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October 18, 2005

God and Katrina

From Enkidu, Theologian-in-Residence (October 1, 2005)

Though I grew up in New Orleans and was distraught, to say the least, as she went under Hurricane Katrina’s waters, it did not occur to me at the time to question God’s role in the disaster.

A number of my relatives and friends felt differently.  “Why has God taken my home, my job, my known world?  What have I done to deserve this?”  Or, alternatively, “why was I spared when so many others, better than me, perished?”

Given God’s purportedly causative actions last Christmas in the eastern Indian Ocean and on an infinite number of occasions before, such questions may seem parochial, though they are unquestionably heartfelt.

A few groups of people, however, had no doubts about God’s intentions.

Al-Qaeda, in a broadcasted news item, announced that "the whole Muslim world was filled with joy" as God “battered New Orleans, city of homosexuals."

Some among the American Religious Right pronounced similar posthumous judgment upon my hometown.

Franklin (son of Billy) Graham explained that “God is going to use that storm to bring a revival. God has a plan. God has a purpose… I would certainly pray that the gay and lesbian movement, the people that have this lifestyle, will come to know Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and savior and experience their sins being forgiven.”

Perhaps the American Religious Right and their Islamist counterparts worship the same deity after all? 

Then again, the less moralistic among the American Right offered a slightly different explanation for His destructive motives. 

“I truly believe that it was God’s intention to have Katrina come to New Orleans to eliminate the blacks from the city” my mother’s Republican friend told her. 

“This is God’s way of getting rid of the blacks” my dad overheard while having his flood-damaged car repaired.

“And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them” noted Barbara Bush as she viewed the refugee camp in the Houston Astrodome.

Destruction and exile for the impoverished?  Specifically those impoverished by centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, and oppressive social and economic policies?  Destruction and exile as the solution to black poverty?

I doubt the God of Al-Qaeda would be so racist.  He is too busy smiting Shi’a, Australian tourists and, of course, homosexuals, too bother with such things.

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Comments

Love the handle Enkidu, by the way. I was always pleased at how exciting and readable the Epic of Gilgamesh was. Was it the first work of best-selling fiction?

Nancy -- Douglas's argument has its problems, and I'm not about to try to defend structuralism as a whole, it not being my bag, but Harris's argument (like functioal arguments in general) at best explains why certain groups don't raise or eat pigs. It doesn't explain why they believe that God requires them not to eat pigs, and why they explain it in the terms that they do -- it explains the behavior, but not people's statements about why they behave that way (and certainly not the behavior of modern Jews who keep Kosher laws). You could say that the symbolic justification comes about later, but if the behavior is so manifestly practical and adaptive, why do you need that kind of rationalization?


I am not clinging to my belief in the First Cause. I am holding it, though, and I find that the universe makes sense when I include it, just as you find that the universe makes better sense when you do not.

What's the difference between "clinging" and "holding" your belief in the First Cause?

And what's the difference between your First Cause and the Big Bang?


if the behavior is so manifestly practical and adaptive, why do you need that kind of rationalization?

Harris again:

"As in the case of the beef-eating taboo, the greater the temptation, the greater the need for divine interdiction. This relationship is generally accepted as suitable for explaining why the gods are always so interested in combatting sexual temptations such as incest and adultery. Here I merely apply it to a tempting food. The Middle East is the wrong place to raise pigs, but pork remains a succulent treat. People always find it difficult to resist such temptations on their own. Hence Jahweh was heard to say that swine were unclean, not only as food, but to the touch as well."

Or to bring it closer to home - like most people, you know you should eat low-fat, high-fiber foods, in small portions. But sometimes you gorge on food you shouldn't - because it's a pleasurable sensory experience now, even if you know it is bad for your health later on.

How much easier would it be to refuse a chocolate eclair or a juicy hamburger if you thought that not only would you risk gaining weight, but you would be tormented forever in hell for it? And all your neighbors would believe you were damned if they caught you?

