Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Partial Response to Zhubin:

A while back, Zhubin swung a very broad sword at Christianity, cutting into religious faith more generally. Ben recently provided a quite substantial response, (in 2 parts) and there's been some fascinating dialogue over on his blog. If you've got any interest at all in the topic, I recommend reading the conversation. It's long, but it's worth it.

My response is going to be much more brief; Ben did a great job, and there's plenty of my response contained in the comments section of both blogs.

One of Zhubin's primary criticisms was that any faith that posits acceptance of that faith's beliefs as necessary grounds for entrance into a happy afterlife was, essentially, "ugly" and cruel, because wonderful people who were nonbelievers would be punished with Hell, despite their obvious goodness [this position is fleshed out more fully in the comments following Ben's second post]. The other primary criticism was essentially that faith is unscientific.

I've responded more fully in other places, but here I just wish to make a couple of simple observation in defense of faith:

First, if you don't believe in, or don't fear, Hell, then the threat of damnation cannot possibly be taken with any seriousness. And if damnation isn't actually viewed as a legitimate threat, then it seems to follow that religions cannot possibly be cruel for issuing it. They might come off sounding stupid, but certainly a non-believer would not have reason for finding the religion ugly or cruel.

Second, the greatest people throughout history have been people of faith, and their religion has been instrumental in making them wonderful people.

One of the primary concerns Zhubin posed was that religion facilitates a view among a community of believers that non-believers are going to suffer for their lack of belief. Thus, Christians would likely think that Gandhi was going to Hell. His conclusion was that Christianity was therefore cruel in their judgment; after all, Gandhi was by all accounts one of the greatest people to ever live, and if anyone lived up to a merit-based Heavenly reward, it would be Gandhi. What is missed here, in the attack on religion more generally, is that if not for religion, great people like Gandhi would not even exist.

If you look throughout history, the individuals who would most likely be viewed, throughout worldly eyes, to be worthy of Heaven are all individuals of faith. And not just faith, but also devoted to religion. Gandhi was a devout Hindu. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa were passionate Christians. Certainly, within the last 100 years, these 3 names stand out as the cream of the human crop. And I think that the same proves true throughout history; that those who devote their life to a religion have the potential to become truly great persons.

There's certainly nothing stopping an atheist or agnostic from becoming a similarly great person, but I don't see it happening. Being a believer in a religious community fosters a commitment to service, of a life dedicated to others. Too frequently we faithful persons fail to live up to call to serve. But therein is the rub: our religion lets us know that it is a failing. For a non-believer lack of service is simply an omission, without real consequence. For a believer, they have failed in the task set before them by their faith, and the result can be very dire (Hell, reincarnation as a lower being, etc.). Thus, religion enables greatness in a way that atheism/agnosticism cannot. Why is a non-believer concerned that religions might condemn great people when, without those religions, those great people would never exist?

Ok, so there you have it. I'm finally getting tired again (insomnia), so I'm going to bed. This isn't a great response, and I'm well aware of that. Deal.

You've got to fill her up with Jesus
You've got to fill her up with light


Eric Michael Peterson said...

One thing I would like to mention, and I am not sure if has been said at another time or place, but if it has… well… tough I am saying it again. The issues as I understand it is Christianity, and all be it there are some sects within Christianity that would say a non-believer is going to hell not all groups make that distinctions. Most groups that make such claims have a few more problems other than that one within them cough… world is older that 70,000 years… cough. Christian denominations such as Catholicism and the Lutheran Church make no such claim that anyone who does not believe in Christ is damned, but rather preach judgment based on the actions taken in life that will damn a person for all eternity, if they are damned at all.

It has been said that only a cruel mind can conceive of a cruel god, I call myself Christian and the god that I claim is not cruel, but understanding. I think that if you spend some amount of time looking at different Christian Churches and what they believe that this is what you will find in many [not all] places.

Jeff said...

I'll debate the merits of your points later, but the evidence you use for the second point is weak. 84% of the world is religious - thus, there is a 59% chance that three individuals picked at random from the world would be religious. Simply pointing out that three great pseudo-contemporaries were religious says nothing, since there was a roughly 6 in 10 chance of that happening without any encouragement from their respective religions. You might want to show greater evidence of a trend before extrapolating and reaching conclusions.

You also might want to define greatness. Are we limited to political leaders? Can we include scientists whose discoveries have saved countless lives (Norman Borlaug, a moderate Lutheran, and Jonas Salk, a secularist, come to mind)? Can we include the largely secular Washington and Jefferson?

Again, this has nothing to do with the merits of your point, which may or may not engender a later response. I just think that you might want to come up with some new evidence if you want your point to be at all convincing.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Jeff -

I'm well aware that this isn't the strongest argument out there. I'm not even arguing pure cause and effect ["There's certainly nothing stopping an atheist or agnostic from becoming a similarly great person", and it's immediately clear that not all religious folks are great people]. What I'm observing is just that faith seems to facilitate greatness. It's the oil that lubes the path to being a "great" person.

And by great person, I mean something along the lines of "undertakes an inordinate amount of suffering that they could likely avoid in order to further the cause of others".

So no, it wouldn't just be politicians, but it likely wouldn't be scientists either, since they're not usually giving of themselves in such an inordinate fashion. And frankly, I don't think Jefferson would even come close to this particular idea of greatness. Maybe Washington a little bit... So maybe this is just an issue of the very limited way I'm using the term "greatness". Because surely there are a lot more people who are "great" in a sense other than I'm using here (i.e. Jefferson was a great writer and statesman), and I've got no problem acknowledging that.

I guess I'm going more for a "moral" greatness. After all, wouldn't we say that Gandhi and Jefferson were great in two very different ways? I'm inclined to think so. And I'm inclined to think that Gandhi's greatness - a more "moral" greatness than Jefferson's - was largely facillitated by his faith.

It's not really an argument that I'm intending to offer up great proof of; it just seems right to me, and this time around I'm going with the Colbert-test.