From the Mailbag: Atheists in the Closet

As much effort as we freethinkers put into making atheism a viable and socially accepted option, it's important to remember that it's still a difficult feat to extricate oneself from religion when one's family and social life are bound up with church attendance. Consider this e-mail I received a few days ago, whose author's personal information I've omitted:

I just wanted to say thanks for your sites, which I've been reading for about a year now. I'm a 49 year old former Salvation Army minister from the UK, who was a devout Christian for most of my life. Not a fundamentalist, happy with evolution, a 15 billion year old universe and a bible that was not inerrant, but still a Christian.

I had a bout of mental illness a couple of years ago, and after coming through it started to question some of the religious feelings I'd had and the 'inner certainty' that God was speaking to me. The religious awe that had convinced me of the existence of God just seemed to be the other side of the depressive state I had been in, and the voice of God nothing different to the delusions that had told me to commit suicide.

Once I started to question things, the compartmentalisation that had enabled me to retain my faith began to collapse. The questioning led me to your Ebon Musings, and both the essays you have written yourself and the links and references to other authors have helped immensely in developing my new view of the world.

I guess I'm not what you'd call a fully fledged atheist in that although I no longer believe in a God, Christ or any other religious doctrine I still go to church most Sundays, mainly for the social interaction. It's hard to give everything up when all your friends are there, your social life is there, your kids are involved etc. Maybe one day I'll feel able to give it all up, but not just yet.

In the meantime I'll content myself with authors like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Victor Stengler etc, and of course your own Daylight Atheism. That, and knowing that after nearly 50 years I've finally worked things out.

I wrote back to this person to find out whether the other members of his church knew his beliefs had changed, and this was his reply:

I've been (and still am in many cases) a fairly active member; I used to take meetings and open air services (although I've now stopped doing those, ostensibly due to the effects of my breakdown a couple of years ago), but I still wear the uniform, play in the band and take part in other church events and appear to be a 'good soldier'. No-one knows of my change in beliefs except my wife; to come out and say publicly that I no longer believe in god would mean that I'd have to put off the uniform, stop playing (which I love) and wouldn't be able to take part in some events. I'd still be able to go to the meetings with my friends, but it wouldn't be the same.

The core of my difficulties is probably simply that extracting myself from a belief system that I've held for over 40 years was never going to be easy, given the family and social implications that would involve. I'm moved a fair distance in the last couple of years, and maybe I need a few more before I can finally move away completely.

Of all the strings that religion places upon its adherents, social connections can be the most difficult to break. Of course, a church has every incentive to make their followers' entire lives revolve around its events - it increases their obligation and raises the costs of backing out. I think this person is probably wise to bide his time and keep his deconversion a secret until he's ready to announce it on his own terms.

But we out-of-the-closet atheists should keep stories like this one in mind. How many secret atheists are there among the church ranks - or even among the clergy - people who would be open about their atheism if they could, but feel constrained by circumstance to stay silent and go along with the crowd? It seems entirely plausible to me that there are as many closeted atheists as there are open ones, and possibly even more.

The more we do to establish atheism as a positive and accepted alternative to religion, though public advocacy and political activism, the easier we make it for people such as these to come out. We stand to benefit from a positive feedback spiral, a snowballing effect, if we can be successful in our activism. Keep that in mind the next time some pious accommodationist demands we stop voicing our opinions, and think of what that would mean for the people who still don't feel able to fully express themselves.

January 31, 2010, 10:19 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink21 comments
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Open Thread: Feedback on The Aura of Infallibility

About two weeks ago, the following comment was posted on the thread "The Aura of Infallibility" by one of the Christians whom I originally quoted in that post.

There were some other discussions going on at the time and it fell off the recent comments list before it could attract any replies, and I thought it deserved some. So, I'm promoting it to its own thread. I'll write my own response to it (and I'll contact Matt to let him know about this post) - but readers, what say you?

Hi all,

I am the Matt discussed in the original article. I found this to be quite interesting, as it was an approach to the theistic approach to epistemology that I hadn't heard, at least not put quite that way. The specious argument that I am making a claim to infallibility myself when I claim to believe in the Bible's infallibility is really quite stunning when I think about it. The only logical conclusion of such a claim, and the resultant claim that "all knowledge must be provisional" is that none of you know anything at all, in which case why take such an arrogant absolutist tone with those with whom you disagree?

Jesus said to Pontius Pilate, "...I came into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone that is of the truth hears my voice." Pilate's response is, "What is truth?" This exchange reveals perfectly the two different epistemological approaches here. You said all truth must be provisional. But that means that there is no truth, or at least no way for us to ever know that truth. And if so, then there is no right and wrong, no such thing as evil. There is only what works for me as an individual.

And yet you all know full well that that isn't true. You know full well that there are things that are evil, regardless of evolutionary processes or survival needs. You demonstrate that over and over in this thread. You act as absolutist as any Pharisee ever did, insulting the intelligence of those who disagree with you, even casting aspersions on our moral character, describing our perspective as "scary" and the like, in direct contradiction to your insistence that all knowledge must be provisional (which sounds like a pretty absolutist statement itself).

Science is not the only source of knowledge. It's not even the most important one. Within its proper role, science is wonderful, a gift from God to be used to understand His beautiful creation. But each of you have souls, whether you acknowledge that or not, and the image of God within you which teaches you right and wrong, is far more important than science. A good but scientifically illiterate man is a far better man than a scientifically knowledgeable but cruel and deceptive man.

I do not claim infallibility. My views on many subjects have changed. Your arguments on this point are circular. If there is truly a God, and He truly revealed Himself to mankind infallibly, then He can do so in a way which is compelling, and it is no claim of infallibility on my part to say that I have recognized His infallible revelation and submit to it. You say that I am wrong about many things. Why is it somehow different when I say that you are wrong about many things?

Pilate's statement, "What is truth?" was immediately followed by his order for the crucifixion of a man he himself knew to be innocent, because he felt compelled to do so for his own survival. Was he wrong to do it?

December 22, 2009, 6:28 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink220 comments
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A Dialogue with Quixote, Part VII

Hello Quixote,

Considering your last letter to me was some time ago, I apologize for the lateness of my reply. To tell the truth, this was the hardest one for me to write. It's not that I couldn't think of anything to say. Much the opposite: If I had said everything I wanted to say, this post would have been too long! Cutting it down to a reasonable length was more of a struggle than writing it. I've endeavored to edit in a way that does justice to your points and to mine.

I also want to say at the outset that this will be my last reply. I've enjoyed our conversation these past few months; I think we've both had ample opportunity to speak our minds and I'm glad for that. If you'd like to offer some final thoughts in reply to this letter, you're welcome to do so.

While you good folk may connect these observances, and they are real world observances, with logical arguments or rationale for unbelief, most do not. In ministry, we engage believers and unbelievers continuously, and it's a rare bird that cites any of the philosophic staples in my first paragraph, or others like them. The ones who do generally do not exhibit even a serviceable grasp of the attendant issues. This is my overwhelming and consistent experience firsthand.

That may be one of those points where we'll have to differ. In my experience, most atheists, even if they aren't experts in theology, come to atheism because they've decided that something about religious belief doesn't rationally add up. This may, of course, be self-selection bias - it's likely that most of the people who visit Daylight Atheism come here because they like to give thought to these issues.

