Anthropology → Cultural Relativism → Freethrought?

David Eller's book Natural AtheismDavid Eller’s main point in his book Natural Atheism is that immersion into the study of anthropology leads one to accept cultural relativism, and that, in turn, makes one into a freethinker. But is there in fact any connection between three things?

Cultural relativism, in Eller’s understanding, “does not maintain that ‘anything goes’ but merely reports that this goes here and that goes there.” If that were all, then cultural relativism would be a science describing different individuals and cultures. Relativism would be anthropology. But that is a strange and hardly adequate definition of relativism.

And, of course, Eller thinks nothing of contradicting himself in the next paragraph: “we must abandon the notion of absolute morality” (109), getting closer to the dictionary definition of this term: “the view that ethical and moral standards are relative to what a particular society or culture believes to be good/bad, right/wrong.”

In his example of the debate within the Catholic Church on the status of Indians soon after the discovery of America, Eller writes that neither those who considered them subhuman nor those who considered them fully human but cared only about converting them to Christianity “considered the relativistic option — to learn from and about them, to tolerate their difference, and to leave them alone.” (116) Our author does not take his own doctrine seriously. It was part of the Western culture at that time to be imperialistic. Who is he to condemn that culture on moral grounds? If a culture is intent upon razing and pillaging, then that is just its peculiar feature and our response should be “to learn from and about them.” (Learn what? How better to raze and pillage?)

And what does it mean, “to leave them alone”? Is our author against miscegenation, whether of blood or ideas? Is no culture to influence another? Must there be no intercourse, whether of commerce, travel, science, etc., between cultures? But if this idea is absurd, then why is it wrong for a person to become a missionary and work within foreign cultures to convert folks there to Christianity? It seems like an eminently peaceful occupation. Eller objects: “Few if any American missionaries ever arranged debates with Indian tribal leaders; instead they threatened them with hell, rewarded or punished them with material goods, and coerced them with military power.” (126) Has it occurred to him that Indian tribes were unprepared for formal disputations? How many intellectuals even today are so prepared? In any case, this is an objection to the means by which conversion was effected, not to the end of conversion itself. Eller himself is on a crusade to spread atheism.

Eller cannot in the final analysis completely divorce himself from the natural law. Traditional cultures range “from the happy to the miserable, from the peaceful to the warlike.” (118) Could it be that those cultures are happy because they are in some sense better than those cultures that are miserable? Mises sets up the argument as follows:

Some ethnologists tell us that it is a mistake to speak of higher and lower civilizations and of an alleged backwardness of alien races.

The civilizations of various races are different from the Western civilization of the peoples of Caucasian stock, but they are not inferior. Every race has its peculiar mentality. It is faulty to apply to the civilization of any of them yardsticks abstracted from the achievements of other races.

Westerners call the civilization of China an arrested civilization and that of the inhabitants of New Guinea primitive barbarism. But the Chinese and the natives of New Guinea despise our civilization no less than we despise theirs. Such estimates are judgments of value and hence arbitrary.

Those other races have a different structure of mind. Their civilizations are adequate to their mind as our civilization is adequate to our mind. We are incapable of comprehending that what we call backwardness does not appear such to them.

And replies:

These ethnologists… are utterly mistaken in contending that these other races have been guided in their activities by motives other than those which have actuated the white race.

The Asiatics and the Africans no less than the peoples of European descent have been eager to struggle successfully for survival and to use reason as the foremost weapon in these endeavors. They have sought to get rid of the beasts of prey and of disease, to prevent famines and to raise the productivity of labor.

There can be no doubt that in the pursuit of these aims they have been less successful than the whites. The proof is that they are eager to profit from all achievements of the West. Those ethnologists would be right, if Mongols or Africans, tormented by a painful disease, were to renounce the aid of a European doctor because their mentality or their world view led them to believe that it is better to suffer than to be relieved of pain. …

The North American Indians lacked the ingenuity to invent the wheel. The inhabitants of the Alps were not keen enough to construct skis which would have rendered their hard life much more agreeable. Such shortcomings were not due to a mentality different from those of the races which had long since used wheels and skis; they were failures, even when judged from the point of view of the Indians and the Alpine mountaineers. (HA, 84-5)

There have been spiritual failures, as well, to come up with a half-decent religion. Eller reports that he spent two years among Australian Aboriginals, “trying to speak their language, eat their food, practice their culture, and enter their universe of meaning and action.” What he failed to grasp, unfortunately, was that his own ideals of unbiased scholarly work were part of his own Western culture and were not shared by his subjects. Even if he was genuinely attempting to try their “cultural glasses” on and “‘see’ or think or understand as those others do,” (111) it was he who was studying them; they did not study him, a fact which demonstrates his own superiority as clearly as day.

Again, Eller obviously feels, and I agree, that the development of anthropology was a significant achievement. But “it is a certain kind of society that embarks on either anthropology or freethought and modern European society is such a society for a variety of reasons.” (120) Eller’s Australian Aboriginals failed themselves to learn or practice anthropology, a fact that makes them, even from Eller’s point of view, inferior.

In particular, the Australian Aboriginal “culture” is dead or at least arrested; it has existed for thousands of years but never changed, never improved, even from the standpoint of the Aboriginals. These people contributed nothing to the development of civilization. They have had zero economic, technological, scientific, artistic, philosophic, etc. progress:

… not one of the 1500 discoveries listed in Asimov’s Chronology of Science and Discovery was made by a Negroid people. None of the 200 most important persons in history in Michael’s Hart’s list is Negroid.

