Archive for March, 2011

Theology and philosophy of religion: what are they?

March 31, 2011

So, a running commentary in the post bringing over the discussion from Butterflies and Wheels is about what is the difference between theology and philosophy of religion, and this morning I came up with an idea:

Theology is the study of theistic religion.

Philosophy of religion studies religion in general, without focusing on theistic religions.

This is brought to light by discussions of Buddism.  Is it a religion, or isn’t it?  It certainly is generally considered a religion, but recent arguments that say that a religion has to include a supernatural deity and so Buddism isn’t one.  And so this debate both highlights and will settle if there is any difference between theology and philosophy of religion:

If Buddism is a religion, then there will be no theological study of it — since it isn’t theistic — and philosophy of religion will cover it while theology will not.  Philosophy of religion, however, will cover it in addition to covering theistic religions (it’s a more general field than theology).

If it turns out that Buddism is not a religion because to be a religion you need a god, and that would mean that Buddism, which is not theistic, is not a religion, then there  is no difference in the subject matter of philosophy of religion and theology, and there shouldn’t be any difference in method either since both would simply choose the methods that best study theistic religions.

So, if we settle this question, we have our answer, no matter what traditionally has been done.

Questions and Answers: Will people who don’t believe in God go to Hell?

March 30, 2011

So, I did talk about answering some questions, but with all sorts of things going on in my life it was pushed out, but today might a good day to start.  So I’ll start with one of the questions that I’ve thought about the most:  will people who don’t believe in God go to Hell?  Again, let me remind everyone that this is me doing informal, armchair theology, and so you won’t get a lot of quotes or the like.

How this comes up in Christianity is that there are a number of passages in the New Testament that say that the only way to be saved is through Jesus, and that hint or flat-out say that works are not good enough.  However, many parables — particularly that of the Good Samaritan — suggest that those who seem the most religious or pious are not better in any way that the non-believer or heretic who acts kindly towards others.  So, what is the status of non-believers? Hellbound or not?

The key thing to think about is what it actually means to be saved through Jesus.  What does it mean to, say, be like Jesus or act like Jesus would or believe in Jesus?  Jesus in many areas eschews claims that rituals matter; when the scribes and Pharisees criticized his disciples for not doing the ritual washing of hands before eating his response was basically that it isn’t what comes from outside that makes a person unclean, but only what is inside of him (Mark 7: 1 – 19).  This is a denial that rituals are the key to making a person good or evil, which by extension would be worthy of heaven or hell.  So, it seems, just having the right religion and practicing the right rituals is not sufficient, a point that Jesus and the New Testament harp on as they show the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees who do follow all the right rituals but are clearly not good.  And again, the Good Samaritan makes this abundantly clear.

But it does seem that just doing good isn’t good enough either.  So what is it?  Do you have to believe in Jesus specifically?  Again, that He had few issues with non-believers and more issues with rich people seems to belie that.  So what is it, then?

To me, it’s that you have to believe as Jesus did.  Just being kind to people isn’t enough, you have to be kind to people just to be kind to people.   You can’t do it expecting a reward or to be praised for your goodness or to get a tax write-off.  If you want to be saved through Jesus, it is through almost literally doing what Jesus would do, and for the same reasons, by expressing genuine kindness and concern and resisting temptation.  Only that can save you.

Now, what about people who don’t believe in God or Jesus, or who have never heard of Christianity?  Are they doomed to Hell?  Well, what are they missing, if they have the right attitude and act appropriately on that attitude in the world?  The rituals?  Not important.  Knowing Jesus’ name?  There’s no reason to think that would matter.  Are they being false in their generousity?  No, by definition.  So I see no reason why they wouldn’t go to heaven.

To me, it seems that “believing in Jesus” in the NT is shorthand for “acting as Jesus would, for the right reasons”.  If people are doing good just in the hopes of going to heaven, I’m afraid they’ll be greatly disappointed; that doesn’t seem to be what Jesus is looking for.  Nor does it seem that Jesus is particularly looking for people who genuflect appropriately on Sunday and forget it the rest of the week; the scribes and Pharisees had that and Jesus didn’t exactly consider that to their credit.  It seems that Jesus is looking for genuinely good people, and the fact that they practice the wrong rituals or none at all will in no way count against them.

So, no, good people who don’t believe in God won’t go to hell.  But that’s just my take on it.

Theology, philosophy of religion, and everyone …

March 30, 2011

I’ve been commenting heavily on a post at Ophelia Benson’s site, and she’s suggesting that to avoid cluttering her site up we can talk about it here.  So, this is the post for that, if people want.

