Answer to a question: what do I think about God's communication patterns?
post by Jim Pivarski (jim-pivarski)
This started as a comment on Book Review: How Minds Change [LW · GW], but it got so long and off the original topic that I felt it didn't belong in that comments feed. People would have to scroll past a large block of text that doesn't have much to do with the original article.
For context, I was responding to jaspax [LW · GW],
(Sorry, it doesn't look like the conservatives have caught on to this kind of approach yet.)
Actually, if you look at religious proselytization, you'll find that these techniques are all pretty well-known, albeit under different names and with different purposes. And while this isn't actually synonymous with political canvassing, it often has political spillover effects.
If you wanted, one could argue this the other way: left-oriented activism is more like proselytization than it is factual persuasion. And LessWrong, in particular, has a ton of quasi-religious elements, which means that its recruitment strategy necessarily looks a lot like evangelism.
when I said,
And even more deeply than door-to-door conversations, political and religious beliefs spread through long-term friend and romantic relationships, even unintentionally.
I can attest to this first-hand because I converted from atheism to Catholicism (25 years ago) by the unintended example of my girlfriend-then-wife, and then I saw the pattern repeat as a volunteer in RCIA, an education program for people who have decided to become Catholic (during the months before confirmation), and pre-Cana, another program for couples who plan to be married in the church (also months-long). The pattern in which a romantic relationship among different-religion (including no-religion) couples eventually ends up with one or the other converting is extremely common. I'd say that maybe 90% of the people in RCIA had a Catholic significant other, and maybe 40% of the couples in pre-Cana were mixed couples that became both-Catholic. What this vantage point didn't show me was the fraction in which the Catholic member of the couple converted away or maybe just got less involved and decided against being married Catholic (and therefore no pre-Cana). I assume that happens approximately as often. But it still shows that being friends or more than friends is an extremely strong motivator for changing one's views, whichever direction it goes.
Since it happened to me personally, the key thing in my case was that I didn't start with a clear idea of what Catholics (or some Catholics, anyway) actually believe. In reading this article and the ones linked from it, I came to Talking Snakes: A Cautionary Tale [LW · GW], which illustrates the point very well: scottalexander quoted Bill Maher as saying that Christians believe that sin was caused by a talking snake, and scottalexander himself got into a conversation with a Muslim in Cairo who thought he believed that monkeys turned into humans. Both are wild caricatures of what someone else believes, or at least a way of phrasing it that leads to the wrong mental image. In other words, miscommunication. What I found when I spent a lot of time with a Catholic—who wasn't trying to convert me—was that what some Catholics (can't attest for all of them) meant by the statements in their creed isn't at all the ridiculous things that written creed could be made to sound like.
In general, that point of view is the one Yudkowsky dismissed in Outside the Laboratory [? · GW], which is to say that physical and religious statements are in different reality-boxes [LW · GW], but he dismissed it out of hand. Maybe there are large groups of people who interpret religious statements the same way they interpret the front page of the newspaper, but it would take a long-term relationship, with continuous communication, to even find out if that is true, for a specific individual. They might say that they're biblical literalists on the web or fill out surveys that way, but what someone means by their words can be very surprising. (Which is to say, philosophy is hard.) Incidentally, another group I was involved in, a Faith and Reason study group in which all of the members were grad students in the physical sciences, couldn't even find anyone who believed in religious claims that countered physical facts. Our social networks didn't include any.
Long-term, empathic communication trades the birds-eye view of surveys for narrow depth. Surely, the people I've come in contact with are not representative of the whole, but they're not crazy, either.
Then Tim Freeman [LW · GW] asked,
If you are Catholic, or remember being Catholic, and you're here, maybe you can explain something for me.
