Two "Liars for Jesus" and an Aging Philosopher.

In the names of gods all manner of moral boundary crossings become conceivable. In the service of a biblical god or the Bible-as-God, they all too often become real.

For Evangelical Christians, the greatest good in the world is winning converts. A Christian who wins a convert saves a soul that would otherwise be condemned to eternal torture. According to traditional Roman Catholic theologies in which modern Evangelicalism has its roots, only true believers are exempt from this fate.

With stakes so high, intellectual and moral slight of hand in order to win converts or keep people from deconverting becomes a lesser evil than leaving souls to suffer damnation.

Evangelical missionaries, often genuinely decent people driven by compassion, choose this lesser evil even if it means they have to engage in distasteful manipulation or deceit. As they should! That’s what moral reasoning is about: being able to weigh the consequences of our actions and choose the lesser evil or the greater good.

The problem isn’t that Evangelicals, like the rest of us, weigh alternatives on a sort of moral balance. The problem is that fundamentalist dogmas simply outweigh normal moral constraints on behavior. If one truly believes in a God who demands sacrifice (a white dove, an unblemished lamb, Abraham’s son, Yeshua-born-of-a-virgin) in order to forgive sin; if you believe that the only way out of Hell is to partake of this sacrifice, most anything becomes justified in order to get other people to drink the blood.

Through history, orthodox believers have taken this responsibility very seriously. Conquistadors reportedly baptized native infants and then ran them through with swords on the outside chance that they might have human souls. Public torture of apostates helped to keep the Faithful faithful during the Middle Ages. Even today in India and Africa, Evangelical missionaries stage “miracles” or manipulate desperate people with education, medical care, or even basic necessities like drinking water as here-and-now rewards of conversion.

On the scale of such zeal, most home turf moral transgressions in the service of faith seem small indeed. Sins that catch the public eye include things like evangelists rewriting American history so that the founding fathers appear to be “biblical” Christians, friendship missionaries targeting vulnerable foreign students without revealing their ulterior motive, a filmmaker fabricating an anti-Semitic snuff film based on outdated Catholic doctrine, or born-again officers bullying Air Force cadets to accept Jesus. Behaviors like these might seem worthy of little more than an eye roll. But such behaviors offer us an opportunity to understand how mind-controlling dogmas can get good people to do ugly things, large and small.

A recent New York Times article by Mark Oppenheimer (The Turning of an Atheist; NYT Magazine; 11/4/07) ; exposes a good example of this pattern in action. About four years ago, British philosopher Anthony Flew, a life-long atheist now in his eighties announced that he believed in some sort of god. Possibly this god was simply a prime mover, possibly it was a person-god. Flew’s public statements were sometimes contradictory. Nevertheless, Flew made a published appeal in support of intelligent design, among other things, and over the course of several years he became the darling of evangelicals in search of a credentialed ally. Flew was a “catch,” courted hard and won. Recently, two public defenders of literalist Christianity, self-funding apologist Roy Varghese and evangelical pastor Bob Hostetler even helped the aging philosopher write a book There is a God , which tells the story of how and why he converted from atheism to a fuzzy deism with theistic overtones that are fuzzier yet.

There is a catch. Anthony Flew, possibly for several years, has been showing signs of dementia. Looking back on the second election of Ronald Reagan, my psychologist friend Geoff comments: “How could the American public have voted for that guy? His Alzheimer’s was obvious by the end of his first term.” In hindsight it was. The same may someday be said of Flew. When he first announced his reversal, fellow atheists were dismayed and believers thrilled. But it is only in hindsight, in a context of unambiguous dementia that Flew’s recent years can be understood.

The DSM-IV, the diagnostic manual used by psychiatrists has this to say about Alzheimer’s: The course of Dementia of the Alzheimer’s Type tends to be slowly progressive, with a loss of 3-4 points per year on a standard assessment instrument. Various patterns of deficits are seen. A common pattern is an insidious onset, with early deficits in recent memory followed by the development of aphasia, apraxia, and agnosia after several years (any one of the three is sufficient to make the diagnosis). . . The average duration of the illness from onset of symptoms to death is 8-10 years.

