Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Annotated Richard Dawkins: Is the Christian response to the Hatian earthquake hypocritical?

I am now officially propounding Cothran's Rule of Moralistic Proportion: The less rational justification someone has for his moral beliefs, the more moralistic he becomes. One of it's corollaries (I'm sure there a many, I just haven't thought of them yet) is that the more someone rejects the Judeo-Christian moral system, the more likely he is to apply it himself, all the while denying that he is.

Here is Richard Dawkins, writing in the Washington Post:
We know what caused the catastrophe in Haiti. It was the bumping and grinding of the Caribbean Plate rubbing up against the North American Plate: a force of nature, sin-free and indifferent to sin, un-premeditated, unmotivated, supremely unconcerned with human affairs or human misery. The Rev. Pat Robertson sees the hand of God in the earthquake, wreaking terrible retribution for a pact that the long-dead ancestors of today's Haitians made with the devil, to help rid them of their French masters.
Okay, Richard: All there is nature, and nature is ethically and ontologically blind. As Samuel Johnson said of death, it "hears not supplications, nor suffers the convenience of mortals." Since nature is all there is, then the events which take place in it can have no meaning or purpose, since meaning and purpose, if they existed, would exist outside of nature. Check.
The religious mind, however, restlessly seeks human meaning in the blind happenings of nature. As with the Indonesian tsunami, which was blamed on loose sexual morals in tourist bars; as with Hurricane Katrina, which was attributed to divine revenge on the entire city of New Orleans for harboring a lesbian comedian, and as with other disasters going back to the famous Lisbon earthquake and beyond, so Haiti's tragedy must be payback for human sin.
But some of those crazy and wild-eyed religious believers interpret the events in nature as having meaning and purpose, providing further evidence that they are crazy and wild-eyed. Got it.

Needless to say, milder-mannered faith-heads are falling over themselves to disown Pat Robertson, just as they disowned those other pastors, evangelists, missionaries and mullahs at the time of the earlier disasters.

Many Christian theologians and believers reject Robertson's attribution of the Haitian disaster to the anger of God for some past historical incident in which they allegedly made a pact with the Devil. Okay. Next point.

What hypocrisy.
Loathsome as Robertson's views undoubtedly are, he is the Christian who stands squarely in the Christian tradition. The agonized theodiceans who see suffering as an intractable 'mystery', or who 'see God' in the help, money and goodwill that is now flooding into Haiti , or (most nauseating of all) who claim to see God 'suffering on the cross' in the ruins of Port-au-Prince, those faux-anguished hypocrites are denying the centrepiece of their own theology. It is the obnoxious Pat Robertson who is the true Christian here.
Since, like Pat Robertson, Christian tradition sees meaning and purpose in things that are really meaningless and purposeless, Robertson is well within the Christian tradition. Well, we're not sure about this step, but we'll stipulate it for purposes of argument. Please proceed.
Where was God in Noah's flood? He was systematically drowning the entire world, animal as well as human, as punishment for 'sin'. Where was God when Sodom and Gomorrah were consumed with fire and brimstone? He was deliberately barbecuing the citizenry, lock stock and barrel, as punishment for 'sin'. Dear modern, enlightened, theologically sophisticated Christian, your entire religion is founded on an obsession with 'sin', with punishment and with atonement. Where do you find the effrontery to condemn Pat Robertson, you who have signed up to the obnoxious doctrine that the central purpose of Jesus' incarnation was to have himself tortured as a scapegoat for the 'sins' of all mankind, past, present and future, beginning with the 'sin' of Adam, who (as any modern theologian well knows) never even existed?
Okay, here's where we get a little confused. There is no doubt that Christianity and Judaism see meaning and purpose in natural events. But there is no consistent interpretation of why evil occurs, and it most definitely is not the case that all evil is ascribed to the wrath of God. Sometimes it is the expression of the wrath of God (mostly because God says so), and sometimes the rain falls on the just and unjust alike. The book of Job, for example, is very clear that the evil that befalls Job is not for the purpose of punishment.

The problem with Robertson's remarks are that he makes a statement about the cause of the disaster with absolutely no justification or evidence whatsoever. He is engaging in what Pat Robertson frequently engages in: speculation masquerading as prophecy.

But we'll let this go for now because we are on our way to proving the maxim I stated above: that the last shall be first when it comes to moral judgment:
You nice, middle-of-the-road theologians and clergymen, be-frocked and bleating in your pulpits, you disclaim Pat Robertson's suggestion that the Haitians are paying for a pact with the devil. But you worship a god-man who - as you tell your congregations even if you don't believe it yourself - 'cast out devils'. You even believe (or you don't disabuse your flock when they believe) that Jesus cured a madman by causing the 'devils' in him to fly into a herd of pigs and stampede them over a cliff. Charming story, well calculated to uplift and inspire the Sunday School and the Infant Bible Class. Pat Robertson may spout evil nonsense, but he is a mere amateur at that game. Just read your own Bible. Pat Robertson is true to it. But you?

