Tag Archives: God

Dear Santa Claus

Another foray into logic and rock 'n roll.  This time, it's one of my personal favorites, XTC's "Dear God":  Lyrics/ Video. First, a quick survey of the argument of the song and then three argumentative-logical issues.

"Dear God" is supposed to a letter addressed to God.  The contents of the letter amount to two separate arguments for atheism.  The primary argument is the argument from evil.  Here is the background commitment:  gratuitous suffering in the world is inconsistent with a just, capable and creative god.  The argument is then made by a series of examples of gratuitous suffering.  First is the problem of hunger:

But all the people that you made in your image
See them starving in the street
'Cause they don't get enough to eat from god

Second is the problem of strife (specifically religious strife):

And all the people that you made in your image
See them fighting in the street
'Cause they can't make opinions meet about god

Third is a cattle call of ills:

You're always letting us humans down
The wars you bring, the babes you drown
Those lost at sea and never found
And it's the same the whole world 'round
The hurt I see helps to compound
That father, son and holy ghost
Is just somebody's unholy hoax

Now, for sure, the argument from evil needs only one evil that's gratuitous, but when you get a list like that, it's supposed to improve the argument.  I think this is because we all recognize that as the evils pile up, they all seem so pointless and horrible, and as they seem to keep coming, we're supposed to see the responses to the argument from evil as being progressively less and less plausible.  In this respect, the argument from evil is less a purely logical game of finding contradictions, but more a process of seeing just how unlikely it is that God could be just if he allowed all that evil.  So the cattle call isn't, I think, just a rhetorical flourish (or powerful songwriting… again, listen to that part!), it's supposed to play an argumentative role, but in a rough version of the evidential problem of evil. 

The second argument is a subsidiary one, but is nevertheless worth mentioning. It's the argument from anthropogenesis: the observation that we have natural world explanations for all the events leading up to the founding of the religions and the development of their dogmas, so they, at least in their claims to supernatural revelation, must be false:

Did you make mankind after we made you?. . .

Dear god don't know if you noticed but…
Your name is on a lot of quotes in this book
And us crazy humans wrote it, you should take a look
And all the people that you made in your image
still believing that junk is true
Well I know it ain't, and so do you

Effectively: c'mon, god, you know we made you and all the stories about you up.  Therefore: you don't exist. Q to the E to the D, baby!

The three logical points. #1. The argument from evil is easy to present, but very difficult to get just right.  The problems of hunger and strife are ones we bring on ourselves, a theodicy may run, and so we are, in saying that God is responsible for these things, not acknowledging our responsibilities.  God, if he were to step in to resolve these moral evils, would not be respecting our freedoms and making it possible for us to be worthy of his love. 

The natural evils on the docket (disease, babes drowning , etc.) are consequences of living in a world with natural laws.  And so we must accept that given that this world is intelligible, it must also have correlate dangers.  Another strategy for theodicy here would be to go skeptical, and say:  perhaps the letter should be written a little less dogmatically — asking for why these things happen, instead of insisting that God has no good reason.  Perhaps, it may go, God does have a reason…  Regardless, the evils in the song aren't enough to make the full case.  You need to wrestle with the rationalizations God (or his spokesperson) might give for that case to go through. 

The problem with the argument, then, is that it is insufficiently dialectical, even if the entity addressed doesn't exist.  Not that I don't think the argument from evil kicks theism's rear, it's just that theodicy is actually a pretty formidable opponent, and a laundry list of evils isn't much of a case yet.  It's nice songwriting, but as an argument, *yawn*.

#2. The argument from anthropogenesis is often rhetorically powerful, but it's really just wind.  Any non-insane defender of theism can concede that the traditions of churches and the transmission of (and perhaps even the overwhelming majority of the contents of ) the sacred texts are products of human agency.  That doesn't mean that theism is false, it just means that humans are really keen on making stuff up and believing stuff about God.  Now, again, it, like the argument from evil, is more of a cumulative case — you keep piling up all the cases where things just don't look right.  But, again, cumulatively it just shows that there are multiple natural causes at work in the developments of the religion.  No refutation, but if anything, begging the question.

#3. Is the presentation self defeating?  I remember that when I first heard the song, I immediately asked whether it made sense to say to God: I don't believe in you.  That's weird.  Surely, if you're addressing God, you're committing, informally, to his existence.  Otherwise, the speech act of addressing is inappropriate.  I'm not the only one who's had that thought.  Visit any of the discussions about the song (either on the threads above, or here).  Here's a strong version of the challenge:   The most this song can show is that the author has doubts about god's existence, but in addressing god in the song, he actually finds that he nevertheless does believe.  That's faith, baby, faith!

That argument stinks.  First, it doesn't undercut the conclusion of the argument: God doesn't exist.  Just because the author happens to address the argument to God doesn't have any bearing on whether the argument demonstrates its conclusion.  If I addresssed a letter to Santa Claus explaining all my reasons for holding that he does not exist, that would not in any way effect the correctness of the arguments, nor would it change the truth of my conclusion. Moreover, I could  write a letter to Santa, tell him he doesn't exist and even mail it to the North Pole, and I could still believe he doesn't exist.  That's why I wrote the letter!   Second, think of the song as more like therapy.  The author has been believing in God, perhaps, for a long time.  He's prayed to Him regularly, and as a consequence, is in the habit of addressing God.  And so in coming to terms with his atheism, the author feels the need to speak to God one more time… a kind of breakup talk, but one not really addressed to God, but one really composed and performed for himself.  That's what the prayers were all along, anyhow. 

