If You’ve Pretensions to Calvinism, Protesting Human Behavior is Pretty Well Meaningless

14 Mar

In a few hours Kevin Smith will, for whatever reason, be presenting his “fuck Hollywood” premiere tour for the film Red State right here in my hometown. I’m not going simply because I don’t really have $67 to drop on a ticket for an event that doesn’t include a blowjob with the cost of admission. But neither the film itself, or my lack of oral sex is the point of this post. I will, at no point but either the name or the initials of a certain religious group in this post, as I refuse to be a party to providing them with any more free publicity than they’re already getting simply because I’m talking about the film. However, if you’re at all familiar with Red State, you know which protest-happy group of zealots I’m talking about.

See, they’re supposed to be in town tonight too, waving about their placards that tell us all about how their god hates certain groups of people. Maybe it’s because I’m an atheist, maybe it’s because I’ve studied philosophy of religion, or maybe it’s because I’m simply not batshit insane enough, but I have to wonder if they actually believe the shit they sell. I don’t mean the hating homosexuals part; fuck knows the human race has shown time and time again how xenophobic, petty, and vicious we can really be. So I don’t have a hard time believing that they hate gay folks.

The bit that gets me is that they claim to believe that their god hates gay folks, and that America is somehow being punished for not burning all “teh homos” (and if one of the man in charge’s disillusioned sons is to be believed anyone who’s not white as well). I find this hard to believe, because this particular group of numbskulls embrace a worldview that is inherently Calvinist. I realize I’m simplifying things here, but one of the central tenets of Calvinism is the idea of predestination; as most Calvinists would have it we’re already marked for salvation or damnation from the get-go, nothing we do along the way fucking well matters to whether we’re fed grapes in heaven or sodomized with burning maggots in hell.

The problem with doing this is that it renders most of the theological implications of free will meaningless (which causes a lot of other problems I won’t be going into for reasons of space and relevance to the topic at hand). Sure, I can choose to be good or bad, but those choices don’t fucking well matter much, do they? If I’m damned from day one, then why would it matter if I spend my days fucking another dude up the ass while aborting fetuses and denying the Holy Spirit? I’m going to hell anyway, right? For that matter the same applies if I’m earmarked for salvation. If I’ve already got a get out of jail free card, then why in the world when I want to go to all the work of being a good person? Not only has this god rendered free will largely meaningless, but unless I want to be Kierkegaard’s knight of faith he’s taken away any fucking reason I should do what he says.

Maybe this god is just a particularly petty one, eh? Because I can’t think of any other reason why a god who’s rendered my life meaningless would then be hatin’ on me.

Like I said, this is an oversimplification. Personally, I’d like to be able to walk down to any protest that happens tonight (as the event in question is taking place only a few blocks from my current residence), and talk to a someone representing these folks and their beliefs. I would like to hear from them how their own beliefs avoid reducing that which they believe in into unintelligibly. I’d like that a lot, really. Sadly, these people’s track record suggests that if I do try it the only thing I can expect for my trouble is shouted rhetoric. Which I think is a shame, but you know what, I’m not going to give them a pretty picture for the television cameras and newspapers, so that they can go to sleep at night playing the martyr; I’m not going to give them the self-satisfaction of thinking they’ve castigated another “sinner.” I haven’t mentioned them by name, and I hope to never speak of them again. Because the worst thing we can do to these people isn’t debate them. It isn’t, no matter how abhorrent we find their views, staging counter protests. It’s letting them scream in an empty auditorium. Sadly, with the media and it’s “if it bleeds it leads” mentality, these zealots will likely never fade into obscurity, no matter how much we beg news outlets to ignore them. After all, we’ve made it pretty clear that as a society we want to stare right at that fucking trainwreck. So I’m sad to say that it will probably never happen.

It is on that sad note that I will end, dear readers. If anyone needs me I’ll be in the corner crying bitter tears for the state of humanity, and maintaining what is by now the thoroughly Kierkegaardian hope that tomorrow you will finally start making the world a better place than it is today.