Educated apologist, how dare you weep Christian tears, when your entire theology is one long celebration of suffering: suffering as payback for 'sin' - or suffering as 'atonement' for it? You may weep for Haiti where Pat Robertson does not, but at least, in his hick, sub-Palinesque ignorance, he holds up an honest mirror to the ugliness of Christian theology. You are nothing but a whited sepulchre.

Well, what have we here? A moral judgment about someone else's moral judgment in a world where there can be no moral judgments?

If natural events can have no meaning or purpose--and therefore cannot be the grist for moral judgments, then Pat Robertson's attribution of meaning and purpose to the Haitian earthquake is bogus. So far so good. But then Dawkins, who believes that humans are just as much a part of nature as everything else--and their actions natural events explainable by natural forces just like the rest of nature--issues a moral condemnation of the actions of Pat Robertson.

Since, according to Dawkin's own stated position, Pat Robertson's actions are natural actions not fundamentally different from the Haitian earthquake, which cannot be the object of a moral judgment, then no moral judgment can be made of Robertson's actions--or those of Christian theologians. And yet that is exactly what Dawkins does. In morally condemning Christianity, Richard Dawkin's does exactly the same thing as he accuses Robertson of doing: reading meaning and purpose into natural events which are meaningless and purposeless.

Furthermore, this action--of reading meaning and purpose into meaningless and purposeless things--is evil. Theologians do it, therefore theologians are evil.

So what should we say if Richard Dawkins does it?


Thomas said...

It doesn't surprise me that Dawkins is unaware of the doctrine of evil as privatio boni. He constantly looks at fundamentalism as though it were the standard for Christianity, and ignores the mainstream of Christian theology, or asserts that it is just a modern, "liberal" take on fundamentalism. Never mind that fundamentalism is a recent phenomenon, and many of the things he wants to chalk up to a synthesis of liberalism and fundamentalism vastly predates both.

Lee said...

Is Calvin recent? Or do you distinguish between fundamentalist and Reformed?

On another note, it seems that Dawkins never considers Christianity on his own terms: the fittest of the world's religious belief systems. Since all things evolved (according to Dawkins), morality evolved too. And behold, it evolved into one of the world's great religions and dozens of also-rans. It could not have evolved, of course, had it not helped human society to survive. So why, since religion is so helpful to humanity on his own terms, does Dawkins shake his fist at it so often?

Lee said...

BTW, I think the Lord does punish nations. The problem with Mr. Robertson's remarks is he is not a prophet and thus there is a question as to whether he is entitled to interpret God's thoughts on the specific issue of Haiti.

The correct attitude upon seeing a nation judged, in any event, is not to gloat over their bones, but to thank the Lord that you have been spared such judgment (as we all deserve it), and to pray for those who have suffered it so that they might use the occasion to repent and return to the fold.

Thomas said...

Calvin is recent relative to mainstream Christian tradition ("catholic" with a lower-case "c"), but older than fundamentalism (which is usually dated to the early part of the 20th Century, with the publication of "The Fundamentals").

Nations may be punished by God, but the general weight of Christian tradition holds that God does not punish in a way that involves the murder of children or other innocents. The deeper problem, though, is Robertson's failure to think in terms of Pauline metaphysics: God does not oppose primarily the Babylonians or the Assyrians (as the Jews thought), but Satan and death itself, who govern this world as its principalities and powers. That is to say that when Christians read the Old Testament, they do so in light of the New Testament, and it's cosmic, rather than regional, view of the struggle with which we should engaged.

Lee said...

> Nations may be punished by God, but the general weight of Christian tradition holds that God does not punish in a way that involves the murder of children or other innocents.

Yep. No need to repeat our disagreements here.

Lee said...

But I would like to point out that perhaps one of the reasons the more scripturally-oriented theologies and denominations are more recent is because for centuries the Roman church suppressed dissemination of the Bible. Not many people read at all, and those who did would often face persecution if they read the Bible.

It makes sense that, when the Bible was finally printed and distributed, there were going to be a number of people who were going to analyze the situation. "Let's see, the Church says 'A', but the Bible says 'B'..."

Depending on your viewpoint, it was either a bad thing that Martin Luther and John Calvin came around when they did, at the dawn of widespread Biblical knowledge... Or else that the Roman church picked that time in its history to double down on protecting such corruption as indulgences and relic sales, because they were productive of revenue.

Thomas said...

It's not historically accurate to say that the Roman Catholic Church suppressed vernacular translations for centuries. It's true around the time of the Protestant Reformation that some translations were suppressed in some places. However, this is an historical anomaly, and the reasons Biblical translations were suppressed was not because they were a vernacular translation of the Bible, but because they were either mistranslated (for theological reasons) or they contained heretical essays as well. Remember that Catholic translations of the Bible into English predate Protestant translations.

Monastics were responsible for translating Bibles into the common tongue repeatedly over history, often even creating alphabets for languages that had never before been written. This has characterized almost every movement of the Church into previously unchristian territory. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church departed from this tradition for a time, holding services that were not in the common tongue.

