Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Big Tent Collapses

More briefly, on the quasi-collapse of the Episcopal Church, I ask why people leave the Episcopal Church for more conservative groups--not only or primarily break-away "continuing Anglican" outfits, but non-Anglican evangelical churches, the RC Church and Orthodox churches?

The explanation one always hears is that these people are social conservatives who object to the liberal policies of the Episcopal Church and other mainline churches. But is this really true for all, or even for the majority? Could it possibly be that what they're after is religion--a commitment by the church to belief in the supernatural, a program to get members in touch with it, and moral support for religious belief in a world where it's increasingly socially unacceptable?

I'd bet that for lots the conservative moral and social agenda to which these churches are committed is a don't-care for many people. These churches unabashedly offer religion and lots of people are prepared to get on board with the conservative agendas as a concommitant--or at least sign on and ignore them. I might too, but I just cannot accept the conservative agenda as a don't-care. I might if I were male because the nub for me is the commitment to understanding gender as theologically or metaphysically relevant. I can't no way no how buy that and, when I've contemplated trying in order to affiliate with a church that was religiously congenial it slams me as a reducio of religious belief: if Christianity, real Christianity with real theistic metaphysics, entails that men and women are in some deep metaphysical sense different, then I cannot buy Christianity.

Conservatives are on the whole patronizing jerks about this. They respond by saying either (1) that I don't understand that difference doesn't mean inequality or that (2) if I'm not willing to accept the "hard sayings" which invariably concern sex and gender, I'm not sincerely religious--I'm just interested in, as one formerly Episcopalian Orthodox priest put it, haberdashery. But that's untrue--about me and about others who cannot buy into their program.

(1) It isn't inequality to which I object but la difference as such--the idea that men and women are in some deep way different or ought to play different roles, even if those roles were genuinely equal. (2) It isn't that the "hard sayings" are hard in the sense that they would prevent me from living the life I want to life or doing the things I want to do. They are just plain unbelievable and, when I've tried out the mental gymnastics it would take to generate belief in these hard sayings it invariably strikes me that believing the fundamental religious claims takes mental gymnastics and may be equally implausible. Reducio.

There may be virtue in doing things that are hard to do, that take self-sacrifice, but there's no virtue in believing things that are hard to believe. What is peculiarly offensive about religious conservatives is the assumption that believing seven impossible things before breakfast is virtuous and that anyone who balks at that is just an aesthete playing games, dabbling in liturgy, without any serious religious commitment.


Anonymous said...

This is probably going to seem more confrontative/pugnacious than I mean it to, but I can't think of another way to phrase it just now.

If I understand correctly, you can in some sense beieve that

1. the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, who is, as a matter of faith, both Three and One,

2. became incarnate as both human and God via a virgin birth and did numerous miracles,

3. permitted Himself* to be executed in a shameful fashion in a provincial backwater of the dominant world empire,

4. as a necessary and sufficient condition of reconciling fallen humankind to Himself*.

But you balk at the idea that men and women are different in some way other than the self-evidently physical. Is that a fair characterization?

I am not taking issue with your position as much as I am confessing that I am having trouble grasping it. I do not claim to know with certainty that men and women are different, or how they are different (other than what is self-evident), I'm just not sure it's as much a leap of faith as several others that need to be made.

And FWIW, I am not a conservative (or any other kind of) Christian; I am an atheist-by-default/agnostic who is trying to come to a sympathetic understanding of Christianity, and who by some chance chose Anglicanism as its the Official Representative (tm).

I apologize if my characterization of your views is wrong or seems hostile. I honestly just don't understand them.



* I understand that God is defined as nominally sexless. I use the masculine pronoun because that has been the tradition. I do not claim to grasp the theological import, if any.

H. E. said...

I like the question! Answer I think: metaphysics is hard but ethics is easy.

