Welcome, Theists and Other Religious Believers, To My Atheistic Blog

Welcome, theists and religious people, to Camels With Hammers. My name is Dan Fincke and I am happy to have you at my atheist blog alongside my existing audience of passionate, knowledgeable, and (usually) friendly atheists. Please use the comments section of this post to ask me any questions you have about me, my philosophy, or this blog. The more charitable your spirit the more likely we will enjoy having you here and the more you will like us. This blog alternates between material that is critical of religious beliefs and material that addresses philosophical, political, and social justice issues that are either neutral with respect to religious belief or that are important specifically to irreligious people and to non-theists.

Before you start asking specific questions, let me give you the very basic overview of my life and philosophical development.

I am an atheist now but I was once a theist. I grew up as a devout Evangelical after my older brother and my mother converted from Roman Catholicism when I was in kindergarten. We belonged to the non-denominational Church of Christ (but we had instruments and alcohol was not considered sinful—this was Long Island). Most of our congregation was comprised of ex-Catholics who considered themselves to have been “born again” when re-baptized as adults discovering the Church of Christ.

Throughout most of high school I dreamed of being a Christian minister as my older brother, by that time, had become. My Christian faith was utterly central to my identity, my beliefs, and my values. I was giving other kids the Gospel by the time I was 12. I was advocating for an abstinence only approach to sex education against the guest presenter on safe sex when I was in 9th Grade. By the time I was in 11th Grade I was a pamphleteer putting together a monthly journal of writings solicited from numerous ministers I knew and including my own pieces and passing them out in my high school. Nearly all the music I would buy was Contemporary Christian Music. I spent increasing numbers of weeks of my summers at Christian camps, first as a camper and a garbage man and eventually as a counselor. And I attended the youth conference Christ In Youth for several incredibly influential weeks of my life. I was also intensively discipled by my youth minister and then by our new senior pastor throughout my high school years, which had a huge impact on who I am today.

I didn’t grow up in the easiest of environments for an Evangelical Christian teenager. Growing up on Long Island in New York, most of my friends that were not from my church or from our church camp were Jewish, Catholic, or merely nominally some form of Protestant. The only Evangelical friends I had were typically from my church or from the camp I went to in the summers. I spent a tremendous deal of energy trying to convert my friends to Christianity as I believed it was truly to be understood.

From there I went off to Grove City College, one of the most educationally well-ranked politically and religiously conservative Evangelical Christian colleges in America. My goal when I arrived was to become a church history professor. I fell in love with philosophy quickly however and found that I persistently wrote my theology papers more philosophically than theologically. On the flipside, I studied philosophy somewhat myopically focused only on what I saw as relevant to my theological, and specifically my apologetic, interests.

While at Grove City, theologically I struggled a great deal to accept the Calvinism that was dominant among my classmates and theology professors. I was for a time both a Kierkegaardian and a presuppositionalist apologist. I spent two incredibly impactful summers as a Christian camp counselor at Ligonier Camp and Conference Center in Pennsylvania.

At the end of my first three intense college years of rapidly learning as much philosophy and theology as eating, sleeping, and drinking the subjects could yield me, I read Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Portable Nietzsche (Portable Library). Afterwards my faith would never be the same. In 6 months, even, it would be gone altogether.

By the time I showed up at graduate school at Fordham University I was an apostate from the Christian religion. I was an atheist. And I was committed to a principle of radical Cartesian doubt. I was comfortable not adopting any positive philosophical propositions until I simply couldn’t refute them. In the meantime I was an extreme skeptic enamored with postmodernism and studying primarily historical philosophy and 20th Century Continental philosophy. When it came to moral philosophy I was essentially some sort of an emotivist or projectivist.

When it came time to write my dissertation, I finally started focusing my full time energies where I had wanted to since leaving my faith. I started writing my dissertation on Friedrich Nietzsche very much as an exercise in making clear and systematic the reasoning process I had undergone by which he led me out of my faith. I felt compelled to show systematically how his epistemological, ethical, and metaphysical views were deeply interrelated with each other and just how they compelled me to abandon Christianity as a deep matter of intellectual and moral conscience.

And just before starting my dissertation, I also began teaching classes at Fordham University and, quite soon after, at William Paterson University as well. For my next seven years at Fordham, while researching and writing on Nietzsche for my dissertation, I was frequently teaching the core course on philosophical ethics. Relatively quickly it became my favorite philosophical subject. And I came to be profoundly impressed and influenced by the moral philosophies of Aristotle and Kant.

In the later stages of writing my dissertation, I increasingly restructured it primarily around understanding Nietzsche’s views on morality as coherent, consistent, and, most importantly of all, constructive. Towards the end of the project the influences of Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Nietzsche himself, and numerous contemporary philosophers had convinced me of the reality of objective values which are wholly discoverable and discussable within a naturalistic framework that is completely independent of all supernaturalism or religion.

I then spent the final chapter of my dissertation developing my own account of metaethics and proper normative thinking. By the end of the previous chapters of the dissertation I had developed a systematic Nietzschean philosophy of morality. In the final chapter, I tried to develop an updated and revised version of it that incorporated the insights of 20th Century moral philosophers and of historical philosophers Nietzsche himself had underutilized or underappreciated. My updated Nietzschean ethics also conscientiously broke with Nietzsche himself anywhere that I simply thought his thinking wrong or harmful.

