Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Do You Have a Personal Relationship with the Null Set?

A friend passed this one along on Facebook today.  I couldn't believe it: though he was surely unaware, Penn Jillette was using a well-worn evangelical trope.  I figure it's well-worn because I first saw it in a book by the great revivalist Billy Graham,* and I doubt he invented it -- it probably had grey whiskers when he used it:
Recently, a friend of ours was converted to Christ.  He had previously led a wild life.  One of his old friends said to him, "I feel sorry for you.  You now go to church, pray, and read the Bible all the time.  You no longer go to the nightclubs, get drunk, or enjoy your beautiful women."  Our friend gave a strange reply.  He said, "I do get drunk every time I want to.  I do go to nightclubs every time I want to.  I do go with the girls every time I want to."  His worldly friend looked puzzled.  Our friend laughed and said, "Jim, you see, the Lord took the want out when I was converted and He made me a new person in Christ Jesus" [128].
That certainly seems clear enough, doesn't it?  Become a Christian and the Lord will take the want out.  But on the very next page Graham admits that "the want" is still there:
Conscious of my own weakness, sometimes on rising I have said, "Lord, I'm not going to allow this or that thing to assert itself in my life today."
Well, there's his problem right there: it's sinful pride for the kind of Christian Graham is to think that he can control his old Adam.  Only the Holy Spirit can keep this or that thing from asserting itself in his life.
Then the devil sends something unexpected to tempt me, or God allows me to be tested at that exact point.  Many times in my life I never meant to do in my mind I did in the flesh.  I have wept many a tear of confession and asked God the Spirit to give me strength at that point.  But this lets me know that I am engaged in a spiritual warfare every day.  I must never let down my guard -- I must keep armed.

Many of the young people I meet are living defeated, disillusioned, and disappointed lives even after coming to Christ.  They are walking after the flesh because they have not had proper teaching at this precise point.  The old man, the old self, the old principle, the old force, is not yet dead or wholly renewed: it is still there.  It fights every inch of the way against the new man, the new force, that God made us when we received Christ.  Only as we yield and obey the new principle in Christ do we win the victory [129f].
It's easy to see how these young people were led into error: they listened when Billy Graham (or someone like him) promised them that their old selves would be killed with Christ and washed clean by the Holy Spirit, and that the Lord would take the want out.  When the want turns out still to be in them, they can then be blamed for it, because they haven't prayed enough or really surrendered their will to the Lord or something of that sort.

But what in the name of Nobodaddy is Jillette doing with this bit of nonsense?  It's a clever evasion of the question it pretends to answer, and will surely snow the rubes, as it's meant to.  He couldn't possibly mean to imply that if you abandon theism, no-god will take the want out.  (Could he?)  He must know that even if he is virtuous enough never to want to do anything bad or harmful to others, many people aren't cut from the same sublime cloth.  It says something about Jillette that he turned it into a question about himself, when it's about other people.

There is no easy answer to that question.  More thoughtful people than Jillette have been arguing about it for a long time.  A better, more serious rebuttal would be to point out that despite their belief in God, Christ, and a personal Hell, most Christians have continued to sin.  Christians know that they shouldn't rape or murder or steal, yet many of them do so anyway.  American prisons are full of Christians; atheists are seriously underrepresented in our prison system.  It could be that being assured of forgiveness leads people to assume that they can misbehave and get away with it if they confess and repent.  In any case, religious belief, including belief in judgment for one's sins, doesn't seem to deter people very much.

But even this begs some questions.  For an atheist as pure in heart as Penn Jillette, there's no problem: he's not even tempted to do bad things.  But what about those who are tempted?  Why should they resist?  A conventional atheist answer -- at least, it's conventional enough that the American Humanist Association selected it for their ad campaign -- is along the lines of "Be good for goodness' sake."  Aside from the tautological irrationality of this line, what is good?  How do you decide what people should or shouldn't do?  It would be nice if there were universal human agreement about morality, but of course there isn't.  Even such widely agreed-on principles as "Don't murder" or "Don't rape" come with gaping loopholes, whether the principles are articulated within religion or without it.  (We have to wipe out the Islamofascists to defend ourselves! and The slut was asking for it, the way she was dressed -- or more subtly, evolutionary necessity requires me to penetrate any pretty girl I see before my colleague gets to her.)  Atheists, haven't from what I've seen, distinguished themselves by their superior rationality where morality is concerned, even or especially when they do so in the name of Science, Biology, Evolution.

I agree with Michael Ruse that there is no absolute morality: the universe doesn't care what we do.  Luckily, we don't need an absolute morality.  A lack of absolutes apparently scares many atheists as much as it scares many theists, however, and "relativism" is an equally harsh epithet in both camps.  I think that it doesn't matter whether the universe cares what we do: what matters is that we, as human beings, care.  Even if there was a god, its interests would not be ours.  (Theists have always been aware of that -- Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi; His ways are not our ways -- but they try to evade its significance.  Scientific non-theists know the same about Nature and Evolution, but still figure Nature is up there in the stands rooting for us if we show the right spirit.)  Human morality has to be decided at the human level.  There's no certain way to decide what is right and what is wrong.  Human beings construct right and wrong over time, and since human beings are fallible, some skepticism about even the most important values is necessary.  There's no impartial outsider to adjudicate the conflicts; we have to do it ourselves; the buck stops here.

Penn Jillette, I understand, is a Libertarian as well as an atheist, and that may be part of the trouble here, though I don't know enough about his version of libertarianism to evaluate it.  But what he articulates here is consistent with a Libertarian / Randite assumption that morality is founded in the individual in isolation.  (Which comes from social-contract theory, a useful but limited heuristic.)  But morality for a social species only comes into play when individuals are in conflict with each other.  If no individuals were ever tempted to kill, lie, rape, or steal, as Jillette claims he is not, there'd be no problem.  If individuals existed in isolation, they wouldn't come into conflict.  But we don't exist in isolation, and it often happens that human beings come into conflict, so we have had to develop structures for trying to resolve these conflicts.  Maybe Jillette isn't as stupid as this meme makes him seem.  I hope not; but he's clearly not as smart as he thinks he is.**

*The Holy Spirit.  Waco TX: Word Books.  As reprinted, New York: Warner Books, 1978.

** I'll freely concede that I'm not as smart as I think I am either, but I don't know how smart I think I am.