Defending the Old Testament God 1

Paul Copan, in his new book, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, defends the God of the Old Testament. He cuts against the grain of one of the most popular and ill-informed criticisms of both the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Copan is taking a vital topic and he does this with perspective, scope and with clear prose. This is an important book at an important time. The New Atheists are not alone in wondering what to do with some things we see about God in the Bible. For those who are struggling with this topic, this is a very good place to start.

Copan begins by setting the context: New Atheism. And he makes three observations that then set the stage for his exploration. Here are his three criticisms:

First, though they emphasize cool-headedness, they express themselves angrily. Second, their arguments against God’s existence are surprisingly flimsy, “often resembling the simplistic village atheist far more than the credentialed academician.” And, third, the New Atheists aren’t willing to own up to the atrocities committed in the name of atheism.

One of the main criticisms leveled against the Bible, against Judaism (on which they are far more silent) and against Christianity is the God of the Old Testament. Paul Copan sums up their view of God as a “moral monster.” And chp two is an exposition of the list of accusations the new atheists make against the God of the Old Testament.

Do you think the God of the Old Testament, or of the Bible, is self-serving? Does this idea sometimes haunt you? How do you explain the Bible’s references to God saving in order to glorify himself? Does Dawkins’ criticism of God as narcissistic gain traction with you?

Here are some of the expressions: “child abuse and bullying” and “monumental rage” and “ethnic cleansing” and “bloodthirsty massacres” and “xenophobic relish” and “morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland” and thus religion is the “root of all evil.”

And this leads Paul Copan to this book, which takes on each of the major categories. Chapter 3 is about “Great Appetite for Praise and Sacrifices?” Or, “Divine arrogance or humility?” Each chp is short and accessible and canvasses the problem and suggested alternatives.

We turn now to this first issue: is the God of the OT a narcissist? I’ve heard this at times, unfairly, of the way John Piper has reframed Jonathan Edwards’ emphasis on God’s glory and his intent on glorifying himself.Copan’s opening thesis: “On closer inspection, God turns out to be a humble, self-giving, other-centered Being.”

What is pride? An inflated view of oneself. What is humility? A proper view of oneself before God. Paul Copan says God’s view of himself is accurate.

Thus, making humans in God’s image is an act of kingly kindness. Copan says it is God spreading the wealth, and that’s a good way of putting it.

God summoning us to worship is God’s way of inviting us to participate in the Ultimate Reality. If God is worthy of worship, and by all accounts any true God would be worthy of worship, then calling people to worship is not self-centered but proper-centeredness.

Copan points out that most instances of summoning humans to praise God come from humans summoning other humans to praise God. Praise, and he borrows from CS Lewis, is the natural completion of joy in someone.

And the God of the Old Testament is also humble, as God is in the New Testament in the incarnation. Thus, “high and exalted One” dwells “with the contrite and lowly of spirit (Isa 57:15). The NT expands this theme but doesn’t invent it.

The Trinity speaks of humility because it is the serving of the Persons of the Trinity, the self-giving of Father to Son and Son to Spirit and all around the circle, endlessly. God becomes human in the pages of the Bible, which ought to end any idea that God is self-serving and arrogant. Then God meets us at the Cross, taking on the lowest of places in the world.

The God of the Bible is the most humble God in all religions.

And he closes with a great one: “We can set aside the false accusation that God is a divine, pompous windbag seeking to have his ego stroked by human flattery. That’s the argument of village atheists, not those who have seriously examined the Scriptures.”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Susan N.

    “Do you think the God of the Old Testament, or of the Bible, is self-serving? Does this idea sometimes haunt you? How do you explain the Bible’s references to God saving in order to glorify himself? Does Dawkins’ criticism of God as narcissistic gain traction with you?”

    Taken apart from the Gospel of Christ, the OT paints a confusing, if not outright disturbing picture of God. But, taken as a whole, in light of Christ — “Immanuel: God literally *with* us”, the narcissistic label on God just doesn’t stick for me. In my understanding of the Trinity, 3 persons in One, God Himself came down, in the person of Christ, to live among us, experience what it is to be human, and finally, suffer and die to do what we couldn’t do for ourselves: conquer sin and death. That doesn’t sound narcissistic to me. In my understanding of the Holy Spirit, God remains with us always, not as some remote, cosmic joker playing games with our lives for His “glory.” Through the relationship of the Trinity, I can see mutuality. I think it’s the same with us: in relationship with God, through Christ, and with the indwelling Holy Spirit, we learn to live by the truth that what glorifies God is very good for us as well. And because God loves us, He wants what’s good for us.

    I see, perhaps naively and overly simplisticly, the OT stories of Israel as God’s master plan unfolding through them. Their understanding of God at the time (i.e., God of retribution) flavors the tone and content of the stories. So, I can’t take it too seriously that God was a bloodthirsty conqueror who celebrated the bashing of rival nations’ babies’ heads on rocks.

    In Jesus’ life and teachings, I hear something much different about Father God’s heart and character for ALL people–not just the chosen, blessed Israel nation. Jesus explains the original intent of the Law (wrapped in mercy and grace), fulfilling it by demonstrating His own love.

    Those OT stories are more convicting to me of what can happen to a people chosen by God, blessed by God, who become prideful and unmerciful. And yet, God sticks with them, forgiving time and time again. Also love the stories of Gentiles who embrace the God of Israel and are blessed and end up blessing many, sometimes for generations to come (i.e., Ruth).

    If Jesus is the main message you take from the whole Bible, the OT stories of God’s wrath lose much of the horror they would otherwise provoke on their own. That’s my experience, anyway.

  • Tim

    OK Scot, I think I got it now.

    Despite the book being titled “Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God.” we are not meant to be addressing whether or not the OT presents God as a moral monster. We are only meant to address whether or not the OT presents God as a narcissist.

    I apologize that I didn’t realize that earlier, had I realized this is what you wanted us to address (which I now realize I should have known now given a second reading of your post), I wouldn’t have posted on the topic I did. Again, I sincerely apologize. I also apologize for not reading the book before commenting.

    Hopefully I can make up for some of that by providing those who will jump in later with this resource:

    For those who might not have time to work through the book (if you haven’t already) before commenting as well, you can read a more condensed version of Paul Copan’s argument here:

    http://www.epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=45

  • Rick

    Scot-

    Is this the beginning of a series on this book, or on the question of God as a moral monster? I was not clear on that (maybe not enough coffee yet), and it may clarify some things for Tim.

  • Scot McKnight

    Rick, a series on a book that deals with whether or not God is a moral monster.

  • Scott Eaton

    Narcissist is too strong and a pejorative attack against our God. Is God humble? Absolutely. Is God Almighty and Sovereign? Absolutely. Does he seek his own glory? Yes.

    God is complex and infinite (would we expect anything less!) while we are finite. It seems to me that the problem for Dawkins and others is one of the heart – they are unwilling to submit to God as he has revealed himself in the Bible. God is who God is. If we don’t like it I am not sure God is too concerned.

    One more thing, Jesus as we see him in the Revelation looks a lot like the God we see in the Old Testament. Again, we have to take God for who He is and not who we might want him to be.

  • Rick

    Scot-

    Thanks.

    Tim-

    I don’t think you have to read the book before commenting (although that would obviously help). Scot is going to work through the book and hit on the various topics Copan brings up.

    In regards to today’s topic, the number of times God’s love is specifically mentioned in the OT is too often overlooked. No, He is not a narcissist, which is defined as: “self-admiration: excessive self-admiration and self-centeredness”

    He is just the opposite.

  • Justin

    Is it possible to commit atrocities in the “name” of atheism? I ask this as a Christian.

  • normbv

    I think what is possibly overlooked in OT scriptures is that the story of God is reflected by a people who brought their own nationalistic perspective. The OT illustrates Israel’s struggle not just with following God’s decrees concerning how to treat and live with others but also their perspective concerning nation building which ended in failure per God’s ultimate intention. I think we are seeing some of this through those dark lenses and we find out that the excesses by Israel written from their perspective are appropriated toward God. God found Israel wanting in their treatment of peoples so you have to read between the OT lines to see that the clearer story of God’s nature is not revealed until the NT. The bible is a progression toward understanding God better and Israel’s stories reflect this evolution and developing enlightenment.

    Does this reflect God as narcissist? No it is the developing point of view of the ancient writers over time written from a worldview that was often found lacking by God.

  • Jason Lee

    Justin, I think you make a good clarifying point. Off hand, I can’t think of examples of atheism as an ideology really being the main driver of atrocities. But on the other hand, some would argue that atheist beliefs provided the ideological covering for the kinds of exaggerated uses of state violence seen in some of history’s experiments marxist governance (if memory serves, Stalin’s regime takes the prize as the historical leader in violent atrocities, in terms of scale). Without a belief in divine judgment, why not sacrifice the lives of millions at the alter of the creation of a utopian society in the here and now?

  • dopderbeck

    I think the “narcissist” argument by the New Atheists is by far one of their weakest. Particularly in the context of ANE beliefs about the gods, the God of the Hebrew Bible is remarkable in His love for humanity. There are so many instances of this: the creation story itself, the covering of Adam after expulsion from the garden, the covenant with Abraham in which God Himself takes on legal obligations to man, and on and on. And of course as we connect this through the NT the claim of narcissism becomes simply ridiculous. What kind of God empties Himself of his rights to go to a cross?

    But this still leaves the very difficult problem of herem warfare in the Hebrew Bible. Maybe this will be another post, but I don’t think the approach of Copan, Hess, et al. is very convincing on this point. Basically they argue that most of the “cities” destroyed during the Conquest were really military outposts without many, if any, women and children present.

    Well, maybe there’s some merit to this, but if you want to go the route that the Conquest didn’t really happen as described, it seems more accurate to me to discuss the historical context of the production of the conquest narratives — i.e., not necessarily as literal accounts, but as in part horatory polemics against Babylon. The main reason for dancing around the nature of the “cities” destroyed seems to me grounded in an unnecessary hermeneutic / genre determination.

    But regardless, let’s be honest with the content of the texts: they picture warfare that by modern sensibilities is horrific. At some point I think the “apologetic” response is simply to assert God’s holiness and sovereignty over against modern sensibilities.

  • dopderbeck

    Justin and Jason: as one example, the Stalinist regime purged the Orthodox churches, murdering or exiling many leaders. The same could be said about issues of religious freedom, for example, in China and Cuba. State atheism is always a totalitarian ideology in which religious people are violently persecuted.

  • Scot McKnight

    dopderbeck,

    I agree on the Stalinist regime and the totalitarian logic. Ancient Israel and Christianity are defined by their faith, and it was the central core that led to some of the wars and crusades. The central core of atheistic regimes provides the launching pad for their own crusades and despicable persecutions. So, I do agree that Stalin purged in the name of his atheistic ideology.

