jump. They accepted the term "logos" because it made their religion easier to understand in a largely Hellenistic Greek culture; as for Zeus, a handful of stoics who decided to revise Greek mythology for their own spiritual leanings does not constitute the Christian recognition of a pagan deity. Zeus is as distinct from Yahweh as Odin is from Apollo; Christians never believed otherwise, or paganism would not have been exterminated in later ages. This statement is unfounded. But thank you for giving precedence.

B.R. said...

"...You can't justify your 50 million "more or less" number,..."

I already have. The single lowest estimate of deaths I've ever come across was in the book, "What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?". The author, an Evangelical, shamelessly altered facts to support his view. He said that at the very most, only 30 million people had been killed by Christians in history; ignoring the fact that he only related a fraction of all the Christian atrocities in history. He completely left out the Papal Inquisitions, medieval witch-hunts, and the exploits of the Spanish explorers and Conquistadors. And when he does talk about Christian atrocities, he almost invariably sugar-coats them to make them sound not quite as bad.

You will forgive me for not putting much stock in what Christians have to say on these matters, since everything that comes out of them is either, "they weren't True Christians(TM)!", or just hand-waving and down-playing the incidents.

"...nor explain how it would prove that Christians deny that Allah, etc, means "God," even if you could justify it."

I already have, David; Christians in general have regarded Islam as a false religion and still do; only Universalists and liberal Christians will argue for the "divine" in other religions, usually while being called heretics by their traditional counterparts. Go to Christian websites like Rapture Ready, or Free Conservatives; most Christians don't agree with you(countless of them have even suggested that Islam should be banned and all Muslims should be exterminated. It's all out there on the Web). And need I point out that Thomas Aquinas was one voice among many? If I looked at what other Christians thought about Islam, something tells me that I'd find lots of references to baby-eating, Satanism, and "heathens".

B.R. said...

"Now you grudgingly admit your claim about vampires was just vamping."

You know, one of these days, you might want to try actually *reading* my comments *without* taking them out of context. Let me repeat myself once more;

"Well, that all depends on you, David. If you accept all of the various incarnations of "God" without dumping the ones that you feel are "mischaracterizations", then no, I cannot back up my claim. Of course, you haven't provided more examples of "God" than I have vampires, so you'll have to do that as well."

And by the way, David, this argument is just a foot-soldier; even if the vampire myth is not *quite* as widespread as your accepted interpretations of god, it does decidedly little for your argument, when there are still countless other myths in human history AND no evidence placing god apart from them as a real entity. And you still have yet to address the bias question I raised in my last visit to the vampire gambit(nice puns, though).

"The dragons were apparently just blowing smoke."

Like your loving god when he goes on one of his troll rants in the OT? ;)

"What's left of your argument? Please remind me; I don't see any targets left!"

In the immortal words of Omar Sharif...

"HAH! HAH!"

Did you REALLY thing that that vampire gambit was my best shot? That that was my only argument? That was merely a feint, to test your argument, and even I was surprised at it's effectiveness. You still have yet to make a decent rebuttal of it, and you still have answered my main challenge; your bias and the lack of evidence. Really, David; you should learn not to underestimate me.

Til later... ;)

B.R. said...

"Not" answered, that is; sorry for the typo. Blogger would be better with an Edit button.

David B Marshall said...

Doc (or Johhny?): All right. Let me take your formula, and amend it. Before doing so, let me add that even in amended form, this is just one of several arguments I've touched on above: my initial arguments, for instance, were more narrowly against the "I'm just an atheist about one more God" argument, and I've made some other points based on the anthropological premises stated above.

But let's see how this might go . . .

1) "There exists some important immutable conceptions regarding God."

I'm not sure what "exists" means here. I am not arguing for free-existing ideas in some Platonic sense. Better to say:

1) The idea of a God sharing most of ten or so qualities that distinguish Him from any polytheistic god seems to have appeared and become important among many or most of the world's known culturally-independent ethnic groups, including groups at different stages of political evolution.

2) "A culture's god is said to be concordant with that baseline God if it has a percentage (X) of traits in common with proposition 1."

There's another issue here, which is the original premise of this thread: that people within different cultures recognize "God" by other names, as synonymous with the "God" that they know. Furthermore, sometimes they believe that "God" has spoken to them, somehow, and affirmed that identity. So instead:

2) God by many names is often perceived to transcend tribal cultures, and is identified with "God" as recognized within other cultures. The fact that these beings often share primary characteristics, supports that identification. Some traits are such that this is a logical and even necessary deduction: one can only have one supreme being, for instance.

"3) There exist percentage of total cultures with concordant gods Y."

I think that percentage would probably exceed 50.

"4) You propose that the percentage Y of concordant gods is significant enough to be a reason to believe in God."

It makes it more likely than if an awareness of God never arose, or arose only under certain, well-defined political conditions. This for a few additional reasons:

5) The Bible (St. Paul) predicts this awareness. This suggests a distinct biblical anthropology that is in touch with the true nature of man and of human history.

6) Skeptical anthropology did not predict this phenomena, and has shown itself highly reluctant to accept it. (Though it generally has.) Therefore, skeptical explanations of the High God phenomena appear post hoc.

7) As touched on obliquely above, "God" sometimes seems to prepare people in non-Christian cultures for the coming of a Gospel that fulfills their own ancient traditions. (See Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts, Marshall, True Son of Heaven.)

However, I also concede that:

8) There are other possible explanations for 1-3, including: (a) a "God gene" or some other cognitive hardwiring; (b) vaguely Freudian father figure (though his specific proposals were claptrap); (c) some product of cultural evolution (though this is undermined by last part of 1.)

Sorry if this muddies the water somewhat. :- )

David B Marshall said...

Neil: I agree that Plato is interesting for that reason: he is what Aristotle called "the skilful, the old, and the wise" in Greco-Western civilization. And I think Aristotle is right to emphasize the γνωμη, the judgment or subjective opinion of experienced elders, as a complement to purely empirical ways of thinking. This is also partly why I find Cleanthes, Epictetus, Confucius, Mozi, Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi so worth quoting -- they obviously have some insight.

There is always cultural conditioning, as you recognize. And our conclusions are not always the product of pure reason -- nor should they be. It may be that we are aware of God on some deep level, as Paul suggests, and that wisdom or honest seeking after truth allows that awareness to reveal itself. But I don't know exactly how this might work.

What I know of Plotinus interests me. He's one of Augustine's main dialogue partners in City of God.

Sure, I'd be interested in reading your ideas. My e-mail address is christthetao@msn.com. I can give you some feedback, anyway.

Neil Bates said...

Hello, I hope this is OK: I had some brief account trouble and my comments didn't show. I don't know what happened, and since other readers may be baffled by David's reply to a now-missing comment originally made at 19:01, here it is:

David, what Plato thought about God is important because it's an independent triangulation point from a great ancient thinker, using his insight and some bit of cultural material but not "religious revelation." It gives you an idea what kinds of arguments can be made just "in the head" using reason, intuition, and everyday experience. Plato wasn't an apologist for anything or anyone else, so his product isn't biased by previous religious or anti-religious (? - I presume such, other than the usual exposure to notions of "the gods" but with little apparent piety) or conditioning. Even a person who does accept a source of authority can appreciate the value for insight and to inject into debate, of a thinker who gets close to whatever you imagine "there" to be, with his own resources. It, maybe more than the cultural material, supports universality of the idea of God and in more mature form.

Second, I asked you because I don't hear much about the religious thinking of these Greek philosophers. It just isn't out there much, for whatever reason. I certainly recommend reading some Plotinus, who put together very advanced, abstract ideas like of God's simplicity, necessity, etc. in the twilight of the ancient world.

Third, I am very interested in arguments for God from pure reason, as I think they make a better case in "philosophy" because they don't rely on controversial sources of "authority." I would like to send you some overviews of my arguments, building on previous speculations but with some originality. I hope you can give them some dissemination, with credit of course. I'm not a professional philosopher but with some education in that area, enough to credibly get around. I too think the new atheists (or is it "gnu") have a bungled and often hypocritical case against the idea of God. I am not very "religious" but consider it more reasonable there is a supreme being, and consider an orderly and life-friendly world like this, just apropos of no purpose, to be absurd.

B.R.: I'm supposing David appreciates that it's logically possible for people around to world to have wide-spread wrong ideas - whether variegated or consistent. Hence, the mere existence of such notions would not serve as a "proof." I think he's making a supporting case about something he thinks there are other reasons to believe.

Doc Johnny said...

Call me John,

Your clarifications are appreciated. I think I can identify the points of disagreement.

1) What proportion of Godly traits are necessary to identify a god to be another name for God? Without quantifying this, we can't be certain of the accuracy of this identification.

2) What proportion of cultures have a god that fits criterion 1? You suspect >50%

3) What proportion should one expect if God exists?

My point with this is to identify how a theist and an atheist can look at the same data and come to different conclusions, and I think I have identified the differences.

1) An atheist would find that the features used to judge similarity to God to be overly vague.

To use an analogy, this method is like saying a Honda Civic, A Toyota Camry, and a Mercedes 450 are all just different names for a Ford Taurus because they all have 4 wheels, an engine, headlights, and brakes.

Doc Johnny said...

Just like those vehicles, there are significant differences between Vishnu, Shang-Di, and Jehovah. Vishnu is commonly depicted in graven images for example. The 4 arms are certainly different. Shang-Di is the head of a vast array of different gods and serves as an emperor to the gods. I am not an expert on world religions so I can't comment on any others. But if these are all the same god, then the afterlife presented should be the same and they are quite different. Hindus have reincarnation. Depending on the era, the Chinese believed in a singular afterworld where your rank depended on your actions in life. There was no concept of a punitive hell and a reward-filled heaven.

Anyhow, thanks for the discussion, I need to get some sleep.

David B Marshall said...

Doc: I didn't bring up Vishnu as one of my examples. Sometimes Vishnu may be seen as the transcendent High God, but I admit that isn't his usual position. Indians have, however, often believed in a God whose attributes mark him as the one true God -- the Bhagavad Gita, much of what Gandhi says, some hymns in the Rig Veda, etc, suggest this. They used a variety of names for Him.

Use of the word "emperor" in relation to Shang Di is probably anachronistic. It's true the ancient Chinese believed in other spirits. But that's true in EVERY system, including ancient Israel, and Catholic Europe. The difference, there, is that some of the subbordinate spirits in ancient China were nature gods, and not just messengers, while in Israel this was discouraged. But that does not lessen the power of Shang Di. A Christian can ascribe all kinds of powers to the devil, and still believe in God.

The issue of the afterlife is separate, and I'm not sure why you're bringing it in.

David B Marshall said...

John: "1) What proportion of Godly traits are necessary to identify a god to be another name for God? Without quantifying this, we can't be certain of the accuracy of this identification."

You are assuming a few things here: (a) That the goal is certainty; (b) That quantifying achieves that -- which itself assumes each characteristic has equal weight; (c) That the other related phenomena I mentioned need not be bothered with.

Some traits are, as I said, clearly decisive; some may be less important.

Suppose three independent reports reach you about a Westerner who lived in Yunnan in the early 20th Century. One says his name is Rock, and he's from Scotland. Another says his name is Block, and he's from north England. Another says he's Rot, and he's from the Netherlands. All three agree he was the only Westerner living in Lijiang at that time. One says he was a biologist, another says he was a scientist, another an adventurer. Two agree he was fat, the other says skinny. Two say he led an American president on a hunt to kill a panda; one says it was the president's son.

Would you have any difficulty identifying these reports as being about the same person? I don't think so. Which trait would "seal the deal?" For me, the claim that he was the only Westerner living in the Lijiang valley.

But this is a more subtle and less easily quantifiable issue than you seem to assume. If the three heard one another's accounts, and said, "Yeah, that's the same man!" that would increase confidence that he was. And if he sent all three signed letters (even if the signature was brown with age), so much the more so.

"3) What proportion should one expect if God exists?"