Oppenheimer interviewed Flew, offering no diagnosis but simply reporting what he saw. If his observations are reported accurately, the characteristic symptoms of Alzheimer’s are present in interviews, Flew’s recent public appearances, and written conversations between Flew and atheist author, Richard Carrier. The article reads like a mental status exam:

• Memory impairment: could not recall the identities of old colleagues (e.g. Brian Leftow, Paul Davies) when given their names, could not recall the content of his earlier books (John Leslie), forgot and then remembered timeless philosophical arguments—conclusions were swayed back and forth in beliefs by most recent conversations or changes in recall.
• Aphasia: halting diction, loss of technical vocabulary (e.g. abiogenesis) self-described “nominal aphasia.”
• Disturbance in executive functioning: manifest confusion responding to abstract argumentation--demurring, passive assent, contradictory statements, didn’t write and couldn’t maintain content awareness of book published in his name.

Some of these symptoms can be seen in an interview of Flew by Lee Strobel, evangelical apologist, available on YouTube. With this level of observable dementia, and with a decrement of 3-4 IQ points per year, one might hypothesize that Flew is nearing that decade mark. In fact, having begun with a particularly robust mind and level of mental activity, it is possible that he has been fending off debilitation even longer. Symptoms such as those described by Oppenhiemer, even if they are currently patchy and inconsistent, let us know what to expect in coming years. Apraxia means losing the ability to carry out motor activities. Agnosia means losing the ability to recognize or identify objects, including people you love. Alzheimer's is a fate no-one would wish on anyone but an enemy and few would seek to exploit to their own advantage.

Is it not incredible, given this state of affairs, that people who claim to serve the God of Goodness and Truth would put Flew’s name to their own cherished arguments about what is right and real? If Flew showed symptoms of dementia like those witnessed by Oppenheimer and Carrier and then someone convinced him to donate his financial assets rather than his good name to their cause, criminal charges could apply!

For me, the real curiosity in the Flew story in not whether a once-brilliant philosopher caught in the throes of cognitive decline dies professing atheism or some form of faith-based belief. Rather it is the fascinating psychological question the story raises: Why would men who earnestly care about god concepts and goodness engage in the shameful behavior of manipulating and then speaking on behalf of an elder with diminished capacity?

One simple answer is that such behavior works. In evangelical circles, "Flew's" book will receive wide distribution, and few readers will be the wiser. It will be an effective tool for proselytizing young skeptics and arming campus missionaries. All’s fair in war, they say. And surely, if one seeks only dominion, any manner of behavior can serve the cause. Questions of good and evil are in some ways irrelevant to the end. But if one seeks, truly, to serve Love and Truth, then questions of good and evil, of decency and fairness and integrity are the end. Roy Varghese and Bob Hostetler, at least from their public statements, are not Machiavellians who generally insist that the end justifies the means. Rather, something has gotten them to violate what one might assume are their own deeply held principles.

Oppenheimer offers a partial explanation: “An autodidact with no academic credentials, Varghese was clearly thrilled to be taken seriously by an Oxford-trained philosopher; it may never have occurred to him that so educated a mind could be in decline.” This seems credible. Varghese has little to gain and much to lose from one simple punch line that emerges along with evidence of Flew’s impairment: How can you tell an Oxford philosophers is senile? He announces there is a god.

But beyond this partial explanation lies another. Bear with me while I try to lay it out.

Evangelism requires certitude. It simply doesn’t work to send out missionaries who say, “My best guess is that my God is real.” Or “The evidence is mixed, but some parts of the Bible seem divinely inspired.” Fortunately, the Evangelical narrative is beautifully adapted to provide the needed certitude.

The powerful emotions and personal transformation that can sometimes accompany conversion, worship and prayer in any religion get interpreted as unique to Christianity. They are evidence of God’s love, personal salvation, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s mind. Doubt, in Evangelicalism, is evidence of weak faith or even temptation by Satan, the Father of Lies. In the most sophisticated Evangelicals, it is something to be admired—and overcome. “Tolerance” means being fuzzy headed about good and evil. It means moral relativism or moral indifference of the worst kind. Developing attachments to unbelievers, except to convert them, is seen as dangerous—being unequally yoked. Contradictions within the faith are relabeled as divine mysteries that make belief all the more wondrous.