And since most people will believe in the angry man in the sky if raised with the belief, even in these literate, scientific times, it's easy to understand the power of the religious taboo to ancient peoples.

>What's the difference between "clinging" and "holding" your belief in the First Cause?

The same as the difference between your "clinging" to your disbelief in it, and your reasoned, open-minded decision that this is what you believe in.

>And what's the difference between your First Cause and the Big Bang?

The first and most obvious difference is its intelligence, the idea that our consciousness proceeded from a consciousness.

>What's the difference between "clinging" and "holding" your belief in the First Cause?

The same as the difference between your "clinging" to your atheistic disbelief in it, and your reasoned, open-minded decision that this is what you believe in. That is, that "clinging" connotes only a fearful or egotistical reaction, with no rational thought.

The point I was making to Steve Duncan was that just because some people, or even most believers in God, arrive at that belief through superstitious fear, doesn't mean that everyone does. There are many philosophers and scientists who have believed in God. The superstitious fools are a straw man; as philosophers, if you find belief in God an important myth to debunk, that debunking is serious work. It's not accomplished by making a joke or waving off all believers in God as ill-read. It's done by first showing respect for the opposition's beliefs.

>And what's the difference between your First Cause and the Big Bang?

The first and most obvious difference is its intelligence, the idea that our consciousness proceeded from a consciousness.

(please excuse the double-post)

What's the difference between "clinging" and "holding" your belief in the First Cause?

The same as the difference between your "clinging" to your disbelief in it, and your reasoned, open-minded decision that this is what you believe in.


The first and most obvious difference is its intelligence, the idea that our consciousness proceeded from a consciousness.

So what is your reasoning for a belief in "its intelligence" ? What do you mean by intelligence and what is your evidence for confirming whether "it" has any?

Or do you not require evidence, but only faith?

Time! Here's my post from a few days ago:

>The atheist is at an impasse with the believer. The believer, in order to convince the atheist, must provide proof that this First Cause exists; the atheist, in order to convince the believer, must provide proof that it does not. Could you name your most convincing proof that there is no such First Cause? (And no fair saying, "you go first!") I promise that I'll give it respectful attention.

And no-one since has offered any argument whatsoever _against_ the existence of God. Are you conceding? In case it seems coy to say, "no fair saying 'you go first!'", I said that in order that the responses might better stand on their own merits, instead of simply being a reaction against my (doubtless frail) arguments for God.

Just to be sporting, I'll offer you, or anyone else, an indefinite extension, good forever: has anyone got any arguments to offer against the existence of God? If not, I'll recommence the arguments for God's existence.

I really am interested in hearing people's arguments against the existence of God. I mean, everybody was full of comments about how certain they were about being atheists, and the minute I say, "OK, well, why are you certain of that?", it's utter silence. Hello? Hello? Surely someone has some reason why they are so adamant in their disbelief in God, or, if you prefer, a Big Bang that includes Intelligence. You're all well-read in philosophy. Not one argument?

Anyway--while you're trying to remember (or maybe everyone just got bored with this thread and left) why the Big Bang Nugget With Intelligence is so ridiculous, I'll go ahead and take up Nancy's question:

Nancy: >And what's the difference between your First Cause and the Big Bang?

Me: >The first and most obvious difference is its intelligence, the idea that our consciousness proceeded from a consciousness.

Nancy: >So what is your reasoning for a belief in "its intelligence" ? What do you mean by intelligence and what is your evidence for confirming whether "it" has any?

>Or do you not require evidence, but only faith?

As to that last line, remember that you also are making a claim (for the lack of intelligence in the universe at the time of the Big Bang), for which you haven't offered evidence yet. But I'm proceeding on the assumption that you have a well-reasoned argument against the idea of intelligence at the time of creation, since you seem certain of it. All the atheists here have obviously reasoned it out long before I arrived. I just haven't heard your arguments yet. I look forward to hearing them someday.

