Category Archives: Atheism

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).

read more »

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.

read more »

Aquinas arguments Atheism Bart Ehrman Catholicism d'Holbach Existence of God God justification language philosophy of language properties of God

When Atheists Really Do Reject the Wrong God (Sort Of)

Introduction

If you are an atheist who reads as much theology as I do (which is difficult, unless you are either Jerry Coyne, a religion studies scholar, or a deconvert from a Fundamentalist cult) then you’ve probably come across the claim that atheists reject the wrong god. Often, this is expressed from a sophisticated theologian conceding that they agree with the arguments made in some popular atheist book, but those are not arguments against the god they believe in. I call this the Straw Gods Argument, after the Straw Man Fallacy.

In this post, I will first explain what the Straw Gods Argument is and what forms I’ve seen it take. Afterwards, I will explain why I don’t think that it is convincing. Finally, I will deliver on the title of this blog post and present a case where an atheist really did reject a straw god (sort of). I’ve divided this article into sections so that those who have a particular interest don’t have to wade through all of my text.

I now proceed to discuss what the Straw Gods Argument is and some examples of where it has appeared.

read more »

The Christian Privilege of Atheists

In this blog post, I will be arguing that many atheists living in the United States contribute to the theoarchy (in analogy with patriarchy, `theoarchy’ refers to the system of societal advantages provided to theists, particularly those in the Christian tradition). Furthermore, I will make the claim there is a sense in which at least some of these atheists have Christian privilege.

I know what you’re thinking. Atheists have Christian privilege? But atheists aren’t even Christian and, besides, aren’t atheists an underprivileged group in our society, one which studies have shown to be one of the least trusted demographics? A demographic of people which, some studies have shown, is less trusted than rapists? The title of this blog post is probably going to produce a whole lot of backlash.

But let me present my case. I will not dispute that atheists are underprivileged. Of course, whether or not a given atheist faces discrimination, and is underprivileged in hir community, depends upon hir geographic and social location; an atheist at Harvard University is much less likely to face discrimination than an atheist in a small town in Mississippi. For many atheists, to think about movement atheism as anything other than an identity movement is a luxury that they cannot yet afford. Sitting comfortably in academia, I have recognizable advantages over those atheists who live an hour away in Salem, Virginia, or over the closeted atheists who study at Liberty University. I suspect that these differences between members of our movement is one of the forces which lies behind some of the infighting (though not all) that we’ve experienced in the Freethought community. Nonetheless, those are all tangential issues which I will not be discussing here.

Here, I will focus on the term `religion’ and the way in which the theoarchy has provided a system of expectations for what may be counted as religious. This is particularly important because many of the rights which we afford to citizens in the United States depend upon what we take to be a religion for legal purposes. It is also important for the kind of transfaith discussions that some, like my fellow blogger Jaime Wise, would like to have. If our social expectations about what gets counted as properly religious cloud our ability to think critically about religion and to engage with each other on those matters, then we have put an unnecessary stumbling block in front of ourselves.

One of the many problems that I have heard colleagues voice, when they teach about religion, is that many students enter the classroom with a large set of expectations as to what religions are. And these expectations often come from a Christianized world view. Even if the student is not Christian, they will often employ Christian categories when discussing religion. However, when one examines the full diversity of religions from around the world, one finds that Christianity does not make for a good prototypical religion.

For example, when I posted an article by Michael Dowd to the Freethinkers at Virginia Tech Facebook page, one person responded by saying that the use of the word `religion’ to refer to anything other than a collection of supernatural beliefs is “deceptive” and has no place in our movement. My colleague, Zack Lewis, responded by stating: “While it is clear that you originally used the word in the former sense, the latter sense is inclusive of Old Theism, New Theism, pantheism, Buddhism, various ethnic rituals, and Dan’s automobile maintenance practices. Depending on the context, a sociologist, for example, may find great usefulness in the broader sense of the term. The reason why clarification is important here is that you have put forth the idea of excluding those that use a different definition based on their different experiences. I would ask that you consider the implications of such a policy.” I share Zack’s opinions and elaborated in that thread:

Our notion of the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, and its significance to religion, is a conception that arises relatively late in history. That sort of distinction is very much part of modernity. But in pre-modern cultures, non-Western cultures, and in various indigenous societies that distinction often does not appear or, if it does, it’s radically different from how we conceptualize it in our society.

When anthropologists and sociologists go about classifying the various practices, belief systems, systems of authority, and so on, that appear in various cultures as “religions”, they do not pay attention to the doxastic commitments of those systems. For one thing, in those systems which emphasize praxis over doxa, it would seem rather alien to say that something is not one’s religion simply because one does not believe it.