The summer before completing my dissertation and receiving my PhD in philosophy from Fordham, I decided to become a regular blogger. Previously I had fiddled on and off with a low profile blog called Nietzschean Ideas. In June 2009 I enlisted the help of an old friend, and now fellow apostate, from my days at Grove City College, to redesign and relaunch my blog as Camels With Hammers. My earlier stabs at blogging had been more aimless. I tried them while I was more absorbed in the scholarly pursuit of the meaning of Nietzsche’s texts than in the contemporary world. I cared quite a bit about politics and atheism was already a deep part of my identity, my philosophy, and my values. My constant linking on Facebook to articles about religiously influenced conflict, coupled with my unequivocal denunciations of faith as a vice led friends to suggest I should start directing all this passion into a blog already. And so the decision to focus in earnest on blogging happened.

It did not take long though before I discovered the online atheist community and got sucked into it. And as my readership slowly grew that first year, I came to realize that my audience was overwhelmingly atheists. And so a lot of the disagreements I started to get into were with other atheists. And a lot of the blogs I was reading were by other atheists, rather than theists. So my thoughts were increasingly about points of disagreement with other atheists. I would still spend time working out responses to religious arguments but increasingly over the last two years, and especially during my year at the center of the atheist blogosphere, Freethought Blogs, the audience I wrote for was an atheistic one. In my mind as I wrote I was talking to other atheists. Maybe some theists were looking on but they were infrequently the target audience. In recent months, religion seems to have even become quite a side matter to me as disputes with fellow atheists and between other atheists became all consuming.

So part of what intrigues me about moving to Patheos is the prospect of having more of you theists ambling through these parts and replying to what I say. I am deeply grateful to, and happy with, my atheist audience and hope all those readers follow me over here. I hope now we just have you theists as sparring partners. I want to get dragged back into debates with you real live believers. I want to mix it up with my new religious blogger neighbors too, while I am at it.

The only thing I ask of you theists and religious believers who read this blog is that you respect that my readers and I are not simply ignorant about your beliefs. I like seeing people who disagree with me in my comments section. But I am turned off by people who treat me or my friends with chest thumping and contempt.

The more you demonstrate an ability to argue with thought provoking precision and passion and the more you present yourself as a person of good will who has an open mind, the more I will be inclined to spend my time engaging your questions and challenges. The more you resort to polemics and strawmen of atheism, the less likely I am going to see replying to you as worth my limited writing time. You will not ingratiate yourself to my atheist readers either if you treat them with interpersonal hostility or dismissiveness. This is an atheist blog, so please respect the atheists.

And, for the record, I have spent a lot of energy and political capital in the atheist blogosphere defending to my fellow atheists your moral rights to be treated with basic civility no matter how false or dangerous many of us find your ideas. I have a low tolerance for hasty personal attacks or abusive insulting language aimed at anyone in my comments sections. This is a safe space for debate.

But that will not exempt any positions from harsh moral criticisms, as long as they are grounded in evidence. People are allowed to argue with emotional force, as long as they do not try to bully others with abusive language, subtle goading, presumptuous personal jabs, trolling, etc. Your religious ideas and values are open to full moral and intellectual examination and refutation, as are our atheistic ideas and values.

But also keep in mind, as you challenge our most fundamental beliefs and values, in return for us challenging yours, that a lot of this blog’s readers are feminists, gays, transgendered people, atheists, political leftists, or have other identities which are typically subject to a lot of abuse from religious people. Do not be any more personally antagonistic of our identities as such than is necessary for trying to prove us wrong on intellectual or moral grounds. Keep criticism of our ideas and values as impersonal as possible and we will try to do you that same courtesy.

With all that on the table, what would you like to know about me or my philosophical views?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • echolocation

    Daniel, as an evangelical, I find your story fascinating. Welcome to Patheos.
    What is your view of the resurrection? Many Christians, including the Apostle Paul, hold belief in the resurrection as central to their faith. No resurrection – no Christianity.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Daniel, as an evangelical, I find your story fascinating. Welcome to Patheos.

      Thank you echolocation.

      What is your view of the resurrection? Many Christians, including the Apostle Paul, hold belief in the resurrection as central to their faith. No resurrection – no Christianity.

      I think there is not enough evidence to believe such an incredible claim as that a man rose from the dead. I also think, to back up just a step, that the idea of an eternal god is completely incompatible with its taking finite form. I rejected Christianity because I too believed that to be a Christian meant to believe in the resurrection and in all the other supernatural tales in the Bible. I took Christianity to be completely false if not completely true in all its most unusual beliefs.

      But in recent years I have come to think that since, if I am right, Christianity is false, there is no necessary way Christians have to think. I see the Christian tradition as filled with great diversity of opinion all throughout its history. I compare it to my country, the United States of America. Such a country is a place and a continuity of identity and of certain evolving values and beliefs. In modern day America, we would call “unAmerican” practices that we find morally abhorrent but which earlier generations of Americans actually endorsed, or were at least more persuadable about. The fight over what is “truly American” is a fight over which parts of our tradition we believe should be morally elevated over what other parts. But there is no truth about what is truly American in some normative sense. There are descriptive facts about what we have been. Anthropologically and historically we can chronicle all of that with a high degree of factual detachment. But it does not stop us from saying, “going forward let’s be this other way instead!”

