On a Quick Sharing of Links

I really appreciated Ryan Bell’s review/response to Frank Schaeffer’s book Why I am an Atheist who Believe’s in God

Bell includes a rather extensive quote from the book, of which I want to isolate one part:

“Lucy’s [Schaeffer’s young daughter] sense of time, place and scale is no more or less misinformed than mine. The only things in life I have fairly complete information about are minor household appliances. As for when to die, what to believe, whom to marry, where to live, whether or not God exists, when to have children, and what work to do, I think all this big stuff—stuff as “big as a tree!”—is best left to chance. My illusion of control over my life is long gone. I am part of a story; I am not the story. I’ve given up on planning. Rather, I plan while hoping that my plans won’t work. I’ve experienced the serendipity of my plans failing. Then my failures sometimes open doors to things better than those I’d wished for (17-18).”

On the one hand, I can appreciate Schaeffer’s sense of recognizing that random events happen because they are, in fact, random. However, this plays into a common canard against atheism that, sans a God, we are free to act as we wish. To this canard, I link to Michael Burgess’s post about Inverting the Gaze. What I particularly like is the end note that, without a god to judge and punish, we don’t discard rules or ethics. Instead, we feel a personal responsibility to instate them.


On Some Questions for Supernaturalists

As luck would have it, a series of questions on beliefs and the supernatural were posted by Brent Arnesen writing at his blog Atheist Catalyst (his is a blog I just recently found, followed, and have been perusing – as I’m wont to do, I like to share the link as well). Though the questions are directed toward believers of the supernatural, Brent invites everyone to answer. Since I’m in the answering mood, I figure I’ll give it go.

On to the Questions

1. What is the best argument that defends the proposition:  The following don’t exist: Pixies, Santa Claus, Past lives, Lizard People, Greek Gods, Alien Visitors, Witches, Dragons and Atlantis? (Take out the ones you believe exist)

Since this discussion was framed around the supernatural, I don’t think it’s clear that all of these would be supernatural. I want to make a distinction between natural/supernatural and real/not real. If we’re only talking natural/supernatural, here’s how I’d break them down:

Almost Obviously Supernatural:

Pixies (they use magic dust)
Witches (they use magic spells and fly on brooms)
Greek Gods

Probably Natural:

Lizard People
Alien Visitors

Tricky/Depends on Definition:

Past Lives (is there a way to make past lives natural? Perhaps with a multiverse? I’m asking, not suggesting. Or, is there a reason to think a soul/life essence is actually supernatural? I don’t know.)
Dragons (the tricky part for dragons is the fire breathing, but I lean toward natural)

Supernatural but Obviously Not Real:

Santa Claus (we know the origin of Santa Claus)

As such, the best argument against their existence differs. Santa isn’t real because we know we made him up.

The best argument against natural examples is a lack of physical evidence (Atlantis, alien visitors) or physical limitations that greatly inhibit their likelihood (evolutionary history of lizard people or the travel time of alien visitors).

The best arguments against the supernatural is to point toward alternative explanations of our proposed experiences of them and combine them with a lack of more tangible evidence for them. Pixies, witches, and dragons all have physical bodies, so they could leave physical evidence. Greek gods could potentially leave physical evidence; however, there may be outs surrounding their godly ability to hide this evidence. Past lives will rely most heavily on providing alternative explanations for professed experiences of past lives.

2. What would you require to believe in any of the above enough to give you “Rational Warrant” to believe in one or others?

Well, alien visitors is easy. I know it has happened. Aliens (humans from Earth), visited another celestial body (Earth’s moon). Likewise, we have sent proxies to other planets (e.g., Voyager, the Mars rover). There is already warrant to believe in alien visitors. We’ve done it. What’s open is whether aliens from another celestial body have visited us. I’d argue it is rational to believe that aliens have visited Earth, I’m just not sure it is factual. Therefore, to believe, I want evidence of aliens visiting Earth (e.g., an unambiguous photograph of an alien craft–ship, satellite, whatever or evidence of panspermia).

