The hilarious self-importance of Brannon Howse

In recent days, we’ve dealt with headier topics here (though no less incorrect) than one usually gets when responding to religious claims of one sort or another. But it’s been a long time since we’ve let our hair down, so to speak, and just smacked around some village idiots. So, in the spirit of mean-spirited fun, let us observe the recent inanities from Brannon Howse.

Howse is the big cheese over at the beyond-right-wing house of delusion known as the Christian Worldview Network. I get their e-newsletters, and trust me, a more delirious exercise in concatenated crazy you will not find outside Arkham Asylum. It’s Christianity stripped down to its ugliest, basest form: ignorance, fear, and paranoia ooze from its every pixel.

Recently, Howse wrapped up a nationwide church tour performing what he called “Code Blue Rallies,” in which he and a group of guest speakers basically got up behind a pulpit to display their tenuous grasp of reality in living color for all to see. The usual wackalunacy was trotted out: young-earth creationism, liberal bashing, you name it. If it’s on the McDonald’s menu of fundagelical stupidity, Howse served it up and super-sized it at his rallies.

One of these, at Birchman Baptist Church in Fort Worth (Howse skipped that liberal cesspit Austin), was attended by newspaper columnist Bud Kennedy, who wrote a mildly snarky and generally bemused piece on the surreal experience for the Star-Telegram.

Howse’s response to this was to go into full-on Christian persecution mode, whining on the radio show Crosstalk about how Kennedy’s little column was an especially egregious example of the “liberal media and their attempt to characterize and marginalize Christians.” Howse is mindful of the fact the Christian Worldview Network audience is made up of the sort of knuckleheads who move their lips when they read, and to whom the very word “liberal” is like Tard Kryptonite. So all he has to do is throw the L-word out, and he knows his audience’s reactionary prejudices will do the rest. Later, naturally, he decries the way the “liberal media” unfairly tries to portray Christians as fringe kooks by “taking their words out of context” and using buzzwords to play on anti-Christian prejudices. Gee, hypocrisy from a fundie? What will they think of next?

The comedy begins even before you play the radio show. In the CWN’s e-newsletter plugging this episode, Howse claims that Kennedy “slipped into” the rally — you know, like a commie spy or something. What he doesn’t mention is the fact these rallies were open to the public free of charge. Now, who needs to “slip into” a free, public, widely advertised event? I suspect Kennedy just, you know, walked through the frackin’ front door of the church like every other rube who went to that stupid thing. But Howse needs to give the impression Kennedy is a shady guy in general, so as to shore up his listeners’ fear of teh libruls. It may seem a trivially funny little detail, but when you consider how Howse spends his show taking almost every word of Kennedy’s column apart looking for distortions to be indignant over, it really underscores what a two-faced little prat Howse is, y’know?

Now keep something in mind: Kennedy’s article takes all of a minute and a half to read. Howse, in response, whines and snivels for a full 20 minutes on his radio show about how horribly Kennedy trashed him, and then he takes calls. (By the way, if you ever entertained the idea that fundamentalists can’t possibly be as stupid as they seem, you need to listen to a Christian radio show. Nowhere else will you hear scientific illiteracy and anti-intellectualism paraded as proudly, except perhaps at a “Code Blue Rally”.)

Kennedy certainly wasn’t kind, but the piece was hardly the vitriolic trashing Howse wants us to think it is. (Really, Brannon, if you want “mean-spirited”, hang out here for a week. We’ll put some piss in your peaches and cream, and no mistake!) Mostly, it was just making fun. Furthermore, Kennedy does not, anywhere in the article, “go after” Birchman or its pastor, Bob Pearle, for sponsoring the event, as Howse claims. Indeed, Kennedy quotes Pearle as being rather surprised at the contents of Howse’s presentation, and trying to distance himself from some of its dumber content. Howse puts Pearle on the show as a phone-in guest so that Pearle can backpedal from some of his statements to Kennedy as quoted in the article.

What follows is a hilarious back-and-forth in which Howse and Pearle essentially give each other emergency hugs to reassure themselves both of their victimhood and the fact that these evil liberal newspapers that keep “blindsiding” them and “bashing Christians” are doomed. They gloat a bit about how the Star-Telegram is facing cutbacks and losing sales. It’s a claim not confirmed, of course, but assuming it’s entirely true, I’d suspect the reason for the paper’s recent hard times is less due to their supposed Christian-bashing (just how many editorials in the last year, I wonder, were explicitly designed to mock religion?) than to the same economic crises plaguing, oh, the entire globe. A legacy bequeathed us, by the way, by a conservative Christian president and his policies.

Moreover, what’s funny about Howse’s whinefest is the way Howse implies that anyone criticizing him is criticizing all Christians and all Christianity. He, Howse, is Christianity, he seems to want us to think. Howse turns anal-retention into an art form as he deconstructs Kennedy’s trifling little column sentence-by-sentence, pouncing on even the tiniest point as an example of Kennedy’s sinister Christian-hating ways. Of the passage where Kennedy notes, “Howse has also openly criticized California Pastor Rick Warren,” Howse huffs and puffs in practiced indignation. Did I say a word about Rick Warren that whole evening? he pointedly demands. Maybe not, Brannon, but Kennedy didn’t specify that, only that you have attacked Warren before. (Not something I’d disagree with, but your brand of freeze-dried heat-and-serve moronity is no better.) I know, I get your e-newsletters, and I’ve seen the anti-Warren headlines.

