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“Evidence, Theism and Naturalism” roundtable discussion

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What Can We Atheists Learn From Our Christian Neighbor?

“I now know enough about all religions to know that I would always be an infidel at all times and in all places, but my particular atheism is a Protestant atheism.” — Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great, chapter 1

Three years ago, I attended a large worship service on my campus. The adult leader of that organisation talked with me afterwards and our discussion became heated. I didn’t particularly want it to become heated, but I had yet to learn how to talk to people who did not share my view of the world (this remains a struggle, but I am better at it now than I was then).

Our quarrel was over our respective interpretations of the Bible. Looking back on it now, it seems so odd to me that we fought over something so relatively trivial. Even though there are many details of the Bible which I find grossly immoral — God ordering the mass deaths of nearly everyone, including children, in the Great Flood or two bears slaughtering 42 children that merely mocked a prophet because he was bald — the man I was speaking to does not condone genocide or the killing of children. It may be a cost of living inside a particular community that he assent to particular beliefs which are sometimes difficult to maintain. It may be true that he identifies with, and interprets his life through, the framework provided to him by that community. It may also be true that he holds as sacrosanct propositions concerning gender and sexuality that I would find abhorrent. Yet I had not stopped to understand why he accepted the cost of assenting to beliefs that many would find difficult to maintain. I had not taken the time to understand the experiences which he interpreted through his framework. Our debate did not center on those of his views which I might find harmful nor did it center on those views and experiences we shared as humans. There would have been plenty of reasons for righteous indignation, but they were only tangentially related to what we were discussing.

The irony is that our discussion was predicated on shared assumptions owed to the common origins of our respective cultural outlooks. In the West, the history of Christianity and atheism are intimately tied to each other. One cannot understand the history of Western atheism without understanding the history of Western Christianity.

The protestant reformation represented a move towards a more individualized and privatized religion and away from a public, institutionalized religion. While atheists may use their private, individual reason to answer the question of whether or not God exists, protestants tend to emphasize their private, individual experiences as “proof” of God. Some Christians may accuse atheists of putting their own reason before God, but Catholics could easily accuse contemporary evangelicals of putting their personal experience before God’s authority. Evangelicals may say that they experience the Holy Spirit when they are Born Again, but other Christians will see that as the individual and subjective usurping the Ultimate and the Absolute.

While some protestants have (and still do) provided arguments for god’s existence, it was the Roman Catholics who first declared the doctrine of preambulae fidei: before one can have faith, one must prove by reason that God exists. Early modern atheists accepted this doctrine, but rejected the Catholics’s arguments for God’s existence.

Even the term ‘Freethinker’ originates in a protestant theological context.

At times, this has allowed for religious communities and Freethinkers to learn from each other. At other times, it has laid the foundations for brutal conflict and political disagreement. I fear that today we live more in the latter than in the former. Although our contemporary cultural situation is far more complex than other periods of Western history — and we desperately need for our cultural discourse on religion to be inclusive of Muslims, Jews, wiccans, Shintoists, Buddhists, Native American spiritualities, etc — I would like to call for a re-evaluation and a deconstruction of our present situation.

I have already seen some, from both sides, who I think are more than capable of moving this situation forward. Christopher McHugh and his followers, at New Apologetics, are Catholics who are leading a new kind of church life: they are working hard to both understand and respectfully respond to atheists. Pastor-turned-nonbeliever Ryan Bell (who blogs at Year Without God) often sounds as though he wishes for a belief space to be created that rejects the theism/atheism binary. James Croft is eager to create religious spaces for atheists, but in a way that I find serious and rigorous. The Reasonable Doubts podcast is prides itself on the high level of knowledge of its hosts and the professionalism with which they carry themselves.

Too often we essentialize, demonize, and ignore our common history. Seldom do we stop to think: what is the broader story that has brought us to this impasse? What are the social and cultural forces which produced both of us and set us at odds? Are we really engaged in a debate over God’s existence, or are we actually debating how to make society? I’m not saying that we should stop condemning religious institutions, beliefs, or practices when they cause harm  (unequivocally, we should condemn such things). Nor am I saying that we should stop having a public dialogue over the truth or falsehood of Christianity or its doctrinal claims. What I am saying is that we need a discourse that is predicated on an understanding of the social scientific and historical study of religion. We need original thought and creative new strategies. And we should watch ourselves in what we do to ensure that we do not exasperate an already difficult situation.

I will end this post with an Easter-appropriate metaphor that I believe we can take from our Christian neighbors. Traditionally, Christians have believed in Original Sin: that since the moment Eve disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit, Sin has been in the world. We are born into a fundamentally broken world. For Christians, the brokenness of that world is the reason we require the salvation of Jesus Christ, whose blood sacrifice took on the sins of the world. There are many reasons I find fault with this idea, but I also see within it the potential for a powerful metaphor for social justice.

We are born into a broken world. Not because one of our ancestors disobeyed God, but because all of our ancestors, collectively, arranged society to be fundamentally unfair. Neil DeGraase Tyson recently summarized the issue when asked about why there were so few women in science:

I’ve never been female, but I’ve been black all my life and so let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective. I got to see how the world around me reacted to my expressions of these ambitions. All I can say that is the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist was, hands-down, the path of most resistance through the forces of society. … Now here I am, I think, one of the most visible scientists in the land. And I look behind me and I say, ‘Where are the others who might have been this?’ And they’re not there. And I wonder: Where is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not simply because of the forces of society that prevent it at every turn?