Likewise, I think there’s rational warrant to believe in Atlantis. The city of Troy offers a good example of a city known via fiction that was unknown to be an actual city until it was discovered by archaeologists. It is reasonable to think Atlantis could be the same. One area where you may run into issues is how far advanced Atlantis was at the time of its destruction, but if we assume a reasonable level of advancement over other societies at the time, Atlantis doesn’t really pose an issue with rational warrant. Like alien visitors to Earth, the issue with Atlantis is factual. I need conclusive evidence that Atlantis actually existed (e.g., archaeological finds, other mundane literary sources).

For the Greek Gods, perhaps we can answer the whole “is it reasonable to believe in the Greek gods” with something like Reformed Epistemology to grant us warrant for belief. Prometheus giving us the fire of the gods instilled in us a warmth-based sensus divinitatis (I mean, is it not the case that bodies radiate heat?), and from that we can consider belief in the Greek gods properly basic. From there, say, a swan seducing my partner would provide pretty convincing evidence the Greek Gods are the pantheon in existence. I’d also probably accept a burly man hocking his ability to clean my stables in a day.

3. If the One True God represents 100%, what percentage of the qualities of God do you know? (Is God as you, basically, imagine? Or are His morals, his ways, his path to righteousness, etc.different that you imagine?)

I’m not totally clear on what this question is asking for, specifically. Here’s how I understand the question: Assuming there is an actual God, how much does this God comport to your expectations/image of God (please correct me if I’m misunderstanding):

As I briefly covered in my previous post on questions for atheists, I don’t think we know much of anything about God. Obviously, I would attribute this to God not actually existing, but assuming a god exists, it’s not clear our methods of knowing about God yield confirmed knowledge.

Approaching this differently by channeling a believer, I can think of three responses to this questions:

(1) How I imagine God to be is pretty accurate as my picture of God adheres to the image provided in my holy book as well as what has been demonstrated through philosophical theology.

(2) I would not develop a picture of God or hold a set of expectations about God’s image, path, morals, etc. That is not my place. God is not beholden to me or my expectations. It is my responsibility to follow God.

(3) God cannot be contained in a percent, perception, or image. God is infinite and without definition. Therefore, my picture of or expectations of God may all be accurate, yet defining God as such would be completely incorrect.

4. What argument do you use to defend #3?

For my personal response, I called it “sophisticated guess work” in my previous post. I really don’t mean that to sound like the work was a joke. The classic, Western conception of God was developed by or referenced some of the heaviest hitters of Western philosophy. The reason I question our actual knowledge of God is that there’s far more faith involved in the work to develop this concept of God than seems to be admitted for the assuredness of the description.

As for arguments for the three responses:

(1) Our greatest faculty, as humans, is our rationality, and this is the description of God at which we arrive when we apply our rationality to God. It is surely not 100% accurate, but it is as close as we can get.

(2) The activity bears rotten fruit, spiritually. By putting expectations on God when I have no right to do so, I risk both losing God’s grace and harming my own spiritual growth.

(3) The question simply misunderstands God. It is asking a question of God that has no answer.

5. If God exists, why is understanding anything more than “God Exists” important?

I can take this question in two directions:

A. If God exists, why is it important to understand anything theological beyond “God exists”: This probably depends on one’s conception of God. A deistic God or a chill pantheistic God probably doesn’t require further theological understanding. The Abrahamic religions’ conception of God requires further theology because it is relevant to human salvation.

B. If God exists, why is it important to understand anything at all beyond “God exists”: Again, believers of the Abrahamic religions might point out the importance of that human salvation stuff, but all could also make appeal to enjoying the beauty God has created/the beauty of God while we’re here and able to enjoy it.

6. How are people who believe in “crazy” supernatural beliefs different than you (assuming you are both sane)? What qualities between you and others lead you to have more accurate beliefs?

Actually, this is one of the areas where I find atheists can be a bit too easily dismissive of believers (and, to be fair, believers can be too easily dismissive of those who don’t believe in their particular brand of religion). I touched on this in my answers to the questions for atheists, but I don’t think believers of all stripes use fundamentally different ways of knowing from each other and nonbelievers.

