Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pandeism and the God of the Gaps

Atheists are quick to point out how theistic conceptions of God have seemingly retreated to smaller and smaller fields in the face of advancing scientific discovery. The flow of the argument is that many things -- the diversity of biology, the experience of illness, the motions of planets and stars in the night sky, lightning and thunder, magnetism -- all have at some historical point attributed to the intentional intervention and action of a deity figure. That these explanations are no longer required suggests that all things still attributed to a deity will recede along the same path, to be discovered as having deity-free roots in the scientifically explicable dynamics of our Universe.

But this attack is inapplicable to Pandeism, for which our Creator has always lain precedent to a meta-explanation of all things discoverable by science. Pandeism is not an instance of a theory being posited to explain what was left after earlier explanations were rendered obsolete. For the pandeistic model finds its roots in the Emanationism known to the ancient Greeks, which preceded even monotheism as a theological model. Under this model, our Universe, our physical experience of existence with all of the phenomena it contains, was posited to have emanated wholesale from a divine being, without that entity having any concern for the nature of the emanation, possibly without our Universe being significant enough a byproduct of its existence for any notice of it to be taken at all. But, fundamental to this proposition is the requirement that all of the physical phenomena of our Universe, the thunder and lightning, the diseases and the seasons and the sunrises, were simply that -- phenomena of our Universe, somehow built into its fragmentary fabric, but in no way requiring resort to the intervention of a deity as an explanation.

This may be visualised by picturing our existence as a big circle. The 'God of the Gaps' argument contends that the whole of the circle was once filled in by religion, making the circle, let's say, a big red spot. Then, scientific explanations came along and erased a chunk of the redness here and another chunk there, until all that is left are a few blots of red here and there within the circle -- and, naturally, the red outline of it. The outline is the bit that can never be erased, because no matter how complete an explanation science is able to offer, there is always that one preceding question of why do we exist in circumstances where the effective scientific explanation, whatever it is, is able to operate. Suppose we agree with Stephen Hawking, that the law of gravity makes it possible for our Universe to expand itself into existence; why, then does such a law of gravity exist at all? Is it simply a brute fact, or is it the mechanism of a Creator at work?

And so, to the pandeist, the role of God is not 'shrinking' if the gaps being filled by science were not the original gaps at all, but later erroneous religious constructs. The pandeistic model supposes that all that originally existed was that thin red outline; people later came along with myth and superstition and filled the whole thing in red, bit by bit, imagining an intervening deity as the answer to every question occurring within that circle. And then science came along and simply erased those errors, never coming close to erasing the boundary itself.

And, indeed, to the pandeist, the scientist is engaged in the most worthwhile endeavour, for he uncovers the mechanism by which our Creator has set forth our Universe, and so discerns more precisely the size and shape of that boundary line, that last level of explanation which may never be resolved simply by scientific investigation. And so science, in erasing the ancient gaps, points us reverently towards the Mind of our Creator and provides us with the best tools for comprehending the purpose and destiny of a pandeistic Universe.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The nontheist's prerogative to require a unified scripture

It is the right of nontheists to require theists, generally, to agree on a single scripture and a single interpretation of that scripture before entering upon any discussion of possible scriptural validity. For, until almost all scripture-believers can agree on the truth of one scripture, no scripture held to be universally valid even exists to be deemed fit for discussion as a candidate for being a true account, and hence 'the one true scripture.'


It is well observed that people tend to join the faith hewed to by their parents and most prevalent in their geographic setting. And it is fair to contend that most people who have been brought up in a particular religious tradition, and have been brought up reading the scriptures of that tradition, have not done much in the way of reading the scriptures of other religions. The vast majority of Muslims have never read the Bhagavad-Gita or the Book of Mormon; most Christians have not read the Book of Mormon, the Qu'ran, or any part of the Vedas; most Hindus have never perused the Old Testament. And indeed we may go one further than that and observe that many, if not most, adherents to any one scriptural faith have never fully and thoroughly read their own scripture, and have instead tended to rely upon their religious leaders to convey what meaning ought to be gleaned from it.

