Matthew Taylor: Confessions of a Young Earth Creationist

Atheism, Critique of Apologetics, Deconversion, Humanism, Philosophy, Podcast, Podcasters
Matthew Taylor
Click to play episode on anchor.fm

My guest today is Matthew Taylor. Matthew is the host of the Ask an Atheist Anything podcast and the co-host of the Still Unbelievable podcast. He is the primary editor and contributing author of the book Still Unbelievable. His blog is entitled Confessions of a Young Earth Creationist.

Matthew’s deconversion story includes growing up in the mission fields in Zambia, a young Earth creationist education, the divorce of his parents and dramatic spiritual experiences. Friends began to challenge his rejection of evolution and podcasts began
to give him natural explanations for his spiritual experiences. He began to be disappointed in the apologetic arguments as compared to scientific explanations.

Deconversion was challenging and Matthew took a long time to tell his wife of his loss of faith. Matthew wants to help others through the deconversion process. He recognizes that it is a lonely process and that what we need most is another human being who has been through it too.

“Suddenly I realized I could no longer be a Christian. The suddenly doesn’t describe my journey, the suddenly describes my awareness.”

“This [deconversion] process hurts”

“If I am there when you deconvert, my response is not ‘hallelujah,’ my response is ‘How are you? Do you need a hug? Do you need a friend?'”

“I want to stand up to inaccuracy, against things that are untrue”

Note: Both the Still Unbelievable book and podcast are responses to Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable podcast and book. Justin’s podcast brings atheists and theists together for debate. Justin is considered an honest moderator. His book’s subtitle is Why After Ten Years of Talking with Atheists, I’m Still a Christian. Matthew’s and his colleagues’ responses take aim at those reasons.

Links:

Matthew on Twitter:
https://twitter.com/vteclimey

Confessions of a YEC blog:
https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/

“God takes the good people early” post:
https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2012/03/08/god-takes-the-good-people-early/

Reason Press:
https://reasonpress.net/

“Still Unbelievable” the book:
https://reasonpress.net/SU1E

Podcasts:

Still Unbelievable
https://anchor.fm/still-unbelievable

Ask An Atheist Anything
https://anchor.fm/reasonpress

Interact:

Send in a voice message to the podcast:
https://anchor.fm/gracefulatheist/message

Attribution:

“Waves” track written and produced by Makaih Beats

Support the podcast
Via Anchor.fm and Stripe
Via Paypal: paypal.me/gracefulatheist

Jennifer Michael Hecht: Doubt A History

Atheism, Authors, Book Review, Deconversion, Humanism, Naturalism, Philosophy, Podcast, Secular Grace
Jennifer Michael Hecht: Doubt A History
Click to play episode on anchor.fm

My guest today is Jennifer Michael Hecht. Jennifer is a poet, an author, an award winning academic and an intellectual historian. She has written numerous books from a secular perspective. I asked Jennifer to come on the show to discuss her book Doubt: A History and its profound effect on me post-deconversion. She is one of my intellectual heroes.

It is hard to express how much this book has influenced other secular writers and thinkers. This book has strongly influenced my other two favorite books Greg Epstein’s Good Without God and Katherine Ozment’s Grace Without God. Both of which quote Doubt throughout.

Jennifer proved to be as profound a thinker as her reputation makes her out to be. It was my privilege to attempt to keep up with her in this interview.

I am indebted to Jennifer for coining the term “graceful life philosophy.” My concept of Secular Grace is an attempt to live a graceful life philosophy.

Great believers and great doubters seem like opposites, but they are more similar to each other than to the mass of relatively disinterested or acquiescent men and women. This is because they are both awake to the fact that we live between two divergent realities: On one side, there is a world in our heads— and in our lives, so long as we are not contradicted by death and disaster— and that is a world of reason and plans, love, and purpose. On the other side, there is the world beyond our human life—an equally real world in which there is no sign of caring or value, planning or judgment, love, or joy. We live in a meaning-rupture because we are human and the universe is not.

Jennifer Michael Hecht

Links:

Jennifer Michael Hecht’s website:
http://www.jennifermichaelhecht.com/
http://www.jennifermichaelhecht.com/doubt

Books:

Review:

My review of Doubt: A History

Recommendation:

My story on the Deconversion Therapy Podcast
https://deconversiontherapypodcast.com/2019/05/09/15-remembering-the-humor-of-rachel-held-evans/

Attribution:

“Waves” track written and produced by Makaih Beats
http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Makaih_Beats

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/us/

Support the podcast
Via Anchor.fm and Stripe
Via Paypal: paypal.me/gracefulatheist

Shazam Cosmological Argument

Critique of Apologetics, Philosophy, Thought Experiments

Thought Experiment

Setup

Alice and Bob believe the universe was created by the Great-Universe-Creating-Thingy (GUCT). According to Alice and Bob’s faith GUCT is ineffable and cannot be described nor understood. The GUCT is eternal and beyond time and space. It is powerful and wicked smart. Also the Great-Universe-Creating-Thingy is blue.

Alice and Bob use the famous, unassailable and air tight Shazam Cosmological Argument to prove the Great-Universe-Creating-Thingy created the universe.

1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause;
2) The universe appears to have begun to exist;

Therefore:

3) The universe has a cause.

1) The universe has a cause;
2) If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, ineffable Creator … um Thingy of the universe exists that sans the universe is outside of time and space, powerful and wicked smart. It would also help if it were blue;

Shazam!

3) An uncaused, ineffable Great-Universe-Creating-Thingy exists, that sans the universe is outside of time and space, powerful and wicked smart. Also clearly blue in color.

Questions

  • Are you convinced by this argument that the Great-Universe-Creating-Thingy created the universe?
  • What flaws do you see in this argument?
  • Does the blueness of the Great-Universe-Creating-Thingy seem arbitrary?
  • How is the Great-Universe-Creating-Thingy different than your tradition’s explanation for the beginning of the universe?

This post is in the series Thought Experiments for Believers.

Leaning Into My Presuppostions

Atheism, Communities of Unbelief, Critique of Apologetics, Humanism, Naturalism, Philosophy, Secular Grace

Conversely inspired by presuppositional apologetics and continuing my Watershed Presuppositions series I thought it time to write down what my presuppositions are.

Presuppositions are truths you accept without justification. They are accepted a prori and may or may not have evidence to prove them. They are your starting point and the basis upon which everything you believe in is built.

It is important to note that everyone has presuppositions whether they are aware of them or not. Much of the difficulty in having a dialog with those you disagree with is the unstated incongruous presuppositions that you and your interlocutor hold.

My Presuppositions

Ontological and Epistemological

  • The universe exists and has patterns which are to varying degrees discoverable.
  • Conscious minds are a product of the patterns of the universe.
  • Logic and mathematics abstracted from the discoverable patterns of the universe by conscious minds are sound and reliable.
  • The scientific method which uses logic, mathematics and observation is a reliable method for discovering the patterns of the universe.
  • Truth is that which can be tested and verified to conform to reality.

Moral

  • Human beings have value and inalienable rights.
  • Human beings are fallible.
  • Human beings are meaning makers.

These are the truths that I hold axiomatically. Some, even most, can be justified, meaning they have evidence. But, for our purposes here, what are the implications of these statements when held true?

You may find yourself saying, “but I don’t believe one or more of these.” No problem. These are my presuppositions not yours. The reason they are useful is for you to understand how I come to certain conclusions and not others. If you can accept them purely for the sake of argument you can begin to understand my worldview. If you cannot accept them even solely for the sake of argument then we have nothing further to discuss.

The universe exists

This one seems pretty obvious. If it seems as obvious to you as it does to me, you have probably never hung out with philosophers.

The purpose of this axiom is to do away with the interesting yet tiresome arguments of solipsism, that the only thing that can be proven to exist is our consciousness. Do we live in a hologram or a matrix? Are we just brains in a vat? So boldly and arrogantly I assert, the universe exists!

photo of galaxy

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Even more boldly I assert that at least to some extent it has patterns which are discoverable. These patters are observable and ultimately knowable to varying degrees of certainty. The old trite saying, “as surely as the sun will rise in the East and set in the West,” is an example of observing a pattern of the universe and gaining certainty that it is true.

