Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Avoiding Dependency in Global Christian Mission

Spiegel Says (my emphasis): A goatherd with his flock on a road under construction north of Nairobi Kenya. Critics say Western aid, the way it is currently structured, has made recipient countries dependent on help from abroad.

Developmental aid for Africa from the West has long been of questionable efficacy; to cut a long story short this aid has so often encouraged unhealthy dependency. See for example this article on Spiegel Online:
See also the accompanying Photo Album:

Christian Mission has faced similar problems of unintentionally promoting African dependency on handouts.. Christian Missionary and Anthropologist Dr Jim Harries lives in Kenya and has spent much time pondering and writing about these problems. He is heading up the UK April 2015 conferences advertised here. Jim promotes a method of Christian Mission that uses local languages and local resources, without the potentially destabilizing effects of Western resources. Moreover, the use of local languages challenges missionaries to gain a deep understanding of the local culture and with it comes a much greater chance of reading the subtexts that tell us about the why's and wherefore's of Western project failures in Africa.

I may be presenting a paper at one of the conferences. If I do here is the abstract: 

De-polarising the dependency vs. independency dichotomy
What is at the bottom of the frequent failure of African development and Christian mission projects, projects prompted and assisted by Western Civilisation?  What prevents Western ways seamlessly grafting on to the African context?  This paper probes both the rural African and Western cultural mind sets and discovers incommensurability between the two. This incommensurability is very apparent in contrasting views about the source of “fortune”;  that is,  the hidden engine which drives everyday events.  Differences in the understanding of the nature of this engine lead to very different perspectives:  On the one hand the rural African has little inhibition about having a resource dependent identity but the downside of this is that it can compromise proactivity and responsibility. On the other hand the Westerner who feels he comprehensively grasps the underlying mechanisms that drive the cosmos may all too readily be prey to an unhealthy control freakery and an independence of the divine. Both perspectives have positives and negatives and constitute a thesis-antithesis pair crying out for synthesis.  This current paper, which grew out of a discussion document co-authored with Jim Harries , seeks a path between irresponsible dependency and the proud self-sufficiency of independency.

As the flint of Western thought grinds against the frizzen of Africa sparks are being produced igniting the fires of many fruitful discussions about African development. These discussions in turn could help address the problematical philosophical nihilism which so easily grows out of purely secular thinking thereby plaguing Western societies with deep existential crises.

(See also:

Spiegel says: Ideally, foreign aid should not offer anything that locals cannot do themselves. Expertise can be helpful, as here in Adama, Ethiopia. But foreign aid workers should not get in the way of local initiative.

Spiegel says: Many well known stars, such as Bob Geldof, have become heavily involved in African aid. But some say that we need to get away from the idea the more money necessarily means more help.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Evidence: Guide Lines but not Tram Lines

For the epistemically naive evidence is thought to lead straight to the Truth.

As usual evangelical atheist Larry Moran is keeping me on the hop with his interesting and thought provoking blog. This time it's a post about "Evidence for the existence of god(s)”. I reproduce the short post in its entirety below:

Evidence for the existence of god(s)

I am always on the lookout for evidence that some sort of god actually exists. The reason I'm an atheist is because I've never seen any evidence that's the least bit convincing. I keep asking for evidence but nobody ever supplies any. Somebody suggested to Barry Arrington that there was no evidence for god(s) and that really set him off [Astonishingly Stupid Things Atheists Say].

He responded with a list of all the evidence for god(s). Here's the list. I don't find it very convincing but some of you may want to head off to the the nearest church after reading the list.

  • The fine tuning of the universe.
  • The moral sense.
  • The fact that a natural universe cannot logically have a natural cause.
  • The fact that there is something instead of nothing.
  • The overwhelming odds against the Darwinian story being true (estimated at 10^-1018 by atheist Eugen Koonin).
  • The irreducible complexity of biological systems.
  • The vast amounts of complex computer-like code stored in DNA.
  • The miracles that have been reported throughout history.
  • My subjective self-awareness.
  • The fact that we do not even have plausible speculations to account for the origin of life.