  • http://www.gettingfree.wordpress.com T

    Yeah, I’m with the author on this point: “What is pride? An inflated view of oneself. What is humility? A proper view of oneself before God. Paul Copan says God’s view of himself is accurate.” I also like the “reality” angle here. Exalting God is just an appropriate response to reality.

    Further, I tend to think of these things as very practical. We need to know who has ultimate power. We need to know who has ultimate wisdom. We need to know who is the source of life. Not to mention ultimate faithfulness, justice, etc. If all these reside in one person, it’s not narcissisim for that person to say that we ought to love and trust him above all others. That’s just being helpful. Once we make “glory” or “worship” into purely religious concepts, I think we lose the ability to see how practical/helpful God’s glory and the worship of him are intended to be.

  • Jason Lee

    dopderbeck: I’m no atheist, but I think we should take pains to be fair, lest we fall into the kinds of straw man games Dawkins et al. are guilty of. Atheism may help give greater permission to totalitarian atrocities, but I can’t think of how atheism is actually the ideological DRIVER of totalitarian atrocities. Isn’t it rather the combination of the corruption of power (and its associated paranoia) combine with rank and file that are animated by the vision of the founding utopian society in the here and now?

  • Scot McKnight

    Jason, dopderbeck can respond as he sees fit.

    But, I would argue that the “driver” argument fits the religious crusade, but the atheism driver would be part of a different ideological driving mechanism. Thus, the threat of faith over against the totalitarian ideology of Stalin is a central driving feature of why faith communities had to be done away with (or forced to bow) by Stalin.

  • http://seguewm.blogspot.com/ Bill

    Since Jesus is the only true ‘picture’ of God, we – as Christians – have to read the OT differently than we often have. The juvenile argument, ‘well, you (atheists) do it too’, is a waste of our time. The OT presentation of God is brutal. The fact that we can extract from the OT ‘other’ aspects of God that are ‘nicer’ doesn’t permit us to dismiss the ‘rest of the OT story’. Again, these discussions always leave us in the same place – will we continue playing theological gymnastics with the OT to get a clearly ‘bad’ picture of God to look ‘good’, or will we address the real issue that our notions of inspiration are too narrow. What is presented in the OT isn’t God, but man’s view of God.

  • http://jeffkclarke.com Jeff

    No, I don’t believe God is a narcissist. I think the whole idea surrounding divine condescension and incarnation (especially fitting this time of year) deals the whole idea a fatal blow.

    I once heard someone say that what we see in the OT is a God who condescends to embrace the ugliness his creation had become in order to better identify with it and work from within it. This makes sense to me, particularly when I see Jesus doing the same thing. Philippians 2 speaks of a God who not only condescended, but who completely embraced creation’s brokeness, so that through Christ, God could work from within, as one of us, to show us what he is really like. He condescends, incarnates, and reveals to us his nature and character in the process; one of vulnerability, humiliation, and service.

    This is about as far from narcissism as one can possibly be.

    Blessings…

  • Justin

    With regard to the discussion about atheism and state-sponsored violence, I think what governments like the Stalinist regime prove is that even without religion, human beings are capable of acting in horrific and, yes, irrational ways. If it’s not a religious motivation driving the violence, then it will be something else.

  • dopderbeck

    Jason — a problem here is that we’ll quickly get into “No True Scotsman” arguments. I suppose that there can be varieties of atheism just as there can be varieties of Christianity. But it seems to me that there is no reasonable doubt at all but that the state atheism of modern totalitarian communist regimes is a significant part of what drove (drives) their atrocities against religious people.

    I think history forces me to admit that the Crusades, particularly the First Crusade, were driven in significant part by the version of Christianity held by Pope Urban and many of the Crusaders. I have to explain how the entirety of the Christian Tradition has developed in ways such that almost all Christian denominations today universally eschew any sort of religious war. I can show why religious warfare is not properly part of the core of authentic Christianity, but I can’t whitewash the past.

    The same rigor, it seems to me, applies to atheists. If they can’t admit that atheist ideology has also driven terrible violence, then I don’t think their arguments are intellectually honest.

  • http://thesometimespreacher.blogspot.com/ Andy Holt

    Is God a narcissist? No, and we don’t even need to get to Jesus to figure that out. In Genesis 15, God cuts a covenant with Abram. He instructs Abram to bring the various sacrificial animals, cut them in two, and then lay the pieces out across from one another. This is a typical ANE covenant ceremony, but what happens next is extraordinary. The way covenants worked was that the Great King (Suzerain) would have the Lesser King (Vassal) walk between the pieces of animal, confessing, as it were, “If I break the stipulations of the covenant, may it be to me as it has been done to these animals.” Now, God is clearly the Suzerain and Abram is clearly the Vassal, but Abram doesn’t walk between the animals. God does. It’s as though God is saying to Abram, “If you break the stipulations of this covenant, may it be to me as it has been done to these animals.” And 1700 years (or so) later…Jesus. Not exactly the work of a narcissist.

  • Justin

    @Dopderbeck,

    I agree with what you wrote in your post (#20). It’s also worth pointing out that religion can be but one factor in a conflict in which there are several motivations at play. (In the book “Atheist Delusions,” D.B. Hart tries to demonstrate this in his chapter on “religious” conflicts in Europe.)

    That doesn’t excuse the fact that people who identified themselves as Christians used their beliefs to justify violence. It just means that these conflicts might be about more than a theological dispute.

  • http://refWr+t Albert Gedraitis

    Justin (#8). Stalin in his creation of the Ukrainian Famine to wipe out the peasant class that was thriving in that country, in order to ensure the future mechanization of the collective farms that Stalin wanted to make the rule, committed genocide in the name of atheism. The only norms were Marx’s vast historical forces that were wiping out the peasants (Marx hated them) and installing proletarian collective farming based on industrialization of farming and mechanization (tractors, reapers, etc).

    Mao had a different read on the peasantry, but he still conducted massive purges, racist eliminations, set Chinese neo-imperialism in motion, etc.

    Cambodia’s killing fields.

    In all three situations, the enemy were the religions, especially Christianity, but also Taoism, Buddhism, and even the social etiquette-absolutizing Confucian “philosophizing” wedded so closely to the Imperial State and the Manadarin caste (a meritocracy open to newcomers who did well in their studies, pursued at their family’s expense). Nowadays, a strident neo-Confucianism is coming to the defense of the One Party system of governing China, and full of denunciations of the House Church Christian movement and the unregistered churches.

    Is it the metaphory that bothers you? Displacing the more literal unwritten subject of the “name” of atheism? It’s like the news report that says “Washington announced today that ….” Well, Washington didn’t announce literally, the word “Washington” metaphorically displaces “the President,” “the White House” (Prez’s advisors, etc), and whatever presumed authority actually made the announcement.

    But atheist is a key backup idea in the Soviet Union, Peoples Republic of China, and the Cambodian regime now displaced — they were all dominated by vigourous atheist conceptual systems tied to class warfare and extermination of historically-regressive regimes, and all education permitted was conducted in atheist terms. In Cambodia, the mountains of dead were disposal in the end becawz there was no God, in Communist doctrinaire teaching.

    In Lithiuania, the Communist Party of atheists and atheism tried to wipe out the mass-goers, priests, and bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, and the tiny minority of Reformed Christians (members of a church denomination that goes back to the days of Calvin in Geneva) had to tread l+tly thru-out the Soviet Russian enslavement of the Baltic country. Catholics and Protestants were alike enemies of the new order, as Soviet Lithuania had only a residual Russian Orthodox Church (which was heavily infiltrated by and subject to the manipulations of the Soviet govt’s Ministry of Religious Affairs thru which it used Russian Orthodox delegations to the World Council of Churches.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I think the god of much of Christianity comes across as self serving and it certainly haunts me. Last year I had to give a series of weekly lectures from Rick Warren’s little book “What on earth am I here for?”. The first sentence, of course is “it’s not about you”, and then the whole book seems to me to be a digression into feeding god’s self serving nature. Perhaps I missed the point, but it does little in my view to tell me that I am here for god’s glory. I didn’t have my kids for my glory, I had them for their glory!

    Now I totally understand that it is appropriate to worship God that I love and sing praise to his glory for my thanks and amazement as I grow in life. But is that why god made us? For his glory? I hate to be the sole unevolved person here on this forum but isn’t that the definition of self serving?

    I also get the intellectual arguments made in this post that the god of the old testament is not narcissistic, and I agree with that. Even more so the new testament. But that is not what a lot of Christianity is teaching. They are teaching we have a wrathful father that put us here to serve him and proclaim his glory.

    And we can’t blame the atheists for making that strawman, the Christians do it.

  • http://jeffkclarke.com Jeff

    As is often the case, what we see happening in the academy relative to this topic (and many others as well), is not reflected in the pew. The great divide continues to exist, illustrated by the last paragraph in post #24.

    How can we all work towards bridging the divide?

  • Jeremy

    I think a critical question is what was the OT view on “glory”? Is it the western, self-aggrandizement view that DRT talks about or was it something more family centric? As I understand honor-shame societies, the glory of the patriarch is tied to familial success and cohesion. So, in that view, God’s glory is not purely about His elevation, but in the success and flourishing of all within his authority. If I’m right about that (which I may not be), how does that change the way we think about the Biblical narrative regarding God’s glory?

  • dopderbeck

    DRT — I dunno, I read Warren’s book some years ago and I found that opening sentence — “It’s not about you” — utterly refreshing. Our culture is so individualistic and self-centered — we worship self — self is our cultural god. In Augustine’s language, we are curvatus in se, and in that turning in upon ourselves we end up consuming ourselves.

    As to creation existing for God’s glory — I think the problem we sometimes see here is that “theologies of glory” sometimes focus only on glory. We also need a healthy dose of Luther’s “theology of the cross.” God creates both for His glory and out of His self-giving love — concepts that are not contradictory but rather mutually self-reinforcing. So, yes, creation exists for God’s glory, but it is the glory of the relational Triune God who in self-giving love in the person of the Son empties himself for the good of all creation — not the “glory” of a monomaniacal tyrant or an impersonal force.

    Jeremy (#26) — I think you’re correct. I also think this is a reason why our understanding of God’s glory in creation has to start with Christ, as it does in John 1.

  • Dana Ames

    Andy @21, great insight

    Just a few things.

    -All scripture has to be interpreted through Jesus, as Nancy says above.

    -God’s not a narcissist. And because he is the source of humility, I don’t think he does things with end of his own glorification in view- it’s just that what he does, especially in his self-giving love, “naturally” resounds to his glory. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote that humanity fully alive is the glory of God – and God has acted to bring that about.