But contrariwise, I have personally known Muslims who read the the Bible, Old Testament or New, and at the end of the day expressed the sentimentation that it was an interesting book, but was in error while the Qu'ran was not so. And I have known Jews who read the New Testament and came to the same conclusion. And I have known Hindus who read both Qu'ran and Bible and found both to be errant accounts. And, naturally, I have known Christians who read the Qu'ran, the Book of Mormon, some of the multitudinous Vedas, or other scriptures, and have found all the other works to be in error, with only their Bible being true (and indeed only their particular translation being true). The common denominator amongst all of these was this: people who were born and raised into a particular tradition were inclined to believe that the superior scripture was whichever one there parents or peers had told them about. To this I will add that I have met in my time a small selection of religious converts; those who converted from Christianity to Islam or to Judaism or to Mormonism or to Wicca, as well as from Islam to Christianity, or from Mormonism to Christianity. The proportion of people who have changed faiths in this manner is small overall, and dwarfed by the number who have converted from theistic faiths to nontheistic traditions -- to Deism and Pantheism and Pandeism, and, naturally, to Atheism and generic incarnations of Agnosticism.

But this process seems counterintuitive, for if there is indeed one 'true' scripture, if one empirically stands above the rest, then honest promoters of that one ought to be able to convince honest and studious representatives of all other faiths of the truth of that one scripture. And it is inconceivable that faith traditions with millions of adherants ought not to have substantial numbers of the honest and the studious. And, those studious representatives being converted to the veracity of the one true scripture, the rest of their cobelievers ought quickly to fall into the same belief. For every scripture assigns consequences to the continued teaching of falsity, so if the most dedicated of Muslim Imams were to be convinced by logical explanation of the text that Tibetan Buddhism were true -- and that he would suffer a poor reincarnation and be distanced from Nirvana by continuing to lead others into Islam -- then rational thinking would offer no choice but to convert to that strain of Buddhism, and explain as much to his followers (no matter the consequences to himself of breaking with his previous practice).

But the vast majority of people in the world have rejected each of the scriptures and interpretations of them. Billions of people have rejected Hinduism, billions have rejected Islam, billions have rejected Christianity as a whole and billions more have rejected each of its individual branches, billions have rejected Sikhism. Now it is true that billions, perhaps billions more, have rejected nontheistic faith traditions such as Buddhism and Atheism and Pandeism, but these traditions have never claimed to have God-written books which muct be taken as true on pain of eternal torment. Buddhism for example simply has the observations of a man, the Buddha, self-proclaimed as nothing more than a man who reached a state of understanding. Buddhism teaches that all the scriptural religions in which men believe are simply part of the web of desires which humans erect to justify their continued wallowing in the suffering of want. Atheism and frequently Deism account for scripture-based religions in reductionist terms, as purely psychological and sociological phenomena. Pandeism accounts for scriptural religions as being, for the lion's share, manifestations of man's efforts to comprehend the incomprehensibility of the underlying, unconscious mind of our Creator.

And it is true as well that Buddhism, for example, has the writings of the Buddha, and other traditions have particularly revered writings such as Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason is to Deists. But by definition none of the non-scriptural traditions have or allow for a scripture, a written volume contending to have been inscribed or inspired directly by an intervening deity. And so we reach the crux of the argument, which is that amongst those who believe it possible for their deity to have had an intervening hand in the writing of a book, and who believe that the occurrence of this intervention is evident in but a single one of the many, many books for which this claim is made, then the truth of this assertedly evident intervention would come through the acceptance by most all scripture believers of the one scripture which was 'true,' and of the one most 'true' interpretation (and, even version or edition of that scripture, if more than one exists).

What is left:

Naturally, it is always conceivable that some small number of especially gullible types will be drawn into belief within a cult having a wholly implausible scripture. And so, it can not be required that a single work be recognized by the entirety of the theistic population, as people may reject a scriptural account for irrational reasons (irrespective of whether a rational person might reject such an account anyway). But once we get into faiths having hundreds of thousands or millions of followers, the equivalence of scripture evens out. For such population cannot be maintained without having followers within them who are free to make whatever inquiries they wish into the saliency of the scripture at issue, and inevitably having amongst that selection some whose perception and intellect tower above the average both within that faith and for humanity in general.