Conscious minds are a product of the patterns of the universe

This one is more of an assertion. Fewer people may agree with me here. But I take this as a given. Consciousness is not made of a mysterious non-natural substance. We may not understand consciousness in its entirety … yet. Therefore,  I assert consciousness is a product of the patterns of the universe we find ourselves conscious in.

This axiom is important to do away with the idea that consciousness is something other than natural. The idea of a soul dies hard.

Logic and mathematics are sound

Again, if you find this one obvious, you have not spent much time with either philosophers or presuppositional apologists.

Logic and mathematics are abstractions from the patterns of the universe by conscious minds. There are a few hidden assertions in here that I will point out.

Logic and mathematics do not exist in the platonic sense. We have discussed dualism in this series before it is a difficult one to escape. What I am saying here is logic and math do not have their own existence they are the product of human intellect based on observed patterns in the universe: abstractions. In philosophic language this is an epistemological claim not an ontological claim.

We as conscious human beings observe the patterns of the universe and we abstract “rules” that describe those patters. If I have two sheep and then I get two more I have four sheep. It does not matter if “sheep” are woolly mammals who chew the cud or blocks, or rocks, or anything. We have abstracted the rule 2 + 2 = 4 by observation and human intellect. From basic arithmetic to number theory we have abstracted rules from these patterns.

person holding a chalk in front of the chalk board

Photo by JESHOOTS.com on Pexels.com

The most important assertion here is that logic and mathematics are sound and reliable. It is a feature of logical and mathematical proofs that each step taken relies on the proofs that came before it. If one of the foundational mathematics axioms were not true the proofs built upon it would not “work” as they do.

Don’t believe this one? Then throw out the magic device in your pocket that gives you access to the near sum total of human knowledge. That device, the network it uses and literally the information itself is all built on logic and mathematics.

Mathematics is the language of the universe.

— Neil Degrasse Tyson

The scientific method is a reliable method to gain knowledge

The scientific method is simply a process by which an idea is tested by gathering evidence. If there is strong evidence more credence is given to the idea, if there is little evidence credence goes down and if there is contradictory evidence the idea may be abandoned altogether.

My assertion here is that this is a reasonable and reliable epistemological method, a way to gain knowledge.

The scientific method leads toward truth in major part by discarding bad ideas. Finding true ideas is hard. Validating that an idea is true is just as hard. But by discarding false ideas the options are narrowed down toward true ones.

Science is self-correcting. If tomorrow credible evidence is discovered contracting any of the deeply held scientific theories credence in that theory would drop. Not only that the discoverer of the contradicting evidence would be lauded.

Science tends to assume naturalistic metaphysics. If that bothers you, then you need to account for science’s unreasonable, wild and fantastic success. The entirety of the modern age depends upon the successes of science from medicine to space exploration to binge watching your favorite TV series on demand.

Truth is that which can be tested and verified to conform to reality

Adding to the common definition of truth as that which conforms to reality and adding a bit of the scientific method. I assert that truth is that which can be tested and verified to conform to reality where reality is the product of the patterns of the universe. We should have more credence in something that has been tested and has evidence than something that has neither.

Evidence, testing and validation are important because these are the only tools to convince the skeptic. Einstein was famously not a fan of quantum theory in the early days. But he was won over by the evidence.

Critical thinking begins with the assumption that our beliefs could be in error, and if they are, that we will revise them accordingly.

— Peter Boghossian

If I make a claim, you can believe me or not. But if I make a claim and tell you how to test for yourself and that test validates my claim it is harder to ignore.

I expect the accusations of scientism, materialism and empiricism. Fine. It is certainly true that there are vast areas where science just doesn’t know. And in fact this is a feature: to humbly acknowledge all that we don’t know.

Focusing on the gaps in knowledge misses the point, keep in mind all that we do know. Evolutionary theory explains the vast complexity of life on planet Earth. Theories within cosmology can model the universe back to fractions of a second after the big bang. Gravity waves just recently verified were predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The baffling quantum field theory explains nature’s behavior at the microscopic level which turns out to be deeply counter intuitive.

Even for those things which we cannot measure directly we use inference. We have inferred dark matter and dark energy. These two account for 96% of the material in the universe and yet we cannot detect them directly.

Human beings have value and inalienable rights

This is the basis of my morality: human beings have value and inalienable rights. I assert it thus, and then try to live out the implications. As sentient beings we recognize each other’s great value in the otherwise empty vastness of the universe we find ourselves in. We are not alone. We have each other.

I am a humanist as I have written before. This simply means that people are more important than ideologies of any kind. We ought to treat each other with Secular Grace.

woman carrying baby at beach during sunset

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I appreciate the need to expand this concept to conscious creatures. This has vast implications on how we treat animals and potential artificial intelligences. However, as recent political history has shown we are not very good at treating each other with respect and valuing each other’s rights. So human beings are my focus.

Human beings are fallible

Just as important as recognizing the value human beings pose we must also acknowledge human fallibility. Although, I reject the concept of sin it would be foolishness not to recognize people can be destructive to themselves and others.

Human beings are neither all good nor all bad. If those terms are too loaded, they are neither completely selfish nor completely altruistic. Our motivations are complex and varied and they very rarely reduce to simple identifiable sources.

We are very good at fooling ourselves. We are susceptible to a vast array of cognitive biases. In fact, much of the process of the scientific method is to avoid human fallibility and our ability to find what we want to be true.

However, just because human beings are fallible or imperfect does not mean we are not of great value. Sentience being an exceedingly rare commodity in the universe we find ourselves in, we need to love each other.

Human beings are meaning makers

We humans are the conscious observers who abstract the patterns of the universe. We experience awe and mystery and give them meaning. We define human morality  I assert there may not be inherent meaning in the universe but we humans make meaning.

We are the universe aware of itself.

— Carl Sagan, Julian Huxley, Neil Degrasse Tyson all have said some variation on this quote.

I tend to agree with Hume that you cannot get an aught from an is. Rather than exhausting ourselves looking for external objective truth, morality and meaning we should take it upon ourselves to work together toward greater understanding of human truth, morality and meaning. Though all human moral systems are incomplete, taken together they point toward respect for human value.

Apologetics, epistemology and moving on

Atheism, Critique of Apologetics, Naturalism, Philosophy

I am done

I am done with apologetics. I am done listening to debates between naturalists and theists. I am done giving apologetics the benefit of the doubt as a valid point of debate. Over the past few years, right before and since my deconversion, I have spent a significant amount of time listening to debates, reading articles and generally trying to understand the theists’ arguments for the existence of god. This includes attempting to remember what used to convince me. But now I am done.

What disappoints me about apologists is not that they are making arguments for Christianity.
 
I expect and encourage that.
 
What disappoints me is that the arguments are weak.

In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, one story describes some characters using a fictional algorithm that filters diplomatic speak and reduces it to concrete information. It removes the flowery double speak and outputs the actual useful content, information that can be acted upon. In the story one ambassador’s lengthy comments reduced to no content whatsoever, many many words but no information. We might say something similar about a certain American politician today.

While reading this fictional story it dawned on me that this is what has been bothering me about apologetics for years. Apologetics reduce to nothingness. It is a shell game. There is no actual content, it is all assertions.

Here I have to acknowledge something. Let’s call it a confession. Even today when I read a new article or hear a new argument there is some part of me that hopes the argument will make sense, that it will be valid and that my metaphysics will be, if not overturned, at least challenged. My emotional reaction is one of deep disappointment. I do not mean to say that I want to be wrong, but maybe there is some lingering shame at having been gullible enough to believe the apologists in the past. If their arguments were at least sound, then I might have an excuse for having stayed as long as I did.

Me reading a new apologist:
Interesting …
Maybe …
Maybe …
Maybe …
Nope same old argument.

Apologetics no matter how sophisticated tend to reduce to a few well understood fallacies:

1) Begging the question

This is when the conclusion is baked into the question. My favorite(?) world class example of this is William Lane Craig’s Kalam cosmological argument. From my post What if I grant you that:

 1. The universe has a cause;

2. If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful;

3. An uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful.

… do you recognize that premise 2 is the definition of begging the question. That means the the desired outcome or conclusion is baked into the premise of the question. How did we get from a cause for the universe to “an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful?” I need you to feel the vastness of this logical leap.