      I see religions as human institutions, like countries are but different. I think they too can constantly change their beliefs and values with new understanding of the world while still legitimately claiming to belong to their historical tradition. They can come to affirm that the meaning of being a Christian is not actually tied to belief in literal resurrection after all (as many believers have done). That’s up to believers to decide amongst themselves, as far as I’m concerned. I am not the arbiter or true Christianity vs. false Christianity. But for me not believing in the literal truth of Christianity made identifying as a Christian personally pointless.

      I am ambivalent about liberal Christians in that since I think that more of their beliefs and values are true and good than more fundamentalist Christians’ beliefs and values, I want to encourage them in their efforts to adapt their religion to be truer and better since that is at least a preferable state of affairs than that their religions be falser and worse. But I also think that insofar as liberal believers still wind up making some difficult to swallow claims–like that their modern day values were what the God of the Old Testament and New really had in mind–I want to confront them and challenge what I see to be tremendous cognitive dissonance and ill-considered support for problematic religious traditions and institutions.

      One final thought on this broad topic of resurrection–I am struck by how many liberal believers insist on believing in this one miracle while scoffing with us New Atheists at the silliness of so many Old Testament miracles and other fantastic stories. It strikes me as rather arbitrary in a way. My guess is that it is simply important for them to believe that their religion is real and that they truly have faith in something supernatural that they at least wholeheartedly commit themselves to one implausible belief rather than become completely rationalists and slip into total unbelief thereby. The thought process they have is strange and fascinating to me. I expect its traceable to Karl Barth’s influence.

      For more on what I see as the flexibility of religious traditions I recommend you read Why Let The Fundamentalists Define Their Religions?

    • echolocation

      Daniel,

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. You’ve provided a lot to chew on and some perspectives I’ve never considered before.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      You’re welcome, echolocation. I hope to see you around some more.

  • Björn Carlsten

    I’m an atheist, but I have a question for you which might be relevant to religious people.

    When I read your deconversion account, I was particularly interested in your flirtation with Calvinism. I wonder, now that you’re no longer a Christian, do you think that belief in an omnipotent and omniscient creator deity entails a belief in predestination? Or rather, do you think that any recognizable concept of free will is in any way compatible with an omnipotent and omniscient Creator?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      I’m an atheist, but I have a question for you which might be relevant to religious people.

      When I read your deconversion account, I was particularly interested in your flirtation with Calvinism. I wonder, now that you’re no longer a Christian, do you think that belief in an omnipotent and omniscient creator deity entails a belief in predestination? Or rather, do you think that any recognizable concept of free will is in any way compatible with an omnipotent and omniscient Creator?

      I think the question boils down to whether a “free will” is conceptually coherent. Theoretically an omnipotent creator could only do things which were logically possible. The problem that I have is that everything that is has a nature of some kind that constrains what it can or cannot be and what it can or cannot do. With Spinoza I think that the freest any being can be is to act only within the dictates of its own nature and not from any other’s. So even God would be constrained by its own nature. Or, put more precisely, it would be identical with its own nature. There are numerous possible worlds in which humans exist and numerous possible worlds in which each possible human exists. In each possible world each human can sometimes act according to her psychologically, biologically, and socially determined brain expressive of her own (determined) will. God would elect which worlds (whether all or none or some number in between) to create. If God creates the world in which you freely act one way, you are still expressing your own nature within your circumstances within that world and in if God creates the world in which you freely act in a different way, you express your own nature in that possible world consistent with its constraints instead.

      The only kind of freedom this is is a compatibilist kind. But I think that’s a real kind of freedom. But ultimately if there were a God we would be determined not directly by nature but by God’s choice of which worlds to create or not. But even then since God too would be determined its by nature or by nature itself (or by God’s nature as nature itself) ultimately the situation is the same as in the reality I believe in–nature is the ultimate determiner of all we do and our “free” actions are those which are expressive of our more proximate natures and psychological processes as opposed to those in which we are determined by natures outside of ourselves.

      For more of my views on free will see my posts What It Means For Me To Be Free, Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?, and Free Will and the Real World.

      Finally, for the logic behind my claims about what a God would have to be like and how it would have to relate to the universe, see my post, Examining Some Divine Attributes.

  • Danny Klopovic

    An interesting post – but I cannot help but think it also sounds quite predictable given the history recounted. I can only speak anecdotally here but it seems that an extraordinary amount of atheists online appear to come from a fundamentalist / evangelical background as a springboard to atheism. I realise of course that atheists come from a variety of backgrounds but I also wonder if there is not something in the rationalistic quality of fundamentalist / evangelical thought that is more likely to propel someone towards atheism.

    As an aside, my own perspective is that of Anabaptism – and I confess that I do not think very highly of fundamentalist / evangelical Christianity, mainly because I think they are ethically poor but that is a whole other topic. I also must confess that I have my doubts about ex-evangelical atheists since they seem so often to simply replicate the same mental habits of their past not to mention, dare I say it, an almost evangelical fervour for their assessment as to what counts as “real Christianity” in their criticisms of same.