Anthropologists and sociologists pay attention to the functional role that a given system plays for a culture when classifying that system as religious. Does it involve ritual? Are there associated totems or symbols? Is there a distinction between the sacred and the profane? These are the sorts of questions that anthropologists and sociologists would ask about Dowd’s New Theism to determine if it can count as a religion.

In many animistic cultures, there is simply no distinction made between nature and supernature. Often, in those cultures, our world is understood to be filled with various kinds of intelligent agents. Various objects in one’s local environment take on sacred significance and are often understood to be spirits (for lack of a better word; it’s questionable how many of these societies even have words that translate directly to “spirit”). In fact, one of the differences between the early Jews and their neighboring cultures was that the Jews carried their god with them when they went into exile. For many cultures, the local environment was so heavily caught up with the local cult that the two were inseparable; if you went to a new location, you would adopt a new religion. But when the Babylonians exiled the Jews, the Jews brought their local cult with them.

In the modern West, religions have a two-tiered notion of reality. On bottom is nature, governed by the laws of physics. On top is supernature, the domain of God, the angels, and so forth. The top tier somehow imbues the bottom tier with meaning and answers existential questions. The bottom tier exists to serve, pay homage to, and to rejoice in the top tier. Of course, we call the two “nature” and “supernature” respectively. Atheists are then often understood as, or accused of, chopping off the top tier and having a one tier world.

But other cultures conceive of reality differently. They might put spirits (or what we translate as “spirit”) on the same tier as everything else. For instance, to return to the idea of a sacred local environment, they might believe that a particular tree just is a spirit. Not that the tree contains, indicates, or symbolizes the spirit, but rather that the tree is identical to the spirit. Think about how different this is from our modern Western conception of spirits; in our culture, we tend to think that when we say that there is a tree spirit, that the tree contains a spirit (or a soul) and that were we cut the tree down, the spirit would live on. But if you think that the tree and the spirit are the same thing, that there literally is no difference between them, then when you destroy the tree, you have also destroyed the spirit.

As another example, when some ancient Greeks believed that the moon was a god, they didn’t believe that the moon contained a god or was controlled by a god or represented a god or anything like that. Rather, they simply believed that the moon was a god.

In some pre-modern cultures, others believed in a multiple tiered reality, but fail to have our tiers. Therefore, they cannot be understood as having believed that the world can be divided up into the supernatural and the natural. They might not have the idea that there’s any such thing as physical reality as we conceive of it in the modern west; they might not have anything that even resembles physics. For instance, the way that Europeans conceived of the universe during the Middle Ages was like this. They distinguished between a sub-Lunary (literally, “below the moon”) creaturely realm and another sort of realm that appears in the sky. The sky was believed to contain several crystalline spheres and to be filled with water. They also believed in a Great Chain of Being, which consisted of an infinite hierarchy of creaturely and celestial beings. In addition, for the Medievals, God is not understood as existing outside the world in some supernatural realm but rather as having a different sort of existence altogether. God’s Being was understood as only being analogous to creaturely being (the Doctrine of Analogy).

The religious systems that appear in other cultures are so radically different from our own that many anthropologists, sociologists, and historians hesitate to even call such systems “religions”. To use our Western words to describe these other cultural systems suppresses the full diversity of ways that humans have understood reality.

In our Western world, we understand religion to be one source of authority amongst many and one institution amongst many. We have a choice of religions and we have a choice to have no religion at all. Religions market themselves as corporate entities and they compete in a marketplace of ideas. All of these entities are post-Enlightenment constructs, taking along with them all of our cultural baggage concerning our culture’s distinction between nature and supernature, including a conceptualization of nature that depends on our having developed science (and, in particular, physics). We place expectations on them — that they, for example, involve the notion of faith or that they answer particular sorts of questions and emphasize belief over practice — which would appear entirely foreign to most of the cultures outside the modern West. Many of these expectations arise specifically from Christianity; but there’s much more out there besides Christianity.

In most indigenous cultures, what we might be tempted to identify as the religion of that culture are the various background assumptions that nearly everyone in that culture adopts. These are the various assumptions which one would not think to question, not because questioning such things is taboo but rather because it would seem a silly thing to do. It would be like someone in our culture questioning whether the sky is blue. “Of course the sky is blue!” people would respond, “Are you freaking blind?” Similarly, in most indigenous cultures, what Westerners would call “metaphysical questions”, would seem just as odd. If you believe that the tree in the center of your village is a spirit — not that it has a soul, but rather that it just is a spirit — people would look rather odd if you asked whether there were spirits. “Of course!” they’d respond, “Can’t you see the tree?”

