Monday, February 21, 2011

Christian Apologetics and "Presuppositional Biases"

In a recent exchange over at Clay Jones’ apologetics blog, I was again told that the reason I was not accepting the arguments presented for the resurrection of Jesus was my “presuppositional bias against miracles”. Since that particular article contains over 130 comments, I felt I had said all I could say against the arguments presented, and decided to comment no further. Since the only real response to my arguments was that regarding my “presuppositional bias”, and since most of these kinds of debates eventually come to this charge of “bias”, I thought I would briefly address that issue here.

We have all heard it. Those of us who occasionally engage in online debate have all heard, “you do not believe because of your prepositional bias against the miraculous” at some point. Back when I was a Christian, I heard it from various Calvary Chapel pulpits when the likes of Skip Heitzig or Chuck Missler trained us in Apologetics. They sometimes used the word “worldview” or addressed the issue of the “worldview” of the Christian versus that of the non-Christian. I personally cannot stand the word “worldview”, and only use it now because I know it is a familiar word in the Apologetic lingo. Calvary Chapel pastors and other Christian apologists taught me that unbelievers do not disbelieve the evidence in favor of Christian dogma because of the poor quality of the evidence, but because of their own stubborn will. Since unbelievers were unwilling to accept the existence of miracles, they were therefore unwilling, a priori, to accept the existence of God. Therefore, I was taught to think and argue, rejecting Jesus Christ was not a matter of the Intellect, but a matter of the Will.

After hearing this charge, both as a Christian and as a non-Christian, for literally decades, I have come to the conclusion that this charge is, simply put, a copout from the apologist. It is nothing more than a more sophisticated way of saying “You need Faith to believe, and without Faith you cannot please God”, and just like the Faith argument, it is a conversation stopper.

From now on, when I am confronted with this charge against me, I will not accept it. I will not agree with the Christian that “we all have biases”, and I will not accept it as a valid point. Arguing against my supposed philosophical predispositions, presuppositions or biases are lazy, presumptuous, arrogant, dishonest, and an admission that there are no sound rational arguments to present.

When a Christian uses this argument against me, they are, in essence, saying that their arguments are so solid, so airtight, that there is no possible way I could not be convinced. But since I am not convinced, the problem must lie elsewhere besides the actual argument of the Christian. The only option available is to claim that I have “biases”, that I come into the argument already believing what I want to believe, that not accepting the obviously unbeatable Christian argument is a matter of my Will not to accept it. Counter arguments from me simply do not matter and do not need to be addressed, since the Christian has already made a charge against my “biases”.

The Christian who assumes that their apologetic argument is so solid that rejecting the argument must be chalked up to my supposed “presupposition”, is saying exactly this: “My arguments are not good enough to convince you? Fine. Simple solution – you don’t want to be convinced by my arguments, because I know I am correct. End of discussion.”

This is both arrogant and lazy. It is lazy because it ends the discussion. It is lazy because it is an admission by the Christian that they are not willing to engage my counter-argument. It is arrogant because the Christian assumes that there is no valid counter-argument against their apologetic, so supposed “presuppositions” must be resorted to. It is also arrogant because the Christian assumes they can somehow divine, even as an anonymous poster on an Internet blog, my inner-most philosophical leanings, personal convictions, level of open-mindedness and mode of approaching arguments. They do not know, nor do they ask, what I currently believe, why I believe and don’t believe what I do, my history as a believing Christian, and how I currently view the world. None of that matters, because the Christian apologetic is so unbreakable that obviously no pathetic argument I make can possibly stand a chance, and from that arrogant assumption alone, all my philosophical leanings can somehow be perceived with the Christian’s uncanny empathy and intuition.

In order to make the charge against “bias” seem less arrogant, the Apologist will often say, “we all approach these debates with biases, both the Christian and the non-Christian alike. We all have biases that we bring to the table and that colors our decisions!” I am personally shocked at how many non-Christians accept this as a valid point! I do not accept it. I do not believe it to be valid, at least amongst mature, open-minded adults, which I presume most people interested in these theistic topics are.