We are born into a world that has been fractured and broken by the Sins of racism, homophobia, cis-sexism, transphobia, and the list goes on. Like the invisible metaphysical force Christians believe to have been released from the moment Eve bit into that piece of fruit, these structures overhang and organize society.

None of us made these social structures, nor are most of us aware of their existence, but we all participate in them. Many of us (including myself) alternatively benefit and are hurt by them. Unlike Christians, I do not believe that our salvation comes from blood sacrifice. I do believe that empowerment, consciousness raising, and dialogue are salvific. Unlike the imperialistic attitude that certain versions of this metaphor might suggest — such as an outside force appearing to “liberate” a group from their oppression — I believe that salvation arises from within communities and that allies may help by recognizing the social structures they participate in.

Let us re-make our world.

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Guest post at Ed Brayton’s blog is….

Available here!

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“The New Agnostics” Appearance on HuffPost Live

I appeared today on the HuffPost Live news program to discuss the rise of the “Nones” in the millennial generation. You can check that out here.

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Philosophy Discussion on ‘Faith and Skepticism’

Justin Schieber, Elijah Thompson, Tyler McNabb, and myself were recently featured on the ‘Faith and Skepticism’ podcast:

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Apparently, Stafford Betty’s God Still Isn’t Big Enough for Me

It is often claimed that atheists (and other heretics) reject the wrong sort of God. Theologians assert that God’s nature is far more mysterious than atheists recognize. True knowledge of God is far more hedged, tentative, and indirect than the dogmatists atheists are used to arguing with. If only atheists could be exposed to a much bigger and far more intellectually appealing deity then they would surely be able to believe.

Such arguments are not new. Nor is the form which such arguments take.

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FTB Con 2 Panel on Counter Apologetics, featuring Russell Glasser, Justin Schieber, and myself

Atheism John Loftus

No, John Loftus: Atheists Have Beliefs, Too

I recently had a run in with John Loftus on his blog and on Facebook concerning whether or not it was ever rational to hold beliefs and whether it was accurate for atheists to self-identify as holding beliefs. This discussion was motivated by his review of the debate between atheist Chris Hallquist and Christian apologist Randal Rauser (on whether belief in God was irrational) in which Loftus states that, “If I were to debate Rauser on this question I would focus on the word ‘belief.’ Belief is always irrational.” Since I think that some beliefs are rational, I found myself in disagreement with Loftus.

I have to confess that, in one sense, I am at a disadvantage in this exchange because it isn’t very clear to me what the problem is supposed to be. From my perspective, it is obvious that there is no problem – atheists hold plenty of beliefs (i.e. I believe there are two coffee mugs on this table) and at least some of those beliefs are rational (i.e. I can see and touch the two coffee mugs). While some Christians might equivocate between belief and faith, philosophers use the term ‘belief’ in a more general sense: to believe x means something like thinking that x is true. In the philosopher’s sense, beliefs can be either rational or irrational depending on the specific details (such as whether or not one is justified in holding the belief).

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American Atheists Atheism civil rights Dave Muscato gay rights homosexuality LGBTQ liberal Christianity marriage equality

No, Dave Muscato: One Can Support LGBTQ Rights and Be a Christian (or why beliefs about what the Bible says are religious doctrines, too)

American Atheists recently posted a picture of a marriage equality protest with the hashtag #religionispoison. In defense of this hashtag, public relations director Dave Muscato tweeted, “If you’re a Christian and an LGBTQ supporter, you’re doing one of them wrong”.

This series of tweets has understandably caused a firestorm of online activity. Many responses, such as Dean Roth’s (January 16th on Chris Stedman’s blog), have argued that these statements are “appropriative”, “disrespectful and offensive to the queer people you claim to be supporting”, and unethetical/inappropriate behavior for an LGBTQ allies, wrongfully seeing gay people as “pawns in your game against religion”.

While others have argued that Dave’s tweet is an inappropriate thing for an LGBTQ ally to say, here I will put aside ethics and argue that the tweet is simply factually incorrect. There is no incompatibility between being a Christian and being a LGBTQ ally. In this post, 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 amongst atheists but unlikely to be held by Christians. In this post, I will not engage with the internal theological debate amongst Christians as to whether or not Christians should support a theology inclusive of LGBTQ people. Instead, I will engage with whether or not Dave’s tweet, and subsequent post on Chris Stedman’s blog, can be maintained with assumptions common amongst atheists and I will show that it cannot.

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science and religion soul Trembley

Can science make room for the soul?

In the 18th century, Abraham Trembley discovered that a microscopic, fresh-water animal called the hydra could be cut up to form as many hydras as one would like. This troubled the then current idea of the soul, which held that all animals had souls. If all animals had souls, then the hydra should as well. Does cutting up the hydra mean that one is cutting up the soul? If not, does God grant each of the pieces a soul? Or does the experiment imply — as many atheists of the time inferred — that there simply is no immaterial soul?

In our time, unknown to most people, there is a new challenge to the soul. In this new challenge, instead of cutting up hydra, neuroscientists cut up the human brain. It has been found that splitting the brain into two produces two independent personalities with distinct minds (the split-brain procedure is used out of medical necessity in the treatment of certain disorders). In fact, these two minds can have distinct religious beliefs. Here is neuroscientist VS Ramachandran explaining an experiment in which one patient was recorded as having both atheist and theist halves of his brain:

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