In such cultures, there cannot be theology let alone theological debate. If we conceive of faith as the acceptance of beliefs even in the face of doubt, then there cannot be such a concept in that culture; there would be no reason to articulate such a concept. And, in such cultures, there is no distinction between nature and supernature because the categories into which the world is divided are so radically different.

I was further challenged on this in a variety of different ways. One response was to say that because many of these non-Western cultures fail to distinguish between the supernatural and the natural we should take their conceptions less seriously. However, it surely cannot be the case that the definitions we use when studying religion are somehow dependent on whether the doxastic commitments held by various peoples are true or false; the question at hand is under what conditions can x be considered a religion.

Another response was to say that non-Western cultures are irrelevant because we were discussing the use of the term `religion’ in a Western context. But I find that to be troubling, too, because we live in a world where we should be making every effort to be inclusive. Just because Christianity holds sway over the Western religious marketplace at the present time does not mean that it absolutely needs to. In fact, part of what we should be trying to do is to subvert the power and influence which Christianity presently maintains.

I stated that, “…a survey of what Americans think religion is would be disasterous; there are plenty of evangelical Christians who claim that Christianity is not a religion [especially in the Emergent Church movement]; others who claim that it’s the only true religion; and don’t even get me started on people who think that one can be ‘spiritual but not religious’. If we want to know what religion is, and not just what Christian privilege dictates religion to be, we need to look cross culturally… I would agree… that [Dowd’s] use of language is probably confusing to many Americans who, due to Christian privilege, have a very narrow conception of what religion is… To many students, the terms ‘religion’ and ‘Christianity’ are synonyms.”

Since this Facebook conversation happened on June 1rst, I have since talked with other people concerning the inappropriate expectations that come packaged with `religion’. One friend told me that she considered religion to be absurd and that our world would be better off without it. Perhaps many of those who are reading this post are thinking the same thing. Nonetheless, I am left wondering whether or not that would be true when `religion’ is expanded in the way that I am suggesting here. Ethical Culture is already recognized as a religion by its constituents, even though it is entirely devoid of supernatural claims and other such notions. It’s a humanistic organization gathered around community service and education. The same thing is true for large portions of the Unitarian Universalist Church. Note that this is not the Courtier’s Reply; I am not saying that atheistic rhettoric is somehow naive because it hasn’t made contact with the full sophistication of liberal theology. Rather, I am simply asking this question — if what I say here about `religion’ is correct, then are there religions, broadly construed, which are not harmful in the way that the theoarchy is? And can we maintain this position without somehow inadvertently contributing to the theoarchy?

On the other hand, it might seem unreasonable to think that religion is likely to go anywhere any time soon. For that reason, we are probably best off if we can find peaceful ways to live with our Hindu, Wiccan, or otherwise “non-traditionally religious” (by which one means religious but non-Christian) neighbor. That would seem to be even more reason to understand what sorts of expectations are inappropriate to have when we hear someone self identify as religious.

Atheism civil liberties civil rights constitution creationism Establishment Clause FFRF First Amendment intelligent design science and religion scientific consensus separation of church and state

Karl Giberson, Christian Privilege, and Teaching Science/Religion Classes

For those who don’t know, there has been an on-going spat concerning a class taught by physics professor Eric Hedin at Ball State University. Hedin teaches a class entitled “Boundaries of Science” whose syllabus reveals that the class focuses on discussing the relationship between science and religion. As someone whose academic pursuits are related to studying the relationship between science and religion, this debacle has been on my radar screen for a while. Several groups have weighed in — perhaps most prominently Jerry Coyne (who is against the class) and the Discovery Institute (who say that they support the class in the name of “academic freedom”) — with a variety of viewpoints. Recently, physicist Karl Giberson has weighed in on the issue on his blog. In this post, I’d like to say a bit about Giberson’s response.

Giberson is a Christian commentator on the evolution/Creationism dispute who encourages his fellow Christians to accept Darwinian evolution. He works for the pro-evolution evangelical think tank the Biologos Foundation and I’ve been following his work in the blogosphere for a while.