… Baker’s criteria for civilization, which include the wheel, metallurgy, building with stone, cultivation of food plants, roads, domestication of animals, money, laws ensuring personal security, recognition of a right of the accused to defend himself, written language, abstract knowledge of numbers, a calendar, schools, appreciation of art and knowledge as ends in themselves, and the absence of gross superstitions, cannibalism, torture, and self-mutilation.

Laying aside the honorific term “civilization,” it is an objective fact that only “Europid and Mongolid peoples” have displayed these features. (Levin, Why Race Matters, 119-20)

Eller treats culture as something unchangeable, something to be put in a museum and marvel at. But a museum-suitable culture is dead. Perhaps Eller enjoys dissecting corpses. But his assumption of cultures as permanent or isolated from each other is untenable, and he realizes it, because he himself seeks the destruction of all religious cultures.

Just as with the individuals, there are cultures that are winners and cultures that are losers. There is no relativism with respect to civilizational success. Concludes Mises:

The scholars of the West have amassed an enormous amount of material concerning the high civilizations of China and India and the primitive civilizations of the Asiatic, American, Australian, and African aborigines.

It is safe to say that all that is worth knowing about the ideas of these races is known. (86)

The sad fact is that there is nothing to be learned from the Australian Aboriginals. Eller’s studies were probably entirely useless.

It does not follow from the nature of anthropology that one needs to abandon his own culture. Is studying metal a good reason to despise wood? Is the fact that other nations have different legal systems a reason to abandon our own? On the contrary, it seems that studying “comparative law” can lead to improvements in our own jurisprudence.

Finally, moral relativism is of course a philosophical doctrine, to be defended with philosophical arguments. Eller needs to prove that ethics is a pseudo-philosophy. It’s not an inevitable consequence of mastery of anthropology; nor is atheism a consequence of “freethought”; perhaps by thinking freely one can prove the existence of God. Eller is guilty of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy: when I say that I have thought freely and adopted theism, Eller replies, “No true freethinker would ever be anything but an atheist.”

What Does Diversity of Religions Imply?

Eller pronounces: “But supposing [Jesus] did [exist], the fact that he is allegedly a man-god means a lot to Christians but little to Muslims…” (97) Well, yes, but I fail to see how from the fact that Christians and Muslims disagree about Jesus it follows that they are both wrong, as opposed to one right and the other wrong.

This, however, is Eller’s main shtick throughout the book, the alleged argument from “religious diversity” (ARD). Eller thinks that the fact of the plurality of religions is proof positive that no religion is true, or even that no positive proposition about God is true.

Thus, Eller notices the “extreme diversity of religious phenomena.” (125) He does not explain to us on what grounds he concludes from this that all the religious phenomena are delusions. It seems that the exact opposite is suggested: there is “something beyond.”

The question then is, what is beyond? There is no universal agreement. But which reasonably sophisticated branch of human knowledge enjoys universal agreement? That economists disagree with each other does not mean there is no truth of the matter, nor that there is not a basic core doctrine that enjoys the support of all economists. Same with religions: all religious truths awaken us to a higher humanity and even deiformity.

Further, theist philosophers do not put forward random ideas of God; they seek to uncover God’s attributes rationally.

For example, it is an important question whether the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as described in the Old Testament is the same as the God of the philosophers. I think it is, which is partly why I am a Christian and not merely more generic theist.

Again, some philosophers believe that God is eternal; others think He is in time or at most everlasting. Both adduce arguments to bolster their conclusions. Must we take the fact of disagreement to indicate that both sides are wrong?

Eller is a dilettante in theology; he can’t distinguish plausible concepts of God from implausible ones, or cogent proofs from mythological fantasies. To him, all ideas of God are the same. But why accept such a prejudicial and either naive or uncharitable position?

Our author writes: “I, for instance, acknowledge the possibility that Christianity is correct. … As I argue in chapter 1, if there are 100 religions in the world, with equal chances of being right (and from here, we cannot tell the difference), then each has only a 1% chance of being right. That’s nothing to get too excited about.” No, they don’t all have equal chances to be right. Yes, you can tell the difference, unless you are from the very beginning prejudiced against all religions. One would think that a trained anthropologist would at least be capable of assigning rough probabilities to the religions he studies. But Eller doesn’t bother to evaluate each religion individually. He dismisses them all and precisely because of their very variety. I find it hard to believe that with so many traditions and practices to choose from, Eller has found nothing to his liking. Could it be that he is so cold as ice and so scientifically detached in his anthropological research that he has subconsciously developed contempt for the objects of his studies? “Why am I bothering with these pathetic humans and their miserable religions?” Eller thinks. “Wretches,” he goes on. “They are deep inside a box, and they do not even realize that they are in a box… or that a box exists. They live their lives enslaved to illusions, like the prisoners in the Plato’s cave. Filth. I am ashamed to be one of them.”

Again, Eller’s idea is that meeting the Other, “those who differ yet still deserve their humanity,” (128) will lead you to a more objective view of various cultures. That’s all to the good. But I do not see why encountering other religions must convince you of the falsity of your own, and if it does so convince you, why it is contrary to reason to choose for yourself the best religion from among those you have studied rather than atheism. Just as Eller is unmoved in his beliefs by the existence of theistic cultures, neither need a Christian or a believer of any other faith be moved by the existence of Eller’s own atheistic culture.

In other words, Eller gives no evidence for his corollary (and absurd) claim that all religions are created equal and equally badly.

