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Humility and Hostility in the Theism/Atheism Debate

Here is Charles Taliaferro in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology:

I think humility in the context of the theism versus naturalism debate should be understood more along the lines of what may be described as the philosophical golden rule of treating other people’s philosophies in the way you would like yours to be treated. I suggest that humility involves stepping back from one’s own position and trying to evaluate and sympathetically consider the range of beliefs and evidence that can be arrayed in support for another position. If one employed such a rule in the debate between naturalism and theism, then I suggest that theistic philosophers should truly seek to see naturalism in its best, most comprehensive light, weighing the different ways in which consciousness and values and the very nature of the cosmos should be described and explained. Conversely, a naturalist philosopher needs to see theism in comprehensive terms. For example, rather than dismissing from the start the possibility that religious experience could provide evidence of a divine reality, one should consider such ostensible evidence in light of a comprehensive theistic account of the contingency of the cosmos, its apparent order, the emergence og cosmos and values. Claims to experience God look profoundly unreliable unless one takes seriously the whole pattern of such experiences across cultures and assesses their credibility in light of a comprehensive case for theism or some other religious philosophy.

I like talking to atheists who aren’t overtly hostile to all things religious. Some atheists would rather mock theism on the basis of superficial and silly arguments than have a genuine discussion (see my Twitter exchange with this colorful fellow a few months back for an example). Unfortunately there are a lot of hostile, unreasonable atheists out there these days and, to be fair, there are a lot of hostile, unreasonable Christians too. One mark of a civil society is that people who disagree on the fundamental questions of life can (1) get along and (2) dialogue with each other in an attempt to gain mutual understanding. Not mutual agreement, of course, but understanding. Ideally, folks with different worldviews will find ways to work together and form a flourishing society without trampling on the other group’s rights and that allows both groups to believe and practice their worldview in relative peace. But this doesn’t always happen, because people form political/moral/religious tribes and start drawing battle lines. From my experience, most people are so comfortable in their own tribe that they simply don’t want to hear someone from another tribe beating the drums of disagreement. Instead they’d rather glide along easily with their tribe-mates, following their group’s rules and presuppositions, avoiding at all costs anything that might require them to do the hard work of justifying their own views beyond the superficial arguments that repeatedly bounce around the inside of their tribe’s echo chamber.

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The Problem of (Our) Evil

Here are some thoughts on the problem of evil. Oceans of ink have been spilled discussing the POE, so I’m certainly not going to solve it in a blog post. Nevertheless, with the Newtown shootings I’ve been thinking recently about one aspect of the POE that often gets neglected.

When someone asks why God allows suffering, it’s actually a very different kind of question than many of the questions we ask in life. Most questions, like “What are we having for dinner?”, “What’s the Dow at today?”, “Did Jesus Christ bodily rise from the dead?”, and so on, are what we might call questioner-neutral. They are questions the questioner is asking about the world, not about himself. Other questions are more questioner-centric. That is, they’re questions that are more directly about ourselves, like, “Why am I on this planet?,” “On what date will I die,” “What did I do to make Jimmy so mad at me?” and so on.

One thing that often gets missed in discussing the POE is that questioning why God allows evil and suffering is more questioner-centric than questioner-neutral. That’s because any questioning of why God allows evil must also take into account why God allows the evil in me.  I don’t think anyone would deny they are completely free from evil, and we’ve all harbored dark thoughts that we wouldn’t want to share with anyone. We’ve all harmed someone unjustly, even if it was only emotionally. We may not be as evil as the Newtown shooter, but if we honestly reflect on the motives of our heart I think we would all say there’s plenty of evil there in need of a reckoning.

So for someone to boldly ask, “Why did God allow a bunch of little kids to get shot by a madman? If God exists, why doesn’t he do something about all this evil in the world?”, is also to ask, “Why doesn’t he do something about my own evil?”  It’s disingenuous to pretend that God had darn well better have a reason for allowing this evil rather than that evil, when the difference is only one of degree.