    -The great fourth century interpreters of Scripture didn’t have the hang-ups about inerrancy and strict “literal” meaning. They could deal with paradox, polyvalence, the text not being an actual “historical” record etc. Chrysostom especially reiterates how, since words cannot plumb the depths of God and our understanding is so limited, scripture is a condescension of God so that we can at least be able to understand and communicate something about God. But, though scripture is a revelation of, God is greater than scripture, and it was Christ who was and is the fullest revelation of God.

    So if the herem warfare were something that was written during the post-exilic period to emphasize the God of Israel besting all other gods and therefore being the only god worth worshiping, and not a blow-by-blow description, that’s not something that needs to endanger one’s trust in scripture. The fuller meaning is connected to Christ, as in Him God is truly the Victor over all, and also that we should put to death the sin in our lives that hinders us from living as his true people.

    Dana

  • Tim

    OK, I’m back from my medical appointment (busted up my elbow on the ice pretty good) a couple days ago, and will see if I can’t contribute in a way that won’t set off people’s alarms this time around.

    One thing that has been itching at me since the events of this morning is that Scot’s initial comment #1 is still standing basically saying I was engaging in “ad hominem” attacks.

    As my response/explanation to this charge was deleted as “not pertinent to the topic of this thread”, I therefore have to assume that I am left without any means of addressing or contextualizing Scot’s very pointed and very public criticism. This being the case, I hope Scot will consider removing his criticism as well given my being prohibited from responding to it.

    In the meantime, I’ll try to read through these posts and comment more cautiously this time around.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Jeremy and dopderbeck, yes I agree, I would like to understand the OT concept of glory of God.

    Regarding RW’s book, I feel that the “it’s not about you” part has problems. First, it takes accountability off the individual. This is also the basis for which I don’t agree with the total depravity concept. People should embrace that all they can control or attempt to control in this life is their own actions and attitudes. It is all about them looking inward to control themselves so that they can make life better for others and live in the KoG. I see people saying that it is not about them it is about god and then in the next breath say that god says for them to put women down (per the other thread today) and discriminate against other people. Their feeling of self righteousness comes from the thought that they are doing god’s work.

    It is about each of us in a very real and definite way. What each of us does matters immensely to the people around us and those who are under-privileged and otherwise abused. People need to take accountability that it is all about us.

    The church I was attending felt it was fine for them all to get together and sing praise to god and by doing that they are doing god’s will. They create a country club and never do anything real.

  • Johann

    You know, in all the years I’ve spent talking to Christians about these topics, this is the first time I’ve seen a Christian take the initiative in trying to understand an atheist’s perspective. More than one Christian commenting here, even. So I hope you won’t mind me jumping into the discussion out of sheer wonder at this. ;)

    I’ll leave the topic of the Christian god’s character alone for now, because I’d like to address another point of discussion here, as both an atheist and someone who grew up in the Soviet Union. It’s an error that I frequently see Christians make – the assumption that atheism is a functional equivalent of Christianity in the lives of atheists, and extrapolation from there, in this case to the “atheist massacres” argument.

    It’s really hard for me to express just how…bizarre this apparently commonplace notion of warfare and genocide “in the name of atheism” really is. On a personal level, my disbelief in gods certainly affects my worldview – just as my disbelief in unicorns or a flat Earth does – I would likely act differently in some situations and hold different views on related things if it were otherwise. But it hardly is a motivating factor in its own right – consider how many things in your life you have done that were motivated by your disbelief that the Earth is flat. I’d be surprised if you could name one.

    And as a fan of history, I can recognize the parallel that believers often draw between the central role of religion in explicitly religious governments and what they imagine the role of atheism is in explicitly atheistic ones – but I can hardly agree. The oppression that the religious have experienced under the regimes mentioned in this discussion was not the *point* of those regimes’ policy – it was little more than a side note. As ideological influences on policy go, the official atheism of the Soviet Union was far less relevant than empowerment of the workers and abolition of class distinctions – yet whenever a Christian feels the need to take atheists down a peg, you’d think that the byword of the Soviet Union was “Death to all believers!”, not “Workers of the world, unite!”.

    Have there been atrocities committed BY atheists? Certainly. But when someone claims that the millions of dead under Stalin died IN THE NAME of atheism, that tells me that they either haven’t done their research, or that there is an ideological beam in their eye that skews the picture. (Do you know about the royalist allegiances of the Russian Orthodox church in the revolution? Have you considered the general peril of holding to a competing, independent ideology under a totalitarian government? Have you, say, looked at the openly religious totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany for a baseline comparison before ascribing everything to atheism?)

    …and this comment is running overlong already, so I’ll just close by saying – interesting discussion. I’ll be back. =)

  • Luke B

    I don’t see the connection between “I don’t like what God did/how God is presented” and “therefore I don’t believe God exists” (atheism). What am I missing in my understanding of atheism?

    #17 Bill – Where is it written that the OT is “man’s view” of God and the NT is .. a more inspired (?) view of God? Did/would Jesus say that? Jesus didn’t come to save us from God. The OT God and Jesus are One.God.

    I do have discomfort sometimes with God’s apparent concern for God’s reputation, glory, and being worshiped. But I think that arises mostly from a (sinful) wanting to be on the same level as God, compare myself to God, and use human psychological categories to diagnose God. I think what we should be shocked by is not that God wants to be worshiped but that God creates and cares for creatures at all. A lot depends our prior expectations of God.

  • dopderbeck

    Johann (#31) — you make some fair points, ones that I wish the New Atheists would take to heart with respect to their claims about the alleged violence of religions.

    At the same time, I can’t help but think your picture of Soviet Communism is naive. “The official atheism of the Soviet Union was far less relevant than empowerment of the workers and abolition of class distinctions” — Really?? Or was “the empowerment of the workers and abolition of class distinctions” in fact, for many or most of the folks in power, their transparent justification for obtaining and maintaining power for themselves?

    When it comes to power and violence, I tend to think that usually any ideological justification — religion, irreligion, politics, whatever — is at heart a sham. People commit atrocities “in the name of” God, or “in the name of” liberation, or “in the name of” their great leader — but what they’re usually doing is betraying their own principles for power.

  • Richard

    I would resonate with Dana and Dopderbeck that the OT read in a vacuum assuming inerrancy/extreme literalism becomes very troubling but when read in context of the surrounding culture the whole shape and interpretation changes. The same is true of Paul or any ancient author (one of the reasons I’m interested in reading Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People).

    Even though the OT makes statements like “destroying everything,” it’s very clear from historic record and the OT itself that the Israelites didn’t understand that phrase to mean what we think it does and that it may have been poetic hyperbole. Otherwise you’re left saying that they couldn’t even follow that command.

  • dopderbeck

    Luke B (#31) “I think what we should be shocked by is not that God wants to be worshiped but that God creates and cares for creatures at all.”

    Really? Why should we be “shocked” that the God who describes Himself as “love” cares for the things He has made? What sort of person is indifferent or hostile to things he has taken great care to create?

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Johann#30, I can see your point, but I think it may just be a semantic difference. If [in the name of atheism]=[against all religions] then it is a moot point and I do believe that the communist governments did go against religions.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    dopderbeck@32, Hear Hear! Power hungy people never say they are doing what they are doing for power.

    LukeB@31 – I am with dopderbeck and I believe this becomes a false pretense for most people. It is not surprising that God would love us, I bet he would expect us to expect him to love us. Shouldn’t we be trying to be like our God?

  • Justin

    Johann,

    You argue that atheist regimes were motivated by other factors than simply acting in the name of atheism (such as the Orthodox Church’s loyalist leanings), but Dopderbeck is right to point out that some skeptics aren’t willing to grant the same courtesy when it comes to studying violence “in the name of God.”

    In “The End of Faith,” Sam Harris wrote that the Church often seized the land of people it found guilty of heresy and sometimes gave it to people who helped make the conviction possible. I doubt it was Harris’ intention to do so, but he gives a good example of how violence performed in the name of God was not executed simply because of a Bible verse. In this case, it was getting land that was desired for some purpose.

  • Johann

    @Luke B – You’re not missing something, you’re adding it – specifically the “therefore”. Liking or disliking a literary character is quite independent of believing in that character’s actual existence – I like Miles Vorkosigan and Gandalf, but that does not make them more real to me than the Christian god.

    “I do have discomfort sometimes with God’s apparent concern for God’s reputation, glory, and being worshiped. But I think that arises mostly from a (sinful) wanting…”

    To me, the discomfort seems perfectly reasonable – your shame (if that is the right word for those feelings; please correct me if it’s not) about your discomfort is the troubling part. Certainly many Christians seem to view their god as essentially amoral, immune to moral judgment for anything up to and including global genocide, but in my experience training yourself to ignore inconsistency and hypocrisy leads one to tolerate vice.

    @dopderbeck:

    “Or was “the empowerment of the workers and abolition of class distinctions” in fact, for many or most of the folks in power, their transparent justification for obtaining and maintaining power for themselves?”

    Well, yes. Certainly. But note that I was talking about official policy, not actual motivations of the leadership – and officially or unofficially, atheism was very low on the totem pole as a motivating factor, which is quite contrary to the picture your previous posts have painted: “In all three situations, the enemy were the religions” vastly overstates the significance of the religious differences in the overall conflict. Characterizing them as “atheist massacres” or “done in the name of atheism” is at best, as you put it, naive.

    @DRT: “I can see your point, but I think it may just be a semantic difference. If [in the name of atheism]=[against all religions]”

    But that’s my point, though. Both of those imply a powerful imperative to oppose religion per se that simply didn’t exist. Religion was seen as just one aspect of the way the ruling classes controlled the workers, and opposed as such, not as a clash of identities that you had, say, in the European warfare between the Protestants and the Catholics.

  • Johann

    @Justin: “You argue that atheist regimes were motivated by other factors than simply acting in the name of atheism”

    Not exactly. I’m trying to point out that “in the name of atheism” is an oxymoron.

    I might think religion rests on incorrect ideas and mistaken beliefs. I might care enough about that – or not – to seek to challenge and correct those ideas. I might not care at all about the ideas but oppose what I see as harmful influence of religious tradition on government policy and public life. I might not care about any of the above and just be content to be left alone.

    I know atheists fitting all of these descriptions. I don’t know a single one who thanks the absence of a god when they get up in the morning, much the same way that I don’t think you base any of your actions on the nonexistence of Zeus.

  • Luke B

    Dopderdeck, forgive my hyperbole. No, we shouldn’t be shocked by God’s care, nor should we be shocked by God’s wanting to be worshiped. Both are God’s prerogative. My point is whether we think God is a narcissist depends on our prior expectations of God (i.e. prior to knowing anything about how God describes Himself). If we hold God to human standards of narcissism, maybe the answer is yes. But because God is God and we are creatures, I think an a priori creaturely posture is more appropriate (though this goes against our ingrained enlightenment ideas that we have human rights which I think leads to presuming God exists for us and not the other way around).