Maintaining appropriate Evangelical certitude, then, requires that one cultivate certain habits of the mind—an aversion to some kinds of inquiry, a will and ability to close mental doors, a faith in faith itself, a subsuming of curiosity to the higher cause, a wariness of seeing the world through the eyes of another, a funky sort of disconnect between compassion (good) and empathy (dangerous).

If we consider these habits of the mind in combination with the atonement-salvation-damnation doctrines mentioned earlier, we get a sense of how Varghese and Hostetler could fall into the trap they did. Combine a theology of desperate urgency and a mindset that actively disables the limited human ability to protect ourselves against self-deception, and the best among us are vulnerable. The weakness is not in the men but in man. It lies in our vulnerability to specific kinds of dogmas and in the ways that the Evangelical complex (and others) have developed immunity against self-correction.

Varghese and Hostetler sought to advance human wellbeing by advancing Evangelical Christianity and they instead did harm to both. Why? Because it is not enough to be well intentioned, we must also be right. What I mean by right is anchored to the real world contingencies that govern human well-being and the well-being of the world around us. The only protection any of us has against doing harm in the service of good is a set of mental habits that remind us that we may be mistaken and force us to ask those questions that can show us wrong.

These habits require that we cultivate a child’s delight not in mystery but in discovery and that we maintain an adult’s grudging appreciation for correction. The scientific method, which has been called “what we know about how not to fool ourselves” seeks to systematize these habits of mind. Our great wisdom traditions including Christianity seek to elevate them under the name of humility. Among other things, humility demands this: When looking at the shameful plight of someone like Varghese or Hostetler, I seek to understand the forces that bind them and to remember that there, but for grace, go I.

Valerie Tarico, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the author of The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth. Her essays are available at www.spaces.live.com/awaypoint.

27 comments:

Jennifer said...

Valerie,
Because it is not enough to be well intentioned, we must also be right. What I mean by right is anchored to the real world contingencies that govern human well-being and the well-being of the world around us. The only protection any of us has against doing harm in the service of good is a set of mental habits that remind us that we may be mistaken and force us to ask those questions that can show us wrong.

These habits require that we cultivate a child’s delight not in mystery but in discovery and that we maintain an adult’s grudging appreciation for correction.


This is wonderful. I enjoyed the whole article, but this is Truth.

What do you think about the limitations of faith and reason as two seperate systems?

Both, in order to be effective for good, require mental clarity which is to a large degree age, geographically and educationally specific.

We seem to be stuck in a puddle.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

If Flew showed symptoms of dementia like those witnessed by Oppenheimer and Carrier and then someone convinced him to donate his financial assets rather than his good name to their cause, criminal charges could apply!

As an attorney, I have seen this many times. When the parents get older, and more senile, the younger members of the family take advantage of their mental weaknesses, oftentimes convincing them that they need to change their wills, or give them money or assets, when such a change would not be in keeping with normal donative intent (treating children equally, etc)

With Flew, the primary legacy he has to pass on is his intellect, and a lifelong passion for atheism. These people are taking advantage of him, and stealing just that.

Does he have no family?

Steven Carr said...

Talking on insanity, does anybody in their right mind think that Flew wrote a book whose title calls him 'The World's Most Notorious Atheist'?

Is that how Flew refers to himself?

Reality check here, folks....

TOR Hershman said...

Here's a lill' discover I made and put on film (two parts).

It tells of the formation, by Ovid, of the Jesus myth.

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

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzY2bVsZK5s

Stay on Groovin' Safari,
Tor

TOR Hershman said...

Okay, Part I is second.

And how about that there conservation of "y"?

Evie said...

I never met Bob Hostetler, but I knew his brother and father when I was in college. His father was my neighbor for 4 years. They're a good family and it saddens me to see that Bob let his good intentions get in the way of his good sense in this situation.