But mainly, all one can say in response to Howse’s show is, “Dude, get over yourself.” In Howse’s mind, even the slightest criticism equates to intimidation and a desire to silence. If even the tiniest and most insignificant little column like this can get your knickers in a twist, and become the kind of thing you need to blow up into some kind of pretend national scandal, claiming that it’s an attempt to “silence and intimidate” Christians everywhere when all it does is poke fun at your stupid rally, then frankly, you have serious self-importance issues to deal with. Again, the strains of Todd Rundgren’s “God Said” come back to me: “Just get over, get over, get over, get over yourself…”

Howse, who won’t be satisfied until blood is spilled, apparently (and that’s exactly the kind of metaphor his little mind would take 100% literally), gave his listeners both Kennedy’s email and his editors’. I’ll give them to you too, so you can drop them a line. Kennedy, to tell him thanks for the laughs, and to keep it up. And the editors’, so you can tell him how good you think Kennedy is.

bud@star-telegram.com
Publisher Gary Wortel: gwortel@star-telegram.com
Executive editor Jim Witt: jwitt@star-telegram.com
Editorial director Paul Harral: harral@star-telegram.com

Russell’s compiled responses to Chuck Colson

This message is part of a continuing discussion with Chuck Colson.  For my initial email to him, see this post.  For Chuck’s replies:

Chuck Colson’s post #1; Chuck Colson’s post #2; Chuck Colson’s post #3

 

To Chuck Colson:

It has taken me a while, but I’ve replied to the major points in the three letters you sent to me regarding my review of The Faith.  Please visit the following links to see this three part reply.

Part 1: Faith and certainty
Excerpt:

“To return to the original theme that I touched upon when I discussed your book, the main difference between your position and mine appears to be that you have chosen to take a position of unwavering certainty, and then you describe that as knowledge.  But it’s a highly subjective kind of knowledge, for your central point is that knowledge begins with something that (you acknowledge) you have arbitrarily decided to believe without reason.”

Part 2: Prison Ministry statistics revisited
Excerpt:

“It’s not the soundness of your methodology that I’ve questioned here; it’s the results.  The study looked fine to me, and I certainly can’t go back and try to reproduce the results myself.   But I don’t need to.  The study you referenced already demonstrates that the program was counter-productive.  In fact, if you look at page 18, it’s stated explicitly: ‘Simply stated, participation in the program is not related to recidivism reduction.'”

Part 3: Slavery and Christianity
Excerpt:

“While I would agree that you could not fault Christianity for a misapplication of the teachings in the Bible, we are not talking here about people who read clear injunctions against slavery and rebelled against them.  We are talking precisely about what it says in the Bible that clearly supports slavery.  For better or worse, Stringfellow seems to me to have been a sincere Christian who genuinely believed that he was acting in accordance with the clear commands of the Bible.  The Bible said to hold slaves, and he preached that Christians should hold slaves.”

Although I waited longer than I intended to get back to you, I want to say that I did appreciate your response, and continue to enjoy the opportunity to explore our differences.  I’ll make no promises that my next response will be speedier than this one, so feel free to take as much time as you need if you would like to get back to me.

Sincerely,
Russell Glasser

Is Religion Beneficial to Society?

I’m currently in a correspondence with a person who is offering me the tired line that religion is helpful to people and not in conflict with science and has been involved in some worthy efforts.

This morning, February 25, in the Austin American-Statesman, there were two articles—one on the front page of the National section, and one on the front of the Local and State—that covered dangerous errors in sex education in our schools and legislation undermining the relationship between a woman and her doctor, which also noted that our governor has once again spoken out against medical research that researchers believe could yield beneficial medical results. Make no mistake, these initiatives are designed purely to resonate among religious constituents. Are there nonreligious people who might (and do) support these same measures? Yes, I’m sure there are. Would there be enough people motivated outside of religious initiatives to make these “issues” important to legislators? I highly doubt it. The reason they are “issues” is because they are religiously supported agendas. And religion means numbers.

I agree that religion is not in conflict with science—in any area where science is not in conflict with religion. However, as soon as science puts forward any assertion that does not correlate to religious claims, science comes under attack from religion, and bad things happen. The correspondent pointed out that Islamic nations long ago were among some of the most progressive thinkers in math and science. I have heard this, too. However, I wonder what sorts progressive thinking applied to apostates and heretics in these same ancient Islamic nations? Was a conversion to another religion (outside of Islam) taken in stride, do you think?

I don’t claim that where religion doesn’t conflict with X, religion will automatically oppose X. But where religion perceives that X opposes religion, X will be castigated by religious adherents—often violently and forcefully. We see it daily. And I am unaware of a time when it wasn’t so.

For awhile, I’ve been mentioning to Matt that I would like to see a publication of the letters we get to the TV-List. I would devote a section to all the letters, like this latest, telling me that religion is benign or good for people for the most part. And I would follow that section with all the letters we get from adherents telling us that their religion is good, who after a few exchanges say that mass genocide, mass infanticide, suicide-mass-murder, rape, slavery and child sacrifice are all morally acceptable if, and only if, a god tells you to do these things.

I often hear the question “Name one benefit religion offers that could not be achieved secularly (without the lies and harm that comes with religion).” It’s not a benefit, but I have found that you can get a person to say that “X is not moral in situation Y,” and then turn around in only one or two exchanges and get them to say “X was moral in situation Y because there was an added caveat that god said to do it.”

