Friday, May 17, 2013

Theist Argument from Cultural Transcendence (TACT): Does it Work?

In my last post, I described what I call TACT, the Theistic Argument from Cultural Transcendence:

(a) If an understanding of God transcends a particular culture, it is much more likely to be true than if it does not.

(b) The idea of God does, in fact, transcend the Abrahamic tradition from which monotheism is often said to have arisen. It can, in fact, be found in many highly scattered and diverse cultures, where it must have arisen independently.

 (c) Therefore God is much more likely to be real than religious ideas that are limitted to one particular culture, or flow out from one localized source.

I have made this argument before, beginning in 2000 in Jesus and the Religions of Man, and most recently this February in a debate with Richard Carrier.  In my last post, I analyzed Dr. Hector Avalos' long critique of the argument, and various negative comments he made (again) against my scholarship and against Christian missions, and found them almost entirely without foundation.  In fact, I argued that many of the points he brought up actually help strengthen the argument. 

Which is promising, but does not of course mean that TACT really works. 

So does it?

Towards the end of his post, Avalos made objections that I have not considered yet.  Let's look at those objections, then others that come to mind, or have been offered by other TACT-less critics.  And then let's consider what might or might not lend TACT weight, and how much weight it should be lent, if any. 

From Avalos:

(1) Multiple cultures, or even all cultures, having similar concepts of God does not demonstrate the perception of some transcendent reality. Even if all cultures in the world had a concept of a Supreme Being, that would not constitute proof of the existence of God or the reasonableness of Christianitity.

Cultures are human products, and so all it would show is that human beings generate similar responses to the needs that they share. A Supreme Being, for example, could be expected in almost any culture that has a hierarchical or patriarchal organization where rank is recognized. Ranking is a human activity and proves nothing about a supernatural origin.

The first paragraph is mere assertion.

The second misses the force of the argument. Avalos assumes a relationship between type of culture and theism that in fact, TACT discredits.  As shown by the examples given in Jesus and the Religions of Man, or elsewhere, a strong and fairly consistent concept of God seems to be present in the following kinds of cultures:

* Many of the most libertarian hunter-gatherer cultures, in much of Africa, large swaths of Australia, parts of the Americas, and among many tribes inhabiting the jungled mountains of Southeast Asia.

* In the Pacific islands. 

* Among many herding societies, as the anthropologist Marvin Harris, an extreme opponent of Christianity and of Wilhelm Schmidt, admitted.

* In settled agrarian civilizations, like Korea and China.

* Among philosophers of the Greek city-states.

* The concept has also settled well in modern Western society, including highly egalitarian and democratic societies like the United States, from Constantine to the present.

So Avalos' explanation is no explanation at all. Instead, it increases the mystery, from a skeptical point of view. Why does God transcend not just different cultures, but different kinds of culture?  (As I put it in the debate with Dr. Carrier.) 

Avalos' final shot on this subject runs as follows:

(2) In addition, Stephen T. Asma argues that polytheism and animism have the longest and most widespread presence in human cultures. So, perhaps Marshall may need to admit that polytheists and animists are perceiving some transcendental reality the best.

Sure. They're perceiving the reality of the spirit world. Spirits really do exist. People do seem to have souls. 

But again, there is an important empirical difference between God (a specific person) and the gods (a vague general category). As Durkheim pointed out, if the character of specific entities varies according to culture, that gives us little reason to believe in those entities. It is the fact that the particular person God is "invented" or "discovered" hundreds of times across the world, and that each time a long list of similar characteristics acrues to him, that makes this argument succeed.

Here are six levels on which it seems to work:

(1) First, there is the simple level of the analysis by Durkheim, Dawkins, Dennett, and Carrier.  (Sounds like a law firm!)  If God does not transcend particular cultures, he is less likely to be real.  This demonstrates the converse: if God does transcend particular cultures, he is more likely to be real. 

Someone objected to this argument on the grounds that it commits the genetic fallacy, falsely assuming that the origin of an idea determines its validity. 

Well, this issue is complex, but sometimes the origin of an idea is highly relevant to its plausibility.