Your analysis of the evangelical Christian mindset that could have led to this debacle is insightful and accurately captures many of the dynamics at play. I hope Christians will take it to heart rather than reject it simply because it comes from not just a non-believer but a de-converted believer.

Paul said...

I didn't see anywhere to post this, so I just thought I'd throw it up here.
My wife and I recently started a "church" for atheists. www.firstchurchofatheism.com We are ordaining people to be atheist ministers, in order to allow atheists to perform ceremonies for other atheists, such as weddings and funerals. It is 100% legal and free. I'd like for you and your readers to come and check it out, and if you like what you see could you put a link to us, or maybe write an article about us? Or simply tell your friends. I really like your site, and would be honored to associate with it. Our site is new, but in the near future we will be adding a "links" or "atheist resources" page, and we would be happy to include you on it.

Thanks for your time!

akakiwibear said...

Valerie, as a reader of your blog I tend to agree with a lot of your criticism of fundamentalist evangelists. But there is a real monocular approach evident there and in this lengthy diatribe where you seem avoid including atheist evangelists from your criticism of evangelists. Surely the use of emotive language, bias and distortion should be criticised for what it is rather than being used as a platform for the selective criticism of one group.

Now don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t condone the “tricks” of fundamentalist evangelists any more than I do of atheist evangelists like yourself. I am a frequent critic of the Bible Belt evangelists and what are clearly intellectual frauds perpetrated to win converts or extol their flocks.

Aside from your post which speaks for itself in terms of bias, or the emotive style of your blog which seems to cloud some valid issues, or the subtly misguided arguments you present in your book, I offer up Sam Harris as an example of an atheist evangelist that should be included in your criticism.
An example ….
Sam Harris is fond of this quoting Luke 19:27 to prove his point that the NT promotes horrors, e.g. http://www.youtube.com
/watch?v=J3YOIImOoYM if your nonsense filter has too fine a setting you can pick it up at minute 17 - or you can play a game of spotting the interweave of truth and deception in the preceding 17 minutes, but it can be boring!
Any sensible reading of the whole parable Luke 19:11-27
http://www.biblegateway.com
/passage
/?book_id=49&chapter=19&version=31
makes it obvious that the words in verse 27 are those of the king in the parable and relate to the citizens referred to in verse 14. But not so for Harris who subtly presents them as a decree by Jesus to kill those who do not submit to his rule.

Come on … is this an example of the intellectual high ground claimed by reasonable, rational and logical atheists? Or is your post simply a case of the pot calling the kettle?

In your book you say ” How would our world be different if all of us genuinely opened ourselves to the pursuit of truth, wherever that might lead? What if we all, Christian and non-Christian alike, echoed the prayer of a Kenyan brother:

From the cowardice that dare not face new truth,
From the laziness that is contented with half truth,
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
Good Lord, deliver us”.

Great sentiment! Indeed it urges us to be vigilant for half truths and intellectual arrogance, a vigilance that we should not drop simply because the author is atheist.

JR335 said...

akakiwibear said...
Any sensible reading of the whole parable Luke 19:11-27
http://www.biblegateway.com
/passage
/?book_id=49&chapter=19&version=31
makes it obvious that the words in verse 27 are those of the king in the parable and relate to the citizens referred to in verse 14. But not so for Harris who subtly presents them as a decree by Jesus to kill those who do not submit to his rule.


Harris seems to talk a fair bit of sense in that video. Yes obviously it isn't Jesus' direct words but I'd be interested to know what you think he means with that part of the parable.

akakiwibear said...

jr335, "Harris seems to talk a fair bit of sense in that video" not sure which bits you refer to - most of it seems to be a bit of a stretch - comparison of the diamond in the back yard to theism for instance, try to extract the rational basis of that link?

But it is the apparent sense of his lecture that conceals the slight of hand - the subtle linking from valid statement to a real porkie. I figure he could teach some bible bashers a thing or two in emotive working of a crowd.

akakiwibear said...

jr335, "Yes obviously it isn't Jesus' direct words but I'd be interested to know what you think he means with that part of the parable"

In the Matthew 25:30 version of the same parable the ending is "And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." - similar message to Luke.