There is another problem here. Either ARD is sufficient by itself to prove atheism, or not. If it is sufficient, then no other arguments are required. Why then does Eller dedicate a short and incompetent chapter to the cosmological, etc. arguments for God’s existence? If it is not sufficient proof, then every concept of God and every attempted proof of God’s existence in every religion ought to be tested and judged by Eller on its own merits.

Nothing like this is attempted in this book. Eller merely casts a pox on all the religious houses, which is, needless to say, unhelpful.

Evidentiary Status of Religious Experiences

The topic of religious experiences is given a particularly ugly treatment by Eller. In dismissing the argument for the existence of God from “personal experience” Eller relies on two tricks.

First, he argues, “If I hear a voice in my head or have a mystical feeling or see a beautiful sunset and call that a religious experience, I have imposed a meaning on it and prejudiced the evaluation of it as an experience.” (42) It is hard to misconstrue the argument more crassly. Every experience is interpreted, that is, “imposed a meaning” on. When our author sees the sunset, etc., he, too, interprets this experience, though as non-religious. Does he thereby “prejudice the evaluation of it as an experience,” too? Not necessarily. A new experience tries to fit into the picture of the world that we already have. Sometimes the fit is perfect; other times the experience is to a greater or lesser extent discounted, because it does not cohere with what we already think we know; still other times, we adjust even our fundamental and most cherished beliefs in order to accommodate the experience. This procedure is followed whether one is a religious man or not.

Now what is the right way of interpreting any experience that provokes an inkling, whether weak or strong, to consider it “religious”? One possibility is that genuine religious experiences are self-authenticating — if you hear God’s voice, you simply know with absolute certainty that it is God speaking to you. You feel no doubt: God’s grace comes with a guarantee that it is from God. For example, atheist Howard Storm had no doubt that the Being of Light he met in his near-death experience was God:

The light conveyed to me that it loved me in a way that I can’t begin to express. It loved me in a way that I had never known that love could possibly be.

He was a concentrated field of energy, radiant in splendor indescribable, except to say goodness and love. This was more loving than one can imagine. I knew that this radiant being was powerful. It was making me feel so good all over.

I could feel its light on me — like very gentle hands around me. And I could feel it holding me. But it was loving me with overwhelming power.

After what I had been through, to be completely known, accepted, and intensely loved by this Being of Light surpassed anything I had known or could have imagined. I began to cry and the tears kept coming and coming.

Further, Peter Kreeft proposes three criteria for evaluating the truth of claims of communion with God:

(1) the consistency of these claims (are they self-consistent as well as consistent with what we know otherwise to be true?);

(2) the character of those who make these claims (do these persons seem honest, decent, trustworthy?);

and (3) the effects these experiences have had in their own lives and the lives of others (have these persons become more loving as a result of what they experienced? More genuinely edifying? Or, alternatively, have they become vain and self-absorbed?). (Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 82)

So, we have to do the hard work of verifying each religious experience on its own merits, which means that the easy and brisk dismissal of them just won’t do.

Let’s consider the second argument Eller employs, namely that the experiences of various religions contradict each other:

… religious experiences are so different for different people that it serves as a red flag for us;

the occurrence and interpretation of such experiences seems closely related to personality and culture, so much so that we can explain and dismiss them as culture-bound.

In other words, if Christians have personal experiences of God, Jesus, and Mary, and Muslims have personal experiences of Allah, and Hindus have personal experiences of Brahma or Shiva or Vishnu, then either an awful lot of gods exist… or people just experience what they want or expect to. (43-4)

As already pointed out in the previous post, however, the religious experiences tend to confirm that there is “something beyond” this realm, some possibly magnificent reality that is separated from this world by a veil or “glass” through which we see only “darkly.”

In Kreeft’s words, “many people understand their experience this way: they are ‘united with’ or ‘taken up into’ a boundless and overwhelming Knowledge and Love, a Love that fills them with itself but infinitely exceeds their capacity to receive.” (82) And Love by any other name…

Further, that religious experiences are “culture-bound” is a pseudo-explanation: what is culture but mutual influence of individuals on each other? Perhaps the culture in which religious experiences are given respectful consideration has been formed by numerous people having genuine religious experiences in the past and describing what they had gone through to the public. The variety in experiences is due not only to different personalities of the folks but also to the fact that God is infinite, and religious experiences may perceive different aspects of Him. Instead of throwing our hands in air, helpless against this diversity, we should put all the experiences together, study them as any other phenomenon, and see what they tell us about God, life, the universe, and everything.

For example, even the normally skeptical Wikipedia has an entry on “life review,” a standard feature of near-death experiences.

There is a more fundamental issue. Experience is all we humans have. Natural science, which Eller praises, is an abstraction from human experience, focusing on those experiences that exhibit regularity or can be modeled such as by math. But not all experiences are like that. Consider, for example, Eller’s interaction with his own wife. Each such interaction is a unique non-repeatable non-reproducible historical event. People change, in their memories and personalities and bodies, circumstances change, ensuring just that. But each interaction remains valuable and more important, instructive for all that. Perhaps if God is a mighty spirit, he is at least as unpredictable as a human being.

Eller’s discussion of religious experiences violates the very tenets of reasoning he endorses in his book. Take falsifiability: is really God unpredictable? To take NDEs again, they exhibit numerous regularities, such as out-of-body perception, the “tunnel,” life review, the Being of Light, and numerous others. It is Eller who owes us an account of what experience would convince him that God exists. Victor Reppert relates that the atheist philosopher Keith Parsons told him that if the stars in the Virgo cluster were to spell out the words “Turn Or Burn This Means You Parsons,” then he would turn. Eller needs something analogous, lest his atheism be unfalsifiable.

