The Treachery of Dresses (or: Ceci n’est pas blanche!)

Over the past 48 hours, a controversy has erupted over social media: does a photograph depict a blue dress with black lace? Or is it a white dress with gold lace? A minority have responded that they see some combination of the two positions. Those who report the dress as gold and white understand the front of the dress to have been photographed in shadow; these shadows cause the dress to take on a bluish hue and the gold lace a dark brown, or so they say. Those who report that the dress is blue and black (or blue and brown) see the dress as front-lit under yellowish light, causing the black lace to appear brown.

The debate involves interesting philosophical issues concerning language that I will comment on in this post; as far as I know, I will be the first person to comment on the particular aspects of the debate that I identify here. I do not plan to resolve the debate; instead, I will use the debate to illustrate some of the interesting reasons that communication can break down and some of the perplexities of color terms. (As far as I am concerned, the debate was resolved when my friend, Mallorie Nasrallah, who is a professional photographer, determined that white balancing the image reveals that the dress is blue and black. Meanwhile, numerous faulty explanations emerged, including multiple pseudo-psychological explanations. Her analysis was confirmed when the dress was identified on Amazon.)

At first pass, when we talk about “the color of an object”, what we typically mean is the way that a neurophysiologically typical individual will perceive that object when white light is shined on that object (I say “at first past” because this definition is not perfect; reflections from white light can alter the color of an object, for example). However, under different lighting conditions, the color that we literally see will differ, even though the color we interpret and report might not. To use an example from one of my professors in undergrad, the color of a barn might appear different during midday than at dusk, even though we might not change what color we say that the barn is. Furthermore, the color of an object is not the same as the color of a photograph depicting the object. Photographs of a barn at midday and at dusk might differ in color, even though many people will report, based on the photos, that the barn is the same color. This reveals an important ambiguity related to color-terms.

The following sentence is ambiguous, in that it has two meanings: “The dress is blue.” Here is one possible interpretation:

  1. The actual object — the dress, itself — is blue.

Here is a second interpretation:

  1. The area of the picture occupied by the dress is blue.

Notice that those who support the conclusion that the dress is gold-white deny (1). This does not mean that they deny (2). This explains some of the frustration that I have seen from individuals involved in the debate: all parties see that there are blue pixels in the photo, but not everyone is straightforward in reporting this observation. Instead, people are straightforward in reporting what color they interpret the dress to be, which is not the same color as its representation (I am reminded Rene Margritte’s Treachery of Images: Ceci n’est pas blanche!). In other words, everyone is seeing the same thing (no one is looking at the photo and seeing pure white) but their reports differ because their interpretations differ. Importantly: interpretations of the debate which depend upon people literally seeing differently (e.g. receiving different stimuli) are incorrect because everyone sees blue in the image, but not everyone reports that blue as representing a blue dress. This means that the debate has much more to do with the exegesis of the image than with neurophysiology or psychology.

A second problem has to do with what referents color terms have. Some individuals who have told me that they see the dress as gold and white have gone on to explain that they see the dress as bluish white. But what exactly is the distinction between bluish white and whitish blue? I have some idea of what this distinction might amount to — bluish white is closer to white than to blue and whitish blue is closer to blue than it is to white — but, as I read it, the color of the photo is ambiguous between the two. Those who read the dress as bluish white might report the dress as white; those who read the dress as whitish blue might report the dress as blue; yet both see the dress as the same color. In some sense, they even interpret the dress as the same color but use different terms to report that interpretation.

There is a second problem with reference: what color is gold? When I hear the term ‘gold’, what immediately comes to mind is an image of Scrooge McDuck diving into a vault of gold coins (as depicted in the opening to Duck Tales). The animators chose to depict McDuck’s coins as a vibrant yellowish color because gold, when in direct light, has a rich yellow tone. However, in shadow, gold has a dark brown color, similar to bronze. When individuals reported to me that they saw gold, I was perplexed because I expected to see yellow in the image. What they meant was that the dress has gold lace which appears dark when in shadow.

This exchange brings to the fore the importance of doing philosophical analysis. Conversation breaks down when we fail to make the proper sort of semantic distinctions because we end up talking past each other; by carefully unraveling and unpacking sentences, we can (often) determine that we do not disagree with others at all.

And people wonder what philosophy is useful for…


Talk: How should atheists see LGBTQIA allies?

How should atheists understand Christian LGBTQIA allies?

Good afternoon! I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to speak here today and I’d like thank the event organizers for putting all of this together. My name is Dan Linford and I’ll speaking to you today concerning the way in which atheists might understand Christians who are LGBTQIA allies. I’ll be focusing on what I see as mistakes in how some aggressive or anti-theistic atheists have approached LGBTQIA affirming Christians.

I started thinking about the topic of today’s talk in January of 2014. The organization American Atheists had posted a picture of a marriage equality protest with the hashtag #religionispoison. The hashtag invoked instant controversy because many LGBTQIA individuals and their allies are devout Christians. In defense of the hashtag, public relations director Danielle Muscato tweeted “if you’re a Christian and an LGBTQ supporter, you’re doing one of them wrong”. In response, Dean Roth wrote a guest post for Chris Stedman’s blog arguing that Muscato’s statements were “appropriative”, “disrespectful and offensive to the queer people [she] claim[ed] to be supporting”, and unethical or inappropriate behavior for LGBTQIA allies, wrongfully seeing gay people as “pawns in [her] game against religion”.

There are two questions central to this debate:

First, is it ethical for someone to describe religion as poison in the context of discussing LGBTQIA issues?

Second, is it factually correct to say that LGBTQIA allyship is inconsistent with Christianity?

I will leave the former question for others to resolve; I’m not part of the LGBTQIA community and I do not wish to speak on their behalf as to what their allies should or should not do. What I will address is the question of whether, from the standpoint of ideas commonly expressed by atheists, LGBTQIA allyship is compatible with Christianity.

I will argue that there is no incompatibility between being a Christian and being an LGBTQIA ally. I will assume that I am talking to an atheist audience. Christians will be unlikely to be convinced by the arguments I present because I assume several opinions commonly held among atheists but unlikely to be held by Christians. Furthermore, I will not engage with the internal theological debate among Christians as to whether or not Christians should accept a theology inclusive of LGBTQIA people.

It is prerequisite to answering whether Christianity and LGBTQIA allyship are compatible to say something about what Christianity is. If Christianity is simply identical with the Bible, then the answer is easy: a straightforward reading of the Bible would demonstrate that Christianity is incompatible with LGBTQIA allyship. The Bible contains numerous passages directed against two men having sexual relations with each other and states explicitly that God has commanded us to kill men who have sex with each other.

However, Christianity is not identical with the Bible. To say that the Bible is identical with Christianity is to take sides in the theological dispute between the Roman Catholic Church — which claims that, although we have the Bible God intended us to have through His providence, the Church retains magisterial authority — and Protestants — who, following Martin Luther, declare that Christian doctrine can come only from scripture: sola scriptura. As atheists, we reject both the authority of the Church and sola scriptura.

Furthermore, Roman Catholics and conservative Protestants do not exhaust Christendom. As additional examples, but without being exhaustive, there are the liberal Protestants, Coptic Christians, and the Greek Orthodox. Of all of these ways of experiencing the Christian life, I know of no creed — whether conservative or liberal — according to which one must take the Bible literally.