This is an interesting question, but also a hard one to answer. A better question would be, "What state of religion would one expect if Christianity is true?"

David B Marshall said...

John: "1) An atheist would find that the features used to judge similarity to God to be overly vague."

I have long since given up taking "what atheists think" as my standard of judgement for anything. For one thing, the species is enormously varied. For another, one trait most do seem to share in common, that they will jump down any rabbit hole at all, to avoid the evidence for God.

But I see nothing "vague" about the definition Cleanthes gave "Zeus," cited above:

"Most glorious of the immortals . . . " (Supreme)

"Invoked by many names . . . " (Suggests cultural transcendence.)

"All-powerful."

"The First Cause of Nature."

"Who rules all things with Law." (Suggests moral goodness, fairness.)

"It is right for mortals to call upon you . . . " (Personal, one can pray to Him.)

"Since from you we have our being . . .

"We whose lot it is to be God's image, we alone of all mortal creatures . . . "

Neither did the Greco-Romans -- one reason they eventually converted to Christianity.

Neil Bates said...

Re Vishnu etc: having studied Hinduism etc., I think "Brahman" is the best correlate to general ideas of "God." Brahman is considered the ultimate ground of being, and that worlds are birthed from in a creative process (why? maybe because so sterile for that Being to just sit there?) The high-end writings (as opposed to "popular piety") resemble the philosophical speculations of Plotinus, Aquinas etc. That's another reason I say, what the philosophers say (religious or secular or in between as may be) is more important than the folk sociology as such. Not to brush off looking at it, just making a comparison..

David B Marshall said...

Neil: India is a particularly complex case. Here's some of what I wrote about God in ancient India, in a book that hasn't been published yet:

"The Vedas reveal a people living around the Punjab (“five rivers”) in Northwest India. Thoughts flow like rivers, and these texts were produced over more than a thousand years. But they mark five characteristics of Indian thought that would show tremendous staying power.

"First, the authors believed in God. They discriminated between the Creator and spirits (devas), but couldn’t make up their minds what to call Him. And so they interchangeably called Him “the Man,” “All Maker,” “the One God,” “Lord on High,” and “Lord of Creatures.”

"The Man (Purusa) is both the material from which the gods sacrificed, and He to whom they sacrificed. All Maker (Visvakarman) “created” the earth and “revealed” the sky. As “the One God” he created all good things and answered prayers – and was also the One who was sacrificed. Lord on High (Varuna) widened the sky, placed the sun in it and the magical life-giving elixir soma on the mountains. He judged and forgave sins, was not easily deceived, and ruled by himself “alone.” “Lord of Creatures” (Prajapati) was also said to give life, command the gods, and be the “one king of the world” whom mankind should worship and obey:

“He who though his power owns these snowy mountains, and the ocean together with the river Rasa . . . he who fathered the earth and created the sky, whose laws are true, who created the high, shining waters. Who is the god whom we should worship with the oblation? O Prajapati, lord of progeny, no one but you embraces all these creatures. Grant us the desires for which we offer you oblation.”

"How can we sort these titles out? Each was said to be Creator, ruler, answer prayer, and act as the primordial sacrifice that brought all things into being. Perhaps different tribes called him by different names, as in Australia and Africa, or perhaps God simply had a lot of names – as He does in Western theism. One ancient writer expressed uncertainty:

“Whence this creation has arisen – perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not – the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows – or perhaps he does not know.”

"By the time of the epic Ramayana was written in the 4th Century BC, the cards had been shuffled and the gods sorted themselves in a form closer to modern Hindu orthodoxy. Brahma, the “self-born creator,” was now “lord of the gods.” But both Brahma and Shiva worshiped the “Supreme Lord,” Vishnu. The gods controlled the universe as Vishnu’s agents. Rama was the seventh avatar of Vishnu sent to save the world from the demon king, Ravana. In the most famous portion of India’s other great epic, the Mahabharata, however, the spotlight fell on Krishna, incarnation of Brahman, the ultimate reality and the only God whom people worship, even when they mistakenly sacrifice to some other deity. “Even those who worship other deities, and sacrifice to them with faith in their hearts, are really worshipping me, though with a mistaken approach. For I am the only enjoyer and the only God of all sacrifices.”

“For I am Brahman within this body
Life immortal that shall not perish
I am the Truth and the Joy forever.”

There is a much greater fluidity here than in China, Israel, or Greece, but an awareness of God never seemed to quite leave India alone.

But correct me if I'm wrong.

Neil Bates said...
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Neil Bates said...

DBM, thanks. Also, any thoughts on usage difference Brahma v. Brahman? I remember there being some conceptual distinction/s not just linguistic factors (but not details.)

[Previous "RLO" is from another blog, I had it on my mind.]

David B Marshall said...

BR: I didn't say Christians recognized the "legitimacy" of Zeus in general. (It's a pity this format makes it hard to trace comments.) Obviously, to polytheistic Greeks like Homer, Zeus was just the name of the head God, petulant and limitted like the other gods. But for Cleanthes and Aratus, and for some others, he becomes what he may have been originally -- a synonym for God, as Paul seemed to recognized, along with theos and logos.

I don't doubt that the billions or tens of billions of people who saw themselves as Christians have unjustly killed tens of millions of people over the past 2000 years. It would be a tremendous miracle if they hadn't. But how does this support your claim that the billions of Christians have not recognized God by other names? Since you seem to admit that Christians have killed one another, for religious reasons, while recognize that "Dieu" and "Gutt" and "Bog" and "God" are synonyms, how does their killing Muslims or Jews for religious reasons in any way support your point?

You leave your vampires and dragons slaughtered on the field, without even trying to support them (I was hoping you'd try, that might have been interesting!), and claim some sort of victory?

Sorry, without concrete counter-examples, you don't have an argument, let alone a winning one. And even then, as I've explained, its force would be quite limitted against my original points.

The basic problem here seems to be that I know a lot about concepts of God around the world, but you don't know enough about cultures to counter that argument. This is no disgrace: you're probably better informed than me about a host of other topics. But don't try to win by bluffing.

B.R. said...

"BR: I didn't say Christians recognized the "legitimacy" of Zeus in general. (It's a pity this format makes it hard to trace comments.)"

But you did say that they recognized his legitimacy, which is an unfounded statement unless you can back it up. Also, you could switch to Disqus if you like; commenting would be faster and easier, and you can edit for spelling and grammar as often as you like.

For your second paragraph; I am not contending that Christians have never "recognized" the divine in other religions; I happen to know my church history. What I am contending is that it has not "usually" done so except in recent times, and only by some Christians groups, not all of them or even most of them. Also, Christians did not kill heretics for having a different name for "God" in their own language; heretics were invariably accused of witchcraft, Satanism, idolatry, and the Christian favorite that is still in use to this day, the Blood Libel.

B.R. said...

"You leave your vampires and dragons slaughtered on the field, without even trying to support them (I was hoping you'd try, that might have been interesting!), and claim some sort of victory?"

Omar Sharif just died of laughter.

Are you being serious? You have even addressed the challenge I made in my lst comment; you've barely even touched Argumentum ad Draculem, yet here you are, proclaiming it slaughtered. As for "victory", I've said absolutely nothing of the sort--you were the one crowing over how I had no targets left in your last reply. Still putting words in my mouth?

"The basic problem here seems to be that I know a lot about concepts of God around the world, but you don't know enough about cultures to counter that argument. This is no disgrace: you're probably better informed than me about a host of other topics. But don't try to win by bluffing."

My last comment still goes un-refuted. You could destroy my vampire argument, but not without dumping your Christian bias. This is called "Check". But you know what? This debate is boring, so, since my vampire argument is giving you so hard a time that you can't even address it at this point, let's just skip to the real argument.

On what basis do you reject interpretations of god that you feel are "misconceptions"?

Give me a decent answer, or continue making straw-men and dancing around the real issue.

Thanks for your time.

Doc Johnny said...

David Marshall says:"
You are assuming a few things here: (a) That the goal is certainty; (b) That quantifying achieves that -- which itself assumes each characteristic has equal weight; (c) That the other related phenomena I mentioned need not be bothered with.

Some traits are, as I said, clearly decisive; some may be less important."

---Well, I bring this up not because I think each thing must be given equal weight, but because with enough analysis, the relative weights can be ascertained.
---I am not necessarily trying to attain certainty. I am trying to identify which factors underly the fact that this argument is convincing to a believer (namely you) and not convincing to an unbeliever (namely me).

Doc Johnny said...

The reason I am trying to get a definitive list of what are the essential properties of the Christian God is that without such a list, then we encounter a type of selection bias.

For example, suppose we define the most important traits of God as a list of X number of traits, then we can compare them to the traits of other gods and see what the concordance rate is. This is comparing all the others to a baseline and ascertaining accuracy based on an established baseline.

This is a very different process from going to a pool of gods which includes Jehovah and extracting the common traits. In this case you are just establishing commonality.

There may be a selection bias here. And I do believe there is a divorce from context and personality. There are important characteristics that distinguish the christian god. The trinity is of paramount importance to most christians

And the reason I bring up the afterlife is because if there is a true god, then there is a true afterlife. And if there is a true god for all mankind, then that god would communicate the true afterlife to his followers. This is part of that context.

If the chinese Shang-Ti is Jehovah by another name, then Shang-Ti should have communicated at least the most important things to the Chinese. A few of these important things should have cross cultural commonality, like say the afterlife.

Doc Johnny said...

The fact that the chinese concept of the afterlife is significantly different from the Christian one argues against these being the same god.

David B Marshall said...

Neil: No, I'm afraid I don't know much about that.

David B Marshall said...

BR: I've already backed up my claim about Zeus. This is in the OP, I think. Both Cleanthes and Aratus used the term to refer to the Supreme, Creator God, and Paul seemed to accept that.

I don't know what you think survives of dracula -- or if he was ever here. I challenged you to back up your claim about his alleged commonality between cultures, and you admitted you couldn't. What else needs to be said?

Same with the dragon. It's your claim: the ball remains in your court, from where it has yet to move, as far as I can tell. Your examples so far have served the sole purpose of suggesting that it may actually be pretty hard to come up with parallel examples -- though my argument doesn't demand that.

There is really nothing left for me to do with either monster.

David B Marshall said...

Dr. John: Neither the trinity nor a specific idea of the afterlife should be part of the basic definition of God. This for the obvious reason that neither was a core part of the Jewish idea of God. The Trinity was part of the Gospel revelation, the "Good News" Jesus sent missionaries out to preach: Christians never expected other peoples to know about that. So, one might say, for the hope of the resurrection.

The ancient Chinese did know about an afterlife: "文王在上" was I think the phrase, which Mateo Ricci reminded neo-Confucian literati of. Of course they didn't know the details -- neither do I.

But I see and admit your point about the danger of confirmation bias. This is partly offset by Christian fear of idolatry: they almost cancel one another out.

Compare Homer's Zeus, to Cleanthe's Zeus. The difference is crystal clear. No Christian would claim that Zeus in the Iliad was the Christian God, even though he might share a few characteristics with him -- personality and supremity, for examples. Few Christians would fail to recognize something of God in Cleanthe's desciption. But where exactly you draw the line, might be somewhat arbitrary -- I suppose we can make a science of it, but the formula would have to be much more complex than your original suggestion, and I don't think you can ever take the art out of the evaluation.

I did list 10 traits that the Supreme God tends to share, either here somewhere, or in another forum. Yan Mo, in early Qing China, listed about 15 or so, that Tian / Shang Di shared with God.

David B Marshall said...

Dr. John: By the way, if you don't mind my asking, what exactly do you find unconvincing?

(a) The claim that the reality of God is rendered somewhat more probable if a fairly consistent recognition of that God is found in many cultures? (Do you claim this makes no difference whatsoever?)

(b) The claim that St. Paul predicting the actual pattern into which religious concepts of God would fall, while clever skeptics like Hume and Tylor fail to do so with much more data at their fingerprints, is fairly impressive?