    I think also here of James Fowler’s Stages of Faith model and your narrative (and of other atheists eg. John Loftus, Dan Barker etc) seems to dovetail with the model quite well. I find it particularly telling that you cite ambivalence with respect to “liberal Christians” – something that again seems quite predictable given your evangelical background and what appears to be the same binary thinking replicated across to your present day atheism.

    Still … I find your posts interesting and I am new here myself.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Thanks, Danny.

      Yes, a lot of us former Evangelicals leave precisely because our standard for the truth or value or fittingness or what have you of Christianity is, as you say, in a way rationalist. It’s bound up with a standard that the faith be able to deliver absolute, propositional truths. Those of us who reject it on those grounds have the ambivalence I described and you found confirmatory of a pattern.

      Nonetheless, as should be clear, I have broadened my perspective on religious liberals in some ways. I am not even sure I would call anabaptists religious liberals. You’re political liberals but I’m not sure theologically you’re that liberal, but I could be mistaken.

      Ultimately, my problem with religious liberalism is not that it fails to really live up to the religion authentically (as a lot of atheists, particularly ex-evangelicals) charge. Rather it is that it is more logically and morally incoherent to try to read back modern values into those ancient texts and give them some special credence as divinely inspired and authoritative.

      But unlike a lot of atheists I do not think the fundamentalists read the texts more accurately and less prejudicially either.

  • Danny Klopovic

    Yes, I suppose we Anabaptists could loosely be described as “politically liberal” – though I am not sure that works very well to describe say the Amish or Old Order Mennonites given their disavowal of political involvement. What is key is our suspicion of the use of power to enshrine a particular moral vision rather than a specific political plank I think. I don’t particularly find the descriptions “conservative” and “liberal” to be that helpful insofar as I think they are limiting – I prefer more descriptions :). As for being theologically conservative – I’d ask what counts as being theologically conservative. I accept for example the seven ecumenical councils, which includes belief in the Trinity, the Chalcedonian understanding of Christ, that Mary is the Mother of God (as a Christological claim against Nestorian accounts) etc. However, as an Anabaptist I reject say fundamentalist / evangelical notions of biblical inerrancy or Catholic / Orthodox / mainstream Protestant notions of infallibility, whether that be vested in a papal office, ecumenical council or scripture, respectively – is that liberalism? I myself would say no but it would go to far afield to explore that.

    As for religious liberals – I am not convinced that they are trying to import modern values into an ancient text – but I leave it to them to explain their reading strategy. I do appreciate though the recognition that fundamentalists are not necessarily better readers!

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Yes, I suppose we Anabaptists could loosely be described as “politically liberal” – though I am not sure that works very well to describe say the Amish or Old Order Mennonites given their disavowal of political involvement. What is key is our suspicion of the use of power to enshrine a particular moral vision rather than a specific political plank I think. I don’t particularly find the descriptions “conservative” and “liberal” to be that helpful insofar as I think they are limiting – I prefer more descriptions . As for being theologically conservative – I’d ask what counts as being theologically conservative. I accept for example the seven ecumenical councils, which includes belief in the Trinity, the Chalcedonian understanding of Christ, that Mary is the Mother of God (as a Christological claim against Nestorian accounts) etc. However, as an Anabaptist I reject say fundamentalist / evangelical notions of biblical inerrancy or Catholic / Orthodox / mainstream Protestant notions of infallibility, whether that be vested in a papal office, ecumenical council or scripture, respectively – is that liberalism? I myself would say no but it would go to far afield to explore that.

      As for religious liberals – I am not convinced that they are trying to import modern values into an ancient text – but I leave it to them to explain their reading strategy. I do appreciate though the recognition that fundamentalists are not necessarily better readers!

      Yes, political liberalism (in the general political philosophy sense as opposed to the narrow “left wing” sense) is too dicey a term to directly apply to Anabaptists. And the Amish et al are apolitical with respect to the secular sphere and their entire way of life is, I think fairly construable as outright regressive. They are in many ways the very opposite of progressive left wing liberals. Although both might share vaguely comparable communitarian ideals for social order? Nonetheless, they represent a significant rejection of technology and attempt to preserve a past way of life in perpetuity, it seems. Morally, they are conservative and patriarchal, no? But I am no expert on these matters so I will stop speculating.

      I think the conservative to liberal line in theology is somewhat arbitrary. I for one like to highlight various ways that modern fundamentalists are not conservatives but reactionaries who make a lot of innovations and who reject (rather than conserve) many older aspects of the Christian tradition–including a lot of progress it has made towards increased sophistication and nuance, unfortunately. So, it’s hard to say what it is to “conserve” or not. Their literalist propositionalism is more a modern invention so I don’t see it as something they are conserving while you are jettisoning it. So in that way, I don’t see you as more liberal and they as more “conservative”. However, I think they adopt that literalist propositionalism as a strategy to make their tradition conservable. As I understand the history, the original fundamentalists were watching 19th Century theology and historical scholarship erode the supernaturalistic foundations of the traditional faith and resorted to dogmatic insistence on key historical doctrines and on the absolute authority of the Bible as a way to stem the tide they saw coming. Liberals might say it was unnecessary that they do that as there was no need to treat the Bible as a set of infallible propositions to be compared with new discoveries as competing descriptive accounts of the same aspects of reality in the first place. I am not exactly sure what you would say. How much does the Bible have to be corroborated by science, history, etc. for it to be a reliable document to you at all?