Religion can take a human being who is willing to condemn an action as immoral in a particular circumstance, and get them to say that same action is moral in that same circumstance, if a god says to do it. Now, there are certainly regimes that can get people to commit atrocities that aren’t religious. But it would be hard to get someone who is not a sociopath to admit in a hypothetical that he’d be willing to slaughter children in droves if a charismatic leader asked him to do it, or that he would kill his own child at the request of some persuasive person. Might he do it for a person if the situation actually arose? Yes. He might. Is he likely to foresee and admit that a human could ever convince him to do it (without some form of immediate duress)? No.

Is a belief system that can take a person’s moral reason and short-circuit that to “obey without question” a benign and harmless system? Aren’t we describing a ticking time bomb? What stands between this person committing atrocities—but something to convince him it’s what his god wants out of him? Is a person who says that killing children is right if god requests it, honestly that different than a person who actually kills children because he believes god requested it? Aren’t they the same person, except that one is merely waiting for some cue?

I recall a particular letter from a father of a nine-month-old who wrote to say that even if his religion isn’t true, what harm is it to raise his daughter in Christianity?

I asked him if he accepted the doctrines of hell and salvation. He did. I explained that in his paradigm, salvation requires a blanket condemnation of all human beings as imperfect for being who and what they are. Salvation and hell don’t mean “imperfect” as in “nobody’s perfect,” but “imperfect” as in “You are so horribly and inherently flawed, that by rights you deserve eternal torture according to god, and as your Christian dad, I have to agree that’s exactly what someone like you, my child, should get.”

I asked him what he thought it would mean to a little girl to know that her father sees her as that sort of a horrible being—inherently flawed to the point of complete and total unacceptability?

Initially he attempted to argue god’s love for us and how god wants us to go to heaven and not go to hell. But he couldn’t really find a way to get around the fact that his doctrines meant that he had to say he thought his daughter was inherently flawed and that nothing intrinsic to her could ever be “good enough” to merit anything but eternal punishment. He finally grasped that if there were something she could do that would make her “good enough” to not merit an eternity of torture, then intervention by Jesus would be unnecessary—negating the doctrine of salvation through Jesus. And without someone like Jesus granting her god’s “mercy” (mercy, meaning it’s not what she really deserves, but what god gives her regardless of her undeserving nature), she was hopeless and despicable.

Most of us would normally have a hard time saying any of our worst recorded criminals should be, by rights, tortured for eternity. But even if we felt that way about a person, I would expect that their actions would have to be, in some regard, fairly heinous. Someone might want revenge on Hitler to the point of hoping for a merciless, vengeful eternity of torture. But an average child? Or even an average adult? It’s hard to believe anyone would say that any of our friends and neighbors should be deserving of torture for ten minutes, let alone eternity?

I asked this dad what he would think of a neighbor who each day sat his own kids down and told them, “I think you are all such despicable children that you deserve nothing less than to be beaten without mercy, but since I love you so much, I won’t do that to you, so long as you tell me how truly sorry you are that you’re who and what you are—utterly unworthy.”

I don’t say there aren’t or couldn’t be secular systems that impact normal people’s minds and thwart their reason and moral sense in this way. I don’t say that nonreligious systems can’t and haven’t gotten good people to do bad things. What I’m saying is that I’d be hard pressed to get a human with a normally developed brain, who isn’t already abusive or a sociopath, to say—in a purely hypothetical framework—that people ought to be tortured simply for being people—and for no other reason.

I have never met people who have told me that any historical or current genocide or mass infanticide was “morally right” for any reason other than “god commanded it.” And I haven’t just met a few of those. I’ve met many. And I’m still meeting them. And I can Google their responses to the Old Testament stories and find site after site attesting to the moral correctness of committing atrocities for the Christian god. And I can
’t stress strongly enough that these are not the Fred Phelps’s of the world. These are good, tax-paying, loving, caring, generous people who work and live along side us all in every segment of our society. In fact, any Christian who accepts the Bible as true and god as good, must assert these actions are good in any situation where they are commanded by a god.

There is something unnerving about living in a society where the predominant religion is one that can make a standard, normal human assert that atrocities should never be committed—except when god says to commit them. And then recognizing that in this same society, most of my fellow citizens believe a god exists and in some way communicates or has communicated with them and/or others. And that they further believe that this god, according to their sacred texts, has righteously commanded such atrocities to be committed by his adherents.

Call me crazy?

Kazim to Chuck Colson: Slavery and Christianity

References:

I’d like to turn back to your second message, and the question of slavery. I pointed out in my earlier post that, rather than taking it as a given that Christians have always been the natural opponents of slavery, you might acknowledge that the Bible has frequently been used in the past to justify slavery. As an example I brought up the 19th century Reverend Thornton Stringfellow, who wrote a persuasive sermon supporting slavery as a Biblical institution. Your response, in a nutshell, was this:

“There are 1.9 billion Christians in the world today. You cannot judge Jesus Christ by the behavior of any one of them or any group of them, for that matter.”

Well, of course you can’t. I agree: you can’t judge the value of a philosophy based solely on the behavior of its adherents. But if that is the case, then certainly the reverse is also true: You can’t judge Christianity positively based on the good actions of its followers. Yet you do this continually throughout The Faith: you bring up actions taken by historical Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and you present them as if they were some kind of demonstration that Christianity is a good philosophy.

Here’s my problem with that. Either you can judge Christianity by its followers, or you can’t. I admire Bonhoeffer for his bravery, but I don’t regard his actions as a justification for Christianity in their own right. I admire Martin Luther King, Jr. for his work with civil rights, but the respect I have for Dr. King does not require me to accept his faith as correct. It is not that I oppose your pride in members of your faith who exhibited strong dedication to benefitting their fellow man. What concerns me is that your pride in these people is used in your book, as it is in many apologetic works, to implicitly claim that Christianity confers some virtue that is not present in secular individuals like me.