How do you reconcile God's benevolence and omnipotence with His communication patterns? Specifically: I assume you believe that the Good News was delivered at one specific place and time in the world, and then allowed to spread by natural means. God could have given everyone decent evidence that Jesus existed and was important, and God could have spread that information by some reliable means. I could imagine a trickster God playing games with an important message like that, but the Christian God is assumed to be good, not a trickster. How do you deal with this?
Here's my response.
The easier thing to answer is what I don't believe, and what all the Christians who I know personally—well enough to have an idea of what they believe—don't believe. We don't think there was Only One Shot in which everyone who had heard of an obscure Nazorean preacher would get eternal bliss and everyone else, including people who lived before him or too far away from him (possibly on other planets) would get torment. I know that there are evangelists on TV (including Catholics on ETWN) who insist that this is the case. I would guess that the ones on TV really think that—they now have a reputation to maintain, like the 9/11 truthers apart from Charlie Veitch in the example above. Members of their congregations might say they believe it, too, when they're reminded that it's the criterion for continued membership in their social lives, but I'm not in a congregation like that. My social category would probably be called "liberal Catholic."
I should give you a better answer, though, one that doesn't just say, "I'm not like them," pointing to another group. First, my conception of God is very low-level/foundational: when I decided to stop calling myself an atheist, the definition of God that I was taking on was (and still is), "the reason why existing things are distinct from non-existing things." So, for instance, the reason that apples fall is on one level because they experience a force toward massive bodies like the Earth, on another level because mass curves space-time and the path of the apple is a geodesic, and on another level because God is making it happen (i.e. the curvature and the travel along the geodesic, rather than anything else), each time an apple falls. I realize that most atheists do believe in reality and wouldn't define God this way.
This belief starts looking more religious when I add that this low-level God has thought-like/human-like/emotion-like ideas. God can have opinions about human actions in a way that gravity can't. I put a lot of "-like"s in that because a thing/principle that is more fundamental than space, time, or matter can't have a brain, and humans get their thoughts and emotions from brains. This is probably where the real theist-vs-atheist divide is, but for me personally, I felt that the previous paragraph, the idea that there's any foundation to reality at all, was the bigger step and that's when I stopped calling myself an atheist. Anyway, most Christians would be quick to point out that it's easy to over-anthropomorphize God, who is some fundamental, structureless principle, not a brain, so statements about what God thinks, feels, or has opinions about are analogies to human thinking, feeling, and having opinions.
Thus, in addition to providing a word ("God") for "Why does anything exist at all?" this also gives a grounding for objective ethics, that action X can actually be right or wrong, rather than something people just feel positively or negatively about. Using an expression from physics, the idea that a universal mind that has opinions on human actions "breaks the symmetry" between possible opinions about those actions. In this, I've been taking one side of the Euthyphro dilemma, but apparently it's been a centuries-long debate. There's less agreement than I'd originally thought within Christianity that God makes morality (as opposed to just saying, "God is moral"). I mostly got my perspective from Anselm of Canterbury's Proslogion.
Your question was about communication, so I'm getting to that now. Sometimes people say that Bible stories are supposed to be exemplars of good behavior (both inside and outside the Christian camp), but a quick thumb-through of Genesis should be enough to put that to rest. Most people I know would instead say that God communicates through the Bible or through the history that the Bible conveys, that there's a general, gradual improvement in goodness (adherence to the morality of the previous paragraph) and the primary function of the Bible is to illustrate this change. Read in rough historical order, people got better, and people are still getting better. The Abraham and Isaac story was probably a human sacrifice story, originally, that got pulled in line with a perspective that human sacrifice is wrong (just as Noah's flood was a recasting of a general Mesopotamian myth into a monotheistic framework, putting one god on both the pro-flood and the anti-flood sides—and it doesn't quite work). On my own read-through, I noticed that King David was the first person who seemed to have any compassion for his enemies, which was puzzling to his contemporaries and only got normalized as an ideal centuries later. The first prophets supported an animal sacrifice cult; the last prophets were much more concerned about social justice (e.g. Hosea 6:6). Jesus revolutionized moral thought in a variety of ways, too, and some of those even stick among atheists in our culture. For instance, Aristotle didn't recognize humility as a virtue, though it was one of Jesus's major themes, and it so took over our culture that rejecting it, like Nietzsche did, now seems radical.