However, I maintain that since there isn't (yet!) a thriving, real-world atheist community in the same way that there are religious communities, very few people are going to become atheists just because it's the default option in their peer group. Most people who become atheists do so as the result of a conscious decision on their part and an intentional effort to seek out the advocates of that philosophy. Granted, if we're as successful as I'd hope, that may change in a few generations. Greta Christina wrote a very thoughtful post about this (link), about how every social movement needs must start with the most independently-minded, committed people, and how that inevitably diminishes as its goals are accomplished and it becomes a more widely accepted position.

An insulating factor actively laboring against this realization is immersion. I define immersion as a progressive group dynamic which isolates and subsequently reinforces cognitive structures, mores, and peculiar linguistics — and a host of other things — among individuals sharing (un)beliefs and community. We're all guilty of it, and I can't speak for y'all, but one thing accomplished by this dialogue is the weakening of this exclusive immersive web by the coupling of new strands to existing ones.

I couldn't agree more! Why do you think I wanted to do this in the first place?

Lastly, I might also ask you a related question: to what degree is your atheism dependent upon your birth in a western culture steeped in secularism? Would that influence your estimation of the reasonableness of your atheism? I'd also like to hear to what degree you believe your birth into a Judeo-Christian culture has imported tenets from those religions into your atheism, whether consciously or subconsciously.

I don't accept that Western culture, particularly American culture, is steeped in secularism. On the contrary, I'd say that being an atheist where I live requires swimming upstream against an overwhelming tide of public opinion: opinion treating belief in God not just as the expected, but the only moral position. Look at the money in your wallet if you don't think that's true. There may be some places where your remark about our secularism-steeped culture has a degree of truth. But in vast swathes of this country, nonbelief in public life, or even in private life, is all but impossible unless carefully concealed.

I'll grant that living in this culture does make atheism possible - in the sense that, as god-saturated as our society is, we've still managed to carve out some breathing room between religion and government, creating a small space where nonbelief can exist. In many cultures of the past and the present, even that wouldn't have existed, and outspoken atheism would not be an option at all. In those cultures I'd have been imprisoned or worse for saying the kind of things I say nearly every day on this blog.

As for importing Judeo-Christian tenets into my atheism - I don't know, which tenets do you have in mind? There are many moral principles, like the Golden Rule, that find expression in every culture. In our culture, which is heavily influenced by Christian thinking, these universals naturally find expression in a Christian context. In that sense, I'll concede that my worldview has been influenced by these beliefs; it would be virtually impossible for anyone who grew up in 20th-century America to say otherwise. On the other hand, the Bible and historic Christianity have promoted many principles that are antithetical to my worldview, and many social reform movements to whose ideals I subscribe - separation of church and state, women's equality, secular public schools, birth control, GLBT rights - were and often still are viciously attacked for being anti-Christian.

I've never lived a moment without out it that I can recall. There's definitely times when it's stronger, though. After absorbing so much heat for this admission, I'm figuring I should just go ahead and claim it as an evidence for God — I've got nothing to lose! I'd enjoy hearing of your comparable experience...

Well, now you've asked me a hard question! Trying to do justice to experiences like this is like trying to describe the experience of listening to a symphony. But I'll give it my best shot.

This kind of experience tends to come upon me suddenly at my happiest moments, though it sometimes wells up for no apparent reason. (Maybe it's from a little trickle of current in my temporal lobes.) The most salient aspect is a sense of heightened awareness - a feeling that all the world has suddenly become much richer in detail, that everything has become immeasurably more significant. Always accompanying this is a sense of great affection, of love for all the beauty of the world and my fellow living things. And lastly, there's a feeling I can only describe as oceanic: like the boundaries of my self dissolving, being opened up to all the unimaginable vastness of the world, and experiencing it as a source of bliss. In those few perfect moments, it feels as if the world is full of magic, and I've only briefly gained the ability to see it.

I won't say that this state, this awareness, is present in my life every waking moment. But when it does emerge, it's like the sun breaking through clouds, and I wonder how anyone ever does without it.

When I read your commentary and essays, I sense that you consider some things to be right, and others wrong, in a manner that equates them with objective moral values — in a manner that you would consider them right and wrong if you and every other human had never existed; simply put: more than only the natural functioning of a human cortex, a deliverance of human reason, or an emergent consciousness. I'm not convinced yet that your and your commentator's actions match your beliefs. Where is my misstep here?

I do consider that some things are objectively right and others are objectively wrong. However, I do not consider that this is mutually exclusive with the natural functioning of the cortex. I think these explanations are complementary: the existence of conscious, reasoning beings brings right and wrong into the world, just as it brings in a whole host of other abstract concepts - democracy, for example, or money, or science, or music. It wouldn't make sense to say that those things aren't "real", that they're just tricks of the cerebral cortex. We make them real by participating in them.

How can you prove that the only reason God would permit evil to occur is to bring about some other end?

Truthfully, I think that's the only defense a Christian could possibly offer, even as unsatisfactory as it is (a point you seem to agree with, if I read you correctly). For if God did not create evil as a means to some other end, there's only one other logically possible option: that God created evil as an end in itself. In other words, he created evil for its own sake. That's the definition of what an evil being is, and that creates an irreconcilable contradiction with the core tenet of Christianity that God is good.

If a genuine free will exists, not every possible world is feasible for God to create, and the one we know may just be the possible world feasible for God to create that contains the most good with the least amount of evil given the counterfactuals of creaturely free action. As I think I'm on the side of reason here, I'll endure the Panglossian taunts happily.

I really doubt that very strongly. When you look out at this world, you can't think of any way it could be improved? We wouldn't stand to gain by making human beings more empathetic, less prone to resort to violence to settle their disagreements? We couldn't gain by making free agents who are more inclined to take the long view, less inclined to value immediate short-term gain? By making people who are more courageous and morally steadfast, less willing to compromise their principles for material benefit?

These are all contingent parameters of human behavior that could hypothetically be altered; a creator could twiddle those knobs without depriving us of free will. If you really think this world is unimprovable, that's your right. All I can say, though, is that if God turned things over to me, it wouldn't take long to draw up a list of fixes.

Put yourself in my shoes for a moment: if you were convinced there existed an all-wise, all-good, all-powerful being, wouldn't you trust in Him with regard to evil?

If I was convinced of the exact statement you gave, yes, I'd pretty much have to. However, that's because your conclusion is contained in your premise: if there existed an all-wise, all-good, all-powerful being, it follows as a matter of logic that there can be no unnecessary evil in the world. But that's putting the cart before the horse. I see no rational way to draw such an inference, given the fact that unnecessary evil manifestly does exist. How anyone could look at this world and infer that supreme moral goodness intended it all to be this way, that's a conclusion I simply can't see any way to justify.

As I've said before, to infer moral goodness, one has to have at least some understanding of the actor's motives. But you say we should treat God's plan as a mystery, that we can't know he doesn't have good reasons of his own and therefore should trust him. Again, this is putting the cart before the horse. If God's motives are unknown to us, to be consistent, you'd have to say that his moral status, good or bad, is also an unknown quantity. Believing that God is absolutely good and that he has a motive for all the evil he causes is an argument that goes straight from premise to conclusion without any intervening steps.

August 30, 2009, 3:11 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink12 comments
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A Dialogue with Quixote, Part VI

To my friend Ebonmuse,

Offered with genuine respect to the readership and commentators of DA,

The presumption of atheism, the hiddenness of God, the Problem of Evil, the Euthyphro dilemma, epistemic warrant, Pascal's wager, NOMA, Hume's critique of the miraculous, the Kalam cosmological argument...