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Christians and the Philosophy of Science

Instead of trying to come up with the latest irrefutable takedown of an ancient universe or evolution by natural selection (unlikely in both cases), more Christian thinkers need to read good philosophy of science. Science fetishists among the new atheists and their sidewalk cohorts think science is the only way to get real answers to all the important questions of life. This is false, as even a brief study of the philosophy of science confirms.  For Christians, the best place to dig into philosophy of science is via the writings of Del Ratzsch, recently retired from Calvin College. Here is a relevant selection from his book, Science & its Limits:

Our initial question must be this: Are there areas within which pure science cannot directly speak? There are many. To begin with, science cannot validate either scientific method itself or the presuppositions of that method. Consider, for instance, the principle of the uniformity of nature. As discussed earlier this principle does not appear to be a result of science for the simple reason that it is a presupposition employed in generating results. Observations and data are interpreted in the light of that presupposition …

Similar remarks apply to other foundational presuppositions of science. One has to make some assumptions in order to have a place to start, just as in geometry one cannot construct proofs without axioms. The axioms are not themselves results of the system. They are the pegs on which the system hangs and without which there would be no system at all. Similarly with science there must be some methodological presuppositions with which to begin, and those presuppositions are not generated out of science itself …

If we then are justified in accepting the foundational principles of science (that is, if accepting those foundations is legitimate or rational), then justification must rest on something other than scientific method. Thus either accepting science itself is not justifiable or else there is some nonscientific, justifiable basis for accepting science. Thus not only can science not validate its own faoundations (implying that there are areas outside the competence of science), but if we do accept science, including its foundations, there must be some other sort of grounds for accepting at least some beliefs. This implies that science cannot be the only legitimate basis for believing something. Those who claim either that science is competent for dealing with all matters or that science is the only legitimate method for dealing with any matter are seriously confused.

Perhaps a more important area where science cannot speak concerns what Alvin Plantinga calls “the Platonic horde”: values, ethics, beauty, abstract objects and so on. Ratzsch goes on:

Restricting science in practice to naturalistic concepts is perhaps all right so long as one realizes what one is doing and so long as one does not then try, in the name of science, to force such restrictions onto areas for which purely naturalistic concepts are inadequate or inappropriate. A method of investigation deliberately restricted to the naturalistic (or the purely material or mechanistic) will not be competent to deal with most of the fundamental questions of morality and value, psychology, theology and religion, philosophy and some other areas as well …

Attempts to investigate morality “scientifically” have been fairly popular in some circles during this century. One of the better known proponents was the anthropologist Ruth Benedict. Her presupposition was that if there was anything of significance in ethics, it would have to be something discoverable by “trained observers.” Consequently, concepts such as right, wrong, moral or immoral applied (if at all) only to things that anthropologists could identify through empirical cultural studies.

But of course one cannot directly observe the wrongness or rightness of an action, at least not with the physical senses. One can observe actions that are wrong or perhaps see them as wrong, but the wrongness per se of the action is not part either of one’s sensory reports or the printout of one’s measuring devices. What then can the anthropologist observe? Primarily he or she can determine what the members of some culture believe, prefer, praise, condemn and so forth. In short, the trained observer can discover cultural patterns of human attitudes. And there are difficulties even there. But if moral concept have to be constructed from the observable, and if what is relevantly observable are human attitudes, then morality quite quickly becomes a matter of human attitude. What is moral is what a culture approves. What is immoral is what a culture disapproves. Further, since different cultures seem to exhibit different attitudes, we are driven to the conclusion that morality itself (and not merely moral beliefs) varies. The ultimate result is an ethical subjective relativism …

Other examples could be given as well (philosophy, psychology, theology), but the patterns are clear. Natural science has its limitations, and pushing it into areas beyond those lines comes at the cost of violence to the invaded area and without much particular profit – especially if one has an outdated conception of science, as those behind such attempts almost always do.