If I tell you to stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and unassisted hop over to the other side, that starts to… No that is not enough. Stand at the East coast of the US and hop over the Atlantic Ocean … No that is not enough. Hop from the Earth to the moon? No, how about from the Earth to Alpha Centari? I am only beginning to express the vast void one needs to traverse between premise 1 and premise 2.

2) Semantic games:

The simplest example of this is the deliberate misrepresentation of terms. Such as abusing the term theory; suggesting that the theory of evolution is “just a theory.” I need you to see how post-modern this is. The post-modern relativism the Church has decried for decades is the bastion of the apologist. I acknowledge here that this simplistic version tends to be deployed by the less sophisticated average theist.

However, a more sophisticated version is deployed when apologists are challenged on logical inconsistencies. For example the problem of evil as expressed by Epicurus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

Here the sophisticated apologist will assert God’s intentions:

God wants us to be free
God wants us to experience the consequences of our actions
God’s ways are above our ways

Or on divine on hidenness:

God loves us enough to withhold his power
God will not force us to believe
Miracles ended in the first century because the bible

How do you know what God intends if his ways are above yours? Rather than acknowledging the obvious inconsistencies semantic games are played to warp the common sense meaning and obfuscate the truth: there is no substance to the apologist’s arguments.

Assertion of my own:
All “known” attributes of god are themselves assertions.
Including, but not limited to, existence.

3) God of the gaps:

This is the beginning and the end for the apologist. Anything we do not yet understand is attributed to god.  This is the big bucket into which most of apologetics falls into.

In the beginning:

There was a time when humanity did not understand lightning. There was a time when we did not understand disease. There was a time when we did not understand evolution. During those times humanity credited these things to the gods.

Where we are now:

The god of the gaps argument is the rapidly shrinking space where science has yet to find answers. Don’t get me wrong, there are vast areas where we do not yet know. Some of them are hugely significant.

An incomplete list of things we do not know:

  • What happened “before” the big bang
  • The origin of life
  • How consciousnesses arises

But there are many many areas of knowledge that have been revealed by science. Areas that were once all assigned to god whether of the theist or of the deist kind. But now there is no reason to believe that our ignorance in a particular area will last forever.

The apologist uses our ignorance to insert a god to fill the gap. Those gaps have gotten smaller and smaller over time at an accelerated pace. At what point do they admit, there is no need of god?

Naturalist: The sum total of scientific, rational and empirical evidence suggests the natural world is all there is.
Theist: Yes, but people really feel like there is a god.

Moving on

To sum up: I am disappointed, bored and I am done. I am not mad at a non-existent god, I am mad at the apologists.

I acknowledge, this is not very intellectual of me. I am, in effect, dismissing arguments, out of hand, without considering them first. But this is the point. Apologetics, at least all of it that I have consumed, reduces to a few already refuted points. Until apologists have new information or evidence to present, the existing arguments can be safely dismissed.

One other complaint that could be leveled at me is that I am creating straw man arguments to knock down. Again, this is the point, the much more qualified scientists, philosophers and ethicists have exhausted themselves since the Enlightenment “steel manning” theists’ arguments and yet still refuting them. What more do I have to add to the argument? The burden is upon the apologist to bring new evidence.

James Lindsay (note: this is not an endorsement of James Lindsay’s politics) calls this post-theism in “Everybody is wrong about God.” The idea is that theism has had its time to make its arguments. Those arguments have been shown lacking. Therefore, it is time to move on.

It is not that there is no evidence for theism. Read any serious philosophical article on the subject and you will find some evidence for theism. However, the evidence is not compelling. The evidence is not strong enough to convince the skeptic.  The evidence for theism is insufficient to sustain belief. At this point it is a waste of everyone’s, including the apologitst’s, time to continue to beat a dead horse.  It is time to move on.

Built upon the sand

One reason for this insufficiency is the epistemology of faith has no objective basis. Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. What is our basis for what is true and what is false. Faith is based purely on tautological assertions.

The god theists assert, asserts that he exists in the asserted divinely inspired scriptures that assert god exists.

It is a bit like a time travel movie where our hero travels to the distant past with an invention she created in the recent past. Say a time machine. She uses the invention to change something in the past. When she returns to the present everything has been changed. The past in which she created the time machine no longer exits. So where did the knowledge for the time machine come from?

I have written about this before. If you ask 100 believers about some point of doctrine or another, you will likely get 100 different answers despite the fact that they read the same scriptures. This is an order of magnitude worse with believers of different faiths. There is no epistemic basis to decide between competing faith positions. There is no way to know which is true and which is false. Because it all is based on subjective experience.

Solid Ground

I don’t know how to explain to you that evidence is important

Much more compelling is the epistemology in science. Science acknowledges as step zero, that human beings are capable of fooling themselves. Therefore, the scientific method takes great pains to prove a hypothesis wrong, to falsify. Even a well established scientific theory which has withstood this onslaught can be overturned given new evidence. The scientific method actually encourages peer reviewers to be skeptical, to work at disproving a given hypothesis.

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have.
— Carl Sagan

The difference between science and faith, is that rigorously obtained, peer reviewed and replicable data can change the mind of a skeptical scientist, but has no effect on the believer.

I am very open to being proven wrong. I am open to evidence. That would not be boring!

We are all scientists

Lest you think that only a few can be scientists, remember, that humans are natural Bayesians. Few of us understand orbital dynamics and Einstein’s General Relativity, and yet few of us doubt the sun will come up in the morning. We have seen it day after day for all of our lives. We have replicable evidence that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. We can observe it just by looking up.

We don’t have to understand the warping of spacetime in order to know that objects fall to the ground. We have experienced it since childhood. Long before we could say the word gravity we had a visceral understanding of it.

This is Beysian thinking. We come up with an explanation for a phenomenon. We then we gather data. We experience. If the experiences reinforce the explanation we put more trust in it. If it contradicts it we throw it out. The trouble comes when things are inconsistent. Then we tend to fall prey to selection bias and motivated reasoning.

Take prayer as an example. We pray for something, usually something very likely to occur. When it happens, we attribute it to god. When it doesn’t we either forget the prayer all together or we come up with reasons why the answer was a “no.” That is motivated reasoning. When we think back about answers to prayer, we remember when we got what we asked for and forget when we didn’t. That is selection bias.

I want to make one last point clear. I am not saying that people’s experience of god are not real. There are perfectly good natural explanations for people’s religious experiences. The experience is real the cause is misidentified. I know this from personal experience.

people-all-along

Being rigorous about what we accept as true is critical. A rigorous epistemology is quite possibly the most important resource of our times. Fake News, anyone?

I am done with apologists and moving on. I’ll continue to seek knowledge and truth as rigorously as I can. Join me?

Review: Doubt: A History

Authors, Book Review, Naturalism, Philosophy, Secular Grace

I have just finished Jennifer Michael Hecht‘s Doubt: A History. It has been around for some time but as I am new to atheism it is new to me. I would suggest this is an extremely important book for modern atheists to provide perspective on where we have come from and direction on where we are going. There is something wonderful about history. It places our ideas in context. It draws lines between what would appear to be disparate ideas. This book provides that context and draws those lines in a valuable way.

After my deconversion I had a number of ideas I was desperate to express. You will find them throughout this blog. Interestingly, however, I was mildly disappointed to find that none of my ideas were particularly original. Come to find out my experience of deconversoin was rather typical in fact. Average.  I titled my first blog post “A very common message” after this realization.

After reading Hecht’s book I am even more disappointed to realize that my ideas are not only not original for today but not particularly original for 2600 years ago. It is quite a humbling experience. But it does provide a sense of unity with doubters throughout history. And for that I am grateful.

Hecht’s book is dense with quotes from doubters and moves at break-neck speed from 600 BCE to the turn of the millennium. Attempting to review the book in the traditional sense could never do it justice. If I were to start quoting this post would be as long as the book. (Take note meme creators, this book is a rich quarry of quotes). Instead, I will write about the reactions I had reading the book and how they apply to the modern doubter.