I work in an environment in which I must daily make decisions that affect the lives of my colleagues and that can carry millions of dollars in ramifications. It is a heavy responsibility, but fortunately I work amongst professionals who help carry the load. We advise each other. We debate. We argue. We bring in new information and unforeseen data to the table. We passionately try to change each other’s minds, because of the large stakes involved. But because we are professionals, we (usually) concede when a colleague makes an argument that makes the most valid points and ends up winning the day. We never assume that a colleague who is unwilling to budge on an issue is doing so because of “presuppositional bias”. Instead, it is our duty to, not only listen to their points, but to put ourselves in their shoes, and as best as we can see things from the other’s perspective. In other words, we try our best to remove any “bias” that we may have, and to listen and empathize with the other viewpoints being offered.

And because of the heavy stakes involved, and because of the burden of responsibility that I must carry, frankly I want to be proven wrong! I want somebody who knows something that I do not, or who views issues in ways I never thought of, or has information, even if unsavory, that will show that I am wrong and lead me down the correct path.

The mature person who is weighing argumentation is usually able and capable of empathizing with an opponent. We can see things in others’ eyes. And the mature person is willing to use this empathy to perhaps learn something new, and alter their view of the world.

We all do it! Be it an employer, a landlord, a politician, a lawyer, a judge, a supervisor of any kind – we must empathize with others, we must try to view things as they do in order to make smart decisions that affect them, along with ourselves and others. We do it with loved ones who see things in their unique way. A parent must adopt the viewpoint of their children to try and understand them. I must adopt the philosophical viewpoints of my wife, as hard as it may sometimes be, in order to understand her – and believe me, it has definitely affected my way of thinking! When I began to seriously doubt and question my Christian Faith, I adopted all viewpoints I encountered as my own, and tried my best to take the apologetic arguments on their own terms.

We all do this. Anybody can do this. With enough insight, education and honesty, I believe we can, to a reasonable degree, adopt and empathize with any philosophical “bias” or “presupposition” and engage with it, and accept or reject it on its own terms, and I think that we can do a reasonable job of it. For this reason I think the charge of “presuppositional bias” that “we all have and cannot overcome” is not just false, it is a simple-minded copout. It is an excuse that is used, and all too frequently accepted in debate that I personally think is bogus. If an argument is to be presented, we are all capable of putting aside biases, at least long enough to empathize and engage in the argument.

So Christian Apologist, I am predisposed not to believe your apologetic argument because I deny the existence of the miraculous?

No Christian. I am not buying it. If you have an apologetic argument to make, then make it and stop with the excuses. I promise to do my best to engage your side of the debate, and to listen to any points you may make. I do acknowledge when an Apologist makes a good point. I hope the Apologist will show me wrong on occasion, because only by showing that I am wrong in some regard am I able to learn anything new. But I also promise not to make any resort to your “preconceived biases”. In return, I ask that you address any counter-argument I may have. Do not resort to my “presumptions”. As far as I am concerned, any Christian who declares that I do not accept an apologetic argument because of my “presuppositions” has just conceded the argument. I will now view such an argument no differently than I do to a Christian who tells me, after all options have been argued, that I just need Faith to believe. Whether the Christian uses the word “presupposition” or “Faith”, the meaning is the same, the argument is just as vacuous, and the conversation is just as finished.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Pinoy Atheist feeding project

This ariticle by Pinoy Atheist (from a Philippine Atheist group based in Manila) is quite a palate cleanser after my last article on Simbang Gabi superstition. The photos of feeding children in the Cavite neighborhood are absolutely priceless. I love the banner that was displayed, which is a positive message that kids rarely encounter:

"You can be good without religion"

A lesson that many adults still do not understand. I wonder what the adults in that Cavite neighborhood thought of that message?

Thank you Pinoy Atheist, and good luck with your feeding (and education) campaign. I hope to meet you next time I visit your part of the world!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Simbang Gabi Superstition

A visiting priest from Nigeria conducted the fourth and sixth Simbang Gabi homilies and it was obvious that English was his second language. Since English was also the second language of nearly everybody in the pews, I knew not a word he was saying was being understood by anybody. It was probably just as well. His accent was beautiful and exotic, but very thick! It was difficult for even me to understand anything that he was saying, so I could imagine that the average Tagalog speaker was completely lost.

His homilies were also very, very long. I could tell they do things very differently in Nigeria. When he appeared in the priestly procession a second time, there was audible groaning from the young people in the pews.

I kept notes to pass the time. Rarely have I heard such nonsense as came from the mouth of this Nigerian priest.

· Only the virgin is pure, and it is a rare woman who will be accepted by a man after she has been defiled. It is even more rare for a man to accept a woman to marry after she has been made pregnant by another man. This is why Joseph is to be revered, and God blessed Joseph by giving Mary the gift of perpetual virginity.