Let me say straight away that in spite of being a theist myself I would claim that the list of "evidences" supplied by Barry Arrington is flawed on several counts. I won't go into details on that score here except to say that Arrington is part of what I refer to as the Homunculus  Intelligent Design movement, and although I would agree with the general thesis that one has to introduce the concept of intelligence a priori in order to make sense of life, I reject Homunculus ID’s Intelligence vs. Naturalism dualism (See here, here  and here for example). What I want to briefly comment on here is the concept of “evidence” itself, a question that I have aired more than once on this blog.

Except perhaps in very elementary epistemic connections it is wrong to speak of evidence as a kind of deterministic rail track that inexorably and necessarily leads to the truth and where the seeker of truth is portrayed as a passive dispassionate mechanical “follower” of the evidence. In contrast the actual assessment and interpretation of evidence that gives rise to very general theoretical explanations, especially when it comes to world view synthesis, is never going to be an exact science followed by passive dispassionate agents using a strict set of epistemic rules; in fact it is probably going to remain a very passionate fuzzy science.  As I have implied before, the human mind is highly proactive and creative in the hunt for meaning and explanation: If we think in terms of the joining of the dots metaphor (where the “dots” = “evidence”) we might be getting somewhere near the truth about how evidence and theorising works in practice;  in joining the "dots" we find that the arrangements of those dots stimulates a rich set of imaginative structures that exist in our minds, structures which in turn are no doubt a function of much experience. These imaginative objects are then used in the negotiations between theory and evidence. The upshot is that we move less from evidence to explanation than we do from a priori explanatory structures to evidences; although we must acknowledge that a bad fit between explanation and evidence ought to prompt us to at least keep our proposed explanations under review. In short, evidence is less tram lines that it is guide lines.

If the imagination (and probably the emotions as well) is highly proactive in the synthesis of evidences into unified explanatory objects, it should be no surprise that Larry Moran has found that claimed “evidences for God” don’t work for him, especially as this involves world view synthesis. These higher level world view matters cannot be said to rest on hard science and so opinions will differ. Consequently, I can respect Larry’s view (re. the existence of God) that “I've never seen any evidence that's the least bit convincing”. But to express the view that the evidence for God is not convincing is not quite the same thing as saying “there is no evidence for God”.  There is plenty of evidence for God in the sense that theists assimilate many evidences into a world view backdrop that incorporates those evidences, although of course for atheists like Larry Moran this assimilation will not ring true.

Barry Arrington is part of the polarised evangelical Christian vs. evangelical atheist North American scene where opposite sides of the debate slug it out together in uncompromising terms. It’s difficult not to get sucked into this battle because the respective sides see those who are not for them as being against them. For example, the evangelical Christian culture that Arrington represents is, in my view, too close to the paranoiac anti-academia right wing Christian fundamentalists for whom disagreement with their opinions is regarded as tantamount to siding with what they perceive as the Antichrist conspiracy ranged  against them. Consequently, cordial relationships are difficult if not impossible to foster even though one might be a fellow Christian theist.

Relevant links:

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Plenty of Fish to Fry Here

This video of atheist Stephen Fry responding to a question has impressed many; it is, after all, about that perennial problem of Christian theism, the problem of evil and suffering.  I not going to take up that difficult subject here, but instead I’m going to focus on the reaction of my favourite evangelical atheist Larry Moran. This biochemistry professor, it seems, is pretty much underwhelmed by Fry’s response and entitles his blog post “Stephen Fry blows it by assuming he knows the mind of god” and in it he writes this:

Many of my atheist friends think that Fry's response is fantastic because he really shocks the interviewer, Gay Byrne. That's naive. Most intelligent Christians have developed some very good rationalizations concerning the problem of evil. They've heard it all before and they know how to respond. One of the classic responses is that they cannot know the mind of god. But Stephen Fry knows the mind of god and this is puzzling because Fry is an atheist.