I had the chance to interview Jennifer Michael Hecht about “Doubt: A History” on the Graceful Atheist Podcast

In praise of Doubt

The book is not titled Atheism: a History and this is significant. For one thing, the original usage of the term meant something closer to heretic rather than the way we use the term today as a complete lack of belief in any god(s). In fact, a common theme in the book is the deep and profound doubt expressed throughout history that none the less defaulted to some distant conception of god, from Aristotle’s prime mover to Spinoza’s  (and Einstein’s) pantheistic god and  what feels like capitulation in Kierkegaard’s fideism. Those who took doubt to its logical conclusion of true atheism were few and far between until the time of the enlightenment. And even those who did were wary of releasing this truth upon the masses for fear of the collapse of social norms.

The book could easily be titled Skepticism: a History. In many ways it is philosophical skepticism that is the line one can draw through the history of doubt. The Epicureans and the skeptics really began to rigorously question theism. Questioning everything especially that which comes from authority is a common theme. Decendants of these philosophies often refer back to the ancient Greeks in solidarity during their own times. Including our own time, we owe a debt to the skeptics.

However the book is titled Doubt: a History. There is something deeply moving about the word doubt. It implies one cares enough to question. Doubters have skin in the game. Doubters question not purely for the sake of questioning but for the sake of knowledge and truth.

Taking one’s place in the line of history

I am a doubter and I am proud to be a part of its history. After getting over my disappointment in the lack of originality of my ideas, I found great comfort in having historical precedent.

Reading Hecht’s book one can see the cumulative effect of the writings of doubt through history. Each generation is emboldened by the writings of their predecessors. The fear of expressing one’s opinions which are contrary to popular belief is widdled away bit by bit. There is a wonderful scene described in the book when Hume sits down in a room with 15 other atheists for the first time. That is what you call a historic moment.

The freedom we in the West experience to express our doubt up to and including atheism is due not only to the enlightenment philosophers but all those who went before them as well. Today we are dazzled with Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and the inimitable Hitchens. But there would not be four horsemen today if not for Diogenes, Epicurus, Cicero and Lucretius.

The doubter’s perspective

Hecht spends a fair amount of time reading between the lines of history to find doubt’s story. By this I mean there were time periods and cultures which attempted to repress doubters. As is often noted history is written by the victors. But wonderfully we have doubter’s stories as imprints in the counter-arguments of the prevailing ideologies. Like a cast mold the negative space of doubt can be inferred (or directly quoted) by the diligent ways it is argued against by the true believers.

I personally enjoyed reading the stories I am familiar with from my own prior faith tradition delightfully told upside down from the doubter’s perspective.

The Jewish flirtation with Greek culture and the reaction as told in Maccabees and the story of Hanukkah. This is the pull of cultural assimilation and the conservative reaction against it.

I have always appreciated the book of Job for its brutal honesty. Job accuses God of being unjust. Hecht points out God makes a “heap” argument to Job for faith. Meaning, how can Job account for all of creation without appealing to God. Interesting take. Job’s wife steals the scene by encouraging Job to “Curse God and die” and may be the true hero of the story.

I have also always loved Ecclesiastes. But relieved of the burden to make pious sentiments from this wisdom one can hear the bitter exhaustion and resignation for what it is.

“Might as well have a good time because the universe is unjust and uncaring.”

Others have pointed out the doubt of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane but Hecht portrays Jesus as a world class doubter. He seems to be reliant on his followers’ belief in him and is practically begging them to do believe in him. He has moments where he seems unsure of himself and the Father. This all culminates on the cross with

“Why have you forsaken me.”

The key insight of the book is that Christianity, particularly as described and defined by Paul, forever makes doubt a feature not a bug by requiring faith alone. Not just faith but faith without evidence.

“Blessed are those who believe but have not seen.”

Hope and discouragement

My favorite term in the book is graceful-life philosophies. As you may know I have a particular regard for the word grace in a secular setting. This wonderful term describes the philosophies of Socrates to Epicurus. And it means seeking the answer to the question:

How does one live well?

This question seems particularly poignant to our times. We must seek a secular pluralistic society as the world grows smaller and smaller. Rather than beating the dead horse of if one can be good without god, we should be asking how can we thrive and work with each other. We need graceful-life philosophies to unite us in this task.

In reading the history of doubt there is hope that even in oppressive environments rational voices remain. Regardless of the culture or particular religion there are those who express their doubt giving encouragement to future travelers.

The flip side of this coin is that humans have a tendency toward superstition and religion.  People do not like feeling out of control so they fabricate stories which explain the phenomenon around them. Again we can see this by reading between the lines in the negative image of the prevailing ideologies. In the Old Testament all the idolatry that gets systematically stamped out is an indication of people  not only seeking gods but very localized micro-cultural gods. In the early Catholic church the attempts to rid itself of heresy eventually get worn down and the use of votive candles and individual saints indicate the same phenomenon.

Ultimately, the hardest take away from the book is that forward progress toward reason is not a given. The hard-fought for knowledge of reason, logic, mathematics and the beginnings of science collected by the Greeks and represented in the library in Alexandria can and was burned down figuratively and literally. Though the flame of reason moved to the Muslim world rather than going out during the “dark” ages there is still a sense of opportunity cost. Where would the world be if the pursuit of science had been unbroken from the time of the Greeks until now?

This too is especially poignant for our times. As I write this in the US at the begining of 2017, there is a sense of loss of forward progress for the voice of reason. We have a responsibility to protect this forward progress and stand up for truth.

We have been having the same arguments for millennia

I started out this post by acknowledging my ideas about my new-found atheism are not new. That is the understatement of the century. While reading the history of doubt one comes to the inescapable conclusion that there is “nothing new under the sun.” The arguments for and against theism have been hashed and rehashed over and over again.

What was exciting to discover is that these debates have occurred in many cultures throughout history. They are not unique to the Abrahamic religions in any way.

What is a little depressing to discover is that we are still having the same arguments. As science has moved the gaps in knowledge literally to tiny fractions of a second after the big bang, apologetic arguments have moved further into the abstract.

As a relatively young atheist what I am struck by is the evasiveness of apologetic arguments against doubt. Apologists always have an answer. Those answers rarely deal with the questions straight on and at least in my experience are never satisfying.

All apologetic arguments tend to reduce to god-of-the-gaps (what we do not yet know) arguments or the epistemological black holes (how can we know anything without God?)  of the Cynics. This feels like a thoroughly beaten dead horse. Doubt has won. The history has been written.

What is next?

The question I have been asking myself from minutes after acknowledging my own doubt and becoming an atheist and the question I find myself contemplating after reading this history of doubt is “what is next?” What do we do with the hard-fought for knowledge? Keep beating a dead horse?

I’ll be writing about that in the coming months. In the meantime, thank you to Jennifer Hecht for a comprehensive look back at where have come from and how we got here.

What if I grant you that?

Atheism, Critique of Apologetics, Deconversion, Philosophy

Since my deconversion and becoming an atheist I am particularly interested in engaging Christian apologists. During my Christian faith I was always fascinated and somewhat uncomfortable with apologetics. Reading apologists I began to realize the arguments tended to have fatal flaws and I became increasingly doubtful about their efficacy. Ultimately, apologetics was one of the factors that led to my rejecting the faith.

Now as an atheist I am relieved of the need to defend apologetics and Christianity in general. Instead I am fascinated by why I ever found them convincing even in part. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about why I used to find apologetic arguments if not fully convincing at least comforting and why now they sound hollow.

Atheists are sometimes falsely accused of being willfully ignorant of the gospel. Contrary to this false narrative, I find atheists to be some of the most biblically literate people I have ever met. Likewise many atheists can express apologetic arguments (and their flaws) better than Christians can.

Instead of avoiding apologists, I have re-read or read for the first time a number of books on apologetics after becoming an atheist. I actively listen to the Unbelievable podcast which hosts theists and atheists in constructively debate (however, with a decidedly Christian bias). In fact to put my money where my mouth is, if you are a theist and have a suggestion for an apologist with a killer argument I am not familiar with, let me know on Twitter or in the comments and I will try to read or listen and respond.