The Nicene Creed, shared by most Christian groups, does not mention the Bible. Indeed: many Christians who hail from theologically liberal backgrounds would side with Paul Tillich, who thought that the various representations of God, in any particular religion, are false idols. Paraphrasing Tillich, God is the God beyond any of our conceptions of God. As such, from a liberal Protestant perspective, to declare the Bible to be the central object of Christian worship is to make a grave error: biblioidolatry. It might be that a majority of American Christians understand the Bible as the infallible and literal Word of God, but that has much more to do with the contingent situation of American religion than it has to do with some intrinsic essence of Christianity.

Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has expressed the notion, common among liberal Protestants, that he approaches the Divine through the Christian tradition, but Christianity has no monopoly on Truth. In his perspective, the Bible is not the infallible word of God. Instead, the Bible is a recording of how his ancestors approached and thought about God. If the Bible indicates that homosexuality is a sin, this is a reflection of the imperfect knowledge of the Biblical authors and not a reflection of Divine Reality.

Nonetheless. the Bible has been an integral part of Christian life and performs a variety of functions. The Bible is an object used in a variety of ritual and devotional contexts in diverse communities self-identifying as Christian. Diverse communities have socially constructed diverse Bibles not present in the churches, libraries, hotel rooms, homes, book stores, or other spaces where we find physical Bibles. Instead, socially constructed Bibles exist no where other than the human imagination.

It should not trouble atheists to learn that Christians believe in a non-existent book any more so than it troubles atheists to learn that Christians believe in God, the virgin birth, miracles, or any number of other incredible claims that atheists reject. We can add to that list of false Christian doctrines the statement that there exists a book having a particular content, that this book has central importance in Christian practice, and that this book is the one seen in churches, libraries, hotel rooms, homes, and book stores. We can say that there is a mystification and a mythologization of the physical Bible which produces various mythical Bibles.

As an example, consider the doctrine of creation ex nihilo: God created the cosmos out of nothing. Not only do most contemporary Christian denominations believe in creation ex nihilo, they believe that Genesis chapter 1 describes creation ex nihilo. Nonetheless, creation ex nihilo is absent from the Bible and contradicted by Genesis 1. Genesis 1 parallels the Babylonian creation story found in the Enuma Elish: God creates the cosmos by parting the pre-existing primordial waters. No where is it explained where these waters originate. Yet we do not say that Christians who accept creation ex nihilo are bad Christians.

It cannot be said that this is a problem of interpreting Genesis 1. Even if Genesis 1 is not interpreted literally, no where does the Bible mention creation ex nihilo. In fact, although the Condemnation of 1270 banned its consideration, historically, some Catholic theologians argued for the view that the world was co-eternal with God.

That most Christians believe the Bible contains a description of God creating the cosmos out of nothing should not be any more disturbing or shocking to atheists than the discovery that Christians believe a variety of other doctrines which, from an atheistic perspective, are understood as factually incorrect. That there exists a holy book, central to Christian practice, containing passages saying nothing against gay people is just another item of false doctrine to be dismissed with critical thinking.

With this in mind, if someone were to tell us that Christianity is based on the Bible we can rightfully ask them, “which Bible?” Attempting to answer that question, or saying that some forms of Christianity are more legitimate than others because of how they treat the Bible in their community, rapidly devolves into fighting Christian theological battles which, as atheists, should not concern us. We need some other way of thinking about the term ‘Christianity’ which does not involve legitimizing some Christian theological positions over others.

With this in mind, consider the following argument:

  1. Christians believe the Bible is the Word of God.
  2. The Bible contains commands to kill gay people and statements that gay people are an abomination in the eyes of God.
  3. Therefore, Christians (should) believe that we should kill gay people and that gay people are an abomination in the eyes of God.

If argument (1)-(3) succeeds, then obviously supporting LGBTQIA people and Christianity are incompatible. One could only do so on pain of hypocrisy. I take it that this is what Muscato means when she states, “People who claim to be Bible-believing Christians and also claim to support marriage equality are hypocrites” (Chris Stedman’s blog, January 13th, 2014).

Nonetheless, based on the preceding discussion concerning the social construction of Bibles, it is clear that we should draw into question premises (1) and (2). This is because the term ‘Bible’, for a community of self-identified Christians, does not refer to the actual Bible. Instead, it refers to the Bible of their collective cultural imagination. At first pass, we might imagine reformulating (1)-(3) to the following:

1′. Christians believe the (non-existent) Bible is the Word of God.

2′. The (existent) Bible contains commands to kill gay people and statements that gay people are an abomination in the eyes of God.

3′. Therefore, Christians (should) believe that we should kill gay people and that gay people are an abomination in the eyes of God.

In this reformulation, (3′) does not follow from (1′) and (2′). This is because the term ‘Bible’ does not refer to the same object in (1′) and (2′). And this ignores the fact that whether or not the (non-existent) Bible is the “Word of God”, and what precisely that means, is itself a function of the particular Christian community that one considers. The meaning and relevance of the phrase ‘Word of God’ is another doctrinal claim. Keeping again with the principle that, as atheists, we should avoid legitimizing or siding with any particular Christian theological stance, we should again reformulate (1′):

1″. Some Christians believe their particular (non-existent) Bible is the Word of God by which they mean z, where z is an interpretation of ‘Word of God’.

With this reformulation of (1′), it is extremely difficult to see how one might save the argument. However, I can provide the following positive argument for the view that identifying as Christian and supporting LGBTQIA rights are compatible:

  1. Christian group C believes that the (non-existent) Bible contains passages implying that they should support LGBTQIA rights.
  2. C believes that the (non-existent) Bible has special significance which motivates members of C to action.
  3. If (4) and (5), then members of C will be motivated to support LGBTQIA rights.
  4. Therefore, members of C will be motivated to support LGBTQIA rights (from 4-6 by modus ponens).

Multiple respondents to Muscato’s tweets and blog post remarked that religious LGBTQIA allies do believe themselves to be motivated by their religious commitments and that it is illegitimate for either Muscato or American Atheists to claim that they know the motivations of those allies better than those allies do.

It should not matter that the Bible contained in (4)-(7) is non-existent. As atheists, we believe that most religious motivation has its source in non-existent things. Suppose that Fred states that he killed a gay person because he was commanded to do so by God. It would be odd for Muscato to respond that Fred was not motivated by Fred’s religious beliefs because God does not exist. Instead, Muscato would likely say that Fred was genuinely motivated by his religious convictions concerning a non-existent God. It would be consistent for Muscato to say that others are genuinely motivated by their religious convictions concerning a non-existent book to be LGBTQIA allies.

One might worry that, given the account I provided here, the term ‘Christian’ has lost its meaning. Perhaps there ought to be a minimum number of beliefs that one should hold in order for us to consider them a Christian.

In correspondence, Muscato wrote, “I think all Christians would agree that there is a minimum set of beliefs you must hold to be Christian, e.g. Jesus is the Messiah, souls exist, Jesus has the ability to save your soul, etc. At some point it’s simply not recognizable as Christianity anymore.”

This objection fails for a variety of reasons.

