Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The perils of bad apologetics

I've been following (and participating in) a very interesting discussion at Simone's blog about whether people can accept the statement that the earth was created in six days. Personally I find a six day creation hard to accept scientifically and unnecessary theologically. But it made me think about how we can paint ourselves into a corner defending a position that never needed defending in the first place. The US in particular has a huge ongoing controvery about the six day creation, and this has led to the elaboration of "creation science" and its love-child, the Intelligent Design movement. I'm hardly competent to assess the science, but it's always seemed to me that the primary argument of creation scientists is a theological one. Years ago I heard Ken Ham speak, and his basic message was that if you don't believe in the literal truth of Genesis then the whole authority of Scripture collapses and you may as well give up on Christianity.

Oddly enough, after a brief flirtation with creation science I was able to give up belief in the six day creation with hardly a blip in my faith in Christianity. I simply concluded that the first chapters of Genesis are not intended to be a scientific account.

On the other hand, I was badly shaken when I discovered the flaws in the "proofs" of the resurrection. This was a line of reasoning that had seriously convinced me and bolstered my faith as a young adult. You can find it in any number of books - "Who Moved the Stone" by Frank Morrison was a popular version of it when I was young. It uses a number of lines of reasoning. It talks about the five independent eye-witness accounts to the resurrection, as outlined in the Gospels and in 1 Corinthians, and explains that these eyewitnesses were still alive when the gospels were written so people could check. It points to the transformation in the disciples from scared witless to fearless witnesses, and askes what else could have made them so bold. It runs through the alternative scenarios - the "lord, liar or lunatic" argument where either the disciples were lying (so why would they die for a lie?), were insane and deluded (how would a bunch of nutters found a major world religion?) or were telling the truth (so Jesus must be the Son of God).

This became part of my rather feeble evangelistic strategy, with baffling results. When I gave my father "Who Moved the Stone" to read he was totally unimpressed. So were various atheist and agnostic friends I tried to convince with the arguments. Why, when the arguments seemed so watertight, could they not see it?

It took a few years for the answer to finally dawn on me. Many of you will be way ahead of me. The argument is circular, because it relies on you having faith in the accuracy of the New Testament accounts (the gospels, Acts, 1 Corinthians).

"Why would you believe these accounts are accurate?"

"Because they are inspired by God."

"Which God was that?"

"The God revealed through Jesus Christ?"

"How do we know Jesus revealed God?"

"Because he rose from the dead."

"Says who?"

You see what I mean? I learned, for instance, that the Gospels are not independent eye-witness accounts, but draw from common prior sources (oral or written) that had a sufficiently fixed form to be repeated almost word-for-word in the various synoptic gospels. I learned about the controversies over the dating of the New Testament books, and the parallel controversies over how much an early date correlated with greater factual accuracy. I learned about the process of selection, whereby certain texts were approved and copied while others were anathemised. The whole thing fairly rapidly became a lot more subject to human frailty than I had been taught.

Interestingly enough, I'm still a Christian. Not because I have found another watertight argument, but because the message of love and forgiveness, of mercy and justice, of a kingdom that is not like the kingdoms of this world, of the King who conquers a city on the back of a donkey, is a message I love.

But in the name of this message and kingdom that I love, I am wary of bad apologetics. If we teach intelligent young people to base their faith on the literal reality of a six day creation, or on the forensic evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, or some other piece of flawed reasoning, what happens when they learn enough to see the flaws? Will their faith collapse, and the baby get thrown out with the cold bathwater? Or will they have to be forever shielded from the contrary evidence, steered into only reading the "right" books, becoming averse to learning, meekly obedient to authority in a way that Jesus and his disciples clearly were not? Either way, we are not serving God, we are trying to protect him, and in the process we remould him in our own image.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Killing People Part 2

Here's a distressing further thought on my post on abortion. I mentioned there that to sort this out ethically you would first determine whether an embryo is human, and if it is, in what circumstances it is OK to kill a human being.

You will be aware that in the US (and no doubt here as well) doctors who run abortion clinics regularly receive death threats from people saying they are pro-life, and that on rare occasions they are even victims of murder or attempted murder. My first reaction is that the people who make such threats are probably quite disturbed and the threats or acts of violence are a sign of their mental illness.