This is also a similar message to that of the unproductive vine amongst others. It says to me (and I am not a bible scholar) that there are consequences for our actions, certainly in this life.

Peace - Hamba kahle

Steven Carr said...

AKAKIWBEER
'Any sensible reading of the whole parable Luke 19:11-27
makes it obvious that the words in verse 27 are those of the king in the parable and relate to the citizens referred to in verse 14. But not so for Harris who subtly presents them as a decree by Jesus to kill those who do not submit to his rule.'

CARR
Who is the king in the parable?

In Luke 19,Jesus is asked anout the kingdom of God, which some people think is going to appear immediately.

Jesus, of course, is about to go to Jerusalam, die and return to life.

To answer this question, Jesus tells a story about a nobleman who goes away to be made king and then returns later to take his kingdom.

Any parallels penetrated your brain yet?

Jesus was not telling some random parable, which had nothing to do with anything.

This parable actually had a meaning!


The parable was about Jesus, who was about to go away to be made king, and then return.


Jesus *is* the king in the parable, and people who claim that this is not a threat by Jesus to have people killed who do not submit to his rule, must think atheists are right idiots who can't read.

zilch said...

Good post, Valerie. I also like the Kenyan prayer that akawikibear quoted from your book. As tempting as it is to slip into the "big tent" mindset, and applaud everything said by those perceived to be friends, and deplore everything said by those we consider enemies, we should judge actions on their merits.

Jesus seemed to have been of two minds about this. On the one hand, he did say "By their fruits ye shall know them". On the other, he also said "He who is not with me is against me" and "whoever is not against us is for us".

Dr. Heddle over at He Lives also sees no cause for jubilation among Christians about Flew's conversion, but only because Flew merely converted to deism, not Christianity. Whoever is not with us is against us.

Andrew said...

Perhaps fundamentalist views can outweight normal constraints on behavior.

And perhaps atheism can eliminate normal constraints on behavior.

Lot of things are possible, but that is not an argument per se about either fundamentalism or atheism.

Andrew said...

By the way Steve Carr, Flew didn't choose the title, the publishers did.

At least, thats the exuse Dawkins gave when criticized for the title of his video, "The Root of All Evil?"

Worked for him. Works for Flew.

After all, thats only fair, and I KNOW that you want to be fair.

Steven Carr said...

Dawkins is on public record as saying that he was forced to have that title and he did not approve of it.

The people around Flew claim Flew was not manipulated in any way , and approved of everything.

I guess Flew really does call himself 'The World's Most Notorious Atheist'.

Yeah, he really would do that....

Shygetz said...

Perhaps fundamentalist views can outweight normal constraints on behavior.

And how many specific instances of faith-based atrocities would you require to change that "perhaps" to a "definitely"?

akakiwibear said...

CARR people who claim that this is not a threat by Jesus to have people killed who do not submit to his rule, must think atheists are right idiots who can't read.

Parables are not to be taken literally; it is a characteristic of parables, they are stories used to indirectly convey a message through illustrative use of other characters and situations.

Hyperbole is a literary device available to story tellers and is often found in parables; hyperbole also should not be taken literally.

JR335 said...

akakiwibear said... most of it seems to be a bit of a stretch - comparison of the diamond in the back yard to theism for instance, try to extract the rational basis of that link?

He's trying to give an analogy of an unsubstantiated claim which could be backed up with the same sort of logic as proposed by the religious, but that any reasonable person would question given it's not a religious claim.

Parables are not to be taken literally; it is a characteristic of parables, they are stories used to indirectly convey a message through illustrative use of other characters and situations.

I think we all understand this. But unless you're happy to cherry-pick parts of the parable you really have to wonder why the "killing of enemies" statement comes into it at all.

GordonBlood said...

Jesus mythicists, atheist ministers, mis-reading parables and pot-shots at converted intellects... just another day at DC...

JR335 said...

GordonBlood said...
Jesus mythicists, atheist ministers, mis-reading parables and pot-shots at converted intellects... just another day at DC...