  • Justin

    @Johann,

    I meant to convey the opinions of other people with the phrase “simply acting in the name of atheism.” I didn’t think that’s what you thought those governments were doing. Sorry for the confusion.

  • Tim

    What type of narcissism are we talking about here?

    There are many traits that fall within the umbrella of narcissism, and not every last one needs to be expressed for an individual to be deemed “narcissistic.”

    Narcissism can include:

    1) Inflated sense of their own importance – Not likely possible for God, as he’s pretty much the most important thing out there.

    2) Belief in one’s superiority – Also not possible to fault the God of the OT as he would be by definition obviously superior.

    3) A deep need for admiration – This one could be seen as a fault depending on how you look at it. Why does the God of the OT, or even perhaps the NT as well care so much about being worshiped and praised – like all the time? I’m not really going anywhere in particular with this, but I do find it interesting.

    4) Having little regard for others, only oneself – Now, say what you might about the God of the OT, but he clearly cares for (at least some/favored) others.

    So, is the God of the OT narcissistic? Not by a long shot. The only criteria for narcissism he could arguable meet would be (3), and that wouldn’t be enough to qualify.

    Now, this says nothing about other traits such as capriciousness, anger issues, homicidal inclinations, indecisiveness, callousness, authoritarian/tyrannical ruling and disciplinary style, tendencies for arbitrary and extreme favoritism, etc. But these are all topics for another day.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Luke B#40,

    I continue to have serious problems with this view that it is inappropriate for us to have expectations of God, and that if we do have expectations of God then it is somehow being modern and self serving and egotistical. You say:

    though this goes against our ingrained enlightenment ideas that we have human rights which I think leads to presuming God exists for us and not the other way around

    Sure there are those shallow conceited people who feel that their god should show love to them because they somehow deserve it, as you say have human rights. And sure we can adopt a creaturely posture toward god because we are not worthy and we should have no expectation of god doing anything for us.

    But these notions seem to me to be immature notions in our relationship with God. God does not want us cowering to him and deprecating ourselves. If we know God we would know that he wants us to be happy, to experience a life of the ages, to have true meaningful relationships with him and with others.

    I agree, if someone is doing it because they feel they deserve it because they have some sort of human rights then that is wrong. But if we feel that God should love us because we know God then that is not bad but good.

  • Tim

    Dopderbeck (relating to multiple posts of yours on this issue),

    How do you figure that there is an “atheist ideology?” To be an atheist simply means that you don’t believe in God. It is a lack of belief, that is all. There are no standard set of values that automatically rise up to fill that vacuum.

    One of my wife’s cousins is atheist and his whole “ideology” is to basically live and let live, and do so peacefully and respectfully of our differences as a species.

    Now, other figures in history may have become identified by their atheism in our modern historic thought, or they may have held up atheism as a rallying flag, but they do not define atheism.

    Whatever ideals they drew on, whether humanism, scientism, state ideology, or what have you – it wasn’t atheism that was there so material. As atheism is the lack of something, of belief, not the presence of anything else at all.

  • Tim

    …should be “it wasn’t atheism that was their material.”

  • Johann

    …and, because it now occurs to me that the “not exactly” in my previous post might be misconstrued, let me elaborate.

    “I doubt it was Harris’ intention to do so, but he gives a good example of how violence performed in the name of God was not executed simply because of a Bible verse. In this case, it was getting land that was desired for some purpose.”

    I don’t dispute that religious violence often has additional motivations. I’m pretty sure believers who are so divorced from human concerns that their religious attitudes and their more earthly interests have no influence on each other are few and far between.

    But in your example, religion was integral in the environment in which it was possible to use the Bible verses you speak of to condemn a neighbor you didn’t ilke to a fiery death with no fear of justice or reprisal – indeed, with the approval of your peers, and to the profit of the Church. The existence of the verses was a travesty, but it was the religion that elevated these verses that gave rise to a tragedy. Some responsibility attaches, there.

    You misunderstand my view somewhat in this, I think. It’s not that I think religion in some sort of philosophical vacuum inherently gives rise to vice, without greed or lust or hate playing into the equation. It’s that religion is inextricably enmeshed with the darker sides of human nature, as all human enterprises are, and that many parts of religion are simply bad ideas, values and practices which, tied in with the entire construct of religion, give plenty of opportunities for scoundrels to run wild and free under the umbrella of apparent virtue that religion provides. The umbrella of religion covers all its parts, good and bad alike, and I’m not content with that.

    I’m not saying that the Protestants and the Catholics of medieval Europe would’ve had no reason to hate or kill each other had religion never entered the picture; I’m saying they would’ve had one less reason. I’m not saying that religion is directly responsible for the rapes of children by Catholic priests, but the authority that these priests wielded to successfully intimidate the victims and witnesses into silence, and the worldwide efforts of the Catholic Church to protect its reputation as a moral leader at the expense of the victims of its underlings most certainly is a problem with religion.

    Do you think we’d still have as many suicide bombers in the world if they did not believe that they are earning a ticket into heaven? Again, religion is not the sole cause of that kind of fervor and violence, but it is certainly a contributing factor – a catalyst, and one I think we would be better without.

    P.S. Saw your post after I refreshed before posting this, Justin. =) Just to make sure it’s clear, this comment isn’t aimed specifically at you, it’s a “just in case” clarification.

  • Luke B

    Johann@38, so if I understand correctly and this is consistent with the original post – we need to distinguish between “criticisms of Judeo-xianity/God of the Bible” and “arguments for atheism.” I was conflating the two. Thanks. But for atheists, what is the point of criticizing the character of God, who you don’t believe in? I guess that’s the connection I don’t get.

    As for discomfort with God’s wanting to be worshiped (which I hypothesize arises from wanting to be =with God), I would distinguish between that and what I agree with you is an important willingness of Christians to not consider God immune from moral judgment. There is a rich OT tradition of God’s people lamenting and accusing God as part of the life of faith, and it seems to me that in the OT, God likes, even favors, those (e.g. Job, Moses) who get in God’s face. The question I have is how should our moral judgement of God differ from that of humans? The best answer I’ve heard is what the book says in the original post, and what others have said, that God has an accurate view of Himself, and so should we. Our moral judgments should reflect that. But how?

    DRT@36 – should we be surprised that God loves us? It seems to me it is a defining characteristic of our time that we start by assuming we are lovable and that of course God should love us. It’s implicit even in titles like “What’s so Amazing About Grace?” I.e. it’s not amazing/shocking/surprising that God should love us.

  • Luke B

    @43 DRT, I’m with you on all this. As Copan says, “On closer inspection, God turns out to be a humble, self-giving, other-centered Being.” Given this, and a given a relationship with God, yes we can, should and do have expectations of God, based on God’s character. What I’m trying to think through is does it make any sense to have these expectations Prior to all that?

  • dopderbeck

    Tim — ok, “ideology that includes atheism as a significant component” or something along those lines. But I don’t buy the line that “atheism” is merely a lack of belief. Atheism entails a variety of foundational beliefs, many of which are shared in common by atheists of various sorts. If I were to be more clear, I might use Enlightenment Modernism or something like that to describe the “worldview” in play.

    Johan asked: “Do you think we’d still have as many suicide bombers in the world if they did not believe that they are earning a ticket into heaven?”

    I respond: No, probably not. But that neither suggests “religion” is inherently violent nor that atheism or irreligion is inherently less violent. I suspect that we’d also have a lot fewer orphanages in the world if lots of people didn’t believe caring for orphans can lead to heaven and/or that it pleases God.

    Really, this sort of calculus makes no sense without actually looking at the underlying circumstances and truth claims.

  • Tim

    Dopderbeck,

    On of these days, you’ll have to let me know where you get your source material for:

    “I don’t buy the line that “atheism” is merely a lack of belief. Atheism entails a variety of foundational beliefs, many of which are shared in common by atheists of various sorts. If I were to be more clear, I might use Enlightenment Modernism or something like that to describe the “worldview” in play.”

    Also, try putting yourself in the atheist’s shoes. Say you fell from your faith (hey, it happens to others just as devout, so it’s a fair enough hypothetical), and saw your belief in God grow more and more uncertain until one day you just didn’t believe anymore. What sort of atheist would you be? Would you “have” to adopt an “Enlightenment Modernism” ideology or some such worldview that you’ve hitched to atheism?

  • Tim

    …by the way,

    “Enlightenment Modernism” is a worldview that expresses an optimism concerning what is knowable by humanity. Atheism requires no such optimism. In fact, many “postmodernist” intellectuals that are deeply skeptical of a great deal of knowledge that “modernists” thought was within grasp of the human race are atheist.

    Really, just plain old critical thinking and a dash of skepticism are all that is required for a transition from theism to atheism. Atheism isn’t the belief that one knows that there is no God. It is rather the belief that one hasn’t found compelling reason to believe that there is a God. There’s nothing modernist about that. We had skeptics dating all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Luke B#48 – Thanks. One of the things I contend is that we teach a distorted view of God. We need to lead with, as you say, “God turns out to be a humble, self-giving, other-centered Being.” Then there is not before that. God loves us. We are forgiven. There is nothing conditional about it and people need to have faith that it is true and start to live their lives like it is true. Jesus was raised from the dead and fulfilled scripture therefore he is the Messiah, the King, the Lord that was promised and, as it turns out, “God turns out to be a humble, self-giving, other-centered Being.” That is wonderful news and we need to know people hear it.

    Sorry for being a bit pedantic, but I really believe that is how we have to change the way we teach Christianity.

  • Johann

    Luke B @47: “…we need to distinguish between “criticisms of Judeo-xianity/God of the Bible” and “arguments for atheism.””

    Most certainly, and thank you for catching that. That’s also a common error I encounter in conversations with believers – treating atheism as a rejection of just their specific worldview, as though it were a binary proposition. Heck, even with Christianity there are 36000+ varieties to choose from. ;)

    There’s a related question that seems to come up almost as often: “So why do you just focus on Christianity and not X, Y or Z?” The answer, which apparently isn’t as obvious as it seems to me, is that Christianity is far more relevant in my life. It permeates the culture of the land I live in; it has an immensely powerful political lobby; it exerts a large deal of what I consider harmful influence on issues I care about. Atheists in India focus on Hinduism; atheists in Africa focus on its native beliefs in addition to Christianity; atheists in the Middle East hide in fear. We deal with the circumstances we find ourselves in.

    That looks like a digression, but it’s leading into my next point. ;)

    “But for atheists, what is the point of criticizing the character of God, who you don’t believe in? I guess that’s the connection I don’t get.”

    There’s any number of reasons, from literary criticism to theological debate, and I cannot speak for other atheists in this – but I can paint an overall picture for you based on my own experience in the hope that it will be helpful in understanding this.

