After an Awful Interview with a Theologian, the New York Times’ Gary Gutting Chats With an Atheist

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about an interview between Gary Gutting, a former professor of philosophy at University of Notre Dame, and Christian philosophy professor Alvin Plantinga. I did not enjoy that interview. There were many atheist straw men and terrible arguments and it was frustrating.

For the second installment of Gutting’s interview series about religion, he spoke to Louise Antony, professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and editor of an essay collection entitled Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life.

Okay, this woman is a little more up my alley. And the interview starts well — from her end, anyway:

Gutting: You’ve taken a strong stand as an atheist, so you obviously don’t think there are any good reasons to believe in God. But I imagine there are philosophers whose rational abilities you respect who are theists. How do you explain their disagreement with you? Are they just not thinking clearly on this topic?

Antony: I’m not sure what you mean by saying that I’ve taken a “strong stand as an atheist.” I don’t consider myself an agnostic; I claim to know that God doesn’t exist, if that’s what you mean.

Boom. Gotcha, Gutting. And well put, Antony.

Gutting: That is what I mean.

Antony: O.K. So the question is, why do I say that theism is false, rather than just unproven? Because the question has been settled to my satisfaction. I say “there is no God” with the same confidence I say “there are no ghosts” or “there is no magic.” The main issue is supernaturalism — I deny that there are beings or phenomena outside the scope of natural law.

But getting back to your question: I’m puzzled why you are puzzled how rational people could disagree about the existence of God. Why not ask about disagreements among theists? Jews and Muslims disagree with Christians about the divinity of Jesus; Protestants disagree with Catholics about the virginity of Mary; Protestants disagree with Protestants about predestination, infant baptism and the inerrancy of the Bible. Hindus think there are many gods while Unitarians think there is at most one. Don’t all these disagreements demand explanation too? Must a Christian Scientist say that Episcopalians are just not thinking clearly? Are you going to ask a Catholic if she thinks there are no good reasons for believing in the angel Moroni?

BRB, I’m going to go fangirl all over Antony. Well put all around. It’s not that what she’s saying is new to most of the readers of this blog. There’s just something about how matter-of-factly she puts things which I find particularly appealing. Here’s another example:

Gutting: Yes, I do think it’s relevant to ask believers why they prefer their particular brand of theism to other brands. … But people with many different specific beliefs share a belief in God — a supreme being who made and rules the world. You’ve taken a strong stand against that fundamental view, which is why I’m asking you about that.

Antony: Well I’m challenging the idea that there’s one fundamental view here. Even if I could be convinced that supernatural beings exist, there’d be a whole separate issue about how many such beings there are and what those beings are like. Many theists think they’re home free with something like the argument from design: that there is empirical evidence of a purposeful design in nature. But it’s one thing to argue that the universe must be the product of some kind of intelligent agent; it’s quite something else to argue that this designer was all-knowing and omnipotent. Why is that a better hypothesis than that the designer was pretty smart but made a few mistakes? Maybe (I’m just cribbing from Hume here) there was a committee of intelligent creators, who didn’t quite agree on everything. Maybe the creator was a student god, and only got a B- on this project.

I have talked about this with some of my theist friends, and I’ve read some personal accounts by theists, and in those cases, I feel that I have some idea why they believe what they believe. But I can allow there are arguments for theism that I haven’t considered, or objections to my own position that I don’t know about. I don’t think that when two people take opposing stands on any issue that one of them has to be irrational or ignorant.

If you remember the last interview, one of my chief complaints was Gutting’s willfully ignorant misuse of the term “agnostic.” He’s at it again this time around.

Gutting: No, they may both be rational. But suppose you and your theist friend are equally adept at reasoning, equally informed about relevant evidence, equally honest and fair-minded — suppose, that is, you are what philosophers call epistemic peers: equally reliable as knowers. Then shouldn’t each of you recognize that you’re no more likely to be right than your peer is, and so both retreat to an agnostic position?

Antony: Yes, this is an interesting puzzle in the abstract: How could two epistemic peers — two equally rational, equally well-informed thinkers — fail to converge on the same opinions? But it is not a problem in the real world. In the real world, there are no epistemic peers — no matter how similar our experiences and our psychological capacities, no two of us are exactly alike, and any difference in either of these respects can be rationally relevant to what we believe.

