Archive for July, 2013

Naturalistic Humanism as Religon – Part 2

In my last post on the subject, I mentioned that naturalist humanism has to borrow from religion in order to function in real life. I found the following bit in an Answers Research Journal article on the philosophy of Stanley Fish:

Fish’s aim is yet again accurate when he takes on liberalism’s failure to invest human life with meaning. Fish relates a story philosopher Jürgen Habermas tells about his own life. Habermas had a Swiss friend who, though never a religious believer during his life, elected to have a church funeral. Habermas says his friend

had sensed the awkwardness of non-religious burial practices and, by his choice of place, publicly declared that the enlightened modern age has failed to find a suitable replacement for a religious way of coping with the final rite de passage.

But Fish himself can do no better. Although he knows the Bible fairly well, he has yet to recognize that all the foundations of all the interpretive communities in the world must beg, borrow, and steal from the biblical foundation to have morality, a telos, or other things that all worldviews require. Fish has not seen (or will not admit) that every one of the masons who constructed those foundations did his work with at least some—albeit suppressed and twisted—stones of Christian truth.

I read the following definition of an “atheistic” funeral on a funeral planning website:

The humanist view rejects the idea of an afterlife and interprets death as the end to an individual’s consciousness. They believe that human beings are simply another part of nature — and that death is nature’s way of cleansing. Through death, we clear the way for new life.

Humanists view life as a chance to have stimulating, joyful experiences and to live an ethical and good life. The humanist’s funeral affirms these beliefs and celebrates the passing life.

Look at the incongruity here. An atheistic funeral is the celebration of the fact that a loved one’s life has been eradicated by nature in order to “clear the way for new life.” Life itself is described as a chance to have joyful experiences and live an ethical life. Think about it. To a naturalistic humanist, joy is just a chemical reaction designed to promote positive actions. Ethics without an external source are relative to each person’s personal belief. Even the desire to be ethical is just another chemical reaction promoting positive social interaction for the benefit of the group. The entire description above is personally degrading and philosophically useless – unless one borrows from religion the meaning of joy and ethics and good.

Tablet of Babel

While I was in Canada I started coming down with a cold. I’ve used Zicam zinc tablets to good effect in the past, so I found a Canadian substitute from a brand called Jamieson. In typical Canadian fashion, the packaging was bilingual. LozengeThe description read, in English and French, “Lozenges / Pastilles.” Now I’ve always associated lozenges with semi-opaque hard candy, like cough drops, so I was surprised to find fast dissolving tablets in the package. This made me curious about the definition of lozenge, so I looked the word up.

Early 14c., from Old French losenge, “windowpane, small square cake,” etc., used for many flat quadrilateral things (Modern French losange). Probably from a pre-Roman Celtic language, perhaps Gaulish lausa, “flat stone” or “tile.”

Originally in English as a term in heraldry; meaning “small cake or tablet (originally diamond-shaped) of medicine and sugar, etc., meant to be held in the mouth and dissolved,” from 1520s.

Well, that’s interesting. The English word has a French origin. On a package that also has the French word. This made me check up on the origin of the French word for tablet, pastilles.

From Latin pastillus small loaf, akin to Latin panis bread – first use 1658

Well, that’s kind of boring and anti-climactic, but due to the murkiness of etymology there’s another possible source. Via Elizabeth Abbott of Canadian news outlet The Globe and Mail:

Marie de Medici was married off to France’s Henri IV, who hated his homely blond wife and presided over a court whose courtiers mocked her as “the fat banker.” Marie escaped the tribulations of her hostile marriage and surroundings by comforting herself with food, especially sweets. She brought Giovanni Pastilla, the Medici clan’s confectioner, to the French court, where his concoctions delighted the French as much as their queen. The term bonbon – good good – originated from the royal children’s nickname for his wares, as did the word pastille, the small, sugared fruit tablets Pastilla specialized in.

So the English word lozenge comes from French but the French word pastille may have an Italian origin. I know it’s trivial, but I find it humorous.

Naturalistic Humanism as Religion

Atheist BenchSo an Atheist group had a granite bench placed next to a Ten Commandments monument at a Florida courthouse. It has been inscribed with an odd collection of quotes like, “An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church.” This got me thinking about the tendency of naturalistic humanism to borrow from religion. I’ve decided to start a series of posts detailing this ideological bleed-over.