The average Christian in the pew (and even the average pastor) tends to take the resurrection as a given and work backwards. Jesus was raised, therefore he is the incarnation of God. God communicates with his people, therefore the bible is his authoritative word. God is, therefore he is the creator of everything that is, etc. It is in the realm of faith alone and evidence and logic have little to nothing to do with it. I actually have no problem with this as long as it is acknowledged and not obfuscated.

Apologists, on the other hand, at least make the appearance of objectivity, rationality and logic by attempting to make the arguments for God without taking his existence as a given, a priori. In other words, they have stepped into the arena of evidence. Evidence, unlike faith, can be tested and weighed for its validity.


For more see my critiques of apologetics from an honest seeker or check out the podcast.

On the podcast I challenge believers not to an intellectual contest but to an honesty contest.

So let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s assume there is a true 50/50 probability that God does or does not exist making as few assumptions as possible and let’s examine some of the apologetic arguments. I am going to be overly generous, only making passing arguments against, and granting the apologist’s argument as we go for the sake of argument in order to progress through the complete apologetic argument for Christianity. The point of this exercise? Does this line of argument lead to a theistic God? Does it lead to Christ?

My apologies up front for the cultural and religious centrism. Since my background is Christianity that is what we will focus on.

Watch your step

Step zero is actually granting that the immaterial, non-physical or meta-physical is even possible. I discuss this in a thread about presuppositions. It is important to highlight here that we cannot even begin the discussion without granting without any evidence to support it that the immaterial exists at all.

Rather than building up to an argument for the existence of a god, tellingly, we must begin almost immediately with asserting one. We effectively have to bootstrap the existence of a god. This takes a tremendous amount of assumptions about the nature of reality. Obviously, this is the step that atheists cannot accept. There are so many bootstrapping apologetic arguments that picking just one is difficult. I will focus here on the one that used to make sense to me.

First Cause

This is often called the Cosmological argument. Aristotle called it the Unmoved Mover. Thomas Aquinas called it the First Cause or the Uncaused Cause.

The modern version of the argument is called the Kalam Cosmological Argument most prominently espoused by William Lane Craig. It starts with this syllogism:

 1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause;
2. The universe began to exist;
Therefore:
3. The universe has a cause.

I’ll just mention that there is not scientific consensus beyond the Big Bang and the expansion of the universe. Therefore, even premise 2 is an assumption of sorts. However, here is where we get to the point of this post.

What if I grant you that?

If I grant the universe has a cause, this leaves us with a near infinite range of possible explanations. The cause could be 4 dimensional branes from M Theory banging together. The universe could be a simulation with an “intelligent designer” that would probably not satisfy theists. It could be that universes pop into existence from the quantum mechanical nature of vacuum energy. It could be the Great-Universe-Creating-Thingy. I am skeptical of all of these because as yet there is not enough or in some cases any evidence to support them. The point is I do not know what caused the universe. Scientists do not know what caused the universe or if it is caused at all. And neither do you.

Nothing about acknowledging the universe had a cause leads to evidence for a god. Ignorance (lack of knowledge) is a terrible argument for god, because our gaps in knowledge have a tendency to get filled. This has happened over and over since the scientific revolution.

Bootstrapping a deity

Having accepted that the universe has a cause William Lane Craig moves on to an argument for God:

 1. The universe has a cause;

2. If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful;

3. An uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful.

First off re-read the above argument. Now read it again. Does that honestly give you comfort? Are you more convinced that God exists because of it?

Or like me and many many others, do you recognize that premise 2 is the definition of begging the question. That means the the desired outcome or conclusion is baked into the premise of the question. How did we get from a cause for the universe to “an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful?” I need you to feel the vastness of this logical leap.

If I tell you to stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and unassisted hop over to the other side, that starts to… No that is not enough. Stand at the East coast of the US and hop over the Atlantic Ocean … No that is not enough. Hop from the Earth to the moon? No, how about from the Earth to Alpha Centari? I am only beginning to express the vast void one needs to traverse between premise 1 and premise 2.

In the technology world when a difficult problem is overcome with a complex solution, it is said:

Now you have two problems

Asserting a deity for the cause of the universe is the ultimate complex solution to a difficult a problem. Now you have the second problem of explaining where the deity came from. Further asserting said deity is uncaused and eternal only furthers your problems as you add complexity on top of complexity. If the deity invoked to explain the existence of the universe can be eternal and uncaused so can the universe itself which is the simpler answer.

I would rather have questions that can’t be answered,
than answers that can’t be questioned. ― Richard Feynman

Before I grant you that. I actually need to insert several steps here because William Lane Craig has inserted so many unsupported assertions into premise 2 that I have to grant you more than one thing.

Rather than beat a dead horse, I need to grant you a number of things:

 2. If the universe has a cause,
2a. there is an uncaused cause,
2b. it transcends the universe,
2c. it is powerful,
2d. it is a being or beings,
2e. it is creative,
2f. it is intelligent.

This is an incomplete list of what is being asserted in premise 2. Notice that none of these things follow from premise 1. There is no logical requirement that if the universe has a cause it must be a deity like being. We have begged the question.

What if I grant you that?

I need to point out that around this point, I have granted you Intelligent Design in regards to the universe. The ID advocates may rejoice.

Hold your rejoicing for a moment. We have had to grant a huge logical leap to bootstrap a deity or deities. But what does this give us? The answer is deism. Deism is the idea that there is a creator god but that it does not interact with its creation. The analogy of a clock maker is often used to describe deism. The clock maker winds up the clock and steps away from its creation. This was actually the predominant philosophy of the founding fathers of the United States. Thomas Jefferson famously ripped out all the parts of the bible that included miracles of any kind.

What deism is not is theism or a personal god that interacts with its creation. Most Christian believers will not be satisfied with a deist deity or deities.

Theistic God

Observant readers will note that William Lane Craig’s premise 2 sneaks in personal as one of the descriptions of the cause of the universe. I have left it until now to point out that even though we have granted the huge logical leap of a deistic deity or deities, absolutely nothing we have said so far requires said deity to interact with or care about its creation. The universe could be a simulation by a pan-dimensional programmer and it would mostly still fit what has been granted. Another point is that William Lane Craig has been a bit cheeky by asserting so much in premise 2. I had to break it into multiple arguments just to highlight how much question begging was taking place.

Update: I have come to understand why Craig does this, but this does not diminish in any way the critique being leveled here.

William Lane Craig is asserting an all powerful, all knowing, eternal, interactive, transcendent, unchanging, personal creator. Also note the singular.

 3. An uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful.

What if I *cough* *heave* grant you that?

Again, I need you to feel the vast logical leap from a deistic deity to a theistic one. Nothing requires this. It is being granted for the sake of argument. At this point, we have granted a theistic singular God who created the universe and interacts with his creation. Note: for the sake of the argument I will now use the capital ‘G’ and the pronoun ‘he’ just for expediency, nothing granted thus far requires this.

Thought Experiment

Try this thought experiment to see if you find this line of argumentation compelling in a different context.

One might think we have just about wrapped this up. But what we do not have is any indication if this God is a good God. He could be a malevolent sadist. Or he could be indifferent.

The Problem of Evil and the Theodicy

Typically the theistic God is defined as:

  • Omniscience: All knowing
  • Omnipotent: All powerful
  • Omnipresent: Everywhere present
  • Eternal: Existing in all of time: past, present and future

This has effectively been granted thus far. But in addition to the above at least Christian theists add:

  • Loving and benevolent

Here we have to address a negative argument against the existence of God. If we accept the five definitions of God above we have a logical problem for the source of evil or suffering in the world.

This logical problem is most famously posed by Epicurus, the Greek philosopher:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

If you are a theist and you find William Lane Craig’s argument convincing as a logical argument, then you have to take seriously Epicurus’ logical problem of evil. Is God responsible for evil and suffering in the wold and if he is should one worship him?

The attempt at overcoming this logical problem is called theodicy. Theists have been making theodicy arguments for centuries for either why there is no logical problem or why God is still just to punish evil doers regardless of his own culpability in creating evil.