Larry Moran knows that Fry is treading very deep theological waters indeed and also knows that populist answers to theological questions, questions which have been pondered by theologians and scholars for centuries aren't going to impress those “Intelligent Christians” one little bit.  But let me read between the lines of Larry’s post, as I did when I commented on it in a Facebook entry as follows:

  ..well I suppose we can all, to a lesser or greater extent, get held up at the theodicy problem; but the crucial point is Stephen Fry is seriously thinking about theology and moreover relating it to empirical conditions! As evangelical atheist Larry Moran over on Sandwalk points out, this is a virtual defeat because it can be taken as an admission that the "God" concept has some (profound) empirical content. Evangelical atheists like Moran would much prefer to see "God" as a vacuous, obscurantist fairy tale object, devoid of all empirical meaning, rather like Russell's orbiting teapot or the tooth fairy. Moran senses that Fry, by grappling so seriously with theism, is admitting that "God", as a concept, is empirically meaningful, even if Fry himself doesn't believe God to be a reality. In Moran's eyes Fry is on a slippery slope that could conceivably lead to conversion!

In other words Larry would much prefer that Fry didn't get in bed with the theologians by effectively encouraging the debate to enter into highfalutin theological discussions about the internal consistency and/or questionable morality of the Christian creator God, as a concept. He would much prefer to simply declare the whole subject to be rationally off limits because, he believes, theology is basically non-empirical nonsense. He sees Fry playing theologians at their own game; but Larry wants to only play the game of what he thinks of as "just science". His efforts, however, are in vain; Larry’s post  attracts a very long theological looking comment thread where the character of God is thrashed out in detail. In one comment Larry throws up his hands and tells us what he thinks (My emphasis):

Theodicy is an example of the "sophisticated theology" that Christians claim we atheists are ignoring. It's what PZ Myers was mocking in the Courtier's Reply. We atheists have already lost the battle once we start debating the merits of theodicy because we concede the possibility that god exists and now we are just quibbling about his properties.

Larry wants to just sweep all that theological sophistry off the table without engaging its finer points; after all, to him it’s just so must time wasting casuistry. Trouble is, if Larry is to seriously criticize Christianity (as is Fry) he can’t avoid thinking theologically and I have caught him at it several times:  See for example here and here

PZ Myers thinks Fry's response is good but, however, a “fairly standard atheist answer”. What does interest me is the following comment by Myers:

Another factor, to me, is that if their afterlife were true, they expect us to stand before a deity as a supplicant, with a vast power differential, and then essentially grovel. There is no human dignity and no hope in their vision of death — your choice is to submit or suffer. If this god could see into our minds what we were truly thinking, then there is also no point to pretending, and it would know it: this would be a monstrous alien passing judgment on a humanity it regards as corrupt, debased, and wicked, and the only propitiation it could get from us is our terror…… Fortunately, there is no evidence and no reason to think we will continue to exist beyond the death of our bodies, or that there is such a cosmic tyrant, so I’m relieved that I don’t have to worry about a Christian afterlife.

The answer to this response is very much bound up with the personality of God; The vision Myers portrays here is of a God who is a very repugnant personality, someone who, if he existed, Myers wouldn't want anything to do with (and neither would I!). Myers is very much consoled, therefore, by his belief that this God doesn't exist. Western fundamentalism is unlikely to disabuse Myers of such an opinion because the fundamentalist God is the God of hell and hamnation (See also here, here and here for example). If God does exist then Myers really needs to meet him personally as does Larry Moran. In fact in his blog post this is what Larry would say if he met God after he had died….

My questions would be "Who are you? Which groups of humans (if any) got it right when making up a religion? Tell me about yourself and why you didn't reveal yourself to me."

Good question! Which group of exclusivist scriptural literalists have “made up” the right religion?One can find a different species of fundamentalism creeping out from under every stone one turns. I am inclined to answer this question with Hebrews 1 and Philippians 2 but there is no shortage of fundamentalist brands out there claiming that the gospel of Hebrews 1 and Philippians 2 only fully applies to those affiliated to their observant communities of strict practice and belief. So, I for one can’t be too hard on the opinions of Larry Moran, PZ Myers, or Stephen Fry for that matter.