News Bits

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 20, 2009 in News

Huh. Barack Obama’s mother was an atheist, and she worked hard to teach him about religions and instill in him strong ethical values. (Obama’s father was an atheist, too, but he was absent from his son’s life.) Does anyone else wonder whether Obama is yet another politician who pretends to be religious for political reasons?

My fourth letter to Mark van Steenwyk is published.

What? Atheists suddenly have a bit of political will? (No, not in America, of course.)

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

ayer November 20, 2009 at 5:41 am

If Obama is just pretending to be a Christian, then he should not be praised as he is in the article you linked to, but instead condemned. Lying about one’s most basic beliefs in that way would be a loathsome form of dishonesty (more so than fudging on a policy issue, etc.) Personally, I believe he is sincere; I don’t believe he would be so explicit about his faith if it were just for political reasons; instead, he would be very vague and circumspect and try not to talk about it.

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lukeprog November 20, 2009 at 7:33 am

ayer,

I would condemn Obama if he was lying, and I don’t think he is.

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Edson November 20, 2009 at 7:42 am

Somewhere below the article in the comment section I read someone’s comment that Obama is possibly a Humanist because he seems to be too good to be a Christian, but just wears the Christian veil to camouflage with the American Society.

But that just shows a growing tendentious reasoning among Atheists, or may be humanists?, that Secular Humanistic ideals are far superior to those of Christianity.

Which is a sense of self-righteousness, a vice, and not a virtue, in my opinion. If there is one ideal in Christianity that outsmarts all other faith systems or world-views, is a virtue, as a matter of creed, inherent in Christinaity, that a mere man cannot pretend to be good enough to accredit to herself/himself righteousness.

It is God only who count someone as a righteous one.

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lukeprog November 20, 2009 at 7:49 am

Edson,

What are you talking about? Christianity has always assumed that it is vastly morally superior to atheistic morality, to the degree that millions of Christians think it’s not even possible for an atheist to be moral!

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Thomas Reid November 20, 2009 at 8:38 am

If the theist believes God has created all people to know right and wrong exist, then from his point of view there is nothing surprising or incoherent about an atheist helping their children to grow in this knowledge.

On the other hand the atheist, if he is committed to naturalism, has no justification for his beliefs about morality. In fact, on his view he probably has justification for thinking that terms like “morality” are incoherent. We just carried out a nice long conversation on this very site about this topic.

It is an interesting story though about Obama.

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ayer November 20, 2009 at 8:52 am

lukeprog: Edson,What are you talking about? Christianity has always assumed that it is vastly morally superior to atheistic morality, to the degree that millions of Christians think it’s not even possible for an atheist to be moral!  

Christianity asserts that the moral law “is written on men’s hearts” (as Paul says) but that “none is righteous, no not one” in the sense that no one is able to keep the law perfectly (atheist or Christian). Christianity argues the atonement is necessary for redemption because Christians are sinners just as atheists are. Those Christians who think an atheist cannot behave morally just because he is an atheist are wrong; though an atheist who denies the existence of God has no ontological basis for asserting that morality is objective.

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Scott November 20, 2009 at 9:29 am

Obama was the first president to positively acknowledge non-believers in his inaugural address. There’s also this fascinating video clip I found, I have no idea where it’s from (wish I knew), but it’s great.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_zssjFzpGs

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Paul November 20, 2009 at 1:04 pm

ayer: though an atheist who denies the existence of God has no ontological basis for asserting that morality is objective.  

Neither does the Christian. If morality is as God commands it then that might be universal but it is no more objective. If one were to argue that goodness is part of God’s essence, the argument shows that good/bad is independent of God.

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ayer November 20, 2009 at 2:10 pm

Paul: If one were to argue that goodness is part of God’s essence, the argument shows that good/bad is independent of God.

Actually, if goodness is part of God’s essence, then that would show that God and “the Good” are identical.

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Jeff H November 20, 2009 at 2:18 pm

ayer:
Actually, if goodness is part of God’s essence, then that would show that God and “the Good” are identical.  

Unless you have some way to specify how God’s “essence” or character came to be the way it is, then it seems that “the Good” is still arbitrary in nature.

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Wes November 20, 2009 at 3:20 pm

Jeff H:
Unless you have some way to specify how God’s “essence” or character came to be the way it is, then it seems that “the Good” is still arbitrary in nature.  

This is not necessary if God’s essence never “came to be” but always was. His eternal attributes don’t have progression or generation but just “are” eternally. So, if goodness has it’s ontology in God’s essence then goodness is eternal and objective just as God is eternal and objective. It’s not, as you say, “arbitrary in nature”, but is rather independent from nature the same way it is independent from time.

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Paul November 20, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Wes:
This is not necessary if God’s essence never “came to be” but always was. His eternal attributes don’t have progression or generation but just “are” eternally. So, if goodness has it’s ontology in God’s essence then goodness is eternal and objective just as God is eternal and objective. It’s not, as you say, “arbitrary in nature”, but is rather independent from nature the same way it is independent from time.  

This is entirely circular. What is good? The essence of God. What is God, a being that is maximally good.

So what is good? Who knows, it remains arbitrary.

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Joshua Blanchard November 20, 2009 at 3:56 pm

I think it’s very difficult to investigate whether or not an American politician’s religious beliefs are genuine. First, it is of great benefit to them to be Christian, and great harm to be non-Christians (famously in the atheist blogosphere, Americans prefer pretty much anyone in office to atheists).