First, this objection assumes the primacy of a certain set of positions that have been debated by Christians over the past 2000 years. For example, not all Christians have believed in the existence of souls or agreed about what souls are. The people who wrote the Bible were not themselves monolithic in their beliefs. Some were polytheists, some monotheists, some accepted Jesus as god, others did not. Why should we expect twenty first century Christians to be monolithic? No one who lived during Christianity’s first three centuries endorsed beliefs or practices identical to twenty first century Christians, who often owe much more to Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or their local pastor than they do to the Bible.

Second, this objection assumes that the only thing which could make something “recognizable as Christianity” is a set of beliefs. Aren’t there symbols, such as the Cross, which are recognizably Christian? Yet symbols are not identical with beliefs nor are the people who wear those symbols uniform in their understanding of what the symbols represent.

In addition to symbols, there are rituals and institutions which we recognize as Christian. As with symbols, rituals and institutions are not identical with beliefs and may embody any number of distinct beliefs for their participants. It would be wrong to say that Don Cuppitt is not a Christian because he does not believe in the existence of God. Cuppitt was the founder of a major Anglican movement — theological non-realism — which incorporates the stance that God does not exist. That there are Christian theological stances in which God is understood as non-existent is a testament to the diversity of Christendom.

Third, this objection seems to assume a simplistic view of semantics on which words have meaning only if we can list out some set of characteristics in virtue of which the word could be said to properly apply. That is, unless a Christian is someone who believes that “Jesus is the Messiah, souls exist, Jesus has the ability to save your soul”, and so on, the word loses its meaning altogether. I do not think that this is the way we should think about the word ‘Christian’.

In contrast, consider the word ‘game’. The word ‘game’ seems to be a perfectly sensible word and I am reasonably sure that I know how to use ‘game’ in any number of meaningful and substantive sentences. Nonetheless, I do not know of a characteristic that all games have in common. Soccer, chess, and solitaire are very different from each other. They involve different numbers of players, different sorts of objects, different histories, and the experience of playing each is diverse. Yet given any particular game, I can find other examples of games that it resembles. Solitaire resembles some other card games. Chess resembles checkers. And soccer resembles some other sports. We say that all games bear a family resemblance to other games, even though there is no one characteristic that all games have in common. Likewise, the inability to provide some characteristic that all Christians have in common does not render the term ‘Christianity’ meaningless. Instead, we can say that the beliefs and practices of any given Christian bear a family resemblance to those of other Christians, even if we cannot pin down one thing that all Christians share.

To define ‘Christianity’, I’d suggest performing an empirical investigation of those things which have been identified as “Christian” and determining from that investigation what might be useful. Importantly, we should put aside what Christian communities state, by virtue of doctrine, is either Christian or non-Christian and focus on what the empirical investigation tells us. We should keep in mind the fact that we have been encultured — largely by a traditional Protestant hegemony — to think of religion in terms of discrete doctrinal statements and not in terms of practice, rituals, or other elements of praxis, or indeed the broad array of sociological, anthropological, political, economic, and other factors that dictate much of what is recognizably Christian. A respectable definition of Christianity should not be the mere product of a Protestant hegemony nor should it merely serve anti-religious ideological purposes.

A second objection might come from atheists who argue that those Christians who endorse LGBTQIA allyship have a hybrid secular/Christian view. Perhaps they argue that, in so far as some Christians support marriage equality, they could not have arrived at their support for marriage equality from the Bible. Their endorsement of marriage equality could only have come from secular influences and it has only been in virtue of the rejection of Biblical principles that they can support LGBTQIA people, or so the argument goes.

There is a kernel of truth in this objection. It was the secular forces of modernity which have brought about an increasing acceptance of LGBTQIA people. It is a matter of historical fact that much of the hatred towards LGBTQIA people, and a variety of other troubling stances concerning sexuality and gender, originated in Christian doctrines, though certainly not all. Note that I am acknowledging only that Christian doctrines have been, in some times and places, legitimators of injustice and not claiming that all anti-LGBTQIA prejudices originated in Christian doctrines. I do not deny this, nor do I deny that atheists can be powerful allies for LGBTQIA people.

Nonetheless, Christianity, like all religions, is a human product shaped by human concerns. While present forms of Christianity may incorporate various bits from the proximate culture, it has never been the case that Christian doctrines had their origins somewhere else. After all, do atheists who believe Christianity to have some doctrinal essence think that those doctrines were handed to humanity from God? That some present forms of Christianity socially construct Bibles reflecting the progressive turn towards the acceptance of LGBTQIA people is more in line with Christian history than contrary to it.

It was brought to my attention, while preparing this talk, that historian John Boswell published a book, shortly before his death in 1994, arguing that the pre-modern Christian church solemnized same-sex unions for a thousand years. Boswell’s conclusions remain controversial among historians and I have not evaluated his claims myself, but it is an intriguing possibility. If he was right, the traditional Christian stance has been far from uniform in its opposition to gay marriage.

I’ve gone through a lot of material in today’s talk. I want to leave you with three central points:

  1. As atheists, we believe that most Christian doctrines are false. Therefore, whether or not a doctrine is true should not determine, from our perspective, whether or not it is Christian. As an example, if Christians declare that the Bible is LGBTQIA inclusive when it is not, this does not mean that they have somehow failed to be properly Christian.
  2. As atheists, we do not believe that religious doctrines ever come from other-worldly sources; instead, we believe that religious doctrines come from this-worldly sources. Therefore, it is illegitimate to say that Christians stop being Christians when their doctrines are influenced by secular politics. Religions can be vehicles for progressive social change and liberation just as they can codify  prejudices and legitimate oppressive institutions.
  3. To say that a literal and infallible interpretation of the Bible is central to Christianity ignores the diversity of Christiandem. There is no reason why we should let American fundamentalists define ‘Christianity’.

The atheist movement has a choice. We can either chose to endorse progressive causes or not. We can either promote LGBTQIA tolerance for everyone  — regardless of their religious affiliations — or not. We can either put aside questions of God’s existence, at least in our political allegiances, and aim to remake the world for the better or not. Although I have not answered ethical questions in this talk, what I can say is that those atheists who claim that there is an incompatibility between Christianity and LGBTQIA allyhood are mistaken.


Skeptical Theism and the Resurrection of Jesus

The Evidential Problem of Evil (EPOE) claims that the world’s suffering is evidence contrary to classical theism: that there exists a personal being who is uniquely omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, the creator of the world, and who is called “God”. William Rowe famously offered one version of the EPOE [1], in which he pointed that there are various sufferings which are not justified by the existence of any greater good that we know of (he called these inscrutable evils). Rowe offers the example of a fawn trapped in a forest fire, who suffers a long, horrific, agonizing death and which does not appear to contribute to any greater good. The fawn’s suffering was pointless. Another example, a favorite of one of my professors from graduate school, is the pain felt when we stub our toes: why does stubbing your toe need to hurt that much?

Rowe infers from his observation of inscrutable evils to the existence of gratuitous evils: these are evils which not only appear not to contribute to some greater good, but really do not contribute to any greater good. However, gratuitous evils are largely understood to be logically incompatible with classical theism. While God may allow evils if they contribute to some greater good, evils which ultimately contribute to no greater whatever are incompatible with Her nature.