Suppose you are in radio communication with different tribes on a planet too far away to tell if the planet has any natural satellites. You find out that the people dwell separately on 100 islands, separated by waters so rough they cannot cross them, speak different languages, and cannot communicate.  (They just obtained radios by a US government "Welfare for Aliens" grant, from a passing space ship.)  Suppose each tribe reported something different about the planet's satellites -- it has no moon, it has 50 moons, the moon is round, the moon is shaped like a donut, it's green, it's red, it's almost invisible, it fills half the sky. You might conclude that you know nothing sure about the planet's moons -- whether because of clouds, or the inhabitants are blind, or they are all inveterate liars.

Suppose, however, than half the tribes give very similiar but not exactly equal reports. The planet has two moons: one big, round, yellow, and smooth, the other small, reddish, elongated with large craters on the surface.  (Though a few reports say one, and different precise hues are named.)

The other tribes give mixed and inconsistent reports, as in the first scenario. 

In both cases, you're relying entirely on reports from people you don't know. But I think it's reasonable to believe what the second set of reports agree upon, even if you only find the first set confusing.  You might suppose that those tribes which fail to report on the planet's two moons, live in areas subject to heavy cloud cover, or are run by paranoid North Korea type regimes and think you are planning an invasion from their planet's moon.  (Or perhaps they were also given copies of Avatar by the passing space ship dubbed in local languages.)  So they don't want you to know what their moons are like, and are shining you shamelessly.

(2) Second, there is Avalos' own implicit argument.  If God does not transcend particular KINDS of cultures, "patriarchal" and all that, Avalos seems to imply that He is less likely to be real.  From which it follows, since God DOES transcend particular kinds of culture, He is more likely to be real.

The point here is that religion is supposed, as above, to be the product of social evolution.  From which it follows (and this is a very old idea) religions will reflect the character of the tribes in which they arise.  The Chinese Heaven will be bureaucratic.  (As indeed it is, say in Journey to the West.)  The Greek Olympus will be crowded with quarreling, skirt-chasing gods (as in the Iliad).  Amazon tribes will worship a jaguar, and North American tribes, a coyote. 

So an idea of God that arises in many different kinds of culture, with all the variety of human political systems, is more likely to be true than theologies that can be explained by peculiar social systems. 

(3) Third, there is the simple predictive element.  St. Paul predicts that God will transcend cultures.  David Hume strongly denies it.  Paul is right, Hume (despite the advantage of 1700 years) is wrong. 

This is startling, especially when you consider Hume's brilliance, as well as his knowledge of a wider spectrum of human cultures. 

(4) Fourth, there is the complex predictive element.  St. Paul predicts that while God will be widely known, he will also be widely denied, and idolatry and worship of "the creature" will be practiced.  Paul saw that all around him, but he had no way of knowing it would also be true in South America and Mongolia. 

Let's return to our Island Planet analogy.  Suppose your astronomer friends predict, given the planet's aquatic habitat, that the sky will only be clearly visible from about half the planet, with clouds almost permanently obscuring the heavens the rest of the time.  Suppose they also tell you that if the planet has a moon, it will be in tidal lock with the planet.  So even when the moon is visible, through obscuring vapors, from some angles it might appear through a sunset glow, which is deep crimson on that planet, and will be elongated by atmospheric refraction.  (That being the only time of year that the vapors clear.)  Furthermore, the moon will be invisible from much of the planet, but an asteroid belt might be visible for creatures with eagle eyes.  And not having seen a "moon," people speaking their language naturally use the word for "asteroid" that you mistake as meaning "moon." 

Paul's anthropology similarly seems to predict, not just "God" simply, but a common but obscured and often twisted concept of God, along with lesser beings that may be mistaken for him.  This greater detail in prediction thus renders the Christian model of religions not weaker, but far stronger, evidence for the truth of Christian anthropology. 

(5) Fifth, there is the fact that God is seen as transcending particular cultures, even by those within those transcended cultures.  Durkheim admits that Australian tribes recognized "God" as belonging to more than just their own tribes.  Readers of the Chinese Classics and oracle bones find evidence for this in ancient China as well.  (I will not stop to give quotes right now.) 