I'm near concluding that I've interacted with far more atheists — or perhaps far more atheists and agnostics of a different type than those who frequent internet blogs — than many here at DA. The man on the street who doubts God's existence, or flat out denies Him, usually does so because his wife passed away unexpectedly, or because his neighbor attends church, presenting a holier-than-thou exterior while sleeping with another neighbor's wife.

While you good folk may connect these observances, and they are real world observances, with logical arguments or rationale for unbelief, most do not. In ministry, we engage believers and unbelievers continuously, and it's a rare bird that cites any of the philosophic staples in my first paragraph, or others like them. The ones who do generally do not exhibit even a serviceable grasp of the attendant issues. This is my overwhelming and consistent experience firsthand. It's not at all likely to be mistaken, but I'm willing to listen...

In my experience, people prove more irrational than rational — not necessarily in an epistemological sense — in all matters of life, including their beliefs about God. I count myself among their number, admittedly. Hence, Ebon, we may have to ultimately disagree with regard to the primary reasons people believe or disbelieve.

I could very well be wrong, but I think this disagreement may stem from the premium placed upon rationality here. I applaud y'all for your single-mindedness aimed at Reason; however, I think the reasonable should acknowledge their frequent unreasonableness. It's a human condition, not to mention the noetic effects of sin.

An insulating factor actively laboring against this realization is immersion. I define immersion as a progressive group dynamic which isolates and subsequently reinforces cognitive structures, mores, and peculiar linguistics — and a host of other things — among individuals sharing (un)beliefs and community. We're all guilty of it, and I can't speak for y'all, but one thing accomplished by this dialogue is the weakening of this exclusive immersive web by the coupling of new strands to existing ones.

People do convert in adulthood, but we both know that that's relatively rare. For the most part, the things that people were raised to believe are the ones that they end up believing for the rest of their lives.

Would you agree with that? If so, I'm curious how it influences your belief in the reasonableness of your faith... Do you think that should mean anything to people who live in a largely Christian country and are Christians themselves?

Statistically, it's an unavoidable conclusion that the older one becomes the less likely s/he will believe. I assume it's the same with belief deconverting, but I'm not aware of any studies. I comprehend how the cultural particularism you cite supports your unbelief, and, in fact, now that I think about it, it's another common reason for unbelief. We should incorporate it into the list.

But I don't feel the weight of the objection. I prefer Calvinistic, and to a lesser degree, Molinistic theologies relating to the Christian God. Both of these systems do not posit that God calls every person in the same manner, nor do they posit that He is obligated to do so, for a variety of plausible reasons from both compatibilistic and libertarian viewpoints, respectively. For like and similar rationale, the hiddenness of God objection does not weigh heavily upon me.

Moreover, I'm pleased to report that Christianity is currently exploding worldwide. It is growing faster than at any time in its history. It is experiencing historic, unprecedented growth in Asia, Africa, and other places not normally associated with Christianity, as well as in Latin America. If current trends hold, the locus of Christianity may no longer reside as it traditionally has within Europe or North America. Thus, it may just turn out that all cultures are equally represented when it's all said and done. I suspect we may already be nearing that balance right now.

Lastly, I might also ask you a related question: to what degree is your atheism dependent upon your birth in a western culture steeped in secularism? Would that influence your estimation of the reasonableness of your atheism? I'd also like to hear to what degree you believe your birth into a Judeo-Christian culture has imported tenets from those religions into your atheism, whether consciously or subconsciously.

Is this sensation a continual awareness, or are there moments when it's absent and others when it's especially intense?

I've never lived a moment without out it that I can recall. There's definitely times when it's stronger, though. After absorbing so much heat for this admission, I'm figuring I should just go ahead and claim it as an evidence for God — I've got nothing to lose! I'd enjoy hearing of your comparable experience...

But human beings are conscious, rational creatures who can explicitly reflect on and compare reasons in order to steer our own behavior. That makes us moral agents who bear real responsibility for the actions we undertake.

I quite agree, Ebon, in spite of your usage of the word "rational," and please believe me when I say that in the event there is no God, you've created as healthy an ethical system as I've encountered, and I'll gladly sign the social contract with you. However, and I suspect you will agree with me, we still have significant differences here: objective moral values, ultimate responsibility, etc. I will say this, though, and I hope you accept it in the manner it's intended: after reading you, and your commentators, for more than a year, it's my distinct impression that you are more moral than "conscious, rational creatures who can explicitly reflect on and compare reasons in order to steer [your] own behavior." When I read your commentary and essays, I sense that you consider some things to be right, and others wrong, in a manner that equates them with objective moral values — in a manner that you would consider them right and wrong if you and every other human had never existed; simply put: more than only the natural functioning of a human cortex, a deliverance of human reason, or an emergent consciousness. I'm not convinced yet that your and your commentator's actions match your beliefs. Where is my misstep here?

the only reason God would permit evil to occur is to bring about some other end, some other goal that he desires...What grounds can there be for reaching a different conclusion in the case of evil?

To borrow your quite clever phrase, my friend, you've answered your own question. This illustrates the reason you've reached your conclusion inductively, rather than deductively. It's simply too heavy a burden to prove that God cannot have a morally sufficient reason for so doing. How can you prove that the only reason God would permit evil to occur is to bring about some other end? Certainly you wouldn't claim to know everything God knows. I'm not certain you could successfully support this premiss with respect to an infinitely closer, finite authority to yourself, say, the US President — much less God.

Furthermore, I'd quibble a bit with your definition of omnipotence, and the ramifications thereof. I'd define omnipotence, non-technically, as God's ability to execute or accomplish His holy will. It seems false to me to claim that God can directly actualize any logically possible state of affairs: for instance, it is a logically possible state of affairs that God does not exist!

When we entertain possible world semantics and modal logic, you're correct in noting that the normative Christian answer revolves around free will. If a genuine free will exists, not every possible world is feasible for God to create, and the one we know may just be the possible world feasible for God to create that contains the most good with the least amount of evil given the counterfactuals of creaturely free action. As I think I'm on the side of reason here, I'll endure the Panglossian taunts happily.

But as you've noted, I've expressed concerns with the free will defense. I'm just not convinced libertarian freedom of the will is true. If it is, then the free will defense is widely accepted as successful by atheist and theist alike, as I noted in the last post. If not, then obviously I'll have a more difficult time handling the POE.

So, I'll be honest, and consider the POE without resorting to free will, even if it costs me some points. Evil is a great mystery—its origin, much more so than the POE itself, actually. This, I think, is related to Erika's most thoughtful comment:

Quixote addressed the technical question of whether or not the problem of evil disproved God, but he never addressed the more interesting question of how goodness could provide evidence for God without evil presenting equally compelling evidence against God.

As I said in the beginning, it would be unreasonable for either of you to analyze every point made by the other, but if either you or Quixote find this asymmetry in the treatment of observations interesting, I would request that it be brought up again.

I do find it interesting, and would say in response that, to me, evil presents compelling evidence for God, rather than against Him:

P1 If God did not exist, then objective moral values would not exist.

P2 Evil exists.

P3 Therefore, objective moral values exist (from P2)

C Therefore, God exists (MT, P1, P3)

To me then, the existence of evil deductively requires the conclusion that God exists. I readily acknowledge that this argument, though valid, is not sound for every rational agent. But for those of us who find the existence of objective moral values compelling, and their sole ground to be in God, the conclusion follows necessarily. Stated another way, for those of us to whom the premisses of this argument are even more plausible than their denials, the conclusion follows necessarily.