In his article, Giberson calls Coyne’s view on the issue “hyperbolic” (I don’t think they are) and goes on to state (emphasis mine):

The Hedin uproar interests me because I teach similar courses — at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. — that explore the boundaries of science, the nature of scientific truth and the religious implications of science…

Teaching courses on controversial subjects when you have a public — or even private — position on the controversy is a balancing act. Teachers, especially professors, are authority figures with powers of persuasion that should not be used to move students to positions that do not represent the mainstream thinking on the topic

…I assign equal reading from theists and atheists and spend roughly half the time discussing the ideas of the atheists. My goal — and I think I succeed — is to help students think through important issues that may inform their own spiritual journeys, regardless of the direction they are traveling. And as we know, college students do a lot of traveling…

Hedin’s assigned readings and bibliography are somewhat unbalanced, although one of the two required texts is a solid popularization of conventional big bang cosmology, unadorned by theological speculation. However, were students to infer that the extensive bibliography list covers the bases for the discussion of the “Boundaries of Science” they would be mistaken. Of the roughly 20 books listed, half advocate basic intelligent design with the remainder divided evenly between books by Christians sympathetic to raising constructive questions about God in the context of science — like Keith Ward and myself — or non-theists with minority viewpoints that resonate in some way with traditional theism — like Roger Penrose and Paul Davies. Noticeably absent are genuinely critical books of the sort written by Vic Stenger, Steven Weinberg and even Jerry Coyne that address the same issues but offer informed atheistic responses.

But is any of this a big deal? Should Ball State University terminate a young assistant professor teaching a general education course, which most faculty avoid like the plague, outside his field because, on first offering, it was ideologically slanted? I wonder how those us living in the ivory towers of academia would fare if our most challenging interdisciplinary syllabi constructed early in our careers became topics of national conversation?

…my guess is that his interdisciplinary explorations, like those of many thinkers inclined to consider the larger context of their fields, will become more sophisticated as time passes. If not, his colleagues won’t vote him tenure. In the meantime, Ball State doesn’t need external culture warriors telling them how to run their university.

I feel largely sympathetic to much of what Giberson stated. I’m a graduate student whose research focuses on the historical and philosophical relationship between science and religion. Despite having publicly accessible views on that relationship, I look forward to teaching courses on this topic but worry that my views may get in the way of pedagogy (what happens when students google me?). Unlike Giberson, I’m an atheist, but I think can I can imagine what it would be like to teach courses of this kind when one’s views are so publicly accessible. I have yet to teach a class on this, but would very much like to do so in the future (especially since it’s my research area!). And I think that Giberson has much the right idea; spending half of his course on thinkers he is adamantly opposed to, and working hard to present their ideas as strongly as you present your own, can work to create a classwork environment where academic exploration is encouraged. While I have not taught classes on the topic, I have done guest lectures for various groups and was happy to hear from my colleagues (who sat in) that I was as neutral as I was.

Giberson is correct that Helin’s syllabus lacks the full range of possible views that one might have on the science/religion relationship. And he’s right that Hedin is abusing his power as a professor. As others have pointed out, Hedin’s teaching evaluations on RateMyProfessor.com provide further evidence that he seems to be abusing his power as professor:

“Extremely nice guy and an easy class. However, the class had an extremely Christian bias and he does not believe in evolution. Many of his views do not quite jive with those of mainstream science.”
“Constantly talks religion, as an atheist, I was slightly concerned my science teacher is a devout christian.”
“The one thing I didn’t like was his constant bringing religion into class.”

When I took Philosophy of Religion, professor Ted Parent commented to the class that, if he did his job well that semester, students in the class will be guessing right up until the last day what his personal views are. Having taken other religion courses, I’ve seen other ways that professors try to avoid appearing biased; my Sociology of Religion professor stated his views the first day of class (he was an agnostic) and apologized if he ever appeared biased. He also encouraged students to relate the material to their own backgrounds and their own personal views. I sat in on a class that looked at the history of science and religion, taught by Matthew Goodrum, and he avoided telling the class his personal views the entire semester. He was so good at appearing neutral that his views were never relevant to the course material. His own views were simply not relevant to the course material. These approaches appear to me to be legitimate ways of reassuring students that the material will not be present in a biased manner; either make an effort to appear so neutral that your students have no idea what your views are or air them on the first day of class and let the students know that you want to cooperate with them to leave those views outside the door of the classroom.

Hedin’s class, in its syllabus and in his teaching evaluations, seems to be unapologetically biased towards Christian theism.

Giberson’s remark that this isn’t really a big deal seems to miss-the-mark. The problem is two-fold: 1. the kind of abuse of one’s power that can be identified in Hedin’s teaching evaluations and syllabus and 2. the kind of anti-atheist prejudice that is involved here. Despite recognizing Hedin’s abuse of power, Giberson asks that outsiders leave the matter to the university. Nonetheless, (2) especially concerns me because we already live in a country where atheists are regularly demonized; it doesn’t help to have a college professor abuse his power to erase the positions which atheists are voicing. If there were a class on “Gender Theory”, and it was taught by a white, heterosexual, cis male, and the syllabus solely contained works written by so-called “Men’s Rights Activists”, we would have reason to be concerned. We would have even more reason to be concerned if the professor’s teaching evaluations and other anecdotal evidence revealed that the teacher was making misogynistic comments in class. Such a situation would strike many of us as cause for concern. Imagine how inadequate it would appear if the response from MRA activists was to defend such a professor in the name of “academic freedom”.