Michael Bergman, among others, has offered what many take to be the best response to Rowe: skeptical theism [2]. Skeptical theism is the conjunction of a number of skeptical theses with classical theism. The requisite skeptical theses point out that the moral goods, justifications, and entailment relations of which we are aware are not representative of the moral goods, justifications, and entailment relations that there are. Because our moral knowledge is not representative of Moral Truth, we cannot infer that inscrutable evils really are gratuitous.

Skeptical theism has been challenged on several levels. It has been pointed out, for example, that skeptical theism is incompatible with inferring God’s existence from evidence of design [3]; that it destroys any trust we might have in divine revelation (because we cannot say that it would be contrary to God’s nature for God to lie to us) [4]; that it introduces the ineradicable possibility of global skepticism because God might have morally sufficient reasons for deceiving us at every turn [5]; and that it destroys any possibility for moral deliberation [6]. Given the problems posed by skeptical theism, it might seem as though there is very little reason to maintain skeptical theism.

Nonetheless, I’d like to take a look at one more trouble for skeptical theism: that skeptical theism appears to undermine arguments made for the divinity of Jesus.

Most of our reasoning is inductive: we generalize from a number of example cases to all of the cases that there are. To take a prototypical example, my observation that for every morning in the past, the sun has risen, leads me to the generalization that for every morning, the sun rises. Induction does not guarantee the truth of our generalizations; there might be some morning when the sun does not rise, perhaps for reasons that I cannot fathom. However, we tend to think that induction lends conclusions a certain degree of support. The question arises as to why, given skeptical theism, our small amount of moral knowledge cannot serve as a basis for inductive generalization. After all, the number of mornings that I have experienced are not a representative sample of all of the mornings that there have been or will be.

Inductive generalization serves as a key feature in Christian arguments for Jesus’s divinity. In a footnote in a 2010 paper, William Hasker provides the following quip:

The early Christians reasoned thus: “Jesus rose from the dead. He could not have done that except for the power of God; his resurrection demonstrates that God was with him and approved of his mission and message.” It’s too bad the well-known philosopher, Mikaelos Bergmanos, was not on hand to show them the weakness of this reasoning. He had only to point out to them the evident truth of

(STIV) We have no good reason for thinking that the natural causal processes we know of are representative of the natural causal processes that there are.

where “representative” means, representative with respect to being such as to enable a dead person to come back to life.[7]

In what follows, I cash out Hasker’s quip in more detail and rigor. Define Skeptical Naturalism: the conjunct of naturalism with various skeptical theses, including (STIV). We can present two arguments based on this footnote from Hasker. I will assume that there is good evidence for Jesus’s resurrection; this may seem like a large concession to my readers with fideistic or naturalistic leanings, but bare with me.

First, given the failure of induction implied by (STIV), both the naturalist and the theist have no reason to infer the divinity of Jesus from the resurrection of Jesus. If we cannot make inductive generalizations from a small number of cases to a large number of cases (because our sample is not “representative”), then we cannot infer that there is some law of nature according to which corpses do not come back to life. Miracles, following David Hume [8], are disruptions in the natural order; if we cannot infer what laws constitute the natural order, then we cannot recognize violations of the natural order. In other words: given reasoning parallel to skeptical theism, Christians would have no reason to infer that Jesus is divine.

Second, the Skeptical Naturalist response to the Evidential Problem of Jesus’s Resurrection (EPOJR). EPOJR is a problem for naturalism that parallels the EPOE as a problem for theism. EPOJR maintains that the evidence for Jesus’s resurrection (e.g. the empty tomb, Jesus’s postmortem appearances, etc [9]) undermines naturalism; the Skeptical Naturalist response maintains that because “[w]e have no good reason for thinking that the natural causal processes we know of are representative of the natural causal processes that there are”, we cannot infer naturalism is false from Jesus’s resurrection.

Christian theists might be tempted to argue that Skeptical Theism as a response to Rowe’s EPOE is not actually parallel to Skeptical Naturalism as a response to EPOJR; but they would need to provide some reason why the two arguments were not parallel. Given argumentative parity, it would be irrational to rule out skeptical naturalism while maintaining skeptical theism.

Moreover, the most obvious ways in which the two cases are not parallel — that there is much less evidence for Jesus’s resurrection than for gratuitous evils — undermines Christian theism. There is less evidence for the resurrection of Jesus than there is for the existence of gratuitous evils. Thus, if the two arguments do fail to be parallel, it’s only in a way that helps the naturalist.



[1] Rowe, W. (1979) The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism. American Philosophical Quarterly, 16 (4), 335– 41; (1984) Evil and the Theistic Hypothesis: A Response to S.J. Wykstra. In International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 16, 95–100; (1986) The Empirical Argument from Evil. In Robert Audi & William Wainwright (Ed), Rationality, Religious Belief and Moral Commitment. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; (1988) Evil and Theodicy. Philosophical Topics, 16, 119–32; (1991) Ruminations about Evil. Philosophical Perspectives, 5, 69–88; (1996) The Evidential Argument from Evil: A Second Look. In Daniel Howard-Snyder (Ed), The Evidential Argument from Evil. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[2] Bergman, M. (2001) Skeptical Theism and Rowe’s New Evidential Argument from Evil. Nous, 35 (2), 278–296.

[3] Bergman, M. (2009) Skeptical Theism and the Problem of Evil. In T. P. Thomas & M. Rhea (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 374-399.

[4] Wielenberg, E. (2010) Skeptical Theism and Divine Lies. Religious Studies, 46 (4), 509-523; Hudson, H. (2012) The Father of Lies?. In J. Kvanvig (Ed), Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion, Vol V. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 117-132.

[5] Wilks, I. (2014) The Global Skepticism Objection to Skeptical Theism. In J. McBrayer & D. Howard-Snyder (Eds), The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

[6] Sehon, S. (2010) The Problem of Evil: Skeptical Theism Leads to Moral Paralysis. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion.  67:2.

[7] Hasker, W. (2010) All Too Skeptical Theism. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 68, 15-29.

[8] Hume, D. (2006) The Essay on Miracles. In Essays: Moral, Political and Literary. New York: Cosimo Classics, 517-544.

[9] There are various places where Christian theists have argued for Jesus’s resurrection. Those who are interested might examine what William Lane Craig has to say on the topic.


Zacharias and Dawkins’s Fading Influence

On November 15 of last year, Mark Woods (of Christian Today) reported on an interview with Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias in which Zacharias stated that “Dawkins has had his day”. I was asked to share my thoughts on this article on a Christian theology Facebook page; I thought that I would share an edited version of that response here.

In the article, Zacharias implies that the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens) failed to answer questions about personal meaning. I agree that the New Atheists did not answer meaning questions.

Nonetheless, I do not think the New Atheists (excepting Dennett) intended to answer meaning-questions, at least in any sort of philosophically robust way. Each New Atheist author had their own idiosyncratic motivations, many of them political. For example, Hitchens’s God is Not Great is about the abuses of totalitarian regimes (the title being a reference to political Islam). As Anglican theologian Alister McGrath has pointed out, New Atheist authors are better compared to e.g. C.S. Lewis than to professional philosophers of religion or theologians.