The most often quoted theodicy is free will. The idea that in order for creatures to love they must be capable of choosing otherwise. I’ll just note two problems with this. One, nothing about free will explains why a free willed good creature, created by a good God would choose evil. Why did Adam and Eve eat the apple? In fact, this raises more questions than it answers. Second, we run right back into a logical problem.

An omniscience, omnipotent and eternal God, one that knows the outcome of all possible choices would seem to preclude truly free will in his creatures. This God in physics speak is able to observe the space-time loaf and nothing can surprise him, so how could a creature choose anything other than what God already knows and wills? And if this is the case, how do you explain evil and suffering?

Extra credit: My favorite theodicy from a beloved systematic theology professor of mine is that evil is absurd and therefore cannot be accounted for. But again, this raises more questions than it answers.

What if I grant you that?

Let’s pause and appreciate, yet again, what a large leap is being granted. We are granting a benevolent theistic God that in some mysterious way is not responsible for evil and suffering experienced by his creations. This does not logically follow from what has been previously granted. This is granted for the sake of argument.

What has been granted is a benevolent theistic God. Should one worship him?

Pascal’s Wager

When theists talk with atheists they often eventually use some variation of this lovely argument:

If you (the atheist) are right and I (the theist) am wrong, when I die nothing happens.
But, if I am right and you are wrong, when you die you will go to hell.

This is called Pascal’s wager named after the famous mathematician who made this as a probabilistic mathematical argument.

  1. God is, or God is not. Reason cannot decide between the two alternatives.
  2. A Game is being played… where heads or tails will turn up.
  3. You must wager (it is not optional).
  4. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
  5. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (…) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.
  6. But some cannot believe. They should then ‘at least learn your inability to believe…’ and ‘Endeavour then to convince’ themselves.

There are a number of problems with this argument. I’ll point out just one at the moment. Even if I am convinced by the probabilistic argument, can I make myself believe? Can I fake it till I make it? I understand that theist believe atheists choose not to believe but this is actually not the case. Atheists are atheists because they are unconvinced by the arguments for God. It turns out it is not actually possible to choose to believe. Think of it this way, can you choose not to believe?

What if I grant you that?

If I were convinced by Pascal’s unassailable game theory, I still have one very important question that needs to be answered before I can act on it.

Which God?

I was a bit sloppy earlier by jumping to the use of capital G god and using the pronoun he. Nothing precludes multiple gods nor likewise goddesses. But for the sake of argument let’s ignore that.

There are approximately 5000 gods worshiped in present day. If we take into account the 200000 years or so of human history, the vast majority of which was before writing was invented, that number likely balloons to something much greater. Even just within written history we have many gods to choose from. Is Zeus the one true God?

This is very important for theists to understand. The great passion, dedication and piety with which you believe in your God is equally felt and expressed by theists of other traditions. Yet each faith tradition claims unique exclusivity. How can a person possibly decide which is correct?

If you are a Christian, a Muslim feels exactly the same way about their God as you do about yours and looks at you as an outsider the same way you do them. Can you honestly say if you were raised in another part of the world under a different tradition you would still believe your current faith is the one and only?

Thought Experiment

Try this thought experiment to see if you find this line of argumentation compelling in a different context.

Even if you are of the ecumenical type who says that YHWH, The Father and Allah are one in the same that is still a tiny fraction of the gods who are or have been worshiped by humanity. Even if you are a universalist, many theists would argue you are condemned not in spite of but because of your universalism.

YHWH

As a nod to Pascal, let’s use probability math. Granting that there is a theistic God to begin with your odds are 1/5000+ (< or = .o2%) of having been born in the culture which worships the correct God. In this case, we are assessing the probability that YHWH is the one true God.

What if I grant you that?

YHWH is the particular theistic God who has been granted for the sake of argument.

Now the burning question is how should YHWH be worshiped? Do I need to sacrifice a bull? Will eating bacon offend him? Am I to give all that I have to the poor? Must I tithe? Is the Eucharist a saving grace? Is baptism a requirement? Do I need to be born again?

For the sake of expedience even if I grant that the God of the New Testament supersedes or reveals YHWH (with apologies to my Jewish friends), we are still left with approximately 2000 different Christian sects. Which one is correct?

This is a non-trivial question. For a millennium there was almost exclusively the Catholic (universal) Church. Then came the Orthodox Church near the first millennium. Protestantism is a relative new comer in the last few hundred years. There are some dramatic differences between even just these three faith traditions.

Evangelicalism

Things are beginning to take focus. Much has been granted but we still have a handful of steps to go. We are selecting among the many sects to decide which is the correct way to worship YHWH.

We still have a number of selections to make:

Jewish or Christian?
Catholic or Protestant?
Bible believing or liberal theology?
Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness or orthodox Christianity?
Main line or Evangelical?

What if I grant you that?

Ignoring the great many other sects of Christianity, let’s grant that Evangelicalism is the correct way to worship YHWH. For the sake of expediency we are going to ignore the fact that Evangelicalism itself can be split many more ways. Baptist or Pentecostal? Calvinist or Arminian? etc, etc. Diminishing returns and all that. We will grant that one must be born again.

Besides their focus on the Great Commission to evangelize the world the other defining characteristic of Evangelicalism is their reverence for the bible.

Thought Experiment

Try this thought experiment to see if you find this line of argumentation compelling in a different context.

The current question on the table: can the bible be trusted?

Biblical Authority

Fundamentalist Evangelicals hold to a few hard line doctrines in regards to the bible.

The bible is God-breathed: Inspired by God
The bible is inerrant: It has no errors
The bible is authoritative: The buck stops here

Apologists like to point out that the bible (if one takes it as one unit) is the most attested to ancient text. Meaning there are more and older fragments of the new and old testament than any other ancient text.

What is the second most attested to ancient text, you probably did not ask? Tellingly, it is Homer’s the Odyssey and the Iliad. Should we ascribe only slightly less authority to Homer’s descriptions of Zeus as we do YHWH?

Regarding inerrancy, apologists claim there are no contradictions in the bible. I will simply ask you to read two stories in all four gospels and decide for yourself. The Christmas story and the story of the resurrection. However, when you read them in each gospel, actually compare the genealogies, try to reconcile the timelines, who was where and when. I appreciate that there are apologetic explanations. But do you find that compelling when you read it for yourself?

For a slightly more comprehensive look at biblical contradictions take a look at http://bibviz.com/.

Update: When I originally wrote this piece I was still learning. Though the above link has many real contradictions, they tend toward the trivial and easily dismissed.  For a much more scholarly and, therefore, all the more devastating look at contradictions see Steven DiMattei’s Contradictions In The Bible.

What if I grant you that?

Logical minded theists will note that around this point we should be at the end of the conversation. If I have granted you that YHWH is the one theistic God and that he has inspired the inerrant and authoritative bible and that Evangelicalism is the way to worship him, there is not much more to debate.

However, for the sake of argument I have granted many things thus far so please grant me a few more steps to discuss. We have yet to discuss Jesus. I think you will agree he is rather an important figure to bring to the front.

Jesus

It is to the person of Jesus we turn next. We have had to forcibly bend the arguments to get here by ignoring all the other religious traditions in human history. For Christians the person of Jesus is both the revelation and the veiling of YHWH. And thus the most important figure in history.

In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis put forth the argument that is often paraphrased as:

Jesus is either
a liar
a lunitic
or Lord

The argument that C. S. Lewis is making is that based on the claims of Jesus he cannot be just a good teacher. He is arguing against people who admire Jesus’ teaching but do not believe his claims as a member of the godhead. The fantastic claims made by Jesus require a  choice to be made. You are “either for him or against him.”

There are some flaws in the logic and there are other possible answers. But ultimately, Lewis’ argument is that Jesus claimed deity and one must grapple with that claim.

Did Jesus claim deity?

What if I grant you that?

Because my background was Evangelicalism this one is not difficult to grant. Unlike a few sects of Christianity and many of the other world religions who deny Jesus claimed deity I have no problem granting that he made these claims, with a couple of fairly large caveats.