The rest of your question is interesting, especially "what do you mean by intelligence?" Dictionaries are always deliciously vague with high-flown concepts like this, but mine defines intelligence as: "the ability to learn or to understand or to deal with new or trying situations," or "the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one's environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (as tests)." Intelligence, by this definition, is measurable as of the moment the first amoeba reached out a pseudopod to engulf some nosh.

This sounds like a teleological argument for God, that is, that since the first living creatures exhibit intelligence (throwing out my dictionary, let me define it as "perceptive analysis, the evidence for which is motive action"), it suggests that the cause that impelled such creatures to take form was also exhibiting perceptive analysis through motive action, in making the amoeba's composite parts come together. Given that living creatures always act in obvious adaptation to their environments (our amoeba reaches toward the food, not just randomly), I find it reasonable to believe that the potency behind the Big Bang was similarly consciously directed.


Given that living creatures always act in obvious adaptation to their environments (our amoeba reaches toward the food, not just randomly), I find it reasonable to believe that the potency behind the Big Bang was similarly consciously directed.

But it is not a given that living creatures ALWAYS act in obvious adaptation to their environments. Creatures that act adaptively to their environments are more likely to reproduce and so we are more likely to have a record of their existence. But many species died out because enough individuals couldn't adapt well enough to leave a breeding population.

And what do you mean by "consciously directed?" Do you think that evolution is the result of living creatures making conscious choices to adapt to their environment? Even plants?

Since you claim that God exists, isn't the burden of proof on you to support your claim? I could say I believe the Invisible Pink Unicorn exists, but why should you be expected to spend any effort to debunk the claim? All you have to say is, "I don't."

Then if I expected to continue the conversation in a constructive way, maybe even convince you my belief wasn't the result of my own active fantasy life, I would have to deliver the goods - like so:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_pink_unicorn

>Since you claim that God exists, isn't the burden of proof on you to support your claim?

This is why I offered the last post, which begins to offer support of my claim. But as I said, you are also making a claim: you claim that the First Cause has no consciousness. The burden of proof is on you to support that claim. What is it, a state secret??? Do you have any basis for making your claim or not? I've provided a paragraph or two, anyway, in support of my claim that the First Cause has consciousness. Do you or do you not have any support for the claim that the First Cause is void of consciousness?


>Since you claim that God exists, isn't the burden of proof on you to support your claim?

This is why I offered the last post, which begins to offer support of my claim. But as I said, you are also making a claim: you claim that the First Cause has no consciousness. The burden of proof is on you to support that claim. What is it, a state secret??? Do you have any basis for making your claim or not? I've provided a paragraph or two, anyway, in support of my claim that the First Cause has consciousness. Do you or do you not have any support for the claim that the First Cause is void of consciousness?

Why would I make ANY claims about the First Cause's consciousness, pro or con, when I don't know what the First Cause is, or even believe it exists?

And if your claim about the universal adaptibility of living things was part of your support, then clearly I haven't accepted your support. So are you going to address the questions I raised in regards to your assumptions about the workings of evolution and the consciousness of plants? Because if you are not, then is there a point in continuing this discussion?

So, continuing our two-strand thread (one strand being the still unsupported claim that the First Cause is only a physical reaction, void of consciousness, and the second being the argument in favor of consciousness):

>And what do you mean by "consciously directed?" Do you think that evolution is the result of living creatures making conscious choices to adapt to their environment? Even plants?

Here our language becomes poor: if a chameleon evolves to be able to change color and blend in with its surroundings, we'd refer to that evolution as an "unconscious" process. This is a poor choice of words. Is it not obvious that the chameleon is showing awareness of its environment and adapting to it (that is, that some part of the chameleon is "consciously directing" this change)? Or, if you allow that there's some other force driving the chameleon's change, apart from the animal itself, isn't that force obviously aware, at some level, of the fact that it's adapting the chameleon to its environment?