For a quicker read, I’d also recommend Samir Okasha’s Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction. Christians need to know this stuff, because many professional scientists who inveigh against religion are abysmally ignorant about even the basics of philosophy, including philosophy of science.

Hitchens Disproves God

On Facebook a former student asked me to comment on this video from the late Christopher Hitchens, in which he claims it will take him less than 10 minutes to “disprove” God’s existence:

I’ll post the same comments here, with a few edits.

First, this is Hitch being Hitch: a lovable, entertaining blowhard. It’s interesting that he says he’s going to disprove God’s existence, and then gives a laundry list of reasons why we should be glad that God doesn’t exist. This is inscrutable nonsense. You don’t disprove something by pointing out how upset it would make you if it were true. That would be like me saying that I’m glad Bigfoot doesn’t exist because if he did he would be eating everyone’s housecats, and then claiming that I’ve proven that he doesn’t exist!

But keep in mind Hitch was a very well-read man of letters, and he wasn’t a philosopher. He was a political commentator and a very good rhetorician. His basic claim here seems to be that if God existed he really wouldn’t like it, because God would be a “totalitarian”. But of course simply the possession of complete power over human lives doesn’t make one a totalitarian. Rather, it’s how one uses that power. If, say, a being with total power over human lives actually loves them, acts in their best interests, sacrifices himself so they can live and flourish, shares with them facts about morality, human nature, eternity, and so on that aren’t otherwise available to them, then that being isn’t a totalitarian. If you don’t like God’s commands and authority, then you’re being irrational, assuming he actually is God. He (1) knows more than you about everything and (2) is in an infinitely better position than you in regards to what best constitutes your own flourishing. And if it happens to be the case that your horrific record of sins and wrongdoing have separated you from him, the very source of life and goodness itself, then you’re not doing yourself any favors by striking a self-important pose that values individual autonomy over everything else. Instead you should probably just listen to what he says.

On the subject of morality, Hitch assumes that we are in a position to know all moral facts, and so we don’t need a God showing us how to live. But clearly we aren’t in possession of all moral facts. Moral philosophers can’t even agree on the fundamental nature of morality, and deep cultural and political rifts in the social fabric should teach us that humans can’t even come to an agreement on basic moral values. So it’s perfectly rational (if one has other grounds for believing in God) to think that a being to which all facts are available might be a being we would want to listen to when it comes to morality.

Near the end we have Hitch at his worst. In regard to, of all things, the timing of God’s decision to reveal himself in human history, Hitch basically offers an argument from incredulity: “I can’t see why God would do it that way, so he obviously didn’t!” But it’s funny how atheists never accept this sort of argument from believers. Dawkins has made it clear that arguments from incredulity regarding evolution (“I just can’t see how life could have come about like that!”) are to be rejected, and he’s right.

And regarding the Einstein/Darwin/burning bush claim, that’s a subjective value judgment on Hitch’s part. He thinks modern science is more “elegant” and “beautiful” than Christianity. Cool story bro! Thanks for sharing your personal feelings on this particular topic. I happen to think your subjective value-assumptions are vapid and naive.

One final point. Regarding Hitchens’ claim that religion is man’s first try at truth/morality/health care, and so on, he’s basically right. The genesis of most religions were attempts at explaining the unknown. But so what? Only if you have already rejected belief in God will you assume that all early religions were only responses to man’s helplessness in the face of a world he didn’t understand. Also, if one religion is true or if no religions are true, we would expect exactly the same thing in both cases. Humans are religious by nature, and they would have reached out for God/gods just the same. Just because most religions got it wrong doesn’t mean no religion is true. That’s a non sequitur, and unless you have other, independent grounds for thinking all religions are false, that point carries no real weight.

