Jeffrey Tayler has written an article in Salon, titled, Make them shut up about God: The right-wing’s religious delusions are killing us—and them, in which he lists some questions he’d ask politicians of faith:
Sample questions to be put to pietistic contenders for the White House: What makes you believe in God? Do you hear voices? See visions? Do you believe God answers your prayers? If so, please provide objective evidence. Why is, say, the Bible or the Torah better than the Quran? Does not the eternal hellfire the supposedly merciful Jesus promised sinners epitomize Constitutionally prohibited cruel and unusual punishment? If you consider the Bible a reliable guide for your personal life, may I ask if would you slaughter your child on God’s command (as Abraham was prepared to do)? Would you stone your daughter to death for not being a virgin on her wedding night? If not, why not? What scriptural authority can you cite for following your “Holy Book” in some cases, but not in others?
And what about Balaam’s jabbering donkey? Please explain how 21st century humans are to take such a tale seriously.
Before I say how I’d answer those questions, here are thirteen questions I’d ask an aspiring atheist politician:
1. Do you believe that a universe of matter and energy, containing bodies behaving according to well-defined mathematical laws, can pop into existence without a cause? If so, please supply objective evidence.
2. If you reject God as an explanation for the fine-tuning problem, then do you believe in the existence of an infinite multiverse, containing all manner of universes, including one with a carbon copy of you and me in it? If so, please supply objective evidence for the multiverse. By the way, do you think a carbon copy of you would necessarily hold the same opinions as you? Why or why not?
3. Do you believe that unguided natural processes (natural selection, random variation, or unknown laws) can give rise to highly organized structures which not only replicate, but which also embody a built-in digital code, as well as programs regulating their metabolic activities? If so, please supply objective evidence.
4. The symbols you use in everyday life (e.g. hand gestures, logos and writing) have the meaning they do because of social conventions: people have assigned them that meaning. Your thoughts, by contrast, are meaningful in their own right: you know what they mean without anyone having to tell you. So my question is: do you believe that material processes, such as neuronal firings in the brain, are capable of possessing a meaning, in their own right? If so, please explain how. If not, then how do you explain your ability to entertain thoughts (e.g. “I do not believe in God”) which are meaningful in their own right?
5. Do you believe that science is the only way of knowing, and that propositions which cannot be verified scientifically are meaningless? If so, why? If not, what other ways of knowing do you recognize?
6. Do you believe that ethical propositions can be verified scientifically? In other words, can you derive an “ought” from an “is”? If not, then do you regard moral norms as a collection of widely shared inter-subjective preferences, without any objective basis?
7. Do you believe that all of our decisions are ultimately determined by circumstances beyond our control (such as our genes and our social environment), however willingly we might make those decisions? And if so, do you believe that we should be held morally responsible for our actions? (I’m not talking about legal responsibility here: I presume that you believe in that, or you wouldn’t be running for office.)
8. How would you answer the following moral dilemma, posed by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson? “A trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?”
9. Do you believe that newborn babies are persons, with just as much of a right to live as you or I?
10(a) If you were in charge of a rescue squad, and you had to choose between sending a team of rescue workers to rescue a baby trapped in a burning building, and sending that same team to rescue 1,000 animals from a zoo that was in danger of being burnt to the ground, would you rescue the baby or the animals?
10(b) Do you believe that infanticide should be illegal at all times and places?
(H/t Sean Samis, who alerted me to the duplication in the numbering. – VJT)
11. If you answered “Yes” to question 10, then would you be prepared to revise your answer in the light of contrary scientific evidence? For example, suppose that at a future date, scientists came to a consensus that a newborn baby was no more sentient than (say) a rat, would you still be in favor of outlawing infanticide? What if a worldwide convention of ecologists arrived at a consensus that Earth’s maximum sustainable population was 2 billion people, or about four times less than the current level? Would you then be in favor of legalizing infanticide, as a stopgap measure?
12. Do you believe that pro-life politicians, whose stated aim is to overturn Roe vs. Wade should be allowed to run for office, and do you believe that individuals who are pro-life have the right to express their views in public? (If so, where and when?) Do you believe that the people who took the Planned Parenthood videos had the right to post them on the Internet?
13. Imagine it’s the year 2045. Artificial Intelligence has made giant strides, and the Supreme Court rules that there is no good reason to prevent a human being from marrying a robot, and that any laws outlawing human-robot marriages will be henceforth invalid. One clerk refuses to comply. Should she be fired from her job?
And now, here’s how I’d answer Tayler’s questions.
1. What makes you believe in God?
Right off the top of my head, here are three compelling reasons.
First, there’s the cosmological argument. The universe appears to be completely contingent in every respect: there is nothing about it which has to be the way it is. The best way to explain the universe is to say that it’s the product of a free choice, made by a Being Whose existence is necessary. (For a powerful and persuasive defense of this argument, I’d recommend Professor Robert Koons’ 1997 essay, “A New Look at the Cosmological Argument” (American Philosophical Quarterly 34 (2):193 – 211) (see here for a handy summary and here for some background on the argument) and also Job Opening: Creator of the Universe — A Reply to Keith Parsons (2009) by Professor Paul Herrick.)
Then there’s the argument from the existence of order in the universe: only a personal God can guarantee that the laws of Nature will continue to hold in the future. For either the laws of Nature are generalizations which describe events occurring in our cosmos (in which case there’s no particular reason for them to hold in the future – the old problem of induction) or they’re norms which prescribe how things ought to behave – which implies the existence of a Cosmic Prescriber who makes the rules that hold in our cosmos. Since science presupposes that we can rely on these laws holding (either always or on the vast majority of occasions) in everyday life, it follows that scientific knowledge presupposes the existence of God.