Plants: if a tree on the shoreline bends in reaction to the wind that blows on it every day, what do you think that is? The tree is showing awareness of its environment and reacting to it.

>But it is not a given that living creatures ALWAYS act in obvious adaptation to their environments. Creatures that act adaptively to their environments are more likely to reproduce and so we are more likely to have a record of their existence. But many species died out because enough individuals couldn't adapt well enough to leave a breeding population.

I like this. But "couldn't adapt well enough" means that they were attempting to adapt, that is to say that they were acting consciously so as to react to or act upon their environment. That some whole species failed is happenstance, no more significant to our conversation than the fact that some humans failed to survive, where others succeeded. If you can show me a living creature that made no attempt whatever to feed or sustain itself, then you've got a good point.

The invisible pink unicorn comment seems just like a cheap attempt to snicker away the argument by comparing the argument for a consciously-driven First Cause to something outlandishly silly. That's beneath you. Besides--yet again--I'm still waiting for some argument, any argument, to show me why a consciously-driven First Cause is ridiculous. I'm not asking for conclusive proof that the First Cause was inert and unthinking. I'm just asking why you're so certain that it is? You've claimed so with alacrity. Why the alacrity? What convinced you? Share, for Christ's sake!

>Why would I make ANY claims about the First Cause's consciousness, pro or con, when I don't know what the First Cause is, or even believe it exists?

Um, saying you don't believe it exists IS a claim. You're claiming it doesn't exist. Why? Do you have a basis for not believing it exists or not? If so, why haven't you said so (days later), and if not, why say you don't believe it exists?


>So are you going to address the questions I raised in regards to your assumptions about the workings of evolution and the consciousness of plants? Because if you are not, then is there a point in continuing this discussion?

Give me a second or two to write the response next time, willya?

Or anyone? It doesn't have to be Nancy. Does anyone here who has said they're an atheist have any argument in support of their claim that God doesn't exist?

I'm asking for five days, now, already. You have claimed to know to a reasonable certainty that God does not exist. We can all see that there is a material universe (I stress, again, that I accept all the arguments for evolution, and am not trying to introduce Intelligent Design teachings into the science classroom). Is there one person out there with one single argument to show that that material universe was not consciously created?

I'm going to give it one more day, and then I'm going to conclude, for now, that your atheism was just as much a knee-jerk reaction (in this case, against the violence, corruption, greed and superstition that attends so much of the spiritual discourse) as religious superstitions are, and with as little rational basis.

Or anyone? It doesn't have to be Nancy.

So I'm not good enough for you? You'd prefer other atheists?


Um, saying you don't believe it exists IS a claim. You're claiming it doesn't exist. Why? Do you have a basis for not believing it exists or not? If so, why haven't you said so (days later), and if not, why say you don't believe it exists?

Um, I've only just heard of the First Cause through you yesterday. You seem to think it exists, but you haven't presented any evidence for it. So why should I believe it exists?

Do you believe whatever anybody tells you, without the need for evidence? If so, then that might explain why you think that I may possibly believe whatever claims you make, without the need for evidence. But I don't work that way. So cough up the evidence. Or not. I don't actually care, since although First Cause is vitally important to you, apparently, it is of absolutely no consequence to me.

Plants: if a tree on the shoreline bends in reaction to the wind that blows on it every day, what do you think that is? The tree is showing awareness of its environment and reacting to it.

So if I drop a pebble into the ocean, is the pebble aware of me and/or gravity? Are the molecules of hydrogen, oxygen, sodium and chorine lapping at the beach aware of each other and the pebble? Are the hydrogen and oxygen more aware of each other because they are combined chemically, than either are aware of the chlorine?

And if so, then does the word "aware" have any meaning other than "physical approximation" or even "physical existence"?


If you can show me a living creature that made no attempt whatever to feed or sustain itself, then you've got a good point.

So is heliotropism an example of a plant making an attempt to feed itself?

