Thursday, November 20, 2008

God's Will?

C Michael Patton blogs at Parchment & Pen. I don't agree with his positions vis-a-vis the existence of God, the source of morality or theology but I really appreciate his reflective nature and his willingness to ask questions. His is not the only theological blog that I visit. As a rule I avoid making snipey comments on these blogs. I consider myself a guest and believe that it would be highly inappropriate for me to pick an Atheism-vs-Believe fight on every blog post. I try to limit my comments to constructive observations (wry, at times) and questions that might move the discussion along. Others must judge if I am true to my code.

In Michael's November 20 post, he defends Calvinism in a seemingly novel way, by arguing that it is less rational than Armenianism. He opines that Armenians claim to have a logically consistent view of salvation while Calivinists leave certain "tensions" unresolved. The reason that this works for Michael is that he believes that Calvinism is truer to the Bible and therefore superior. By insisting on rational explanations, he concludes, the Armenians miss God's truth while Calvinists recognize that the truth found in the Bible transcends human understanding. In Michael's view, his, sub-rational, position is the superior. I guess Armenian's roast in hell :O

As I said, I don't have a dog in this fight and stay out of the thick of theological smack downs. However, this blatant appeal to authority over rationality points up a pattern. In my cruise through skeptical and atheist literature I have been exposed to the claims that religion teaches magical thinking and destroys the ability to reason properly. I have always considered these to be screeds of overly vocal neo-atheists. I mean, how many people really turn their think down to the level of believing in demonic possession. Well, as it turns out ...

In recent posts, C Michael Patton has addressed the top 10 apologetic arguments for the existence of God, miracles as signs of Gods will, bad marriages as signs of God's will, and demonic nocturnal visitation. It is not just that Michael has felt the need to post on these topics but it is the response he gets in the comments. For instance, on the topic of bad marriages, one poster shared the view that her enrolling in seminary after her husband died proved that years of bad marriage were God's will. Similar stories were forth coming. By this definition, just about anything can be viewed as God's will. In fact, Michael himself claims that Barak Obama's election was God's will which would seem to place every McCain voter in an awkward place!

Now, I guess I am not too surprised that people take the First Cause argument seriously. Superficially William Paley's watchmaker analogy is convincing. On the subject of sleep paralysis and waking dreams being mistaken for demonic visitation, I grant that the experience would be quite frightening. I myself have suffered waking dreams. Spooky. But this is where the slippery slope begins. Sleep paralysis has been studied and solid physiological mechanisms have been discovered. The trouble seems to be that some people expect the supernatural and thus never reach for the rational.

This last, tragic, case really struck me. It seems that Michael's sister developed a severe case of depression and became suicidal. Through strenuous efforts on the family's part, she was saved from a potentially fatal overdose. Michael reasoned, correctly, that an overdose was not quick enough to evade the close supervision that he was providing and that if his sister were going to be successful she would need to use a gun. One day, after determining that his sister was not at home, Michael saw her drive by the her house, see him in her yard and then drive off. He tried to follow but lost her before he reached the main road. Here is where the rational kicks in. Not knowing which way to turn, Michael decides to turn back toward home in Arkansas (he is in Texas). Eventually deciding that his efforts are futile, he turns his car around. Driving home, he spots a motel and, seemingly for no reason, pulls in, spots his sister's car and stops her from shooting herself. This would seem miraculous. In fact, Michael decides that is, indeed, a miracle and tells his sister that it is obviously not God's will that she commit suicide. The heart breaking ending is that, later, she manages to kill herself with a gun in a different motel. Michael of course is shattered and wonders how he could have misjudged God's will in this matter.

My response, which I did not post to his blog out of sympathy, was that Michael has it exactly backwards. What saved his sister the first time was he and his mother's determination that she needed to be checked on. This saved her from overdose. The prevention of her first attempt at shooting herself was likewise no miracle. This was Michael, having known his sister so long, following his intuition as to which direction she would turn (explicitly stated by Michael as "homeward") and the fact that she would seek out a certain kind of motel. No God here, just Michael using his wits and trusting himself - even if he didn't realize in whom his trust was placed. I can only assume that his vigilance did not waver once he came to the conclusion that his sister was enjoying God's protection. Unfortunately, his sister succumbed to her depression when she played on Michael's knowledge of her and went to a part of Texas he wouldn't have guessed.

I don't think Michael would feel better in the knowledge that his reason failed to save his sister than in the belief that he misunderstood God's will. That's not really the point. The problem here is that billions of people are being encouraged to favor fantasy over reality. You can say that Christians or whatever are generally rational and I guess they are when they are buying a car (although I know a couple who bought a car because they thought God had made it drive past them). Belief in the supernatural, in a Being who determines what is going to happen, in the futility of thinking about things and trying to act on our own best intuition erodes the ability to think rationally. It becomes a habit or worse. It is their fall back position and often their starting place. I have been amazed at how far some people take their Faith. It sometimes reaches the point of the ridiculous.

New cars, parking places, bad marriages, nothing happens by chance or human will. I don't blame religion for every bad thing that ever happened in the world but what is the future of a society that encourages such a disconnect from the Real World? Are these people mentally insulated from a universe over which they have no meaningful control? Are they holding us back? Does acceptance of "you will always have the poor" mean that effective efforts to address hunger and education will languish from lack of support?

As you can tell, I am pretty riled up by this. Coming face to face with such irrationality in everyday Americans has made me reevaluate my view on human nature and acceptance of religion's place in our society. Do I fight it or accept it as God's will?

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