  • J Decker

    Hey Dan,

    This is the ghost of your Grove City past, and I have come back to haunt you. Or maybe just say ‘hi’.

    My facebook feed has been so adamant lately in apprising me of your thoughts and virtual whereabouts that I thought I’d mosey on over to your blog and see what’s up. I like the graphic. I was at the zoo today and saw four camels. I couldn’t tell if any of them had hammers, but one was pretty clearly eyeing me up and trying to figure out if I’m a theist.

    Now that I’m here, I can’t resist commenting. I found your intellectual autobiography puzzling. You said:

    “I was an atheist. And I was committed to a principle of radical Cartesian doubt. I was comfortable not adopting any positive philosophical propositions until I simply couldn’t refute them. In the meantime I was an extreme skeptic enamored with postmodernism and studying primarily historical philosophy and 20th Century Continental philosophy.”

    First, it’s surprising to hear that you were both an atheist *and* you were committed to a principle of radical Cartesian doubt. I would have thought that if you were in the mood to doubt every claim that could be doubted, the proposition that God doesn’t exist surely would have been among them. The proposition that God does not exist is a substantial claim about what the world is like. It’s strange that you couldn’t conceive of *any* scenario in which God exists. Or maybe you could do that initially, but you, like Descartes, later found that you could derive substantial metaphysical beliefs from a few clear and distinct perceptions? Did you have a clear and distinct perception of the non-existence of God? Or did you have clear and distinct perceptions of other truths from which it followed that there is no God? You say that reading *The Portable Nietzsche* is what precipitated your de-conversion. Did you find in Nietzsche’s writing a proof of the non-existence of God that starts with only claims that are *impossible* to doubt? (Having read it myself—though not as closely as you have—I’m pretty confident that you’re not going to answer ‘yes’ to that last question.) I’m just wondering how your radical Cartesian doubt could have left you an atheist rather than an agnostic—indeed, how it could have even been *consistent* with your atheism.

    Maybe there’s a clue in what you say next: “I was comfortable not adopting any positive philosophical propositions until I simply couldn’t refute them”. That’s not radical Cartesian doubt, is it? That looks to me like a pretty permissive standard! I myself find that I can *refute* hardly anything in philosophy, religion, ethics, science, mathematics—even logic (given the clever arguments of those darn dialetheists). I can give considerations for and against views and try to weigh them, but refuting claims? I’m hard pressed to think of any. In particular, I can’t *refute* that God exists and I can’t *refute* that God doesn’t exist. If young Dan Fincke was in my position, would he have felt licensed to believe either? Descartes’ actual standard was much less permissive than the one you describe. He was uncomfortable adopting any propositions unless he either had a clear and distinct perception of their truth or he could demonstrate them from clear and distinct perceptions. As you know, Descartes thought that skepticism would necessarily win the day unless he could prove that God exists and is not a deceiver, since only then would he have some reason for believing that his clear and distinct perceptions were true. And, he even thought he succeeded in defeating his skepticism in this way. Of course, if one takes the destructive skeptical bits of Descartes’ epistemology seriously, the constructive bits just won’t work. He should come out the other end a near-global skeptic—i.e., an agnostic on almost every proposition. In any event, neither the destructive skeptical thread nor the constructive thread of Descartes’ epistemology fits with young Dan’s commitment to the proposition that God doesn’t exist, which is a bold piece of metaphysics, and lacks the epistemic humility and suspension of belief that is characteristic of a skeptic.

    But now I’m beginning to think that you maybe just misspoke. Maybe what you meant was “I was comfortable not adopting any positive philosophical propositions until I simply couldn’t *resist* them”. That’s certainly a stronger standard. Maybe you found yourself psychologically incapable of resisting the belief that there is no God. If so, was it evidence and arguments that made this impossible? Trying to find the answer to this, I looked around at some of your other posts and it looks like the answer is ‘no’. What you say about Nietzsche is that he presented an alternative, coherent ethos that made you question that of Christianity. You report having found yourself attracted to it on a passional level, at least if I understand you correctly. If that’s right, then it looks like you went to atheism instead of agnosticism not because the evidence and arguments for the non-existence of God rationally demanded belief instead of suspension of belief, but rather because you were passionally attracted to an atheistic ethos. I don’t want to say that that’s irrational, but it certainly looks like you replaced one faith with another. Maybe you wouldn’t be bothered by that claim, although I seem to recall you lumping faith with irrationality. (I suppose you might be using ‘faith’ as a technical term, and I just haven’t come across the definition yet.)

    Okay; so I guess the ghost of your Grove City past said more than ‘hi’. Actually, come to think of it, he said less, since reporting that you’ve come to say ‘hi’ isn’t the same thing as saying ‘hi’. So: hi. I hope all is well with you.

    Best,

    Jason

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Hi Jason! It’s great to hear from you.