Nor is this itself an argument that no scripture is or can be true. It is instead simply an observation, that if one scripture were true, and were rationally demonstrable to be so, then all rational believers in the saliency-at-all of scripture ought to quickly come to acknowledge its truth -- and to do so before those who do not even believe in scripture may be expected to do so. And even if this truth were one only spiritually perceptible, if there were one scripture which was true in that sense it ought to be perceptable in so fair and honest a way that honest and studious persons of a spiritual bent coming from any background would conclude it to be more true than that to which they had heretofore adhered.

It is certainly possible to discuss generic -- that is, nonscriptural -- questions as to asserted proofs of God, even absent an acceptible universality of scripture. The Cosmological Argument and the apparent fine tuning of our Universe, the experience of the ethereal as reported by the mystics, all of these are debateable as proofs of divine creation even if no holy book has any word of truth in it. But if those already believing in the saliency of scripture are unable even to convince one another of the final correctness of one amongst that multitude, then no scripture yet written can be claimed to be the one to which nontheists must accord consideration as having a sufficiently persuasive effect to merit really any drop of nontheistic consideration whatsoever.


Itiagwigawam is a conceptual framework of discussion developed amongst some of those with whom I regularly converse about the ultimate issues of existence. It derives from a phrase we have found ourselves using so often as to need an abbreviation for it, and stands for:

'if there is a God who is good and wise and merciful,'

and proceeds from these premises (though it might be claimed that the third premise is itself but a natural extension of the first two, and possibly that the second follows from the first, and so all we need propose is a God who is wise; but even so). The fundamental consequence which we have agreed upon ('we' being people of varying faiths, including Christians, Pandeists, and Atheists, able to discuss such consequences without needing to determine whether any such deity exists at all) is that if there is a God who is wise and good and merciful, then:

those who try to do good will not be punished for their beliefs alone -- no matter what they do or do not believe.

This, naturally, is a disconcerting conclusion to members of religious faiths who remain stern in their belief that their god punishes people based on belief, with those believers rather incredibly divided even further amongst themselves, between those who believe their god punishes incorrect belief but requires good deeds as well for rewards to be bestowed, and those who believe their god punishes belief alone, deeds be damned (although it must be amended to the latter point that such believers tend to believe as well that proper beliefs will compel good deeds even if those deeds are no measure of salvation).

One such colleague, herself nominally a Christian, rejects the existence of Hell (or a Hell having anyone in it) on this basis. Against those who insist that disbelief in Hell equates to disbelief in her god, she formulates her reponse thusly:

If you were a parent, and your child whom you dearly loved failed to believe what you wished them to believe, how long would you allow that beloved child to be set afire and burned for that crime? And if your child tried to do good but fell short, how long would you allow your beloved child to be set afire and burned as punishment for falling short? And however long you believe you would, are you more loving, or less loving than a perfectly loving God? Are you more merciful, or less merciful than a perfectly merciful God?

One conceptual premise of this proposition is that a God who is wise in the sense of God-level wisdom would be wise enough to know what were the personal limitations which each and every person strove to overcome in life, what were their reasons for adopting and adhering to whatever belief system, and were those reasons defensible given their specific circumstances. Such an enquiry would be beyond mere human evaluators, and would require the fallback to deontological shortcuts, propositions of unbending systems of rules the violation of which reflexively resulted in an assigned punishment. The premise that justice requires bureaucratic slavishness to a small and certain set of rules, with a small and certain set of exceptions, is a product of limitedness. For an unlimited being -- or even one whose limitations still allow it sufficient capacity to consider every facet which might reasonably influence a determination of a 'just' outcome, the enquiry as to what is just becomes one with the enquiry as to what is merciful. Every possible basis for bestowal of mercy becomes known and apparent.

Now, there remain some still, who in contravening this argument point to their local interpretations of scriptures which, although deeming their God to indeed be merciful (and not simply merciful, but absolute in mercy) still would have their God be merciless to 'nonbelievers' in the name of 'justice.' But it can not be contended that God, by being 'just,' is thereby dimished in wisdom, or somehow thereby moves along the line from being good towards being evil. And, as well, for every scripture yet written, there are thousands of potential interpretations. And so the question then simply shifts to whether the human interpreter, insisting upon the more merciless of interpretations, has interpreted those words more mercifully than a perfectly and absolutely merciful God would be able to. And since there are entire movements within each religion proposing that in an infinitude of mercy, the worst that a non-believer would suffer would be complete nonexistence -- and with these movements themselves having millions of solemn and sober adherents, we may be well assured that the initial proposition bears logical weight, and may be well-taken as an article of faith. That is, that if there is a God who is wise and good and merciful, then those who try to do good will not be punished for their beliefs alone -- no matter what they do or do not believe.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Slaveowner or Slave liberator -- who burns in Hell?