AND ALSO YOU’RE USING AGNOSTIC WRONG, GUTTING.

Antony goes on to explain how epistemic peers aren’t a real function in the actual world, and Gutting presses her on the “knowing God doesn’t exist” point.

Gutting: O.K., on your view we don’t have any way to judge the relative reliability of people’s judgments about whether God exists. But the question still remains, why are you so certain that God doesn’t exist?

Antony: Knowledge in the real world does not entail either certainty or infallibility. When I claim to know that there is no God, I mean that the question is settled to my satisfaction. I don’t have any doubts. I don’t say that I’m agnostic, because I disagree with those who say it’s not possible to know whether or not God exists. I think it’s possible to know. And I think the balance of evidence and argument has a definite tilt.

She cited the problem of evil, and Gutting pulled out the last interview with Plantinga (as if there was any good arguments there.):

Gutting: What about positive cases for God’s existence? When I interviewed Alvin Plantinga, he cited religious experiences as making a strong case for theism. Mightn’t it be that he has evidence on this issue that you don’t?

Antony: Many theists I’ve talked to — including Plantinga — say that they have or have had experiences in which they have become aware of the presence of God. I’ve never had such experiences.

Gutting: That doesn’t mean that Plantinga and others haven’t had such experiences.

Antony: O.K., if you hold my feet to the fire (which is what you’re doing), I’ll admit that I believe I know what sort of experiences the theists are talking about, that I’ve had such experiences, but that I don’t think they have the content the theists assign to them. I’ve certainly had experiences I would call “profound.” Many were aesthetic in nature — music moves me tremendously, and so does nature. I’ve been tremendously moved by demonstrations of personal courage (not mine!), generosity, sympathy. I’ve had profound experiences of solidarity, when I feel I’m really together with other people working for some common goal. These are very exhilarating and inspiring experiences, but they are very clearly about human beings — human beings at their best.

Love that. Further down, she gives a nice summation of why and when reason (and reasons) are important:

Antony: Reasons are the answer I give to someone who asks me why I believe something, or — more urgently — to someone who asks why she ought to believe something that I’ve asserted. In the public sphere, I think reasons are extremely important. If I’m advocating a social policy that stems from some belief of mine, I need to be able to provide compelling reasons for it — reasons that I can expect a rational person to be moved by. If I refuse to give my employees insurance coverage for contraception because I think contraception is wrong, then I ought — and this is a moral ought — to be able to articulate reasons for this position. I can’t just say, “that’s my belief, and that’s that.” A sense of responsibility about one’s beliefs, a willingness to defend them if challenged, and a willingness to listen to the reasons given by others is one of the guiding ideals of civil society.

No one needs to defend their religious beliefs to me — not unless they think that those beliefs are essential to the defense of the policy they are advocating. If the only argument for a policy is that Catholic doctrine says it’s bad, why should a policy that applies to everyone reflect that particular doctrine? “Religious freedom” means that no one’s religion gets to be the boss.

But usually, religious people who become politically active think that there are good moral reasons independent of religious doctrine, reasons that ought to persuade any person of conscience. I think — and many religious people agree with me — that the United States policy of drone attacks is morally wrong, because it’s wrong to kill innocent people for political ends. It’s the moral principle, not the existence of God, that they are appealing to.

Finally, she leaves it with an idea that I can get behind — it really isn’t so terribly important whether people believe in god, but what their actions are:

Gutting: That makes it sounds like you don’t think it much matters whether we believe in God or not.

Antony: Well, I do wonder about that. Why do theists care so much about belief in God? Disagreement over that question is really no more than a difference in philosophical opinion. Specifically, it’s just a disagreement about ontology — about what kinds of things exist. Why should a disagreement like that bear any moral significance? Why shouldn’t theists just look for allies among us atheists in the battles that matter — the ones concerned with justice, civil rights, peace, etc. — and forget about our differences with respect to such arcane matters as the origins of the universe?

Oh man, that was so much more pleasant to read than the last interview! Here’s hoping the rest in the series are more like this one than the first.

About Jessica Bluemke

Jessica Bluemke grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and graduated from Ball State University in 2008 with a BA in Literature. She currently works as a writer and resides on the North side of Chicago.


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