I wish I could ask Hitch what he thought early religion would have looked like if God existed and wanted to reveal himself to mankind. Would he have taught Abraham quantum mechanics? Would he have converted him to the moral values of 21st century, western, educated, industrialized democratic societies instead of meeting him where he was in the culture and knowledge of his day? It’s always amusing to see atheists smugly claim that if God existed, he wouldn’t have revealed himself to illiterate, backwards Bronze Age farmers. Really? Why not? Are you really that confident in your ability to psychoanalyze the motives of God? Maybe you think he should have given Abraham a copy of the UN Declaration of Human Rights or taught him symbolic logic? Well, perhaps God’s aims are different than what yours would be if you were him. Maybe, since he has access to all facts and you don’t, he isn’t as interested in making people smart as he is in forming a relationship with them. Maybe he deliberately revealed himself to illiterate Bronze age shepherds because that was the best way to achieve his ultimate goal of reconciling a group of people to himself.

RIP, Christopher Hitchens. Even though he could be a bloviating windbag sometimes, he was my favorite atheist. Even in this video there’s a sense in which he’s being much more honest about his atheism than many of his fellow unbelievers. Along with the usual exaggerated claims that there’s no evidence for theism, that if your’e smart and rational you will be an atheist, yada yada yada, Hitch basically admits that he isn’t a Christian because he has strong negative emotional reactions to Christian doctrines. You won’t get this admission from many other atheists, who like to pretend their opposition to God is completely due to intellectual concerns, and they and their enlightened friends, unlike the execrable hoi polloi, make their worldview decisions in an intellectual vacuum devoid of political, emotional or existential motivations. Yeah, right.

20+ Answers for Atheists, part 2

As promised, here is part two of my “20+ Answers for Atheists” series. This is in response to 20+ Questions for Theists posed by the atheist Jeffery Jay Lowder at The Secular Outpost. Part 1 is here, and deals with some key metaphysical questions. In the next five questions Lowder focuses on scientific issues. As a reminder of what I wrote in my last post:

Keep in mind that in asking these sorts of questions, the questions themselves can be loaded with dubitable assumptions, so here and there I’ll try to point out where I think Lowder is asking the wrong question or where I think the question is ill-posed for various reasons. Also note that I don’t think Christians have to have all the answers. It’s OK to say “I don’t know” to some important questions. In some cases it’s more rational to withhold judgment if all the facts aren’t in. The theism vs. atheism debate on the web is shot through with the preposterous notion that whichever side is correct must be the side that has all the answers. Saying “I don’t know” when the other side poses a tough question is seen as a sign of intellectual poverty. But I think that’s kooky talk, since it forces people to give answers to questions for which there just aren’t enough available facts to come to any kind of answer. If you think your worldview can answer every important question in a fully satisfactory way, you’re probably an intellectual partisan engaging in confirmation bias. So I have no problem saying “I have no idea” in response to some of these.

Anyway. Onward.

(6) If you believe the universe is fine-tuned for intelligent life, why isn’t our universe teeming with life, including life much more impressive than human life?

First, how do we know that it isn’t? I’m no cosmologist, but as I understand it our perspective on the cosmos gives us only a very limited view of the universe. Our purview just doesn’t put us in a position to come to any definitive conclusion here. Intuitively it seems to me that the cosmos probably isn’t full of weird and wonderful alien civilizations just waiting for Captain Jean-Luc Picard to arrive and settle their political disputes, but our ignorance in this area seems to set a very strange foundation for this sort of question.

Second, to answer this question we would first need to answer two corollary questions: (1) To what extent is the universe fine-tuned for life, and (2) What would God’s motivation be for creating persons in his image through the vast cosmic machinery of universal fine-tuning? In other words, would he have reason to create more than one species of people, or would he be motivated to create only one species like us in all the vast cosmos?

Indulge me in an inelegant metaphor as I explore these corollary questions. Suppose as God is creating the universe, he has a “fine-tuning” dial that will determine the extent of the fine-tuning. If he turns it to level one, only one intelligent species will emerge from the cosmic machine. If he turns it up to eleven, twenty billion intelligent species will emerge. Question (1) becomes, To what level has the dial been turned?” And related to question (2): “Why did God choose that level and not another?”