I think the disagreements lie in emphasizing different areas and having different starting assumptions. I think this is what allows us to have such radically different subjective experiences yet we are able to relate to other’s experiences and convince/convert each other to our own worldviews.

7. What are the differences between other supernatural events? How do you disprove a supernatural event (aka, miracle)?

This is similar to question 1. It’s a quick and dirty list, but here are three areas for disproof: the evidential, the experiential, and the logical.

You can challenge the evidence or provide counter evidence (e.g., Sanal Edamaruku’s disproving of the crying statue). You can challenge the experience that people claim to have had (e.g., switcheroos like those Pizza Hut commercials where people thought they were eating fancy Italian but were actually eating Pizza Hut pasta). Finally, you can challenge the logic of something, showing it to be logically impossible (e.g., how a free-energy machine is logically impossible considering the law of conservation of energy).

8. How does anyone test their ability to have accurate beliefs about the world?

We can try to replicate our experiences to find consistencies. We can turn to external measures like other people or instruments. We can explore our beliefs rationally, examining how they hold up, logically. Also, we can apportion the certainty we have in our beliefs to the amount and quality of evidence for said beliefs.

9. How does one judge values in this world? How do you know if Honesty is better than Valor in a certain situation, or the other way around? Is it situational or absolute?

Ontologically, I’m not sure if it is situational or absolute (or something else). However, I think it is epistemically uncertain which values take precedent in which situations. To combat this, I take particular care to learn the lessons of my own actions and the lessons of others’ actions. The desired outcome is to grasp living with good character and virtue.

I may not know if choosing honesty over valor (for example) is the correct choice, but at least I can make it with reference to the best of my understanding of how these virtues apply to the situation at hand. In other words, I don’t strive to act with proper virtue, but as a person who is generally virtuous.

10. Are most people objectively sane and rational, and capable of reasoning beyond their emotions or ingrained beliefs?

Yes. Again, I think the seeming extremes in differences come from where we place different emphasis and focus when experiencing and coming to understand our experiences.

11. Can you disprove Solipsism? What problem does this present to any other possible world view?

Solipsism starts by noting that the only thing we have direct access to is our own mind. The external world is only experienced through your mental states. Metaphysical Solipsism proposes that the reason this is so is because only your mind exists. If the only thing that you have direct access to (and, subsequently, if the only thing that exists) is your mind, then the perceived external world is your mind. But, if it is your mind, you have access to it. However, Solipsism is supposed to provide an answer to why you don’t have direct access to the “external world”. If Solipsism is true, you’ve always had direct access to the “external world”–it is your mind. So, what was this thing you claimed we didn’t have direct access to? This thing was the whole point of proposing Solipsism.

I would couple this with an argument to undercut weaker forms of Solipsism. One might leave open the possibility of an external world but emphasize that we have no assured epistemic access to it. However, we can create warrant for treating the external world we experience as roughly the external world that exists by positing that our minds have to be somewhere, so why not the external world we experience?

I don’t think too much about Solipsism, so I’m happy to receive feedback.

On Some Questions for Atheists

I suspect they’ve been around, but a series of questions for atheists once again appeared in my reader. I encountered the questions on Noel Onyongo’s Random Thoughts blog. I tend to like these kinds of things. First, I like to talk about myself. I mean that in as non-narcissistic a way as possible. I enjoy that I have to explain/defend myself. It is an opportunity to assess what I think I understand and how I think I understand it. Second, I really enjoy reading other people’s answers – see where we agree and don’t agree.

[Update: Other bloggers’ answers can be found here and here and here (part 1 and part 2).]

A Little Background

The questions come from the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (or CARM). From their homepage: “CARM is a 501(c)3, non-profit, Christian ministry dedicated to the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ and the promotion and defense of the Christian Gospel, doctrine, and ministry.”

The questions were posted by (and, presumably written by) Matt Slick, a relatively well known apologist. The questions are transparently tied to CARM’s approach to arguing against atheism. This can be gleaned from the questions themselves, but a sidebar on the right underlines this point by linking to all of atheism’s supposed failures (e.g., accounting for existence, morality, or rationality).