Or consider “honesty”: “the evidence ‘must be evaluated without self-deception’.” (69) But Eller dishonestly and uncharitably calls all experiencers deceivers or the deceived. His rationality quickly evaporates, revealing only rancor and fanaticism inside.

Or, again, the idea that “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence”: I would have thought that being “taken up into overwhelming Knowledge and Love” would qualify as exactly that! Eller simply selectively dismisses what he doesn’t like.

How Is the Bible an Authority?

Eller expresses his sentiments: “To non-Christians (including Atheists), the Bible is not authority at all, just as to Christians the Qu’ran or the Hindu Vedas are no authority. Nonbelievers don’t care what somebody else’s text says. … I don’t care what the Bible says — it is not my authority — and so its claims are not worthy of my serious consideration, any more than any other texts or myths in the world.” (39)

But this judgement is entirely trivial:

(1) The Bible is supposedly a revelation from God.
(2) But, Eller maintains, God does not exist.
(3) Therefore, the Bible is merely a human text, since there is no divine authority behind it.
(4) Much more than that, in the New Testament, Jesus presents himself as God.
(5) But since God does not exist, this is a lie.
(6) As C.S. Lewis noted, “a man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.”
(7) Not only then is the Bible not an authority, it is a positively evil or insane document.

St. Thomas argues that “although the argument from authority based on human reason is the weakest, yet the argument from authority based on divine revelation is the strongest.” Eller objects that the Bible, Qu’ran, or Hindu Vedas are not authorities, because nothing is an authority; there is no such thing as divinity which can reveal something.

Eller goes on: “This is why I personally do not get into biblical disputes with Christians and why I would urge other Atheists to do the same.”

St. Thomas more or less agrees:

Hence Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation;

thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another.

If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections — if he has any — against faith. (ST, I, 1, 8)

I must therefore again stress the importance of natural theology.

Religious Diversity Further Considered

Eller continues to press this argument, saying:

The myriad of beliefs out there about god(s), contradictory and mutually exclusive as they are, makes it just short of inconceivable that one of them could have ‘true knowledge’ of god(s) while all the others have it wrong.

He appears to think that choosing a religion is like gambling at roulette with 999 numbers on it. The choice is random and has 0.1% probability of being right. Now if that were so, then atheism, too, would be on the wheel, perhaps as a triple zero. Becoming an atheist, too, would be a random occurrence, and the probability of the truth of atheism would be no greater than the probability of the existence of, say, God315.

Eller will of course object that atheism is the “default” stance. “There is no way imaginable that we could ever determine which was the ‘true knowledge’ and which was worshiping ‘false gods.'” (163-4) Did he forget about his own Chapter 1 where he — poorly — engages 3 arguments for the existence of God? Surely, it is easily “imaginable” that these or other rational arguments in favor of theism could be decisive. Supposing Eller did a bad job at either stating or refuting the arguments, and God315‘s existence could be rigorously proved, would not he have to abandon atheism?

Now all faiths do and must build on reason. Faith is above not contrary to reason; it’s grace, a gift that could not be obtained in any way other than by revelation. I’ve linked to Howard Storm’s NDE in previous posts; consider his experience with colors:

As an aside, I’m an artist. There are three primary, three secondary, and six tertiary colors in the visible light spectrum.

Here, I was seeing a visible light spectrum with at least 80 new primary colors. I was also seeing this brilliance. It’s disappointing for me to try and describe, because I can’t — I was seeing colors that I had never seen before.

We know that different animals see colors differently; some see colors that we cannot; but that our own corporeal vision will be enhanced in the next life is a pure revelation.

That God is a unity or one we can prove by reason; that God is a Trinity Christians hold by faith.

St. Thomas describes faith as follows:

Now the intellect assents to a thing in two ways.

First, through being moved to assent by its very object, which is known either by itself (as in the case of first principles, which are held by the habit of understanding), or through something else already known (as in the case of conclusions which are held by the habit of science).

Secondly the intellect assents to something, not through being sufficiently moved to this assent by its proper object, but through an act of choice, whereby it turns voluntarily to one side rather than to the other:

and if this be accompanied by doubt or fear of the opposite side, there will be opinion, while,

if there be certainty and no fear of the other side, there will be faith.

How does an opinion solidify into faith?

… we may observe a twofold cause, one of external inducement, such as seeing a miracle, or being persuaded by someone to embrace the faith: neither of which is a sufficient cause, since of those who see the same miracle, or who hear the same sermon, some believe, and some do not. Hence we must assert another internal cause, which moves man inwardly to assent to matters of faith.

… since man, by assenting to matters of faith, is raised above his nature, this must needs accrue to him from some supernatural principle moving him inwardly; and this is God. Therefore faith, as regards the assent which is the chief act of faith, is from God moving man inwardly by grace. (ST, II-II, 1; 6)

In light of the diversity of religions, this position needs to be developed. First, grace is an influence that removes doubt about a presumed revelation. It does not itself propose anything to believe in. Even if, then, God graces a Christian with a firm belief in the Trinity and a Muslim with a firm belief in pure monotheism, God cannot be accused of lying.

Second, I have argued that some religious experiences are self-authenticating; but the phenomenon of psychological certainty that a given article of faith is true is not by itself a guarantee that the article is true. God may lead a man to Islam for His own reasons, even if in fact, let’s suppose, Islam is inferior to Christianity.