Largely, what the New Atheists accomplished — at least in the American context — was a new public awareness of atheism and a new discussion of religion. In a sense, I think everyone interested in discussing religion — whether theists or atheists — benefited because it allowed for a renewed public discourse concerning God.

Zacharias seems to think that the New Atheists are waning in popularity because they were not sufficiently sophisticated. However, historically, the most popular orientations towards religion were seldom the most sophisticated. Deep religion often loses to cheap idolatry. Thus, if the New Atheists had been answering philosophically deep questions, I doubt they would get much attention for it. Dennett has some deep and interesting things to say about free-will, consciousness, and the evolutionary psychology of religion, but those ideas have never been popular — as far as I can tell — in New Atheist circles (popular as they might be among academics).

Zacharias produces a number of factual errors in his article. Here are a few.

He says that: “[The irreligious] would never mock Islam, for obvious reasons, or Hinduism, for fear of being culturally prejudiced.” The article was written before the recent Charlie Hebdo incident, but it sounds peculiar now. 
I look at my Facebook friends list and find that most of them have changed their profile pictures to images purposely disrespectful of Islam in order to defend the right to free speech over what they perceive to be Islamist extremism.

I look at secular student groups at colleges throughout the US. One of the more popular activities — both before and after Charlie Hebdo — has been “Draw Muhammad Day”. I look at the anti-Islamic material put out by Christopher Hitchens — the title of whose book (God is Not Great) was a direct parody of Allahu Akbir (Arabic: “God is Great”) and think about South Park episodes that drew controversy for their depiction of Muhammed. It is false that the irreligious never mock Islam or that the New Atheists were not concerned with it.

Many commentators on the New Atheists — such as McGrath — have expressed the view that New Atheism was a direct response to 9/11. This seems plausible; Dawkins has said that his publisher advised him that, post-9/11, the market would be good for an explicitly atheistic book; Harris begins The End of Faith with comments about Muslim terrorists.

This comment is especially odd in the wake of the recent shooting in North Carolina, where a member of the atheist community shot three young Muslims. Regardless of whether the shooter was ideologically motivated, the incident has sparked a new discussion of the prevalence of racist anti-Muslim sentiment among atheists.

Zacharias talks about the thinning out of Dawkins acolytes from his audiences. I do not know why there would be fewer Dawkins acolytes in his audiences; I’ve never attended one of his talks. I do know that Dawkins fell out of favor in my social circles because of an increased emphasis on social justice among organized atheists and an increased awareness that Dawkins’s public statements are antithetical to those goals. The problem with Dawkins seems to be that he is too conservative. I suspect that Zacharias is blind to this, either because he does not spend his time reading atheist blogs or because he wouldn’t see the new goals of the Freethought community as worthwhile.


Giles Fraser and the God That Was Too Good to Exist

I’ve been writing on the topic of Straw God Arguments (SGAs) for some time. SGA is my term for the argument, often levelled by popular liberal theologians (e.g. Karen Armstrong), that atheists reject the wrong kind of God. According to the accusation, atheists spend all of their time responding to the God of conservative theology, but that God is a false idol that should never have been accepted in the first place. According to liberal theologians, atheists perform a valuable service by showing which gods we should not believe in. However, if the theologies offered by liberal theologians have troubles of their own that render them unbelievable, it cannot be said that atheists reject the wrong gods.

In a recent interview, atheist Stephen Fry was asked what he would say to God if he met God after death. Fry states, in no uncertain terms, that God would have much to explain. We live in a world where some species of insects lay their eggs in the eyes of children and spend part of their lifecycles burrowing out. Why was that necessary for God to create? From Fry’s perspective, if God exists, then God is a “bastard” not worthy of praise or worship.

Giles Fraser, a priest in the Church of England, responded in an article in the Guardian. “I don’t believe in the God that Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in either,” he writes. Fraser applauds Fry’s answer, stating that it is “admirable”, even if he does think it contains a mistake. From Fraser’s perspective, Fry is correct to reject a God who others worship out of fear. God, as Fry imagines Him, is an authoritarian bully and a false idol. But Fraser’s God — who Fry has (apparently) never imagined — is worth believing in. This is a classic SGA.

What is Fraser’s God like? Fraser explains that his God is one which surpasses existence. It’s not clear what he means by that, but there are some textual clues. Let’s examine them one at a time.

Fraser tells us that Fry is mistaken in supposing God is the sort of being one can meet face-to-face, which “presumes that God exists”. I can imagine a variety of reasons why one could not meet God face-to-face. For example, because God is immaterial, God is not at any time or in any place and does not possess a face. God should not be counted among the furniture of the world because God created all of the furniture. God is not part of creation but is transcendent to creation. Fair enough, though if this is what Fraser meant, I wonder why he did not spell this out for the reader.

In the final paragraph, Fraser tells us again that his God is beyond existence. He writes that “no less an authority than Thomas Aquinas rightly insists, existence itself is a questionable predicate to use of God”. From this sentence, one might suppose Fraser believes ‘exists’ should not be predicated of God for reasons similar to those provided by Aquinas. For Aquinas, the reason that the term ‘exists’ (‘ens’ in Aquinas’s latin) does not mean the same thing when discussing God as when discussing creatures is because God’s existence is identical to God’s essence (‘esse’), whereas, in creatures, essence and existence are distinct. Furthermore, God’s essence is incomprehensible to the human intellect in this life, implying that the manner of God’s existence is likewise incomprehensible. In creatures, existence is comprehensible in this life. Thus: ‘exists’ means something different when applied to God than when applied to creatures.

Unfortunately, the sentences which follow undermine the interpretation of Fraser’s comment as affirming Thomism. He writes:

For God is the story of human dreams and fears. God is the shape we try to make of our lives. God is the name of the respect we owe the planet. God is the poetry of our lives. Of course this is real. Frighteningly real. Real enough to live and die for even. But this is not the same as saying that God is a command and control astronaut responsible for some wicked hunger game experiment on planet earth.

What this has to do with Aquinas’s notion that existence means something different for God than it does for creatures, I haven’t a clue. I’m not sure it’s even coherent (“the name of respect we owe the planet” and “the shape we make of our lives” are the same thing?). Frankly, it seems as though Fraser referenced Thomism more to obfuscate than to clarify.

Fraser is not the first liberal theologian to reference the notion that ‘exists’ is not univocal for God and creatures. Paul Tillich referenced the notion in his Courage to Be in 1952 and in his Systematic Theology. Later, Marcus Borg (The God We Never Knew) and Karen Armstrong (The Case for God and numerous articles) would utilize the notion for their own theologies. It’s become something of a trope for liberal theologians to claim that God transcends even being. (I am confused as to why popular authors do this; I have met very few people who knew what Armstrong meant when she said that “God is not a being at all”.) I fear that Fraser has referenced the notion because it is popular and obfuscatory and not because it adds to his argument in any way. Worse: the notion is not popular among philosophers. Most philosophers follow Quine, who thought that ‘exists’ just means that there is at least one of something. To say that “God exists” would be to say that it is false that there is no God.