Considering God's communication like that, as a gradual improvement that gets normalized in the culture, it's not the cruel joke that it would be if it were, "Worship such-and-such a guy you maybe couldn't have heard of, given where and when you live, or demons will eat your guts." If you're accustomed to interacting with hard-liners who say such things or even draw the borders of Christianity to require such things, then maybe this will sound overly soft. But it does characterize what most of the Christians I personally know believe.
That much, everything described above, is roughly where I was a quarter century ago, at the time of my conversion. As I said in my first comment, my wife wasn't trying to convert me, but I saw what the religion was like for her, got interested, did a lot of reading, and decided to join. That was my original point to jaspax [LW · GW], that religions and political beliefs of all types do spread through friendly and romantic relationships, not just door-to-door evangelization (which doesn't seem to me like it would be very effective). It's also in line with bc4026bd4aaa5b7fe [LW · GW]'s point in the original article.
Some things have changed since then. I'm less sure about the argument that goes, "Existence of an opinionated God breaks the symmetry among human actions that gives objective reality to moral positions." While I still think that the implication holds, I don't see how it would matter in the human sphere. Maybe God prefers action X, but how would we know it? Conscience is a feeling—how would we distinguish a feeling that happens to align with the universe from a feeling that does not? If this alignment is progressive over centuries, it's more like something that happens to us, which doesn't change the fact that we're following our feelings or what we think other people want. I don't see a way to escape an emotivist conclusion, at least epistemologically, not ontologically.
Also, I'm now less inclined to think of consciousness as an atomic thing, a categorical boundary between consciousness and non-consciousness. I have several draft posts about my struggles with that, but it's at least clear that human minds can be taken apart, little by little, by brain lesions, drugs, and other physical manipulations. (I wonder if the converse is true: if two people are actually psychic, communicating all their brain activity through radio waves or something, that they would automatically become one person?) Catholicism doesn't have much to say about it, but I find it hard to see how ethics survives this dissolution of individuality. Buddhism does, and I've been asking questions about that. I'm unlikely to switch religions, but I will be incorporating things that I learn into my personal philosophy and sharing them with the people I interact with, including the Catholic community that I'm still a part of.
To make sure I didn't leave your question in the gaps:
- "I assume you believe that the Good News was delivered at one specific place and time in the world, and then allowed to spread by natural means"
Yes, but not exclusively that one time and place. At least, I've been answering your question thinking about God's communication of ethics/how to live, but now I realize that by "Good News" you might mean Jesus's resurrection or what happens after death. I guess it's telling that I only now realized what you might have meant and I haven't even collected my thoughts on that.
- "God could have given everyone decent evidence that Jesus existed and was important, and God could have spread that information by some reliable means"
Christianity did become a world religion, so the ideas got around. I just looked up some figures and almost exactly 1/3 of the world's population is Christian. That wouldn't be enough if the downside of not being Christian is "demons eat your guts," but as I said above, I don't believe those are the consequences.
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comment by shminux ·
2023-06-05T22:23:46.221Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Well, religion is definitely a very strong memetic virus. And once infected, the susceptible individual finds all the supporting evidence needed. Rationality is not very different, except for the susceptible population. The symptoms differ in individual severity, too. There are self-contradictions in each, generally papered over by the quotes from one scripture or another. One hopes that since the Rationality movement explicitly contains the epistemic part, it has fewer of these than any memes based on "you just have to believe".
comment by Richard_Kennaway ·
2023-06-06T09:02:47.182Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I've seen various accounts (some on LessWrong) of people converting to a religion (usually Christianity) or staying within it despite being long in the rationalsphere. Common to all is that none of these people, including yourself, arrived there by the application of reason to evidence. What led you to "add that this low-level God has thought-like/human-like/emotion-like ideas"? In the article it comes as an unexplained leap.
