10 Jan 2010

"Those Guys Are Really Smart, Except For That God Stuff"

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I don’t remember the exact quote, but in C.S. Lewis’ Surprised By Joy he was explaining his conversion from atheism. He said that the writers/thinkers he respected the most just happened to be Christian, and of course Lewis (when he was still an atheist) thought they were fantastic “except for their Christianity.” Naturally this struck Lewis as ironic/funny when he was looking back on the period, after he himself had become Christian.

I had a similar experience. Even though I referred to myself as a “devout atheist” for a certain period in my life (which included undergrad, I can’t remember how early it started), the people/art I respected the most were Christian. (Two give two examples, I was incredibly impressed by the physical pipsqueak of a pastor of the church at the school where my mom taught, who would peacefully protest at abortion clinics and kept getting arrested. He was such a nuisance that the bishop had him relocated to a predominantly black church in an area of town where [I think?] I normally would have been afraid to visit. The other example was the subplot of Valjean’s redemption in Les Miserables, which is blatantly Christian though read this for nuances.)

Anyway it is with this background that I am amused to see atheists explaining the “ironic” success of apparently superstitious mumbo jumbo (my words). Here are three examples in the last month:

* David Friedman has a fascinating series of posts at his blog discussing Jewish law. For example in this one, he gives a theory for the purpose of onerous Jewish customs. Only a true believer would go through all the rigamarole that orthodox Jews are expected to obey, but then when there are legal disputes the other religious Jews will be impressed if you take on oath affirming your testimony. (If you are a true believer then you would fear God’s wrath for taking an oath falsely.) I suspect that if modern scientists went back and understood the exact conditions the ancient Israelites faced, then all of the “crazy rules” in Deuteronomy etc. would make sense.

* In his new book The Big Questions, Steve Landsburg spends a good portion bashing theism (and “bashing” is a completely accurate term) before explaining the incredible discoveries of the Jewish legal theorists. I don’t have the book in front of me so I don’t want to batch the details, but it has to do with things like how to divide an estate among various creditors. Landsburg refers to some recent papers by game theory whizzes in Israel who show that these ancient scholars somehow hit upon very elegant solutions, although of course in their expositions they didn’t give a proof showing existence and uniqueness theorems, they just said, “This is how you would divide the estate in this situation.”

* In this fascinating paper [.pdf] Pete Leeson analyzes the medieval practice of settling certain legal questions by ordeals, where (e.g.) you would dunk your hand into a cauldron of boiling water to fetch a ring, or the priest would dunk the accused in a pool and determine his guilt or innocence by whether he floated. Leeson argues that these practices–which seem unbelievably barbaric and superstitious to us–were actually effective in determining guilt. (Note that I have no idea about Leeson’s religious views, but the above link was from Tyler Cowen and I’m pretty sure he is a modern free thinker.)

So anyway I think these modern reconstructions of how faith “works” are very interesting. From my perspective, it’s obviously not surprising at all that, say, old-school Jewish legal scholars would “happen” to stumble upon a very deep and elegant way to settle disputes; they were in daily meditation with the author of mathematics and justice.

If you are openminded and truly a free thinker, you just may find that a lot of the “stupid” beliefs of religious people are actually quite pragmatic. Yet rather than merely saying, “Ah, so that explains their persistence in evolutionary-meme terms,” I would go farther and say, “Right, this is yet another piece of evidence that there is a God who wants to help His children navigate through the world He designed.”

One Response to “"Those Guys Are Really Smart, Except For That God Stuff"”

  1. Ranallo says:

    Why would the God of Abraham create 3 completely incompatible religions and pass His word down that belief in the others was heresy thru His chosen embodiment? Guess that’s another sign of His love for us.