Example #1 comes from well-know Atheist and writer Sam Harris. In an essay titled Science Must Destroy Religion, he laments the need to practice religious tolerance, says that religion is spoiling the fruits of human inquiry, and calls on scientists to blast, “the hideous fantasies of a prior age.” But he ends the essay with a suggestion that, “We must find ways of meeting our emotional needs.” He continues:

We must learn to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity – birth, marriage, death – without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality… When we find reliable ways to make human beings more loving, less fearful, and genuinely enraptured by the fact of our appearance in the cosmos, we will have no need for divisive religious myths.

The problem here is that in naturalistic humanism, man is a cosmological accident without free will, a “wet robot.” Birth, marriage, and death are just biological necessities, often driven by the function of reproduction. There is no being in control and there is no ultimate purpose for mankind in the universe. This hardly makes us more loving, less fearful, and enraptured by our appearance in the cosmos. Our emotional needs don’t have an answer in naturalistic humanism so they must be “borrowed” from religion. Even Sam Harris doesn’t presume how to do this. That’s not to say that people haven’t tried. I’ll explore some of their ideas in further posts.

God is Good?

C. S. Lewis once wrote about the meaning of the word Gentleman.

The word gentleman originally meant something recognizable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman… But then there came people who said – so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully – “Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behavior? They meant well. To be honorable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man “a gentleman” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “a gentleman” becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. A gentleman, once it has been spiritualized and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. –Mere Christianity

I think the same thing has happened with the word good. Let’s see how it was used in the Bible, in relation to God the Son:

Now behold, one came and said to Him, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. (Matthew 19:16-17)

The seeker in this passage used the “modern” version of the word good, the idea of something that is acceptable or pleasing. Jesus Christ responded that there is only one Good person – Good with a capital G, if you will. In essence, Jesus Christ was linking Goodness and Deity. It’s as if he said, “Either you’re using that word incorrectly, or you’re calling me God. Which is it?”

The noted late Atheist Christopher Hitchens wrote about the goodness of God:

If Christians modify the dictionary so that no action of God’s could ever be bad, assigning the word “good” to God’s actions says nothing. They hope to make an important statement with “God is good,” but debasing the dictionary makes the word meaningless.

In fact, like the word gentleman, it is the modern definition of good that has been debased.

Let me borrow C. S. Lewis’s words, slightly modified:

To call God “good” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “good” becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object.

When we call God Good, we aren’t paying him a complement, we’re stating a fact; not “God is good,” but “God is Good,” with a capital G. As a gentleman’s title was a characteristic of his position, so the title of Good is characteristic of God’s position. He is the absolute moral standard, and without his standard of Goodness, good hardly means more than what the speaker likes.

Stripped

One of our biggest failures is the fallacy of self-sufficiency. When we are confident in our own strength, we tend to leave God out of the process. But God is a master at stripping us to the point where we are forced to call out to him. This isn’t capricious or selfish; it’s relational. He wants us to talk to him, to include him in our being.

Thief on crossConsider the thieves on the cross. They were stripped of their property, their wealth, their families, their liberty, their dignity, their health, and their future. They literally had nothing left except the company of a man so badly beaten that he could not be recognized as one. He suffered under a sign: The King of the Jews. In any other circumstance, this man being crucified with them would have been mocked or ignored. He claimed to be the Messiah, but he was on a cross!  At first they did revile him. But the words and attitude of that man witnessed to who he was. It must have seemed a slim hope for the thieves, so slim that it would have at any other time been passed over without thought. But the thieves were stripped. No matter how slight a chance that he was who he said, he was the only thing left. Still, one thief continued to mock him. It was not enough. But the second thief responded. “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The thief acknowledged his sins and recognized the sinless character of the God Man. He called him Lord and accepted that he had the power of death and life and was heir to the kingdom of God. Jesus responded, “This day you will be with me in paradise.” Not just restored to, but with: a statement of relationship. The stripping became a blessing.

God the Father spoke through the prophet Zephaniah:

I said, ‘Surely you will fear Me, you will receive instruction,’ so that her dwelling would not be cut off, despite everything for which I punished her. But they rose early and corrupted all their deeds. (Zeph 3:7)

His heartfelt cry for a relationship with His people is still felt today. May we have receptive hearts to the stripping when the hand of God moves against our self-sufficiency, so that we can experience it as a blessing and not a curse.