However, if you can judge Christianity by the actions of Bonhoeffer and King, then it is fair game to also judge it by the actions of Reverend Thornton Stringfellow. Stringfellow strongly argued that the Old Testament was explicitly pro-slavery, and having read both the Bible and the speech, I feel like his arguments do have merit. Why don’t we just make an agreement that you cannot judge Jesus Christ by the behavior of his followers, good or bad? Likewise, why not agree that a person such as Joseph Stalin does not represent any kind of coherent atheistic philosophy, and refrain from saying (as you frequently do) that this is where atheism inevitably leads? I am an atheist, and I have no more interest in setting up political prisons or Gulags than you have in owning slaves.

You also write:

“I have made the argument in the book that the Christian church has opposed slavery from the beginning. In no way did I mean to imply that there haven’t been Christians who have been disobedient to the Scripture and the teachings of the church. There have been all through history. There are millions today who claim to be followers of Christ but who do not follow Christ’s commands. All of us, even the strongest believers, are under the effects of the Fall.”

While I would agree that you could not fault Christianity for a misapplication of the teachings in the Bible, we are not talking here about people who read clear injunctions against slavery and rebelled against them. We are talking precisely about what it says in the Bible that clearly supports slavery. For better or worse, Stringfellow seems to me to have been a sincere Christian who genuinely believed that he was acting in accordance with the clear commands of the Bible. The Bible said to hold slaves, and he preached that Christians should hold slaves.

“I also cannot justify the words of the Old Testament. It was a recognition by God to His covenant people of a practice that was wide-spread at that time in every culture, that His people would encounter. But it is in no way carried forward into the New Testament. My argument, remember, turns on the teachings of the Christian church and the New Testament.”

Of course. I have to say I appreciate your honest recognition of some ethical failings in the teachings of the Old Testament; I think it’s very forthright of you.

Yet, the Christian Bible contains both the Old and New Testaments, and Jesus says “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18) Throughout the New Testament, Jesus never explicitly says that slavery is forbidden; on the contrary, he gives further instructions on how to treat one’s slaves rather than taking the opportunity to abolish this practice.

On page 178 of The Faith, you do cite a verse on where Paul of Tarsus says “there is neither slave nor free” (Galatians 3:28) as an example of the New Testament’s opposition to slavery. I don’t see this as a very strong condemnation, however, considering that the same passage also says that there is neither male nor female. That would have interesting implications for our definition of marriage, don’t you think? 😉 I find it hard to believe that Paul was literally saying there are no genders; only that a person’s identity in life ultimately doesn’t matter. That isn’t much of a case to free your slaves, any more than it is a case to get a sex change.

You also mentioned 1 Timothy 1:10 as condemning slave traders. It’s hard to be sure that this is what is meant by the context. The King James Version of the Bible says “menstealers,” which is somewhat ambiguous. The New American Standard and several other versions simply say “kidnappers.” Since many of the Old Testament passages regarding slavery indicate that slaves were either sold by their parents or captured as prisoners of war, this also doesn’t seem to work as a blanket condemnation of the practice.

It certainly is not my intent to argue over what is the correct Biblical interpretation. Clearly you have a more vested interest in that than I do; to me, the Bible is just a book with some good things, some bad things, and some ambiguous things in it. My point here isn’t that the pro-slavery interpretation is right or not; it’s just that the Bible on its own really can’t, and hasn’t been, the final arbiter of moral truth. Reading the Bible, it’s clear that reasonable people can disagree, and their interpretation of which meaning is best will likely be colored by their social background. I have no doubt that before the civil war, a relatively large number of people believed the Bible to be pro-slavery, while today relatively few do.

What this says to me is that morality has an undeniable cultural component, and this worldly influence can be a force for positive as well as negative. I don’t think you’re comfortable with this claim, but I think the whole slavery issue should make it fairly clear that this is true even if the Bible is treated as one possible source of moral values. I would venture to say that we as a society and as a culture are better off now, in terms of quality of life, than we would have been if we had stuck to the old Biblical traditions — both those that turned a blind eye to slavery, and those that explicitly endorsed it.

Open thread on today’s show

I’m actually typing this with about 15 minutes left to go in the program. But we’ve already had the epic 48-minute sequel discussion with Matt Slick, and I’m sure people will have a lot of feedback.

Generally speaking, I think Slick really got his deer-in-the-headlights thing on when Matt D. pointed out the distinction — which Slick pointedly refused to recognize, whether he really didn’t or was just pretending not to in order to defend his position — between logical absolutes as essential properties of reality, and the discipline of logic which we as thinking beings use to understand reality. In an uninhabited universe with no minds, a rock is still a rock and not a mushroom. Slick insisted this could not be the case, conflating the logical process by which we understand “A=A” with the physical object “A,” the rock. Then, in order to take control of a discussion that was getting away from him, he got Matt D. bogged down by demanding that Matt D. define a “third option” beyond “physical” and “conceptual”. I think Matt D. slipped up a little here, in that he let himself get flustered and angry at Slick’s little Mexican Hat Dance around his salient criticism of TAG, as well as by Slick’s aggressive subject-changing and obfuscation. I wish Matt D. had just asked, “So is God conceptual?”

On the whole, though, Matt D. mopped the floor with Slick, because Slick’s only response to Matt’s pointing out the contradiction in claiming absolutes to be both conceptual and not contingent on minds was to say, basically, “Nuh-uh.” Slick’s exercise in distracting and flustering Matt was quite intentional. Having done this for years, I recognize the argumentation tactic of “if you can’t beat ’em, piss ’em off” that apologists employ as a matter of course.