(c) The claim that Shang Di in the classics is a lot like God?

(d) The claim that Zeus in Cleanthe's Hymn is a lot like God?

(e) The suggestion that if "God" in other cultures prepares people for Christianity in some way, perhaps by visions, that might prove to be interesting evidence for Christianity?

(f) All of the above?

B.R. said...

For your first point; it is more likely they were using the term "ZEUS" to snare Greek converts than actually recognizing the validity of this deity, especially when Zeus is not a personal god, and was completely distinct from the Hebrew god is every way.

As your "response" to my vampire argument, again, the only way you can disprove it is prove that the God concept was present in more cultures. So far, you have failed to do so.
Paragraphs of rhetoric and vampire puns aren't going to do anything for you here.

Well, seeing as how you're completely ignoring my bias challenge and hoping that no one will notice, I conclude that your argument is just a minion of a Christian agenda that has no real objective substance since it's being employed to lend credence to a disproved cult. Even if this argument increases the likelihood of the existence of a Supreme Being, it does nothing for the discredited dogmas of the Jewish Zombie cult.

I'll see you later, David. Thanks for the conversation.

Neil Bates said...

B.R.: not to make Dave feel victim of paternalism, but I feel the need to decry your last post. First, AFAICT we all appreciate that there is no hard evidence from social patterns. It's a suggestive thing, the existence of common concepts doesn't prove X and their discord wouldn't disprove X. So you're trying to cut bricks out of gelatin (but not to imply it's worthless hot air either), or expect others to.

Second, your deriding term "minion" for an argument put out in "good faith" (pun irrelevant, it means per honesty) is tacky. Then to say "disproved cult" is an indulgence. I am not convinced those special events happened yet would never pretend it was, the opposite certainty and not warranted either IMHO, a "disproved" matter. We don't know logically a priori what can happen in the universe as Hume (ironically if you wish) explained centuries ago by implication, so we just expect "continuity" and extension of laws as a working assumption not metaphysical certainty. Don't take it too hard, but this is one of the reasons the new atheists are not so popular.

David B Marshall said...

"It is more likely they were using the term "ZEUS" to snare Greek converts than actually recognizing the validity of this deity, especially when Zeus is not a personal god, and was completely distinct from the Hebrew god is every way."

What do you mean Zeus was not a personal god? Sure he was. Nor was he distinct from Yahweh "in every way."

More importantly, I noted that there were at least TWO concepts of Zeus, floating around. Cleanthes was clearly NOT talking about Homer's Zeus. He cleary WAS praying to a transcendent Creator a lot more like Yahweh than like the Zeus of Homer. Read the poem, again, if you don't believe me.

You haven't shown that there's a concept of a vampire in the Western sense in ANY other culture, yet, as you defined him. I guess we'll just have to keep waiting for that.

But you admit you don't know enough to back up that claim. By contrast, I know a great deal about God in non-Western cultures, and have already given a couple (of many possible) examples. Do I have to keep repeating this? Two is more than zero.

"Even if this argument increases the likelihood of the existence of a Supreme Being, it does nothing for the discredited dogmas of the Jewish Zombie cult."

Heh. If you put it that way, what possibly could? You're not exactly over-eager to be convinced, are you?

David B Marshall said...

Neil: So are you an agnostic?

Neil Bates said...

David, I'm not an agnostic, I just don't accept "revelation" as evidentiary. I think it makes more sense to believe in God, the ultimate reality, creator, and in some sense (even if Platonic and "free of activity") a mind; than not to. I beleive in perhaps the way I imagine Plato did, as making more sense and not faith in a message from that Deity. Since I'm not clear what Plato et al thought, I can't claim to be as like-minded as I'd hoped.

When I say evidence is a constraint, it means that what I believe can't contradict evidence, but it need not require evidence (no contradiction there, what is not disproved is fair game for belief.)

I am working on a taxonomy of belief and will post it somewhere, at least link here so you can see it.

Doc Johnny said...

Dr. John: By the way, if you don't mind my asking, what exactly do you find unconvincing?

---The assertion that Shang-Di, et al are God. Reading critically, it is hard enough to reconcile the God of the OT and the God of the NT.
---I have no problem with the idea that these gods were similar.

B.R. said...

@Neil;

"Second, your deriding term "minion" for an argument put out in "good faith" (pun irrelevant, it means per honesty) is tacky."

No more tacky than David accusing me of "not know[ing] anything about history, and [not] want[ting] to learn." Or his habit of taking my comments out of context, making straw-men out of them, and putting words in my mouth. I raised a very simple question of bias and so far David has gone out of his way to avoid addressing it in even the slightest way. How is that in "good faith"?

When he stops imitating Neo from the Matrix and actually engages this challenge, perhaps I'll be forced to eat my words. But from what I've seen of his latest comment, I doubt it.

David B Marshall said...

BR: I'm honesty mystified to know what you think is left of your argument. Please specify, and I'll try to respond as directly as possible, with quotes around your own exact words.

David B Marshall said...

Neil: All right; it'll be interesting to see what you say.

B.R. said...

"What do you mean Zeus was not a personal god? Sure he was."

Ever hear of a little thing called "Greek Mythology"?

http://www.zeus-publications.com/zeusgod.htm

You might want to look into it.

'Nor was he distinct from Yahweh "in every way."'

Do you derive pleasure from taking my comments out of context? This is not Third Grade, David; some maturity would be appreciated.

Was there any significant precedence for this concept? That spanned several centuries prior to Christ?

Stop being deliberately obtuse.

http://www.mythicalcreaturesguide.com/page/Vampire

Skip down to where it says, "Various Vampires Throughout The World".

"Do I have to keep repeating this? Two is more than zero."

Again, the vampire myth is all around the globe. Africa, the Philippines, the Caribbean, Asia, ancient Sumeria and Greece, everywhere there are similar beings to what we define as "vampires". Even if the myth is not more wide-spread than the god concept, it's still existent on a similar scale.


"Heh. If you put it that way, what possibly could?"

What the heck are you talking about? Obviously, independent corroboration for the gospels, which would exist already if they weren't frauds.

"You're not exactly over-eager to be convinced, are you?"

Hmm. The Irrelevance is strong with this one.

And you've failed to address my main challenge to your post for the fourth time. Care to increase your streak of Epic Fail?

B.R. said...

Oops, sorry, I thought my Zeus quote was taken out of context. I apologize.

B.R. said...

By the way, Neil, I forgot to add this earlier.

First off, David and I have already gone head to head over the gospels, and without independent corroboration, they are frauds and the whole of Christianity is therefore false. True, my remark was somewhat indulgent, but not entirely unfounded.

Second, the reason why the New Atheists are unpopular is because frankly, they're a$$h0l3s(surely that isn't deletion-worthy, David).
They have no subtlety and on the whole are extremely belligerent, unenlightened individuals. They regard all forms of religion as a disease that must be expunged from civilization, and manage to sound like deluded fanatics much of the time.

Neil Bates said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil Bates said...

B.R., I'll let it go about whether DBM's current arguments are "minions" or not, esp. since you can't seem to appreciate the vagueness of this whole tack anyway. Also, no corroboration doesn't make something a "fraud", that implies deceit. Some say there was deceit in e.g. the writer of Revelation calling himself "John" like the eponymous writer of that gospel, but maybe they just had the same name. Are they true? To me, I haven't much clue (and details are different, which shouldn't be fudged over.)

Thanks for a candid take on the new atheists. Toning down your second paragraph above would have distanced you from them further.

Boba Fett as PP, I wonder what you're hunting and who will pay ;-∫?

David B Marshall said...

In case anyone is wondering, I just removed a couple posts by Tim Beazley. I intended to remove just one, but they both went; what the heck.

Beazley is an internet stalker and congenital liar (also lawyer, shockingly enough) who is obsessed with my book, the Truth Behind the New Atheism. He's posted about 13 "reviews" of the book on Amazon, some of which have been removed by Amazon, others posted under various pseudonyms. I don't read his posts, nor are they welcome here. Anyone who takes him seriously, and whom I can take seriously, is welcome to challenge me at any point Beazley brings up, in his own words; though they're a waste of good venom.

B.R. said...

@Neil;

When you consider that the gospels make fraudulent claims, that's when the lack of corroboration starts looking grim. For example, Matthew 6 says that Jesus became famous throughout Syria, and "great multitudes" followed him, and were amazed by the many miracles that he performed right in front of them. Yet, we have no mention of Jesus until decades after his death, and none of them mention anything even remotely "miraculous". Then you have various contradictions between the narratives that do not make sense, and the fact that no one knows who wrote the gospels.

Why sugar-coat? I am not a fan of the New Atheists. For decades, Christian apologists have weaved a stereotype of atheists as angry, bitter, arrogant, militant, belligerent, and biased, and now the Noobs are proving them right.

It's annoying in the extreme.

It depends; my prey is many and varied, though I enjoy hunting Fundies and bigots. As a matter of fact, I free-lance as a troll hunter on several atheist blogs. It's very lucrative work. ;)

David B Marshall said...

John: OK, that makes it clearer.

Yan Mo, an early Qing Christian, made the case that classical Chinese theism agreed with the biblical God on the following points. He was:

(1) unequaled,

(2) inexhaustible in substance,

(3) purely spiritual,

(4) endless,

(5) omniscient,

(6) omnipresent,

(7) omnipotent,

(8) “intelligent and powerful,”

(9) perfect in spirituality and life

(10) gave birth to humanity and Nature

(11) prefers good over evil,

(12) rewards good and punishes evil,

(13 and is supreme in benevolence and righteousness.

Standaert notes, however, that Yan Mo did not try to prove that Shang Di was “without beginning,” immutable, or created all things.

Another difference might be that worship of Shang Di was often formally restricted to the ruler, and that worship of other spirits was not discouraged. (Though these are not really characteristics of God per se.)

Admittedly, the Bible stresses creation more: it is only hinted at in the Classics, as Yan Mo seemed to recognize.

The Kang Xi emperor had no trouble recognizing the same God in both cases; neither do I. But it might be a matter of personal choice how strictly you want to define "God," so I can't say it's necessarily WRONG to deny the identity -- just a little curious.

Doc Johnny said...

Hello David,

Thanks for the response. I was not familiar with Yan Mo or his argument. I will point out a few things that seem apparent to me as a skeptic.

(1) unequaled,
(2) inexhaustible in substance,
(3) purely spiritual,
(4) endless,
(5) omniscient,
(6) omnipresent,
(7) omnipotent,
(8) “intelligent and powerful,”
(9) perfect in spirituality and life
(10) gave birth to humanity and Nature
(11) prefers good over evil,
(12) rewards good and punishes evil,
(13 and is supreme in benevolence and righteousness.

Yan Mo's 13 qualities seem to be restatements of only basically 3 qualities
1) Good 11,12,13
2) Supreme 1-9
3) Creator 10

As to how curious it is sto deny the identity, I suppose it would depend on which identity.

The OT god in addition to the above was also jealous, vengeful, arguably murderous (firstborns of egypt, dashing babies heads on rocks, etc)

The NT god is a much better fit.

What I am trying to say is that the concept of an overgod or supreme god is pretty basic and cross-cultural. I can't say you are wrong to think that the basic cross-cultural nature of a supreme god is a sort of inductive reason to believe they are all one god.

But let's take the other approach, what evidence would lead you to the null hypothesis. What features would you expect if they weren't one god, but just the natural product that religions will have boss gods?

Doc Johnny said...

Wouldn't boss gods, or overgods pretty much have to have most, if not all the features that you list?

Anyway, I am not trying to dissuade you from your belief. I am trying to explain why I do not share it.

David B Marshall said...

DJ: One through nine are more than just "supreme." Remember, Zeus is supreme or "unequaled" in Greek polytheism; but he is none of these other first 9, except 8.

In fact I agree that 8 is redundant: given that God prefers good and creates, he must be intelligent. Nor am I sure what 2 means.