The thread on her site is here:

Can moral relativists talk about evil?

March 26, 2011

Over at Metamagician, Russell Blackford is talking about how evil the Vatican is.  That’s not what I want to talk about here, what I want to talk about is about whether or not Blackford — an avowed Error Theorist — can talk about evil at all.

Here’s a link to his post:

A comment on this should show up there eventually, but I want to talk about it here in more detail and more precisely.

So, to me, the meaning of the term “evil” maps directly and neatly onto “strongly immoral, as strongly immoral as one can get”.  While it’s clear what that means for objectivists, realists and absolutists — objectively wrong, and wrong in the strongest possible sense; the most egregious violation of the objective moral code possible — it isn’t clear what it means for relativists.  Obviously, naive relativists can’t take it in any way like the objectivists, because they wouldn’t have any notion of any kind of objective moral code that they could be violating.  At best, they could claim it an egregious violation of the moral code that the relevant group holds, but this always runs into problems with people who might say, then, that they aren’t part of that group.

More nuanced relativists might be able to get something like the objectivist view by arguing that there are commonalities in what people see as moral, just as there are for — to use Blackford’s analogy — car purchasing.  They can use that, then, to argue that there may be just some things that most people find totally egregious violations of those common moral values — that are not absolute moral dicates, but are just common values — that can then be called evil.  We already have the problem that, as in the post cited above, the issue may be over major differences in moral principles, which are clashes over values.  This clash would be more akin to a person who was interested in a car in order to drive it and someone who simply collected cars but didn’t drive them.  In the case of the Vatican and homosexuality, there is a major gulf in principles between them and people like Blackford, including but not limited to the question of whether private behaviour is, in fact, subject to moral evaluation or not.  This is not something that can be resolved, but then for Blackford to call it evil would take the commonality and even rationality out of it; there is no rational reason for him to say that rationally they should prefer his moral code, since all the rational criteria he can appeal to — objectivity or shared principles — is out of the picture.  It would be hard, then, to justify calling them evil as any sort of objective classification if this was the case.

And it gets worse.  After all, we all know that we can not only disagree over values rationally in cases like the car analogy, but also over what priority each value should be given.  Presuming that everyone wants good gas mileage, comfort, and a nice fit with their lifestyle, some may compromise with gas mileage as their top priority and sacrifice the others to get it, while others may sacrifice gas mileage for comfort or fit with their lifestyle.  There’s no way to rationally argue that those priorities ought to be different under even the more nuanced relativist schemes, because the relativist schemes explicitly claim that at some level those decisions are, well, relative to the individual.  And since we’re talking about “strongly evil”, that requires both an agreement on the principle and the priority of that principle.  Since neither can necessarily be satisfied, this appellation cannot be objective even in the weak sense of nuanced relativist views.

Ultimately, what this is building to is that a classification of evil is necessarily at some level subjective if you’re a relativist.  At some point, it’s limited either to a specific group identity or to a group of people who happen to think the same way.  Anyone outside of that, therefore, should be free to scoff and ignore any relativist who calls them evil; that’s their own personal judgement, not anything worth worrying about.  At the end of the day, the sanest way for relativists to approach this in my opinion is to take the Humean or Prinzean notion of sentiments and say that when they call someone evil, all that is doing is expressing the sentiment that they find that action incredibly objectionable.  But it doesn’t say anything about whether it actually is so objectionable, or whether the target of the accusation should in any way consider themselves or their position evil.

This, however, does not seem to me to be what Blackford and other relativists mean when they express that, except for perhaps Prinz.

So, can relativists talk about evil in a way that isn’t just them saying “You know, I personally really don’t like that”?

Why are there so few female engineers?

March 26, 2011

So, over at Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers points to some events at the University of Waterloo, and seems to be using these in some way as explaining why there are so few female engineers.  He isn’t all that clear on why in his article; it boils down to “sexism” but he does accept fairly huffily in the comments that he knows that it isn’t just, for example, a hostile environment in engineering departments.  I don’t really want to get into that, but want to talk about a hypothesis from someone that Myers doesn’t think appropriately captures the essence of the issues:


Really Sherlock? UW is a male dominated campus, I wonder why… oh, let’s see, UW is in the top for Engineering, Math, and CS, given that most girls doesn’t want to give the effort and sacrifice needed to go through the Engineering or Math program at UW, you are going to bitch and cry that the university is male dominated? Really? So if you want a female dominated campus, try “Bryn Mawr College”.

You have no right to bitch that the campus is too male dominated, when there are literally no girls in the Engineer or Math faculty, even though there are scholarships and extra benefits given to females that are in the Math faculty.