In sum: the song's a standard argument from evil, nicely performed.  But it's a thin version of it. Weak, really.  But it's at least not self refuting, so there's that.

What refutes what?

Phyllis Schlafly is right about one thing: the Fourth of July is a good time to read the Declaration of Independence.  But she's wrong about pretty much everything else.  First, her timing is a little off — her posting is dated July 9, but she's giving advice about what to do on the 4th.  Maybe her plan was for us to remember what to do next year.   Second, she claims that the Declaration is a 'religious document.'  This seems a little thin, as her evidence is that:

The Declaration of Independence is the official and unequivocal recognition by the American people of our belief and faith in God. It affirms God's existence as a "self-evident" truth that requires no further discussion, debate or litigation.. . . The Declaration of Independence contains five references to God: God as Creator of all men, God as supreme Lawmaker, God as the Source of all rights, God as the world's supreme Judge, and God as our Patron and Protector. The Declaration declares that each of us was created; so if we were created, we must have had a Creator and, as the modern discovery of DNA confirms, each of God's creatures is different from every other person who has ever lived or ever will live on this earth.

Just for the record, I took a quick look at the Declaration, and I counted only four overt references to God.  One in the first paragraph, to Nature's God.  One in the second paragraph, that "we are endowed by our Creator….", and two in the final paragraph, one an oath to the Supreme judge of the world, and another about trusting 'divine providence.'  Now, with each of these, I don't (especially given the widespread deism of the day) see these as strongly theistic as Schlafly sees them.  Regardless, whatever these references mean, they aren't there as core commitments of the Declaration — the Declaration is about human rights and about the role of government (and also to list all the colonial grievances against the crown).  To put it on record that they all love God doesn't seem to be the point, but more a rhetorical element of the presentation of more (ahem) humanistic concerns.  If you use reference to God in making a point, that doesn't by necessity make your speech religious, because I often punctuate my angriest moments with "Goddammit!", but that hardly makes my speech religious.

Schlafly's third error is most troubling.  She claims:

The message of the Declaration of Independence is under attack from the ACLU and atheists because it refuted the lie about a constitutional mandate for "separation of church and state."

Wait.  That gets it backwards, doesn't it?  The whole point of the Constitution was to provide a framework for government that wasn't there in the Declaration. And in putting those things together, wasn't the objective to either supplement or correct the Declaration?  What about the First Amendment, the one that prohibits laws "respecting an establishment of religion"?  If the Declaration had a line that said anything about acknowledging and establishing a religion of the one true God (which seems to be Schlafly's reading), it's the Constitution that would refute that establishment, not the Declaration that would refute the Constitution. 

In what sense?

"In what sense" has got to be one of the most basic philosophical questions.  It aims, at the very least, to get clear about what we're talking about.  Because, as it turns out, words and concepts and such have different senses.  Justice, for instance, seems to mean different things.  And it would be important to avoid obvious equivocations.  So, for instance, if I am talking about a normative notion of justice, and you come back at me with empirical observations about the criminal justice system, I will be confused.  This seems to be a really straightforward point.  But alas.  Here's Stanley Fish, The New York Times' idea of an intellectual:

I don’t think that’s the way it happens or could happen. Let’s say (to give a humble example from literary studies) that there is a dispute about the authorship of a poem. A party to the dispute might perform comparative analyses of the writings of rival candidates, examine letters and personal libraries, research the records of printers and publishers, look at the history of reception, etc. Everyone who engages in the dispute will do his or her work in relation to well-established notions of what counts as evidence for authorship and accepted criteria for determining whether or not the evidence marshaled is persuasive.

But suppose, you think (in the manner of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault) that the idea of the individual author is a myth that emerges alongside the valorization of property and property rights so central to Enlightenment thought? Suppose you believe that the so-called author is not the source of the words to which he signs his name, but is instead merely a site transversed by meanings neither he nor any other so-called “individual” originates? (“Writing,” says Barthes, “is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.”)

I am not affirming this view, which has religious (“not me, but my master in me”) and secular (it is the age or zeitgeist that speaks) versions. I am just observing that there are many who hold it, and that for those who do the evidence provided by printers’ records or letters or library holdings will not be evidence at all; for they do not believe in the existence of the entity — the conclusively identified individual author — it aspires to be evidence of. If no one wrote the poem in the sense assumed by the effort to fix authorship, that effort is without a point and the adducing of evidence in the absence of something to be proved will seem quixotic and even perverse.

The example might seem to be to the side of the (supposed) tension between faith and reason, but it is, I believe, generalizable. Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions – there are authors or there aren’t — that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence.

Holy Crap.  The "valorization" of property has an empirical component ("your property is valorized at less than it was valorized at before") and a normative component ("your property ought to be valorized at more than it was before") and a conceptual component (your property is valorizable), among other components.  The question for the literary studies people is whether some person x wrote some poem y.  This is an empirically verifiable fact–just ask Foucault's estate.  The question for Foucault, I take it, is whether such knowledge will tell us anything about anything (well, in particular, about the "meaning" of the poem.  They're different questions which Stanley Fish has hopelessly confused.

And he has confused these two different sorts of claim in order further to confuse the difference between the methods of faith and the methods of science.  They're not, to reorient the analogy where it should (!) be, talking about the same thing.  And to make this all a tomayto-tomahto question of evidence just ignores one pretty basic philosophical question.