Replies from: jim-pivarski
↑ comment by Jim Pivarski (jim-pivarski) ·
2023-06-06T15:28:07.792Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
As a statement about "What is the most fundamental type of thing?", it can't be justified by deduction or an appeal to observation the way that a statement about a particular physical thing in the universe can be. Like, if you want to find out why phosphorescent rocks glow, you can look at them under microscopes, experiment with them chemically, apply theories of molecular structure taken from other observations, etc. But if you ask things like, "Do phosphorescent rocks glow for any reason at all?" "Is nature comprehensible?" "Does it all resolve to mathematics at root, or something else?", those sorts of questions are not answerable by deduction and/or observation because they're about the applicability of deduction and/or observation. We—our culture, over the past few hundred years—chose to make the unexplained leap to think of matter in mathematical/scientific ways, affording it no agency of its own, no "vis viva," no "it just wants to," "there's a nature spirit," etc. I believe that was a good choice (I'm a physicist, after all); I think that the insight the mathematical and physical sciences appears to provide (which is a feeling) is connected to a real, objective world on the other side of our perceptions. But we can't call that leap rational.
In the above, I was talking about another assumption one can make about Everything (is "cosmos" a good word?), more generally than the physical universe itself. The idea that Everything exists at all for a thought-like reason—intention—is not more or less justified than for no reason, or out of logical necessity (what would that logical necessity argument be, and why is the argument itself necessary?), or various other things philosophers have come up with. It's the subject matter that makes this undecidable, the fact that we're trying to point to Everything. Any position you could have on that is a leap.
Sometimes, when person A leaps one way and person B leaps another way, A thinks B just hasn't understood or conceptualized A's position. That isn't necessarily the case. I was fully willing to see the cosmos as a pointless absurdity (I had read a lot of Camus), and when I saw that my wife's idea that the cosmos was intended by a mind makes sense, too, I thought, "I can go with this." In fact, it seemed to solve a problem, providing objectivity to ethics, why we should do any specific thing instead of some other specific thing.
As I said later, I'm now less enthusiastic about the "opinions of the cosmos → objective ethics" argument because it doesn't connect with how we can know that a particular action is good or bad: we're still going with our feelings. Knowing that there is a correct choice but not knowing if our feelings align with that correct choice is not helpful. By analogy, I could posit the existence of a particle in the physical universe that has exactly zero influence on any of the particles that give us sense-perceptions. Maybe it's true that that particle exists, but it's not useful for the theory.
So yes: it's an unexplained leap, this is subject matter for which nothing is possible except unexplained leaps, I brought it in because I thought it could give an account of actions being good or bad, but in the end, it effectively doesn't.Replies from: Richard_Kennaway
↑ comment by Richard_Kennaway ·
2023-06-09T09:05:03.906Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
You cannot avoid starting somewhere [LW · GW], but that doesn't mean you can start anywhere and reality will never tell you otherwise.
"Life force", God sustaining his creation, and animism were once common beliefs, but the more we looked at the world, the less work they did, and they faded from the scene. Not an unexplained leap, but an explained and gradual change: wherever the searchlight of inquiry reached, we never saw them. God in the ever-diminishing gaps, "Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis".
Replies from: jim-pivarski
↑ comment by Jim Pivarski (jim-pivarski) ·
2023-06-09T19:10:18.955Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
A quibble: arguments against God in the gaps are arguments against God as an explanation of some physical phenomena. "Does the universe have a face?" (poetically speaking) is not a gap that could ever be discovered by experiment.