Truly, I think most Christians are troubled by evil, just as most atheists are, and just as I am. Nevertheless, I don't think most Christians are that troubled by the POE. I'm not. Put yourself in my shoes for a moment: if you were convinced there existed an all-wise, all-good, all-powerful being, wouldn't you trust in Him with regard to evil? I can only think your honest answer would be yes, if you adopted the presuppositions, but be sure to let me know if I'm wrong. At any rate, it affords Christians a way to embrace the problem of the existence of evil in a manner unavailable to atheists. What do you think?

Respectfully,

MS Quixote

I'd like to add a few words in response to the logical positivist/verificationists from the last thread as well. As far as I've seen, Ebon, you're not a part of this group, as you accept knowledge that is not delivered by testable science.

If testable science is posited as the only source of knowledge, then the claim that testable science is the only source of knowledge is self-refuting.

Moreover, the claim is demonstrably false. I'll pit one of your own poets' works, Shelley's Ozymandias, against any deliverance of science of your choosing: there's no scientific fact that delivers knowledge any more reliable or any more valuable than that delivered in Ozymandias. An inexhaustible supply of examples remains at our disposal.

Furthermore, consider this excellent comment of Greta's that actually, and deservedly, won its thread—thanks for this one Greta, it hadn't occurred to me previously:

Emphasis added, to make this point:

He is, in fact, ruling out a hypothesis at the outset. He is ruling out the hypothesis that the natural/ material world is all there is. By seeking out consultants who don't limit themselves to the natural/ material world, he is essentially refusing to talk to anyone who doesn't already agree that the supernatural world exists.

The hypothesis that naturalism is all there is is valid, as far as I'm concerned. But not to the verificationists...it doesn't meet their standard, nor do forty or so of their own comments from the last thread. The only thing I've been able to conclude from this, and I've waited all this time to ensure that I wasn't chiming in prematurely, is that this is only a mechanism designed to preclude belief in God, and what I had in mind from my original post when I mentioned a walling off of what can be known...

After all is said and done, theism's empirically verifiable, naturalism's not. Naturalism's falsifiable, theism's not. And, in my view, life is one grandiose experiment: the living is the hypothesis and experimentation set-up phase...the results come in four score and ten, on average.

June 16, 2009, 10:02 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink121 comments
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A Dialogue with Quixote, Part V

Hello Quixote,

In reference to your list of reasons why people become atheists or theists, I have to disagree. I don't think most of those are the initial reasons why people choose one or the other. Many of them are common causes that are frequently taken up by people on one side or the other, or are shared aspects of membership in those communities, it's true. But I don't think people become atheists because they have more fun than theists (although, if true, that might be a reason why people stay atheists), or that people become theists because of the sense of community they get from attending church (although, again, that might be a reason why they stay theists).

However, I would zero in one item of your second list, the first item: Most people who are theists were taught from childhood to believe that way. People do convert in adulthood, but we both know that that's relatively rare. For the most part, the things that people were raised to believe are the ones that they end up believing for the rest of their lives.

Would you agree with that? If so, I'm curious how it influences your belief in the reasonableness of your faith. If you (or I) were raised in a predominantly Muslim country, we'd almost certainly be Muslims; if in a Buddhist country, we'd more likely be Buddhists. Do you think that should mean anything to people who live in a largely Christian country and are Christians themselves?

That this particular portion of my initial post would have garnered the interest it has baffles me, to be honest. I inserted it as almost an afterthought, because I suspect many theists use this awareness as a basis for God's existence. I do not, nor am I the charismatic type Christian who would be prone to such experiences.

It doesn't surprise me at all. I think that many atheists find this the most novel claim in the theist's arsenal, as well as the one they're personally least familiar with. And notwithstanding the fact that you don't rely on it as the primary basis for your belief, I think most theists do. In fact, for many of them, I think it's the first reason they would give.

From what you've said so far, this is a hard thing to describe. I accept that, but I'd like to explore it a little more, with your permission. I've had experiences that strike me as comparable, but maybe if we talk it over a bit more, we can see if we're talking about the same thing. Here's the most important thing I'm curious about: Is this sensation a continual awareness, or are there moments when it's absent and others when it's especially intense?

...how you would ever conclude that there is evil and injustice. If these things come about by accident, as you say, why would we consider them good? If they come about by random chance, where's the injustice or the evil? Certainly you don't conclude that there's evil and injustice in the insect world, yet if we're the same product of naturalism that the insect kingdom is, and there's no higher authority overseeing our existence, why would we presume that there's actual injustice or evil simply because we're a more highly evolved lifeform with an emergent consciousness?

You've answered your own question, my friend. Insects are programmed by genes and instinct, and cannot choose in any meaningful way how to live their lives. But human beings are conscious, rational creatures who can explicitly reflect on and compare reasons in order to steer our own behavior. That makes us moral agents who bear real responsibility for the actions we undertake. If we suffer harm that is not merited by our actions, then an injustice is done, even if it's not done by someone. Similarly, a natural event may be good for us, in accordance with our reasons and desires, even if it was not caused by a conscious being. Our quest for justice is really the quest to impose a rational pattern on an irrational world, to bring the world into alignment with what a consideration of our reasons would suggest.

The primary cause of this wholesale withdrawal has been the inability for philosophers to demonstrate that God cannot possess a morally sufficient reason to permit evil.

With respect to the philosophers you cite, I don't agree. Assuming evil is not an end in itself, the only reason God would permit evil to occur is to bring about some other end, some other goal that he desires. But if God is omnipotent, that can never be necessary. That's what omnipotence means: an omnipotent being can directly actualize any logically possible state of affairs, and is not bound, as we are, by the necessity to use tools or contrivances.

If God wants to cross a river, he doesn't need to create stepping stones in the water; he can just teleport to the other side. If God wants to start a fire, he doesn't need matches or tinder; he just creates fire. I don't think you would disagree with either of those statements. What grounds can there be for reaching a different conclusion in the case of evil?

I know the usual Christian response to this question is that true free will requires the ability to do wrong. But - not to preempt your reply - I don't think that's the one you'll go for, unless I've misunderstood your views on the nature of humanity's relationship to God. Of course, I await your reply to see I've gone astray!

June 1, 2009, 9:59 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink29 comments
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A Dialogue with Quixote, Part IV

Hello Ebon,

To approach your larger question, what are the real reasons people believe or disbelieve, I've offered a bulletized list for anyone who's interested in pursuing this question:

For theists, then:

These, and probably more could be added, are reasons for belief and unbelief. Faith and unbelief, in my experience with people, is generally caught and not taught. The well-considered reasons generally follow; there are notable exceptions, I'm sure, but it's not normative for the well-considered reasons to lead. If you like, we can add, delete, unpack, and/or expand these.

To your specific questions, then:

"That said, I am interested to know more about this feeling you speak of, and I'd like to hear you describe it in more detail, if you can. Is it a unique quale, something indescribable through other sensory modalities, or is it an awareness that comes through the usual five senses?"

That this particular portion of my initial post would have garnered the interest it has baffles me, to be honest. I inserted it as almost an afterthought, because I suspect many theists use this awareness as a basis for God's existence. I do not, nor am I the charismatic type Christian who would be prone to such experiences. I suspect my temperament mirrors yours in many respects.

Nevertheless, we imagine ourselves separated by a gulf of experience, so let's press on the best we can. Can I describe this awareness to you in more detail? I doubt it. The closest I might bring you to the experience is your encounter with the sublime or perhaps the numinous, so let's take a quick look at both.