But did you catch the part where Slick essentially admitted God could not be omnipotent, because God could not do anything to defy a logical absolute? Which Matt D. then pointed out proved that God had to be contingent upon logical absolutes and not the author of them? To which Slick again responded with “Nuh-uh”? Based on today’s call, it seems clear to me that all Slick is doing with TAG is trying to find a way to call logic “God.”

Great episode, though. Discuss amongst yourselves.

They do homophobia bigger in Utah!

If you haven’t seen this delirious anti-gay ad that recently ran in the Salt Lake City paper, placed by AmericaForever.com, one of those patriotism-is-the-last-refuge-of-scoundrels Christian hate groups, you haven’t lived. I don’t know what’s funnier here. Just basking in the raving paranoia and idiocy (seriously, people, if you really believe your own marriages will be devalued by letting gay couples marry, then your marriages aren’t worth shit to begin with); trying to count the misspellings and number of fonts used; or simply having a chuckle over the we-didn’t-catch-the-irony use of such words as “backdoor”.

Enjoy. And, uh, think of the children.

But there’s more. Here’s an example of thermostupid right from their website, copied as written, without editing or corrections.

They are using intimadation to gain ground and are lying to the public, ALL THEY WANT IS MARRIAGE RIGHTS to valdite their relationship of the same-sex!!! THEY ALREADY HAVE THE RIGHT to Marry, a gay man can marry a gay woman!

Comedy frickin’ gold!

TAG, you’re not it

As I’ve been away from the blog for way too long, I thought it’d be a prime opportunity to get back in the swing of things with my tuppence on the last AE TV show, and the whole dustup with CARM’s Matt Slick over his use of TAG, the Transcendental Argument for God. I’m going to comment, not on the show — which, sue me, I still haven’t seen, but which sounds to me like it was a terrific episode, due to the response it’s gotten from viewers both pro and con; I judge the show’s merits by how passionately it engages our audience, and not how well the hosts did or didn’t do, as you always find yourself Monday-morning-quarterbacking the damn thing once it’s done — but the argument as Slick presents it on CARM’s site. He is known to boast that no atheist has ever been able to respond to it, which I find hard to believe, since its flaws are readily apparent.

I won’t make this as epic a post as my recent two-parter replying to questions from apologists like Habermas. And it isn’t going to be the ultimate in comprehensive refutations of TAG either; there’s a lot more that other writers have said than I even begin to touch on here. I’ll just cut to the chase: the argument essentially tries to establish that the universe operates logically, and that it could not do so if the Christian God had not set it up that way.

When discussing what he terms logical absolutes, Slick is largely correct. The three laws are accurate as far as I can determine, and he’s right when he says that truth cannot be self-contradictory and so on. If there were no minds in the universe to think about these things, a rock on a barren planet would still conform to the law of identity. It would be what it is, and not be what it isn’t. Slick’s sound on his premises more or less, but keep in mind that what he’s talking about here are logical absolutes — that is to say, unadorned, bald, ontological facts about reality — and not the formalized methods of logic as an intellectual discipline. This distinction is important, as Slick will begin sneakily conflating the two as he gets closer to his conclusion.

Where Slick starts wobbling is in 4C.

4. Logical Absolutes are transcendent

    A. Logical Absolutes are not dependent on space.
    1. They do not stop being true dependent on location. If we traveled a million light years in a direction, logical absolutes are still true.
    B. Logical Absolutes are not dependent on time.
    1. They do not stop being true dependent on time. If we traveled a billion in the future or past, logical absolutes are still true.
    C. Logical Absolutes are not dependent on people. That is, they are not the product of human thinking.
    1. People’s minds are different. What one person considers to be absolute may not be what another considers to be absolute. People often contradict each other. Therefore, Logical Absolutes cannot be the product of human, contradictory minds.
    2. If Logical Absolutes were the product of human minds, then they would cease to exist if people ceased to exist which would mean they would be dependent on human minds. But this cannot be so per the previous point.

You may have notice how carefully a card has been palmed under C. Slick states that absolutes are not dependent on people. What he should have said here, as it would have been more strictly accurate, is not “people” but “minds.” For one thing, minds are what he’s talking about, after all, not spleens or toenails. And in points C1 and C2, he does clarify that he’s referring to minds. But why set things up by referring to human minds specifically? Because he wants to leave the backdoor open for a transcendent, supernatural mind, conveniently belonging to his God, as an explanation for logical absolutes.

Having palmed his card in 4C, Slick switches it in point 6. Watch carefully:

6. Logical Absolutes are conceptual by nature

    Logic is a process of the mind. Logical absolutes provide the framework for logical thought processes. Therefore, Logical Absolutes are conceptual by nature.
    1. If they are conceptual by nature, they are not dependent upon the physical universe for their existence.

Did you catch that? Moments ago, Slick was telling us that logical absolutes cannot be the product of minds. Then here, he switches from talking about logical absolutes to logic-the-discipline, which very much is a “process of the mind”. Then in his very next sentences, he switches right back to absolutes again, declaring them “conceptual” (that is, the products of mind) right after telling us, more or less correctly, that flawed human minds cannot have anything to do with them. There’s the conflation of logical absolutes with logic-the-discipline.

Slick doesn’t want logical absolutes to be the product of flawed material human minds, but he wants them to be the product of someone’s mind, namely God’s. So he has to introduce a bit of legerdemain at the right moment in his proof to get himself to his God. Which brings us to point 7, in which Slick, having laid down a number of observations of logical absolutes in nature, proceeds to pull God out of his hat in the mother of all non sequiturs.