Finally, there’s the argument from cosmic fine-tuning. As cosmologist Luke Barnes has cogently argued, the fine-tuning of the cosmos is real, whatever Victor Stenger might have told you. What’s more, there are five good scientific arguments against the multiverse, and eminent physicist Paul Davies has recently pointed out that the multiverse would imply that our universe is probably a fake universe with fake physics – i.e. a simulation set up by aliens. As we’ve seen, there are also independent philosophical arguments for the existence of a personal Creator. It seems reasonable to conclude, as Dr. Robin Collins does in his essay, The Teleological Argument: An Exploration of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe, that the cosmos was designed by an intelligent being in order to support life. (Dr. Collins also argues that a multiverse, if it exists, would also need to be designed.)
That’s just three reasons. There are many more: C.S. Lewis’s argument from reason (which actually comes from Arthur Balfour), the astronomically low odds of abiogenesis, and Godel’s version of the ontological argument are also arguments that merit consideration, in my view.
2. Do you hear voices? See visions?
No, I don’t, but I don’t like to make fun of people who do. Here’s a true story for you. My own grandmother heard a voice from out of the blue, once, and it saved her life. She was in the habit of walking straight ahead, without looking to her left or right, and one day, she was about to step off the kerb and cross the street. Suddenly she heard a voice yell out “STOP!” and she did. That action saved her life: had she not stopped, she would have been run over by a large vehicle. She looked around to see who had called out to her, but could see no-one. Now, you might try and explain that away by supposing that she was subliminally aware of the oncoming car and that triggered a warning from her subconscious, or by suggesting that the warning came from an anonymous stranger who quickly scurried away because he didn’t want to be thanked, but your explanations sound mighty contrived to me, and there’s not a scrap of evidence to support them. If that had happened to me, my first impulse, after marveling at my good fortune, would be to thank the Almighty, and I’d consider it impious to do otherwise.
3. Do you believe God answers your prayers? If so, please provide objective evidence.
4. Why is, say, the Bible or the Torah better than the Quran?
The Bible contains records of many publicly attested miracles; the Quran doesn’t even claim to provide such miracles. Jews frequently employ the kuzari argument, which basically says that since you can’t fool all the people all the time, and since the Jews have an oral and written tradition of miracles being witnessed by the entire Israelite people in the Sinai desert, the only rational explanation of this tradition is that these miracles actually occurred. Christians typically argue that the Resurrection was witnessed by a large number of people, on several occasions, rendering alternative hypotheses (e.g. hallucination) astronomically unlikely, and making belief in the Resurrection reasonable.
5. Does not the eternal hellfire the supposedly merciful Jesus promised sinners epitomize Constitutionally prohibited cruel and unusual punishment?
Hell would be cruel if it were a punishment arbitrarily imposed by God, but in reality it is a self-inflicted punishment. Let me quote C.S. Lewis on Hell, in his book, The Great Divorce: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”
In The Problem of Pain, Lewis wrote, “The doors of Hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of Hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.”
6. If you consider the Bible a reliable guide for your personal life, may I ask if would you slaughter your child on God’s command (as Abraham was prepared to do)?
The question about Abraham is silly, as we don’t know what went through his mind as he bound his son, Isaac, to the altar. Perhaps he was hoping that God would deliver him at the last second – which is precisely what happened. In any case, the point is that God did not allow Abraham to slay his son, and elsewhere in the Old Testament God clearly expresses His utter detestation of child sacrifice, in vivid language, so the question is moot.
7. Would you stone your daughter to death for not being a virgin on her wedding night? If not, why not?
Of course not. See John 7:53-8:11 (the parable of the woman caught in adultery): “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” I might add that as far back as the 1st century A.D., Judaism had tightened the conditions for handing down a death sentence so such a degree that capital punishment was virtually non-existent: because the standards of proof were so high, it was well-nigh impossible to inflict the death penalty.
8. What scriptural authority can you cite for following your “Holy Book” in some cases, but not in others?
That’s a dumb question. Obviously, if I didn’t believe in following Scripture in all cases, then I wouldn’t cite Scripture as an authority for doing so. I’d cite what I believed to be a higher authority.
I might add, however, that not all Scriptural passages carry equal weight. Christians would say that the New Testament supersedes the Old, although rules such as the Ten Commandments are still binding. The Golden Rule, in particular, has always been accorded a special status.
Look, I know there are lots of troubling passages in Scripture. Rather than answer your silly “gotcha” questions on these passages, I’ll just mention three ways in which Christians might respond to them.
The first is to believe in the mysteries of Christianity (e.g. the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Atonement), but to reject the doctrine that every single word of the Bible is inspired. That’s the option that Christian apologist C. S. Lewis took.
The second option is to interpret the passages allegorically, just as Mahatma Gandhi interpreted the bloody opening chapters of the Bhagavad Gita as an allegory of the soul’s struggle against evil desires.
The third is to say that the rules imposed by God upon the Israelites made sense back then, given the extraordinary conditions that they lived under, but that these rules no longer make sense today. The rules apply to a one-off, unrepeatable situation.
Any of these options is fully compatible with what C.S. Lewis referred to as “mere Christianity.”
9. And what about Balaam’s jabbering donkey? Please explain how 21st century humans are to take such a tale seriously.
Gee, Jeffrey, didn’t you watch Mr. Ed as a kid? Appearing to make sounds come out of a donkey’s mouth should be a cinch for a supernatural Being. The only question is whether such a Being would want to do such a thing. I see no inherent reason why not. The miracle would strike us as comically absurd today, but it may not have seemed so ridiculous to people living back then.
Well, I’m sure that readers have questions of their own, which they’d like to ask aspiring atheist politicians and/or politicians with religious faith. Over to you.