Gods and dragons

Have you heard the one about the fire-breathing dragon? It’s a dragon that lives in my garage. An invisible dragon. That breathes heatless fire. That floats in midair. Undetectably.

Actually, it’s not my dragon, it’s Carl Sagan’s dragon (see here).

But the point is, it’s no dragon at all. An invisible dragon that can’t be detected is just as good as no dragon at all. Because there’s nothing to tell it apart from no dragon at all.

It might not surprise you to learn that atheists think God is kind of like an undetectable dragon. A fantastic creature that curiously seems to evade all recordable detection. Let’s call this atheist argument one.

But since theists are clever and resourceful, there’s an atheist argument two, which is a response to this line of thought: the mistake of the invisible dragon analogy is to think that God is merely one being among others. As if God were a part of the furniture of the universe. But in fact God is beyond being. God is the ground of being. God is the condition for the possibility of being. It is through God that beings are.

Confused? So am I.

This theistic thought is clearly an attempt to bypass the idea that God is just a really big (powerful, smart, clever, generous, etc.) being. Like us, only bigger and better. The theist thinks that imagining God as just a bigger thing is kind of demeaning. And so there’s this attempt to use categories that show that we depend on God, rather than the other way around.

But of course that begs the epistemic question:

Dear Christian, how do you know about this God?

Did he reveal himself to you? How? When? Isn’t this the kind of evidence that could be tested?

If so, then aren’t we back to the dragon scenario? (And I’m still waiting for the evidence.)

If not, how do you know about him?

I’m actually really interested to hear how Christians think this line of thought can be answered. I’m genuinely at a loss. Christianity hasn’t produced any empirically verifiable (or falsifiable) claims. And attempts to bypass the requirement that such claims be produced raise the unanswerable question of how knowledge of a completely transcendent beyond-being being is possible.

The only attempt I’m familiar with is the line of folks like N. T. Wright, who think that history is the key to making sense of Christianity’s truth claims. But their research is… well, controversial, to put it kindly. And should you really need a Ph.D. in early Christian history to know whether or not there’s a God (who loves you!)? Seems odd, no?

Help me out here.


Dietary advice

It’s hard to know where to turn for dietary advice. The U.S. government had its pyramid for a long time. Now it’s got that funky plate. Various self-proclaimed healthy living folk advocate for a wide variety of diets: low-fat, high-fat, low-carb, no-carb, high-carb, super-high-protein, meh-protein, etc. Is soy good or bad? Butter? Dairy? Red meat? Seafood? Legumes? Gluten?

I have dietary advice of my own to give. The diet I eat is mostly vegan, but I’ll write about that some other day. The point I want to make here is more important.

There’s an important continuity between how one ought to approach eating and how one ought to approach ethics. It’s tempting to look for a reliable authority and then to depend on that authority in every way. The trouble is this. Authorities give conflicting messages, and adjudicating properly between them essentially requires one to become an authority. And most of us simply don’t have the time (or the desire) to spend 20 years studying nutritional and biological science. Even the people who do aren’t always the most helpful.

As in ethics, so with eating: it is probably wise to listen to at least some authorities, and to inform oneself about the justification they claim for their views. Personally, I look to see if the claims of a self-declared culinary guru are grounded in social scientific studies that examine the long term outcomes of types of diets (Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, “Asian”, etc.). I’ve found it less helpful (and more confusing) to read about studies that isolate particular nutrients to observe their effects in artificial settings. The body’s response to food is more complex than that. (To use a buzzword, the reductive studies typically need to be counterbalanced by more “holistic” studies that take into account both the whole of an individual’s diet and that individual’s social setting.)

Ultimately however, we need to move beyond authority. Part of a healthy diet, for most of us, is eating a diet we approve of. That is, we have to own the diet. It does me no good to eat lots of red meat, for example, on the advice of some “health expert”, if I have strong ethical qualms about eating meat. The qualms are not the whole of the story, but they are a part of it. The point is to be experimental: find out what you like, what works for you, and what you feel good about. Self-monitor: how do you feel after a cup of coffee? Before? Can you tell how low blood sugar makes you irritable? Do you feel the need to nap in the early afternoon? After certain kinds of meals but not others? Learn how your body works and how it interacts with its food. Try new things. Keep the good, leave the bad.