There is a purpose to the multiplicity of religions; though some are better than others, much truth is scattered among them.

Third, the certitude one may feel about a revealed proposition need not even be definitive evidence for having grace: “a man may, of himself, know something, and with certainty; and in this way no one can know that he has grace.” (ST, II-I, 112, 5)

Fourth, the “external inducement” is still indispensable and constitutes evidence for faith. Cody Libolt combs through the New Testament to summarize the numerous proofs of Jesus’ unique identity, something Eller summarily and inexplicably denies.

Finally, perhaps Islam could be interpreted not as proposing that God is not a Trinity but as failing to propose that God is a Trinity. Islam would then express no opinion about this issue. Then, if Christianity is true, then Islam would be incomplete Christianity. In that case, even if the Holy Spirit were, contrary to the foregoing argument, proposing something, as though forming thoughts in a person’s mind, in prompting a man to adhere to Islam, He would simply be withholding a truth and not actively lying.

There are then two possibilities. Either non-Christians lack faith-giving grace altogether, or it is possible that God can through grace remove doubt about false propositions.

If the former is true, then many Muslim, Jewish, and so on religionists are brainwashed fanatics who keep the “faith” through extraordinary but merely human efforts.

Note by the way that the entire concept of grace is a Christian development. If other religions don’t even recognize grace as a phenomenon or have any theology of it, then perhaps it’s because God does not in fact give any supernatural gifts to their followers.

If the latter is true, then, given the diversity of religions, it happens all the time. As a result, I must admit that the tenets I firmly cling to may nevertheless be false. I then persevere in believing from my trust in God that even if He has withheld some truths from the Christians that He nevertheless revealed to others, He has good reason for doing so. My practical salvation is not imperiled despite the obvious theoretical tension here.

Agnosticism Accepts Meaning of “God”; Denies Reference

Eller’s analysis of agnosticism claims that it denies that one can have any knowledge of God. But in that case one is automatically and essentially an atheist. For why bother considering the existence of that which is totally unknown or unknowable? What are we even showing the existence of? Eller correctly points out: “If you said that you have no idea what a zorg is or what it does or wants but that you believe that there is such a thing as a zorg — and even worse, that you center your life around the existence and wishes of a zorg — I would think you were either pulling my leg or talking crazy.” (170)

But of course agnosticism is nothing of the sort. An agnostic says: “I accept your concept of God in all its richness as coherent; it is possible that this God exists; moreover, the probability that God exists is high enough to make me uncomfortable with atheism, which is why I am not an atheist; however, I still have doubts that this idea of God is instantiated.” An agnostic then knows what God is; he just does not know that He is.

Eller replied to me (back in 2010), and the dialog went as follows:

Eller: I know what the Christian concept(s) of god is/are, but I recognize it/them as nothing more than concepts, and as having no actual referent. Any agnostic who understands agnosticism would say the same.

Chernikov: My point exactly: an agnostic will accept the concept but be unsure of whether this concept refers.

Eller: You are again inventing a straw man agnostic and knocking him down. What, for instance, would an agnostic in India say: that he knows what Shiva is but [not] that he is?

Chernikov: Absolutely.

Eller: If so, then Shiva exists, by your argument.

Chernikov: In semiotics there is a distinction between the meaning of a word and its reference which is at work here. The meaning is ideal, in the mind as the form of the word — what the word is or signifies; the reference is real, out there as the thing to which the word corresponds. So, no, once again, an agnostic would be familiar with the concept of Shiva, but would disclaim any knowledge of whether Shiva exists. Think about it this way: otherwise, what sort of thing would the agnostic even doubt exists? Both “zorg exists” and “I don’t know whether zorg exists” would be meaningless statements.

What Problem Has Religion Ever Solved?

Eller contends that “religion does not have a method at all. … Huston Smith, for instance, seems to think that intuition and revelation are among the methods of religion.” (195)

This is linked with his argument from “religious diversity” examined earlier. Although it does not follow from the fact of diversity itself that no religion is true, if we add an extra premise that there is no way to adjudicate religious claims, no theological methodology, then the argument becomes considerably more biting. Every religion becomes an arbitrary effusion of a would-be guru or of someone’s subjective and chaotic personal mania.

Mises puts the matter in the context of the philosophy of praxeology (science of human action) as follows:

The essential problem of all varieties of universalistic, collectivistic, and holistic social philosophy is: By what mark do I recognize the true law, the authentic apostle of God’s word, and the legitimate authority. For many claim that Providence has sent them, and each of these prophets preaches another gospel.

For the faithful believer there cannot be any doubt; he is fully confident that he has espoused the only true doctrine. But it is precisely the firmness of such beliefs that renders the antagonisms irreconcilable.

Each party is prepared to make its own tenets prevail. But as logical argumentation cannot decide between various dissenting creeds, there is no means left for the settlement of such disputes other than armed conflict. (HA, 147)

Let me therefore start by outlining the method of rational theology.

On the first level, there is negative theology or remotio, wherein we conceive of God as something radically unlike any creature. Here we explain what God is not.

St. Thomas’ question on the simplicity of God illustrates this method: God, he proposes, is not a body, not composed of matter and form, not a union of genus and difference, does not experience either generation or corruption, and so on.

Maimonides argues, too, that “all we understand is the fact that God exists, that God is a being to whom none of Adonai’s creatures is similar, who has nothing in common with them, who does not include plurality,” etc.