· Choose the name of your baby carefully, as the power of that name will serve to shape the character and personality of that child forever.

· Your will never feel happy or fulfilled unless you repent and submit to God.

· Make a prayer, then recite the Novena to St Jude Thaddeus 6 times each day for 9 consecutive days. Your prayer will be answered before the 9th day. This has never been known to fail.

· The tongue of St Paul is left preserved in the Vatican. Somebody once tried to burn the room down where it was stored, and although the tongue was charred, it is still preserved. Paul’s tongue is preserved because he always spoke the truth.

I don’t think anybody in RoseMary’s family understood a word he said, and RoseMary herself only caught the bit about the only way to happiness was to submit to God (she wrote ‘this is B.S.’ on my notepad). It was only later that they dared laugh about it and admitted that they did not understand what he was saying.

I did not laugh – simply because I did understood most of what he was saying. I confess, the whole thing started to make me a bit angry. It was a righteous anger – because I love the Philippine people, and I don’t like when these people, most of whom are poor and relatively uneducated, are lied to.

Philippines is a country steeped in superstitious beliefs. It was everywhere, and it got to be a bit unnerving. For instance, women celebrate the New Year by wearing polka-dotted clothes (this would bring money, because the dots are shaped like coins), eating pansit (this would bring long life because the noodles are long), placing coins on all the window sills (again, this would bring in money for the year), and adorning the table with 13 different spherical fruits (because in China, I was told, 13 is a lucky number – and the fruit ensures an abundance of food throughout the year). Fireworks were also fired to chase away evil spirits.

A howling dog is a sign that somebody has just died. Never speak of death, because speaking of evil things will make it so. Unborn fetuses are influenced by things the mother sees, so the mother should avoid looking at ugly things. Television news or scary movies should be avoided since watching anything ugly on television could make the baby ugly. Philippine tele-novellas (similar to American soap operas) are all tinged with the supernatural, magical and fantastic.

Although I asked lots of questions (while trying not to be offensive), I could never truly get straight whether these modern, educated people actually believed these superstitions to be true, whether they actually have power, or whether they are just a fun and harmless cultural practice. When RoseMary and I bought a house, we performed a house christening ritual straight from the Philippines. We filled jars with water, rice, sugar, coins (and I added two staples from my home of New Mexico – dry beans and corn meal), as an ancient tradition that ensures we will never run out of these staple items. Of course, we don’t actually believe this superstition has any power over whether we will go hungry or not, but it just a fun practice that allows RoseMary and I to connect with her Philippine heritage and give her remembrance of her home. Those jars sit on our kitchen counters to this day. Not a problem. Harmless and fun.

But to actually believe these superstitious practices have power? And to be fed such superstitious beliefs from the pulpit, where everything from the lips of the priest is to be taken as unquestioned truth? That got me a bit upset more than once.

A couple of times after Simbang Gabi, as RoseMary and I changed our clothes and prepared for breakfast, and safely away from her family, I vented my frustration. Once, in a coffee shop across from the church I could not restrain myself from venting to my long-suffering wife:

“Pray the Novena 6 times and your prayer will be answered?? It never fails?? There are ways to test these claims – does anybody ever try that? See that girl out there?” I said, pointing out the window to a young, one-legged girl hobbling on a crutch and begging for coins, “I will recite the Novena 6 times and pray that her leg grows back. It never fails right? So why isn’t anybody helping her? If this stuff is true, why isn’t everybody doing this?? Because it is bogus – and you all know it, but nobody dares admit it!”

Yeah, I did get flustered quite a few times, I fully admit.

Nothing useful or educational was dispensed from the pulpit. The homiles were, one and all, saturated with useless superstition. Even the more traditional Christmas homiles, soaked in notions of sin, repentance, and salvation, though fully orthodox, were just as superstitious – it is just that they are so organized in ritual, so universally recognized, so regularly practiced and unquestionably observed, that they are never thought of as superstition.

“They are harmless superstitions,” I was told. No, I do not think they are all harmless, especially if I cannot tell the difference between superstitious and religious beliefs – and unquestioned and faithful adherence is considered a virtue. Here are some claims made by Catholic priests from the pulpit during Simbang Gabi. Make the choice - is the claim based on religion or superstition?