7. Thoughts reflect the mind

  1. A person’s thoughts reflect what he or she is.
  2. Absolutely perfect thoughts reflect an absolutely perfect mind.
  3. Since the Logical Absolutes are transcendent, absolute, are perfectly consistent, and are independent of the universe, then they reflect a transcendent, absolute, perfect, and independent mind.
  4. We call this transcendent, absolute, perfect, and independent mind, God.

Sorry, Matt, but absolutely nothing in the preceding six points has supported the conclusion you reach in your seventh. You could just as meaningfully have written, “We call this transcendent, absolute, perfect, and independent mind, Gus the Magic Cosmic Hippo.”

Let’s get down to a few details. First off, logical absolutes. Here is where Don Baker and Slick really tussled on the show, and I think shows how Slick’s conflation of concepts in logic have really muddied the waters here. Let’s just take one of the three absolutes: the law of identity.

What the law of identity describes is a condition of reality that exists, independent of mind or anything else. That anywhere in the universe, whether there is life and a mind to observe it or not, an existing thing will be what it is, and it won’t be what it isn’t.

But in determining that such absolutes are not contingent upon minds, and furthermore, that a mind is a flawed thing that can make incorrect judgments about things, Slick is at a loss to explain them. He does not wish to consider that a fact of nature may simply be a fact of nature. So he has to jump to the conclusion that a transcendent mind must have conceived of what the flawed human mind cannot. Then, Slick just decides to call that mind God, even though there is nothing in the entire preceding argument whatsoever to lead one to conclude, logically, that such a transcendent mind must necessarily be that of the Biblical God. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. After everything Slick has constructed in a largely impressive-sounding proof, he simply gives us an upmarket, designer-label variant of “God of the Gaps”.

There are other little nagging flaws you could nitpick to death, such as the faux-conclusion “Absolutely perfect thoughts reflect an absolutely perfect mind.” The natural response here is to ask Slick how he, with his imperfect and flawed human mind, can consider himself in any position to recognize an absolutely perfect thought when he encounters it. And remember, when this whole argument started, logical absolutes were not the product, nor could they be, of a mind at all. Until point 6, when logic-the-discipline and logical absolutes did a brief switcheroo that allowed Slick to shoehorn in his pe
rfect, transcendent mind. Then, the “absolutes” became “conceptual,” and thus contingent upon an “absolutely perfect mind.”

But there’s another problem.

For the “perfect, transcendent mind” Slick proposes to exist, it must conform as well to logical absolutes like the law of identity. If God exists, he must be God. Even if he were a God who could magically change his form into a fish or talking donkey or what have you, he would still, in those situations, be God. He wouldn’t be God and Not-God. He couldn’t be all-powerful and possess no powers whatsoever at the same time.

So for God to exist, he must exist in a logical framework. Thus logical absolutes cannot be contingent upon God. God must be contingent upon logical absolutes. QED.

Slick purports to address a number of objections, though he doesn’t really refute the objections he lists so much as ask questions about them. I’ll only deal with the first two.

Logical Absolutes are the result of natural existence

  1. In what sense are they the result of natural existence? How do conceptual absolutes form as a result of the existence of matter?

If you work from a primacy-of-existence metaphysics as I do, then you realize that a logical order is entailed by the nature of existence itself. Existence exists, which is not a statement that requires a proof, I shouldn’t think. And to exist is to exist as something, as George H. Smith pointed out in Atheism: The Case Against God. I suppose a person could propose the existence of something that took no form whatsoever (in fact, they’ve done so: it’s God). But then you’re stuck trying to offer proofs. And yet, what’s the difference between something that takes no form of any kind, and something that does not exist?

Also, notice again how slick Slick is with his language here. Once more, the logical absolutes that are not in any way a product of mind have become “conceptual” absolutes when Slick needs them to. Well, while the law of identity as it is put into words by logicians may be “conceptual,” the thing the law describes is an actual, not conceptual, absolute. And actual absolutes are inherent in nature. Unless my imperfect mind is totally misrepresenting nature to me, and I’m just a brain in a vat! Blub, blub.

Logical Absolutes simply exist.

  1. This is begging the question and does not provide an explanation for their existence. Simply saying they exist is not an answer.

But Matt, your whole argument here has been in aid of getting you to God, a being whom you assume simply to exist, and for whose existence, if you were asked, you would say did not require an explanation.

Since I consider existence to be a causal primary, I don’t think an explanation is needed for the existence of existence. But even though I’ll willingly admit I could be wrong, I think my position is at least more sound than yours, in that existence really does exist, obviously enough so that it shouldn’t require proof, as your God does. And as I’ve explained, your God would have to adhere to logical absolutes like the law of identity himself in order to exist. So I’m afraid you’re going to have to do better than TAG in future if you want to demonstrate God’s existence, let alone that the universe is contingent upon him.

The Slick Transcendental Argument

On the February 15th episode of the Atheist Experience, we got a call from a “Matt Slick” from the Christian Apologetics Research Ministry. Unfortunately, Matt Dillahunty had been arranging this call [edit: No he hadn’t, please see comments. -Kazim] and Mr. Slick happened to call in when our Matt was not on the air. Matt has been anxious to debate Mr. Slick, so he was frustrated that he wasn’t on that week. Matt is hoping for Mr. Slick to call again next week.