Very, very few women have been shot by a male gunman, but virtually every single one of them has regularly encountered men like the privileged scumbag who made that comment. If you want to know why an engineering school can be a “male dominated campus,” look to the people who feel that women don’t work as hard, aren’t as capable, don’t belong in a science and engineering world, and that male privilege is an earned status. And let’s also not forget that it requires this kind of culture to allow misogynist extremists to flourish.

Now, I’ll admit that the comments are a bit harsh, but I do think the question is worth asking.  So, let me try to be a bit more polite about it and examine this:

I have a theory … it could be bunnies <crickets>.

Okay, okay, enough Buffy:  The Vampire Slayer jokes, let me toss this hypothesis at you:

One major factor in the lack of female students in engineering, maths, many hard sciences, and computer science is exactly that:  the workload involved, not just in the program itself but also once one graduates.  When I was taking Computer Science, it was already well-known that the workload on graduating was often insane, and stories were told of people working 22 hours around crunch time at some of the big local companies.  In fact, my first apartment was just down the street from one of them and the landlord told me that the previous tenant had worked there and loved the apartment because he could come home, eat and crash for a few hours, and dash back instead of having to stay or sleep there.  Additionally, these jobs are often seen as jobs for introverts, with an isolated, individualistic approach.  However, they are high paying.

So, in general, the job itself doesn’t seem all that appealing — until you factor the pay in.   When you factor the pay in, the jobs seem appealing, if either you like the atmosphere and workload or at least can let the high pay soothe your disquiet at it.

Now, anecdotes aren’t really data, but this resonates with me.  I went into Computer Science instead of English because I knew that if I made it through I’d be able to get a job with a decent salary, which might not have been the case for English.  It was only after I was reasonably established at my job that I took a Philosophy undergraduate as a back-up in case I just didn’t want to do it anymore.

So, the main attraction — at least in the minds of the mainstream — is salary.  Now, from time immemorial the big driving factor for men in job selection has been salary.  While men have always been able to in some sense steer their jobs towards what they do enjoy doing, there has also always been massive social pressure to take as well-paying a job as they can do so that they’ll be better able to support their family and give them all possible advantages.  Thus, salary for men is always one of if not the main factor in deciding what job to pursue.

Feminism pushed women into seeking jobs as well.  But a lot of the rhetoric was about fulfillment and personal satisfaction, and even when financial interests were brought up it was mostly about women having financial independence.  Women were rarely exhorted to seek high-paying jobs to provide a good life for their family.  So, from this, when women look for jobs, salary is far less important than it is for men, and the perceived fulfillment and work atmosphere is far more important.

Thus, men go into those fields regardless of how they like such an atmosphere because they pay well.  It’s also why they prefer pursuing pre-med rather than nursing.  In fact, it certainly used to be the case — and probably still is — that the worse a job is considered to be, the more likely it is to be male-dominated … as long as it pays well.  Like garbage … um, sanitation engineers.  On the other hand, women tend to go for careers that they find personally satisfying, regardless of salary.

Note that there’s a paper listed in the comments of that thread at Pharyngula that does give an answer like this, arguing that women are more likely to choose careers based on things like the perceived social impact and the like and that when presentations are given to them demonstrating that there is more social impact and a better atmosphere in engineering more women are likely to become interested in engineering:

Click to access whysofew.pdf

The section on that is on pg 39 – 40, where it also talks about a lack of belief that they could be competent in the field.  So sexism also does play a role, but one section points out that visuo-spatial differences might account for some of that as well.

Okay, so back to my hypothesis.  Note that this hypothesis is nice because it explains something else as well:  discrepanices in pay.  From the start, men are selecting for salary and women aren’t, so a difference might come into play right there.  Additionally, in negotiations women may negotiate less for strictly the highest possible salary and more for work atmosphere benefits and concessions, and may even choose what offer to accept based on that.  Also, in some cases they may be unwilling to sacrifice work environment for a salary increase.  During the high tech boom, the best way to get a high salary was not to wait for a raise from your own company, but to get a company to offer you a higher salary as a new hire.  Eventually, it all worked out, but if you could keep moving you would end up far ahead, at least for a time.  Women may be less interested in playing that game, especially if they enjoy the people and the company they are working for.

Now, I am not claiming that this is the only factor, or that sexism is not a problem.  What I am claiming is that in some sense our harsh and angry critic may well be right:  the lack of female engineers may well be because they don’t find the potential high salary outweighs the work it would take to get to that salary and the work they would be doing when they get there.  And I’m also not saying that there’s anything wrong with that decision; it’s simply a reflection of different priorities.  If anything’s wrong, it’s that men have not been encouraged enough to let the socialized preferences they had change while women have been encouraged to move beyond theirs.  Men still see having a job and supporting a family as their main goal in life, while women have let getting married and having kids slip to have an equal position with having a career (which, of course, has its own problems).