What is the point of eating? Are you trying to lose weight? Gain weight? Get healthy? Healthy like who? Do you want to run a marathon? Or just not feel like crap when you get up in the morning? You have to decide what your goals are. The point is that you should take responsibility and think about your diet.

The days are gone, for most of us, when we had the option of not thinking about what we eat. The reality for most of us is that we have at least some choices. Microwave dinner? Popcorn? Pizza? Eating out? Carry out? Chinese? Thai? Crockpot? Lentils? Chili?

Try out a variety, see what works. It’s the only way.

Do the same for everything else in life.

Predictive equivalence

A picture of the world (or “worldview”), such as naturalism, theism, or animism, is what we use to make sense of our past and present experience. But it is also and especially how we make predictions about what is likely to happen in the future, to us and to others. Those predictions then guide our behavior.

The extent to which two worldviews are different, concretely speaking, is the extent to which they make different predictions about what is likely to happen in the future. For example, many American evangelicals believe the world will end soon, in some sort of apocalyptic fashion, and that Jesus will return to Earth, riding on the clouds. There’s a “rapture” in there somewhere too, I think. Less dramatically, many religious folk the world over believe that praying about events or people can change how those events occur or how those people are doing. This is a prediction that flows from their worldview.

A naturalist and a theist then, differ on what effects one ought to expect to follow from prayer. They can agree on certain psychosomatic effects perhaps, but beyond that, the theist is likely to expect divine action of some sort, whereas the naturalist expects nothing of the sort.

The reason I am a naturalist is because I have found naturalism’s predictions to be borne out with a consistency that was quite unheard of in Christian circles. The reason Christians struggle with “unanswered prayer” is precisely because they’ve been taught that God answers prayer. When Christian leaders redefine “answering prayer” to mean “whatever actually happens that you can drawn some sort of lesson from”, believers subconsciously sense the switcheroo. Their predictions constantly need to be adjusted because they don’t fit what actually happens. Things happen in the world as if there were no God. And so to maintain the belief that there is a God, and that he answers prayer, the believer’s understanding of God and of prayer has to constantly evolve.

The endpoint of that evolution is predictive equivalence with naturalism.

There comes a point in the life of reflective believers when they succeed in managing their disappointment. Typically this involves giving up any hope for interesting divine intervention in their lives. Debates over so-called “cessationism” for example (roughly, the view that fancy supernatural signs from God no longer occur) are debates over what it makes sense to expect in our lives. The cessationists have realized that impressive miracles don’t happen, and that we shouldn’t expect them. They fit their theology to their experience. Anti-cessationists see that that concession is uncomfortably close to naturalism (to denying that God is the kind of God who can answer prayer), and so find ways to claim as “signs” from God phenomena which fall far short of the really supernatural (exhibit A: glossolalia; a.k.a. “speaking in tongues”).

So a key question to ask believers is this: what difference does your worldview make in terms of your concrete expectations for everyday life? We could put it more bluntly: please make a falsifiable claim by which your faith might be evaluated.

Believers might well return the favor, so here are some predictions I’m comfortable making as a naturalist:

– All my mental striving / praying / hoping / whatever won’t make a difference to what is in fact a matter of luck (e.g. the ratio of heads to tails in an iterated coin toss, the result of an election).

– If the world “ends” anytime soon, it will be because of boring causes: e.g. ecological devastation, asteroid impact, etc.

– When people die, absent radical medical intervention, or zombification, they stay dead (in their tomb say, or cremated).

Etc. You get the picture.

If a believer can’t identify a single thing that makes their worldview predictively different from naturalism, it’s worth asking them if they aren’t in fact naturalists. They might cling to a label (for understandable reasons, even). But if it doesn’t make a difference to your life, it’s probably not worth believing.

Just sayin’.

Legislating morality

A country or state’s laws serve to coordinate human life. Make everybody drive on the same side of the road, and you’ve made good headway on getting people not to crash into each other.