    The point isn’t that we don’t believe in the god of the Bible. It’s that an overwhelming majority of people in the US do, and the cultural and political dominance of this belief affects us whether we want it or not – and generally not in pleasant ways. Personally, I’ve long since given up counting the number of times I’ve been pointed to “In God We Trust” on our money and told to get out of the country if I don’t like it, or the times people have quoted Psalm 14 at me as if to instruct, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the time when one Christian lady was very sincerely trying to convince me that I can’t possibly love anyone since I haven’t accepted Jesus into my heart. If you’ll look, you’ll notice things like this and this going on today. Or, if you prefer the bigger picture instead of individual anecdotes, there are some surveys summarized here that deal, among other things, with attitudes towards atheists.

    And the seemingly innocuous propositions that you’re wondering about – that God exists – that God is good – do not exist in isolation, but come with a host of others implied in the background. You can see it in these comments – “God is good, so I will not criticize him despite my reservations”. I’ve encountered it time and time again in similar discussions – “I would NEVER condone genocide…but God is good, so he must have had a good reason for exterminating that nation.”

    “God is good, so outlaw contraception.”
    “God is good, and he hates homosexuality.”
    “God is good, and it is his will that you uphold the curse of Ham by owning these black people.”
    “God is good, so do as I say.”
    “God is good, so do as the Bible says.”
    “God is good, do as you think God would want you to.”

    None of these look like good choices to me. And yet the cost of openly challenging the basic premise, the existence of the god in question, can be prohibitive. I’m lucky in this respect – the most I’ve had to deal with was back in college, when I gave a presentation in my speech class on the current challenges facing American atheists, and half the class stopped talking to me. Other lose jobs. Friends. Families. And letting the dominant notion that “God is good” stand, with all its attendant implications and prejudices, simply allows this situation to continue.

    (I really don’t know how to explain just how bizarre this whole situation seems to an immigrant, even after living here for over a decade. In late Soviet Union-cum-Russia, you had atheists and Christians living side by side, and no one really cared – my vaguely Christian mother took me to church a few times at the urging of my more emphatically Christian grandmother, I didn’t want to keep going, and that was the end of that. Then my family moved to the land of the free and all of a sudden it’s as though people are debating whether I would rather eat babies or have sex with them.)

    That’s the political aspect of the criticism. Personally? I find the god of the Bible morally repugnant, and the part of the Bible that always seemed to me to illustrate this most clearly is the story of Abraham and Isaac. To demand human sacrifice as a show of loyalty is vile, more fitting for a Mafia don than a loving “Father”; to willingly sacrifice anyone at such a demand, much less your own child, is ghastly. You can probably imagine how I feel about the Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious traditions all treating this as a foundational, inspiring example.

    I wouldn’t normally care too much about it – I’d put the book down, make a note to never read anything by that author again, and go on with my life. My actual choices are either to pretend to like it or to push back against those who insist (with a stick behind their back) that I should like it, and I like the first choice less than the second.

    …I swear I didn’t ramble this much when I was thinking of what to write in this comment. ;) Haven’t been getting enough sleep lately, and it’s starting to tell, so I think I’ll try to catch up on it a little. If I’m leaving something unclear or unsaid, let me know and I’ll get back to it when I can.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Johann,

    Don’t believe in the god you are talking about. I don’t and would not.

    Grant some grace that there is more, there is better, there is a real God that can be known. More will be coming. It is not here yet, but it is coming. Keep thinking as you are since your thinking is actually coherent to me. But don’t stop questioning those here and testing what you see. Don’t believe in a false god. You will know the true god and true teachers by their fruit. You know that. That is what you are saying. The fruit is coming but we have to work to get there.

    My 18 year old son is an atheist for the same reasons as you. Don’t lose hope. Don’t let the Christians and Christianity you see make you lose hope. There is hope. There is truth. It is coming.

    There is another thread that is going on here at the ‘creed about those who are not believers being saved, for whatever that means. Well, I have had the question what about those who believe in an evil god? Those who claim that they know Jesus but in name only compared with what I think of Jesus? I feel those who have been given grace, and it seems to me that you have, will be saved. Keep the faith in what is right.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Something I wrote a while back:

    Now, just because a worldview doesn’t include the idea of the supernatural does not mean that it is automatically free of dogma. One definition of dogma is “a doctrine or code of beliefs accepted as authoritative”; another is “a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds”. As has been made entirely clear in the past, non-religious philosophies and worldviews (including various flavors of atheism) can be just as dogmatic as any religion. For example, consider communism as practiced by Stalin and Mao… A worldview that doesn’t include supernatural elements can be just as rigid and dogmatic – or as flexible and open – as any religion.

  • dopderbeck

    Tim said: just plain old critical thinking and a dash of skepticism…

    I respond: but see, there’s no such thing as “plain old critical thinking” or a mere “dash of skepticism.” An a priori viewpoint is being assumed here, which is exactly the viewpoint of Enlightenment Modernism: that human reason is capable of real objectivity, and can prove to some degree of certainty rising to the level of “knowledge” that there is no God. This is essential to atheism as an “ism,” as expressed in the writings of most leading Atheists past and present. If a person who slides from faith really has become an “Atheist,” then this element of human reason being able to disprove God’s existence to some degree of certainty is an essential element in that person’s claims about reality.

    The “slide from faith” scenario you describe, I think, really is talking about “Agnosticism,” not Atheism. This is saying, “there may be a God, but if there is he / it / they is / are basically unknowable through reason, ‘revelation’ or any other source; and at the end of the day there probably isn’t really a God after all and there’s no compelling reason to live like there is a God.” I might agree that Enlightenment Modernism doesn’t underwrite Agnosticism in the same way as Atheism — though it still plays an important role. I’d also agree that there are lots of people who think they are Atheists when really they are Agnostics.

  • Tim

    Dopderbeck,

    One can have skepticism in human objectivity and still be atheist. Objectivity is not a necessary epistemological construct for not believing in God. It would be one for saying that you KNOW there is not God. But why would anyone presuppose that it would be necessary to assert that you haven’t run across anything to convince you that there is or likely could be a God?

    “If a person who slides from faith really has become an “Atheist,” then this element of human reason being able to disprove God’s existence.”

    So, statements such as “disproving God’s existence” reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of atheism. This only represents one narrow type of atheism, the “strongest” version if you will.

    Again, quite a lot of Postmodernist intellectuals are atheist, and they are likely more skeptical of human “objectivity” than either you or I.

    Also, agnosticism as it relates to atheism should not be understood as separate categories. A lot of atheists object to the term “agnosticism” as a separate category as they see it as epistemological identical to atheism (when applied to deity).

    It’s kind of like infallibilism and inerrancy. Linguistically, they mean the same thing. Without error/without fault. Same difference. But in practice they mean something very different. Infallibilism is now taken to mean something more akin to “limited inerrancy” and inerrancy is taken to mean pretty much everything’s inerrant.

    Same thing with agnosticism. It, in practice, is taken to mean a sort of “I don’t really know”, as in “could go this way, it could go the other, who’s to tell?” Atheism is more of a, “I haven’t run across anything that leads me to seriously think that I should even suspect that there might be a God.” There is no “proving” that God doesn’t exist necessary. Only, the question “what reason would I have to believe that God exists?”

    Most atheists acknolwedge that there is a possibility that God exists, but they acknowledge this in the same way that you or I might acknowledge the possibility of something existing for which we have no evidence.

    “I’d also agree that there are lots of people who think they are Atheists when really they are Agnostics.”

    So, to this final statement I would say that there are a lot of atheists who realize that to be an atheist usually means (if you aren’t the really severe type that “knows” there is no God) that being an atheist almost always means also being agnostic to some degree or another. There frustration is that the rest of the public doesn’t understand that the categories of atheism and agnosticism aren’t separate, but overlapping.

  • Tim

    …would like to add that agnosticism extends both ways as an epistemological construct. I have an uncle who is a very devout Christian, but as an epistemological issue, he readily admits that he could be wrong in claiming that God exists. He doesn’t see this as terribly likely, but he also doesn’t see it as pushing the bounds toward zero probability either.

    So, you can have agnostic theists (anyone who’s belief in God doesn’t require a certainty that he exists), and agnostic atheists (anyone who’s lack of belief in God doesn’t require a certainty that he doesn’t exist).

  • Tim

    …oh, and I would by the way be an agnostic theist.

  • dopderbeck

    Tim — no, I don’t think I’m misunderstanding what Atheism has historically meant and asserted at all. I think some people who think they are “Atheists” are confused about what they really believe. The arm chair “atheist” usually is really an Agnostic.

    I don’t think your definition of “agnostic theist” is correct, because just about no traditional theists, including most Christians, claim rational “certainty” that God exists. Even very “rationalist” apologists like William Lane Craig acknowledge that rational “certainty” of God’s existence is not possible — the sort of “certainty” Christians have about their faith comes from the Holy Spirit. So, your Uncle’s approach is not unique in the least among Christian theists.

    Formally, “Agnosticism” is the belief that while there may be a god, he / it / they is / are fundamentally unknowable in any way. A person who believes God is knowable to some extent through faith / revelation / spirit / reason, etc., but who acknowledges that God cannot be known with rational certainty or who is “agnostic” about some things that might be asserted about God, is not formally an Agnostic.

  • dopderbeck

    BTW, another big mistake I think your making here (and maybe your Uncle is making as well) is what it means to “know” God (or anything for that matter). Religious epistemology, particularly Christian epistemology, is not founded on Cartesian rational certainty. When we claim to “know” that God exists and that we “know” Him, this is not properly a claim that we can prove with mathematical certainty — with a probability of 1 on an empirical scale — that God exists.

    In fact, there are very few, if any, things that human beings can prove with Cartesian certainty, which is why just about no epistemologists of any stripe today are Cartesians or logical positivists.

    Here is how William Lane Craig puts it in his book “Reasonable Faith” (Craig is what I would consider a relatively “rationalistic” Christian apologist):

    [A]lthough argument and evidence may be used to support the believer’s faith, they are never properly the basis for that faith. For the believer, God is not the conclusion of a syllogism; he is the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob dwelling within us. How then does the believer know that Christianity is true? He knows because of the self-authenticating witness of God’s spirit who lives within him.

  • Tim

    Dopderbeck,

    First, I think you need to recognize that not every Christian sees validation of their faith or of God’s existence the same way you do. A lot of Christian’s appreciate, at least theoretically, that what might feel like the Holy Spirit could in fact be just, well, them. Their emotions, cognitive simulations run in their own heads. Essentially the sort of thing some say happens to Tibetan Buddhists when they have spiritual experiences touching on Nirvana, visualize the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities, etc.

    The second thing I think you should realize is that theism is not only identified with Christianity. Judaism is theistic. Islam is theistic. Hinduism is theistic (polytheistic, or even in a sense converging on monotheism if you go the route that all the other gods are manifestations of the one true God as some Hindus do).