Interestingly, among its various projects, CARM “analyzes… movements and compares them to the Bible.” Under the heading of ‘Secular Movements’ they list: abortion, atheism, creation evolution debate, evolution, government, homosexuality, the Raelians, and relativism. I’m pretty sure the inclusion of the Raelians was just CARM trolling touchy secularists. However, I hope they comment on other key secular movements like the common core, the war on Christmas, and Beatlesmania. Read More

On Identity and Personal Experience

A recent article for RELEVANT Magazine, by Mike McHargue, has prompted some interesting responses that really reveal the politics of personal identity and experience. The article in question is titled “How Being an Atheist Made Me a Better Christian.” In short, McHargue describes the lessons he learned while an atheist that are now informing his being a Christian, and he sets the stage by briefly covering his de-conversion to atheism and re-conversion to Christianity. Despite being the central point of the article, few of the responses McHargue has received address whether or not the lessons he learned while an atheist are worthy lessons for Christians. Instead, much of the feedback of the post has been to question (if not outright deny) the various identity claims McHargue makes in the article.

We’re all familiar with the fallacy of such denials (kilts, anyone?), but when it comes to people talking about identity experiences, it is very difficult to not personalize (and subsequently be bothered by) others’ experiences of your shared identities. If you feel convinced there is a god, hearing another believer share why they de-converted can be troubling. Likewise, if you also de-converted, hearing someone say they re-converted can give the impression that de-converts are just wishy-washy. To protect ourselves, we deny that this other person was ‘truly’ a de-convert or re-convert.

Hell is Other People’s Stories

One of the first responses to McHargue’s article (in fact, how I even found out McHargue’s article existed) came from Ryan Bell. Bell uses what McHargue describes as the motivating factor in his re-conversion to discuss what to make of experiences of the transcendent. Obviously, this avoids the principle content of McHargue’s article (i.e., the lessons he learned as an atheist), but that makes sense considering Bell is blogging about his year as an atheist. McHargue’s story of de-conversion and re-conversion is relevant to Bell’s project.

McHargue never claims that the cause of his re-conversion is “proof of God” or “solid evidence of God” in his article, and he makes this doubly clear in a comment on Bell’s post. However, Hännah Ettinger, writing at the Friendly Atheist, asks if his story is believable. At bottom, Ettinger wonders if he was “ever really an active atheist.” As she notes, her cause for de-conversion couldn’t be “fixed by looking at the Pacific coastline three blocks away from where I work.”

And don’t get me wrong, it’s not just atheists playing the denial game. Comments on McHargue’s article deny his claim to Christianity both before de-conversion and after re-conversion. The one thing that seems clear is that no one believe’s McHargue is really who he says he is. So much so, that McHargue posted on his own blog saying that he really was an atheist and a Christian.

There’s Only One True Scotsman and that’s Me

If I can armchair psychologize for a moment, this tendency to deny that someone is ‘really’ a part of our group comes down to securing our sense of personal identity and the salience of our worldview.  Intellectually, any atheist understands that McHargue’s story is not a metaphysical threat. It is simply his story. But, emotionally, it threatens our own stories. As Ettinger said, “looking at the Pacific coastline” doesn’t convince someone God exists. How could it convince McHargue? It surely can’t, not if he was ‘really’ an atheist.

At least, that’s the defensive maneuver we make, and let’s give it the due it deserves. We don’t live our lives flippantly. How we understand ourselves and our places in the world matter to our self-esteem, how we live our lives, and the meaning in our lives. We don’t just want our identities and worldviews respected. We want them to be correct.

Even Worse Hell is Other People Telling Our Stories

As I mentioned above, intellectually, we understand the No True Scotsman fallacy. Barring evidence of deceit, there’s not much we can muster to prove McHargue was never ‘really’ an atheist. His re-conversion due to an experience of the transcendent does not speak to the experiences of many (dare I say most) atheists. It certainly doesn’t speak to my experiences and intuitions influenced by my atheism, especially how I understand experiencing the transcendent. But, so what? I might interpret his experience differently, and I might draw different conclusions. What I cannot do is deny his experience. It is not mine to deny.