I’ll first have to grant the historicity of Jesus though this is not a given and requires granting. I’ll also have to grant that the words and claims made in the gospels attributed to Jesus were claimed by this granted historical figure. But please keep in mind the longstanding historical tendency to put words into a historical figure’s mouth long after the fact.

To be clear, what I am granting is that based on the New Testament texts that we have today the figure of Jesus in those texts claimed deity.

How do we evaluate those claims to deity?

Paul and the Gospels

If you have been paying attention over the last 20 years or so of apologetics, you will have noticed a curious thing. Apologists have stopped using the four canonical gospels as evidence and focused almost entirely on Paul and an early catechism of the Christian faith:

3 For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. — NET 1 Corinthians 15:3-8

Rather than attempting to hide or downplay their lack of faith in the gospels many modern apologists in debates with atheists will make a point of it with a bold statement like:

I am going to make my arguments without reference to the gospels

What a curious thing. And the reason they are doing this is the dating of the gospels. Even conservative theologians are starting to recognize that the gospels were likely written much much later than previously thought. I’ll not go into depth on this argument but to say that some of the prophetic statements attributed to Jesus are not as impressive if they happened after the fact.

Regardless of the academic debates of the exact dating of the gospels, apologists have in fact moved away from using them as evidence. They now focus on Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 catechism because it is dated much earlier. The average Christian is unaware that many of Paul’s writings preceded the gospels. It would not be unfair to say that Christianity is of Paul’s making.

Was the catechism in 1 Corinthians from an early date and an accurate expression of the Christian faith at the time?

What if I grant you that?

Accepting an early date of the Pauline catechism in 1 Corinthians proves beyond a shadow of a doubt one thing and one thing only. It proves that Paul believed that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead and was the Christ.

I’ll just point out there is a huge difference between accepting that Paul believed Jesus was risen and Jesus having in fact been resurrected. An honest apologist will acknowledge this. When we read of other religious claims of people raising from the dead we dismiss them out of hand. There is as much reason to believe these stories as there is the Jesus story.

If you are an Evangelical you probably do not believe Joseph Smith discovered golden glasses that allowed him to translate the angel Moroni. Why not? Were you aware that there are signed affidavits to the authenticity of Smith’s translations?  Clearly I am not trying to convert you to Mormonism. The point is you rightly dismiss this story as unreliable even though it has more and more recent “evidence” than the 500 unnamed sources who are claimed to have witnessed the resurrected Christ. Did they sign affidavits?

Resurrection

Apologists rightly focus on the resurrection. It is the crux of Christianity. C.S Lewis’ argument hinges on the resurrection to prove Jesus’ claims to the godhead. This is the starting point that most theists take as a given. But here we are trying to look at the evidence.

Believe it or not I agree with Paul:

12 Now if Christ is being preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty. 15 Also, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified against God that he raised Christ from the dead, when in reality he did not raise him, if indeed the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless; you are still in your sins. 18 Furthermore, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. 19 For if only in this life we have hope in Christ, we should be pitied more than anyone. – NET 1 Corinthians 15:12-19

A few years before my deconversion I had this conversation with my atheist friend. I acknowledged that it really is binary. Either Jesus was resurrected from the dead or this is all useless. At the time I was confident in my faith that Jesus was raised from the dead.

I would still be a Christian and I would return to Christianity today if there were strong objective evidence for the resurrection. Alas, I am sad to say there is not.

Either this super-natural, unprecedented and never repeated event is true or in Paul’s words “our preaching is futile and your faith is empty.”

What if I …

There is a fourth option to C.S. Lewis’ argument even granting that Jesus was a historical person: Jesus may have been acting on faith in what he believed and simply been mistaken.

Apologists tend to ignore or minimize information that is difficult to explain. Mathew describes some unbelievable phenomena at the time of Jesus’ death:

51 Just then the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks were split apart. 52 And tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had died were raised.53 (They came out of the tombs after his resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.) — NET Mathew 27:51-53

No one bothered to comment about dead people coming back to life and walking around town like some kind of zombie movie!? Not only do we not have a mention of this extraordinary phenomenon in secular recorded history but no other gospel writers felt the need to mention it. It is not that apologists do not have explanations, it is that the explanations make the apologists case less tenable. You might argue that this is poetic or metaphorical but if you do then you must give a reason why the resurrection itself is literal and not metaphorical.

Apologists often make the argument that the disciples were willing to die and therefore they must have seen the resurrected Christ. But to make this argument is to willfully ignore the history of martyrdom among all faith traditions. People have been willing to die for their particular faith throughout human history. Unfortunately, this is not unique to Christianity.

I’ll make the same point I did with Paul. The New Testament proves only that the disciples believed Jesus had been raised. And even here we have to grant the historicity of the disciples as the gospels were written years after the fact.

The difference between proving the disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead and Jesus actually having been raised is similar to our earlier analogy of hopping from the Earth to Alpha Centauri. This extraordinary claim would require extraordinary evidence. Hearsay is not enough for me.

Was Jesus resurrected? I am afraid, based on the evidence, I cannot grant you that. And if the resurrection is not literally true, believers “should be pitied more than anyone.”

Thought Experiment

Try this thought experiment to see if you find this line of argumentation compelling in a different context.

Conclusion

The purpose of this exercise was to see if using apologetic arguments from the general to the specific would lead to theism and ultimately Jesus and the resurrection. An honest apologist will acknowledge that at each step we had to grant the argument in order to proceed.

The arguments do not follow from each other logically and inexorably toward the resurrection. In fact the opposite is true, we had to make very large logical leaps at almost every step. The three largest leaps requiring the most faith without evidence are the following:

  • The non-physical exists at all
  • Asserting a deity as the first cause of the universe
  • The resurrection of Jesus

Without granting each of these there would be no discussion at all. There is no evidence for a non-physical reality. The apologetic theist needs to begin by providing evidence for meta-physics of any kind before asserting anything about deities.

It takes a massive complex leap to go from acknowledging a cause for the universe to asserting that the cause is a deity. “Now you have two problems.”

Having documents that show that early followers believed Jesus rose from the dead is much much different than having evidence for the resurrection itself. It takes more than an empty tomb to be considered evidence for such an extraordinary claim.

It is possible to quibble over a point here or there in the above arguments. I have purposefully avoided an in depth argument over any one given point. You may think, “Aha!, I have got you on this one or that one.” However, the thrust of my argument here is that the long list of assertions made by apologists is cumulative. If just one of the assertions is incorrect the whole of the apologetic argument crashes like a house of cards. I argue that none of the assertions has enough evidence to overcome reasonable doubt.

1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see. — NET Hebrews 11:1

Ironically, I am actually OK with a person saying that they believe by faith alone. If you find the above apologetic arguments comforting based purely on faith, more power to you. All I ask is that you acknowledge this. There are, however, some implications to this position. If it is faith alone, then the believer must acknowledge their faith has no bearing on anyone besides themselves and possibly their faith community. It has no claim to reality in the physics sense. It is not OK, therefore, to impose your faith on others in the public forum.

If, however, you enter into the arena of apologetics and evidence you must acknowledge the dearth and weakness of the evidence. Evidence is not that which convinces the faithful. Evidence is that which convinces the skeptic. Based on the evidence available to me I find the claims of Christianity un-believable.

Is it just that I had the wrong image of god?

Atheism, Deconversion, Philosophy

Tripp Fuller, a progressive theologian, recently put into words on the God Debacle an evasive tactic I used to be guilty of and something I have heard over and over again now that I am an atheist.

When talking to non-believers you spend a lot of time distancing yourself from other Christians. “You don’t understand, I am not like the other 99% of Christians. I am different.” * Paraphrased quote

I think Tripp was mocking this position not espousing it. It was a communally self-aware statement so I will not disparage him. But what I used to mean when I said it is “Don’t judge me by all the horrible things other Christians have said. I am different, I know about grace.” I did not want to own the baggage that came with associating with the “cultural” Christianity one sees on TV. I certainly wasn’t a legalistic, moralistic, hell fire and brimstone Christian and I didn’t want to have to defend those who were. “Don’t you want to hear about my version of Christianity?”