Posted by on March 14, 2011 in Philosophy, Pop Culture


Tags: , ,

6 responses to “If You’ve Pretensions to Calvinism, Protesting Human Behavior is Pretty Well Meaningless

  1. Bleeyargh

    March 14, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    In Christian history (and, no doubt, the history of several other religions involving a deity), God has consistently and conveniently hated whomever the followers of the religion hated. He’s good like that.

    To be fair, the simplification of Calvinism here goes a little far. What the smarter Calvinists are saying is that God (being omniscient) knows prior to your birth whether you’ll be damned or saved, as he can absolutely predict the decisions you’ll make, without fail. Free will or not. Changing your behaviour doesn’t change whether you go up or down, because God knew you were going to do it, and already took that into account. They’re not claiming that God is not evaluative, just that he can pre-approve your celestial mortgage.

    Calvin himself decried “works of faith” because of some Catholic traditions of the time which allowed you to be auto-forgiven for raping babies because you fed the poor. Worse yet, of course, was the foul tradition of indulgence, which allowed you to pay the pope to forgive your sins in advance. Thus, his emphasis on omnipotence, saying that you can’t make God forgive you. He decides whether you’re forgiven or not.

    The natural simplification/implication of this stance, though, is that God created you to be a defective sinner, and so free will (while not meaningless) ultimately has no spiritual value on the grounds that you can’t surprise him. Of course, it makes the claims that God talks to certain people or gives them signs particularly ugly (since he is obviously playing favourites– actively saving some and damning others). With a Calvinist world view, this is a repulsive thought.

    Small wonder that some people take a da Vinci- like view that God crafted the world and set the rules, and then sat back. Clockwork and no interference from him ever since.

    Naturally, the more simple-minded Calvinist-types (like the Puritans) have used this whole line of bull-crap to celebrate other lines of bull-crap, like the gift of discernment (I can tell what God wants, and I can see who’s saved and who isn’t). All this derived from God-related penis envy. “Your God is so smart? Well, ours is ultra-smart! Yours is so powerful? Well, ours is ultra-powerful!” The big underpoint of Exodus is that YHWH has a bigger God-wang than Ra.

    • Josh Benton

      March 14, 2011 at 7:18 pm

      I’ll start out by saying that while I try to avoid prejudging people I don’t know when I do these posts, the particular group in question do not strike me as being the smarter sort of Calvinist. I say this largely based on various things they’ve said etc. as well as things that have been said about them (including, as I mentioned, by some of the gentleman’s in charge children who have gone “astray”.)

      I won’t deny that Calvin shouldn’t have decried those particular “works of faith.” The Church has issues. Period. In particular I recall an incident where a young girl was raped by her stepfather and became pregnant. Everyone that was involved with the decision to abort the pregnancy was auto-excommunicated… excepting the rapist. I imagine that with a few acts of contrition, and possibly a bit of donation, he’d be back in the Lord’s good graces. So I’m right with Calvin’s dead ass on that score.

      I should also point out that you and I are in one respect saying the same thing. When I say that free will is meaningless in the Calvinist conception I was specifically talking in the spiritual sense. I apologize if that was unclear to anyone. I also oversimplified the way I did in order to avoid a bit of a digression into the exact territory you’ve brought up. Namely, God is omniscient, and as such aware of all past, present, and more importantly future events. Can I even be said to have free will in such an instance? Because if a god or gods already and invariably knows my actions, I have in effect already performed those actions even if I as actor have not actually reached that temporal point and performed those actions. This is when shit starts to get even more problematic than the rather simplified tale I already laid out, because we now have to start bringing in things like theodicies, and dealing with the nature of evil and its relationship to a being that is supposed to be omnibenevolent (which then leads us into the sticky territory of omnibenevolence – omnipotence paradoxes, because a being that is by definition all powerful then has the power to do things which are not good, and if it can do things which are not good it can then not be all good).

      Given that I try, though admittedly do not always succeed, in keeping the posts here to 1,000 words or less, I knew I couldn’t really cover all of the above in that space; particularly not in I wanted to do it justice by readers who might not be at all familiar with the subjects in question. Admittedly, that does run its own share of risks.