Certainly you've encountered the sublime: a gaze at a sunset, a fascination with the stars, a sense of something greater than yourself. In fact, I believe I recall your exposition of the sublime from an atheist's perspective in one of your essays. I'd not suggest to you that your confrontation with the sublime is equivalent to the awareness I've mentioned. It's not; however, theists tend to meld the two in their minds, so perhaps that experience of the stars at night is as close as I can guide you to my personal experience. I suspect it is.

But, perhaps the numinous, a term coined by Rudolf Otto as far as I know, is more fertile ground. Otto described the sense of contact with a being wholly other as the numinous. While I would not describe God as wholly other — there must be some common frame of reference for contact with God if we were to know him — the conception of a being similar to the attributes customarily ascribed to the Christian God should engender a sensation of the numinous. The feeling produced by the holy God described by Christianity may cause this aspect of Otto's numinous: the mysterium tremendum, an unsettling awareness, one perhaps of fear. Moreover, there's the mysterium fascinas: as the phrase suggests, an awareness of a being so infinitely wonderful that it's irresistible in its allure.

Hopefully, that gives you an inkling of the experience. It's an odd situation. I have no doubt of your honesty when you claim to possess no like experience, yet I'm certain that billions of theists would report similar experiences. They'll know what I'm talking about, but collectively we won't be able to adequately explain it to you.

In that manner, it does resemble a quale, doesn't it? But I hesitate to term it such, for it ushers in a host of philosophic associations that may or may not be helpful, and they may very well prove misleading. I also hesitate to utilize the conceptions of sensory modality and the usual five senses. An historic theological phrase, the sensus divinitatis, is more than likely the best descriptive vehicle, but it carries baggage when used around atheists that I'd rather not unearth, as I've stated previously on DA. What I can say — for myself, that is — is that it appears to be part of an epistemic cognitive function capable of apprehending this awareness.

But, of course, this last statement is contingent upon the de facto consideration of whether God exists. If He does not in reality exist, then your (and mine, actually) likely conclusion that I have a God gene or some other neurological peculiarity, as you put it, seems almost certain. That, or I'm simply deluded. Either way, it would seem that here I stand, I can do no other, unless of course you are successful in convincing me that God does not in fact exist, which may not prevent the awareness, but only provide me a better explanation for the phenomenon. Naturally, another option is that God actually exists, and this awareness somehow is reflective of an actual presence. And, if we care at all to logic, it would appear that there may be other possibilities available to us as well: perhaps God exists and this awareness is in no way related to him. Whatever the case may be, the question is bound inexorably to the de facto question of existence, so while it may be interesting to ponder, it seems to me it has to be tabled until the time that question is actually settled. Until that time, if there is one, the theist and atheist are likely to proceed with their thinking in relation to this question based upon their current beliefs.

So, then to your second concern:

"Why is it the case that justice, consciousness and the like raise the odds in favor of a world-with-God hypothesis over those of a world-without-God hypothesis?"

As you well know, this question, and any subsequent answer by a Christian, will mire us in the invariable discussions endlessly volleyed by Christians and atheists. And it leads the theist inexorably into an axiological argument for God's existence. For example, I'd be interested to know based on your description of the world as you see it:

"It's easy to see how those good things you mention could come about by accident, at least some of the time, in a world with no higher authority; random chance will sometimes turn out in our favor, sometimes not. But I think it's a lot more challenging to explain how evil and injustice could come to be in a world overseen by a deity that does not desire such things."

how you would ever conclude that there is evil and injustice. If these things come about by accident, as you say, why would we consider them good? If they come about by random chance, where's the injustice or the evil? Certainly you don't conclude that there's evil and injustice in the insect world, yet if we're the same product of naturalism that the insect kingdom is, and there's no higher authority overseeing our existence, why would we presume that there's actual injustice or evil simply because we're a more highly evolved lifeform with an emergent consciousness? Did we awaken in this world as Gregor Samsa, as monstrous vermin?

But before we do all that, let me address the greater question of the problem of evil:

"But I think it's a lot more challenging to explain how evil and injustice could come to be in a world overseen by a deity that does not desire such things."

We need to frame this question before delving into it. Many atheists, not to suggest yourself, are unaware that the logical problem of evil is now, I'm pleased to report, widely abandoned. The logical, or deductive form of the problem of evil attempts to demonstrate that the propositions "God exists" and "evil exists" are contradictories. The primary cause of this wholesale withdrawal has been the inability for philosophers to demonstrate that God cannot possess a morally sufficient reason to permit evil. Hence, there exists no persuasive deductive path to demonstrate successfully a contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil.

For instance, the highly esteemed atheist philosopher, and former DA poster, I believe, Dr. Michael Martin has stated "Most philosophers now believe that there is good reason why the Deductive Argument from Evil fails: it is logically possible that evil can exist even if God exists if God has good moral reasons for allowing it." Moreover, atheist philosopher William Rowe states "Some philosophers have contended that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with the existence of the theistic God. No one, I think, has succeeded in establishing such an extravagant claim. Indeed, granted incompatibilism, there is a fairly compelling argument for the view that the existence of evil is logically consistent with the existence of God."

While this is inconclusive in itself with regard to whether the problem of evil is a true defeater for God's existence, I think it is important to note that there's no logical or deductive path between the existence of God and the existence of evil that impedes belief or founds unbelief. Thus, the problem of evil is relegated to inductive or abductive arguments.

In fairness, then, I would expect every atheist to approach the POE with the same level of skepticism they showed with my hinted at inductive arguments for the existence of God; that is, I would expect them to accuse themselves of the very things they accuse me of — appeals to ignorance, personal incredulity, and the like — before accepting the POE as evidence against God. For every atheist that truly applies this skepticism to his own argument, I take no exception to their rejection of God.

Moreover, inductive arguments often fall prey to emotionalism, and this fact is exacerbated with subjects such as evil. Very often an atheist's rejection of God is based on emotionalism combined with the problem of evil. I think this is self-evident with regard to your greater question as to why some people disbelieve, and I would guess that it is a common path trodden by those deconverting from theism to atheism. Again, if any of your readers have taken the intellectual steps to ensure this is not the case with their thought process, and still remain convinced, I take no exception. In general, I take no exception to honest, well-thought through belief or unbelief.

So, properly framed, let's see where the discussion leads. The POE, the axiological argument, or perhaps "And Now for Something Completely Different."

May 11, 2009, 8:17 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink172 comments
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A Dialogue with Quixote, Part III

Hello again Quixote,

In reply to your last letter:

Since we're discussing the real reasons why people become atheists or theists, I concede you make a good point about how many people have just never thought all that deeply about it. That's a good point which I suspect we'll have occasion to return to. I agree that people who've devoted extensive time to investigation and self-reflection are the odd ones out, compared to the population as a whole. (That makes me doubly glad we're engaging in this exercise, because the world needs as much introspection as it can get!)

I would stress, however, this is probably somewhat less true for atheism. Certainly you can be an atheist without thinking too much about it, but it's nevertheless true that in most of the world, some religion or other is still the default option. It takes a certain amount of swimming against the tide to become an atheist, no matter where you're born. Of course, if atheism ever becomes a popular and established alternative, then it will be true that some people will be raised atheist just as many people are raised theist.

This leads into something else I wanted to comment about:

If existence does in fact precede essence, and my actions determine meaning in my life, then how does the choice to believe in God differ from any other choice, Sartre's wish to be unobserved notwithstanding?