    So, in any event, am I to tell my Uncle who believes that Jesus Christ is lord and divine that he is an agnostic as he professes less than 100% certainty in this and not therefore theist?

    Am I supposed to identify as an agnostic and not a theist even though I believe in God?

    By your definition Dopderbeck, only those who are 100% (whether rationally, spiritually, whatever) are theists.

    So I guess I’m not a theist. Neither is my Christian uncle. Nor are a lot of other people for whom God is extremely important in their lives.

    But this would be by your definition. How many do you see sharing it?

  • Tim

    #62 was being written at the same time you were composing #61, so I had not seen that at the time of writing my response.

    But I read

    “[A]lthough argument and evidence may be used to support the believer’s faith, they are never properly the basis for that faith. For the believer, God is not the conclusion of a syllogism; he is the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob dwelling within us. How then does the believer know that Christianity is true? He knows because of the self-authenticating witness of God’s spirit who lives within him.”

    as meaning, essentially, “spiritual” certainty as opposed to a more sterile “empirical” certainty which typically would correspond to information received through the 5 senses and processed by the rational mind.

    So, and this was reflected in my original reply, those who claim less than certainty on “self-authenticating” spiritual “witness” would then seem to fall into the category of agnosticism as well.

    Or is this something you would disagree with Dopderbeck?

  • dopderbeck

    Tim, I’m not sure where you’re getting this from, but it’s certainly not from anything I wrote!

    As I’m trying to point out, you’re making the common mistake of confusing “knowledge” and “certainty.” “Knowledge” does not imply Cartesian certainty. All of this talk of “100% certainty” and so on is an exercise in missing the point. Percentages and probabilities are empirical terms.

    Moreover, “knowledge” and “certainty” with respect to the inner witness of Holy Spirit does not imply the absence of any doubt, the elimination of all possible empirical alternatives, or the lack of any emotional variance (e.g., “I don’t feel too certain today….”) In fact, the reason this sort of knowledge, and only this sort of knowledge, is secure is because it originates outside ourselves and is grounded in the ultimate source of reality, God.

    The fact of certainty through the witness of the Spirit is different than the experience of certainty in any person’s life, though the two are related. Every human being, even the most faithful Christian, experiences the limitations of being human as well as the fog of sin. It’s proper to speak of “growing” in assurance or certainty as part of the process of sanctification. We only have final certainty when we see Christ face to face. My favorite scripture passage is 1 Cor. 13:12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

  • Tim

    Dopderbeck,

    Maybe I would understand your point better if you could elaborate on this, and why you specifically are using the words “fact” and “certainty”:

    “The fact of certainty through the witness of the Spirit…”

  • dopderbeck

    Certainty is related to what is objectively real. We have certainty through the Spirit because the Triune God is the objective ground of all reality. This reality exists independently of us as individuals and it transcends us as individuals. It just is, and because it just is, it is certain. We can experience this at an individual, personal level as we participate in the life of God, as we come into relationship with this reality. Because of our sin, however, God remains to some extent hidden and veiled to us. So we are always experiencing a sort of dialectic between God’s hiddenness and His revelation of Himself, between our sin and doubt and the objective certainty of His existence and His love for us.

    Theologically, I am drawing heavily here on Martin Luther and Karl Barth, and also to some extent on “Reformed epistemology.” Not everyone will agree entirely with these theological moves, but they have a good pedigree in scripture and the Tradition, I think. And these can be difficult concepts to follow if you’re grounded in pre-Hegelian Enlightenment epistemology or later positivism.

  • Tim

    Dopderbeck,

    “Certainty is related to what is objectively real.”

    Sure it’s related. But the perceiver/experiencer is also related. To have “certainty” means that you can say without a doubt that what you experienced, in the way you identified it, is objectively “real.” So, one could say that they are “certain” they experienced a deep emotion they identify with being filled by the Holy Spirit. That they had the experience is certain. They could then say that they believe that the experience really is caused by the Holy Spirit, and not just by letting their own emotions run away with them, but on that point they are less than certain.

    “We have certainty through the Spirit because the Triune God is the objective ground of all reality.”

    I don’t have certainty in this. If my experience of God is self-manufactured, then it could well be that God is not the objective ground of all reality, as he might not exist. I don’t consider this very probable, but I by no means am “certain.” Neither is my uncle.

    A lot of this comes from, I think, putting the cart before the horse.

    At the very beginning of the chain, you have an experience. That could be an experience of sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, internal sensations such as emotion, or what have you. Then we attribute our experience to “reality.” We say, I smell cookies, therefore I believe in the objective reality that there are cookies nearby. Now I see the cookie. Now I taste the cookie. Or we say, “I have an experience of deep love, fulfillment, beauty, and a sense of their being a presence in the room with me, comforting me, guiding me.” Then we attribute that experience to something “real.” That was the Holy Spirit. I felt his presence as I was reaching out in prayer. This is what the Buddhist Monks do as well. “That was Nirvana, I experienced just a taste of that as I was emptying my being of illusion and false agency and embracing true cognition and being.”

    But, for those of us who question this link between experience and reality, those of us who have some doubt about it, are we to be categorized as strictly agnostic?

    My uncle, as well as myself, acknowledge that our experiences we perceive as coming from God might, just might, come from ourselves. As a possible conclusion from this, we perceive that such a scenario would then mean that our best evidence for God existing would be naught, and that if we made aware of this eventuality, that we might very well cease to believe in God.

    Would acknowledging this doubt make us agnostic?

    Atheists typically acknowledge their doubt that they might be wrong on God. They acknowledge that what they feel as love, comfort, the pulling on their heart-strings might have something to do with God. They acknowledge that the beauty and order they perceive in the world might have something to do with God. But they don’t think that’s likely, as they don’t see any evidence for it.

    So, you can have theists with some level of doubt/uncertainty, and atheists with some level of doubt/uncertainty. But why then define only the atheists as agnostic, but not then the theists? How is that warranted or in any way appropriate?

  • dopderbeck

    I never defined only atheists as agnostic. Quite the opposite.

    I said quite clearly that Agnostics believe there may be a God but that God is fundamentally unknowable. Atheists, in contrast, believe there is no God. This is a clear distinction.

    For an Atheist to admit that he/she could possibly be wrong about this does not convert the Atheist into an Agnostic. But if the supposed Atheist goes further and says “I can’t claim to know one way or the other whether there is a God and so I won’t offer any firm opinion on that,” then that person really is an Agnostic. Atheism by definition claims to have knowledge — not certainty, knowledge, i.e. “justified true belief” — that there is no God.

    No doubt it’s possible and maybe common for a person to waffle between Atheism and Agnosticism. I suppose there’s a fuzzy line somewhere between the two. Nevertheless, they are distinct concepts.

    Re: your uncle, you continue to confuse different terms like belief, doubt, knowledge and certainty, and you’re missing my point that the “certainty of faith” is simply different than Cartesian certainty or emotional certainty. Though your uncle (and I) may often feel uncertain, and though he (and I) will have to admit that we can’t have Cartesian certainty about our belief in God, nevertheless there is a deeper sort of “certainty” that causes us to commit ourselves to the person of Christ. I hate to use a word like “mystical” but the certainty of faith ultimately is a mystery — it transcends reason and experience (without violating reason and experience).

  • Tim

    Dopderbeck,

    Atheists do “believe” that there is no God, but only in the sense that you or I “believe” that there are no leprechauns or fairies.

    It’s not a claim to knowledge, just a claim to lack of knowledge.

    I don’t claim to have knowledge that leprechauns or fairies don’t exist. I’ve never looked in every last corner of this Earth and said, “yes, after doing an exhaustive search, I can prove that leprechauns and fairies don’t exist.” I can’t say that. What I do say is that I am unaware of any evidence that suggests that leprechauns or fairies do exist.

    Does that mean I don’t have a strong opinion on the subject of leprechauns or fairies? Of course not! I “believe” they don’t exist. But I require no philosophical or intellectual framework to make this belief. I don’t require Enlightenment Modernism, for instance.

    Atheists disbelieve in God in this sense. They don’t claim to have evidence he doesn’t exist, they just claim to have no evidence that he does. Just like my own reasoning with respect to fairies and leprechauns. But just as I don’t feel compelled to go out and “prove” that leprechauns and fairies don’t exist to justify having a “strong” opinion on the subject that they don’t exist, neither do most atheists feel the need to go out and “prove” that God doesn’t exist to justify the “strong” opinion that he does not. They point to lack of evidence to inform their views. As do we all for a multitude of judgments on reality we make in life.

  • Johann

    I don’t know where you’re getting your definitions from, dopderbeck, but Tim is pretty much spot-on with how most atheists – and, I think, many agnostics – would define the term and the issues surrounding the definition. Your system of classification does have some proponents, but it’s not reflected in the actual usage of these terms today, which you have to consider if you want your arguments to address the actual positions and beliefs involved.

  • Tim

    also, as to your statement that among Christian theists there is “a deeper sort of “certainty” that causes us to commit ourselves to the person of Christ”

    I dispute that this is universal. I certainly recognize that some Christians feel this way. Clearly you do. But I certainly don’t feel this way with respect to God. So, would that make me an agnostic and not a theist then Dopderbeck? Should I cease self-identifying as a theist?

  • dopderbeck

    Tim says: What I do say is that I am unaware of any evidence that suggests that leprechauns or fairies do exist.

    I respond: and this negative statement of a lack of evidence implies a number of positive assertions concerning what sorts of evidence are required to substantiate a knowledge claim, where the burden of proof lies, and so on. And those positive assertions are exactly those of Modernist empiricism and logical positivism. Why bother trying to deny this? I think most of the New Atheists are happy to acknowledge this, because they believe these “scientific” methods are, in fact, the only proper way to really “know” anything.

    I’d be surprised if you really don’t have a “strong opinion” on leprechauns and fairies. These are used as examples precisely because most people have a strong opinion that they don’t exist. The implication, of course, is that believing in God is just like believing in leprechauns and fairies. This has nothing at all to do with Agnosticism.

    Re: your comment in #71, you’re still not getting the fact that this is not a claim about emotions or how we “feel.” And you also have to be clear about the fact that the generic notion of “theist” has to be distinguished from the distinctly Trinitarian and Christian theological arguments I am making. Honestly, I don’t think “theist” is a terribly meaningful category. Not all sorts of beliefs in God or the gods are commensurable.

    Johann (#70) — well, I think Richard Dawkins uses these ideas about the probability one assigns to the existence of God to distinguish between Atheism, Agnosticism, and Theism. At the moment I’m just taking this from a Wiki but here is his spectrum:

    1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung, ‘I do not believe, I know.’
    2. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. De facto theist. ‘I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.’
    3. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism. ‘I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.’
    4. Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic. ‘God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.’
    5. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism. ‘I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.’
    6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.’
    7. Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung “knows” there is one.’

