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More Last Superstition [Oct. 23rd, 2012|10:09 am]

Previously: Review of Last Superstition, Part I

I keep saying I'm going to review The Last Superstition and then not doing it. On the plus side, in between then and now I read Feser's Aquinas, so I have a little more idea where he's coming from and can hopefully do a slightly better job.

So okay, let's start with this.

Imagine you're a Calvinist, and your friend is a Calvinist, and you disagree about something. Maybe abortion. So you point to a chapter in the writings of John Calvin where he explains why abortion is wrong, and your friend concedes.

But maybe you have a different friend who's a Methodist. You can't convince your Methodist friend just by proving that Calvinism opposes abortion. In order to make that argument, you'd first have to prove Calvinism is true. You might do this by appealing to your shared Protestant principle of sola scriptura and proving that a literal interpretation of the Scripture supports Calvinism over Methodist. Then you can convince him that John Calvin's writings oppose abortion.

Or maybe you have a Catholic friend. Now you can't just cite John Calvin, and you can't even start by arguing that John Calvin better embodies Protestant principles. First you have to prove Protestantism. So you appeal to your shared Christian belief in Jesus, and argue that Protestantism better captures the message and meaning of Jesus than Catholicism does. Then you can prove that Protestant principles support Calvinism and that Calvinist principles prove no abortion.

If your friend is Jewish, you have an even tougher time. First you have to start by proving Christianity. A good place to start would be looking at the Old Testament, and claiming that the Old Testament prophecies the coming of Christ and embodies the Christian worldview. If you succeed, then you can prove that Christian principles prove Protestantism, that Protestant principles prove Calvinism, and that Calvinist principles prove no abortion.

If your friend is Hindu, you can't just use the Old Testament. You've got to appeal to your shared belief in God, and claim the Judeo-Christian God better embodies what we would expect of a divine being than the gods of Hinduism. Then you can use Judeo-Christian principles to prove Christianity, Christian principles to prove Protestantism, and so on.

If your friend is an atheist, you've got to start by proving there is a God. Since you can't appeal to any shared scripture or even to a shared belief in divinity, all you can do is reason from first principles. If you can prove the existence of God from first principles using reason alone, you can use the same arguments you used on the Hindu to support Judeo-Christianity, use Judeo-Christian principles to prove Christianity, use Christian principles to prove Protesantism, and so on.

If your friend is a post-modernist and doesn't believe in reason at all, I don't know what you can do. Kill him before he kills you, maybe.

The main lesson I took from The Last Superstition was that the part of the graph that I thought looked like this...

...could also, maybe more usefully, be organized like this:

Or it might be more accurate to label the node I've marked "Protestantism" as "Modern Christianity" and the node I've marked "Catholicism" as "Traditional Christianity", but it does seem to mirror the Catholic/Protestant distinction somewhat and I'm keeping it as it is for now.

Feser's argument is that most atheists arguing with Christians are pretty much the equivalent of a Calvinist going up to a Hindu saying "Look! John Calvin's writings totally oppose abortion! Why can't you see that?!".

And then when the Hindu isn't convinced, the Calvinist gets angry and says "Any reasonable person could see that John Calvin opposes abortion. Therefore, you must be unreasonable, and you must have decided to believe totally on faith that John Calvin supports abortion. That's the only possible explanation for your stupidity."

Atheists used to arguing with Modern Christians share most of their worldview with them. Atheists usually win these arguments, because the modern worldview logically implies atheism. The modern worldview is so pervasive that it is practically impossible for moderns to imagine anything else, and so if they meet a Traditional Christian, they will usually misinterpret everything they say and round off all of their arguments to the nearest Modern equivalent. These arguments almost but not quite make sense in a modern context, and so the atheist assumes the Traditional Christian has made a simple error and is just stupid.

(imagine a Calvinist so deeply enmeshed in the Calvinist worldview that any time a Hindu mentions the Bhagavad Gita the Calvinist assumes she is just using a Sanskrit name for the New Testament. This Calvinist would quickly develop a dim view of her Hindu friend's Biblical scholarship.)

Just to start with three examples:

To a Modern, the soul, if it exists at all, is some sort of ghostly substance that seems to exist around the same place as the body. To a Traditionalist, the soul is another name for the shape that the body currently has, and saying a human being has a soul is no more controversial than saying a chair is chair-shaped.

To a Modern, God is either an old man with a beard, or else a ghostly presence that escapes being an old man with a beard only through a technicality. To a Traditionalist, God is another name for existence itself, or, in the words of a Facebook friend of mine, "God is what a cat, an apple, and a chair have in common."

To a Modern, religious morality means doing things solely because God commanded them, and the Euthyphro argument is a devastating retort against it. To a Traditionalist, religious morality really has very little to do with God, and only involves Him at all because goodness is the same thing as existence and God is pure existence and therefore pure Good.

In other words, Traditionalist thinking starts off pretty incomprehensible to any Modern who hasn't studied it.

The average Christian today is probably a Modern Christian, just because Modernism has become so pervasive that it's hard for anyone, including Christians, to think outside that particular box. Probably the most obvious flaw in The Last Superstition's angry criticisms of atheism is that the majority of atheist beliefs and arguments are actually well-suited to the majority of Christian beliefs and arguments, because the majority of Christians are indeed operating out of a Modern tradition.

However, this doesn't mean we can totally ignore the Traditionalist worldview for several reasons. First, a lot of the most sophisticated Christian thinkers are Traditionalists. Second, a lot of the head honchos like the Pope are Traditionalists, and they're the ones setting marching orders for everyone else. And third and most important, Christianity comes out of a fifteen-hundred-odd year history of Traditionalism, and even though most Christians today have forgotten why they believe what they believe the original justifications were Traditionalist ones. Thus, people who point out how weird it is that so many Christians oppose homosexuality despite it being barely even mentioned in the Bible will find the explanation in the Traditionalist interpretation of sexual virtue, and even if most evangelical churches have forgotten this interpretation they have stuck with the result.

This argument, plus about a hundred fifty different fits, each more impressive than the last, about how HORRIBLE AND INTELLECTUALLY DISHONEST THE NEW ATHEISTS ARE AND HOW THEY SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF THEMSELVES AND THEY WILL STAND FOREVER IN HISTORY AS A MONUMENT TO THE WORST THAT HUMAN THOUGHT IS CAPABLE OF IF THEY SHOULD EVEN BE DEEMED HUMAN AT ALL makes up the first half or so of Last Superstition. The second half is an attempt to actually give a rudimentary understanding of what the heck the Traditionalist Worldview is.

I had strong opinions about this latter part, but in the two months or so since I read the book I have forgotten most of them. So my current plan is to re-read a little bit each day until I find a part I have a strong opinion on, then blog about it, then repeat until I reach the end or stop having strong opinions which seems unlikely.

[User Picture]From: Chris Hallquist
2012-10-24 06:45 am (UTC)
I had a similar thought, the real issue comes when it's very important to Feser that God raised Jesus from the dead. So if you're going to take that route to defending theism, and you also want to be a good orthodox Catholic like Feser, then you've got to have a convincing explanation of how what a cat, an apple, and a chair have in common could raise someone from the dead.

Or in other words, Feser should worry about Spinozism a lot more than he in fact does.

Not that this is the only problem with Feser--both Feser's and Spinoza's arguments strike me as non-sequiturs for other reasons.
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