Again, unless you want to accept some form of divine revelation into the equation (which the atheist probably isn’t too eager to do), we aren’t in a very good position to answer either of these questions scientifically, so we really aren’t in a position to answer the overall question that Lowder poses. The Christian can appeal to the data of divine revelation, of course, but I suppose that wouldn’t fly too far with Lowder. The best we can do is to say that it’s certainly possible that God could have fine-tuned the universe so that only one species arose, and maybe he has very good reasons for that.

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20+ Answers for Atheists, Part 1

A while back, Jeffery Lowder of the Secular Outpost posed 20+ Questions for Theists. Lowder is fairly reasonable as online atheist agitators go, and his list of questions focuses on some of the core metaphysical disagreements between theism and atheism, which is where the real action is. I’m going to answer these in groups of five since some of my answers will be long. Keep in mind that in asking these sorts of questions, the questions themselves can be loaded with dubitable assumptions, so here and there I’ll try to point out where I think Lowder is asking the wrong question or where I think the question is ill-posed for various reasons. Also note that I don’t think Christians have to have all the answers. It’s OK to say “I don’t know” to some important questions. In some cases it’s more rational to withhold judgment if all the facts aren’t in. The theism vs. atheism debate on the web is shot through with the preposterous notion that whichever side is correct must be the side that has all the answers. Saying “I don’t know” when the other side poses a tough question is seen as a sign of intellectual poverty. But I think that’s kooky talk, since it forces people to give answers to questions for which there just aren’t enough available facts to come to any kind of answer. If you think your worldview can answer every important question in a fully satisfactory way, you’re probably an intellectual partisan engaging in confirmation bias. So I have no problem saying “I have no idea” in response to some of these.
Additionally, since some of these questions are very broad, and since you could drown a small city with the amount of ink that’s been spilled in attempting to deal with some of these issues, I don’t mean these answers to be the complete or final word on how I would answer them. I merely propose these answers as a way of showing atheists what I and other Christians take to be the best way of approaching the questions. But these answers are by no means exhaustive, and they are certainly open to numerous counterarguments by thoughtful atheists. Lowder’s questions are in bold, and my answers are in normal type beneath.

(1) The question “Why is there something rather than nothing” presupposes “nothing” as being  the normal state of affairs. Why believe that? Why can’t we flip the question on its head? In other words, why can’t it be the case that the normal state of affairs is for things to actually exist and nothingness itself would be weird?  (HT: Thy Kingdom Come (Undone))

BT: The question alone doesn’t “presuppose ‘nothing’ as being the normal state of affairs”. The theist actually thinks that nothing as state of affairs (which means “the absence of anything” not “relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states“) is metaphysically impossible, since God exists necessarily in all possible worlds. He can’t fail to exist even if He tried. The question is usually asked in the context of naturalism: “Assuming naturalism, ‘nothing’ would seem to be the normal state of affairs. So if there isn’t a self-existent, necessary God upon which all other extant beings (including the cosmos) depend for their existence, why is there something rather than nothing?” Maybe Lowder is right, maybe that’s a question loaded with a questionable assumption.  Alright, let’s give him that. Let’s assume that what he says is possible, that for all we know, on naturalism it may be a more “normal” state of affairs that something rather than nothing exist.

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Santayana on Religion and Reason

I’m no expert on the philosophy of George Santayana, but the view on faith and reason he expresses in the third volume of The Life of Reason is fascinating. Santayana considered himself an “atheist catholic” and his views on religion seem to be a fitting composite of the two. On the one hand he defends the religious outlook on life against the atheist agitators of his day:

Experience has repeatedly confirmed that well-known maxim of Bacon’s, that “a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” In every age the most comprehensive thinkers have found in the religion of their time and country something they could accept, interpreting and illustrating that religion so as to give it depth and universal application. Even the heretics and atheists, if they have had profundity, turn out after a while to be forerunners of some new orthodoxy. What they rebel against is a religion alien to their nature; they are atheists only by accident, and relatively to a convention which inwardly offends them, but they yearn mightily in their own souls after the religious acceptance of a world interpreted in their own fashion. So it appears in the end that their atheism and loud protestation were in fact the hastier part of their thought, since what emboldened them to deny the poor world’s faith was that they were too impatient to understand it. Indeed, the enlightenment common to young wits and worm-eaten old satirists, who plume themselves on detecting the scientific ineptitude of religion – something which the blindest half see – is not nearly enlightened enough: it points to notorious facts incompatible with religious tenets literally taken, but it leaves unexplored the habits of thought from which those tenets sprang, their original meaning, and their true function. Such studies would bring the sceptic face to face with the mystery and pathos of mortal existence. They would make him understand why religion is so profoundly moving and in a sense so profoundly just. There must needs be something humane and necessary in an influence that has become the most general sanction of virtue, the chief occasion for; art and philosophy, and the source, perhaps, of the best human happiness.

Further, in seeking salvation, religious believers are acting rationally:

What relation, then, does this great business of the soul, which we call religion, bear to the Life of Reason? That the relation between the two is close seems clear from several circumstances. The Life of Reason is the seat of all ultimate values. Now the history of mankind will show us that whenever spirits at once lofty and intense have seemed to attain the highest joys, they have envisaged and attained them in religion. Religion would therefore seem to be a vehicle or a factor in rational life, since the ends of rational life are attained by it. Moreover, the Life of Reason is an ideal to which everything in the world should be subordinated; it establishes lines of moral cleavage everywhere and makes right eternally different from wrong. Religion does the same thing. It makes absolute moral decisions. It sanctions, unifies, and transforms ethics. Religion thus exercises a function of the Life of Reason. And a further function which is common to both is that of emancipating man from his personal limitations. In different ways religions promise to transfer the soul to better conditions. A supernaturally favoured kingdom is to be established for posterity upon earth, or for all the faithful in heaven, or the soul is to be freed by repeated purgations from all taint and sorrow, or it is to be lost in the absolute, or it is to become an influence and an object of adoration in the places it once haunted or wherever the activities it once loved may be carried on by future generations of its kindred. Now reason in its way lays before us all these possibilities: it points to common objects, political and intellectual, in which an individual may lose what is mortal and accidental in himself and immortalise what is rational and human; it teaches us how sweet and fortunate death may be to those whose spirit can still live in their country and in their ideas; it reveals the radiating effects of action and the eternal objects of thought.

Santayana’s view of reason is very different from the views of the satirical skeptics he derides and, by proxy, some contemporary cocksure atheists. For the new atheists and their cohorts, being reasonable or rational means that you employ a scientific empirical outlook on every important question in life, with dash of poorly executed philosophy thrown in for good measure. Their war whoop is “freethinking,” which seems to mean that you’re only rational if you take the pose of the stoic savant seated on the mountaintop, personally adjudicating all the big philosophical questions without the help of any authority other than science and your narrowly defined conception of rationality. For the freethinker, there’s no standing on the shoulders of giants required, because you can think for yourself, independent of any external authority (if you dislike my characterization of freethought, please plant your flag in the comments section of my earlier post).

As it seems to me, freethought is just a fancy name for an another form of an untenable empirical extremism. A more practical view of rationality is something more like Santayana’s. For Santayana, to be rational means to believe according to those principles which lead to satisfactory conditions for a total human life. Hostile atheists tend to sacramentalize reason, viewing themselves as the sentinels of the flame of rationality, boldly following the truth wherever it leads even if that truth doesn’t lead to satisfactory conditions for living. They hold the ideal of reason so highly that they would allow nothing to violate that ideal, even to their own hurt (as if, in the absence of some grander transcendent purpose for this courageous outlook, they get some congratulations from the silent universe on their undaunted pursuit of truth). Santayana’s point seems to be that one important component of rationality is seeking that which does lead to such satisfactory life conditions.