After a little discussion, Mr. Slick chose to present us a version of the Transcendental Argument for the existence of God. Apparently, it’s the one for which most atheists are the least prepared to debate. Unfortunately, Russell and I took a different debate strategy with our guest and it didn’t come off as well as it might have. I took the strategy of questioning assumptions as they came across, which perhaps bogged down the discussion. Mr. Slick was frustrated he didn’t get to arrive at the latter part of his argument with his assumptions intact, which might have been the real source of his frustration. Eventually, we ran out of time and he gave the link to his version of the argument before we ended the episode.

At dinner, we had some debate about the nature of logic and I seem to have a position that is not the majority one. I’d like to explain my position and why it sabotages Mr. Slick’s argument early on.

Formal logic is a branch of discrete mathematics invented by humans. It concerns the truth or falsehood of logical propositions. The beauty of it is that it is sound, meaning that if the assumptions are correct and the operations are properly applied, the result will also be true. Another important thing to understand is that, like any tool, it’s not universally applicable. It doesn’t apply (without modification) to truth values that change over time, things that are not discrete (think clouds, water droplets, or wave-particle duality), or infinite things. As with any tool, if it’s miss-applied, you will get incorrect results. This is the point I was trying to make in the call.

Mr. Slick was trying to make the point that logic is absolute—that it is true in all times, places, and circumstances. I disagree with this statement. In his argument, for example, he refers to a “Law of identity”, “Law of non-contradiction”, and “Law of excluded middle.” Mr. Slick is trying to lay the groundwork for a Law Giver who will eventually be the author of such laws. What Mr. Slick calls the “Law of identity” is really just the definition of equality. Exactly how you define equality is effectively a human-based assumption built into the model. The “Law of non-contraction” concerns the desirability of soundness of the system, meaning that if you build on false statements, you can no longer trust the conclusion. Soundness is a human-desired property of a formal system and we would reject any system that didn’t have it (and yes, such systems exist). Finally, what he calls the “Law of excluded middle” is an axiom of formal logic. Axioms are assumptions (made by humans) that may not be applicable in all situations. The point here is that no God is involved. Mr. Slick’s argument is on shaky ground from the beginning.

Formal logic is the basis of mathematics, computer science, and other disciplines. It is astoundingly useful, when it is properly applied. Mr. Slick tries to make a rather muddy point that logic is universal and therefore transcendent. The above discussion is necessary to tease apart several possible meanings of this statement.

  • It is not the case that it applies universally and we need to look no further than his own “proof” statements to see some problems:
    • Both conception and death are processes that last over time. There are times where it is ambiguous as to whether or not a person is dead or whether an embryo has been conceived. They are not two-valued things, such as is assumed by formal logic. Likewise, there is no such thing as a “moment of conception” as Christian propagandists would have you believe.
    • Living things change constantly over time, so the notion of what it means to be “the same” from one hour, year, century, has to be carefully defined before any meaningful conclusions can be drawn.
    • Clouds are not discrete objects. Combining two clouds yields one cloud. Does that mean that 1+1 = 1, and one of the first two clouds no longer exists? (Answer: it depends exactly on what you mean by “exist.”)
    • Many quantum mechanical events, such as radioactive decay, are uncaused. (Too bad for the cosmological argument for the existence of a god.)
  • It is absolutely true that formal logic is sound. That is, whenever the assumptions and methods are properly used, they yield correct results. It doesn’t matter where, when, or by whom the model is applied. In this sense, it is absolute and universal.
  • It’s even possible that, given just how useful formal logic is, other races will have invented it independently. Nobody has any evidence for this conclusion, but I think it’s likely. We know of no other species that have independently invented/discovered it, so Mr. Slick has yet to prove it’s absolute in this sense. He is trying to hide an assumption that a god created logic inside a proof of the existence of such a god. This is a circularity that renders Mr. Slick’s argument unsound (false).

Mr. Slick then goes on to say that logic is the product of only minds. It is true that humans invented it, but machines can carry it out. There are computer programs called theorem provers that can perform proofs of novel propositions. A version of the famous four color problem was solved by a computer before it was solved by a human. In his proof, Mr. Slick goes asserts that somehow minds are necessary to apply logic. Mr. Slick’s god is apparently not much better than a calculator.

So even before we get to the “meat” of Mr. Slick’s argument, we find it riddled with falsehoods and muddled thinking. I’ll let Matt refute the rest of the argument on the show, should Mr. Slick call back, but essentially, the rest of the argument is a blatant attempt to steal credit from the hard work of mathematicians that Mr. Slick hasn’t taken the trouble to understand.

I find it pathetic that billions of people believe in an omniscient God, nearly all of them claim to be in direct communication with Him, yet together they can’t come up with any evidence for Him. Mr. Slick lived up to my impression of apologists—intellectually dishonest people who are happy to mislead others using logical fallacies and manipulation. The world would be a better place without these con artists.

Kazim to Chuck Colson: Faith and certainty

References:

Hello again Chuck,

Thanks again for taking the time to compose thoughtful replies to my discussion of your book. This time I’ll have to echo your apology for taking so long to reply. I’ve had an extremely eventful year, and it took me a while to devote time to giving your three messages the attention that they deserved. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve chosen to break down my replies into a series of multiple posts, and I will be treating your posts out of sequence.

I’d like to start by discussing the position on faith that you revealed in your second and third messages. I have to say that your perspective surprised me a bit. As I had previously noted, throughout your book you chastised postmodernists for their position that there is no objective truth, only subjectivity. Yet in your recent message, you came out with an extraordinary pro-subjectivity statement:

“All thought begins with faith. All intellectual inquiry begins with certain presuppositions. These by necessity are made without evidence and have to be taken on faith. The idea that evidence is superior to faith as a root to knowledge is one of those presuppositions: it is unproven and non-provable. So it must be taken as a priori; that is, prior to experience, or in other words, on faith.”