This may surprise some of my readers, but I don't think the choice of whether or not to believe in God is the most important decision a person can make in their life. Far more important, in my view, is what moral system you hold and how you relate to your fellow human beings. If it's a good philosophy, I'm not all that concerned with whatever naturalistic or supernatural premises you put behind it (see my essay "Enemy of Faith").

That said, just because we're free to choose doesn't mean that all choices are created equal. I think knowing what's true is a valuable thing in its own right, and if I go through life deceived - particularly if I'm deceived about something important - then I think there's a meaningful sense in which my life is worse than it could otherwise have been, even if my false belief never becomes known to me or causes a bad outcome to one of my other decisions. Making a "good enough" choice is a benchmark, but we can also go further and ask: Am I making the best choice?

If such a thing as proper basicality obtains, belief in God is certainly properly basic in the classic foundational sense. It's incorrigible, presenting itself as clearly as pain. No wonder most theists do think God is as evident as the sun.

I think there's an obvious rejoinder here which you haven't acknowledged: If God's existence is so obvious, why is there so much disagreement about it?

As you must certainly be aware, there are millions of believers worldwide in hundreds of sects, all of whom insist that their perception of God is clear, unimpaired, and correct, who nevertheless disagree dramatically about fundamental issues of the nature, characteristics, and desires of this God.

For instance, there are large numbers of theists who believe that God is basically like a human being, only larger - he gets angry and jealous, he forgives, he cares about the minutiae of our daily lives, he favors some people and disfavors others, he can be flattered or persuaded through prayer. There are also large numbers of theists who believe that God is not personal, but is more like an immanent vital force that permeates the universe. Some people believe God is a trinity, others a unity, and for much of history, the dominant view was that there was a whole pantheon of gods each overseeing a different aspect of nature. Some people believe that God is still actively involved in the creation and working miracles; others believe in a deist clockmaker who started off the universe and hasn't done much since.

And, of course, there are atheists. Unless one takes the stance that every professed atheist is being deliberately dishonest - and I know that's not a position you take - I don't see an easy explanation for why that awareness of God you write about hasn't affected us. All I can say for myself is that I have no awareness of any such being, nor any sense of an absence that such belief would fill. If you're certain that you've experienced something different, I may have to say, with David Hume, that "we are essentially different in this particular". Of course, one can postulate that God is deliberately withholding his presence from some people. Then again, one could also say that some people have some sensory or neurological peculiarity that causes them to perceive a presence where none exists.

That said, I am interested to know more about this feeling you speak of, and I'd like to hear you describe it in more detail, if you can. Is it a unique quale, something indescribable through other sensory modalities, or is it an awareness that comes through the usual five senses?

Also, it seems to me that such a manner of knowing could point to God only as a simple, unitary essence - not as a being with complex desires, traits, and dispositions. It's true that I would find it hard to explain the basis for my belief, "My friend Mr. Jones is standing in front of me." But if you asked me to substantiate the statement, "My friend Mr. Jones is a generous person," I would be able to cite evidence: various statements he's made, acts he's taken, gifts he's given. None of these things boil down to mere intuition on my part. Isn't there a large distinction between the philosopher's God who's a properly basic belief and nothing more, and the world-creating, rule-decreeing, miracle-working, sin-forgiving God of Christianity?

And now, to your second point:

Our shared observation of the universe — love, morality, justice, consciousness, justice, you know the drill — screams God as the best explanation for the theist.

Again, this hearkens back to a point in my last letter. If the existence of justice, morality and the like point toward the existence of God, then it seems to me that injustice and immorality must be evidence against the existence of God. It's easy to see how those good things you mention could come about by accident, at least some of the time, in a world with no higher authority; random chance will sometimes turn out in our favor, sometimes not. But I think it's a lot more challenging to explain how evil and injustice could come to be in a world overseen by a deity that does not desire such things.

Furthermore, to the degree that morality and justice exist in our world, they are human creations. They are not woven into the fabric of the cosmos, nor would they exist in our absence. If they existed naturally, without our intervention - if lightning always struck evildoers, say, or virtuous people consistently won the lottery - then I agree you'd have a case for an outside power in control of nature that cared about such things. But as I said, the world lacks any such obvious moral order, so I don't think I see what you're getting at here. Can you elaborate? Why is it the case that justice, consciousness and the like raise the odds in favor of a world-with-God hypothesis over those of a world-without-God hypothesis?

May 4, 2009, 6:35 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink52 comments
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A Dialogue with Quixote, Part II

[Editor's Note: Yesterday, I posted the first in a series of letters exchanged between myself and Quixote, as part of a discussion of the most important reasons why people become theists or atheists. This is Quixote's first reply.]

Most analytic varieties of atheism seem committed to experience, science, and reason as foundations of rational belief. Consider John Shook's definition of Naturalism, as published on Naturalisms.org:

Naturalism is usually defined most briefly as the philosophical conclusion that the only reality is nature, as gradually discovered by our intelligence using the tools of experience, reason, and science.

As a Christian theist, I'm happily inclined to agree with experience, science, and reason as foundations of rationality, and as fundamentals of belief; ironically, were I an atheist, I might not so eagerly consent. Continental philosophy beckons from her paradoxical twin towers of being and nothingness.

Fundamentally, however, I comprehend the commonplace, everyman approach to atheism — any who wish to maintain that atheism does not posit positive beliefs may substitute naturalism as defined above — and theism as occurring without substantive personal discourse, without ponderous reflection, without consistent dark nights of the soul. For the theist, the natural and logical consequence is a simple, generic fideism, but first to the atheist.

Most elite atheists, those characterized by education, and say, a working knowledge of the Euthyphro dilemma (ED), seem blissfully unaware that the seemingly overwhelming majority of their fellows engage in afideism. I prefer to call them when you're dead, you're dead atheists. This subset of atheism requires absolutely no rationale for a rejection of God belief, no finely tuned argumentation against God's existence, no consideration of theistic thought on the matter. One non-believer I questioned in this regard today said "It's a waste of time to think about that." In fact, the epistemological challenges frequently raised by elite atheists against theists apply with full force to the elite atheists' philosophically unsophisticated bedfellows.

The resemblance of most theists to when you're dead, you're dead atheists is strikingly noteworthy. This very day I queried a very close Christian believer, in order to flesh out Ebon's question. "Why do you believe in God?" I asked. "I don't know," she said. "I never thought about it. I just always have. I can't not believe. It's impossible." To further complicate matters, though she was raised to believe in God, so was her sister. Her sister never believed.

Hence, what are the most fundamental reasons why people become atheists or theists? I conclude that whatever the primary answer to the question is, no answer without sufficient motivational imbrication over the two groups seems plausible. But primarily, be it theistic or atheistic, most people appear to approach this question with simple faith, or simple non-faith. The assertion that the realm of fideism is inhabited solely by theists is false.

Then there's the rest of us on opposite sides who pore over arcane texts, cruise blogs, enroll in Philosophy of Religion classes, wrestle with pedantic points, and yes, even work once more through the ontological argument for God's existence. We're the strange ones, my fellow travelers. And I'm glad to share the road with you. I encourage you to follow me at the fork — it's a road less traveled, but as Frost wrote, it's made all the difference to me.