In 1852, a well-regarded Kentucky clergyman, the perhaps ironically named Reverend Joseph Priest, wrote a popular tract assuring readers that slave-ownership was not simply perfectly Biblically correct, but was itself essentially a holy duty, writing that "the institution of slavery received the sanction of the Almighty". Priest waxed eloquently on slavery, declaring that:

Its legality was recognized, and its relative duties regulated by our Saviour, when upon Earth; that it was established in wisdom, and has been wisely continued through all ages, and handed down to us in mercy; and that the relation of master and servant harmonizes strictly with the best interests of the inferior or African race in particular, in securing to him that protection and support which his native imbecility of intellect disqualifies him from securing for himself.

Other priests may disagree, but this Priest tells us, "the mere fact of being a slaveholder will not, in our humble judgment, debar a man from an entrance into that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." And, Priest thence direly warned that "the existence of free blacks in any community, whether free or slave, is universally admitted to be an evil of no minor consideration. Their removal, therefore, is a matter deeply affecting the interests and well-being of both races."

Priest's book runs to over 500 pages of thoroughly documented and parsed out passages from Old Testament and New, classing American-style race-based slavery not simply as a non-sinful institution, but a positively blessed undertaking brought into being by God directly and carried forth with the promise of God's blessing and certain reward to the slaveowner. The work ends with a thorough condemnation of abolitionists as thieves and fomenters of discord, in other words classing them as sinners whose very agitation for abolition has earned them eternal hellfire. Priest's book ends with pages upon pages of endorsements from various compatriots of the day, praising the correctness of his analysis. Thousands of copies were sought and obtained throughout the American South, to be held up as examples of the proof that God undoubtedly loved slavery and the slavemaster, and condemned opponents of slavery. And this was one of hundreds, if not thousands, of works written by scores of literate and well-versed Christian leaders arriving at the same conclusion.

But naturally, though this be the majority view, there were contradictory works written by Christian leaders as well, though of a different geography. Those mostly Northern voices arrived at quite opposite conclusions, citing chapter and verse to condemn slavery as a sin in the harshest terms, agitating for the liberation of the slaves, and in some instances (though hardly with uniform universality) praising those who would liberate slaves from their owners. And, verily, some of the very authors of abolitionist Biblical readings were no doubt themselves amongst the breakers of chains and the hiders of fugitive slaves.

So here we have a stark divide -- for if Priest and his ilk are correct, than slavery was never any sin but was instead God's own blessed work on Earth. And so the slaveholder who bought slaves on the block, steadfastly worked them every day of his life, whipped them when they were disobedient or chafed for freedom, and died without a drop of remorse for all this, will be rewarded with a clear passage to Heaven; but, those who broke chains and hid fugitives were thieves, who stole slaves which were the property of that or any other slaveowner. And those who stole were scum in the eyes of God, unforgiven, condemned to eternal Hell. And indeed, those who authored tracts condemning slavery were equally hated by God, and equally condemned.

But on the other hand, if it is the abolitionist clerics who are correct, it is then the unrepenting slaveowners who have sinned, and who are spurned by God and descend to the eternal fires of Hell along with those who advocated for slavery as God's word and will. Meanwhile, those who liberated slaves have so earned passage to Heaven, in the view of the abolitionists.

So, as between them, and assuming no other arguably sinful concerns are at issue, who now burns in Hell? Those who owned slaves and believed it rightful to do so? Or those who schemed to free slaves from their masters and believed it rightful to do so? Naturally, in modernity the politically correct answer is surely to put the slaveowners in Hell, and credit instead of condemning the abolitionists.

Now there are, it must be confessed, two other possibilities. One being that both the slaveowner and the slave liberator burn for their respective deeds, just as he steals from a thief becomes a thief as well without absolving the original thief of their thiefdom, and he who murders a murderer is a murderer still; the other being that the whole conceit is a matter of myth, and so neither one is condemned as a matter of course for their part in the grand charade.