      As a final, unrelated note, I would like to apologize to readers for the various post-publication errors I’ve caught. I can only plead that I’ve had the kind of day that would make one envious of Hank Pym.

  2. Bleeyargh

    March 15, 2011 at 6:48 am

    Yeah, most people who read Calvinism believe that you’re divorced from responsibility because God made you that way, and there’s no free will. This is simple-minded nonsense. If you have the capacity to evaluate your own decisions prior to their outcome, you have the capacity to make different ones.

    In any case, the ability to predict someone’s behaviour does not, of itself, cancel the idea of free will in that person (which is a feather-plucking walrus of an idea in philosophy without the theistic shite, but let’s set that aside). It would certainly challenge the value of the Commandments, for example (since, if God chose the decisions you’d make while you were being created, he could just line you up without having to write a sign on the wall). I suppose it depends what version of “free will” one subscribes to. If one takes the view that it’s only free will if everything you decide is effectively “uncaused”, then it’s practically a self-refuting concept.

    Omnibenevolence is kind of a new chicken, since God was an indefensible prick throughout the old testament. Even his demand to have his son tortured and killed in order to change the rules is indefensibly prickish, when presumably he could have sent down the “new deal” he’d thought of without the spiritual spanking.

    That is a rather oversimplified vision of omnibenevolence, though, since being good has no meaning whatsoever if the actor does not have the capacity to make moral decisions. If you have no power to be evil, you also have no power to be good. It’s also hard to swallow with the “ends justify the means” approach of the modern apologist, who will tell you that God has something nice in mind when he kills off your family and puts you in the street to starve.

    Only a tiny handful of people believe in that omnibenevolence shite, mind you.

    • Josh Benton

      March 15, 2011 at 7:41 am

      I don’t subscribe to the idea that free will consists of decisions which are effectively “uncaused,” as you put it; even Sartre doesn’t subscribe to that particular view in his conception of “unlimited” human freedom, but acknowledges that cultural conditioning, personal biases, and situational awareness all alter our ability to choose. I do, however, subscribe to a view of free will that is incompatible with the existence of an omniscient agent. If there is a being that knows all of my actions in advance, and there is no possibility of its being wrong, then there is also no possibility of my choosing contrary to that being’s knowledge. So while I might possess the capacity to evaluate my own decisions prior to the outcomes, the outcomes themselves are predetermined; meaning that while I might have the capacity for self-reflection, I do not have a capacity for meaningful choice. I can certainly tell myself I arrived at a certain decision because of X,Y, and Z, but in fact I arrived at that decision because I lacked the capacity to arrive at any other. The same holds true even if we try to say our omniscient agent is simply very good at guessing; if there’s never the possibility that those guesses can be wrong, then the final outcome is still effectively predetermined.

      I will grant that omnibenevolence is indeed nonsensical. That aside, it is generally part of doctrine as currently accepted, though there are of course exceptions, and as such it does present a problem that needs resolved. One of many, really, and you’ve highlighted another with your articulation of the New Testament as a “new deal.” Last I checked God is supposed to be eternal. If God’s making new deals that implies the capacity for change. Can the eternal really change? (There are various theologians who say no.) For that matter if God is both eternal and perfect why is their a physical universe to begin with, and why humans in particular. As a perfect, eternal being there should be no reason why God would want or need either a physical universe in general, or human beings in particular. There’s certainly nothing that we can do that it shouldn’t be perfectly capable of in and of itself.

      We could go on like this all day, really. The Abrahamic traditions as they stand now are a history of translations of translations, heavy editing, schisms, purges, and other doctrinal turf wars, and a whole host of other factors I’ve likely forgotten to mention. Which is why I’ll freely admit that I could be wrong, and there might well be a god or gods of some sort… but if I am wrong, whatever “divine” being is floating around out there isn’t like what they try to sell in church, because that particular being is inconsistent, and I’m not talking about its behavior alone, but the fact that its nature appears to contradict itself. Claims that we are simply too limited to understand the mind of this schizophrenic being also don’t hold water, because I don’t need to understand its mind to understand that the attributes and behaviors assigned to it don’t hold together.

