Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Are Prophets Unprofitable? The Problems with Ronald Lindsay's Argument

December 1st, Ronald Lindsay, President and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, posted an article on the Huffington Post entitled, "Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Company: The Critical Problem with Prophet System." 

Ron Lindsay at Reason Rally DC 2012.jpgI could probably write a series on the title alone.  ( In a sense, I already have.)  No reader should read the title without shaking his or her head at the unspoken assumption that three so different men as Moses, Jesus and Mohammed belong in one company.  "What company has light and darkness?" 

But let's get to the meat of Lindsay's argument, where the rubber, uh, meats the road.

Moses is big right now.  A blockbuster movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings, will shortly be released, glorifying his role in leading the ancient Hebrews to freedom-- with some not insignificant assistance from God. And just about a week ago, the Texas State Board of Education approved textbooks extolling the alleged influence of Moses on the U.S. Constitution.  Pretty soon, we will be told that Moses was an early feminist and animal rights advocate.
No clear quotes on what the offending movie or textbooks say, so we can let this snark pass like ghosts on the wind.
I'm not going to address the Exodus story.  It's a heroic myth not dissimilar to Greek or Roman stories about Heracles, Aeneas, or other heroes.   If you're willing to believe that God would slaughter thousands of innocent children to punish a ruler for his decisions, then you're probably inclined to accept a plague of frogs.
It's funny how often people say they're "not going to address" something, and then do. 

But Orwell warned us against phrases like "not unlike."  Personally, I don't see the parallels between Moses and these heroes as so close.  Hercules is about an upstart new god showing his powers and beating up snakes and various mythical beasts, while Moses frees slaves, founds what becomes an historical nation, beginning its special relationship with God.   Maybe the parallel here is supposed to be the uncanny coincidence that all three heroes acted heroically?  But let's look for some substance.    
I'm much more concerned about the purported influence of Moses on the Constitution.  This is an outrageously false claim.  Historians uniformly reject this notion.  The Founders were influenced primarily by Locke and other political philosophers.  Moreover, the ancient Israelites were subjects of a theocratic monarchy, not citizens of a democracy.  There's not much discussion of the consent of the governed or the separation of powers in the Hebrew Bible.
And Locke read what, growing up in a pious Puritan home?  If you guessed "The Soviet Constitution," you guessed wrong.   Nor did Locke reject his upbringing as an adult: he was a Christian apologist himself, when he wasn't writing about how to put countries together, or how to pursue knowledge, as a mater of fact.  He even wrote a book entitled "The Reasonableness of Christianity."

New Atheists routinely dismiss eminent Christian philosophers, scientists, and historians as mere "apologists," suffering from cognitive dissonance and a deep need to believe.   So now we know how to entice Gnus to describe apologists as "political philosophers:" have them deeply influence a Constitution that Gnus favor as impregnably secular and as proof that Christianity did not influence the thought of the American founders!  Then those erstwhile apologists turn, like Cinderella on her night out, into true philosophers, and their connection with Christian apologetics is not just forgiven, but forgotten: cast into the Deep Blue Sea, with neon "no fishing" signs plastered across nearby buoys.  (With apologies to Corrie Ten Boom.)

What there is in the Hebrew Bible is de facto "separation of powers," and explanation why those powers must be kept apart.  DO read the thing, some time, Ronald, my man: 

"This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve him . . . He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyards . . . you yourselves will become his slaves."
The speaker is Samuel the prophet, warning the Hebrew people of the despotism they chose by asking for rule by kings.  (The "monarchy" Lindsay refers to above!)  The whole Old Testament is largely devoted to describing a growing balance of powers between secular and religious rulers: nor are its authors so naïve as to suppose one side is always right, and the other side always wrong.  To miss this, to baldly overlook how Elijah and Isaiah and Micah and the rest confront the Powers That Be, often to win greater freedom for the masses (as when Ahab murders a neighbor for a vineyard, or David murders a neighbor for a flame, and God sends his prophet to pronounce doom), is to blind oneself to the actual nature of the texts.

In his book Freedom: A History, Historian Donald Treadgold noted: "Hebrew Society was unique in the ancient Near East in managing to avoid the techniques, devices, and institutions of despotism." (13)

Ancient Israel wasn't a democracy, but with Greece, it was one of the sources of modern freedom.   As I pointed out 15 years ago in Jesus and the Religions of Man, numerous principles that encouraged freedoms are central to the biblical narrative: (1) A God who transcends class or tribe or gender; (2)  Christ who comes as a poor commoner; (3) that he and his disciples work with their hands; (4) vivid awareness of human sin, which encourages "checks and balances" on those in power; (5) the balance biblical teachers encourage between the individual and the group. 

Lindsay continues with his sermon:
What is especially ironic about the false claim of Moses's influence on the Constitution is that all religions which are based on revelation--and this would include Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism, among others--are inherently anti-democratic.