Ebon has submitted two initial reasons he's an atheist. I'd like to respond directly, and will, but first I owe him some positive assertions from my side of the Maginot line. With that image in mind, I'd also like to reaffirm at the outset some ground rules I intend to honor as this discussion matures:

The following, then, are personal reasons for my faith, not intricate arguments. Let's begin with experience, and I desire to be transparent about my faith in God. Awareness of God presents itself immediately to most, if not all, theists. I'm no different, and I make no apology for this sense of the divine. I've admitted such previously on Daylight Atheism: I can't remember a time I did not believe in God. I'm like the lady quoted above: I can't not believe. I am able to imagine a world without God for limited stretches, but it requires effort and vigilance. In essence, it's unnatural for me.

Nor do I think I need to apologize. If such a thing as properly basicality obtains, belief in God is certainly properly basic in the classic foundational sense. It's incorrigible, presenting itself as clearly as pain. No wonder most theists do think God is as evident as the sun.

Moreover, a Kierkegaardian leap of faith — not that I claim this for myself in an absolute sense — is no less justified than any naturalistic existential philosophy. If existence does in fact precede essence, and my actions determine meaning in my life, then how does the choice to believe in God differ from any other choice, Sartre's wish to be unobserved notwithstanding?

Secondly, most Christians find the Bible persuasive, and found their faith on Scripture. I'm no different in this regard. Unlike many, I'm intimately aware of the counterarguments to this claim. Nevertheless, I embrace Christianity in its full supernatural rigor. And, I concur; considering the Bible and Christianity without a prior God belief is meaningless. There's a reason Christ told Nicodemus you must be born again before you can see the kingdom. The Bible and Christianity will appear particularly foolish to any naturalist, and I don't hold this against any particular naturalist in the least. Conversely, I predict it.

This immediate sense of God is supported, then, by a great nexus of reason and observation. Reason undergirds theism, in my estimation. While there may or may not be one ironclad argument that demonstrates the existence of God beyond a shadow of a doubt, there are a host of valid, and I think sound, deductive arguments for God's existence. To these are added inductive arguments based on observation. Our shared observation of the universe — love, morality, justice, consciousness, justice, you know the drill — screams God as the best explanation for the theist. The existence of these arguments and observation, taken together with the direct experience of God, and in the case of Christians through Scripture as well, presents a formidable web of supporting evidence for faith in God.

Is there a confirmation bias, or some other form of bias operating within the theist in considering this question? Does the theist's sense of God influence her thought with regard to argument's for God's existence, her experience, her observations? There's no question in my mind... of course, there's bias. I'm biased toward belief in God. I freely admit it, and guard against it to the best of my ability. Nonetheless, bias is a shared failing of humanity. Naturalists are as biased to the question as anyone else. Realizing this is the starter's pistol for reason, not the finish line.

On the negative side, non-theism, as an alternative to theism, lacks, in my estimation, sufficient explanatory power to entail the whole of my experience, reason, and observation. A methodological naturalism is highly successful in determining the temperature at which water boils, and in this sense it is the best solution to the way the world works. Mr. Shook points to this phenomenon as evidence for Naturalism, since theism is invoked increasingly at the boundaries of what is known.

I reject this notion, however. My most intimate observations and intuitions argue against Naturalism — consciousness, the soul, good and evil, a sense of God, personality — and, likewise, the very borders of the universe, its beginning, the great sub-atomic realm, and the existence of abstract objects and properties, by definition are at the fringes of what can be known or tested scientifically; yet, they are crucial to a systematic consideration of faith or non-faith. Perhaps the naturalist is correct in his confidence that these questions will be resolved naturalistically, but from our historical vantage point, which is the only one we have to go by, this appears a fantastic claim given the present state of knowledge, and our shared notions of science's capabilities and the manner in which it functions.

Furthermore, I have asserted above a program of natural theology, which I consider to be successful taken as a whole. In this, then, I detect in Naturalism an arbitrary walling-off of what can be known. Lastly, it does not appear clear to me, both logically and intuitively, that Naturalism could ever demonstrate its own claims. This is the great irony of the theism/non-theism debate.

I have run a bit long, and for that I apologize. To remain faithful to the question, I have attempted to provide fundamental reasons why theists believe in God, not specific justifications for those reasons. In this, I will make myself available to address any specific questions to the issues raised.

April 30, 2009, 7:31 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink195 comments
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A Dialogue with Quixote

Since its inception, Daylight Atheism has been first and foremost a platform for atheist thought. We've had plenty of theist commenters, but never an entire post written by a theist - until now.

Some of you may recognize Quixote, who's been a commenter here for some time. There have been many theists commenting on Daylight Atheism whose beliefs I've strongly disagreed with, and (I like to think) many theists whom I've been able to converse with in a spirit of civility and friendship, but I don't think any other visitor on DA combines those qualities in as high a measure as he does. That's why I thought it would make for interesting reading for the two of us to engage in a dialogue, one that avoids the usual cliched arguments and gets down to the most meaningful differences in respective worldviews. When we more clearly outline the chasm between us, it may be easier for one side or the other to see across it.

My model is the 2007 debate between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan, which I thought was both civil and illuminating. I hope ours will achieve a similar standard. I don't have a specific plan for how many rounds this will continue; I trust the time will become clear when we've both spoken our peace. My opening statement follows below, and his will be posted tomorrow. Your comments are welcome as well, but please be sure they show the kind of civility that attracts commenters like Quixote here in the first place!


Hi Quixote,

So, as I believe we had agreed, we were going to talk about the most fundamental reasons why people become atheists or theists. In my case, there are two main ones. These are similar to arguments I've made before, but in this letter, they're described more personally: I wanted to emphasize the reasons why I'm an atheist, the ones that I myself find most convincing. You may disagree, of course. If you want to respond to these, or if you'd rather discuss the reasons that motivate your beliefs, either is fine with me.

The first reason is that, when I look at the world, I get the strong impression that no one's in charge. History lacks a discernible moral order. Happiness and misery are distributed randomly, without regard to morality; good people sometimes succeed and sometimes suffer, and evil people sometimes are punished and sometimes prosper. Humanity has made some moral progress by its own effort, but even so, this world is not one that consistently rewards virtue or punishes vice. In short, the universe gives every sign of being ruled by pure chance and mechanistic, unintelligent natural forces. And when people are suffering unjustly - by which I mean, suffering in a way that bears no relation to any choice they have made - there is no divine help for them.

That last point is the one that sticks in my craw the most. If there is a god that loves us and cares about our well-being, why doesn't he do anything to aid people who are suffering or in need? How could he not?

If I were God, I would pass through all the hospitals in the world and heal the suffering in their sickbeds. I would miraculously cure AIDS, so that millions of children don't have to grow up orphans. I would calm hurricanes before they could hit coastal communities, or at the very least, send angels to pluck people from the raging floodwaters. I would send rain where there's drought and turn deserts into fertile breadbaskets where crops grow in abundance, so no one would go hungry. When violent people tried to harm the innocent, I would make their guns turn into flowers in their hands. I can't believe that, if there is a god, I'm more moral or more compassionate than him. Yet all these evils and many more remain unalleviated, and the only aid for those in need is the aid that we give each other. My sense of conscience rebels at believing that a god is responsible for this state of affairs.

The second major reason why I'm an atheist is the diversity and confusion of religious beliefs among humankind. When you look out at the world's cultures, you don't see a uniform testimony of faith; you don't see the same creeds arrived at independently in different societies, you don't see prophets preaching the same god and the moral lessons among every people. Instead, every culture has its own beliefs and its own stories, all of which are wildly different from the ones that predominate elsewhere. If every culture in the world past and present held what was recognizably the same faith, that would be extremely difficult for an atheist to explain. But what we see instead is a vast sea of religious confusion and discord, and this suggests that what we're dealing with is the diversity and creativity of human imagination.