But laws do more than coordinate people. They bestow status on certain activities and practices, and not others. They show what citizens (or at least the legislators who supposedly legislate on the citizens’ behalf) value. Donations to charity are tax-exempt because donations to charity are a good use of private money–one it makes sense to subsidize in a way (unlike the purchase of a television, say).

This is what this whole marriage law controversy is about. Marriage, whatever else it might mean to religious folk, is a civil institution. It is a legal construct. It is used to coordinate and simplify certain aspects of life (inheritance, visitation rights, child custody, etc.). But it also and especially codifies a value judgment: marriage is a societal good.

There’s no way around it. Almost all legislation expresses a moral vision. The question is thus not whether we will “legislate morality” but rather which “morality” we will legislate.

This means we have to get on the same page about what it makes sense for us as a society to value.

And the only thing I can think of that it makes sense for a society to value is the well-being of its citizens. The vulnerable should be protected. Freely made contracts should be enforced. Our streets should be safe. The environment that sustains us should be kept clean. Meaningful lives should be readily possible to everyone who wishes to live such a life. Meaningful work should be relatively easy to come by. Government should be transparent. Information should be as free as is reasonably possible. Etc.

If a law does not contribute to the well-being of citizens, or if it contributes to the well-being of some citizens by arbitrarily harming other citizens, it is therefore not a good law.

Whose well-being, I ask you, is served by North Carolina’s Amendment One?

My daughter’s dedication

These are the words I read at my daughter’s dedication, on behalf of her mother and myself. She is a year old this week.


Dear Zoe,

We are thrilled to have you in our lives. We are honored to be your parents. We love you.

We’re also a little bit worried that we don’t deserve you, that we’re not going to be very good parents, and that we’ll mess you up and give you all sorts of unpleasant neuroses. But we also think you’re probably resilient enough to survive and even thrive through whatever we, and life, throw your way. Here’s hopin’.

You have taught us, in just these twelve months, that you have a will all your own. You are perceptive, engaging, wonderfully joyful–most of the time–and you radiate love and contentment.

We don’t imagine for a second that we can control you or your path in the world with our parenting, that we can determine who and what you’ll become, or that we have a clue about how you should live your life. But we do have hopes and dreams for you. Not hopes and dreams about specific things (though your dad hopes you’ll play capoeira with him someday, and your mom hopes you’ll ride horses with her someday), but hopes and dreams about the kind of person you’ll be.

We hope you’re a good person. We hope you’re a kind and a courageous person. We hope you’re the kind of person that inspires other people to be better than they’ve been.

We hope, when you meet the poor, the oppressed, and the miserable, that you look them in the eye.

We hope, when you meet the rich, the privileged, and the smug, that you look them in the eye.

We hope that you comfort the afflicted, and that you afflict the unjustly comfortable.

We hope that you question the pretenses of the powerful, like Socrates. We hope that you question the value of clinging to treasures, like the Buddha. And we hope that you question the religion of the establishment, like Jesus.

We hope that you embrace simplicity, and the cause of the poor, like Dorothy Day. We hope that you embrace nonviolence, in thought and in deed, like Dr. King. And we hope that you embrace the dream of a better world, like all of us here at Milwaukee Mennonite, and like all the revolutionaries, the hippies, and the dreamers throughout the ages.

May you be strong and confident. May you be open-minded and empathetic. May you be bold, slow to anger, and quick to apologize. Speak your mind. And take care that what’s on your mind is worth speaking. Grow always in love and in wisdom.

Life is short–too short to be worried about screwing up, or to be worried about putting your foot in your mouth, or whatever. May you live, unapologetically. May you enjoy life, so much so that your joy spreads contagiously to those around you. And may you be surrounded by good friends on those days when joy is easy to find, and on those days when it is hard to find.

Whatever you do, whoever you become, we love you, and we will always love you, unconditionally.


Your mom and dad.

Heroic aspirations

I don’t know if this is universal or not, but I have heroic aspirations. I think many of us do. We want to be part of a story of overcoming. We want to fight for a cause. At least, I do. Maybe you do too.