Prefering good is not the same as rewarding good: I prefer good, but seldom reward it. The same might be said of the ineffable Gnostic "Father."

8 is not the same as Creator, exactly: there is debate over zao and zuo and sheng. (Sorry I'm not at home computer, can't give the Chinese, but I'm sure you know what I mean.) So you might be too generous there.

I agree two of the "goodness" qualities can be consolidated.

So I would cut the list down to:

(1) unequaled,
(2) purely spiritual,
(3) endless,
(4) omniscient,
(5) omnipresent,
(6) omnipotent,
(7) perfect in spirituality and life
(8) gave birth to humanity and Nature
(9) rewards good and punishes evil,
(10) and is supreme in benevolence and righteousness.

Tell me that, if correct (he may of course be wrong), that doesn't sound like God to you.

David B Marshall said...

"The OT god in addition to the above was also jealous, vengeful, arguably murderous (firstborns of egypt, dashing babies heads on rocks, etc)."

And all those arguably consolidate into one. :- )

But the NT and Chinese God was also involved in the deaths of many, so that doesn't distinguish them.

"But let's take the other approach, what evidence would lead you to the null hypothesis. What features would you expect if they weren't one god, but just the natural product that religions will have boss gods?"

Zeus. The Jade Emperor. These are two "boss gods," both supreme in their systems, but clearly not "God" in the Christian sense.

More analytically, they lack the qualities Yan Mo ascribed to Shang Di -- they were not eternal, know all, supremely good, etc. They were like chieftains with especially big clubs -- or rather, Zeus was like a Greek warrior-king, like Agamemnon, and the Jade Emperor was like a Chinese bureaucrat-emperor, who dictated to others rather than taking a hands-on approach. Neither could be mistaken for the other: both are clearly products of their own cultures.

And that is a VERY helpful way to approach this question -- I'm glad you raised it.

Neil Bates said...

David, I don't expect a Christian philosopher to just ignore OT or NT, but wouldn't you be able to take much of the description there as being figurative, the interpretation of writers, etc? I don't think you need to think that God must have set bears loose to kill certain children, and the usual complaints. Most people who aren't utterly ideological committed will admit that Inerrancy/literalism/rejection of textual analysis etc. lead to deep problems and reduce possible outreach to a broad base that could be sympathetic to some general message.

David B Marshall said...

Neil: I don't even find inerrancy interesting. I prefer the idea that God "takes up" human literature into his revelation -- an idea mentioned in passing in The Truth Behind the New Atheism, citing Nicholas Wolterstorff and C. S. Lewis. This also fits with the idea that the Dao or divine Logos has revealed truth in other traditions besides the Hebrew.

This is also better strategy and better fun. I'd rather ask a skeptic to defend the claim that no miracle has ever happened, anywhere, than to have to defend the claim that there are no errors in the Bible, anywhere.

David B Marshall said...

"When you consider that the gospels make fraudulent claims, that's when the lack of corroboration starts looking grim. For example, Matthew 6 says that Jesus became famous throughout Syria, and "great multitudes" followed him, and were amazed by the many miracles that he performed right in front of them. Yet, we have no mention of Jesus until decades after his death, and none of them mention anything even remotely 'miraculous'".

BR: Pardon my bluntness, but this sort of argument is historically naive and tendentious.

It's tendentious because you shouldn't call something a "fraud" just because you can't verify it. You should be able to prove not only that the claim is false, but that the author of the claim KNEW it was false, and DELIBERATELY DECEIVED people. That's what a "fraud" is.

It's historically naive, because you can't even get to first base, with this argument. "Non-Christian historians do not mention Jesus until decades after his death, therefore he couldn't have had crowds following him, and he couldn't have done any miracles," is a non sequitur of the first order.

What historian do you expect to write about crowds following a popular guru in the Levantine countryside? Sorry, BR, but the argument reveals a breathtakingly naive view of ancient history.

Nor do minor contradictions between the Gospels, or uncertainty about the authorship of some of them, make them "frauds." ALL truthful history from the ancient world contains contradictions, when there is more than one account. (If there are no contradictions, there can only be collusion and copying.)

Here, however, you make a good point:

"I am not a fan of the New Atheists. For decades, Christian apologists have weaved a stereotype of atheists as angry, bitter, arrogant, militant, belligerent, and biased, and now the Noobs are proving them right.
It's annoying in the extreme."

I'm glad you recognize this. I wish there were more folks on John's site one could talk with instead of yell at; but I'm finding that some popular atheist sites are even more angry. Have you been an atheist for very long?

B.R. said...

"It's tendentious because you shouldn't call something a "fraud" just because you can't verify it. You should be able to prove not only that the claim is false, but that the author of the claim KNEW it was false, and DELIBERATELY DECEIVED people. That's what a "fraud" is."

When a document makes several fraudulent claims, what are we supposed to call it? The gospels claim that Jesus predicted the fall of Jerusalem, but you and I both know that the earliest record of this was in Mark, which, coincidentally, happened to written shortly after the fall of Jerusalem. There are many other reasons to call them frauds(and I can refute the rest of your statements on this subject), but I don't want to divert the topic of this thread any further. If you want, we can discuss the subject of fraud on this dead D.C. thread.

http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2007/11/what-best-explains-embarrassing.html

I've been an atheist for roughly two years. It's hard to remember exactly when I deconverted, because I struggled with doubt for several months prior to recanting.

David B Marshall said...

BR: Since you brought up the Jerusalem issue here, I'll respond to that first.

You're begging the question. Many scholars think Mark was written in the 60s, even 50s. Why do other scholars put it "coincidentally" at 70 or later? Bingo! Because they don't believe in prophecy, so it MUST have come later. But there is no HISTORICAL evidence that it did.

David B Marshall said...

John: Here are the Chinese terms Yan Mo used, BTW:

(1) Unequaled (其遵五对); (2) inexhaustible in substance (其体无穷); (3) purely spiritual (纯神无形); (4) endless (无终); (5) omniscient (无所不知); (6) omnipresent (无所不在); (7) omnipotent (无所不能); (8) “intelligent and powerful” (靈明威权) (9) perfect in both spirituality and in life (至神至活); (10) gave birth to humanity and Nature (生人生性); (11) prefers good over evil (好善恶恶); (12) rewards good and punishes evil (赏善罚遏); (13) and is supreme in both benevolence and righteousness (至仁至義).

Doc Johnny said...

I think that one of the reasons a lot of atheists are bitter and angry is because they aren't just atheists, they are lapsed Christians or anti-Christians. They are bitter due to the disillusionment of having found their former faith wanting. It is probably a natural stage for anyone formerly of any faith who has lost it or gone beyond it.

But becoming mired in bitterness is not conducive to insight or happiness. At some point one must go beyond "It was all a lie, those ********!" and come to some realization of one's own.

Doc Johnny said...

Speaking to them is akin to speaking to someone who has undergone a bad divorce. They have nothing good to say about their former partner, it is all bitterness and recrimination, tinged with a morbid curiosity about what the ex has been up to.

B.R. said...

http://atheism.about.com/od/biblegospelofmark/a/dating.htm

Really? I don't think so. And again, this is yet another example of common sense versus supernatural delusion.

Neil Bates said...

Hey B.R, that link piece doesn't give any evidence to support the late date for Mark, and basically (even there) repeats the idea that the later date is presumed by necessity if one can't imagine an earlier premonition. It doesn't prove much to me anyway, but you just don't make any good point. No carbon freezing of David yet.

B.R. said...

Go back and read the article; the earliest date for Mark is 68 A.D.(based on partial records). As the author of this article himself says, it would not have taken divine prophecy to tell that Rome and the Jews were heading for conflict, and it would not have taken magic or god to tell who would win. So no, David is not quite in the freezing chamber, but at this point, one nudge should do the trick since there is no way to establish this as a valid prophecy.

B.R. said...

And I might as well get it over with now.

"It's tendentious because you shouldn't call something a "fraud" just because you can't verify it. You should be able to prove not only that the claim is false, but that the author of the claim KNEW it was false, and DELIBERATELY DECEIVED people. That's what a "fraud" is."


Considering the dates of the gospels and the wild, magical claims made within, it's not hard to imagine that they were lying.

"It's historically naive, because you can't even get to first base, with this argument. "Non-Christian historians do not mention Jesus until decades after his death, therefore he couldn't have had crowds following him, and he couldn't have done any miracles," is a non sequitur of the first order."

You're missing the point. If Jesus was just another apocalyptic cultist, then we really wouldn't expect a lot of attention from historians. But the claim is that Jesus was performing miracles that marveled thousands of people; not the sort of thing that goes unmentioned. And what do you know? It isn't mentioned by any of the non-Christian historians.


"What historian do you expect to write about crowds following a popular guru in the Levantine countryside? Sorry, BR, but the argument reveals a breathtakingly naive view of ancient history."

Right, let's just conveniently leave out the part where he supposedly healed the lame and blind in front of people who'd known them their whole lives and even brought the clearly dead(and decomposing) back to life. Not once, or twice, but dozens or even hundreds of times in front of large crowds.

Hey, your last paragraph almost looks credible now.

As for contradictions...

http://www.evilbible.com/contradictions.htm

David B Marshall said...

John: Amusing analogy.

Neil Bates said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil Bates said...

B.R.: Jabbarish! No, the finding of the fragment doesn't mean the earliest date was 68 CE - after all, that's when it was sealed in so the original it was copied from could have been from any time earlier than that! And if the fragment isn't from Mark, it's moot anyway. Again, at the beginning it says the scholars date Mark because of what it says, which is a sort of circular reasoning as per challenge to any precognition (I don't know or care a lot, but there's no point in making a bad argument.) As for contradictions, David already said he's not so much into inerrancy and mentioned "minor inconsistencies."

David B Marshall said...

B.R: If you're going to start linking NT arguments, please do so to credible and named authority. If you want to explain why Mark can't have been written before 70 AD, go ahead and do it! I'm not going to chase down every link.

It is terribly naive to think that because Jesus did miracles that thousands of people heard about at the time, that he would therefore have been mentioned by (which?) contemporary historians. That's just not the way history works. Mass movements among peasants are the LAST things historians usually pay attention to, and they are usually overlooked even after they grow larger than that. Josephus mentioned a few, but then, he mentioned Jesus, too.

The fact that miracles were involved makes it LESS likely that historians would have mentioned it. I have heard of many miracles, and met people who have experienced them. These events do NOT turn up in contemporary history books. Neither did Marxist historians in the 1970s in China pay any attention to the Jesus movement there.

Yes, yes, I get that you're an atheist and therefore scoff at miracles. But they're not "magic:" when you use that term, you display a fundamental misunderstanding of their nature.

I've written about a lot of this at length in print; two chapters on "Miracles" and "Magic" in Jesus and the Religions of Man, for instance. I don't really want to explain it all here again. Your first instinct was probably best: let's not make the end of this thread into an "Historical Jesus" debate. Maybe I'll post an article on miracles sometime, and we can go from there.

B.R. said...

"B.R.: Jabbarish! No, the finding of the fragment doesn't mean the earliest date was 68 CE - after all, that's when it was sealed in so the original it was copied from could have been from any time earlier than that!"

Tenuous evidence at best. This fragment only contains five lines, nine good letters and one complete word--a very slim straw even by apologetic standards. But, hey, maybe it was written before 68 A.D. But as you admit, it's a moot point if it's not from Mark, and we don't know that for sure, and even if it is, there's still other possibilities twisting into the bottomless rabbit hole of apologetic.

B.R. said...

"B.R: If you're going to start linking NT arguments, please do so to credible and named authority. If you want to explain why Mark can't have been written before 70 AD, go ahead and do it! I'm not going to chase down every link."

Because we have yet to find any copy that can be easily dated before 70 A.D. Only apologists are willing to date it back earlier, and they never back it up with evidence. And keep in mind that it's the actual prophecy we're concerned about, not just the date of the gospel.