Perhaps I am being too harsh in accusing Fraser of obfuscation and there is something in his article that I have not understood. Be that as it may, Fraser’s attempt to explain why suffering exists is no better. As I explained previously, Fraser accepts Fry’s argument: a god who created a world of suffering should not be believed in or worshipped. Because Fraser affirms Fry’s argument, we can surmise that, for Fraser, no greater good is served by the world’s various sufferings. Nonetheless, Fraser proposes a way to make his God compatible with the suffering we observe in the world. He imagines that the existence of the suffering in our world can be explained through the incarnation of the divine Son as Jesus. He writes:

For if we are imagining a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself – and yes, this means we will have to think metaphorically about a lot of the Bible – then God cannot stand accused as the cause of humanity’s suffering. Rather, by being human as well as divine, he fully shares in it. This is precisely the point of Christianity: that God is not some distant observer but suffers alongside all humanity. Which is why, even in the midst of absolute horror, he has the authority to whisper in my ear that all will be well.

God suffers along with us and is not a passive observer. This allows God to be empathetic to us; because God empathizes with us, God can rest a metaphorical hand on our shoulders and affirm to us that “all will be well”. I imagine that, for many, this sounds intuitively appealing. However, problems are manifest.

Imagine that I create a torture chamber and kidnap a number of people. I force all of them to endure unimaginable torments that I have designed. Suppose I put myself through the same unimaginable torments. Having tormented myself, I know what it feels like to endure all of the sufferings I put my captives through. Would Fraser imagine that I am, somehow, less accountable? I wouldn’t think so. Suppose I put my hand on the shoulder of one of my captives and whisper in their ear, “all will be well”. Do they find hope in my words or do they shudder? I would imagine that they would shudder and find me reprehensible.

Yet the captives in my thought experiment are in an analogous situation to the one we find ourselves in with respect to Fraser’s God. That God has experienced the suffering experienced by humans does not render God less accountable for having created our world’s various torments. Worse: that Fraser accepts Fry’s argument meant that Fraser can imagine no greater good which human suffering can serve. God might suffer alongside us, but this can be of little consolation when all of the suffering is ultimately pointless.

Do atheists reject the wrong God? I don’t know, but Fraser’s God is not one worth accepting.


Secular Women Work Conference

I’m pleased to have been asked to help boost the visibility of a new conference to take place August 21-23 in Minneapolis, MN entitled “Secular Women Work”. The conference is organized by Chelsea Du Fresne, Monette Richards, and Stephanie Zvan and they have a kickstarter located here. Here’s how they describe their event:

We are proud to introduce the Secular Women Work conference, a conference by and for activists. Do you want to build strong non-religious communities? Do you want to change our laws and our culture to be more accepting and accommodating of non-believers? Join us in Minneapolis in August 2015.

We live in a society in which unpaid work disproportionately falls to women. Unfortunately, this means that volunteer work, including activist work, is too often undervalued. We’re here to change that.

The Secular Women Work conference is a celebration of the work of female activists who create and run projects and communities in the secular movement. And there is no better way to honor their work than by using their expertise to help us all become better activists.

At Secular Women Work, you will find workshops: both hands-on exercises to develop your skills and facilitated group discussions where you can share challenges and solutions with other activists. You will find panels on specialist topics, with panelists who can help you broaden the horizons of your activism. And when you’re ready for a rest, you’ll find speakers who will entertain and inspire you with stories and lessons from their own work. In between it all, you’ll find a conference full of other activists who want to make a difference in the world.

All workshop leaders, all panelists, and all speakers will be experienced female or genderqueer activists with demonstrated accomplishments and skills to share. We are excited to announce that Lauren Lane, co-founder of Skepticon; Mandisa Thomas, president and founder of Black Nonbelievers, Inc., and Desiree Schell, labor activist and host of Science for the People will be appearing at Secular Women Work. We are working now to add more speakers, so keep your eye on this space for announcements.

The conference will be held in the historic Humphrey Conference Center on the University of Minnesota’s West Bank. The center is ADA compliant and situated on light rail.

So, come join us this August 21st through the 23rd for the Secular Women Work conference, and help support the women who work to make these communities happen! Make your pledge now to secure your ticket to the conference, or pledge to build a better movement by helping us make more, and more effective, activists.

See you there!

The Secular Women Work conference is a joint project of Minnesota Atheists; Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists; and Secular Woman.

If you’re looking for more information, here are a variety of places to check out:


Did Derren Brown Demonstrate How To Convert an Atheist?

The following video provides a fascinating discussion of contemporary psychology of religion. I’m not an expert in psychology of religion, but based on the reading that I have done, the presentation seems to be fairly accurate.

Unlike other presentations of this subject, Brown claims to demonstrate how to use psychological manipulation to cause an atheist to have a religious experience. Religious apologists take note.

However, Brown is a magician who is known to mix half truths with various tricks. Did he actually cause an atheist to have a religious experience? Let me know what you think in the comments below.


Is there a difference between democrats and republicans?

I recently witnessed someone make the mistake to tell Ed Brayton that there is no difference between democrats and republicans. Here was his response (which I think is spot on):

[…] frankly, that claim is total bullshit. When it comes to issues where a moneyed interest has a lot at stake, they’re pretty similar. Big business is going to get 100% of what it wants from Republicans and 90% of what it wants from Democrats (because they’re able to buy off both parties with unlimited campaign and lobbying spending). But where there isn’t a lot of money at stake, on issues involving equality and social justice, there’s a HUGE difference. If Democrats had been in charge of the House and state legislatures since 2010 instead of Republicans, we wouldn’t have mandatory ultrasound laws and abortion clinics shutting down all over the country. We wouldn’t have laws banning same-sex marriage and bills to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment to ban it at the federal level. With fewer Republican appointees to the Supreme Court, we wouldn’t have decisions like Hobby Lobby or Citizens United. We wouldn’t have people in charge of science committees who say things like, ‘Global warming is a hoax because God said he wouldn’t destroy the earth again after the flood.’ So no, the two parties are not the same and they’re not equally bad.

While others pointed out — legitimately — on the same thread that American foreign policy, under both Democrats and Republicans, has been fairly appalling, it was also pointed out — correctly, I think — that it is exceedingly rare to see a person from a disenfranchised group (LGBTQA individuals, people of color, etc) claim an equivalence between democrats and republicans. One of the two groups hurts folks at both home and abroad; the other tends to only hurt people abroad.

Is this an accurate way of seeing the differences between the two parties? Let me know your opinion in the comments section below.


The Kinsey Scale, “Religious” Discourse, and Christmas

This past Fall, in the ethics course that I teach, I covered social inequality. We discussed Peggy McIntosh’s famous unpacking the backpack essay in which McIntosh, a white woman studies scholar, lists 26 ways in which society has provided her an advantage over those who are not white. She briefly mentions that “it is hard to disentangle aspects of unearned advantage which rest more on social class, economic class, race, religion, sex and ethnic identity than on other factors”.

It should not surprise those who work on the academic study of religion to hear that these factors are difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle or that all of these involve axes of oppression. However, for my students, many of whom were attending their first college course and grew up in conservative, religious environments, this was an entirely new topic. When I brought the discussion to religious privilege, the idea that Christmas celebrations represent a kind of cultural hegemony was difficult for most to accept. Yet they would quickly acknowledge that they knew almost nothing about the holidays of other religions (none knew what Diwali was, for example) and that stores spend far too much time putting out Christmas decorations.