Additionally, literacy in Western Europe was commonly tied to when the Catholic Church had more cultural control, as in the creation of the Carolingian Empire, which brought Europe out of the dark ages.

Unlike the West, the Eastern Roman Empire never had a dark age, and survived for about a millennium longer. It was always a place of literacy, learning, and had Scripture in the common tongue, but it never had a Protestant Reformation.

The intellectual cause of the Protestant Reformation had more to do with certain elements of the Renaissance than centuries of suppression. However, the much greater cause was the political situation in Europe: the emergence of the modern nation-state, which made it convenient to slip out from under the authority of a unified church, instead having loyal churches that did not threaten state control.

Finally, it's simply untrue that Protestant Churches are more Scripturally oriented. If you've ever gone to a service at a Catholic or Orthodox Church, or gone to an Episcopalian or a Lutheran Church which have traditional liturgies, you'll notice that a great deal more Scripture is read there than in Evangelical Churches. Over the course of the year, every book of the Bible is read at least once.

Lee said...

> It's not historically accurate to say that the Roman Catholic Church suppressed vernacular translations for centuries.

My sources say otherwise. I don't have them at hand, but can produce them later if you're interested.

> the emergence of the modern nation-state, which made it convenient to slip out from under the authority of a unified church, instead having loyal churches that did not threaten state control.

Given Rome's history, it seemed like a reasonable fear.

> Finally, it's simply untrue that Protestant Churches are more Scripturally oriented.

I'm not here to defend the lack of a scriptural foundation in the liberal Protestant denominations.

Thomas said...

Your sources are wrong. By the time Luther produced his Bible there were already over a dozen German translations produced by Catholics. Catholics were translating the Bible into English in the seventh century. And so on. Any suppression of Bibles was an aberration, and largely due to the extra-Scriptural material printed in the editions or to deliberate mistranslations.

Lee said...

I don't have a horse in this race, Thomas. If they suppressed the Bible, I want to find out. And if they didn't suppress the Bible, I want to quit repeating the slander.

However, even suppressing a mistranslation (the Church's opinion?) is suppression of a sort, isn't it?

Certainly the Reformed Faith has some skeletons in its closet too.

Thomas said...

Well, I'm not for burning the people who were selling the books. The response was out of proportion.

And there's little question that there was a need for a reformation at the time, given the very deep corruption in the Catholic Church. Some of those corruptions negatively affected the response to the reform movement. There were good things that the Catholic Church eventually got out of the reformation: primarily the liturgy in the common tongue. There were reasons the liturgy was in Latin, but, to my mind, they were not important enough to exclude the uneducated from much of the worship for centuries. (That's the graver accusation, in my opinion, and it's true.)

Lee said...

If it's libelous to write that the Roman Church suppressed the Bible, then Conservapedia is apparently guilty...


Wikipedia concurs that William Tyndale was condemned as a heretic for publishing his translation of the Bible, and executed.

My guess is that throughout the Roman Church's history, attitudes probably changed from era to era on whether commoners ought to be allowed to read the Bible. There is, I think, a legitimate fear of heresy and disunity. Nonetheless, I concur that there is no good excuse for depriving His people of God's word.

Thomas said...

I believe that Tyndale's was the translation that had an essay in it that was deemed heretical, as well as being deliberately mistranslated at points, or so the accusation went. Even though parts of Tyndale's translation was incorporated into the KJV, it's notable that his translation was not used all that long even by those who agreed with him.

And it's hardly the case that he was executed simply for translating a Bible into English, as several translations were in the works through official channels at the time his translation came out. And, there were older translations available in the common tongue, though they were antiquated at the time. England lagged behind the other European countries in this, and there had been a Catholic council which pronounced the importance of translating Scripture into the common tongue a couple of centuries earlier. I don't think it's true that the Catholic Church deprived people of the Scriptures; they were a force behind its translation, and a force for literacy (though illiteracy was still widespread by practical necessity until the invention of the printing press).

However, it is true (and this is worse from a Catholic perspective) that the common people were effectively excluded for a time from the corporate reading of Scripture (which is regarded as more important than private reading of Scripture). This was mitigated somewhat by the sermons being in the common language.

John said...

Even the original 1611 King James Bible acknowledges the ancient Christian (thus Catholic) practice of translating the Bible into the vernacular. This from the original preface of the 1611 KJV:

"to have the Scriptures in the mother tongue is not a quaint conceit lately taken up, either by the Lord Cromwell in England [or others] . . . but hath been thought upon, and put in practice of old, even from the first times of the conversion of any nation."

SemperJase said...

"Unlike the West, the Eastern Roman Empire never had a dark age..."

The West did not have a dark age. See Rodney Stark's "For the Glory of God" which documents how there were more advancements in science and the arts in the West during the so-called dark age than through all previous history combined.

Thomas said...


For a while after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, there was a dark age, where education and literacy all but disappeared except in the monasteries (where the monks were working furiously to save the texts fundamental to western civilization). The Middle Ages followed, which was an era of great learning.