Second, knowing anyone’s level of sincerity is difficult, especially in a country where Christians live in comfort. I believe Hitchens sometimes argues that many American church-goers are really atheists in their hearts.

I would not be willing to conduct this sort of investigation, but I think in order to show a politician to be genuine in his religious beliefs, we’d have to find significant biographical data relevant to religion that is present during a time when the person did not have political ambitions. As far as I know, in the case of both Obama and his predecessor, their respective moments religious intensification concurred with a spike in political ambition. Indeed, Obama was attracted to Trinity in Chicago partly because of political concerns, if I remember correctly.

This doesn’t mean he’s a faker, but it might mean we just can’t know for sure.

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Wes November 20, 2009 at 8:13 pm

Paul:
This is entirely circular.What is good?The essence of God.What is God, a being that is maximally good.So what is good?Who knows, it remains arbitrary.  

Indeed, it would be circular if goodness was the only attribute of God’s essence. A Christian view of God does not see Goodness as independent of God. But, a Christian view of God also does not limit God’s essence to only “Goodness” or “the good.” That’s a very generic view of God which Christian orthodoxy does not subscribe to. There are other eternal attributes that help answer the circularity of which you speak.

There is no need to get into Christian theology but Goodness can be God’s essence and still leave room for other attributes so that the argument is not circular. The Christian view of God sees him not only as “the good” but also as “the creator” of all that is. As creator he makes human beings in such a way that they can know his attributes and also provides them with revelation of his attributes and his will. This revelation would consist of nature and Scripture.

However, this assertion gets into the criticism you made earlier. You said, “If morality is as God commands it then that might be universal but it is no more objective.” My reply to that is this: it is objective if God’s revelation of morality is always and only that which accords with his character.

Here I know I’m opening myself up to all kinds of arguments from passages in Scripture which seem to make God out to be immoral. But, from my studies, none of these, when seen in context, make God immoral nor do they make “the good” independent from God.

So, I disagree that the Christian view of morality is circular. There are other “ideas” to place the circularity label on, but this is not one of them. What you pose as a dilemma is not a true dilemma according to orthodox Christianity.

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Reginald Selkirk November 21, 2009 at 7:30 am

Edson: Somewhere below the article in the comment section I read someone’s comment that Obama is possibly a Humanist because he seems to be too good to be a Christian, but just wears the Christian veil to camouflage with the American Society.

The definition of humanist does not necessarily conflict with being a Christian. For that matter, neither does the definition of secular. That humanism, or even secular humanism, has come to be associated with unbelief is a bit of sloppy shortcutting that has become common.

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Jeff H November 21, 2009 at 8:44 pm

Wes:
This is not necessary if God’s essence never “came to be” but always was. His eternal attributes don’t have progression or generation but just “are” eternally. So, if goodness has it’s ontology in God’s essence then goodness is eternal and objective just as God is eternal and objective. It’s not, as you say, “arbitrary in nature”, but is rather independent from nature the same way it is independent from time.  

I phrased that poorly. I did not mean that we need an explanation of where God’s character came from, i.e. what caused God (although that might be nice, for sure). What I meant to say is that we need an answer to the question, “Why is God’s character one way and not another?” It seems logically possible that God could just have easily been a being who loves rape and murder, or a maximally evil being, or a giant toad who only looks out for other toads and cares nothing about humans. If these are indeed logically possible, then why is God not any of these? If there is no justifiable answer to that, it seems as though his character is arbitrary – he simply is what he is. And so, the “goodness” wrapped up in his character is just as arbitrary.

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eric November 22, 2009 at 2:27 pm

luke, i’m kind of shocked that you would so easily condemn obama if it turned out he was lying. certainly invisible and despised minorities, like homosexuals and atheists, who enter politics are under incredible social and professional pressure to deceive bigoted voters.
obama has already revealed his position on the values issues like gay marriage and abortion. what difference would it make if he was a secret atheist, secret muslim or secret scientologist?
certainly our society, and its tendency to create irrational bigotry, is more worth condemnation than obama would be if he were a secret atheist.
i wonder if you would be so willing to condemn all the gays who have, throughout time, hidden their true selves from their homophobic bosses and coworkers in order to do their jobs.

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ayer November 22, 2009 at 2:59 pm

eric: certainly invisible and despised minorities, like homosexuals and atheists, who enter politics are under incredible social and professional pressure to deceive bigoted voters.

All politicians are under pressure to lie about their real views and conform to popular views. The ones who resist that pressure are the ones with integrity.

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Jon November 22, 2009 at 3:50 pm

Attending Rev. Wright’s church was just something powerful black politicians from Chicago did. I could see Obama viewing himself as a Christian in the sense of being someone that kind of likes to learn from these preachers of his, and there are things to learn. It’s “Christian” in a very liberal sense. He’s probably in reality closer to an agnostic.

My problem with Obama is he’s created a couple of million refugees in Pakistan by bombing and killing hundreds of civilians, escalating wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting to keep the torture prisons at Bagram open, still tapping our phones, doing nothing as Israel assaults and terrorizes civilians in Gaza, doing nothing while they expand settlement construction, etc. Basically acting like all other Presidents have acted.

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lukeprog November 22, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Kucinich is one of the few politicians I can think of that might have some integrity…

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