Something every Christian should read

August 8, 2009

As I’ve noted before, this space is mostly empty – I keep here because I want to be able to look back and see what I have said, some of which I still agree with. I don’t feel the need to update regularly here anymore; the Christian Cynic part of me is mostly inert at this point.

But when I read this post by Richard Beck at Experimental Theology, I knew I had to break my silence – even if only for a moment.

Dr. Beck is 100% correct in his claim that contemporary Christianity has become less about being a good person and more about doing certain kinds of things. (His list includes some explicitly religious things like attending church, reading the Bible, and praying, as well as some more political items such as “Voting Republican”, “Arguing with evolutionists”, and “Not reading Harry Potter.”) His claim has support in how Christians act regularly – I commented that the phenomenon of Christians leaving tracts in lieu of money for tips at restaurants is one example of how some Christians (certainly not all – I don’t think that most Christians do this) replace a moral action (providing a tip to someone who served you, especially given that servers in most restaurants are paid less than minimum wage and only make up that income in tips) with a supposedly “Christian” action (evangelizing – although as I noted, leaving a tract is about the most impersonal form of evangelism I can think of, maybe besides a billboard or a flyer in the mail).

Maybe there’s a presumption in churches that people who come to church are good people by virtue of desiring (or at least consenting) to come, but I think that this presumption would only show the naiveté of contemporary Christianity. Being religious doesn’t make you good, that much is clear. What churches ought to do is to tell our congregations, “Listen, we want you to be good people because that’s what God calls us to do, and that’s the example Jesus Christ set for us while he was here on earth – not reading the Bible, not attending church, not even necessarily praying or fasting or baptism or taking Communion. We think all those other things are important, but if you want to be a Christian, you need to work on becoming a good person first. We absolutely do not want you to think that spending time in prayer, in church, or in any other religious activity is a substitute for loving your neighbor and for living a good, moral life that shows respect for all humans.”

But then again, piety is often easier than living the moral life.

On slippery slope arguments

May 10, 2008

There are some arguments which I will likely never be persuaded to use. One such method of argumentation is the slippery slope (SS):

  1. If A occurs, then B will necessarily (or very probably) occur.
  2. If B occurs, then C will necessarily (or very probably) occur.
  3. [Repeat conditional premises as necessary]
  4. C is an undesirable event.
  5. In order to prevent C, it is necessary to prevent A.

SS arguments are very commonly fallacious, even though it is a matter of content and not form that makes them so. (A philosophy professor of mine pointed out, quite rightly, that they are simply extended forms of modus tollens and, less commonly, modus ponens.) This tendency toward fallacy is one of the main reasons I dislike them, and I believe that this tendency is due to the utter difficulty in thoroughly establishing the necessity of any given event.

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May 9, 2008

After seeing this post (and corresponding image), a thought occurred to me: the problem with Wikipedia is not merely that the information contained within is any less reliable than “closed” encyclopedias* but that the process is totally transparent. It might be claimed that the methodology itself is flawed, but that seems implausible: the main difference is that traditional encyclopedias exercise editorial power before publication, whereas Wikipedia exercises it throughout the publication process (because all content is public, even content which has been removed but remains in history as proof that someone tried to publish such-and-such content). The process of editing is entirely transparent to everyone, which has resulted in some interesting observations about the politicization of the editorial process. (Is anyone really surprised?)

Granted, I don’t know that I consider Wikipedia reliable – I definitely won’t allow my future students to use it as a primary source, although I will probably tell them that it is good to consider as a compendium of information that should be verified through other means – but I think that transparency is in many ways a good thing, not merely because of the unorthodox authorship of the encyclopedia but also because it’s good for others (especially students, I think) to see the process by which information is deemed accurate and reputable (and hence, knowledge). If it’s ugly and full of complications, then all the better for our view of knowledge, not worse: we’ll start to get the idea that knowledge, like many things, is fundamentally a struggle between competing individuals. Such empirical information is invaluable to the critical mind.

*Linguistic observation: Encyclopedia is one of those odd words which has a plural ending (sing. -pedium) but which is never conjugated as a plural, as some would have us do even when words like media which often function as singulars rather than plural.

Dualism and resolving a time travel paradox

February 29, 2008

The philosophy of time is one of the trickier aspects of philosophy in my opinion, but there is an extent to which the layperson is exposed to some rudimentary ideas. The most prominent is the use of time travel as a plot device in science fiction (and sometimes other genres as well), the use of which raises some interesting questions. Pop culture references to time travel generally don’t take account of the problems that it entails, but I think there is an underlying assumption that is somewhat revealing.

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Stretching credulity: On an exegesis of Matthew 8

February 28, 2008

I like to get information from a number of different sources from time to time, and one source that I like for its general fairness is Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars (fair warning: Dispatches is heavy on adult language and topics). Brayton is much further left politically than I, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders, and he often denounces irrational criticisms from those on his “side.”

Case in point: Ed posted about some rather poor logic a few days ago, and a commenter going by the name “Priya Lynn” jumped in. Ed (and other commenters) thoroughly criticized many of his/her positions, but I was interested in a site he/she listed called Would Jesus Discriminate?

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Are prima facie beliefs reasonable?

February 2, 2008

We live in a world that is not what it seems.

Before you think that I’ve gone off the deep end and started espousing wacky theories like Manichean-style dualism or the 9/11 Truth movement, let me be clearer about what I’m proposing: I think that we live in a world where purely prima facie beliefs – things we believe because they appear to be so “at face value” – are not inherently reasonable to hold.

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On future rights and contradictions

January 25, 2008

In an introductory philosophy class I took a few years ago, I encountered an argument (presented as an example to analyze logical structure, not as one the instructor necessarily endorsed) that has intrigued me for quite a while. It may not be entirely defensible, but it is somewhat thought-provoking nonetheless.

The argument was as follows:
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