From the Christian perspective, this is right. But unlike what some skeptics will be tempted to claim, this doesn’t mean that the Christian view of  rationality is “believing that which makes you feel good.” The opposite is the case. Through various permutations of the argument from desire  the Christian can make the case that there is a life-satisfaction component to rationality: if your worldview leads to despair in your life, you’re probably doing life wrong.  In that case you’re probably not using your existence for what it was intended, like a conscious hammer who gets unhappy because it has only ever been used to hold open a door and never to drive in nails.   Of course the skeptic may reject these types of arguments and claim that they are based on unacceptable views of human nature or teleology, but the question of what counts as “rationality” still remains, and the skeptic can hardly blame the religious believer for taking the intuitively strong position that there really is a life-satisfaction component to rationality. For the Christian, she doesn’t follow Christ because it makes her feel good. Rather she thinks she feels good because in Christ she has found the ultimate purpose of human life.

Southern Baptists vs. Science Fiction

“Reconsidering Religion” at the AV Club is an illuminating group of perspectives on religion from AVC staff writers. An editor asked the writers what works from pop culture challenged their traditional religious beliefs:

Chalk me up on the “raised religious” side of the board; my family was Southern Baptist, which meant thrice-weekly church attendance, weeklong revivals and holiday church events, summer sessions at a Christian camp (where I was later a counselor-in-training as well), and eventually four years at a Christian high school. I’ve identified hugely with Todd’s periodic stories about growing up sheltered, indoctrinated, and scared of things that later became beloved hobbies. I was so sheltered, in fact, that it was a pretty serious shock to the system when I read Robert Heinlein’s JOB: A Comedy Of Justice, the first book I ever happened to encounter that treated Jehovah as just another god among many, and Satan as a pretty cool guy who’s more or less into freedom, choice, and self-actualization. I’d certainly read anti-Christianity screeds of various kinds, but anger and contempt against Christianity actually tends to strengthen a fundamentalist’s resolve, in that “They wouldn’t persecute us if they weren’t so afraid of our truths” kind of way. JOB, on the other hand, downplayed Christianity with humor (though a humor that seems more heavy-handed to me today than it did back in those inexperienced days), and presented an alternative to my enforced world with complete casualness, like it weren’t no thing. When I was a kid, it felt like the most dangerous, daringly sacrilegious thing I’d ever encountered.

The other testimonials are equally fascinating, and although this is only a small sample of apparently deconverted believers, these stories are probably reliable illustrations of bigger trends.

Two common features struck me as I read through these narratives. First, it’s interesting how many of these AV Club writers were raised Southern Baptist and now consider that tradition quaintly outdated. Second, it’s even more interesting how many of them were turned away from their faith by encountering science fiction, specifically the sci-fi novels of writers like Robert Heinlein, Douglas Adams, and Kurt Vonnegut.

Studies show that 60% of young people raised in the church are leaving it, for a variety of reasons given by young people themselves. Many bogeymen have arisen as candidates for the cause of this troubling exodus: watered-down theology, overly narrow theology, anti-intellectualism (particularly in regard to science), “culture war” style politics (particularly in regard to sexuality and gay marriage), over-emphasis on making church “fun”, over-emphasis on making church piously boring, and so on.

Since this is the internet, home of 350,000,000 websites and billions of unsolicited opinions, I feel comfortable offering an opinion on this topic here on my own humble sliver of this boundless sea of various persuasions created by Al Gore.

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Parsing Freethought

The Thinker. On the john.With the (minor) hoopla surrounding the recent atheist shindig in Washington, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a “freethinker.” A foundational plank in the public strategy of new skeptical movements is that religious belief is delusional and that atheism is the only truly rational position. When pressed as to why only atheism is reasonable, skeptics often appeal to the amorphous notion of freethinking, with the unbelievers portrayed as the epistemically virtuous freethinkers and the believers as mindless sheep who follow religious authorities over the cliff of Bronze Age stupidity.