For your first paragraph; again, not only do we have other peasant movements of that time period, but these are not the only miracles that go unreported outside of the gospels. Such as the zombie outbreak at the hour of Jesus death. Even if we were to grant your objection about peasant movements, there is no way that this type of incident would go unnoticed and unmentioned. None at all.

"Josephus mentioned a few, but then, he mentioned Jesus, too."

And said not one word about miracles, zombies, virgin births, or resurrections. SO much for the formidable reputation Jesus had according to the gospels.


"The fact that miracles were involved makes it LESS likely that historians would have mentioned it. I have heard of many miracles, and met people who have experienced them. These events do NOT turn up in contemporary history books."

Probably because they're made up. Or maybe magical events like zombie outbreaks and healings happen every day, but no one except religious mystics notice them. I've seen plenty of these testimonies, David; they're the written form of snake oil.

"Yes, yes, I get that you're an atheist and therefore scoff at miracles. But they're not "magic:" when you use that term, you display a fundamental misunderstanding of their nature."

...

BOOOOOM!!

My Irony Meter! NOOOOO!


"I've written about a lot of this at length in print; two chapters on "Miracles" and "Magic" in Jesus and the Religions of Man, for instance."

If you can't make a case for miracles in a Blogger comment, it's possible you can't do in a book either. And I don't have the time to run to the library and exhume every book you've ever written.

B.R. said...

Oh, and I almost forgot the best "miracle" of all--the five hundred people who supposedly saw Jesus after his reanimation as a Cosmic Zombie. It would be fascinating evidence if it were valid; but it appears to have been made up by the NT writers.

Which makes it a fraudulent claim.

Circe said...

About the "high-end" Hindu writings as you call them, and which you say are similar to Christian thology of Aquinas et al:

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Even the Vedas span all the spectrum from agnosticism(the 'other' creation hymn in the Rigveda, the Nasadiya Sukta, says concludes about their god "Perhaps He knows not....") to pantheism to monotheism.

Secondly, in the monotheistic Hindu theology, Brahman does not "judge". The idea there is that the world has the law of Karma, and everyone, even the gods, are subject to it: there is no judge to enforce it, it is just taken to be a natural law.

Thirdly, later Hindu schools of philosophy, the so called Shastras, are also quite different from the monotheistic view of Christianity. One of them, Samkhya, even declares that there is "no place" for a creator god in Vedic philosophy.

Fourthly, to consider the Vedas and Shastras as the only "high-end" versions of Hindu/Indian writing is a bit misguided. Atheism in India is about as old as the Vedas themselves, as old as, and perhaps older than Epicurus and Ecclesiastes: look for example at the Lokayats and the Charvakas. Even Buddhism is agnostic, and Jainism is strictly atheistic.

David B Marshall said...

Circe: Thanks for the run-down on Indian ideas about God. Were you responding to something I said? I'm trying to figure out what it might have been. Maybe it's somebody else.

Yes, of course the idea of karma has dominated Hindu thought for quite a while -- though not forever, and not everywhere.

No one doubts that India is the ultimate free market in religious ideas. But I suspect a lot of the philosophizing only goes skin-deep -- there seems to be a ground-swell that pulls people of different professed faiths towards awareness of God. Farquhar's Crown of Hinduism is very insightful on this, but he's not the only one to have noticed.

Circe said...

David: I was responding to your claim that the "high-end" books on Hinduism are all monotheistic. I was pointing out that what is today called "Hinduism" is a amalgamation of very divergent beliefs.

As for the philosophizing being skin deep: it is about as deep as the philosophizing about monotheism. Nasadiya Sukta is referenced as a very important part of the Rigveda, for example, and Samkhya is treated as a very important commentary on the Vedas.

In general, an average theist, devout, Hindu is about as polytheistic as they come: they pray to their chosen god(dess) and a lot of mythology is about proving the superiority of one god over the other. What does appear skin deep is the alleged monotheism: interestingly it is found only in the same "high-end" books that consider atheism and agnosticism. The only Christian sect which comes close to such polytheism, in any sense, is the RCC, with its multitudes of saints governing different things and a mother goddess.

As far as the Aquinas story is concerned, no version of Hindu mythology has anything to say about original sin, which I take it is the central tenet of Christianity. Claiming any similarity on that count is thus unjustified, in my opinion.

Circe said...

Oops, sorry! The "high-end" comment was made by Neal Bates, not by you, David. Sorry for mixing the two of you up.

David B Marshall said...

Circe: Well, Neal seems to have (perhaps wisely) passed on to other things.

I don't think you're right about theism in India, though I can't claim to know as much about it as about China. The Bhagavad Gita is the most popular Scripture in India, and presents a clear henotheistic worldview -- every "god" is just a manifestation of the one, true God. The Rig Veda is, admittedly, full of gods and goddesses, and there's no doubt polytheism is also important in India -- but there are also strong hints of henotheism there, too. And some Indian tribes -- on the opposite end of the social scale from the Brahmin -- seem to have had a very clear idea of God, "Thakur Jiu" among the Santal, also among East Indian tribes, at least.

I wouldn't call "original sin" the "central tenet" of Christianity. One assumption is that human beings are out of sync with Ultimate Good and Truth somehow -- this is formulated in different ways in the Bible, and in other cultures, where it is generally recognized, too. Chesterton had a point to say it's the only Christian doctrine that can be proven empirically. Indians clearly feel that, too, and despite the doctrine of karma, wash in the Ganges or the ocean or (traditionally) sacrifice animals because they hope there is some way of cleansing themselves from the sin they obvioiusly feel.

Crude said...

It's worth noting that Aquinas devoted a lot of effort arguing for God, but then proceeded to further argue for Christianity. Either way, whatever place original sin has in Christianity, it didn't have a central place in Aquinas' arguments for God. (Ed Feser, a thomist philosopher, explicitly says that those arguments from Aquinas gets one to God, but establishing any particular faith (including Christianity) is an additional project.)

I'm sure I know less about even hinduism than David, but I find it very hard to not see the same God that Aquinas and other western theists perceived in most descriptions of Brahman. Of course, I can also see that in some Buddhist beliefs as well (I suppose that's to be expected to a degree given its link with hinduism.)

Neil Bates said...

Heh, well I did notice ... (but it's "Neil") Circe, David makes the point well himself: the Hindu writings expressing the thought of the best philosophical thinkers (roughly the analogy to Christian writings of Augustine, Eusebius, Origen etc. but a more collaborative and poetic project.) They do say that the various "Gods" are manifestation of the one Godhead, Brahma. (They also say human individuals are manifestations of a single Self, not in tune with Christian teaching.) It's true that neither "high end" (Priestly/scholarly) nor "popular" Hinduism puts forth a specific idea of a Christ like figure, but David's point of comparing religious thought was directed at "God" per se. (And note Crude's comment, cogent as usual.) However, note odd parallels when Krishna is included:
http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_jckr1.htm

Circe said...

David and Neil(sorry for the misspelling, Neil): I am tempted to respond to your comments with one of the most famous formulas from "high-end" Hindu texts, and that is "Neti Neti(Not so, Not so)".

You say the texts are monotheistic: what you do not appreciate is that many of those texts are remarkably diverse: spanning the full gamut from monotheism to pantheism to atheism to agnosticism. I already cited the Nasadiya Sukta from the Rigveda(agnosticism) and the Athestic Samkhya school. The same Rigveda also prescribed pantheism and polytheism. The "heady" Upanishads are by all accounts even more diverse. So no point picking in choosing. I might as well say the Greeks and the Vedic Aryans had the "correct" system because they had similar pantheons, which was also very close to the Roman pantheon.


To emphasise the differences between the the several Vedic schools of thought and Christainity, let us restrict to strictly theistic Upanishads. Here the the four Mahavakyas(Great Sentences) which are supposed to distill the essence of Vedic theism:

1) Pragyanam Brahma: Consciousness is Brahman

2) Ayam Atma Brahma: This Self(soul) is Brahman.

3) Tat Tvam Asi: "You are That"

4) Aham Brahmasmi: "I am Brahma"

(In the last two sentences, the pronouns refer to humans).

By what I learnt of Christianity at school, and by what I seemed to have seen of the likes of Aquinas, each of the four would be heresy of the highest order in any Christian doctrine.

As should now be clear, it requires an enormous amount of pick and choose to find something in the Hindu texts which has any semblance to Christian theology.
Of course, the moral principles laid out are more or less similar(do not lie, do your work, do nt murder people etc.), and that is exactly what we would expect from our current understanding of the history of life on the planet.

Crude said...

By what I learnt of Christianity at school, and by what I seemed to have seen of the likes of Aquinas, each of the four would be heresy of the highest order in any Christian doctrine.

But David, as I understand him, wasn't saying that all these groups had essentially Christian religions, but that their concept of God strongly resembled the God of Christianity in many essentials. The key is that said conception of God, and said essentials, need not be specifically "Christian" in every way.

Aquinas is a great example of that. His Five Ways do not establish the specifically Christian God by his own admission. They're meant to establish God, period. Establishing Christianity as true requires further argument, by his own view.

You're saying that it takes "an enormous amount of picking and choosing" to find a resemblance. But an appropriate amount of "picking and choosing" is the point here: Considering the essential and primary aspects of God as conceived by orthodox Christianity, largely sans doctrine, and comparing it to these other concepts of God, also largely sans doctrine.

Really, a number of the views of Brahman do have a very strong resemblance to God as conceived by western theists - I'd even include Aquinas. A perfect match? Probably not - but that's not what's being pursued. Are there some particular hindu schools which may not fit? Possibly - but there are also some outliers among Christianity itself (Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses come to mind.)

But the similarities remain all the same.

Neil Bates said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David B Marshall said...

I don't think I'd call the Upanishads "more diverse" than the Rig Veda: in fact I think they are less diverse, from those I've read. They are from a certain class of mystic from a certain (maybe prolonged) period in Indian history.

About God, I'd make two points:

(1) India wouldn't be the first place I'd appeal to for conformation of my argument that God is universal, just because it's so complicated, and because "Hindu" philosophy has greatly permeated the consciousness of later Indians, including karma and monism.

(2) India does provide some confirmation, though. This is partly because the most famous Upanishadic philosophers (and interpreters)THREW OFF theism (as opposed to pantheism), but it didn't remain thrown off. What is more impressive about a universal theory, than when intended exceptions turn out to be part of the rule, too?

One example is Buddhism. This Indian sect originally had no use for God. But read the Lotus Sutra, and you find a strong idea of a conscious, good, external, and absolutely Supreme Being whom it is hard not to call "God." I've given other examples already.

Aside from that, let me add a few points on the general relationship between Christianity and Hinduism:

(3) The real contrast is not between "Hinduism" and "Christianity." It is between Upanishadic and Vedic religion. They really are worlds apart. The Gospel, in some ways, accepts and (I would say) improves on the best points of both, and of guruism and bakti worship.

(4) Some Indian Christians have seen the Gospel as a fulfillment of Vedic beliefs about sacrifice. A 19th Century thinker named Banarjea had particularly interesting insights on this.

(5) John Farquhar's The Crown of Hinduism describes the relationship between Indian tradition (it is anachronistic to call it "Hindu") and Christ in amazing terms. (Though he sometimes indulges himself in Victorian and triumphal language, unfortunately.) I much recommend that book, which mostly goes over different territory from Banarjea, but will show you what I mean by (3).

Circe said...

"It is between Upanishadic and Vedic religion."

The four Mahavakyas I quoted above, though considered the summaries of the Upanishads, are each taken from one of the Vedas.

"The Gospel, in some ways, accepts and (I would say) improves on the best points of both, and of guruism and bakti worship. "

I think that was the comparison you were probably itching to make anyway, so congratulations! Can we keep off odious value comparisons between apples and oranges?