  3. Bleeyargh

    March 17, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    No stones thrown at Sartre. I’m sure that plenty of people who have taken intro classes in philosophy have heard the old “causeless” bean, of course.

    The claim that we are too simple-minded to understand said being completely is a popular one, with a lot of advantages. First off, your classic conjobber can claim that he’s spiritually smarter than you are, and understands God better. Second, a fellow can describe a contradiction of popular doctrine as being revelatory in nature (God wears a tutu! He revealed it to me! Also, he’s gay, and the reason why he hates human gayness is that humans turned out too ugly for his tastes. See, that’s why there was only a dude at first, and then he made a woman just to make it more like watching starfish go at it. Clinical detachment).

    The claims of our mental inadequacy are certainly logically consistent; they potentially hold plenty of water of themselves, just not as justifications regarding the stuff that the pastoral salesmen are spreading.

    The “omni”s, as they are currently used, always struck me as the last gasp of the simple minded. They serve as justification for subservience and divorce from responsibility for your decisions and behaviour. They serve as justification for the “spreading the word”. They serve as another facet of the identification-flattery-self-esteem system, as poisonous as that is.

    Religion is social control, and this is not an inherently bad thing. I’ve even heard many people say that there is no morality divorced from divinity, and the world would be filled with barbarous rape and murder without it (leaving religious wars and the crusades aside, of course). Some people, I think, are better to their neighbours exactly because they believe in inescapable consequences for their actions. Those idiots flying the “God Hates Fags” signs are probably more like folks in the previous paragraph, but there might be one or two simple-minded types among them who genuinely believe that:

    a) It’s wicked to be attracted to/love/have sex with someone of your gender
    b) This attraction (or, at least, succumbing to it) is a conscious decision based in ignorance or the influence of some evil being
    c) Because of the sacrifice/martyrdom of the son of God, any sinner can be saved, so long as he is genuinely repentent, and goes forth to sin no more.
    d) It is to the benefit of these ignorant sinners that they be shocked from their comfort zone and turn to the Lord for comfort. If even one is saved this way, the effort is worth it.

    Sure, this ignores the “turn the other cheek” and the “Love thy neighbour” bit, but only if you believe that gays aren’t harming people around them with their gayness!

    Yeah, so that’s a pretty stupid collection of assumptions, but I once assumed that my relatives were all smart, loving people who meant well. I’ve probably got a couple of other stupid assumptions up my sleeve right now.

  4. Bleeyargh

    March 17, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    It does not necessarily follow, however, that you are not a causal agent if there is theoretically a way, held by a being with whom you can’t interact or communicate, to predict your behaviour. Causation usually relies in part on observation rather than prediction (which is just induction in drag). An all-knowing being might well know everything from start to finish– is said being also constrained by this knowledge? Omnipotence and omniscience might be the unstoppable force and the immovable object, as it were. The very idea that this god isn’t ruled or even defined by our descriptions (the unknowable) makes these descriptors ridiculous.

    What I mean to say is that a theory, philosophical or otherwise, is only as good as its utility. Since the JCM god (and other such entities) can be described as separate and unknowable, not communicating, etc., requiring faith to interact with (largely proof-free belief) and whatnot, free will has utility. We are not capable of judging the reasoning/actions/reactions of others with certainty, and we are not capable (even the faith types) of knowing that there is anyone or -thing that can without better evidence than a silly storybook.

    I have yet to meet a Calvinist that doesn’t claim that we deserve damnation when God sends us there. Morality as a measurement of uncontrollable action is not deserved as they understand the term. I’m sure that said Calvinist exists somewhere, worrying about the Coming of the Great White Handkerchief, but the very marriage of terms like “omnipotence”, “omniscience”, “omnibenevolence” and “unknowable” tells us that even they admit that their understanding/desription of God comes from the Self and not from the God. It’s no more meaningful to define things outside our understanding and experience than it is to describe the tutu that God is clearly (clearly!) wearing as I write this.

    But, yes. You can identify yourself as Calvinist, even if Calvin himself would nail a list of refutations on your forehead.


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