What I found particularly remarkable about this claim was that it almost perfectly echoes claims by the very same post-modernist movement that you have so often decried. Like you, post-modernists believe that reason is just another form of faith, and that there is no way to objectively determine the nature of reality outside your own mind, and the only thing that can be described as “true” is what is “true for me.” I disagree with post-modernists: I believe that reality exists, and that it is independent of individual minds or beliefs. While it is by necessity investigated and interpreted by fallible humans, the nature of “knowledge” is that it must be accurate; i.e., it must conform to a reality which is not dependent on belief.

When I read your statement above, it sounded to me as if you don’t really feel the same. When you say “faith,” you appear to be implying that knowledge is a subjective matter, which may be said to be entirely dependent on the observer. If I adopt a position of faith that, for instance, Allah is God, and I will be rewarded with 72 virgins if I die as a martyr, then that belief is “true for me.”

I thought I must be mistaken; this couldn’t possibly be your position. Perhaps you meant something different than I do when you use the word “faith.” After all, you had claimed that St. Augustine’s influence “gave Christians the liberty to use reason when interpreting their faith.” (Incidentally, I find this a curious statement. Why should they even need permission to use reason?) In any case, because of this nod to “reason,” I thought perhaps you were implying that faith is simply an application of justified belief; a corollary to reason.

However, reading your other statements about faith, it became clear to me that you DO in fact set the concept of faith as something separate and apart from reason. Let me highlight a few examples of other places where you applied the word:

“But if we could prove the existence of God, we wouldn’t have to have faith.”

(Clearly, you are setting faith in opposition to the notion of coming up with some kind of objective demonstration of the reality of God.)

“God is that which is greater than that which we can know. It’s almost by very definition what we mean when we say God. And if we could know Him, we wouldn’t love Him. Faith is required for a relationship between the Creator and His creatures.”

(In other words, by saying that if we have faith in God, we are explicitly ruling out the possibility that we can actually know God.)

When I look at your response from this perspective, what I get from your declaration of faith is the following: You think we cannot prove anything, even in a conventional sense; we cannot know anything; we cannot claim objective certainty of anything except through the subjective lens of our own fallible human minds. Therefore, we might as well just treat the things we fervently believe as “True.” So tell me, how is this not the essence of post-modernism boiled down to its purest form?

What’s interesting is that when it suits your purpose, you freely use the term “faith” as a pejorative, again in the sense of “belief without evidence,” as long as it can apply to those with whom you disagree. For instance, when you speak of Darwin, you say this:

“Yet on the basis of naturalistic presuppositions—a faith position—he had to make this argument, and scientists who share that faith position must also support it.”

So you ridicule Darwin’s scientific conclusions as “a faith position,” yet elsewhere you have repeatedly said that faith is the most important thing there is. I mean, really, it’s right there in the title of your book. This leads me to wonder: how do you, Chuck, go about disting
uishing which kind of faith is worth supporting, and which kind is ridiculous?

To return to the original theme that I touched upon when I discussed your book, the main difference between your position and mine appears to be that you have chosen to take a position of unwavering certainty, and then you describe that as knowledge. But it’s a highly subjective kind of knowledge, for your central point is that knowledge begins with something that (you acknowledge) you have arbitrarily decided to believe without reason. So again, if you’re going to take that point of view, I don’t see a useful way to distinguish your faith from the faith of a Muslim, a Mormon, a Wiccan, or a Jehovah’s Witness – all of whom stand on faith-based principles with which I am sure you disagree.

I wish to turn now to your third message, in which you attempted to justify this style of faith. You say:

“I started thinking about your comment about my being so certain in my convictions that I came across as somewhat arrogant. I think you’re probably right. And the reason, I realized as I was thinking about it, is that I have spent much time over the years pondering this question rationally.”

“I suddenly realized I did have a good ability to think. And ever since then I have really enjoyed the life of the mind. But I do apologize if I’ve come across as arrogant. I have nothing to be arrogant about; whatever good I have done is a gift from God.”

I don’t begrudge you the confidence in your own abilities. I too have spent a lot of time considering these issues, and I have a similar high opinion of myself – I’m confident that what I think is probably right because I’ve already given it a lot of thought. Both of us hold inherently subjective opinions, but we are basing them to some extent on our own past experience, which is certainly one component of reason, and hence a step in the direction of objectivity.

So if you are confident in your own mind that your position is the right one, then that’s great; enjoy your certainty. If your only goal in writing your book is to “preach to the choir,” then by all means, just tell your audience that you know you are right from experience, and they’ll probably believe you.

But I was under the impression that you wrote your book at least partly in order to persuade unbelievers like myself that your position is correct. I recognize that you would like to help me get saved from the fire and damnation that you feel certain is in store for me. Unfortunately, I need to point out that merely stating “I know it is true because I am thoughtful and intelligent” doesn’t really achieve that goal. Instead, it is an obvious effort to set yourself up as an authority by fiat: “You should believe this because I believe it, and I must be right.”

If I were to accept this sort of rhetorical tactic, I would be basing my beliefs on something truly subjective. Either I just agree to accept you (or somebody else) as the ultimate arbiter of knowledge, or I accept everybody’s beliefs as equally valid, even contradictory beliefs. Neither reaction strikes me as a satisfying approach to knowledge.