      Yes, I spoke too loosely in saying I was a Cartesian. I also got should not have said that I would only believe what I couldn’t refute. Rather it was the other way around, it was that I wouldn’t believe except that which I could not help but believe. I put it this way in my post about my initial, post-deconversion philosophy which I wrote this summer.

      The Cartesian part of this is not in the emphasis on clear and distinct ideas but on believing only that which cannot be doubted. But I also had to live and so I was okay with provisional, pragmatic beliefs based on the tests of unavoidability and explanatory power. It is unavoidable, for example, that I live by the assumption of the existence of the world. I couldn’t say whether it was in itself identical with the ways humans intersubjectively perceived and categorized it but there were some basically shared experiences of it that form our understanding of it upon which life activities are built. Then there were scientific propositions with extraordinary power for prediction and vindication against falsification tests and similar feats of explanatory power that made them good enough to call mostly true, rather than mostly false.

      To the question of the relationship between atheism and skepticism: Let me distinguish three kinds of atheism. Two of them involve merely a non-belief in gods rather than any affirmation of the proposition that there are no gods. There are two ways that the “non-belief” atheism arise. One is because of an epistemological agnosticism. I.e., someone says, the gods question cannot be answered. Now some people who take this epistemologically agnostic position with respect to gods decide to believe in a god or gods even though they think that there is no way to answer the question rationally or evidentially. Or they may feel like the evidence is insufficient or unlikely but they decide to believe anyway despite not being able to say that they know there is a god or gods. These are agnostic theists. Others who believe the gods question cannot be settled also adhere to standards of belief which preclude believing in entities that cannot be demonstrated to be more warranted by evidence than not. This epistemic position is that entities that cannot be known to exist with reasonably high degrees of likelihood, established either scientifically or philosophically, should not be believed in as a matter of principle. These people are atheists in that they do not believe in gods. They even have a principled reason to not believe in gods. This is not because they affirm the proposition that there are no gods. Rather it is because they think there can be no way to positively affirm anything about gods either way and so therefore, by default, they are non-affirmers, non-believers in gods. This means not worshipping them, not affirming religious traditions’ claims to special revelations from them as rationally warranted, etc.

      These are agnostic atheists.

      There are other sorts of generally agnostic atheists who hold, I think, too high a standard of evidence. They think that knowledge equals indubitable certainty. I (no longer) accept that definition. These atheists also think that one cannot know there are no gods but they also see a profound lack of evidence for gods and/or a great deal of evidence against gods. They are mostly convinced of atheism but because of their impossible definition of knowledge they will say they cannot know but instead just default to non-belief given the lack of evidence and, again, the need to not affirm propositions insufficiently supported by evidence.

      Both these kinds of agnostics who reject beliefs in gods on epistemic principle–either because they reject metaphysical knowledge in principle or because they have an absolutist standard of knowledge–are genuinely atheists. They do not think there is rational warrant for theistic belief. They think there is positive rational warrant not to hold such positive beliefs. They do not participate in religions typically (or if they do, they do not accord it authority in matters of truth). Effectively, they live without gods, so they are atheists. They will not, when asked to speak technically, say they know there are no gods or that they believe there are no gods. They are very assiduous about insisting that, technically speaking, they only lack beliefs in gods.

      I was this sort of agnostic atheist for many years until I became more of a realist and became convinced that absolutist accounts of the meaning of the word knowledge were confused. I still accepted the notion implicit in your comment that philosophical atheism required metaphysical affirmation and so would have technically called myself just an agnostic, philosophically. But as someone rejecting my religious faith it was crucially important to me to own the stronger term atheism as I was living without gods and my “lack of knowledge” was just barely lack of knowledge, there was no reason whatsoever to believe in the interventionist gods people meant by the term and even though I wasn’t certain in some impossible sense I was as confident as could be and so felt like “atheism” was a better term. Now I’m convinced that philosophically “lack of belief in gods” is a more precise definition of atheism even philosophically and so encourage agnostic atheists who do not adopt faith or do not feel merely in some 50/50 middle to just own their atheism and call themselves atheists. It is atheism, whether from lack of belief or affirmation, with respect to the gods question. It is agnosticism with respect to the epistemological question. Those are two different issues, so it is philosophically muddled set of categories that present the choice as agnosticism or atheism. The choices are between atheism and various god affirming positions (monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, deism, personal god theism called simply “theism”, etc.) and then agnosticism or gnosticism on the epistemological questions.

      Now when it comes to interventionist gods I am willing to say I know none exist. Knowledge does not require absolute and total certainty–on those grounds nothing at all may be knowable so it is a useless and confusing way to use the word. When I say I know there are no interventionist gods I am saying nothing more epistemologically or metaphysically daring than saying that there is no Thor, no Zeus, no Aquaman. Countless people who claim to be unable to know whether there is a Yahweh or a Jesus have no compunction about saying that Thor, Zeus, and Aquaman are obvious human fictions. I am simply being consistent. By the same criteria that we dismiss Thor, Zeus, and Aquaman, we can dismiss Yahweh and Jesus. So I am a “gnostic” (or “knowing”) atheist with respect to interventionist gods. I don’t think we need to be so terrified of such metaphysical affirmations. They may be wrong, but the evidence clearly weighs in their favor just as it weighs in favor of my believing that there is not an elephant in the room with me right now.