This may well be the case. However, the really disturbing thing is that their behaviour can be easily fitted in to my framework. As pro-lifers, they assess that the embryo and the doctor are equally human. Why not respect the doctor's life, then? Well, the most obvious answer is that the person making the threats is a believer in capital punishment for serious crimes. Because embryos are fully human, a doctor who has performed multiple abortions is morally equivalent to a serial killer and deserves to die, while the embryos are innocent and therefore should be allowed to live.

The immediate objection to this line of reasoning is that capital punishment is a perogative of the State, not the individual. The individual is entitled to a fair trial and then, if guilty, to punishment by a properly constituted court. To which your doctor killer will reply that in their society there is a law which protects the murderer and betrays the helpless innocent. Since the doctor's guilt is clear (he even advertises it) it is therefore OK for the righteous citizen to take the law into his or her own hands.

Although the logic is impeccable, the conclusion is obviously wrong. A line of ethical reasoning that justifies murder can't be right. My question is, where is the flaw?

I think the first part of the answer is that this reasoning doesn't take account of the person's intent. The doctor clearly does not intend to murder - he doesn't regard the embryo as human, just as a collection of cells, and therefore sincerely believes that there is nothing wrong with the abortion. In this he is backed up by the law of his country. If he thought that it was human (as many doctors do) he wouldn't conduct abortions. Hence his act of abortion is not morally equivalent to that of the person who kills him, because the murderer is quite clear that the victim is human and the killing is conscious and deliberate. The moral equivalent for the doctor would be an act of accidental killing, like killing someone in a car accident - it's distressing, but you're not to blame.

The strongest argument against this is that it sounds like moral relativism - it's only wrong if you and/or your society think its wrong. Hence the second part of the answer - the distinction between individual behaviour and systemic behaviour. If indeed abortion is wrong, then the wrong is at a systemic level. We have ordered our society in such a way that abortion is easy to obtain and widely tolerated. This is a collective problem, and needs to be solved (assuming it does) by a re-ordering of society - our legal systems, the way we care for children and support families, and so on - rather than by blaming and attacking individuals who play particular roles in the system.

One of the problems of our current ethical landscape is that we are so immersed in individualism that we find it extremely difficult to comprehend and respond to systemic issues - not just abortion but poverty, war, environmental damage, almost any big issue you care to name. In the absence of this analysis we are left pointing the finger at individuals. Killing the doctor will not prevent a single abortion - it's just one more death on the list, and the violence and hatred spiral on.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Abusive priests

While I'm writing about controversial issues, I may as well jump in with both feet (in my mouth, probably) and talk about sexual abuse in the church. The Catholics are in the spotlight at the moment so us protestants can take a breather, but we shouldn't be too compacent. Remember it was only a couple of years ago that the Anglican Church here in Queensland was under scrutiny and our former Archbishop had to resign his plum job as Governor-General after defending an abusive priest on national television with the idea that the underage girl initiated the relationship.

However, the story at the time that made me most angry was the one about the school counsellor at a prestigious Anglican school, who over a number of decades had used his position to abuse vulnerable young boys. Finally one of them went to the police, they started to investigate, and the man committed suicide. That was bad enough, but what really made me feel sick was that after his suicide, and knowing full well the circumstances behind it, the school decided to hold a memorial service for him. So here were the students, including many other victims of this man's abuse, forced to sit in the school assembly hall and listen to what a great man he was, how he had given his life to helping troubled young students, blah, blah, blah.

Now whenever these stories get air time in the Catholic church, there is always someone out there saying that the problem is that the church insists on its priests being celibate. If they were just allowed to marry, the argument goes, then the problem would be, if not solved, at least greatly reduced.

If they just looked over the fence at the protestant side, they would see the fallacy of this. Anglican priests are allowed to marry. Most do. In fact in a lot of Anglican circles its encouraged and single priests are seen as a little suspect. Yet married priests also commit abuse.

Years ago I read Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will, a classic 1970s feminist analysis of rape, and I still think she's right. Rape, she says, is not about sex, it's about power. There are plenty of non-coercive ways to have sex, even for a priest. Men go for coercion because they can, because it demonstrates that they are in charge, that they have the power. How much more so when they are part of a church which protects them, excuses them, pressures their victims to keep quiet, and hires lawyers to ensure that its property is not threatened by lawsuits.