This is nonsense, of course, but here I want to explain why. Contemporary atheists like Richard Dawkins embrace the idea of freethinking (Dawkins once suggested that “Think for Yourself Academy” would be a suitable name for a public freethinking school in the UK), but the modern secular movement finds its origins in the Enlightenment. In fact many early freethinkers were neither atheists nor theists, but deistic provocateurs like the philosopher Anthony Collins. Collins was a friend of John Locke, adversary of institutional religion, and proponent of freethinking in the 18th century. Here is Collins in A Discourse on Free-Thinking:

The Subjects of which Men are deny’d the Right to think by the Enemys of Free-Thinking, are of all others those of which Men have not only a Right to think, but of which they are oblig’d in duty to think; viz. such a of the Nature and Attributes of the Eternal Being or God, of the Truth and Authority of Books esteem’d Sacred, and of the Sense and Meaning of those Books; or, in one word, of Religous Questions.

1st. A right Opinion in these matters is suppos’d by the Enemys of Free-Thinking to be absolutely necessary to Men’s Salvation, and some Errors or Mistakes about them are suppos’d to be damnable. Now where a right Opinion is so necessary, there Men have the greatest Concern imaginable to think for themselves, as the best means to take up with the right side of the Question. For if they will not think for themselves, it remains only for them to take the Opinions they have imbib’d from their Grandmothers, Mothers or Priests, or owe to such like Accident, for granted. But taking that method, they can only be in the right by chance; whereas by Thinking and Examination, they have not only the mere accident of being in the right, but have the Evidence of things to determine them to the side of Truth: unless it be suppos’d that Men are such absurd Animals, that the most unreasonable Opinion is as likely to be admitted for true as the most reasonable, when it is judg’d of by the Reason and Understanding of Men. In that case indeed it will follow, That Men can be under no Obligation to think of these matters. But then it will likewise follow, That they can be under no Obligation to concern themselves about Truth and Falshood in any Opinions. For if Men are so absurd, as not to be able to distinguish between Truth and Falshood, Evidence and no Evidence, what pretense is there for Mens having any Opinions at all? Which yet none judg so necessary as the Enemys of Free-Thinking.

Collins’ charge is that religious believers blindly accept whatever their grandmother tells them without thinking through these matters independently, which they have the right and the obligation to do. Let’s move the clock forward. Read the rest of this entry »

The Original Reason Rally

The Reason Rally is billing itself as “the largest gathering of the secular movement in world history.” This is probably true, but whether you’re a supporter, detractor, or merely an inquisitive bystander when it comes to what’s happening today on the National Mall in Washington, don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s the first time that atheists and secularists have come together to celebrate reason and secularism. I personally find the notion of celebrating reason to be very odd, but the gathering of Dawkins and the throngs of enlightened and self-assured skeptics with him is thoroughly unremarkable when compared to the original “Festival of Reason” that French secularists celebrated after the French Revolution.

Shortly after the overthrow of the Ancien Régime, the leaders of the Revolution attempted to quash religion by closing churches and replacing Christianity with a new secular religion. In Notre Dame, Reason was actually enshrined as a goddess (although portrayed by an actual woman), and the adherents of this new Cult of Reason held festivals around France as churches were converted into “temples of reason.” Here for your creepy reading pleasure are a few excerpts from a description of one of these festivals in Châlons-sur-Marne in 1794. These are taken from The Portable Enlightenment Reader, edited by Isaac Kramnick:

The festival was announced in the whole Commune the evening before; for this purpose, retreat was sounded by all the drummers and by the trumpeters of the troops in barracks at Châlons, in all parts of the town …

The former church of Notre Dame was, for lack of time and means, cleaned and prepared only provisionally for its new use, and in its former sanctuary there was erected a pedestal supporting the symbolic statue of Reason. It is of simple and free design, decorated only by an inset bearing this inscription:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Read the rest of this entry »