      Impersonal, non-interventionist philosophical conceptions of a divine source of being/nature principle I consider to be simply deism or, on formulations like Spinoza’s, practically atheism. I usually am inclined to identify as an agnostic adeist. Not feeling sure enough about how to answer the mysterious metaphysical question of the ground of all being–and being unsure that we can answer that question, at least with our current state of scientific knowledge, and maybe no matter what we learn scientifically in the future–I default to not believing in any specific account of it with any confidence. So I default to non-belief in the deist god but do not rule it out in principle and feel free to speculate hypotheticals of what it might be like or might entail.

      Finally, I define faith in a technical sense. It is willfully committing (whether explicitly or implicitly) to enter into relationships of trust and/or belief (a) beyond perceived rational warrant, (b) against perceived predominance of counter evidence of trustworthiness, and/or (c) against all possible future counter-evidence that may undermine currently perceived evidence of trusworthiness.

      I did not have faith in Nietzsche. Over the 3 years leading up to my reading the Portable Nietzsche I had become convinced more and more that unless one took recourse to faith one would have to have minimal metaphysical beliefs. I was profoundly influenced by Hume in this regard. I had also studied church history and had my naive assumptions about the rationally likely truth of the Scriptures cleared away–even though I was studying in as conservative and believing-friendly a context as I could have been.

      Before ever seriously studying Nietzsche, I was opting to believe while explicitly knowing that it was less than entirely rational to do so. I was spending a year bashing reason. I was a misologist, a Christian relativist, and a fideist desperately trying to hold my faith together. The only way I could do it was with an explicit and knowing Kierkegaardian leap of faith that I took as a last ditch effort. I was already convinced that on rational grounds Christianity collapsed and looked untrue. The night where I confronted most strongly the doubts that had grown in me extraordinarily quickly upon starting to formally study philosophy was described in my post December 8, 1997.

      Still wanting to feel justified, I tried to argue on presuppositionalist grounds that if only one adopted by faith the absurdity of Christianity’s basic contradictions everything else could be made to have more rational and coherent sense! And there would be a better ethics too! My thought was a muddle. I was keenly aware of how irrational the faith was but tried to justify that by exaggerating the problem of incommensurability to essentially be a relativist about knowledge, denigrating all “worldviews” equally, so that my Christianity would not be any worse by comparison but might at least be better for its streaks of absolutism from within the system. I was clinging, when one looks back, because of deep identity commitments that motivated my psychology and reasoning.

      So what did Nietzsche do? Nietzsche followed out my skeptical tendencies in ways that were rational to me. Then he countered my presuppositionalist’s prejudice that my Christian take on the world was the clearly superior one for internal coherence by bringing me into a powerful and evocative and far reaching counter-picture of the world which struck me as both truer and more emotionally resonant.

      No, Nietzsche does not offer a bunch of arguments against the existence of God. He didn’t need to. I already knew damn well the reasons not to believe. I knew how irrational my faith was. Yet I was clinging. Nietzsche revealed to me psychologically that it was a lie that Christianity was the only way to see or to feel the world that I was capable of. He made it so that psychologically I could start to transition emotionally out of that identity that overwhelmed everything else for me and kept me from being true to my reason.

      He put together an alternative Gestalt that I could see the world with that made more sense of it than the Christian account. And his Gestalt did not involve having to cling desperately to a moral dispensation to believe as I desired (“faith”) in the teeth of evidence as I had been doing. In fact what Nietzsche impressed upon me was that as a primary ethical and intellectual commitment I should be true to my reason, even at the expense of my faith and my very identity–and even at the expense of my confidence in having robust rational truth. I felt pushed to say that even if all reason could tell me was that it itself could not be fully trusted, then I would simply have to be a radical skeptic. The solution to radical skepticism was not choosing by faith to believe in whatever unjustified beliefs we wished, as I had been doing. The only option for my intellectual conscience was to provisionally be a fearless nihilist with a patient project of investigating every proposition with rigorous skepticism before assenting to it.

      I needed Nietzsche’s psychological pull because my reason was fettered with the traps of identity that had me constantly deliberately attacking it. Nietzsche gave the emotional force to stop feeling like the only good in the world could ever be Christian, and like the only way I could see the world could ever be as a Christian. Nietzsche deprogrammed me. He didn’t give me a new “faith”. He convinced me that it was okay to doubt, to not know, and to think beyond the Christian box–as I had been intellectually prepared to do for well over a year already but had not been emotionally able to seriously contemplate yet.

      Then when I left the faith, I trusted Nietzsche more than anyone else for a time because psychologically I responded to him being the one who had liberated my mind. That was why I was so zealous about him. I trusted gratefully his willingness to ask any question, no matter how dangerous or uncomfortable. He embodied to me the most fearless commitment to intellectual conscience–not faith. I didn’t believe he was infallible. I would not believe things simply on his word. I would not believe him when he was contravened by evidence. I would not commit to believing in him “regardless of what new evidence came up”, etc. I did not commit to believing in Nietzsche volitionally as a faith-believer commits to believing in the propositions of their faith.