    As I’ve said above, however, I think that even this is flawed because it tries to assign empirical “probabilities” to a kind of belief or “certainty” that is fundamentally non-empirical.

    But you’re right, others propose more technical definitions, and there are disputes about whether the supposed inability to know anything about non-empirical realities (ala Hume) is properly “atheism” or “agnosticism.”

    Nevertheless, I reject the notion that there is an “implicit atheism” in anyone who doesn’t affirmatively express belief in God, as in the absurd canard that “all infants are born atheists.”

  • Tim

    Dopderbeck,

    I will respond in more detail to what you just wrote in a sec, but did you just claim that I require Modernist Empiricism and Logical Positivism as necessary epistemological foundations to form a strong view concerning fairies not existing? Are you claiming this, or did I read you wrong?

  • dopderbeck

    No — but the reason your giving for not believing in them does indeed depend on logical positivism. What you stated is precisely a positivist argument. There are lots of other reasons for not believing in them that don’t have to be stated this way.

    But I thought you didn’t feel strongly about them one way or the other? ;-)

  • Tim

    Dopderbeck,

    I stated that my view on fairies not existing is a strong one. That was integral to the parallel I was drawing with the atheists.

    Concerning Logical Positivism, that was a philosophical movement that attempted to combine mathematical precision with empirical observation to classify knowledge into the categories of true, false, or meaningless. It set strict criteria with respect to how truth claims could be validated, and it failed to address in any meaningful way the idea that truth claims could be weighed on a probabilistic scale, not assigned to a categorical one.

    So, my claim was that my view concerning fairies not existing was a strong one, given absence of evidence for them. I did not specify any criteria for what that evidence had to be. I also acknowledged that it was a probabilistic assessment. That I didn’t “know” that fairies don’t exist in an absolute sense, as I haven’t examined every corner of the Earth to confirm their lack of existing.

    Logical Positivism is an absolutist epistemology and I don’t ascribe to it. I suspect a great many atheists reject it as well, given its fall from favor as a meaningful or useful epistemological framework.

  • Tim

    …also, reread this excerpt from my previous post please:

    “Does that mean I don’t have a strong opinion on the subject of leprechauns or fairies? Of course not! I “believe” they don’t exist. But I require no philosophical or intellectual framework to make this belief. I don’t require Enlightenment Modernism, for instance.”

  • dopderbeck

    Sorry, I should have said “positivism,” not “logical positivism.”

    The way you framed your disbelief in fairies and leprechauns is positivistic and does derive from Enlightenment foundationalsim. Positivism is basically the idea that authentic knowledge claims are based only on sense experience and positive verification. It’s linked to the idea that all real knowledge is reducible to scientific knowledge.

    And whether you use the method you’ve described or not, of course you require a “philosophical or intellectual framework” to believe fairies and leprechauns don’t exist. Absent such a framework, you have no basis at all for asserting or evaluating “belief” in anything or even for determining what a “belief” is.

  • Johann

    DRT @54 – “Keep thinking as you are since your thinking is actually coherent to me.”

    …I wish I could say the same, I really do. But mostly your comment leaves me confused.

    What makes you think I’ve lost hope of any sort? :) The cultural dominance of Christianity in this country and the willingness of many Christians to rub my face in it is annoying and a cause for great concern, but I’m hardly despairing here.

    “Don’t believe in the god you are talking about.”

    Your Bible doesn’t mention Abrahaam and Isaac? Or are we talking about non-Christian beliefs here?

    “My 18 year old son is an atheist for the same reasons as you.”

    What would those be? I’m genuinely curious here. :)

    dopderbeck @72:

    Take a closer look at that spectrum. It even uses the same term as Tim – “strong atheism” is the position of absolute certainty, shading into agnosticism farther up the scale. On that scale, 1-3 fall under “theism”, 2-6 under “agnosticism” and 5-7 under “atheism”; it addresses the certainty with which one holds their belief, without reference to knowability and empirical questions. Whatever you think their proper role in this definition is, that scale is not about them, and in this it reflects the common usage Tim and I are talking about rather than some philosophical ideal.

    You, if I’m understanding you correctly, are arguing that only 7 should be properly called atheism. What’s interesting about this is that I have only ever seen this position taken by people attacking atheists, either by painting us as a mirror image of frothing fundamentalists or by defining us out of existence with an airy “oh, they’re really agnostics, they just don’t know what they’re talking about”. Most of the finger-pointing at the fabled uncultured ignorance of the “New Atheists” seems to be done by people who are upset that said atheists are not willing to grant the correctness of their “Trinitarian and Christian theological arguments” and worldview.

    You also haven’t addressed Tim’s question of whether you similarly restrict the other side of the spectrum. Are only people at 1 appropriately called believers?

    “Nevertheless, I reject the notion that there is an “implicit atheism” in anyone who doesn’t affirmatively express belief in God, as in the absurd canard that “all infants are born atheists.””

    You seem oddly unwilling to see our side as a cohesive and sincere worldview. My definition of my atheism is just a “line” that you don’t buy, the (to me, fairly apparent) notion that infants do not hold god-beliefs of the sort we’re discussing here is an “absurd canard”… Why is that?

  • Tim

    Dopderbeck,

    “Positivism is basically the idea that authentic knowledge claims are based only on sense experience and positive verification. It’s linked to the idea that all real knowledge is reducible to scientific knowledge.”

    But I don’t believe that. I do not believe that all knowledge is sense based (hence I’m not an empiricist), nor do I believe that all real knowledge is reducible to scientific knowledge (hence I don’t ascribe to scientism).

    None of these epistemological issues come into play in my conclusion that fairies don’t exist.

    For instance, with respect to God, one of my strongest pieces of “evidence” for his existence is a deep sense of profound and transcendent beauty I perceive both in nature and in others. I could be wrong in identifying these experiences as “transcendent.” In many ways it is a very “intuitive” approach to knowledge. This is definitely NOT an approach that conforms to empiricism, scientism, or positivism of any kind.

    As far as “requiring” an epistemological framework, of course, in the sense that I couldn’t even function in my day to day life. If I had to pick a label from existing categories, I’d go with Occam’s razor.

    A lot of people misunderstand Occam’s razor. They see it as some sort of unnecessary constraint on how we practice science or approach knowledge “scientifically” or “rationally.” What they don’t understand is that none of us could even function productively without it. What Occam did was identify a natural, intuitive process we all engage in, formalize that, and make it prescriptive.

    Let me give you an example:

    You come home from work. In front of you is a broken ceramic plate on the floor and it looks like your dog has licked the food off of it. You don’t recall leaving your breakfast out as you left for work, but you’re not really certain. You also notice that the back door is unlocked, where you typically let the dog out to run around the yard in the morning and do his business. Of course, you have been forgetful of this sort of stuff in the past.

    So, what happened to your plate, and why is the back door unlocked?

    There are essentially a limitless number of possibilities to choose from. But just to take 2 you could say:

    1) Your dog reached for the plate on the counter, knocked it over with his paw, and licked the plate clean. And after letting him out to do his thing in the morning you forgot to lock up.

    2) Robbers came into your house, decided to fix themselves some breakfast, noticed a cop car driving up the court, and got nervous and left out the back.

    Now, which of these is more likely? (1) is of course. This is the conclusion most people would come to, and follows directly from Occam’s razor. It is the simplest explanation that accounts for all the information you have at hand without introducing anything unnecessary in the way of explaining the situation.

    We do this all the time. It is the only way to escape absurdity in our lives. We tend not to assign high probability to explanations that are introduce unnecessary postulations. If I come home and see my wife finishing off a coke, I assume she got it, opened it, and is now finishing off drinking it. I don’t assume that her aunt Sally came in from out of town to visit, they did lunch, they came back to the house, my wife asked Sally if she wanted anything to drink, Sally said yes, they shared a couple coke’s together, and Sally left with hers just a few minutes ago and I just missed her.

    See how absurd things can get if we don’t limit our internal explanations for events in a parsimonious fashion?

    Now, I believe in God, but that is consistent with Occam’s razor. To me, the most reasonable explanation that makes sense of the “evidence” of my specific transcendent experiences is that there is a transcendent reality out there that is the source for them.

    But the atheist when they have these experiences don’t “sense” that they are transcendent. They don’t identify them in this way. So given the “absence” of this type of personal evidence, and given the paucity of many other forms of evidence for God, they apply Occam’s razor and conclude that God is unlikely to exist.

  • dopderbeck

    Johann — I think it’s a sincere worldview, but no, honestly, I don’t think it’s cohesive. That doesn’t mean I think atheists are dumb or that there is no basis at all for their beliefs — not at all — but it does seem to me that no atheistic system can account for everything human experience has to account for, and so at the end of the day I think all such systems fall apart.

    RE: infants — they hold neither beliefs that God exists nor beliefs that God does not exist. It’s simply absurd to ascribe “beliefs” or “lack of beliefs” of the sort we’re talking about to infants, because they lack the mental structures even to form such beliefs. It’s like saying all parakeets and all peanut butter sandwiches are Atheists. It’s a basic category mistake.

    The mere absence of a belief about God is not Atheism in any historic sense of the term — otherwise peanut butter sandwiches indeed would be properly called “atheists.” Some would like absence of a belief about God to be considered Atheism because then they can argue that belief in God is something extraordinary that has to be established by extraordinary proof — but that is sophistry. They could also argue that theistic belief has to be forcibly programmed into infants who are “naturally” atheistic — and that is both sophistry and ignorant regarding how children learn. (Dawkins of course makes both of these moves).

    With regard to the Dawkins categories — it’s passingly odd to suggest that these categories are only used by people attacking atheism when they were laid out by, well, Richard Dawkins. You can disagree with Dawkins if you’d like, but obviously these aren’t only used by people “attacking” atheism.

    And, for the third time now, I’ll reiterate that “even this [classification system] is flawed because it tries to assign empirical ‘probabilities’ to a kind of belief or ‘certainty’ that is fundamentally non-empirical.” Category mistake after category mistake after category mistake.

  • dopderbeck

    Tim, all I said was that the way you justified your non-belief in fairies in (#69) is positivistic — “I am unaware of any evidence that suggests that leprechauns or fairies do exist” — and it is. You might have other reasons for non-belief in fairies that aren’t tied to positivism, but you haven’t yet stated them. Unless by “evidence” you meant to include something other than verifiable empirical evidence. Did you?

    Occam’s Razor is a different issue. Not sure why you brought it up here. In any event, yes, I agree, as a first cut its usually wise to go with the most parsimonious explanation of an observed phenomena. But this is only a first cut, a rough rule of thumb. It’s hardly a firm rule of logic. Sometimes the more complicated explanation actually turns out to be the true one (quantum mechanics anyone?).

