Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Prayer, the anthropic principle, fun, sin, vegetarianism, and Christian agnosticism

When I tell believing Christians that I don't believe that God exists, but that I still practice Christianity, they often tilt their heads or cross their eyes. I explain that, for example, I still pray. 'Who do you pray to?' is a question I get a lot. I suppose my prayers go the same place as my believing friends' prayers. If God's not real (and I think he's not), they go nowhere, and if he is (and I hope he is) then I'm sure he can hear mine and theirs without straining; God is the one who makes prayer work. If prayer depended on the strength of one's belief, no one's prayers would do any good. I admit that I don't pray as much as I used to and that it is a little painful now that I don't believe that God exists. Even so, prayer doesn't feel terribly different to me now than it did when I was a believer.

I know that it sounds like I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth. I'm confused. The thing that holds faith and doubt together for me is the sheer fun of Christianity.

Jesus mocks Pharisees and hangs out with little kids. The most beautiful songs of worship are bound together with horrible, vile, racist, infanticidal anger. Jonah runs from God and God keeps catching him, with a storm and a monster and heat and a bug.

I'm a scientist, I spend my workdays laboring slowly and methodically, a small mistake I made once set me back a year. I like how Christianity doesn't bother to make much sense. Even so, it doesn't make sense in a sad and beautiful and good way, in the sort of way that people listen to jazz for fun and not experimental music.

I practice Christianity because I want to. I think that's why most people who call themselves Christians do so; in one way or another, it makes them happier. This is why it confuses me when Christians do evangelism by trying to make a hard sell, running up to someone on the boardwalk and accusing them of unspeakable acts or leaving cartoon booklets as tips in a restaurant or nagging or yelling or pulling a bait-and-switch or going door to door like cultists or putting irritatingly cute bumper stickers on their cars.

Some people like to argue that God exists by the anthropic principle, that if certain fundamental properties of the universe were ever so slightly different, then life as we know it wouldn't exist. Finding God in finely tuned numbers says nothing about whether God is interested in us, and if he isn't, I suppose the feeling would be mutual on my part.

I'm a scientist, I've spent a third of my life in college, I make charts for fun, I play with supercomputers on Friday nights, and I can't work out the numbers to see if it's even the case that fine-tuning is so special. Should only people smarter than me be able to know for sure that God is there?

However, the real reason why I think the anthropic principle is bogus is that it's boring. If the most persuasive way to know that God exists is by doing physics calculations, then I'm going to tell Grandma that I love her by sending her a copy of my simulations code; I'm sure she'll be impressed.

I used to be an obnoxious evangelist, and then I was a nerdy evangelist. I quit both when I couldn't annoy or convince myself into belief. Even when I was a believing Christian, guilt and certainty weren't enough for me to follow Jesus.

Christianity is a word for how I want things to be, and I don't simply mean 'love' or 'peace'; I'm not using Christianity as an old-sounding word for modern intellectual hipster virtues. When I talk about Christianity, I mean the historically grounded theologically orthodox Christianity.

I want a new world with no thorns and disease, where the ground is no longer toil to till. I want a city with a stream that runs through it, the Tree of Life growing on the bank of the stream. I want the lion to lie down with the lamb. I want people from all ethnicities living in peace and singing songs to God in their own languages.

Although I'd prefer hell to be empty, I want a place for free people to run from God. I want to sing songs that I don't like with some people I don't like every week. I prefer organized religion to disorganized religion, because, even if Christianity was made up by nomads suffering from heat stroke and mirages, they came up with something better than I would on my own. My religion would involve a lot of puns and math and Danish philosophy and it would probably kill me. I like the parts of Christianity that I don't like, because all the parts I didn't like I found out weren't really Christian or weren't really bad, difficult, perhaps, but not bad.

I like judgmental religious people, but I'd rather they figure out who to blame for 35,000 kids dying every day from hunger and preventable disease, and who to blame when my little brother gets made fun of. I even want them to blame me when I'm doing something wrong, and maybe I'll do the right thing instead. I like to talk about sin and despair and hubris because I know they're real for me, and not talking about them won't make them go away.

I don't want a Christianity in which I can just say a prayer or show up on Sunday morning or not cuss and be okay; I don't want a watered-down Christianity. I want Christianity to be as hard as it is, with Jesus calling me to death and sacrifice because I know that the things that are killing me aren't worth living for. I want Jesus to make it as easy as he can, though, because I can't fix me myself.

Enthusiasm about Christianity isn't the same as knowing that God is real, it doesn't do nearly as much to help me sleep better at night, but I don't know what I'd rather be enthusiastic about. Television is boring.

I used to tell people that I'm a vegetarian because I'm opposed to American over-consumption and mistreatment of animals in factory farms, but now I think I'll just say that I like to eat plants.