As you (and Yudkowsky, and eventually Hofstadter) rightly point out, there isn't a universally compelling foundation to logic or reasons for things in general. In Reality and reality-boxes [LW · GW], I called the unifying feature among the uses of the word "reality" as a "degree of undeniableness," since anything can be flat-out denied, it's just harder to do so with some things than with others.
That all is fine when we're talking about metaphysics that doesn't connect with any physical measurements, but what I'd really like to know is how—without grounding—we can determine what to do. That is, how to conclude, even for one's self, that one action is wrong and another is right (which happens every time we do even the most trivial of actions).
That's why I was interested in the universe having a face, for the cosmos to have opinions about human actions. I've said elsewhere in this comment thread that I'm not very keen on that argument anymore because the mere existence—posited existence—of true good and true bad doesn't help when our only access to ideas of good and bad are our feelings. It seems that when we're deciding to act, we're only pitting one set of feelings (e.g. social duty) against another (e.g. personal desires). I seem to be back to Emotivism when it comes to meta-ethics and I'm wondering if there's a way to be convinced otherwise.Replies from: Richard_Kennaway
↑ comment by Richard_Kennaway ·
2023-06-09T20:56:48.495Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I seem to be back to Emotivism when it comes to meta-ethics and I'm wondering if there's a way to be convinced otherwise.
One way — I do not here intend to speak for or against it — is to observe that there is a universal natural law written on our hearts, that it is impossible to not know (although it is possible to hide one's knowledge from oneself).
Here is J. Budziszewki (a Catholic, theologian, and scholar of Aquinas) on the subject:
However rude it may be these days to say so, there are some moral truths that we all really know—truths which a normal human being is unable not to know. They are a universal possession, an emblem of rational mind, an heirloom of the family of man. That doesn't mean that we know them with unfailing, perfect clarity, or that we have reasoned out their remotest implications: we don't, and we haven't. Nor does it mean that we never pretend not to know them even though we do, or that we never lose our nerve when told they aren't true: we do, and we do. It doesn't even mean that we are born knowing them, that we never get mixed up about them, or that we assent to them just as readily whether they are taught to us or not. That can't even be said of "two plus two is four" Yet our common moral knowledge is as real as arithmetic, and probably just as plain. Paradoxically, maddeningly, we appeal to it even to justify wrongdoing; rationalization is the homage paid by sin to guilty knowledge.
Interestingly, a part of the common moral sense is that there is a common moral sense. It is not only a recurring theme in philosophy, but a tradition in most cultures and a presupposition of both Jewish and Christian scriptures. Philosophers call this common sense the "natural" law to convey the idea that it is somehow rooted in how things really are. Chinese wisdom traditions call it the Tao; Indian, the dharma or rita. The Talmud says it was given to the "sons" or descendants of Noah, which means all of us. Abraham was so sure of it that he dared to debate with God. Saint Paul said that when Gentiles do by nature what the law requires, they show that its works are "written on their hearts".
C.S. Lewis has written the same, calling the things we can't not know the Tao.
ETA: an old comment of mine going into more detail on Lewis's Tao [LW(p) · GW(p)].
Replies from: jim-pivarski
↑ comment by Jim Pivarski (jim-pivarski) ·
2023-06-09T23:32:58.995Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Thank you for this response! (I have a few more books to add to my reading list.) Your post from 13 years ago is a very good explanation, too.
Here's an experiment for everyone to try: think it good to eat babies. Don't merely imagine thinking that: actually think it.
I have heard of an indigenous Australian tradition in which children were carefully, reverently turned into a blood-soup and consumed by the community (read in a book years ago, but there's this online). And I do try to imagine what it's like to live in this way. (I don't think they considered it a normal, everyday thing to eat babies, but that the emotional shock had a power that could perhaps be used as a kind of magic.)