When it comes to metaphysical questions, questions about the most fundamental features of reality, (1) there are good, sometimes even compelling arguments for theses that sound crazy and (2) those theses can be spelled out with some precision and (3) they're are consistent with ordinary, obvious empirical facts. Example: "crazy" claims about the structure of space, e.g. that it's finite but unbounded. There are arguments, it's not inconsistent with empirical facts, and it can be spelled out with great precision. I was just reading a pop topology book that does that: think of a sphere, the surface of a ball, and imagine yourself confined to that surface. And there are also arguments for the existence of abstracta and merely possible objects, etc. and lots of other prima facie "crazy" theses that meet (1), (2) and (3). Claims about the existence of God are in this category.

Metaphysics is hard in the sense that we have no clear intuitions about the answers to some metaphysical questions and in the case of others, our intuitions turn out to be lousy. Some intuitions commit us to logical inconsistencies that have to be cleaned up, even at the cost of saying things that sound crazy but are logically consistent etc.

Ethics on the other hand is easy. There are the few "moral dilemmas" that are featured in ethics classes and worried in journal articles, but for the most part our intuitions are clear and unproblematic. We should of course rescue the drowning child from the shallow pond (Singer's example). It is relevant to the normative status of an action that it causes suffering; it is not relevant to the normative status of an action that it was done on a Tuesday.

continued in next comment...

H. E. said...

The kind of claims conservative Christians make about male-female differences are, insofar as I can understand them, ethical claims about how men and women ought to act and how they ought to be treated which fail (1) and (2), and possibly (3). I can't give a long story about why being done on a Tuesday doesn't have any bearing on the rightness or wrongness of an action. Just intuitively it seems crazy, I can't even imagine a plausible argument for it, and there's no reason whatever to reject the intuitive idea that days of the week don't matter morally--no inconsistency there. Similarly with the claim that gender as such is morally relevant, that men and women solely in virtue of gender should play different roles or be treated differently. I've seen some arguments and they're bizarre.

Some arguments that are unconvincing or flawed are interesting enough philosophically to be worth dealing with and maybe fixing, e.g. Descartes argument for substance dualism, Berkeley's argument for idealism, the classic arguments for the existence of God, etc. These get worked over in philosophy classes and worried in journal articles. There are others that are out of the ballpark, and the religious arguments for gender differences are among these--along with New Age crappola.

Moreover the religious gender difference thesis can't be spelled out in any reasonably precise or intelligible way short of cashing it out in terms of empirical claims that are just plain false. There are, as a matter of empirical fact, psychological differences between men and women, but they're statistical, on-the-average differences and not the sort of differences conservative Christians claim there are. So the thesis is either unintelligible or false.

Sorry to be long-winded but a parable in response to your question may do shorter and better. A traveller returns from a remote country, Metaphysicsland, reporting wonders and marvels: sea monsters, cities of gold, bright green luminescent people who lay eggs, etc. You give him a hearing--after all, it's a far away place, who knows what goes on there? Then he tells you that there's a pink elephant in the room and that ordinary inanimate objects in your immediate environment are alive and have conversations amongst themselves when people aren't listening. That's obviously false: you don't know about what things are like out in Metaphysicsland but you know what things are like around here--and they sure as hell aren't like this. Moreover these claims undermine the traveler's credibility when it comes to reports about far away wonders and marvels.

P.S. I don't have any problem with the generic "he" referring to God, or to humans. Big deal--I could never understand the fuss.

Anonymous said...

> I like the question!

I thank you for taking pains with your reply. I have hardly any opportunity to discuss such things in my day-to-day life, and try finding a good discussion of religion on the internet! (odd, no?)

> (1) there are good, sometimes
> even compelling arguments for
> theses that sound crazy

Agreed. Even solid physical science can sound pretty crazy; I am not at all sure I've wrapped my head around general relativity (probably because I'm not very mathematical).

> (2) those theses can be spelled
> out with some precision

Necessary for them to be evaluated, of course.

> (3) they're are consistent with
> ordinary, obvious empirical
> facts. ... There are arguments,
> it's not inconsistent with
> empirical facts, and it can be
> spelled out with great
> precision.
> ...
> Claims about the existence of
> God are in this category.

This emphasis on empirical fact is, I think, the critical element.