Christians tend to slice up the world into smaller and smaller slices. Theists and atheists. Christians and followers of other religions. Protestants and Catholics. Bible believers and liberal theologians. Baptists and Pentecostals. My specific denomination. My specific church. My specific beliefs. I am the 1% remnant who really understands the gospel.

If you ask 100 Christians what Christianity is all about, you will get 100 different answers. There is no arbiter of truth between faith positions. One might say, “the bible is the arbiter.” But Christians are using the same bible and coming up with conflicting belief systems.

Here is a subtler version of the evasion expressed by Andy Stanley while on the Life After God Podcast with Ryan Bell describing having listened to deconversion stories:

I am so glad that you let go of that view of god …

The thing that drove this person away from faith wasn’t even an actual part of the Christian faith.

What he means is the version of god or Christianity someone believed in was incorrect: god as authoritarian, capricious and vindictive. Of course a person would choose not to believe in that god. The implication: “If only they believed in the version of god that I do, they would be spiritually satisfied.”

I am ashamed to say I used to use this tack. A lot. Here is the problem with that argument. I believed in the version of god Andy does. I was a “Grace Junkie.” I wasn’t interested in scaring the hell out of people I wanted to share god’s loving grace. I have read Andy’s books! I could have written similar books with as much passion and conviction. But for one problem. When one takes in the whole bible, not just cherry picking the “good” grace filled parts, the inescapable truth is that the god of the bible is authoritarian, capricious and vindictive. The version of god in the bible when read without grace colored glasses is a monster.

I became an atheist not because I had a terrible image of god and not because of some tragic hurt against me. I became an atheist because as soon as I began to use the same level of scrutiny on my faith (which included reading the bible as whole) as I did with others it did not hold up.

What I have come to understand is that followers of religions do need to own the baggage of their chosen faith. If one’s religious ancient text leads some people to do terrible things to other people one does not get to ignore those parts of the ancient text. There is no arbiter of truth between faith positions because faith positions are not based on evidence. If one’s own sense of ethics prohibits one from accepting the whole of one’s ancient text, then the ancient text and the god(s) it purports should be abandoned.

* I am paraphrasing from memory. My apologies to Tripp. Please correct me if I got this wrong or misrepresented the idea.

The Beginning of Religion is Death

Atheism, Deconversion, Humanism, Philosophy, Secular Grace

Philosophy of religion has much to say about the origins of religion. Under no compunction to accept religious claims as fact, philosophy of religion can look at the root causes. In vernacular terms, the explanation tends to be that religion evolved due to early humanity’s attempt to explain that which they did not understand. The list of confusing phenomenon included everything from the weather to death itself. The idea of an unseen agent observing one’s actions helped keep group mores enforced. The priests, shaman and spiritual leaders likely enjoyed the recognition and power it brought and began to use said power to overtly control others by enforcing orthodoxy (right thought) and orthopraxy (right action).

While the above explanation is a good one it does not capture the pathos of why religion is so tempting to humans. I will argue the driving force for the evolution of religion is death itself. The soul (if you will permit me the term) of the continuing appeal of religion today is the fear of one’s own death and the need to understand the death of our loved ones.

Lest you think this discussion is in the abstract, I would like to make this personal. I am writing this within arms reach of my mother’s ashes. Eight months after my loss of faith my mother somewhat unexpectedly succumbed to the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction. I had to face the stark reality of her death without the comfort of my previous faith. She is gone. She will not one day be resurrected with a body impervious to addiction. I will not be seeing her again.

It is from this perspective that I would like to discuss how powerful a motivator the need to explain death can be. In my early not-a-Christian state I will admit it was tempting to fall back to the comforting self-delusion that I would get to see her again some day. Worse than that was dealing with the rest of my believing family showering me with similar platitudes that rang profoundly shallow to my ears. Not to mention, the misplaced attention on me by the family pastor who knew I was an atheist during my mother’s funeral.

We humans have a number of psychological defense mechanisms regarding death. We have the amazing capacity to ignore its inevitability until it is thrust in front of us. When we are young we are invincible. The understanding of our mortality slowly grows on us as we age. Some handle this gracefully, others rail against it until the end.

I am sympathetic to those who still believe and even more so to the early humans living in a hostile world they did not understand. The idea of our loved ones living on after death is a powerful one. Our minds take evasive action in order to protect ourselves from the grim reality that not only will we not see our loved ones again, but one day we too will cease to be. It is so much easier to tell ourselves a beautiful story about heaven, and easier still to ignore the evidence to the contrary.

Our cognitive goal is not one of truth but of validation. Opposition results in cognitive dissonance, a psychological conflict that is seldom resolved by the abandonment of belief. Consonance is restored through refutation, support, and proselytism. — Neil Brown

Accepting the truth that there is no life after death and the inevitability of one’s mortality has benefits beyond just being true. For one, I was able to truly grieve my mother’s loss without the pressure to “Buck up, because you’ll see her again someday,” I could allow myself to feel the pain of her loss, to weep with all of my being and to be inconsolable without the guilt of not having enough faith piled on top of my grief. This allows the eventual and even inevitable acceptance to feel freer and more complete. She is gone but the love that we had for each other continues on in me for a time.

Understanding at a deep level that this is the only life I get to live makes each moment more poignant. My time with my wife and children is invaluable to me precisely because it is finite. To be a mortal human is a glorious and terrifying thing.

As we as atheists* interact with and debate theists we must keep in mind the many powerful motivators pushing people toward faith. Our logic may come up short against the visceral need to believe life continues after this one. We need a bit of Secular Grace for them in our interactions.

Have you lost a loved one? Are you worried about facing death as an atheist? Need a bit of Secular Grace yourself? Tell me about it in the comments or on Twitter.

You keep using that word I do not think it means what you think it means

Atheism, Philosophy

Recently I have noticed in the twitterverse a number of theists arguing some variation of the following:

Atheism takes as much faith as theism

This is an interesting argument for me because even when I was a believer it would have never occurred to me to think this way. I spend a great deal of time trying to understand the process I went through from faith to lack of faith. I try to remember how I felt and how I thought when I was a believer. But I never would have made this argument.

Words have meaning

The definitions of words matter. Atheism is by definition Not-theism or the lack of belief in a deity or deities. End of conversation. Saying one is an atheist makes the very simple statement that one does not believe in god(s). Nothing more and nothing less. Atheism is by definition the absence faith. So to make the claim that atheism requires faith is a bit of a non-starter.

I am not trying to be obtuse or pedantic. If I am being extremely generous in an attempt to facilitate communication, I can almost understand the thinking of the theist. To the theist all things have their being in god and therefore, the concept of a universe that does not require god does not compute. To the believer god is self evident and therefor the atheist must be deliberately willfully rejecting god. They might call that a type of “faith.”

Bad argument

There are a number of problems with this perspective. Not the least of which is “Which god is self evident?” My believer friend, let me do you a favor.  Stop using this argument. It is a bad one for anyone who owns a dictionary. Atheism is a statement about what one does not believe. We do not say it takes faith to not believe in other things. The number of things one does not believe in is infinite.

  • It takes no faith to not believe that the titans were birthed by Gaia and Uranus.
  • It takes no faith to not believe Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are the creator, maintainer and destroyer of the world.
  • It takes no faith to not believe the world sits upon an elephant which sits upon a turtle.
  • It takes no faith to not believe Joseph Smith found magical golden glasses that allowed him to translate the angel Moroni.
  • It takes no faith to not believe in pan-dimensional super intelligent beings who happen to be green.
  • It takes no faith to not believe in an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient god.

There is no evidence for any of the above statements.

Burden of proof

The problem arises when the believer assumes the atheist needs to disprove god. This begs the question. The burden of proof is on the believer to provide evidence that god exists. Most atheists are skeptics, meaning they require evidence before they will accept a claim. Atheists like myself have examined the arguments and the evidence and found it wanting. A rejection of the claim that a theistic god exists is based on lack of evidence or poor arguments for the claim and not on “faith.”

In a future blog post I will address some of the things that some atheists may be said to “believe.” Some of us are humanists, some of us are naturalists, some of us are materialists. But it is important to distinguish these positive philosophies from atheism. Each of them stands or falls on its own merits. If one or more were to be disproved, that would not constitute evidence for a theistic god.