But I get your point; it's like what I've been calling "degree of undeniableness." (Budziszewki compares it to 2 + 2 = 4 and you compare it to observing that a red thing is red: logical deduction and physical observation can be denied, but it's difficult to do so.) It's very hard for me to agree that it's good to eat babies. Even in the above-mentioned culture, I think it might have been a struggle, an aspect of society that was tossed as soon as they saw other ways of living. Maybe it's not so much about what human attitudes exist—which covers a lot of extremes—as what's easy to maintain and what gets tossed as soon as it's recognized as not necessary.
(It's not lost on me that the previous paragraph applies to all attitudes, not just ethics, but also smiling universes.)
comment by TAG ·
2023-06-06T14:39:12.473Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
couldn’t even find anyone who believed in religious claims that countered physical facts.
Does that mean they don't believe in any miracles.?
Replies from: jim-pivarski
↑ comment by Jim Pivarski (jim-pivarski) ·
2023-06-06T16:18:19.170Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Right, as far as I know. Years ago, someone confided in me (I'm not saying who) that they experienced a perceptual miracle: something they could see that no one else could see. That kind of miracle is consistent with physical facts—it's a subjective decision to conclude whether the vision is meaningful or not.
I once asked at that Faith and Reason study group "if angels have backs." That is, if Mary is seeing Gabriel talking to her, whether only as much as she needs to see is manifested—namely, the front. Everyone else was of the opinion that this was beside the point, as in it doesn't really matter. I conceded that we'd never know, anyway.
Maybe I'm overstating this lack of belief in miracles: nearly all Christians, liberal Catholics included, believe that Jesus rose from the dead, which you'd think is a physical event—blood flowing again, muscles moving, etc. On the other hand, it's an odd sort of body to be appearing and disappearing, passing through locked doors, being unrecognized or recognized at will, etc. I've never understood how eating fish is supposed to prove that he's not a ghost when he passed through a locked door in the same scene. This doesn't go against physical fact, it just confuses the issue for me. I don't know quite what is meant by "alive again."
And to really clinch the oddness of the language, nearly all Catholics, liberal Catholics included, believe that the Eucharist "physically" becomes the body and blood of Jesus, while also being indistinguishable from bread at all physical levels—they will say that microscopes and chemical analysis would reveal gluten, not muscle and red blood cells. These can't be statements in the same reality-box [LW · GW], the first use of "physically" (quoted above) must be in an interpretive sense like the sense in which I interpret the material tubes hanging off my hands as "my" fingers. That's a choice of interpretation that can neither be confirmed nor denied by any experimental measurements—experimental measurements only conclude that these fleshy tubes are made of cells and bones and such, I'm the one who calls it part of my body. That's what I'm assuming my co-religionists believe about the Eucharist because the direct statement is not contrary with fact, it's contrary to logic.
Actually, in all cases when I ask about this, the response I get is along the lines of "that's beside the point," i.e. the metaphysics of miracles isn't a subject of interest. It is the case that my community is equally unconcerned with claims for physical miracles, like real blood coming out of a statue-Mary's eyes or something. There are other groups who are very focused on things like that, and this isn't one of them.Replies from: jim-pivarski
↑ comment by Jim Pivarski (jim-pivarski) ·
2023-06-07T16:35:12.625Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Have you ever been stuck debugging code and made a breakthrough by explaining it to someone else, even if they weren't following what you're saying? I think that's happened here, so thanks for asking me the question!
The religious community I'm in is not keen on proving the physical reality of miracles, the way that some will put a lot of effort into explaining, for instance, how and why the sun stayed still in the sky when Joshua prayed for it. (My community would quickly call something like that mythological.) The miracles that my community does assert—I was wrong when I said that they don't assert any miracles—are not an affront to physical evidence, they're an affront to logic.
Saying "affront to logic" makes it sound bad, but these are statements that are not supposed to be logical—that's not their social purpose. (Wrong "language game," as Wittgenstein put it.) The positions taken on Jesus's resurrection and the Eucharist, as described above, are not illogical but antilogical: they're constructed in such a way as to make analysis impossible, on purpose. We didn't just not notice that we're saying "the Eucharist is physically body and blood" and also "materially, it's bread," which is an obvious contradiction, in the same way that "Tell me you're X without telling me you're X," is an impossible imperative—it can't be the same "tell" in both cases.