· A priest has the power to turn wine into the blood of a god, and a wafer into the flesh of a god.

· You are dead in sin, but drinking the blood of a god offers salvation.

· A woman is impure to a man if her vagina has been penetrated before marriage.

· The tongue of Paul is preserved because he always spoke the truth.

· Angels minister to believers, provide for their needs, and protect them from danger.

· Reciting certain prayers will make wishes come true.

· After you die, and after you are purged of your sins, you will live forever in Paradise.

How does one tell which of these claims are true and which are false? Accepting these claims as unquestionable truth does nothing but make the faithful adherent an ignorant and uneducated sheep. The priests who dispense this nonsense wield frightful power over their flock, and they use this advantage to spread lies, mythologies and superstitions as if they were relevant and modern facts that people must surround their lives around. I attended mass day after day, and I could not help get more and more upset as each morning service passed.

This is difficult for me to type. I met several of the priests, and to RoseMary they are old family friends based on relationships that are decades long. They are indeed charming, kind, intelligent, and I am sure, very loving and generous people. It is also not easy for me to be so overbearing and judgmental on a foreign culture. But experiencing this convinces me all the more that a life lived by educated choices is better than one lived by superstitious ignorance, and I can only hope that the world is slowly climbing out of the fear of superstition. I truly do love RoseMary’s family and the culture and climate of the Philippine people. But this is why such lies from the pulpit, whether they are called magic, superstition, religion or tradition, make me so upset. Especially lies given to people who are largely poor and relatively uneducated.

So what do you think, Dear Reader? Is my judgment of the Catholic traditions and the Philippine people too harsh? Am I wrong to call traditional orthodox beliefs given from the pulpit 'lies'? Do I have a good cause to be upset about the spreading of superstition, or should I exercise more caution?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Physics Puzzler - Ice Footprints

On Tuesday evening, 1 Feb, I took my dogs for a walk around the block. I usually take them outside of town to run around in the desert, but nightfall was coming on, and I could tell a cold front was moving in. It was at least 30 degrees F colder than usual, so I wussed out and took them for about 6 laps around the block. As the sun went down, it got biting cold. I could feel my cheeks and nose start to get numb. It rarely gets below freezing here in El Paso, and the forecast was warning us to prepare for cold of historic proportions. Not a soul was on the street with me, and as I completed my 6 laps with my dogs, the sun set and the bitter cold evening began.

I woke up the next morning to this:

The temperature remained at about 10F all day, and the snow that fell was light, dry and powdery. I brought the dogs indoors, and my panicked tropical wife and I spent Wednesday indoors doing our best to keep warm despite intermittent power failures. El Paso is ill-equipped to deal with so much snow and ice-covered streets, and nearly every business, school and government office was closed. Everybody was advised to stay indoors and off the streets. When I left the house to check on my elderly neighbors, I noticed no footprints on the snow-covered sidewalks. Everybody heeded the advice and remained huddled indoors.

On Thursday, the temperatures were slightly, but not much higher. However the skies had cleared and a strong wind had blown most of the dry snow off the sidewalks. RoseMary and I were getting cabin fever, so we decided to brave the streets and drive out to the desert and let the dogs play in the snow. When it snows in El Paso, enjoy it quickly because it will not stay on the ground for long - I don’t care how cold it gets!

As I looked up the sidewalk in front of the house, I noticed a most curious thing:

The snow was drifting off the sidewalks, and leaving behind sets of footprints formed of ice! They were definitely the same pattern and size of the boots I wore while walking the dogs out the night before the snow fell, and they went all the way down and around the end of the block.

My baffled wife had no idea why I was shooting so many pictures of the sidewalk. She yelled at me to get in the truck, since she was freezing her tropical ***** off, so I climbed in and off we went for a snow hike in the desert.

OK science nerds, here is your brain teaser: Explain why footprints encased in ice formed on the sidewalk. Here is what we have:

· Tuesday night, I walked outside before any snow fell. The temperature was roughly 20F. The temperature dropped to about 5F that night.

· Wednesday was cloudy with a high of about 10F. Light, dry snow fell off-and-on all day and covered everything. I noticed no footprints in the snow-covered sidewalks. Wednesday night was also about 5F.

· Thursday was sunny, and slightly warmer but still well below freezing. The wind was a bit stronger, and blew the snow off the roads and sidewalks. That is when I noticed my footprints, left before the snow fell, encased in ice.

Any ideas?