  1. Interesting, but I think that you know nothing about the physics for the anthropic principle, because you would lose a debate with a knowledgeable creationist. But as "luck" would have it, you have me to help:


  2. I think you proved my point.

  3. If your point was that you don't understand the physics, then yes, I have proven your point, So congratulations for your ignorance, willful or otherwise.

  4. I think Alex meant that he understands the physics, but that he doesn't see the point in believing in a God who can only be known through something like that.

    I have a different problem than you, Alex. You don't believe in God, but you act like a Christian because you wish it was real. I *do* believe in God, but I have trouble acting like a Christian because I haven't figured out why I should care (fear and guilt aren't sustainable motivators).

  5. Crap, you got me, so I'll go ahead and apologize to Alex, but let me also play devil's advocate for a minute, because I didn't have to be that honest, and I want credit for that too, BTW... ;)

    Anyway, people commonly recognize purpose in nature that they attribute to god, and if the universe was designed by a supernatural entity, then these people would be correct.

    So why would you expect every act to be just that easy to grasp?

    How arrogant and "god-like" to think that it would be so easy to recognize every single aspect of god's creativity, when (s)he was kind enough to make so many others very apparent to the common person.

    Man, I can't believe that I'm arguing for god now... lol

    As promised... I'm sorry, Alex.

  6. I've always heard the anthropic principle a different way as an argument against God: essentially that if the variables weren't fine-tuned just so, we wouldn't be around to notice that they weren't. Therefore you can't really apply probability to existence. No matter how improbable a life supporting universe is, the fact that one exists suggest it is still possible. The odds could be one to a trillion trillion against; we could still have landed on the one. Especially if there was some kind of near-infinite multiverse, at least one universe would need to be the good kind.
    Then there's Dawkins' argument that perhaps the only thing less probable than the spontaneous existence of a life supporting universe is the spontaneous existence of an omnipotent being capable of creating life supporting universes, so we're stuck with the anthropic principle as presented above as best way to explain how we could exist.

    As for Christianity, I'm a fan of Jesus, but I've never been able to figure out why he would want to be in any way associated with the God of the Old Testament. If I was his son, I would have emancipated myself. Maybe you can't do that if you are also your own father though.

  7. Island, I greatly appreciate your apology. I forgive you.

  8. Yes, 'people commonly recognize purpose in nature that they attribute to god'; this doesn't mean that they are right to do so. People also see the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich. It doesn't matter if people interpret order in nature as evidence of God's existence and character, what matters is whether that order is there and if it is, whether that actually does say something about God. I don't think it does. I think along the lines of Tim's (tdcourtney) reference to Richard Dawkins.

    My point is that the sort of God that I want to believe in, a personal God, would be known through personal means.

    Knowledge of God is problematic, I realize this. It's not that I feel like I can boss God into being knowable on my terms, it's that I don't know any other way to know things.

  9. Tim, I think the Old Testament God has a bad rap. Leviticus isn't just about not having gay sex, it says a lot about caring for the poor and the aliens. I don't like a lot of the violence in the books of history, but their literary function, it seems to me, isn't to enforce ideas of Jewish racial superiority but to tell stories of God's deliverance of people in a way that the readers then would understand.

    That Jesus identifies with this tradition says much about the incarnation. He frequently quotes and references the Old Testament. His teaching style is consummately rabbinical.

    The magic idea about Jesus is that, even being God, he would choose to live among people as a person. It's important that he would represent himself in an existing religious tradition. We don't need a new religion, we need people to practice existing religion better.

  10. Yes, 'people commonly recognize purpose in nature that they attribute to god'; this doesn't mean that they are right to do so.

    No, I said... "if the universe was designed by a supernatural entity, then these people would be correct."

    And I'd previously stated that your lack of understand of the anthropic physics would cause you to lose an argument about this if you had it with a knowledgeable creationist... OR me.

    Which means that creationists are more justified to claim that the purpose in nature that they recognize means exactly what it looks like... to them.

    And since you deferred to "you've made my point for me"... rather than bringing up the usual willfully ignorance of the apparent significance of the evidence, you have forfeited your right to now claim that "this doesn't mean that they are right to do so"...

    Try to keep up now, huh?

    Which is a round-about way of saying that your answer didn't follow the conversation, or you are playing dumb, which is much much much much much much worse, and will surely draw the wrath of my disdain for dishonesty, should I continue to suspect that this is your game...

  11. tdcourtny, that is the weak anthropic principle and it requires either:

    1) You must assume the existence of multiple universes, which...
    a. Is highly controversial and hypothetical speculation without a final theory to justify it, since this idea is not observable.

    This is because we do have a most natural expectation for what the universe should look like that falls from first principles, not probabilities.

    Is Our Universe Natural?

    Probabilities are not a scientific solution to the problem without a lot of help that doesn't currently exist, in other words.

    b. You can produce a cosmological structure principle that proves that we are just a consequence of otherwise highly pointed, (bio-oriented), physics.

    Otherwise you are faced with an "appearance of design" that you can't wipe away with unjustified speculation about weak interpretations of the physics.