      What I did do was try on his perspective as best I could. I adopted his principles of skeptical rigor since I thought them the only rational option. And I agreed with many of his skeptical conclusions about universals, the self, free will, etc. In each case I just found his reasons compelling–it was not a matter of willful faith. Soon as someone could disabuse me of some Nietzschean position or another I would let it go. And on many issues I never agreed with him. But I would try on many ideas I was not necessarily persuaded of in order that I might think within his system and understand it more intricately, and eventually assess its truth more accurately as a result. This enabled me for my dissertation to write as plausible an account of his philosophy’s internal coherence and constructive possibilities as I could–and then to feel completely comfortable walking away from every part of it that did not ultimately persuade me or which I had come to be dissuaded of by that time. Which was quite a bit!

      Within two and a half years of my deconversion even, (May 2002) Thomas Aquinas convinced me of the soundness of teleological categories–even though I found the theistic framework he had them in wholly unjustified and unnecessary. I didn’t panic when my previous anti-teleological beliefs were shaken. I didn’t reject the arguments of Aquinas because they were antithetical to some “faith” commitment to Nietzsche and against teleology. When I finally understood the logic of the concept, I just became a teleologist. Teleology gave no reason at all to believe in a God, and they need to be wholly updated for the 21st Century to be rationally plausible, but I think they can be so updated and that they can support a godless metaethics. I would even eventually come to think that some of Nietzsche’s implicit teleological thinking was more important to making coherent sense of his overall project than his outward hostility to teleology, and so that played heavily into how I argued he would be most fruitfully systematized.

      Over the course of years of study and debate, my skepticism about epistemology and about ethics and about metaphysics each was overcome, one by one, only after I finally came across arguments that really compelled belief from me against the most vigorous skepticism I could muster. I did not embrace my positive views about epistemology, ethics, or metaphysics out of a willful commitment to them regardless of evidence. I hung in there for years making minimalistic and merely pragmatic metaphysical, ethical, and epistemological statements and arguments until I finally found arguments I could not but believe, which supported robuster concepts of each of them.

      That was the antithesis of what religious faith–volitional commitment to believe in wholly improbable things out of commitment to one’s irrational religious identity and community–involves.

      Your Thoughts?

  • Michael

    You wrote, “I spent a tremendous deal of energy trying to convert my friends to Christianity as I believed it was truly to be understood.”

    Did you ever convert anyone?
    Have they remained converted?

  • Danny Klopovic

    I would agree that the communitarian ethos of Anabaptism as expressed in Amish ways of life does bear a resemblance to left wing communitarianism. I think it mistaken though to say that the Amish are apolitical since any cohesive community constitutes an alternative politics – this is the so-called sectarian charge that is often made against Anabaptists, whether they be ultra-conservatives like the Amish or modern-day neo-Anabaptists such as those in my community. Also mistaken I think is the claim that the Amish represent a rejection of technology – the charge of Ludditism – they are certainly “backward” in many respects but their attitude is not a Luddite one but rather that the use of technology is always subservient to the good of the community. The French sociologist, theologian, philosopher (amongst other things) Jacques Ellul observes in his works on the technological society how easy it is for human beings to become enslaved to technology – it is this enslavement that the Amish resist and though it differs in degree, so do other Anabaptists. I concur that the Amish are conservative and patriarchal – both undesirable features in my view.

    I concur with your analysis of fundamentalism. It is a specifically modern phenomenon and I would add that I think it is no accident that doctrines like inerrancy and infallibility were promulgated in Protestant and Catholic circles in the 19th century precisely to counter the acids of the Enlightenment and what they perceived as the eroding of the Christian faith.

    As for your question as to “how much does the Bible have to be corroborated by science, history, etc. for it to be a reliable document to you at all?”, I think it misses the point mostly. I am a Christian in part because I participate in a tradition of inquiry (cf Alasdair McIntyre), a tradition that is not confined just to the Bible – I do not believe in the Protestant notion of sola scriptura, but rather in the Christian tradition. Of course, questions of historicity are not irrelevant, but being a Christian does not depend for example on the historicity of Adam and Eve or the Exodus – the importance of the Bible lies in its being the only narrative that tells the story of Israel and also the Church and as a Christian, I am heir to that story.

  • Ku

    “With all that on the table, what would you like to know about me or my philosophical views?”

    How can one with limited, finite knowledge possibly know with absolute certainty that there is no eternally, immutably self-existent first cause?

    • Gordon

      Logical inconsistency? Same way a finite being can know there are no square circles?

  • cornell

    Wasn’t Neitzsche a moral nihilist? Or better yet, an existential nihilist?

    I’ve read some of his works as well (ie: Will to Power) and it appears he was indeed a nihilist

    cf: “I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently; the advent of nihilism’

    Also regarding liberal Christians, there are those who don’t think miracles ever occured (ie: most of the Jesus seminar such as J Crossan)

    Lastly I am also from Long Island (Suffolk County) and it is indeed a liberal state with hardly any protestant Christians in it, in fact I was surprised that they had a camp when you were growing up. You do have a number of Catholics, but I’d say the majority have no religion or are just nominal Christians.


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