I've previously noticed this about the Trinity. Most of the early heresies were trinitarian, and it was the most reasonable-sounding theories that were rejected as heresies. One mainstream statement is, "The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father, but the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God." That deliberately breaks the transitivity of the word "is," so it's not an equivalence relation. If you ask someone about the logic of that, they'll remind you it's a mystery, which puts it in a category of things that are not allowed to be figured out; they're intended for contemplation.
This is sounding to me like a koan. Zen koans are also supposed to be contemplated but not solved. In mainstream Buddhism (broader than Zen), I came across this astonishing statement, that none of the following are true about the Buddha after his death:
- The Buddha exists.
- The Buddha does not exist.
- The Buddha exists and does not exist.
- The Buddha neither exists nor does not exist.
Just as the trinitarian formulation breaks transitivity, the above breaks the law of excluded middle. Or maybe not "breaks," since it's possible to have logical systems in which a relation is not transitive and the law of excluded middle is not used in proofs, but the people who think about these things are not in a hurry to replace them with formulations that are logically sound. That's clearly not the point.
So it's antilogical, which renders moot the question of whether it's consistent with physical reality. That's why my initial impression was, "No, they/we don't believe in physical miracles."
comment by Tim Freeman (tim-freeman) ·
2023-06-18T02:06:36.971Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I would not categorize you as Christian. In my conversations with Christians, the unifying themes have been:
- God is good
- Heaven exists as a desirable place to go after you die.
- Jesus exists and has some significant role in getting you into Heaven.
You didn't mention Heaven at all and you seem to regard Jesus as another iteration in the general improvement of moral examples instead of as someone special.
I don't mean to imply that there is any reason for me to regard you as Christian. I'm just a little surprised, or maybe I have misunderstood you.
But to get back to the original question. My original question was indeed about what happens after death. I can clarify the question by pointing at these Bible verses:
2 Th 1:8-20: [Jesus or God] will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed.
John 14:6 has Jesus saying "No one comes to the Father except through me."
These resemble 'the downside of not being Christian is "demons eat your guts"'.
So, how do you deal with living in a world where these verses exist in the Bible, God is good, and God communicates in the way we discussed that limits the ability of many to come to the Father and avoid everlasting destruction?
Be aware that 2 Th is commonly considered to be a forgery. However, it is canonical according to Catholics and all the other Christian groups I know of.
Replies from: jim-pivarski
↑ comment by Jim Pivarski (jim-pivarski) ·
2023-06-19T03:03:48.620Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I understand the softness of categories, and I don't mind that you would use the available data to not put me in the Christian box. Some things that you don't see are that I engage in Catholic practices, like going to mass (which is precisely why I canned an earlier draft and I'm writing again now).
If I gave the impression that Jesus is an iteration in general improvement of morality, then I mischaracterized my belief and my community's: we believe that Jesus is God—whatever that means. I have to add the "whatever that means" because it seems like a doctrine that deliberately confounds logic, like the bit about Buddha here [LW(p) · GW(p)], when paired with Christians' transcendent notion of God. If we thought of gods as giants who lived on Mt. Olympus, then one of them becoming physical like Zeus-the-swan wouldn't be a problem, but we go out of our way to describe God as being more like Plato's Zeus, which is everything that a limited, embodied, human being isn't. Catholics emphasize saints as evidence of continuing improvement, and the apostles are often portrayed as not understanding what was happening, but Jesus (and Mary) are untouchable.