    This "appearance of design" is actually indicative of a bio-oriented cosmological structure principle, not god, but you can't get too many physicists to admit this fact, which was Brandon Carters exact point, whether he even knew it or not.

    And I'd strongly suggest that you read my previously given linked page:

    Or you could read the same basic thing at the blog of the physicist where I first called them out for their unjustified religious practice of "Copernicanism":

  12. What are you trying to prove by the anthropic principle?

    The scope of this blog post is restricted to talking about knowing and relating to the God of a 'historically grounded theologically orthodox Christianity'. Is that what you're talking about? If not, that's fine, but I'm not sure that what you're saying pertains to this specific topic.

  13. Are you suggesting that all of the old testament should be taken as metaphor, or that we must move past the bad and pay attention to the good (and does the latter require the former?)? I feel that I could read a philosophy treatise and still learn about caring for your neighbors but with a more rational basis for doing so and without also seeing children mauled by bears and women captured into slavery.

    I'm not really sure what you mean in the second paragraph; what does incarnation refer to?

    I see what you mean in your third, but I still feel like philosophy is a fundamentally better idea than religion. Do you suppose people wouldn't have accepted the Sermon on the Mount if there wasn't a God attached?

  14. There's clearly historical grounding, at least to pieces of the Old Testament. I don't care terribly what you think about the historicity of the Old Testament, though.

    It's trendy to place our experience over religion. This is called for to some extent, but we ought to recognize the experience and wisdom in tradition. Not only that, but I want religion to be inconvenient in the same way that Grandma is; I don't want to treat either as a consumer good.

    The doctrine of the incarnation states that Jesus, while eternally divine, became human, without releasing any of his divinity. His becoming part of a specific religious tradition, participating in human existence through culture, I see as an important part of this.

    Philosophy might be more accurate, but it's generally less powerful in how it affects people; when philosophy and religion point us in greatly different directions, we ought be very cautious, because religion and philosophy are weak, but in different ways. People aren't rational. It's better to reach people through community and culture. The Sermon on the Mount, in particular, hearkens back to Moses' giving of the law; in Jesus' teaching, he respectfully recontextualizes the traditional Hebrew law.

  15. I am trying to convey the hard scientific evidence for why your reasons for rejecting the creationist's anthropic argument are bogus, and why they are still not justified to make the leap of faith that they do.

    I'm personally interested in protecting the integrity of science that is abused by all ya'll who would use it for ideological reasons and whatnot...

  16. So you'd argue that the personal benefit of religion to a skeptic is that you can't choose to ignore it if it is inconvenient? Or am I misunderstanding? I can see that an outside observer could see religion as beneficial in that respect, regardless of its truth, but I'm not sure how to apply it to yourself. If you don't want to do something but feel ethically that you should, is the choice to act as if you believe you must act easier than the choice to act based only on your own rationale? It seems like you're just adding an extra step.

    Heh, it appears I lost track of the original meaning of incarnation. I'd agree that religion is more accessible (I've hesitated to use the word 'useful' because it calls to mind 'using people'), but I wish it weren't so. Can we have a Bob Nye the Philosophy Guy? In light of that I'd also agree that religion and philosophy agreeing with each other is a good thing.

  17. Tim,

    I'm not sure that this answers your question.

    It would be nice if we could all just agree to, say, maximize human utility. However, we have a lot of trouble doing those calculations. On top of that, we have huge cognitive biases that make us think we're doing the right thing when we're doing the wrong thing. It's easy to fudge the utility calculations, and it's easy to fudge a conscience. Rules help with this, and religion gives us a rulesy framework.

    Philosophy can give blunt, effective answers as to how to live. I don't think it helps us make better people as well as we'd like, and that's what we really need.

    We shouldn't need Bob Nye Philosophy Guy, we should be able to examine life as individuals, and this is what the Enlightenment pointed us to. French existentialism came about because that didn't actually work.

    I don't think religion should be followed blindly. I'm deeply skeptical of my own religion. I know that I'm biased in my own favor. There are some things in Christianity that are bad because they're backward (treating women as property in Leviticus, for example); there are other things in Christianity that I'm prone to reject because they're hard, things like living sacrificially.

    I like religion because religion is a fancy word for a community of people trying to deal with God and the cosmos. That community presses me into the hard things about being a human in a way I can't do on my own.

  18. Ok, I hadn't thought of the community aspect and that does make sense to me. At one point I considered visiting a UU church for what I think is a similar reason.

    I don't think the importance of Bill Nye is the science he taught though, but the appreciation for science he instilled, so I would hope for Bob Nye to do the same. Something else I hadn't considered though is that all things considered, Christianity is good influence on most people and I'd rather see a good religion than a bad philosophy.

  19. Community is huge. It's important that it's a community that will challenge you, rather than reinforce your presuppositions.

    Good point on Bob Nye being an entertainer, rather than a proper philosopher.