So, anyway, one should not dismiss a theory too quickly.  More study would be needed to see if I’m right, of course, but as a Computer Scientist/Philosopher I don’t see any reason to go out and do that myself [grin].  But it does fit rather neatly, and it seems to me is an interesting theory that doesn’t in any way rely on any notion of male or female privilege; it’s just people making choices.

New Page on Psychopaths, Autistics and Morality …

March 26, 2011

… is up.

It was written as a final paper for a course I just took ,adn it was spawned by a argument in Prinz’s book “The Emotional Construction of Morals” that said that psychopaths proved the case for emotionism (or, at least, were a good argument for it).  That struck me as odd, considering that autistics also seem to have emotional deficiencies and don’t really have moral issues.  So this paper was a response to that.

Find it here:

Latest Not-So-Casual Commentaries …

March 20, 2011

I just posted the latest Not-So-Casual Commentary, on MMO-market saturation and how it might be different than saturation for other genres of video games:

I also forgot to link to the one before that, on what I liked about DCUO:

Posting delays …

March 20, 2011

I was really sick — I think from food poisoning — last week, and so missed the last half of the week recovering.  And now I have to catch up on what I had to let slide while running around with that.  So that’s delaying my posts, especially the answering questions ones.  I’ll try to get something together next week.

The Enemy …

March 6, 2011

This quote from Babylon 5 sums up why I often get a very nervous feeling from some of the New or Gnu Atheist and anti-theist arguments and comments, and even the whole incivility debate:

“You forgot the first rule of a fanatic. When you become obsessed with the enemy, you become the enemy.” — Sinclair to ‘Tular’ in Babylon 5:”Infection”

I see a lot of the discussions being about there being enemies, and evil to fight.  There being sides, and having to choose sides, and how not choosing the exact side that people think is right is a sign that you’re the enemy, too.  I worry that there are going to be fundamentalist anti-theists who are going to become obsessed with the enemy, and thus become it.  And the enemy of everyone.

There’s a common comment that extremist religious people kill and oppress people, while extremist atheists simply talk nastily about those things.  Which is a fair comment.  But I’m less concerned about the specific actions and more concerned about the attitude, because given the same circumstances anyone with that attitude will commit the same sorts of crimes.  It’s the attitude, not the source, that causes the problem.  And I see a lot of the attitude in some of the comments that get made, mostly by the “rank and file” in comment threads as opposed to those who take a bit more time to think about what they’re saying (although it’s there as well, at times).

Steven Wineburg is often quoted as saying “In order for good people to do evil things it takes religion” (or something similar).  He’s flat-out wrong.  In order for good people to do evil things, it takes two things:  1) A belief that the ends justify the means and 2) A belief that they have sufficient ends.  The modern anti-theist and anti-religion movement clearly has the second.  Some clearly think they have the first.   That is not a good thing.

Atheism or even humanism does not make one immune to evil, any more than religion does.  And if anyone thinks it does, then they are, in fact, dangerously wrong.

Questions and Answers …

March 6, 2011

Lent is coming up.  And I’ve been thinking for a while about some of the big questions that atheists level at theists and say that they don’t answer, and wanting to give some kind of answer.

Well, I’m going to take the opportunity.  I’m going to try to make a post every week in Lent about a different question, starting this week, once Lent starts.  I may not keep that up and I don’t know what day I’ll do it, but I’m planning on making an honest attempt.

Note that I’m more of an armchair philosopher/theologian, so I’ll be relying a lot on memory with some basic research to back it up.  I’m not planning on looking too much at other stances, so if I end up repeating someone else’s answer, well, that just means that they’re geniuses [grin].

I have a few questions in mind already (in no particular order):

How can you reconcile evolution and the concept of Original Sin?

Why did God demand that Jesus sacrifice Himself on the cross for humans?  Why did God make Jesus sacrifice Himself to ease His own anger?

What about the contradictions in the Resurrection story?

What about the classic problem raised by Epicurus?

Will people who do not believe in God go to hell?

Note that all of these will be my personal opinions, and will not necessarily reflect the views of anyone else … but if you’re a frequent reader of this blog, you should already have guessed that [grin].

I’ll also take suggestions for other questions that people want answered.  Just leave ’em in the comments and I’ll consider them.  I’ll also update the comments with new questions if I come across them.