With the help of such arguments, the mind is purified from unfitting anthropomorphism and idolatrous imagery of God. It comes to view God as the principle of all being without reducing Him to any creature, neither even to “substance” nor to “being.”

On the second level, we have positive or “perfect being” theology wherein we argue that there is a likeness between God and creatures after all.

God contains in Himself the perfections of all creatures yet in such a supereminent degree as to exceed them infinitely. We point out that God is an infinite mind with complete knowledge of itself that is identical to its act of self-understanding and which is completely pleased and happy with its own perfection and fulfilled in its life.

On the third and final level, we consider God as the first cause of all external to Him things, as creator and later sanctifier and redeemer of the world. Here we explore the implications of God’s being our creator, the Absolute, and whether, how, and in what senses God, by virtue of giving life and will to pursue happiness to His creatures, is good.

Here we solve the problem of evil and show how God understood as goodness is as metaphysically superior to spirit (including His own) as spirit is superior to matter.

Eller does not “get” religion, because he is a fanatical relativist. He has no inkling that there may be something absolute. He has burned the sense of the absolute from his soul, or he never had it in the first place. Either way, his intellect is defective.

The concept of God, i.e., the meaning of the term “God,” is unfolded one argument after another, together with the proofs that this concept has a reference, i.e., that the being whose nature is thereby elucidated exists. This aspect of the theological method, i.e., uniting closely the meaning and reference of God, is rather unique but is indispensable and unavoidable. We say, “argument P shows that there must exist something rather sui generis with such and such attribute A, and this is what all men call God.”

P then both discovers A and demonstrates the existence of something with A.

Now as to the question in the title of this post asked by Eller on p. 195, religions produce different answers to the following 3 problems:

1) Where did we come from?
2) Where are we going?
3) Why are we here now in this rather tragicomic situation?

Since these are extremely general and all-encompassing questions, a mistake in answering them would reverberate throughout our entire lives. Eller goes on:

The very fact that religionists look to science for confirmation of their religious beliefs only evinces the power and prestige of science in our modern world.

Notice that no scientists… use religion to try to support science!

No scientist says, “Oh, the Bible says the world was created at a specific moment in time, so the big bang must be correct.” (193)

That is true, but only because sciences are arranged in a hierarchy. Science may be called “atheistic” if we define it as search for knowledge of secondary causes of events, whether physical or teleological. We can then define philosophy and specifically its branch of theology as wisdom or apprehension and judgment of the first cause.

In seeking to grasp the nature of God, theology uses all the discoveries of science (but not vice versa), precisely because it is the “queen of the sciences”:

Religion does not tolerate indifference. The one thing that religion demands, and I agree with all scholars who emphasize this, is commitment. … “Belief in God is primarily a commitment to a way of life…”

Religion, then, often may be inherently hostile to science since science is so completely disinterested in religion.

Science does not bow to religion’s authority; instead, science often takes its authoritative claims as sufficient grounds for doubt. Science does not care what the god(s) said, and it does not care what the prophets or the church fathers said.

It is, therefore, intrinsically disrespectful of religion, and that is a mortal threat. (201)

But we now see that science is uninterested in religion only in the sense that a servant is uninterested in overthrowing or manipulating the queen. When we understand science as a handmaiden of metaphysics and theology, we readily allow it its autonomy and use it for solving the ultimate questions. For example, St. Thomas warns of a potential snare to us when man “desires to know the truth about creatures, without referring his knowledge to its due end, namely, the knowledge of God. Hence Augustine says that ‘in studying creatures, we must not be moved by empty and perishable curiosity; but we should ever mount towards immortal and abiding things.'” (ST, II-II, 167, 1)

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Vatican Council declared that revealed and natural theology “differ essentially not only in their cognitive principle (faith, reason) and their object (dogma, rational truth), but also in their motive (Divine authority, evidence) and their ultimate end (beatific vision, natural knowledge of God).”

I will not here treat the former except to point out that Christianity in its capacity as a revealed religion comes with its own version of upgraded, grace-enhanced morality. Where natural morality tells us not to hate, Christianity tells us to love. Where natural morality tells us not to harm and not to do evil, Christianity tell us to perform works of mercy, to help, and to do good. I do not understand why an atheist like Eller would ever want to adopt the precepts of the Christian justice. I’d imagine that from the atheistic point of view the “works of mercy” seem senseless and even insane.

Thus, Christianity further offers one solution to the problem of how man can attain his last end, i.e., happiness, that goes beyond the solutions offered by the sciences of secondary causes.

Whence Tolerance?

Eller discusses “toleration” in Ch. 8; he seems to endorse this idea, especially for atheism, though as an extreme relativist, he can’t of course call it objectively good or bad. Toleration for Eller is just his own personal subjective and arbitrary value judgment, vomited onto us from his own “perspective” which might not be valid for other people.

He wishes to “be tolerated as equal to the faithful,” saying mercifully that “we do not want to kill or persecute” the theists, though he would insist, of his own authority, that religions be abolished: “We do not ask to be given a seat at the interfaith council. Philosophically, epistemologically, we ask that the interfaith council disband.” (231-2)

Well, David, request denied.

A persistent straw man in this chapter is Eller’s fantastic assertion that Christianity, say, is a “totalistic belief-system” which “claims exclusive access to all truth and good.” (205)

Alright then, let’s take a look at the Christian articles of faith, summarized for example in the Nicene creed: “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God…” This confession traditionally comprises exactly 12 articles. Further, these propositions, being of faith, are above — not contrary to — unaided reason. No Christian believes there is such a thing as Christian mathematics or Christian economics.