It’s not that such a class should avoid discussing MRA thought; as much as I detest it and find it morally abhorrent, such views appear in the discussion on gender issues and a class focusing on such issues could conceivably do students a disservice if such a discussion were avoided. Similarly, while I find it intellectually abhorrent, Creationism is relevant to the discussion of science and religion. That does not mean that it should be the primary focus of the course.

This course is a violation of student rights and openly presents inaccurate information. If Ball State does not want to do anything about this situation, then students have every right to seek outside influence. It isn’t fair that students should be subjected to this sort of thing and it isn’t right for a professor to teach whatever he pleases under the guise of “academic freedom”.

anthropology Atheism ecojustice Feminism LGBTQ liberal Christianity New Atheism theology tolerance

Why Saying That Religion-Doesn’t-Cause-Harm Isn’t Nuanced

Many people who want to defend religion against “strident” atheists like Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and other New Atheists make the claim that these sort of thinkers have an overly simplistic view of religion. To the contrary, I think many such defenders-of-religion have overly simplistic views of religious violence.

People often conceptualize violence and conflict in ways that serve the overly simplistic narratives that they tell themselves about the world and their place in it. As a non-religious example, sexual violence is often treated as a monolithic category; we’re told that it is a reflection of the exertion of one group’s (the patriarchy’s) power over another and that it has nothing to do with sex. While the former statement — that it reflects an exertion of power — is true more often than not, it’s not true that rape never involves an element of sexuality. Many rapists (though certainly not all) perform their act of violence in an effort to forcefully take what they want or, in some cases, because the violence and the dehumanization of their victim sexually excites them. The latter is certainly true in the case of some serial killers. That the rest of us find these acts of violence deplorable and entirely divorced from our ordinary notions of sexuality does not change the fact that it is an expression of the perpetrator’s sexuality. Some number of people really are sexual predators, for whom violent predation is sexually stimulating. Similarly, that violence is very far away from the religious sensibilities of many people does not change the fact that, for some people, violence is tied to their religious expression in one way or another. That many of us find these actions perverse does not alone mean that these actions were not tied to religion.

Two days ago (on April 26), in Santiago, Chile, a Christian group burned an infant to death because they thought that it was the anti-Christ. Reading through news reports on the incident, one finds numerous statements designed to dehumanize the members of the group and to put their actions into a framework that makes them understandable. Instead of dealing with complexity and nuance, it is claimed that this group could not have been Christian or that they were simply insane. They’re labeled “crazy”, “nuts”, and “schizophrenic”. It is said that what this group believed was not actually a religion, that their members were merely being misled by their leader, and it is said that their beliefs could not possibly be genuine. All of this ignores the grim reality of the situation.

I’ve noticed something remarkably odd about the overly simplistic way that people think about religious violence. People often claim that religion does not lead to violence or does not inspire violence. Nonetheless, religion is not some monolithic, all-encompassing entity (nor is violence for that matter). Religions are extraordinarily varied and diverse. When someone claims that religion does not bring about violence, our next question should be, “Which religion and in what context?” Often, what non-religious people mean when they say that religion does not lead to violence is that that their friendly religious neighbor is perfectly harmless. When religious people make that claim, they mean that their own religious beliefs are harmless (or even lead them to do good things in their communities). But that doesn’t mean that a different religious view wouldn’t play a different role in conflict.

I’ve heard Christians claim that Christianity does not lead to violence and I’ve heard Muslims claim that Islam does not lead to violence; what they mean is that their preferred version of Islam or Christianity does not lend itself to inspiring violence. That does not mean that a different form of Islam or Christianity couldn’t bring about violence. There are profound and very real theological differences within each of these groups, and each of them comprise remarkably different communities. Sometimes what people mean when they say that Islam or Christianity do not lead to violence is that either the Bible or the Koran do not lend themselves to provoking violence. I don’t actually think that’s true, but, whether or not it’s true, it is definitely false that there only exists a single interpretation of these texts. As a theologian recently pointed out on Hemant Mehta’s blog, “to read the Bible is to interpret it”. (This is likely to be true of whenever any one reads any text.) Interpretation of scriptures or doctrines is certainly not monolithic, and while we can strain ourselves to see religious texts as inspiring the work of humanitarians and gloss over the parts that recommend genocide, rape, or slavery (or understand those sections as human corruptions of a divine message) that doesn’t mean that those who view those same scriptures or doctrines through a non-strained lens are somehow less religious. Those who interpret their scriptures as calling for violence and then act in accordance are at least as religious as those who interpret their scriptures as not calling for violence. Therefore, the disavowal of these people as religious, upon their committing violent actions, is illegitimate.