And to say theism didn't remain "thrown off" is another mis-statement. The writers of the Upanishads seemed to believe that there high end philosophies were only for the "brave" so to say, and it was better for those who didn't care to critically examine things to go on believing what they had to. What most Hindu religious scholars today consider the "crown" of Hindu philosophy is the Vedanta of Shankaracharya(whose line _still_ continues, much like the Papal line) whose theism was of exactly the kind I pointed out in the four sentences above.

"This Indian sect originally had no use for God. But read the Lotus Sutra, and you find a strong idea of a conscious, good, external, and absolutely Supreme Being whom it is hard not to call "God." I've given other examples already."

Again, that requires tremendous amounts of pick and choose. Buddha considered the question of the existence of god as of little or no importance. All of his teachings simply stayed clear of the point. And then you take the example of Lotus Sutra and say it confirms "One God". If one was so willing to look for confirmations of a pre-conceived notion of "One God" one only has to go far as Physics and declare Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity as "proofs" of "One God"(although they currently contradict each other at high densities).

Re Sacrifice: The notion of physical sacrifice was very different in India: in the so called later vedic ritualistic phase it was mostly of the same nature as Greece and Rome: meant to placate the Rain god or the Earth goddess and so on and so forth. Otherwise, the notion of "sacrifice" has been rather different in nature, and has usually meant "leaving the world", so called Sanyasa. However, this was often considered the easy way out, as even the Bhagvad Gita and the Mahabharata would tell you: a dilligent -grihastha- was considered as credit-worthy, or perhaps even more, as the Sansyasi, since he/she was fulfilling his duties.

Also, to repeat, let us keep off odious, unreasonable comparisons of value.

Circe said...

"India wouldn't be the first place I'd appeal to for conformation of my argument that God is universal, just because it's so complicated, and because "Hindu" philosophy has greatly permeated the consciousness of later Indians, including karma and monism. "

Thanks for accepting that. As you certainly see that changes things a lot. Four(Five?) of the world's old cultures on this side of the Atlantic seem to have no universal idea of an universal god: Greece, Rome, India and Egypt. I would include China too, since most of Taoism and Confucianism is about ancestor worship. So what does that leave us? The Middle-East and the religions which started there.

David B Marshall said...

Circe: I didn't say the concept was universal within any one culture -- that's not even true in Israel or in the Puritan United States, c. 1780. But the concept was, in fact, prominent in India, Greece, and Rome. For Egypt, see Stark, Discovery of God.

You're just missing the point, I'm afraid. There is nothing in the Bible or in anything I've written that predicts everyone in any culture admits the reality of God.

David B Marshall said...

I've just posted a blog on "Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?," for those who are interested.

David B Marshall said...

In what sense does Shankarachaya "crown" all of "Hindu" tradition? Perhaps you can explain this to me; I suspect you and Farquhar are talking about two different things.

"Buddha considered the question of the existence of god as of little or no importance. All of his teachings simply stayed clear of the point. And then you take the example of Lotus Sutra and say it confirms "One God".

It confirms the theistic trajectory of Indian thought. I give that example precisely because Buddhist so much ignored God. That's why the point has force.

"Re Sacrifice: The notion of physical sacrifice was very different in India . . . "

Actually, the similarities are sometimes startling. You should read Banarjea.

"Also, to repeat, let us keep off odious, unreasonable comparisons of value."

I'm not sure what you think I said that was "odious" or "unreasonable." I try to avoid both kinds of statements.

Circe said...

"In what sense does Shankarachaya "crown" all of "Hindu" tradition? Perhaps you can explain this to me; I suspect you and Farquhar are talking about two different things.
"

In the same sense as many Christian religious scholars consider Aquinas or Augustine the most profound theologians, so do most Hindu religious scholars consider Adi Shankaracharya to have finally gleaned the "truth" from the Vedas. I did not say I think it is true: it just happens to be the popular opinion among religious scholars.

"It confirms the theistic trajectory of Indian thought. I give that example precisely because Buddhist so much ignored God. That's why the point has force.
"

Just as the recurrence of Advaita(soul=god), polytheism and atheism makes those three points of equal, if not greater, force.


Re judgements of value, you said: "The Gospel, in some ways, accepts and (I would say) improves on the best points of both, and of guruism and bakti worship. "

If that 'improves' was not a judgement of value, I am sorry. I still think it was.

"Re Sacrifice: The notion of physical sacrifice was very different in India . . . "

Actually, the similarities are sometimes startling. You should read Banarjea. "

Which Banarjea are we talking about here? (It is a very common surname in India, and there have been a lot of writers of that name) Without any other pointers, I should say why I am confident of what I said earlier: I can't find a single similarity in any Hindu scripture with the notion that a supreme goddess should sacrifice herself to herself so that she could forgive the sins of others. I think I should know because I have lived in India for most of my life, and have had quite a lot of exposure to both Hinduism(I come from what would be described as a "practising" Hindu family) and Christianity(I went to Christian schools which often had Bible readings).

Neil Bates said...
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Neil Bates said...

Circe, the idea that "we are all God" is not any form of atheism (which it seems you are insinuating), it just means that God emanates and keeps "Self" inside of each individual self. As people like Crude keep reminding you, the general "theistic" parallel is the key issue and not sectarian details about self-sacrifice. But since you keep asking, there are claimed parallels between Krishna (not a "goddess") and Christ. See for example religioustolerance.org/chr_jckr.htm. I think that's an expression of archetype and not demonstration of just what really happened, but David must have his own opinions on those parallels.

Let me add: the most relevant Hindu passages say the specific "gods" are manifestations and not absolute, then other references are to be taken as just referring to them with "the understanding" they are not ultimate. Also, the farther back you go in time, the more polytheistic and laking in "modern", philosophical- style outlook it gets. Yet even the ancient Upanishads have much advanced thought. Same issue IMHO with Old Testament: crude notions coexisting with savvy mystical insights.

Note: in many of these religions, might as well admit it's a sort of "class system" and the thinkers take it one way and the proletariat take it another way. You can't talk of "Hindu" perspective etc. (or even Christian) without taking that into account.

REM also Acts 17:28
New International Version (©1984)
'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'
So the idea that God is the core of our own souls (Brahma emanates himself as the world, not as "separate creation") is not a core OT view but we see some nods by the NT writers. Indeed, we find arguments about the "true" OT view of human body and soul, with some fundies complaining that separate human soul is a Greek invention and not really Biblical!

BTW I still get Brahma/Brahman confused as to best usage and context, also as per English transliteration; any insights?

PS: My Captcha was "canon" ...

Neil Bates said...

Christian thinker in India, presumably David meant Krishna Mohan Banerjea (yes, that was his first name) of religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1122.

Dr H said...

==========
DM: Islam recognizes that Judaism and Christianity worship the true God. This is in the Koran: it is a non-negotiable part of orthodox Islam.
==========
To borrow a line from one of your own past arguments, "Islam" is not a person; it cannot "recognize" anything.

You (a Christian) and I (an atheist) can agree that "Allah" and "Yahveh" refer to the same being, in a theoretical theological sense. But the -fact- is that many individual Muslims do /not/ accept that they are they same; and many individual Christians do not accept that they are the same, either.

But this brings us back to the old argument of whether -you- get to tell a particular Muslim that he's not /really/ a Muslim -- or, for that matter, a particular Christian that he's not /really/ a Christian, because he doesn't happen to believe what your theory tells you he should believe.

Dr H said...

===========
DM: Christians, Muslims, theistic Hindus, Confucianists, and tribal people, agree there is one supreme Spirit who created all things, is good, and calls us to righteousness.
===========
The tenets of their respective religions may all agree that there is "one supreme spirit", but that doesn't mean that they believe their supreme spirit is identical with the next religion's supreme spirit.

I have had a Hindu say to me "Christians believe in a form of Vishnu which they call 'Christ'"; I have yet to hear a Christian say "Hindus believe in a form of Christ which they call 'Vishnu'".

Many people agree with me that beer is good, but when I say 'beer is good' I may be thinking of a Scotch Ale, the guy next to me is thinking "IPA," and the dude down the street is thinking "Budweiser". While they all share certain things in common, they are not the same thing at all, and a person who really likes one of them may not be at all happy with one of the others.

Dr H said...

==========
DM: Then when it turns out people in different cultures do recognize One God, the argument is suddenly Null and Void.
==========

Strawman.

That they recognize "one god" doesn't necessarily mean that the various respective cultures are recognizing the -same- God.

Egyptians of the New Kingdom recognized "one God" and so did the ancient Hebrews. Do you maintain that they were in agreement that Aton and Yahveh were one and the same God, and the brouhaha between them in the Old Testament was just the result of some misunderstanding over who was supposed to pay the utility bill?

Neil Bates said...

Dr. H, there is an accepted logical usage of "a religion" being some widely accepted teachings or concurrence of most scholars, that may not apply to the masses (whether you like the "class war" aspect of this or not.) Also, please don't confuse "true" member of X religion with "true Scotsman", a common red herring: a Scotsman is defined without quibble as being born there (? - or let's use that for purpose of argument), but authenticity of say being a liberal or conservative is defined by the beliefs themselves.

Also, you express a misunderstanding of the semantics and logic of descriptions versus notional "entities." Look at Crude's comments, and consider that we define something to identify it, then we can argue over traits. The variant descriptions are not to be considered different "entities." If I had seen an actual bear I could ask if other people's sightings were "of the same bear" because there really are more than one bear. But if we use a definition of "supreme being" then in distinction to that, people are disagreeing over the properties. You (or, the bumbling ;-) religious rabble you're describing) don't get the difference between "numerical identity" and "descriptive agreement."

Dr H said...

==========
ellenjanuary: One thing that definitely annoys me about atheists. It's as if they're all CIA, clinging to plausible deniability.
==========

Or scientists, pointing out the need for falsifiability. ;-)

Dr H said...

==========
...when Marshall refers to "void" he is decrying a hypocrisy from the antitheists. He says, *they* considered it important that different people believed in different concepts of God. (That's not relevant to the independent logical argument anyway.) But if they are told "those people really beleive in the same concept after all", the antitheists don't care much.
==========

And when David says that he is creating and demolishing his very own strawman. "Atheist" does not define some monolithic group with a series of numbered lodges, a titular head, and a central governing committee. There is no "atheist pope". There are no athiest priests, rabbis or imams. We don't all meet downtown on Saturday nights to go bowling together.

-Some- atheists may indeed believe what David suggests; certainly not -all- of them do. In my experience, most of them don't.

-I- certianly don't find it necessary that "different people believe in different concepts of God" -- even though it's pretty easy to demonstrate that such has generally been the case.

It doesn't matter if -everyone in the world- believes in the same particular God -- to say that such widespread belief means that said God must exist is to commit the logical fallacy of /argumentum ad populum/ -- the 'argument from popularity.'

At various times in human history huge numbers of people all more or less believed in all sorts of things which later on were found out to be untrue: the Earth is flat; the Earth is the center of the universe; flies arise spontaneously from rotting meat; the human form exists in miniature, fully-formed in human sperm; smoking tobacco is good for treating asthma; there's no reason for doctors to wash their hands between surgeries; the cure for frostbite is to rub snow on it; heavier than air flight is impossible; no human being can survive traveling faster than 60 miles per hour -- etc., etc.

Argumentum ad populum isn't exactly the most effective argument to make, for any position.

Dr H said...

==========
DM: Skeptics sometimes argue that because the concept of God or gods varies so much in different cultures, God is just a cultural construct.
==========
Yes, some skeptics sometimes make that argument. (BTW, "skeptic" != "atheist")

But I have also participated in many debates an the subject "does God exist" in which the first round has almost universally been an attempt to arrive a either a definition for, or a list of common traits of, a being which all present would then agree had the attributes of a "god".

In other words, most of those debates proceded from the starting point of arriving at a -common definition of "God"-.

So neither skeptics nor atheists are necessarily locked into a position which requires that different cultures have different concepts of God.

Dr H said...

{{BTW David, sorry fo rthe long string of consecutive posts. My ISP has been having some "issues" for the past 6 weeks, only recently resolved, and I am playing catch-up as a result.}}

Dr H said...