Organized atheists in the United States have recently participated in a discussion of whether they should celebrate Christmas and in what ways. As a movement comprised of a minority group, atheist identity is a matter of near-constant discussion. Atheist identity is hard won and the recognition of organized atheists as a contingency is deeply embattled. Anything which is seen to threaten that identity — or the right of individuals to freely identify themselves as atheists without facing e.g. microaggressions or other coercive measures — is quickly challenged. Should atheists leave Christmas behind or should they remake the holiday, perhaps legitimating their activity by appealing to a narrative in which the Christian celebration had been previously stolen from third century pagans?

Both of these developments — my classroom discussions of social inequality and the public debate over atheist celebrations of Christmas — involve assumptions about what it means for an activity or an individual to be religious, the political ends of various parties, and the American discourse over secularization. I think that this discussion is fundamentally mistaken in a variety of ways that are often lost on those engaged in the discourse. In order to explain in what ways this discourse is mistaken, I will first provide an analogy with human sexuality. Afterwards, I will provide a way to begin thinking about secularism which does not depend on the discursive assumptions I will identify as problematic.

It is now recognized that human sexuality is complicated. Sexual attraction is not limited to the simple binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality; not only can humans be heterosexual or homosexual, they can be bisexual, pansexual, asexual, etc. Alfred Kinsey’s work on sexual orientation provided a scale on which humans can identify their degree of attraction to either their own gender or the opposite gender. It is now recognized that human sexuality is more complicated still; we have distinctions between gender identity, gender expression, and biological sex. Gender is more complicated than a simple male/female binary; biologically, there are at least five different sexes and it is generally recognized by sociologists and psychologists that gender roles are socially constructed and contingent.

It is possible for a society to be repressive when it denies some aspect of this complication. For example, a society which acknowledges only heterosexuality erases the existence of other sexual orientations and normalizes only one kind of interaction. Notice: the framing of human sexual relationships as legitimate or not can depend upon what categories society provides. A society that recognizes only heterosexual relationships is one which has framed relationships too narrowly.

Those who fight for the recognition of gay rights endeavour to frame their discussions carefully. If a discourse recognizes only heterosexual and homosexual relationships, then bisexuality, pansexuality, and asexuality are erased. Similarly, intersectional feminists are careful to frame their discourse so that trans individuals are not excluded. Either sort of exclusion results if the terms of a discourse are defined too narrowly.

Just as Kinsey set off an avalanche of research indicating the complexity of human sexuality, research on the phenomenon of religion has recognized the complexity of religious phenomena. While our political and legal discourse continues to assume that there is a simple binary between religion and nonreligion, transcultural and transhistorical research demonstrates that no such binary can be identified which does not narrowly describe religion, leaving out important phenomena that most would want to identify as religious. Worse: the construction of religion as a category for political discussion can be traced to specific developments in European history over the last several hundred years. Many academics have simply given up the task of trying to identify what is essentially religious and instead understand the term ‘religion’ as a piece of vocabulary used by those who they study (i.e. a term in actor’s categories). Many would argue that the secular/religious binary is ultimately oppressive, for reasons similar to why non-intersexual feminism and bisexual-erasing gay rights activism is oppressive.

Christmas celebrations bring the resulting tensions to the fore. The discussion is often framed as follows. On the one hand, there are individuals who identify themselves as ‘secular’ and ‘atheistic’ who have fought hard battles to disentangle themselves from what they view as ‘religion’, yet wish to claim their Christmas celebrations as legitimate activity. On the other are Christian conservatives, who perceive that their moralistic hold on society is slipping and a need to re-assert that Christmas is about Christ (“the reason for the season”).

Notice that there are a variety of individuals missing from this conversation: for example, those individuals who are culturally (but not religiously) Jewish and do not celebrate Christmas, either as a “secular” or “religious” holiday. In order to fully capture the complexity of this phenomenon, we need to look beyond the categories that our society hands us. To do otherwise is to throw many secular Jews, apostates from Islam, atheistic Buddhists, and others, under the bus.

What of our political and legal discourse? If the secular/religious binary has imploded, how can we talk about church/state separation? I don’t have an easy answer to this question, but I think that I have the beginning of an answer. First, it is important to recognize that there are several ends which church/state discourse aims to accomplish. Second, having identified those ends, it may be recognized that the accomplishment of those ends does not have to rely upon an illegitimate secular/religious binary.

What ends does church/state separation hope to accomplish? I will discuss two. First, there are particular beliefs, traditions, practices that individuals may strongly and deeply hold, which it is unreasonable for the state to force individuals to change by coercion, and which do not circumvent the safety or rights of others. Furthermore, these privately held beliefs should be translated to a public language if they are to be participants in political discourse. As I have described this end, those beliefs, traditions, and practices which have been traditionally considered religious — such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — do not exhaust the category of things that this end should protect; my description did not assume a secular/religious binary. Also included are familial practices — e.g. the consumption of lobster every Tuesday (which an individual might be as strongly committed to as some Catholics are to fish on Fridays) — or participation in sports fandoms or political organizations. Atheists wish for their identities as atheists to have legal protection and, as framed, this end would protect their identities. These beliefs, traditions, and practices can be (and should be) protected from state influence without demanding that they be identified as “religious” or not. The state can be neutral on the topic of consumption of lobster on Tuesdays without declaring that such consumption is either categorically religious or secular.

The second political end of church/state separation involves the protection of a minority against the coercive pressures of a majority. For example, in the Ahlquist v Cranston decision, the judge cited the fanatical abuse Jessica Ahlquist received from classmates, teachers, and other Cranston residents as important in his decision. It has also been recognized that there are considerations in church/state decisions concerning school environments that do not apply to e.g. court houses because of the extra weight coercive pressures place on children as compared to adults. But the autonomy and intellectual freedom of children can be protected without assuming a secular/religious binary.

Atheists are free to celebrate Christmas; I am a Christmas-celebrating atheist. But let’s be honest about what we are discussing: I celebrate Christmas because it is my family’s tradition to do so. The reason my family has that tradition is because my mother is a Catholic from upstate New York and my father hails from New England Protestantism. I don’t expect that my Jewish friends will desire to celebrate Christmas (although it is not illegitimate if they do) despite the fact that many of them are atheists. I don’t believe in anything I would identify as God, but that does not render my interaction with religion and the secular any less complicated.


Karen Armstrong, Daniel Dennett, and Existential Quantification

In her introduction to her Case for God, Karen Armstrong writes that P: “God is not a being at all” [1]. At least some other theologians would agree: to say that God is a being among other beings is to put God into the same category as creatures, a straightforward contradiction given that God transcends all creaturely categories: the ontotheological error [2]. In this post, I will explicate Daniel Dennett’s response to Armstrong concerning P, describe why one might have thought that his response was inadequate, and finally conclude by showing that while Dennett’s response is short, it is not off-target.

Dennett, and other New Atheist authors, responded to Armstrong’s claim that God is not a being with consternation. What in the world could it mean to say that God is “not a being at all”? Isn’t God supposed to be the Greatest Conceivable Being (ala Anselm) or a necessarily existent being (ala Leibnitz)? Armstrong foresaw their consternation; Armstrong writes that people give her a perplexed look when she tells them that it is inaccurate to describe God as the “Supreme Being” [3]. This has led to several of the New Atheist authors providing responses to Armstrong which have misunderstood her project [4]. It has not helped that her writing is often less than clear.