Only 12 rather modest assertions about the infinite God: surely far from “all truth”!

Regarding the “good,” Christians probably agree that God is good in one important sense, but might find chocolate ice cream also to be good, though in another and completely non-religious sense. Not stealing is good in yet a third sense; courage is good in a fourth sense, as has always been recognized almost everywhere in the world, though in Christianity courage receives prominence as a “cardinal virtue”; and so on.

Whence then Eller’s preposterous and ugly charge that Christianity comprehends “all truth and good”?

Eller believes that toleration and final respite from religious wars that convulsed Europe came about “because there was just no choice anymore; intolerance failed and exhausted itself.” (221) A much more plausible theory is that religious toleration was part and parcel of the development of economic science and the liberal ideology that accompanied it. According to it, modernity came about by two shifts in human understanding.

First was that all men are at least in the long run natural friends; their secular interests, when “rightly understood,” are harmonious. “The greater productivity of work under the division of labor is a unifying influence,” says Mises. “It leads men to regard each other as comrades in a joint struggle for welfare, rather than as competitors in a struggle for existence. It makes friends out of enemies, peace out of war, society out of individuals.” (Socialism, 295)

All individuals are mutually complementary in the structure of production and market process. Economics tells us: “Do not just ‘coexist.’ Profit handsomely from each other’s existence.” That Eller grows rich under laissez-faire capitalism benefits me as a consumer; his success, far from coming at my expense, is on the contrary a cause for me to rejoice, cause for celebration: he has willy-nilly contributed to the greater good.

The second idea that transformed the world was taking seriously the prayer “let it be on earth as it is in heaven.” This life is more than merely a preparation for eternal bliss, and has considerable importance in its own right. Mises quipped that “present-day churches often speak more about raising wage rates and farm incomes than about the dogmas of the Christian doctrine.” (HA, 154) The astonishing idea, before the Industrial Revolution never entertained, that there can be such thing as everlasting economic progress has become accepted by all. Such progress, it was further realized, requires complete abolition of international war for any reason whatever including religious differences.

This natural pre-grace friendship and communion of all men is the foundation for the specifically Christian and more rigorous faith and morals. The religious wars and persecution in prior centuries were, indeed from the Christian point of view, straightforward injustices, violations of natural law, though this fact only became apparent with the advent of economics and (classical) liberalism. For example, it was economists who “reduced the prestige of conquerors and expropriators and demonstrated the social benefits derived from business activity.” (HA, 8)

I don’t know how much Eller knows about Christian theology, but he should at least understand that grace (such as the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity) builds on nature. Christendom was marked by barbarism because the supernatural divine grace, though a beautiful thing, had little on which to rest. Mises argues: “all other human beings are potential collaborators in the struggle for survival because they are capable of recognizing the mutual benefits of cooperation.” (HA, 144) But you can’t have peace of earth and good will toward men when people precisely fail to recognize that. It took the development of economics, “the youngest of all sciences” (1), to enlighten us all.

Mises is unequivocal on this matter:

Compare the results achieved by these ‘shopkeepers’ ethics’ with the achievements of Christianity!

Christianity has acquiesced in slavery and polygamy, has practically canonized war, has, in the name of the Lord, burnt heretics and devastated countries.

The much abused ‘shopkeepers’ have abolished slavery and serfdom, made woman the companion of man with equal rights, proclaimed equality before the law and the freedom of thought and opinion, declared war on war, abolished torture, and mitigated the cruelty of punishment.

What cultural force can boast of similar achievements? (Socialism, 440-1)

My only reply to Mises would be that Christianity did fairly well with what little it was given.

Perhaps Eller will insist that he finds the talk of “grace” meaningless. It may be in a trivial sense, insofar as, as an atheist, he denies that there is a grace-giver. In this case, the absence of reference of “grace” may suggest that it has no meaning either. (This is a perfect illustration of how both atheism and theism are competing rational ideas, such that rejection of natural proofs of God’s existence leads inevitably to the collapse of the whole “superstructure” of faith on top of reason.) That’s fine, but the distinction refutes his opinion that “there is no world-religious source that includes toleration as one of its values.” (205) A miracle may provisionally be described as a “violation” of a law of nature. But grace is not that at all but instead builds on nature including natural reason. If the latter, such as sound economic reasoning, tells us to maintain global peace, then no article of faith can propose otherwise. And it does not, as is evident from the creed.

Eller really grasps at straws: “Jesus also said to love your neighbor and your enemy, but I think it is obvious that he assumed that your neighbor and even your enemy would be a Christian too. There is nowhere, I repeat nowhere, where Jesus says to love the non-believer or to be free to be a nonbeliever yourself.” (207) But the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29-37) contradicts Eller’s claim. So is the parable of the Lost Sheep (“The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'” (Lk 15:1-7)). In fact, as Joseph Sobran pointed out, Jesus was murdered by the most religious men of his age. Suppose finally for the sake of argument that Christianity is true. Then Jesus’ injunction to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19) is an act of enormous love and acceptance of all men as wayfarers to glory. In any case, Christianity suggests that we are saved by Christ, not really by “religion,” though faith is indubitably useful to that end.

Faith is useful, because “grace is nothing else than a beginning of glory in us”; glory is “but grace consummated,” as St. Thomas teaches.