Nor would I want to deny his experience. You’ve probably heard it claimed that no atheists truly exist; they are simply fools who stubbornly ignore God’s existence.  Well, no. I do exist, and I don’t really appreciate you telling my story. And this returns us McHargue’s story.

Was McHargue really, truly an atheist? I don’t know. I have no reason to doubt him, but I can go one step further. I can offer genuine evidence that he was an atheist. Ironically, it rests in the part of his article everyone seems to ignore – the lessons he learned as an atheist. He provided three lessons: (1) Don’t let doctrine become dogma, (2) Increasing well being and reducing suffering in this life matters, (3) it is never wrong to question.

I think it is fair to say these are lessons the atheist community tries to teach. I certainly feel comfortable being associated with these lessons. Sure, it may still be the case the McHargue was never truly an atheist. That whole story may have been a conceit to justify claiming to learn the lessons first hand. But I doubt it. Even so, atheists are often misunderstood and poorly stereotyped. At least the lessons McHargue’s attributing to atheism ring true. If nothing else, that’s appreciated.

On Catching Up

Phew. It has been a few weeks. A month and a half’s worth, in fact. As is my custom, let me catch up on some of the goings on over that time:

The World Cup Happened

The vast majority of my posts over the months of May and June were related to the World Cup. Thankfully, it was an enjoyable World Cup.

It had excitement, drama, upsets, biting, the emotional crushing of a nation, and the subtle twinge of guilt any liberal feels while enjoying a spectacle built on the exploitation of others.

David Feit wrote a funny post prior to the start of World Cup that accurately hits a number of the insecurities of American soccer fans. Hopefully this World Cup was able to suck in even a non-fan as himself.

Here’s a nice review of some of the best memes from the World Cup.

Lastly, and thankfully, the goal that made Germany the champions was worthy of winning the tournament.

The Hobby Lobby Decision

I have nothing to add. Just, you know, ugh.

The Satanic Temple Has Religious Convictions, Too

The Satanic Temple is looking to use the recent Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case to undermine state laws that put unnecessary barriers on women seeking their legal right to an abortion. You can find a nice overview of the story at the Friendly Atheist.

However, as Ed Brayton points out, this may not accomplish much.

The Moral Landscape Challenge Winner

A year ago, Sam Harris issued a challenge to defeat his argument put forward in his book, The Moral Landscape. For this challange, Russell Blackford was selected as the judge. The winner received a cash prize that increased if the winning essay convinced Harris that he was wrong.

The winner was chosen, and the prize went to Ryan Born. Congratulations to him. You can find his winning essay and Blackford’s comments on why he chose Born’s essay here.

Since announcing the winner, Harris has written a response to Born’s essay.  Born has, likewise, responded to Harris (Part 1 and Part 2).

There’s Finally a TV Channel for Atheists

American Atheists launched AtheistTV – “the first on-demand television station that presents exclusively atheist, humanist, and freethought programming.” At this point, the channel is not producing new, original content. Of course, that’s not surprising. It is a budding venture of an organization whose primary goals are related to activism, not entertainment.

Mary Elizabeth Williams was critical of the channel insofar as it’s not clear what the future of the channel will look like. This is fair criticism, but American Atheists is likely well aware of the channel’s shortcomings at launch.

My personal thoughts? I don’t really care. I will likely never watch the channel. If they produce a new show that gets buzz, I may change my mind. My biggest concern? There just isn’t a tangible subculture of tv-watching/streaming fans that will watch the channel. I’ve seen people offer Christian-focused channels as evidence that AtheistTV can succeed. However, I suspect a large part of these channels’ success is due to a sense that American culture, generally, is secular and ‘godless’ (i.e., not expressly Christian). In other words, they’re providing programming sought after by a sizable population. I’m just not sure there are a number of atheists asking for their own TV channel.

I’d be happy to be proven wrong, and I wish American Atheists success in their venture.

Patheos Poaches Another Godless WordPress Blogger for the Atheist Portal

Neil, writing at Godless in Dixie, has made the jump to Patheos. Congrats to him.

Carry on, my wayward son.