Dennett has discussed Armstrong’s view in a variety of places. In a 2010 paper in Evolutionary Psychology, he wrote:

Karen Armstrong (2009), for instance, dismisses both the anthropomorphic visions (“idolatry”) and the various brands of atheism, while claiming, as she recently put it while speaking with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, that “God is not a being at all.” Assuming that she meant what she said, she claims, by simple logical transposition, that no being at all is God. That would seem to be about as clear a statement of atheism as one could ask for, but not in her eyes.[5]

Elsewhere, Dennett has stated that his interpretation of Armstrong follows from the fact that P has the same translation as S: “no being at all is God” in the predicate calculus [6]. As I understand his view, Dennett is translating P into predicate calculus as

(1) image00

where G is a constant denoting God. Since both P and S are equivalent to (1) — and (1) is equivalent to “there is no God” — Dennett interprets Armstrong’s statements, as literally construed, to be equivalent to atheism.

The problem is that while Armstrong would agree that P and S are equivalent (and true), she would (probably) not agree that either P or S are equivalent to (1). Dennett has understood the term ‘being’ to denote the same thing as ‘exists’, but it seems plausible that Armstrong understands ‘being’ to denote some other property. Consider the following possible translation of P:

(2) image01

Here, being(*) is a predicate function denoting whatever it is that Armstrong is denying of God when she states that God is not “a being”. (2) is equivalent to:

(3) image02

i.e. for all x’s, either that x is not God or that x is not a being. It follows that no being is God and that God is not a being. One might be satisfied with this alternative translation, provided that Armstrong spells out for us what property the ‘being’ predicate refers to. Unfortunately, this alternative translation contradicts other statements Armstrong makes. She writes that “[w]e could not even say that God ‘existed,’ because our concept of existence was too limited” [7]. In other words, Arsmstrong asserts Q: God surpasses all of our notions of existence. Armstrong is not alone in that view; Thomas Aquinas, for example, thought that God’s existence was numerically identical to God’s essence. But God’s essence can only be known in the afterlife; so the manner of God’s existence is incomprehensible to the created intellect in the present life. Thus, Aquinas would have agreed to both P and S, but would have denied atheism.

One notion of existence that we possess is that of existential quantification. Thus, Q implies that God cannot be in the domain of the existential quantifier. In her assertion that God is not in the domain of any existential quantifier, Armstrong is not alone; Denys Turner has written explicitly that the existential quantification should not be used when discussing God [8]. But if God is not in the domain of any existential quantifier, then (2) and (3) are false.

One possibility is that there are two existential quantifiers. One existential quantifier is one which we understand and the other is one which is beyond our comprehension. Note for this interpretation to be coherent, the existential quantifier beyond our comprehension would have to be at least partially comprehensible, in sense that we understand it to quantify over God and that it allows us to say that God exists (albeit in no sense that we understand). Still, vast details about the quantifier may be beyond our ability to understand; just as a 12 year old can understand that solid matter is composed of atoms, yet have no comprehension of the quantum mechanics of solids, so too might the manner of God’s existence surpass the understanding of any human.

However, the introduction of an existential quantifier beyond our comprehension introduces further problems for Q. Define E as the existential quantifier that lies beyond our comprehension. Then we can define a third quantifier — call it D — such that the domain of D is the union of the domains of E and image03. In other words, the following sentence would be true:

(4) image04

D has several advantages. We know what D means when it refers to creatures (the usual existential quantification) and there is a strong sense in which D is incomprehensible when applied to God. Furthermore, following the interpretation of Aquinas recently offered by Kris McDaniels [9], wherein analogous terms are defined via disjunction, we can say that ‘being’ is only analogically predicated of God and creatures (so that, using D, we can make sense of Aquinas’s analogia entis, or analogy of being).

However, contra Armstrong, (4) renders Q false because now we can say that God exists, where, by ‘exists’, we would mean that image05. Worse: it’s not clear that we could avoid the ontotheological error if we use D; the domain of D is a category that would include both God and creatures. So long as Armstrong wishes to maintain Q, she should reject an interpretation of her statements in terms of D. And so long as she rejects interpretations of her statements in terms of D, she should reject interpretations of her statements in terms of E. In other words: it does not help to posit an existential quantifier beyond our comprehension.

Another possibility is that there is no set which includes God as a member. Some theologians — such as Philip Cary [10] — have suggested that to make sense of the trinity, we need to use a logic in which one cannot count over the Persons of the trinity because there cannot be a sense in which the trinity is constituted by three members (otherwise, that would be polytheism or some form of heretical modalism). Each member is One, but only in a mystical sense not comprehensible to creatures, and together they form a mystical Unity. As far as I can tell, the only way to make sense of this idea is to declare that there is no set of which the Persons of the trinity were members. If there were such a set, we could take the cardinality of that set and note that it was equal to three. So perhaps Armstrong would say that God cannot be the member of any set and this would avoid introducing an existential quantifier.

If God is not the member of any set, it really is hard to say what the difference is between her view and atheism. In non-theological contexts, there are three precedents for things which are not members of sets (Armstrong may object that God is not a thing, but let that pass). First, there are multiplicities — such as the collection of all sets — which do not compose a set (there is no set of all sets). But God is not a multiplicity. Second, there are impossibilia — such as square circles — which, on some interpretations, are not members of any set. But Armstrong would claim that God is not impossible. Third, the referents of gibberish utterances — such as “urgblock” — are not members of any set. This is because there are no referents of gibberish utterances. Armstrong may claim that when she is speaking about God she is not speaking gibberish, but, given the difficulties I have presented for making sense of her statements, I remain skeptical whether she can show that her statements are not gibberish while maintaining P, Q, and S.



[1] Armstrong, K. 2009. The Case for God. New York: Random House, p ix.

[2] Adams, M. 2014. “What’s Wrong With the Ontotheological Error?” in The Journal of Analytic Philosophy, Vol 2.

[3] Armstrong, 2009, p ix.

[4] For example, Richard Dawkins describes Armstrong as a relativist; it is not obvious that this is the best interpretation of her work, given that she thinks God is an Ultimate Reality to which humans have some limited access through religious practice. See “Man vs. God” in The Wall Street Journal.

[5] Dennett, D, & LaScola, L. 2010. “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” in Evolutionary Psychology, 8(1): p 124.

[6] Dennett, D. 2009. “The Evolution of Confusion” (talk) at AAI.

[7] Armstrong, 2009, p x.

[8] According to Turner, the “One” of monotheism is a mystical Unity and not the cardinality of a domain over which some existential quantifier ranges. See Turner, D. 2007. “How to be an Atheist” in New Blackfriars, Vol 83 (977-978): pp 317-335; 2004. “Faith, Reason and the Existence of God”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[9] McDaniels, K. 2010. “A Return to the Analogy of Being” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 81(3): pp 688-717.

[10] Cary, P. 1995. “The Logic of Trinitarian Doctrine” in Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship Bulletin, Sept/Oct.