Again, if I were God, I would not leave humanity in darkness and ignorance. I would not communicate through hazy oracles, ancient anonymous writings, or vague promptings of conscience. I would make my message as clear as daylight and as brilliant as the sun. I would not have a chosen people; I would raise up prophets from among every people, from every region and every era, speaking my message to the populace. Or better yet, I would speak to all people individually - not in an ambiguous inner voice, but in visible, tangible manifestation, making it perfectly clear what I desired from them, so that even people who chose to ignore me would know exactly what my message was. I would not remain silent, hidden, invisible, leading some people to doubt my existence and others to cause chaos and strife as they battled over competing ideas about my wishes. This strikes me as the more rational course of action by far, and again, my sense of reason rebels when I'm asked to believe that an all-knowing god chose a plan so obviously inferior.

In my eyes, these are the two most persuasive reasons. What do you think?

April 29, 2009, 6:51 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink44 comments
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From the Mailbag: Weekend Kookery Edition

The last time I did a post like this, it was to share some of the more uplifting and inspiring e-mails I received. This one is headed in a different direction. Here, for your reading pleasure and amusement, enjoy this selection of kookery culled from e-mails I've gotten, as well as the occasional preaching comment I've rejected from Daylight Atheism.

First up, there's this from "wayofthegoldenlion", which starts off as standard creationist drivel but builds up steam as it goes, until it suddenly blasts off into awesome heights of lunacy:

As for myself, I believe that science has proved that there has to be a creator (The best mathematicians, physicists, biologists, astronomers,etc all admit they cannot explain how the DNA data gets into each cell/gene and can only be put there by intelligent design. But a campaign of disinformation from the atheist scientific communtity was exposed on British TV (I have the documentary), that proves that even the atheists admitted in secret scientific unpublished journals that all organic life in the universe had to come from a designer creator, and cannot appear randomly. The documentary exposed these findings and carried the atheist scientists through to their final statement and conclusion (which was pretty weak) that all artificial intelligence can appear randomly, but they admit that all organic life has to have a creator. THAT WAS THE COVER UP! THIS WAS EXPOSED AND THE SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY WERE INFILTRATED BY OCCULT SECRET SOCIETIES AND PAID TO NOT PUBLISH THEIR FINDINGS. (MOSTLY HIGH RANKING FREEMASONS, ROSICRUCIANS, ORDER TEMPLAR ORIENTALIS,ETC). tHE DOCUMENTARY PART 2 STATES THAT 90% OF THE SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY DO NOT BELIEVE IN EVOLUTION BUT AGREE WITH CHRISTIANS SCIENTISTS THAT NATURAL SELECTION IS A CORRECT THESIS, BUT THEY CANNOT ADMIT THIS, BECAUSE THEIR FUNDS WILL BE STOPPED BY POWERFUL INSTITUTES CONTROLLED BY THESE OCCULT FREEMASONS/BUSINESSMEN WHO OWN MULTINATIONAL CORPORATIONS

"Secret unpublished scientific journals". Gotta love it. There's considerable potential here for a Christian-fundamentalist version of The Da Vinci Code - our brave hero races against time to find the secret journals and uncover the scientific conspiracy! If only we could find some bold author who's equal to the task.

Next, this comment from "John", who evidently doesn't think that preaching the gospel is important enough to justify spellcheck:

hey why dont u guys jsrt stop hating on everything and chillax and read about Jesus (whose da bomb) cuz otherwise when ur dead ur gunna be like "man that dude on the athiest website knew his stuff."

The translators of the King James Bible must be turning over in their graves. Whatever else we can say about that book, its language is often beautiful and poetic as only Shakespearean English can be. This comment - not so much. ("Verily, Jesus spake unto the multitude: 'O ye fools and blind, can ye not discern that God the Father is da bomb?'")

There's also this anonymous commenter, whose keen insight allowed him to divine the true reason so many people are atheists:

WOw.. you guys are amazing. except for one thing. even if GOD did exsist you'd never know it, cause if ever He did something you'd justify and explain it away. and the reason for this is simple. most of you are addicted to porn or masturbation or alchohol or whatever(please don't reply with what good people you are or what great things you do or how noble you are). and you want to keep doing what you are.

Curses! Found out! And we'd have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for you meddling Christians!

Finally, there's this e-mail I got a few weeks ago from someone with the disturbingly Naziesque handle of "The Cure". He starts out with the usual apologetic blather, but then suddenly decides to veer in another direction and start preaching about abortion and homosexuality, despite saying he has no idea what I believe about either (it's not hard to find out if you look). I can only surmise that the thought of "atheism" rattled around inside his brain until it activated the more general category of "things I dislike". And why do so many homophobes target their invective at gay men and rarely, if ever, mention lesbians? Could it be that they focus on the topics they find simultaneously the most fascinating and repelling - and if so, what does that imply about them?

Dear Atheist,

I came across your website and wonder why someone would be so driven to disprove the existence of God? Perhaps your lifestyle does not line up with religious people who believe in God propagate? Just curious. Or perhaps you think hypocracy in the church disproves the existence of God. That is a fallible argument. If a man has been faithful to his wife, provided for his children, and has lived by good moral standards (although I know this is probably subjective to you), but then has a son who gets married, cheats on his wife, and abuses the children, does that disprove the existence of the father? Seriously, a hypocrite does not prove God does not exist, it just proves the Devil does!

I agree that every person is inherently designed to be able to judge between issues of morality on some level; therefore, even you could make some good judgments. But to deny the existence of something greater takes more faith than those who believe in a God.

Two topics that I believe are important to this society and its existence are homosexuality and abortion. I do not know what you believe about these, yet, by natural law even aside from any religious basis they can be judged as wrong!

I am a religious person and I do not want to be vulgar; however, I am sure you are adult enought to handle this statement. Does not common sense tells us that if two different kinds of the same species have different genitalia, and that if used together reproduction is accomplished, then they are made to live together and have a family? The rectum region is existent for both man and women. It is used by both for the same purpose. Yet, the genitalia region is used for another purpose in general; that is to reproduce. Although, the rectum region can be used between man and man to have sensual pleasure, it does not appear to have been "created" or in your terms "evolved" for that use in specific. The main use is to excrete waste. Does not common sense also tells us that since a man and women's genitalia are in same location but are different and fit together like a puzzle, then do you not think man and women belong together? Not man and man, women and women. For just a moment, let us say that everyone decided to be in homosexual relations without the ability by modern science to reproduce in a test tube. If that had happened during the "dark ages" we would not even be here today! The homosexual life style does not promote a constructive foundation of the existence of the world, it brings it to an end!

Abortion is murder. To defend one's life is not murder, that is justice. Capital punishment is justice. Can a baby defend itself? I think not, therefore, abortion is murder.

Perhaps you believe aborition and homosexuality to be wrong. If you do, then you have proved my premise. Even atheists can make some good jugdments. Yes, I believe you can have values; however, this society will crumble if we do not change. Our values need to be based on a higher standard, the Bible! The Roman Empire fell because of the lack of values! Two of their immoral practices were homosexuality, and senseless killing!

My purpose in writing this was to show aside from the Bible, one can prove something to be wrong by its own nature!

The Cure

February 7, 2009, 10:24 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink62 comments
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