==========
DM: He often makes the mistake of thinking that two different names for one God, means two different gods.
==========

The theologian often makes the mistake of thinking that similar sets of qualities ascribed by various cultures to their particular god means they are all refering to the same God.

Dr H said...

==========
DM: Show that there is a creature with many distinct traits corresponding to those of a vampire, that it shares between hundreds or thousands of independent cultures.
==========

I question whether you have in fact done this for God across "thousands" of "independent" cultures. Hundreds, perhaps, but even then, it depends on how you are defining "culture" and "independent."

It also depends on just what qualities of "God" you are talking about. You really haven't delineated very many here, other than 'a supreme being, creator of the universe, who is all good.'

That's a start, but it's pretty broad. It puts me in mind of the fishing engaged in by some alleged "psychics":

"I see a name starteing with a "P'... Peter... Paul ... Pasquale ..."

Mark:(no reaction from the mark)

"P.. P... wait, it's more like a J... J, that's it... John, James ... could it be Jeraboam? ..."

Mark: Well, no, I don't know any...

"G! Yes, that's it, G! Someone close to you; Gerald... George ..."

Mark: My God! It must be Uncle George! Why you're amazing!!

"Yes, it Uncle George! It was G... rhymes with "P", that's what threw me at first ..."


... and so on.



Not to put too fine a point on it, if those are your criteria, it's no wonder you're finding commonality everywhere you look. It's rather like searching for a man with "two ears and a nose". :-)

Neil Bates said...

Dr H, you are still confused about how to refer to notional entities. You didn't seem to get anything out of what I said (I don't expect everyone to agree, but at least they could consider it and show they did.) What do you even mean by saying, "The theologian often makes the mistake of thinking that similar sets of qualities ascribed by various cultures to their particular god means they are all refering to the same God." If I actually had a bunch of Gods in a room like people at a party, I could wonder if someone talking about "that tall skinny girl" was one person or another, depending on which of those actual people might answer that description. But when you are talking about meanings, then "same" *is* about the same meaning. There is no clear meaning to "different God" like there is to "different country." The meaning of "God" is like "our universe" - varying beliefs about "it" don't refer to "different universes" as long as the referring concept is the same. Otherwise, you are saying that Ptolemaists believed in an "other" universe, rather than their believing something about it different than what we believe.

In a nutshell: "different" can mean either an actual, "numerically distinct" entity among several, or it can mean "different traits being supposed" about the same entity. I realize there is some ambiguity in the definition of "God" anyway, but once we say some ultimate being responsible for the universe, itself not created or contingent, etc, then the referent has been created by semantic fiat. Then we can wonder to what extent people agree about the traits and actions of that numerically "same" entity.

Dr H said...

==========
DM: You should know, though, that the toll of the witchhunts was about 50,000.
==========
No one knows with that degree of precission, but most modern estimates put the number at somewhere between 50,000 - 200,000. I suppose you can be forgiven for picking the side of that range that seems more favorable to your position. ;-)

Also, this only addresses the various Inquisitional witch-hunts, and doesn't include little contretemps like the Albigensian genocide or the Thirty Years War.

==========
DM: Witches were burned not during the Middle Ages proper, but during the Renaissance.
==========
The Renaissance and the Middle Ages are not sequential. The Rennaissance begain around 1300, and the Late Middle ages run from about 1300 to 1450, so the two periods overlap. The Church Inquisition began in 1231 (the formal inquisition, anyway), and so a goodly part of it coincided with the Middle Ages.

==========
DM: And they were not burned because they used the wrong name for God, but because they were perceived as having sold out to the devil, ...
==========
... ie., worshiping the wrong god...

==========
DM: ....or poisoning wells, shifting shapes, flying on broomsticks, etc.
==========
Or any of a variety of other excuses, frequently including someone with the power to launch an inquisition (including various Church officials) coveting the land or other property of the accused, which was, of course, forfeit to the Church upon their conviction.

A practice which survives in various municipalities to this day, although now they call it "emminent domain", and they usually don't burn you at the stake when they take your property. ;-)

David B Marshall said...

I don't have time to respond to everything right now, but let me follow up on these last comments by Dr. H and Neil.

Suppose you travel to a distant land where people talk about an object called "gujek." What is gujek, you ask? It's the brightest object in the sky, they say. It's made of burning ball of tar, and is the daughter of Earth.

Oh, the sun! You say. How did you know? Simple -- there's only one "brightest object in the sky," and that's what we call the sun. The natives may be a little confused about the exact nature of and source of gujek, but no doubt you're talking about the same object.

What this shows is that it doesn't take much to define "God" across cultures, and having defined him, two different cultures are right to recognize the commonality between their languages. God is "the Supreme Being." Having said that, we all know Who we're talking about.

As a matter of fact, we often know a whole lot more than that. I didn't give thousands of examples, true, but I did cite books that certainly give hundreds. What is remarkable is that awareness of God's character so often goes so far beyond "the Supreme Being."

So Dr. H's little joke about Uncle George is about as far off as you can get. Attend to the earlier discussion about Shang Di, please - and that' just the beginning.

Neal's explanation is well-stated, too.

Dr H said...

David, sorry: I should have read further before I said you hadn't given God very many specific attributes -- I see that you have:

==========
DM: (1) transcends all other beings; (2) He is creator; (3) He is judge of humankind; (4) unique knowledge (omniscience); (5) unique power (omnipotence); (6) He is perfectly good (see Homer or Virgil for contrast); (7) He is incorporal; (8) but is called "Father" or (sometimes) "Mother" metaphorically, not literally; (9) He is not worshipped with idols; (10) He is eternal, and has no origin.
==========

Good, that's something to work with. But I'm getting tired of typing today, so I think I'll ponder these for a while and comment later on, if such seems called for.

Dr H said...

==========
Neil: Dr. H, there is an accepted logical usage of "a religion" being some widely accepted teachings or concurrence of most scholars, that may not apply to the masses (whether you like the "class war" aspect of this or not.)
==========
Of course. However, it is the beliefs of the people on the streets (or in the pews) that tend to be responsible for most of the direct action in the world taken in the name of world. So as a practical matter, I am most concernd with what -they- happen to profess to believe, even though I may enjoy a philosophical debate on teh side as to what the theoretical tenets of a religion may be.

It is the difference between having an intelectual discussion of of how reality is an ephemeral creation of the mind with no real substance, on the one hand -- and then having someone give you a swift kick in the shins with their steel-toed Birkenstocks(tm) on the other.

==========
DM: Also, please don't confuse "true" member of X religion with "true Scotsman", a common red herring:
==========
I am not doing that at all. My comments were in reference to David's penchant for indulgeing in the "no true Scottsman" fallacy rather freely at times.

Dr H said...

==========
Neil: Also, you express a misunderstanding of the semantics and logic of descriptions versus notional "entities."
==========
No, I do not.

I merely reference what many (many, many) religious followers profess or seem to believe.

Here, let's take a hypothetical example:

A Shi'ite with a machette tells you that you need to worship the one true God, Allah, or he will cut off your head as an infidel.

You tell him that, as a Christian, you already worship the one true God, and that Allah is just another name for Him.

Your burnoosed antagonist replies "the Christian God is a false God; he is NOT Allah!"

So... he has the machette held to your neck. Are you going to try to convince him that your position is philosophically correct in the next 10 seconds?

Or will you say "Allahu Akbar" and hope it gets you throught he next five minutes with your head still attached?

Dr H said...

==========
Neil: Dr H, you are still confused about how to refer to notional entities.
===========
Neil, you are confused about what you imagine to be my confusion. Relax, you'll figure it out, eventually. ;-)

==========
Neil: What do you even mean by saying, "The theologian often makes the mistake of thinking that similar sets of qualities ascribed by various cultures to their particular god means they are all refering to the same God."
==========
I was poking fun at David by turning his original statement around on him. His claim is basically that everyone, across cultures, is worshiping the same God, and if they think otherwise, they are mistaken.

The converse is an equally valid statement: that various cultures may regard their particular definition of "God" as quite separate and distinct from the "God" (or, to them, false gods) of other cultures, and David, in thinking they are referencing the same being, is mistaken. (David being the main "theologian" I had in mind when I made that comment.)

To tell the truth, I don't think the reality is all either one way or the other. There probably is some of the cross-cultural referencing to the same being that David sees; I just think he may be seeing it in more places than it actually is.

And let us not forget the original point made at the start of this thread. Not content with letting people decide for themselves whether or not they are , say, Christians, David is now presuming to challenge the self-definition of a particular sub-culture of atheists.

'We are,' he says, 'all stamp collectors,' -- even if we say we're not.

Well this non-philatelist is here to tell him that he's wrong about that.

David's penchant for wanting to define others' religious beliefs (or lack thereof) for them is not one of his more endearing traits.
Fortunately he has other redeeming qualities, so I keep coming back. ;-)

Neil Bates said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil Bates said...

[Note to confused emailed comment recips: revised]:
Dr H: You are referencing what some philosophically illiterate jihadist thinks. That does not IMHO make a genuine conceptual (ie, non-sociological) point. As an "intellectual", you should of course know better yourself, but I think furthermore that you should also realize the low relevance even of the example. Do you think that Islamist thinks there really is *another* God in existence, and I worship Him instead? (BTW, I'm an independent so I don't focus on the "Christian God" myself anyway.) Even he probably realizes there isn't, and what he means is: "There is one true God, and you have mistaken beliefs about Him. Your worship is tainted by a false concept and false teachings." If he was smart (ummm, do you see enough statements from real Muslims, like scholars, or would rather continue putting cinematic lines into puppet characters? ;-) he would probably say: "you need to worship God and live according to the precepts of Islam, since the revelations you follow are incomplete and need further interpreting." Well, OK, someone else and from another religion might be less accommodating - but what if the most astute more often found common ground?

Like I said, there are two different meanings of "different" (numerical versus descriptive, and even in physics a pain - like, "no, those are two different Argon atoms I'm talking about - but yeah, they are identical ....") and which is "right" depends on context. Once I make my context clear, even while accepting the legitimacy of your idea in other contexts, you have to address the relevance of the more telling point.

But I see you do have a point: people's ideas of "God", once defined, do vary. Yeah, no ****, Sherlock! ;-) I think David is saying, there is an essential core which is more important than the variations in concept.

Dr H said...

==========
DM: What is gujek, you ask? It's the brightest object in the sky, they say. It's made of burning ball of tar, and is the daughter of Earth.

Oh, the sun! You say. How did you know? Simple -- there's only one "brightest object in the sky," and that's what we call the sun. The natives may be a little confused about the exact nature of and source of gujek, but no doubt you're talking about the same object.
==========
Not really the best analogy, under the circumstances.

There are umpteen ways the we can observe and measure the sun, obtaining physical evidence that what we call "the sun" and what your tar-burning natives call "gujek" are probably the same thing. If nothing else all sighted human beings can directly observe the sun/gujek, and even the non-sighted can feel its heat.

"God", on the other hand, is invisible. To the best of my recollection no one claims that in His undisturbed state he gives off any measurable emmanations, no gamma rays, alpha particles, -- He isn't usually even assumed to have gravity.

When comparing invisible, undetectable entities we can be much less certain that our differing descriptions are refering to the same thing.

I say "excuse me, I must feed the invisible purple dragon that lives in everyone's attic." My neighbor replies, "Oh, you mean the invisible pink unicorn that lives in everyone's attic." His neighbor says, "no, no, you must be talking about the invisible blue aardvark that lives in everyone cellar."

We might, indeed, all be refering to the same entity, which we merely perceive in different ways. Or there might be a dragon, a unicorn, AND an aardvark.

Or, being that the one thing we seem to agree on, a priori is that the entity is invisible -- there might be nothing there at all.

Dr H said...

