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.

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