How ironic, then, that as sociologist Robert Woodberry demonstrates, Protestant missions established democracy around the world
Those who believe in revelation believe that God transmitted critical information about human destiny and the proper conduct of humans via a few select individuals When people say that God provides the foundation for their moral thinking, what they're really saying is that Moses or Jesus or Mohammed or Joseph Smith or some other person in whom they have placed their trust--despite in most cases never having had any contact with this long-dead person--provides the foundation for their moral thinking. God does not speak to us except through the prophets.
This is false on many levels.  First, is that really what we mean when we say "God provides the moral foundation for our moral thinking?"  Did Lindsay bother to ask any Christians before putting all these words in our mouths?  Yes, Jesus' moral teaching is authoritative, and true, and useful for all kinds of good -- "the guide to peace and happiness," as the great Hindu reformer Ram Mohan Roy described it.   But we Christians also believe God has written moral truth directly onto human hearts.   If Lindsay has never heard this idea, then he is grossly ignorant of the Christian tradition, and should not be pretending to know something about it in public.  It's all through St. Paul, and an essential assumption of the Christian tradition.  (C. S. Lewis, only the most famous Christian writer of the 20th Century, wrote a famous book on the subject: The Abolition of Man.  But we critics can't be bothered to read texts that define the world's most popular religion, before we attack it, can we?  After all, the search for truth should be one giant game of Blind Man's Bluff, shouldn't it?)
Yes, God also speaks through prophets.  And a good thing, too, considering human history.  And the Gospel inspired the greatest reform movements in history, as I have shown time and again here and in my books.  
Sure, you can claim you talk to God in your prayers, but if you want to remain a member of one of the major religions you cannot claim that God has provided you with a revelation that contradicts the views of the accepted prophets of your religion.  If you're Muslim, try to contradict Mohammed and see what happens.

That's one reason it's important to be careful before we accept a person's claim to speak for God -- or for science.   Bold and authoritative claims are common currency wherever humans dwell, and the people who give them often find credulous followers easily enough.  

But the Bible offers simple external tests for those who claim to speak for God.  Do his prophecies come true?  Does it, yes, fit with what we already know to be true?  Can the fruit of moral virtue and kindness be seen in his life?  Does he practice what he preaches? 

If you are a faithful Jew, Christian, Muslim, or Mormon, then you must accept that God does not convey any really important information except through the medium of a few prophets.

Again, where (outside of Mr. Lindsay's own physique) did this "rule" come from?  Rodney Stark demonstrates that Christian theology has usually been creative, and that in fact Christian thinkers tend to believe God DOES often convey deeply important information by other means.  The Medieval philosophers who invented science (Kepler for instance) spoke of two books from God: the Bible, and Nature.   And he was  a very faithful Christian, as were many other leading thinkers in the boldest ages of discovery.   So Lindsay is just tossing out psychobabble and calling it sociology, here. 

In other words, there is a rigidly hierarchical, cognitive class system inherent in revealed religion. There are a few people who have been in direct contact with God and are in the know about his plans and instructions. These are the people who tell us what to believe and do. Then there are the billions of the rest of us, who just have to follow along.

Mohammed actually does resemble this description.  So, for that matter, do Freud and Ayn Rand and Marx and Stalin and Mao, at times -- all fervent atheists.  So the problem seems to be a kind of mentality, or psychology, more than the mere fact that God speaks to humans sometimes.

After all, if you believe God speaks, He is free to speak when He likes, through whom He likes.  Even through an ass.  So there is hope for us all, Ronnie. 

Meanwhile, the Bible is full of warnings not to credulously believe every report that comes to us, but to test them in various ways, as described above. 

And, of course, the ultimate twist to this bizarre anti-democratic system is that the revelations are in conflict with each other. One has to choose between Moses talking to a burning bush, Mohammed getting the word from Gabriel in his dreams, and Joseph Smith finding wisdom at the bottom of his hat, among others.  Later revelations may borrow from earlier ones, but they're not consistent.

While atheists "have to choose" to dismiss the lot of them. 

But of course, Christians do not dismiss Moses, or Elijah, or Isaiah, or Amos.  So Lindsay is again just factually incorrect.  Nor need Christians reject all claims that God has spoken through, say, Confucius, Lao Zi, or the poets who wrote the Poetic Edda

As for consistency, who is Lindsay to judge?  Has he read arguments for that continuity?  I have shown that there is quite a bit of consistency, even rather amazing fulfillment.

There's a better way, of course, to determine how we should behave, what rules and laws we should adopt and follow.  This way is democratic.  If our moral norms and our laws are to serve human interests--and what would be their point otherwise?--then humans need to talk to each other and reason together.  We cannot and should not rely on supposed prophets to tell us what to do; we should figure that out for ourselves.

The world would be a much nastier place, if God had not sent the Hebrew prophets, culminating in Jesus, or if we had chosen to entirely (rather than just mostly) ignore them.   I have demonstrated that fact numerous ways, including in this bibliography of 130 books plus a few articles, showing how radically the Gospel has changed the world.  Of course Gnus will never deal with these historical facts, or even care to find out what they are.   

The title of the new Moses epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings, unintentionally says something significant about the human condition.  During the childhood of humanity, we did rely on gods and kings to direct us.  The myths of the various religions provided the pretext for dictatorial rule by authoritarian rulers (and, sadly, in some parts of the world, they still do).  It's high time we grew up and accepted our responsibility to govern ourselves, without the dubious benefit of prophets and divine revelation.

If you want to preach responsibility, that's fine.  But first demonstrate responsibility by honestly admitting that secularists have often been the worst offenders.  And secondly by coming seriously and honestly to grips with the overwhelming evidence that Christianity has raised the ethical standard greatly around the world, improving the lives of billions, and saving the lives of hundreds of millions.   Otherwise, your argument against generic "prophets" is childish, indeed.

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