Let me again take note of Eller’s position that there are no objective moral truths, not even “murder is wrong.” The lifestyle of a serial killer would be for him just another “alternative.” Now it is true that the “gay lifestyle or perspective… is neither true nor false.” (225) But of course the issue is the status of the proposition “homosexuality is a vice.” Eller denies that it is truth-apt at all, but only because of his metaethical commitments, in particular his “anthropological” relativism. He assumes it throughout the book but never proves it, perhaps falsely finding it self-evident.

Eller the Impatient

Ernest Renan remarked that “The day after that on which the world should no longer believe in God, atheists would be the wretchedest of all men.” Eller’s devotion to his holy cause of atheism clouds his judgment. The following is our exchange back in 2010:

Chernikov: A religious experience may be self-authenticating.

Eller: “God’s grace comes with a guarantee that it is from God” is also a mere stipulation, and a circular one at that. Substitute any other name for “god” here and see the results: “Zeus’s grace comes with a guarantee that it is from Zeus.”

Chernikov: Well, Zeus has never bestowed grace, has he? But if he did, and it came with a guarantee that it was from Zeus, then it would be evidence for Zeus’ existence.

Eller: I go one further: there is no such thing as a “religious experience” at all.

Chernikov: So much for going where the evidence leads. If you reject religious experiences a priori, then we have little to discuss. Your atheism is unfalsifiable. No matter which piece of evidence is presented to you, you’ll reject it out of hand. So much the worse for you.

Eller: Atheism does not have to be falsifiable, since it is the default presumption.

That is like saying, “There is no Santa Claus” is unfalsifiable; one does not have to falsify no-Santa, one has to prove Santa.

Chernikov: The two are equivalent, and that’s why “there is no Santa Claus” is eminently falsifiable: one only needs to present compelling evidence for Santa’s existence. But if you have resolved once and for all that no amount of evidence will ever convince you that God exists, then we might as well quit right here. And I think that’s the direction we are heading in.

The existence of Hercules, Harry Potter, Santa Claus are legitimate questions, sometimes historical, sometimes not. I have reasons (good, in my estimation) to believe that Hercules never existed in reality, while Jesus did. What about, say, Marcus Aurelius or Herod? Wouldn’t you say that those guys did exist? Why liken Jesus to Hercules and not to Marcus Aurelius other than out of a preference for theft over honest toil?

Eller: To presume that those experiences “tell us about God” is again prejudicial. Perhaps they tell us about space aliens, ascended masters, brain states, or the nature of delusion.

Chernikov: Well, perhaps. But then perhaps not. Wouldn’t you want to know the answer, if only to find out in the end that space aliens do exist?

But to reach a conclusion we must look carefully at lots of experiences.

For example, regarding those, common consent is on my side, not on Eller’s; else atheists would outnumber believers. Peter Kreeft makes the following point:

Even a skeptic will admit that the testimony we have is deeply impressive: the vast majority of humans have believed in an ultimate Being to whom the proper response could only be reverence and worship. No one disputes the reality of our feelings of reverence, attitudes of worship, acts of adoration. But if God does not exist, then these things have never once — never once — had a real object. Is it really plausible to believe that? …

It seems far more likely that those who refuse to believe are the ones suffering from deprivation and delusion — like the tone-deaf person who denies the existence of music…

If God does not exist, what is it that believers have been experiencing? The level of illusion goes far beyond any other example of collective error. It really amounts to collective psychosis.

For believing in God is like having a relationship with a person. If God never existed, neither did this relationship. You were responding with reverence and love to no one; and no one was there to receive and answer your response. It’s as if you believe yourself happily married when in fact you live alone in a dingy apartment. (Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 83-4)

Eller: I would give you this as constraints: it must be some evidence that points to your god and no other and that cannot be interpreted in any possible way other than your god.

I expect that, on principle, this is an impossible standard to meet, since any conceivable experience or evidence could be plausibly interpreted in some other way.

So, in a word, your burden of proof is unbearable.

Chernikov: Unbearable. On principle. “Any claim about the ‘supernatural’ is automatically false.” End of discussion.

Eller’s point is that any experience can be interpreted away in a non-religious sense. First, if some experiences are self-authenticating, then this is false. If Eller had such an experience, then even he would see it for what it really is.

Why hasn’t God graced Eller this way? Perhaps in conformance with Jesus’ saying, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Mt 7:6)

Second, I agree that other people’s experiences, no matter how amazing, need not convince Eller. But regarding them, our author is a hostile, biased, and uncomprehending outsider. Why should his interpretations be privileged? He is free to despise theists; but theists need not be swayed by his wild blind contempt.

Natural Atheism: Conclusion

Eller ends his book with the following prophecy:

If Atheism ever is allowed to evolve from the lion [i.e., destructive] stage to the child stage…, it will pass into a creative phase the likes of which we have never seen in the history of humankind. (329)

This implausible fantasy reminds me of Mises:

But utopians do not pay heed to human nature and the unalterable conditions of human life.

Godwin thought that man might become immortal after the abolition of private property.

Charles Fourier babbled about the ocean containing lemonade instead of salt water.

Marx’s economic system blithely ignored the fact of the scarcity of material factors of production.

Trotsky revealed that in the proletarian paradise “the average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.” (HA, 70-1)

Does Eller seriously think that the only thing that prevents his Australian Aboriginals from going to the stars, i.e., from creating a super-advanced civilization, is their religious beliefs?

I conclude this live blogging review with a word of caution to Eller: nature, in order to be commanded, must be obeyed. Take care that you do not “create” an atheistic culture that does not work, that collapses, and that in so doing will kill you instead.