Leave it to the evolutionary psychologists to hypothesize why that might be. We’re story-telling animals, and we seem to like it best when the stories are epic. This is part of how we find meaning. How we make meaning for ourselves. Beyond that, I don’t know.

I wish I had something more profound to say about this, but I don’t think I do.

What I have is causes that I think are worth fighting for. Formally speaking, they’re all tokens of the type “stand up for the defenseless”. They’re all about using power for the sake of the powerless. They’re about standing to bullies, to cruel people and practices. They’re about dreaming of a future with less suffering and more joy than the present. They’re my contributions to the project of diminishing misery, wherever I find it, and to the project of magnifying happiness, or at least the possibility of happiness.

My causes? Here are the top five.

(1) Fighting misogyny. Standing against the assholes who would belittle and beat women. Striving to stand against and correct my own inner douchebag.

(2) Fighting homophobia. Resisting the policing of stupid gender norms according to which men can’t cry, feel, or empathize, and according to which women can’t think, can’t be strong, can’t contribute more to the world than their sexual appeal to heterosexual men. Celebrating the beauty of nonviolent love, whatever its object.

(3) Fighting cruelty to animals. Making visible the unnecessary suffering of our fellow sentient creatures. Breaking through artificial limits to empathetic concern for non-human others. Appreciating the awesome complexity and beauty of sentient life.

(4) Fighting superstitious sanctifications of tradition for tradition’s sake. Revealing the errors of religious and magical thinking. Empowering individuals to make their own decisions responsibly.

(5) Fighting the economic magnification of human productive differences. Rejecting the supposed necessity and ineliminability of poverty. Critiquing acquisitiveness, greed, materialism, and, yes, rich people–at least tho ones who refuse solidarity with the poor.

These are my causes.

What are yours?

Moral anarchy

In political theory, anarchism is the view according to which all authorities are illegitimate. Anarchy in this sense is to be understood not as chaos, but along etymological lines: “an” = no; “arche” = ruler. It seems to me the schools of thought I’m drawn to most in ethics could be categorized similarly, as a kind of moral anarchism.

Moral anarchism, as I see it, as the rejection of moral authority outside of oneself. Now of course, an “anarchist” in this sense would do well to recognize the wisdom and the insight of others. So too, the moral anarchist need not see him or herself as a moral island, disconnected from others. But there is an important difference between recognizing the insights of others and submitting oneself to the will of another. That’s probably not the only way to think of how “moral authority” might work, I suppose. But play along for a bit, and I hope you’ll see where I’m going with this.

Submitting to the moral authority of someone else–whether one’s parents, one’s friends, the Pope, or whoever–is on this view abdicating responsibility for one’s decisions. There are many contexts in which we can get away with this. But the result of such decision making (or lack thereof) if it becomes a habit is living a stunted life.

A rich and full moral life, on the anarchist view, is a life you take responsibility for. You can’t redeal the cards you’ve been dealt. You’re stuck with your looks, your talents, your sex, your race (barring surgical alteration, of course), and so on. But you can play the hand you’ve got with all that you are. The anarchist view here fits in with atheism, because it takes for granted that this is all you’ve got. It’s this one, single hand, and then the show’s over. Are you going to go big, or are you going to go home?

Are you going to let someone else live your life for you? Or are you going to live your own life?

Do you have the courage to forge your own path? Or will you be a sheep, a lemming, your whole life?

To be clear, the challenge we face is not whether to run off into the wild or live a tame, “civilized” life with other people. Assuming the hermit lifestyle doesn’t appeal to you, or isn’t realistically feasible for you, we can take for granted that you’ll be around other people regardless of how you live. The question isn’t whether you’ll live in community. The question is how you’ll live in community. Whether you’ll allow tradition and “how things are done” to swamp your existence, or whether you’ll own the values you want to own and disown the ones you want to disown. Even if you’re an all-out conventional person, there’s a world of difference between going with the flow and owning the flow.

To be a moral adult, on the anarchist view, you have to own who you are.

So. Are you an adult?