The fact that there are political and sociological aspects of religious conflict does not deflate the role that religion plays in those conflicts either. Most sociologists and anthropologists understand religion to be a human product, a socially constructed system for answering certain kinds of existential questions and for placing arbitrary human customs into a cosmic context. As such, to say that religion plays a key role in these conflicts is just to re-iterate that human social conventions, politics, institutions, claims to authority, and so on play a key role in these conflicts. There shouldn’t be anything sui generis which excuses religion from playing a motivational role in the actions of humans, whether those actions are good or bad.

One of the key factors which, I think, underlies the way in which people fail to understand the role of religion in conflicts is a certain misunderstanding about the relationship between belief and action. There seem to be many people who are under the false impression that other people can separate their beliefs from their actions, and somehow act in a way that does not reflect their deep seated beliefs about the nature of the universe and their relationship to it.

Nonetheless, this is demonstrably false. There is a tremendous amount of sociological and anthropological data indicating that people seek conformity between all of their beliefs. In fact, it’s a basic tenet of political science that people act in this way, and that those actions determine their political actions (including the way in which they vote). In political and moral philosophy, this principle is given the name “reflective equilibrium” and people are said to try to reach reflective equilibrium between their beliefs. If a conservative Christian really, truly believes that homosexuality presents our society with a destructive malignancy capable of overthrowing the stability of Western civilisation, then we cannot reasonably expect them to respect homosexuals.

For a specific example as to how religion drives action, see the paper “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” by Lynn White, which details the way in which our poor treatment of the environment (including global warming) were caused by Christianity.

Or consider the view which Peter Berger presents in his “The Sacred Canopy”; i.e. religion is a social institution invented in order to make our arbitrary social norms into statements with cosmic significance. In other words, all of the privileges that come with the pre-existing social order are turned into statements which come from God and therefore cannot be changed. This also explains why people organize their lives around religion — it provides a narrative by which their lives are given meaning and situated in the world. But notice that the way in which their lives are situated is at the expense of either others or themselves. We can very easily see this with the treatment of women and gay people by most religious communities. Not only are harmful cultural norms being enforced but they are being legitimated by the idea that they reflect the cosmic order.

To make matters worse, most religions in the Western context come with the idea of “faith” — that certain beliefs should be accepted as true even if there is no evidence for them and even if there is evidence to the contrary. Faith is harmful because it puts a protective shield around potentially harmful beliefs. It might be that some religious beliefs are not harmful, but unless we critically examine them, we are unable to determine which ones actually are harmful. The social and political situation changes and, as it does, which beliefs are harmful (or have the propensity to cause harm) will inevitably change. Without continually re-examining which beliefs should be discarded and which should not, we run an even greater risk of having beliefs which either harm others or ourselves.

arguments Atheism Evidential Problem of Evil Existence of God science and religion

Reflecting back on last year’s debate with Max Andrews

Last year, I debated Max Andrews from Liberty University on whether God is likely to exist or not. I think the debate went well, could have gone better, and that my arguments were not understood (which is evidenced by how they were characterized on Max’s blog Sententias).

This Thursday, I will be debating Max again, but this time on the Liberty University campus. It’s been rather difficult to arrange the debate, but — however begrudgingly — I think everything is set to go now. Nonetheless, preparing for this year’s debate has caused me to reflect back on last year’s.

Last year’s debate was held in a 2-on-2 debate format, modelled after the Intelligence^2 debates. There was some level of miscommunication with the moderator, so the entire back-and-forth section (where the debaters addressed each other) got dropped. That was really rather regrettable, and, as I understand it, both sides were saddened that it occurred; I know that my debate partner and I were planning on using that section to address the arguments made by the opposing side. With the loss of that section, both sides were disabled from responding directly to the charges that the other side made. Hopefully, there will be better communication with the moderator at LU to ensure that the same mistake is not repeated.

The arguments presented by my debate partner and I went together; I presented an argument against the existence of an Abrahamic god while my partner presented an argument against a benevolent god. Max, apparently, misunderstood the argument that I presented; often, on his blog, he claims that I simply attacked inerrancy. Instead of attacking a more general conception of god during my opening remarks, I attacked the specific deity associated with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I also pointed out that any other conception of god would be sufficiently different that either:

1. It’s difficult to see why we should even use the English word “god” to describe it (a point that David Hume makes in Natural History of Religion);
2. Would require a different kind of argument.