Drive-by trolling,just another day on the internet...

akakiwibear said...

Jr335 said: “He's trying to give an analogy of an unsubstantiated claim which could be backed up with the same sort of logic as proposed by the religious,”

An analogy is a comparison between things which have similar features used to make a point. Harris has invented a parallel which is manifestly inappropriate and then used it draw conclusions – in my book that looks like intellectual fraud.

Jr335 said: “ But unless you're happy to cherry-pick parts of the parable you really have to wonder why the "killing of enemies" statement comes into it at all.”

No need to cherry-pick. The simple explanation works for me - perhaps he used hyperbola to emphasise a point.

akakiwibear said...

A somewhat belated thought.
CARR said " Jesus, of course, is about to go to Jerusalam, die and return to life."
Carr argues that Jesus is the king in the parable, alluding to the parallel of his departure and return in judgement.

If you accept that, then you also have to accept that the parable is prophetic in nature. That would be a tough call for an atheist.

I guess the atheist fallback may be that Jesus never said it - it was made up when the bible was written later on. Oops, then Jesus isn’t the demon you are trying to construct from this parable.

But wait, there is a further fallback - some atheists argue there never was a Jesus, so is Harris trying to vilify a mythical person. Would a rational person do that?

Looks like a bit of a “cake and eat it” dilemma for you.

I will stick with my original comment that it was hyperbola.

Steven Carr said...

In the parable Jesus compares himself to a king who orders his enemies to be killed.

Clearly that was hyperbole, as everybody knows that kings and emperors in those days simply never did such things.

In fact , 2000 years ago , whenever kings issued orders for people to be killed, none of his servants would very carry out his orders, as they knew it was just hyperbole.

goprairie said...

If we are picking at the parable based on our misguided interpretation of it, tell us what it really means, what YOU think Jesus was saying with it. Will it make you happier when we pick that apart instead, because it can and will be done. You are saying what amounts to "the bible is true because it can be made to be true by interpretation". cherry-picking by any other name is still cherry-picking. lies by any other name are still lies.

akakiwibear said...

Carr said: ”In the parable Jesus compares himself to a king who orders his enemies to be killed.”

IF so, it’s so good to see an atheist accept prophesy – how do align that with not believing in an afterlife? - or have I misjudged your position?

On the other hand you may be trapped in what appears to be a favourite atheist playpen – a literal, inerrant bible. In which case I suggest you broaden your perspective – try http://catholic-resources.org
/Bible/index.html for a start, it is still fairly conservative and not too big a shock for a literalist. You might find the section titled The Key to Catholic Theology: The BOTH/AND Approach interesting. After that you may want to move to more modern liberal theology.

Carr said: “Clearly that was hyperbole, as everybody knows that kings and emperors in those days simply never did such things.”

I guess your point could easily be lost in sarcasm - would you be saying that the “kill the people” was to be expected in those days, so it should not even raise an eyebrow as the behaviour of a king in a story – a natural ending. You may well be right. Either way it does nothing to change the message of that part of the parable, that our actions have consequences.

Goprairie said: ”what YOU think Jesus was saying with it.”
Fairly obvious and it does not involve cherry-picking. We are given talents and opportunities in life and the instruction as to how to use them. Get it right and there are rewards, misuse the talents and/or opportunities and there are negative consequences.

Goprairie said: “You are saying what amounts to "the bible is true because it can be made to be true by interpretation".

The majority of Christians do not hold to the view of an inerrant literal bible, so interpretation is obviously necessary – clearly however, the interpretation is based on what is written, not the other way round.
As with any interpretation there can be differing views. The different interpretations can lead to quite different conclusions. It explains why the bible, while central to, is none the less only a part of the total doctrine for the majority of Christians.

To argue that interpretation creates truth is flawed, rather one should recognise that some interpretations may be better than others and have a more substantial scholarly foundation than others.

Steven Carr said...

IN http://www.nzarh.org.nz/journal/2005v78n4sum.pdf written in 2005, Antony Flew says 'Probably I should always have called myself an agnostic'.