First, not to split hairs, but "consistent with ..." and "not inconsistent with ..." could be significantly different in some cases. Not to get bogged down on that.

Second, do you not think that in order to be consistent (or not inconsistent) with empirical facts, a proposition must engage those facts in some way? What empirical claims are made by the doctrine of the Trinity? Things like the Virgin Birth or (more to the point) the bodily Resurrection do engage empirical fact more, but as unique events by definition, are these falsifiable in any way?

Many metaphysical/theological claims don't seem to allow empirical evaluation, one way or another.

> Metaphysics is hard in the sense
> that we have no clear
> intuitions about the answers to
> some metaphysical questions
> and in the case of others, our
> intuitions turn out to be lousy.

Truly. General relativity is certainly not intuitive. If I understand the popular critiques, string theory has elegant math but no physics (empirical referents). Fortunately, neither of these require me to make any decisions about anything. :)

But about intuition ... what are we to do about our intuitions that have no empirical referent? Intuitions about the Trinity, say?

> Ethics on the other hand is easy.

To be sure ... once one has accepted a particular set of premises (values) that specify clearly that X is preferable to Y. Of course, these premises vary (sometimes wildly) across (and within) cultures, time and place. What's the easy answer on abortion, and why is it easy? Is it less easy in the third trimester than in the first? Those are rhetorical questions, btw.

> The kind of claims conservative
> Christians make about male-
> female differences are, insofar
> as I can understand them,
> ethical claims about how men and
> women ought to act and how they
> ought to be treated ...

Certainly many of them look a lot like pre-modern cultural prejudices, and I'm sure much of it is simply current cultural prejudice.

The claims about gender that make a kind of sense to me are what seems to be the Anglo-Catholic understanding of the sacraments, which seems to be some mystical kind of dramaturgy which requires a male in the role of priest. Can't say I understand it much past that, and to that degree I don't have a problem with it (maybe like addressing God as "He"). "No women on the vestry" would be a different matter entirely.

continued ...

Anonymous said...

continued from previous ...

> Similarly with the claim that
> gender as such is morally
> relevant, that men and women
> solely in virtue of gender
> should play different roles
> or be treated differently. I've > seen some arguments and they're
> bizarre.

What little I understand of the kind of sacramental theology mentioned above does not seem like an assertion of moral difference, but rather of ontological difference. Past that I don't understand it myself, but it doesn't seem necessarily any more absurd than the Trinity or a physical resurrection. Or general relativity, for that matter.

> Moreover the religious gender
> difference thesis can't be
> spelled out in any reasonably
> precise or intelligible way
> short of cashing it out in terms
> of empirical claims that are
> just plain false.

For example?

> Sorry to be long-winded

Not at all. I thank you for taking the time. I don't get to do this very often (and I hope it doesn't show too much ;) ).

> but a parable in response to
> your question may do shorter and
> better.

[deletions for brevity]

> Then he tells you that there's a pink elephant in the room

Empirically verifiable by any reasonable set of definitions.

> and that ordinary inanimate
> objects in your immediate
> environment are alive and have
> conversations amongst themselves
> when people aren't listening.
> That's obviously false:

Is it? How do we know? :) Sorry, couldn't resist.

In some respect it seems that our willingness to give credence to things depends to some degree on our cost-benefit calculations about the information. We may be willing to humor daft Uncle Harold's tales about his trip to Cockaigne, since he likes to pick up the check and is good with the kids. If he wants us to help underwrite his expedition to exploit the custard mines, well ... that's another matter.

I wonder if that isn't the case with much of how we approach theology in the "post-modern" world. God loves me? Oh, I like that. God is Three and One simultaneously? Sure, why not. Give money to support the church? Well, they are providing a service. No remarriage after divorcing that cheating swine ... just a minute, now!

If one accepts that the omnipotent Creator and Sustainer of the universe has actually revealed His wishes to one, I would think that obedience to even those wishes that don't make sense is a good idea, given the source.