(6) Sixth (and here things get really scary for skeptics), there is Don Richardson's observation that the "God" of pagan cultures often seems to prepare his believers to welcome the Good News of Jesus Christ. (He relates the story in Eternity in Their Hearts.)  

I have also given examples, including in True Son of Heaven and in Jesus and the Religions of Man -- examining one closely in my doctoral thesis. 

Further objections

A. But really, your argument would seem to cover any eventuality.  "God" is present in many cultures -- but often not quite the same as Yahweh.  And then often he is not present in other cultures, and you explain that, too.  The argument seems slippery and unfalsifiable.

Answer: Well, actually, the characteristics of "God" as John Mbiti, Lamin Sanneh and others describe him in Africa, Paul Radin describes him in North America, Lang, Durkheim and others in Australia, and as He appears in the Chinese Classics, are strikingly similiar.  And it is clear that both Christianity and Islam spread rapidly around the world, because people in diverse cultures found theism credible, often because they already had such a concept, in other cases because it struck them as intuitively credible. 

It is possible a priori that awareness of God would have been found nowhere else, as David Hume and many others believed was the case.  It is possible that thousands of tribes would prove to have no religious beliefs whatsoever.  Or that they would worship just ghosts, or totems, or ancestors, or physical objects, as various theories have posited. 

It is remarkable that Paul got so much right, that modern anthropologists so often got wrong. 

B. But what if the human brain is hardwired by evolution to believe in God? (As some have recently argued, for instance Freud, Pascal Boyer, Daniel Dennett, etc.) Wouldn't that explain the data, without recourse to belief in an ontological real Spaghetti Monster?

Answer: That might explain 1 and 2. It does not explain 3-6. Why did Paul figure human nature out so early, and the New Atheists so late? (Especially given the fact that Richard Dawkins says that no book written before 1859 has anything of value to tell us about human nature!) Why does God so often seem to work within "pagan" cultures to prepare them for the Good News of Jesus?

I don't really think it explains 1 or 2, either. See, for instance, my Amazon reviews of books on the origin of religion by these theorists.

C. What about Radin's theory that intellectuals in many tribes reason to God? 

That, too, would seem to cover some instances -- the Greek philosophers as well as Radin's Native Americans, for instance.  But of course, the fact that people independently reason to the same fact, does nothing to make that fact less credible.  We may assume that because we know science better than the ancients, we can look down our noses now at their arguments.  But Plantinga shows, I think, that intuitive reasoning should in this case be respected, even if evolution happens to be true. 

Plus, one still has to deal with 3, 4, and possibly 6. 

The simplest explanation is that St. Paul was onto something about human nature, the nature of reality, and probably the transcendent and imminent reality of God. 

However, my conclusion is relative, not absolute or specified in terms of probability. I claim that theism is therefore "much more likely" to be true than particular religious beliefs that do not meet these criteria. How likely that is, I cannot say. Certainly, this argument is best used in combination with other arguments for Christianity.  Used in that way, I think it should be helpful for those who are sincerely seeking God. 


Zach said...

All cultures believe in aristotelian physics, therefore it is right.

Stupid ad populum folk science crap.

Zach said...

For good arguments, go to Aquinas.

David B Marshall said...

Zach: If you can't read and understand my arguments, what makes you think you can read and understand Aquinas?

grodrigues said...

@David Marshall:

I am genuinely puzzled by your response to objection C. I do not know Radin's theory, so maybe I am missing some important piece of info, but your

"But of course, the fact that people independently reason to the same fact, does nothing to make that fact less credible."

seems to get things exactly in the reverse. Is not the fact that "intellectuals" scattered in space and time, independently *reason* to God, as Supreme Creator, evidence that makes the existence of God *more* credible?

David B Marshall said...

Rodrigues: Of course it would be. I think that's what I said! Maybe you were turned around by the double negative.

grodrigues said...

@David Marshall:

(smacks forehead) Ack. I knew I must have been missing something.Thanks.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks for your answer on Kierkegaard, BTW. That makes a lot of sense.

I guess you can see what I had in mind with the Aquinas query.