You failed to get the humor of the Invisible Pink Unicorn - typical of a deist. I almost broke a rib laughing at the rapturing of the socks, or the Purple Oyster of Doom. Note to others here - if you liked Holy Grail and Life of Brian, you will love the preachings of the IPU worshippers.

Hmm. If I recall Genesis (first book of Bible) at all, the name/concept of "God" was posited in undefineability. All that was required was that people recognize that their expectation of the world was that it operate (mostly) in a regular and predictable fashion. That practical necessity was all that was required to constitute belief. What other addendum a person might swallow as a result of recognizing that need is another question altogether. Doesn't anyone remember that a defining characteristic of traditional Jewry was confrontational discussion ?


Hmm. If I recall Genesis (first book of Bible) at all, the name/concept of "God" was posited in undefineability.

Why rely on your recollection? You can search many versions of the Bible online:

http://www.biblegateway.com/

Where in Genesis is 'the name/concept of "God"' ... 'posited in undefineability'?

In a 1 minute search of the King James version at biblegateway.com, I found in chapter 3, verse 8 it says:

==============
'Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the LORD God called to the man, "Where are you?"'
==============

So here we see the "concept" of God walking in a garden. Does the Bible mean that the Concept is doing some sort of metaphorical walking? And how does this walking relate to undefineability?

>So I'm not good enough for you? You'd prefer other atheists?

Nancy, you're more than good enough for me. I wouldn't be talking to you otherwise.

>Um, I've only just heard of the First Cause through you yesterday. You seem to think it exists, but you haven't presented any evidence for it. So why should I believe it exists?

But wait a second--this is what I think is, to put it generously, disingenuous. You announced yourself on this blog, before we ever even talked to each other, as an atheist. You told us you were an atheist before I ever asked. That means that you had some basis for saying that there is no God. You've provided no basis for it. How do you announce, "I'm an atheist," and then when I say, "OK, why do you believe God doesn't exist?", say, "wh-wha? God? What is this 'God' you speak of? It's the first I've heard of it!" Or if you don't like my definition of God, then tell me what yours is, and tell me why are you an atheist? Or did you say that with no reason? If not, then what is the reason?

This idea that atheists can claim that God does not exist, but that only people believing in God must show proof, is just a cop-out. If you make a claim, even a claim of a negative, it is incumbent upon you either to support that claim, or to admit that you're asking me to take it on faith. I am, however poorly, offering some support of my positive claim. If you simply say, "well I don't believe the Big Bang was attended by any consciousness, but I'm not going to say why," then we're each, as far as the other is concerned, taking our positions on faith.

(And no, sorry, that doesn't mean that I have some screaming desire to force my beliefs down your throat, any more than your continued presence here necessarily means you're trying to ram atheism down my throat. Although I'm defending my position vigorously, as an intellectual exercise, truly, I say unto thee, if you remain an atheist your whole life, yet treat people kindly and the natural environment carefully, I shall be well pleased. I don't mind if you never adopt my position. You're still here, so I think we're both enjoying articulating our beliefs. Or I should say, articulating _my_ beliefs--I'm still waiting to hear what on earth yours are.)

>So is heliotropism an example of a plant making an attempt to feed itself?

Of COURSE not... but as I say, the tree's reaction to the wind is, like the anemone's contraction when you poke it, an adaptive reaction to its environment. And much different from your pool of water's reaction to the pebble. Though I note that in your example, you posit a conscious act (your throwing of the pebble) as a cause for the effect.

If you have a problem allowing that there was a consciousness as the motivating force behind the Big Bang, is it because it seems to evoke Mind over Matter? That is, the Original Mind over the Original Matter? It seems like a problem for a physicist, which I'm not. Are there any physics students here who can tell me: under what conditions can the energy of thought become a physical force, or become matter itself? Einstein's theory of relativity would seem to give us this, but I'm a layman. Besides, I'm not sure how you divide Energy by the velocity of an object moving at the speed of light, squared. Anyone done any reading on this?

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