On the other hand, if it's all just a myth to justify something else entirely, then I can see why people wouldn't want it to get in the way of Real Life.

I do not mean to suggest that you are "just an aesthete playing games" or anything of that kind. I do not know your views in any detail nor do I consider myself qualified to critique them even if I did. But I am not sure that the appeal to empirical validation quite serves your point.



PS: My last encounter with real philosophy was long ago, far away, and not very deep. I hope it does not show too much. :)

H. E. said...

What I'm picking up here is the "verificationist challenge." Apologies if you know about this already, but this was popular in the 1950s, when logical positivism was still viable--though barely. The classic piece is John Wisdom's classic "Gods" a.k.a. the "The Parable of the Gardener."

The argument is that religious believers are caught in a dilemma. Naive believers hold that religious claims have empirical consequences including, e.g. accounts of the origins of the universe (how and when), miracles, etc. But these claims are manifestly false so if religious beliefs entail such claims, they're false. Sophisticated believers hold that religious claims don't have these empirical consequences or indeed, when pressed, any empirical consequences. They (including me) believe that (an ideal) science tells us everything about the material world--in effect that God makes no difference in the world. But then religious claims are neither verifiable nor falsifiable empirically. So religious claims are meaningless.

The worry is that the proposition that God exists is consistent with all and any possible empirical facts. "Consistent" here doesn't mean "has bearing on" or "is supported by" or has anything whatsoever to do with empirical facts. It means consistent in the plain logical sense s.t. propositions are consistent if you can't derive a contradiction from them or, from the semantic point of view, if it's logically possible that they all be true together. So the idea here is that "God exists" is consistent with any empirical proposition you please and so immune to empirical falsification. So, the question becomes: then what, if anything, does this claim come to?

This to me is the most compelling argument against theism. I can't give a quick answer to it because it's embedded in the whole logical positivist critique of metaphysics. In any case, philosophy of religion isn't my specialty. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article "The Epistemology of Religion" is pretty good though it doesn't deal with this particular anti-theistic argument.

H. E. said...

My only real expertise is in a couple of issues in philosophical theology--the Trinity and Real Presence doctrines--because they pose interesting identity puzzles. The thing is that the identity puzzles they pose are not much worse than the identity puzzles posed by ordinary material objects, which are many, and nasty. Doing metaphysics you get jaded: theological doctrines that look bizarre to people who don't worry about whether statues are identical to the lumps of clay of which they're made, etc. are just more interesting puzzles.

However, doing metaphysics one restricts the notion of "ontology" to claims that are about very general features of the world--like are ordinary material objects best understood as 3-dimensional things that are wholly present at different times or 4-dimensional things that have proper temporal parts at different times? do merely possible objects exist? I suppose in one sense the question of whether the cat is on the mat is an ontological question since it's about existence--the existence of a cat at a particular location. But it isn't the sort of question that one deals with in doing ontology in metaphysics: it's just a plain empirical question--not the sort of question philosophy deals with.

This is why claims about the "ontology" of gender are out of the ballpark. Questions about gender are just plain empirical questions that deal with parochial features of the world, the way things are around here, like questions about the location and disposition of the cat. There is empirical data about gender differences in psychological traits, some of which are likely hardwired. They're all however statistical differences: males in the aggregate are better at rotating figures; females in the aggregate are mediocre--the bell curve is flatter with fewer individuals in the upper and lower tails. These are plain empirical facts and it isn't the business of philosophy to dispute them. But there are not "deep" ontological facts about gender such as would lend themselves to philosophical investigation because it's too parochial a feature of the world.

That's the closest I can do in explaining why to analytic philosophers, including those who don't believe in God, some theological claims, even if false, are interesting while others seem like pure nonsense. The doctrine of the Trinity is philosophically interesting because it raises the kind issues about identity that figure in identity puzzles about the statue and the clay, about apparent cases of one thing's "becoming two," etc. This is a question open to philosophical treatment. Claims about "ontological" gender differences are, from this point of view, just nuts--these are just plain empirical questions that have nothing to do with ontology as it can be explored philosophically or theologically.

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