On the other hand, I look at stories like Matthew 15:27, in which a Canaanite woman appears to teach Jesus about tolerance—at the beginning of the story, it seems like he didn't know. Most people I talk to say that it was like Socratic questioning—he really did know—but maybe the divine part of him is that he caught on and accepted the correction? While God-as-hypostatic perfection can't learn and improve (being outside of time), God-as-a-human being can and this is what it looks like? That sort of consideration is in the "whatever that means" phrase I used above.
Okay, now on the point about not mentioning heaven: not many people that I know do. Whereas I had to clarify that we follow the Jesus-is-God doctrine—quite heavily, it's a frequent topic—I usually only hear about heaven at funerals. While I'm sure that the people around me believe in it as "consciousness does not extinguish at death," the subject of heaven and hell come with a heavy dose of "this terminology/imagery is metaphorical." They'd be quick to point out that heaven (and hell) is not a "place" and I think some popes have made comments about hell being a state and not a place. (In particular, I remember one from the 90's, but that would be a few popes ago.)
You're right that the 2 Thessalonians letter sounds like demons eating your guts, and anything in the canonical set of books is considered as writing inspired by God (with or without their authors' understanding)—it doesn't matter that the writer claims to be Paul and might have not been Paul. (Attributing works to your group's founder seems to have been more common in the ancient world. I think it's not controversial that there were three "Isaiahs.")
Two things about that, though: Catholics don't put equal weight on everything in the Bible—they're all above a certain threshold of importance, but not equally important—and there's no actual fire and brimstone imagery in it, mostly just about being "shut out," the kind of imagery that Jesus used, for instance, in the wise and foolish virgins parable (Matthew 25). Meanwhile, a lot of material that didn't make it into the Bible but was influential in the early church did have more viscerally imagined rewards and punishments after death. It was an idea that was in the air at the time in Judaism (except for the Sadducees), and only got a little bit into the canonical Bible.
So, clearly, Catholics would hold that there's some kind of good and bad afterlife, and most of what I've heard has that you'll either be "with God" or "not," and not being with God is the bad thing in itself, irrespective of any gut-eating demons. Depictions of heaven and hell like C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce are popular. (Napoleon Bonaparte is all alone in a huge mansion, repeating to himself that it was everyone else's fault...)
As for "No one comes to the Father except through me," I had never connected that to the afterlife before; it has always seemed more like a general coming-to-Jesus saying (in life, for the sake of living, not specifically the afterlife).
It is the case (my impression, which would be interesting to verify with a survey because it's an easy-to-ask question) that Catholics believe that there are non-Christians "with God" after death, i.e. in heaven. Even if they have to weasel out of some suggestively worded biblical passages (e.g. "good people who don't acknowledge Christ are mystically going to the Father through Jesus"), or not even try to explain it (e.g. "God will figure it out/above my pay grade"), there's a strong cultural current against making God look mean. Or a trickster, as you said in your original question.
Personally—maybe you'll consider me even less of a Christian because of this—I don't see an afterlife as something that happens to us as individuals. When there is talk about what heaven is like—hypostatic union, non-glass darkly—it doesn't seem like much psychological continuity with one's living ego. I'm not quite the person who inhabited this body 20 years ago, since my mind has changed a lot and what defines a person apart from their mind? So if we become outside-of-time, in-union-with-God, experiencing reality in a totally different way, how is that even me? Even following standard doctrine, the vision of heaven seems to have been exalted to such a degree that it's no longer relevant: what I recognize of what I am will die when my body dies, and maybe something mystical that I don't recognize goes off and does something else. But these are my own private musings (which I might change or maybe feel I have a better understanding of later) and not representative of Catholics or Christians in general.
comment by Jim Pivarski (jim-pivarski) ·
2023-06-05T23:29:07.546Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I was answering a question, and I took it out of the comments stream to keep from derailing that stream. But perhaps doing that made it more visible, which is not what I had intended.
It seems that religion is just an off-limits topic here, regardless of whether it seems like it might be relevant in some conversation. At the very least, I'll never bring it up again.Replies from: lahwran