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Neil: You are referencing what some philosophically illiterate jihadist thinks.
==========
Interesting that you should phrase it that way. Does not every one of the Big Three western religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) insist that God's truth is readily accessible to anyone? Or is it really necessary to be a philosophically learned, lettered theologian to understand what the Talmud, the Bible, or the Koran is talking about?

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Neil: Do you think that Islamist thinks there really is *another* God in existence, and I worship Him instead?
==========
He thinks that you are worshiping a false god -- e.g., a god that is not really "God". And yes, I have spoken to Muslims who believe this, although none of those I know personally seem prepared to kill for it. I have also spoken with Christians who hold the same belief with regard to Muslims and "Allah".

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Neil: BTW, I'm an independent so I don't focus on the "Christian God" myself anyway.
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I wasn't making any assumptions about your actual personal beliefs with my hypothetical example.

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Neil: Even he probably realizes there isn't, and what he means is: "There is one true God, and you have mistaken beliefs about Him.
==========
Maybe. Would you be willing to literally stake your life on that assumption?

==========
Neil: But I see you do have a point: people's ideas of "God", once defined, do vary.
==========
The question, or at least a question is: is a religion defined by a theoretical doctrine or documents, or is it defined by the actual day-to-day beliefs of the masses of it's alleged adherents?

Whole new religious have arisen from people attempting to answer that question in various ways. For myself, I am very much concerned with the real world, and with the impact of varous religious beliefs on life in that real world. Consequently, in a practical sense I have to fall on the latter side of that question.

It doesn't matter so much what some obscure theologian publishes in the Harvard Theological Review or what the Pope proclaims, as it matters how many Catholics in the United States think that God wants them to kill doctors who work in clinics where abortions are performed.

It's pretty unlikely that the Pope is going to shoot anybody in the name of Catholicism, but plenty of rank-and-file Catholics have justified all sorts of violence with recourse to their faith.

(I will insert here that I am an ex-Catholic, myself, so if I seem to be coming down harder on Catholics it's simply the result of greater familiarity.)

Anyway, it is that sort of action and immediacy that essentially defines religion, in my view.

Dr H said...

==========
Neil: Once I make my context clear, even while accepting the legitimacy of your idea in other contexts, you have to address the relevance of the more telling point. [...]
I think David is saying, there is an essential core which is more important than the variations in concept.
==========
That's one of the things he is saying, and to some extent I agree with that. But I also think that he's seeing more agreement with his theory than there actually is, among the average religious peons.

If the Pope, the American Baptist Conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rabbi Yosef, Ayatollahs Khamenei and Sistani, and David Miscavige all agree that they're all worshiping the same supreme being, and that henceforth their religions will all be one big happy family, then still need to convince the masses whose tithes support them.

We see how well that worked in Northern Ireland, where Catholics and Protestants continued to murder each other for decades, despite impashioned pleas from religious leaders on both sides that such behavior was, among other things, unChristian.

So, you see, the "more telling point," for me, is not whether or not we can craft an apparently valid philosophical or theological argument that (say) Yahveh, Allah, God, Shang Di, and L. Ron Hubbard are really all the same guy.

What matters to me is whether the average Jew in Tel Aviv, the average Muslim in Riyadh, the average Baptist in Atlanta, the average Catholic in Belfast, the average Confucianist in Beijing, and the average Scientologist in Seattle all believe it enough to sit down and play nice together.

I am not optimistic about this happening.

David B Marshall said...

Dr. H: You seem to be tracking off into the toolies with this, but all right, let's go there.

I wonder if the reason Russian, Georgian, Yugoslav, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian communists kept killing one another, is that they disbelieved in different Gods? If only they could have come together and agreed what God not to believe in, they would have all gotten along well.

The Irish didn't have THAT problem. Even the Protestant atheists and the Catholic atheists knew they didn't believe in the same God. In fact, I once met a former Protestant terrorist who got both Catholic and Protestant terrorists (in prison) mad at him, for converting to (serious) Christianity.

The argument isn't about how many gods there are. It's about tribes and history. Crips vs. Bloods. Hatfields vs. McCoys. Lions vs. jackels.

As for scientologists in Seattle, they meet in a one-story building a few blocks from Microsoft, on 24th in Bellevue. I haven't seen any riots outside, yet. I'm glad you're so concerned about it.

Neil Bates said...

This thread is fading, but let me add a link about Plato and theism, from a very interesting thinker and Facebook Friend Stephen Lovatt:
www.facebook.com/notes/stephen-lovatt/evidence-that-plato-was-a-convinced-theist
If you aren't a FB member, you might need to set up an account to see this. (David, you have one?)

(Heh, Captch is "tomests" - Someone trying to insinuate "Thomists" here?)

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, Neil. Yes, that seems to be a pretty common way of talking among Greek philosophers, including the citations I gave from Stoics.

I was reading a bit this morning from Raymond Pannikar, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, where he describes the intellectual incontruity and practical congruity between Brahman and the "God" that Indians worshipped, accepting the difference as a product of human perceptual limitations.

David B Marshall said...

Dr. H: Cute with the dragon, unicorn, and aardvark, but you're missing the point, again. Given just ONE of the ten or so characteristics commonly found among conceptions of God worldwide -- supremacy -- people in different cultures often recognize they are talking about the same Being, even if sometimes in different ways. Add a few more characteristics, and it's not only not that difficult, it's rather inevitable.

Lamin Sanneh, for instance, points out that Methodist missionaries were worried that the native Zulu word for God would encourage old pagan ways, to they called God "uJehova" and an Anglican said "uDio," which the Zulu tossed out with contempt, and the missionaries all came to their senses and used the correct Zulu term. (Translating the Message, 206) The hesitation is a function of European insolation and arrogance; we became radicalized during the long contest with Islam, and then arrogant with the power of the Industrial Revolution, and forgot Christian practice and precedent, as well as good sense.

Dr H said...

"...tracking off into the toolies..." ? Is that a Chinese expression that doesn't quite translate, or a Seattlism? :-)

==========
DM: I wonder if the reason Russian, Georgian, Yugoslav, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian communists kept killing one another, is that they disbelieved in different Gods?
==========
Most likely the reason is that they're Russian, Georgian, Yugoslav, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian. Ie., nationalism is a greater dividing factor than the fact that they share belief in certain economic principles (communism) is a unifying factor.

==========
DM: Protestant atheists and the Catholic atheists
==========
Now there're a couple of interesting oxymorons.

==========
DM: The argument isn't about how many gods there are.
==========
True. It was about whether it is in any way meaningful to say that "not collecting stamps" is my hobby.

==========
As for scientologists in Seattle, they meet in a one-story building a few blocks from Microsoft, on 24th in Bellevue. I haven't seen any riots outside, yet. I'm glad you're so concerned about it.
==========
You're lucky. In my neck of the PNW some of them have actually occasionally attempted to kill people.

Dr H said...

==========
DM: Given just ONE of the ten or so characteristics commonly found among conceptions of God worldwide -- supremacy -- people in different cultures often recognize they are talking about the same Being, even if sometimes in different ways
==========
And that is a pretty flimsy foundation to build such a general theory upon. You cannot know that they "recognize" that they are talking about a common being. All you can know is that they all ascribe the same particular characteristic to some invisible being which they conceptualize. What they are each conceptualizing may or may not have any other similarities.

It's like having three different cultures who all have a tradition of treatment for many common aliments using a palliative that all three cultures describe as "small, round, smooth, and white." Except one culture is talking about a pearl, another is talking about a magic bean, and the third is talking about an aspirin.

As regards the various other qualities you listed, the list is not even self-consistent. Omniscience and omnipotence are mutually exclusive qualities, and if one person's god is omniscient and anothers is omnipotent, they cannot logically be the same being.
Other qualities are so vague that they could embody a huge range of very different meanings: "purely spiritual"? "Perfect in spirituality?" Then there are the moral qualities, all of which are relativistically defined, and which consequently may mean very different things in different cultures: "good", "evil", "benevolent"; "righteous"; and so on.

To say that people across wildly different cultures define these difficult, complex, and fuzzy qualities in anything like the same way, much less that the recognize them in a single invisible wholly conjectural "being", is just not credible, much less demonstrable in any meaningful way.

David B Marshall said...

A concession and five problems with the "stamp collector" analogy, first posted on John Loftus' blog:

You can almost always find SOME parallel between two ideas. There is indeed this limited parallel between not collecting stamps and not believing in God: that they both involve not doing something, rather than (necessarily) a positive action.

However, there are many differences as well. Five important ones come to mind:

(a) Most Americans believe in God, whereas most Americans do not collect stamps. Therefore, as with "vegetarian" or "teetotaler," it is more reasonable to define those who abstain from a common practice, than from an unusual practice, like collecting stamps.

(b) As noted above, atheists often act as if their unbelief were extremely significant. Not only do atheists ACT as if atheism were a positive behavior, they often generalize about atheists in ways that suggest it is more than a negative description -- for example, atheists describe themselves as smarter than the norm ("brights"), allegedly commit fewer crimes, tend to be left-wing, etc. ect.

(c) Faith is God is obviously an intrinsically more significant issue than collecting stamps.

(d) The idea of God seems to be either hard-wired into human beings, a common inference from environmental data, or something that is revealed to people around the world. In any one of these cases, refusing to believe must involve a positive act of rejection, and therefore likely says something about the person who does the rejecting.

(e) Atheists often exhibit a virulence against theism that reinforces the notion that their rejection of God says something concrete about them. In many cases, their turn to atheism can be traced to traumatic events in their lives. Therefore, the analogy to "teetotalar" seems a pretty good one.

So like many analogies, this one is not absolutely false, but it is usually is quite misleading.

Dr H said...

David: (a) Most Americans believe in God, whereas most Americans do not collect stamps. Therefore, as with "vegetarian" or "teetotaler," it is more reasonable to define those who abstain from a common practice, than from an unusual practice, like collecting stamps.

Dr H: The 'common practice' accessed in the analogy is not "stamp collecting," but having a hobby. Most Americans do have a hobby; stamp collecting is merely one example of many which could have been given.

(b) Not only do atheists ACT as if atheism were a positive behavior...

Some atheists do. Most, at least in my experience, do not. Most atheists are not "evangelical" about their non-belief. Indeed, as I pointed out not long ago, some of my long-term friends aren't even aware that I am an atheist, because the topic has never come up among us.

(c) Faith is God is obviously an intrinsically more significant issue than collecting stamps.

Perhaps, although I think you'd have an interesting time trying to demonstrate rigorously that it's "intrinsic".

More to the point, what someone does as an avocation -- ie., their liesure time hobby or hobbies -- is often extremely significant in thier lives. Some would go so far as to say that who they are is largely defined by their interests. I think that's at least as significant as 'faith in God'.

(d) The idea of God seems to be either hard-wired into human beings

There is no evidence that any idea(s) are hard wired into human beings. The capability for forming and expressing ourselves in certain ways, perhaps, but no ideas, per se.

(e) Atheists often exhibit a virulence against theism that reinforces the notion that their rejection of God...

Again, some atheists may be like this; in my experience, most aren't. Disbelief isn't exactly the same as "rejection." As I've articulated in many places over the past few years, I've come to realize that I didn't once 'believe in God,' and then at some point 'stop believing.' I never did believe in God; therefore, I have not "rejected" anything.

To maintain that I have "rejected God" is like saying that I've "rejected" the love of a woman whom I've never met, and with whom I've never had any prior contact or relationship.

And the virulence some atheists exhibit against theism has more to do with the propensity of so many theists to either want to "convert" atheists to their brand of theism, or to pass laws and other blanket controls over social behavior that forces non-believers to behave as if they adhered to theistic concepts with which they do not agree.

So like many analogies, this one is not absolutely false, but it is usually is quite misleading.

It's not perfect; no analogy is. But as analogies go, it's really quite good.

David B Marshall said...

Update: Don Page, the quantum physicist, has recently critiqued what I am now calling TACT, the Theistic Argument from Cultural Transcendence. See post closest in date to this comment, for our discussion.