But any sort of benevolent, monotheistic god was already going to be addressed by my partner.

Let’s take a look at the argument I presented last year and why I think Max never understood it. Last year’s argument had three different prongs:

3. The Abrahamic god is a social product of a particular cultural context, namely the ancient Levant. Therefore, while Max can certainly identify several mysterious features of our world, the Abrahamic god is not a very good explanation of those features.
4. Where ever it is that morality comes from, it cannot be from the Abrahamic god as depicted in various holy texts. This is both because of the things that people do because of those texts (especially when they have read them accurately) and because of what those texts say the Abrahamic god commanded.
5. Scientists do not need to posit a god to explain their data. While scientists in the past might have made use of theistic hypotheses, they have found such hypotheses to be useless and no longer appeal to religion when doing science.

My debate partner, whose argument was intended to attack the idea of an all loving, all knowing, and all powerful god produced an evolutionary problem of evil; i.e. since the process of evolution involved so much suffering and pain, it is unlikely to be the mechanism by which God brought about the existence of human beings. But human beings were brought about evolution. Ergo, the universe we live in is not likely to be the kind of universe that a personal, all-loving, omnipotent, omniscient creator god would bring about. Thus, the universe — as we see it — is evidence against the existence of such a being. I think its a rather ingenious argument and it doesn’t come into a lot of the pitfalls had by more traditional versions of the argument from evil.

Atheism Evidential Problem of Evil Existence of God God Peter Williams properties of God Stephen Law theist arguments

Challenging Peter William’s Challenge to Stephen Law’s Evil God Challenge

I’m listening to a podcast of Christian apologist Peter William’s response to Stephen Law’s Evil God Challenge. I haven’t finished the video, but I’m finding that the argument he presents is remarkably defeasible. First, I will explain Law’s Evil God Challenge and follow it with William’s response. Lastly, I will explain why I think it fails.

Law’s Evil God Challenge presents a reason to think that traditional theodicies cannot work as defences against the Problem of Evil.

First consider the Evidential Problem of Evil (EPE); i.e. that there is suffering in the world is evidence that there is unlikely to be a supremely good being. In response, theists can provide a variety of theodicies — that bad things happen for some mysterious reason (God works in mysterious ways), or that bad things happen because people have free will, or some other response. It’s unclear whether any of these theodicies can actually deflate EPE, and the intuitions of theists often run counter to those of atheists on this question.

However, Law asks us to next consider a maximally evil god. Most of us would say that there is just too much good stuff in the world to think that a maximally evil god could exist. Nonetheless, an evil god advocate could provide us with mirror theodicies — good things happen for some mysterious reason (evil God works in mysterious ways), or good things happen because people have free will, or some other response.

Most people — theists and non-theists — think that these mirror theodicies are not particularly good defences of the evil god. There’s still too much good in the world for there to be a maximally evil god. Yet they are constructed in complete parallel with the regular theodicies (there’s more detail and argument for this point in his original paper). Thus, the regular theodicies can not work and EPE is a defeater for a maximally good being after all.

Williams’ response is that:

1. Law ignores the traditional [Christian] metaphysics of good/evil, where evil is “parasitical” on good (it’s unclear to me what Williams means here, but I assume that he means that evil was thought, by the Scholastics, to be only the absence of good);

2. Since evil is parasitical on good, it cannot exist without good existing;

3. Conclusion: Therefore, while there could be a maximally good being, there could not be a maximally evil being.

This fails in a number of ways. Here are two.

The Meta Response: Look, the evil god believer could just have their own metaphysics of good/evil. For example:

1. Williams ignores the evil god metaphysics of good/evil, where good is “parasitical” on evil (good is the absence of evil);

2. Since good is parasitical on evil, it cannot exist without evil existing;

3. Conclusion: Therefore, while there could be a maximally evil being, there could not be a maximally good being.

The Little-Bit-Of-Good Response: Williams is right that a completely evil being could not exist, but no one said anything about that. We’re discussing a maximally evil being. Since a totally evil being could not exist, a maximally evil being is one which has the smallest bit of good that a being could have. Actually, this provides us with a new evil God theodicy — there are good things in the world because the evil God has a little bit of good in Her. But, like all other evil God theodicies, this one isn’t very intuitively strong. Unlike other evil God theodicies, the good God mirror theodicy is intuitively weak to theists and non-theists alike — bad things happen in the world because good God has a little bit of evil in Her.

———————————————–

For Law’s original paper on the Evil God Challenge (which appeared in the journal Religious Studies), see here.