So allowing priests to marry won't solve the problem. In fact, nothing will solve it completely. But holding people to account will help. Changing the culture of the church so priests and other authority figures aren't seen as mini gods but as ordinary people who need accountability and oversight just like the rest of us will help. Developing a culture of humility, where as an institution the church readily owns up to its mistakes instead of covering them up will help. And finally, putting people before property and doctrine will help too. If we have to sell the cathedral to compensate victims of abuse, lets do it. We can meet in some of those new school halls Mr Rudd has so generously funded. Some of the victims of abuse may even rejoin us, if they can finally see we're serious.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Killing Babies and Other People

A recent Facebook discussion with some rellies has made me think some more about abortion, so at the risk of alienating half my friends and readers whatever I say, here's what I thought. Thanks to Andrew, Shiloh, Steve and Mike for the inspiration, but I won't blame you for the content. I don't know the answers, I'm just thinking about the questions.

There are two basic ethical issues in the abortion debate. The first is this - is an embryo (foetus, whatever) human? Or to put it another way, at what point does an embryo become human? I really don't know the answer to this, but a lot of the answers I hear don't make sense to me. You can go to the far end of the debate, as per official Catholic doctrine, and say that any attempt to prevent pregnancy is immoral, although "for your hardness of heart" you can practice the rhythm method if you must. For them clearly, and for most other "right to life" groups, an embryo is at the very least human at the point of conception, if not before. This point of view at least seems consistent, but it seems too black and white for what is a gradual, organic process of growth and development.

The alternative point of view is some form of the argument that says an embryo is human when it is able to survive seperately from the mother. This is a little vague for me - what point is that exactly? When it can survive in a respirator? When it can survive outside a respirator? When it has been weaned? It's hard to see where this reasoning ends, but it's also very true that at an intuitive level, we grieve far less for a child that has miscarried than for one who dies in infancy, and perhaps our emotions are telling us something our brains can't fully explain.

In any case, if the embryo isn't human then it needs a special set of moral rules in its own. We have moral rules about creatures that aren't human. On the other hand, if it is human we have to treat it like we would another human, and this is where it gets interesting.

Most humans think that it is sometimes OK to kill another human being, although we vary about exactly when. Some of the common reasons for thinking its OK are not really relevant to embryos. For instance, lots of people think it's OK to use the death penalty as a punishment for serious crimes, like murder - but an embryo is unable to commit such crimes. Similarly, plenty of people think it's OK to kill enemy combatants in a "just war", but you need to be out of the womb for a long time before you can become a soldier.

On the other hand, there are at least two commonly accepted reasons for killing that can potentially apply to embryos as well.
  • The self-defence argument, or its variant, the forced choice around suffering. We generally consider that it's OK to kill someone in self-defence, and this extends for instance to police officers being able to kill someone who threatens another person's life. This is also a common reason for abortion. If the mother's life is threatened then it's OK to kill the child to save her. Where I live this has gradually extended over time, so that it's OK to have an abortion if the pregnancy threatens her health. Then by extension it's OK if it threatens her mental health, and you find yourself with a legal loophole which in practice allows anyone to have an abortion who wants one. I guess my thought here is that this is far from black and white - in fact it's very similar to the "when does an embryo become human" question. Clearly though, by the time you are at the legal loophole stage you are in practice seeing the embryo as very much less than human - otherwise you would rate its life more highly.
  • The mercy argument. In this argument, it's OK to kill a person (or at least allow them to die without intervention, which I think is morally the same thing) if their suffering is so great, and so beyond cure, that prolonging their life would be cruel. This is the argument used to defend abortions of embryos with congenital abnormalities. However, there is a gradient for this one too. At one end, there are those abnormalities which mean the child will not survive much past birth - why put the mother through the trial of a birth only for the child to suffer and die immediately? At the other end, though, are lots of abnormalities which don't have this outcome. For instance, now that Down Syndrome can be detected in the womb, lots of parents choose to abort an affected embryo. Yet people with Down Syndrome are quite capable of leading happy, fulfilling lives and once born are considered fully human. You suspect that once again, this is a case of the embryo not being seen as fully human, so the parents grief and expense is placed above the child's life.

So, the choices at the "less than human" end of the spectrum on these two reasons suggest that our society has a practical ethic around embryos that looks more like a gradient than a "yes/no" question - a bit like the graphic opposite. At one end, we're pretty comfortable with abortion the day of conception no matter what (eg the "morning after" pill). In the middle, we like to have at least the fig-leaf of protecting the mother's health, or saving the child from suffering, but we see the embryo as less human than the mother so we prioritise her needs. At the far end, when a child is close to birth, we believe it has to be pretty drastic - the mothers actual life would have to be threatened.

If this is what we do, are we happy with it? How would this approach to ethics affect other areas of our lives? Your thoughts, my friends...