Atheism beliefs Dalai Lama Desmond Tutu Interfaith

Re-situating Interfaith Work

Traditionally, many Interfaith efforts have been situated around theories of religious pluralism that make the assumption that all worldviews include a god or a notion of the divine. Worse, that the notion of the divine which appears in these different religious systems is the same notion hidden under different packaging. As atheists have increasingly fought to have a seat at the Interfaith table, they have to struggle to overcome this barrier and to re-situate religious pluralism. However, the situation is not helped by the many theists who still refuse to acknowledge that godless people both exist and deserve to have their voices heard. Worse, Interfaith workers often see their efforts as being openly opposed to the forces of Secularization.

In a recent exchange between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, the Dalai Lama seems to have tried to bring this up, but Tutu had a response that deeply frustrated me (emphasis mine):

[The Dalai Lama] said to the archbishop [Tutu], “The problem is, if we involve religious faith, then there are many varieties and fundamental differences of views. So very complicated.

“That’s why in India”—he pointed a finger at Tutu for emphasis—“when they drafted the constitution they deliberately used secular approach. Too many religions there”—he counted them out one by one with his fingers—“Hindu, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism. So many. And there are godly religions and there are godless religions. Who decides who is right?”

Now that the Dalai Lama had his say, he put his orange visor back on his bald pate.
Tutu replied, “Let me just say that one of the things we need to establish is that”—long pause—“God is not a Christian.”

Tutu’s response is simply a rephrase of the tired and hackneyed “there are many paths to God”.  The phrase ignores the obvious and diverse differences between religions, and it excludes the existence of both godless religions and of non-theistic worldviews. Instead of recognizing and embracing differences, it attempts to erase them — which can hardly be said to be indicative of an attempt at diversity. Proponents of that view often mean to be inclusive, but the overly simplistic way in which that phrase is stated actually excludes instead of includes. In the end, it is sadly just another example of privilege.

The Dalai Lama is not a theist, though he has his own supernatural beliefs. Nonetheless, it saddens me that he did not challenge Tutu on his statement.

———————————————

Edit: My friend Zack suggested “There are many paths to Good” as a replacement of “There are many paths to God”. I like that idea a lot.

Atheism Christianity Environmentalism science and religion

Why are some evangelicals hostile to environmentalism?

Belief matters. Convincing people of that statement is often difficult. After one becomes convinced of that statement (as I am), one wonders why it is not obvious to more people. Beliefs determine our actions; our chances of interacting appropriately with the world correlate pretty highly with how consistently accurate our model of the world is. If I do not have correct beliefs about the meanings of street signs or about what automobiles can do to people, I might think it proper to march out into rush hour traffic.

Or I might cause global warming, while denying that it even exists.

The word “environmentalism” indicates a certain kind of concern with the negative impact that human beings can have on the natural world. Since one’s religious views will often determine how one understands the relationship between humankind and nature, whether or not environmentalism is even seen as legitimate will largely depend on the religious views that one has accepted. If one is motivated by the dominant religion in one’s culture, then even as a non-adherent, one may have an attitude which ultimately originates in religious beliefs.

It has been claimed that Evangelical Christianity is particularly hostile to environmentalism. In fact, early empirical research on the subject identified that, of all of the indices of religiosity that were measured, “only religious fundamentalism consistently predicted environmental attitude and actions” (Emerson, et al). But others disagree. Many other indices of religiosity — church attendance, frequency of prayer, etc — were not found to be strongly correlated with environmental attitudes. Nor was it found that environmental attitudes were significantly different between American Christians or American non-Christians.

Why might there be a relationship between anti-environmentalist attitudes and Evangelical Christianity? The Lynn White Hypothesis (proposed by Lynn White in his The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis) states that this is due to a particular kind of theological view about the relationship between humankind and nature. White argued that the Judeo-Christian creation story provides a view in which humans have mastery and dominion over nature. Importantly, that Genesis 1:28 historically motivated an anti-environmental stance (at least in certain parts of Christianity). Furthermore, at least some Evangelical Christians apparently believe that this world is unimportant because it is about to be destroyed. For at least some Christians, the imminent apocalypse makes concerns about the environment moot.

However, there are other Evangelical Christians who respond to environmental concerns with a much more nuanced reading of Genesis 1:28. They believe that, as human beings, being stewards over the Earth is a responsibility. As faithful believers, they believe that they are expected and charged with caring for the Creation which God made. And, thus, we have the concept of “Christian Stewardship”.

The Evangelicals who take the view that they should be “stewards” of the Earth have the right idea, but for the wrong reason. Importantly, the only reason that they do the right thing is by sheer accident.

————————————

Emerson, M., Mirola, W., & Monahan, S. (2010). Religion matters: What sociology teaches us about religion in our world. Pearson.