    Moreover, what you define as the “most parsimonious” explanation usually is going to depend on the data you have available and allow in the explanatory set. What if in your example we also discovered strange fingerprints all over the door and the kitchen table? Suddenly the dog isn’t the most parsimonious explanation. What if you never discover the fingerprints? Turns out what you thought was the most parsimonious explanation was wrong because you lacked some key data. What if God appears to you and tells you that it in fact it was robbers? Now we have to wade into the territory of whether “revelation” is ever allowable as a source of knowledge.

    And it’s odd to see someone defend belief in God based on Occam’s Razor. Usually it’s the other way ’round (“I have no need of that hypothesis” and all that). IMHO belief in God is only possible based on revelation so again, applying Occam’s Razor is a category mistake.

  • Tim

    Dopderbeck,

    I never laid out any epistemological criteria for what would constitute “evidence” for fairies. You generated those yourself when you said they would have to fall within a positivist epistemology, defined by yourself as “authentic knowledge claims [being] based only on sense experience and positive verification.”

    So, say I had a “vision” of fairies, a very realistic one. Say the fairy in my dream told me to well-wish fairies and build them “fairy rings” (basically a circle of mushrooms associated with fairies in stories). So I start to well-wish fairies and plant them mushroom rings. And while doing so my life begins to transform. My marriage improves. I feel more content. A sickness my daughter had, that might have proved fatal, clears up. A whole lot of things start happening. I go online and discover there are more people just like me. With similar stories. So, would I then conclude that fairies are real? Depending on how strong the experiences were, perhaps I might. Would any of this conform to empiricist or positivistic notions? No, they wouldn’t.

    As far as Occam’s razor, you misunderstand it if you think that Quantum Mechanics violates it in any capacity. Also, Occam’s razor NEVER asserts that reality is in any way as simplistic as your provisional conclusions concerning it. In fact, given the repeated failures of past great minds to capture the nature of reality in all its glory in the past, it’s a fairly good bet that we don’t understand reality in it’s full complexity – and this bet would be consistent with a conclusion that doesn’t introduce any unnecessary explanations via Occam’s razor.

    “What if in your example we also discovered strange fingerprints all over the door and the kitchen table? Suddenly the dog isn’t the most parsimonious explanation.”

    Yes, then the robbery would be more consistent with Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor is never a “guarantee” that your judgment is the correct one. It is just a recognition that to do otherwise leads to absurdity. Sure the absurd explanation could be right, but that isn’t the point. The point is you need to have some reason to consider the more involved explanation. The fingerprints would be one such reason.

    As for “revelation”, there is no a priori reason that atheists, or even Occam’s razor, need to exclude revelation as knowledge. They probably feel that the Bible is not revelation, but then again you probably feel that the Book of Mormon is not revelation. Different atheists might have different reasons for concluding that the Bible is not revelation, but that doesn’t mean that if they did run across something that they did feel might very well be revelation that they would reject it.

    “And it’s odd to see someone defend belief in God based on Occam’s Razor. Usually it’s the other way ’round ”

    That is only because most people misunderstand Occam’s razor. In fact, it is rare that I encounter any Christian explanation that runs afoul of Occam’s razor in the sense of the intent or interpretation of the one making the argument. When you really drill down to the argument the Christian apologist is making, they typically really believe that the explanation they are making is the one that best accounts for the evidence when evidence is used in a very inclusive sense.

  • Johann

    “With regard to the Dawkins categories — it’s passingly odd to suggest that these categories are only used by people attacking atheism when they were laid out by, well, Richard Dawkins. You can disagree with Dawkins if you’d like, but obviously these aren’t only used by people “attacking” atheism.”

    Let me point out the relevant part again: “You, if I’m understanding you correctly, are arguing that only 7 should be properly called atheism. What’s interesting about this is that I have only ever seen this position taken by people attacking atheists

    I’m not saying that the existence of the seventh category is an attack on atheists.
    I’m not saying that (accurately) assigning someone’s convictions to that category is an attack on them.

    I’m saying that the notion that all atheists either do belong to that outermost category (and can be painted as unreasonably dogmatic by believers from a wide range of varying conviction) or should belong to that category (and are just posturing agnostics if they admit the slightest hypothetical possibility of a divine being) is a gross misrepresentation, and in my experience an invariably malicious one.

    “And, for the third time now, I’ll reiterate that “even this [classification system] is flawed because it tries to assign empirical ‘probabilities’ to a kind of belief or ‘certainty’ that is fundamentally non-empirical.” Category mistake after category mistake after category mistake.”

    And this, once again, is your mistake. The definition Tim and I have pointed out to you, as well as the scale you quoted earlier, deals not with probabilities or reasons for belief but with belief itself. With conviction, if you will. Your belief may be closely based on your perception of the probability involved, but they are not one and the same.

    “The mere absence of a belief about God is not Atheism in any historic sense of the term — otherwise peanut butter sandwiches indeed would be properly called “atheists.””

    The implied qualifier here is the capacity for holding such a belief. Let’s not veer off into outright caricature, shall we? (And before you come back ’round to the infant example, the point it is meant to loosely illustrate is that religious belief is acquired and not inborn – not the specific capabilities of infants. It is, if you will, a counter to the way Christians use Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…”, to claim precisely the opposite.)

    Also, if you are after historical precedent, the most traditional meaning of atheism is “YOUR disbelief in MY god”. That is the atheism Socrates was accused of, and the charge that landed early Christians in the Roman arenas. The “historic sense” of what atheism is about comes to us from time when it was defined almost exclusively by theologians speaking from a position of power, and actual atheists had to tread a very fine line with their own contributions. If that is what you want to discuss instead of the atheist perspective of our day, I suggest finding a historian.

    “Some would like absence of a belief about God to be considered Atheism because then they can argue that belief in God is something extraordinary that has to be established by extraordinary proof — but that is sophistry.”

    If I tell you about Ptahn the Spider God and you do not come to believe in his existence as a result, you are an atheist with respect to Ptahn as far as I’m concerned. If you do not believe in Ptahn because you have never heard of him, that also makes you an atheist regarding Ptahn in my eyes. The sophistry, to me, seems to lie in the notion that my having made up Ptahn a minute ago somehow magically imbues him with an ineffable potential for existence that may not be gainsaid without much careful consideration, respectful argumentation, and a degree in Ptahnology.

  • dopderbeck

    Johann your now not only confusing categories but now you’re introducing something completely different by introducing a “god” without any sort of historical tradition or ethical system. That’s not even a serious argument.

    Tim if this is really how you would evaluate belief in fairies then I think you need to be more careful aboit how you state your criteria. What you said initially was right out of the positivist playback.

  • Tim

    Dopderbeck,

    This is what I said initially. How did you ever conclude that this amounts to something “right out of the positivist playback”?:

    “Atheists do “believe” that there is no God, but only in the sense that you or I “believe” that there are no leprechauns or fairies.

    It’s not a claim to knowledge, just a claim to lack of knowledge.

    I don’t claim to have knowledge that leprechauns or fairies don’t exist. I’ve never looked in every last corner of this Earth and said, “yes, after doing an exhaustive search, I can prove that leprechauns and fairies don’t exist.” I can’t say that. What I do say is that I am unaware of any evidence that suggests that leprechauns or fairies do exist.

    Does that mean I don’t have a strong opinion on the subject of leprechauns or fairies? Of course not! I “believe” they don’t exist. But I require no philosophical or intellectual framework to make this belief. I don’t require Enlightenment Modernism, for instance.”

  • Johann

    “Johann your now not only confusing categories but now you’re introducing something completely different by introducing a “god” without any sort of historical tradition or ethical system. That’s not even a serious argument.”

    That you refuse to treat it as one does not make it “not a serious argument, dopderbeck. But very well, let me see if I can make you more comfortable with my example.

    *snaps fingers* Ptahn is now the principal deity of a secluded community of farmers in rural India, with a history of worship going back three thousand years, a hereditary priesthood and an ethical system based on reciprocity.

    If I tell you about Ptahn the Spider God and you do not come to believe in his existence as a result, you are an atheist with respect to Ptahn as far as I’m concerned. If you do not believe in Ptahn because you have never heard of him, that also makes you an atheist regarding Ptahn in my eyes.

    The point I was making regarding atheism is unchanged, and I honestly do not see the substance of your contention. Do you feel more comfortable addressing that point now that I’ve adjusted my example?

  • Tim

    Johannan,

    You could just go with the God of Cao Dai, a Vietnamese religion. That’s a solid example of a deity that few ascribe to and many aren’t even aware of the religion at all.

  • Tim

    …sorry about the misspelling of your name Johann :(

  • Johann

    Not a problem, Tim. And thanks, I’ll look that up. :)

  • dopderbeck

    Tim — sigh. You say: ““Atheists do “believe” that there is no God, but only in the sense that you or I “believe” that there are no leprechauns or fairies.”

    No, that is just not correct, at least if you are talking about public atheists such as Dawkins. The criterion of justified true belief for such folks is verifiable empirical evidence, and only verifiable empirical evidence. And these criteria are positivistic and exclude other sorts of things religious people might consider to have evidentiary value. If you don’t get this, then you just don’t understand contemporary Atheism.

    (The reason I don’t believe there are leprechauns and fairies is not only because there is no verifiable empirical evidence of their existence, but also and very importantly because they don’t seem to fit into my larger Christian belief structure, which includes some speficic ideas about human uniqueness in creation. This latter criterion is out of bounds and irrelevant for Atheists.)

  • dopderbeck

    Johann — You are, yet again, confusing categories.

    If I don’t believe in a particular religion’s god, that does not make me “atheistic with respect to that god.” The category mistake here is that “atheism” properly refers to the belief that there is no god or gods of any kind. If I don’t believe in another religion’s god because I am a Christian and believe instead in the Christian God, then I’m simply a “Christian,” which makes me a “Christian with respect to Ptah (or whatever other god you want to think of).”

    You’d then have to ask, within my belief structure as a Christian, what does that lead me to say about other gods? And here you’d find that in Christian theology the answer isn’t entirely simple.

    Christians of course assert that the Triune God revealed in Christ is the only true God. Our scriptures are clear that there are idols and false gods that have no claim to be God and are powerless against God. Yet our scriptures also suggest that there are deceptive personalities (“demons”) that underlie all false claims to God-ness. And in a handful of places, our scriptures seem to suggest that the true God can work in hidden ways through the stories and practices of other religions in prepration for revelation of the true God.

    So as a Christian do I “believe” in other Gods besides the Triune God revealed in Christ? Not in the sense of religious “belief,” devotion and worship, of course not. But do I “believe” that other religions asserting other gods are also engaged with the spiritual realm in some way? Yes, that seems to be the case.

    Given all this (and a full discussion would take up several books), it’s patently absurd to call me an “atheist” with respect to the god-claims of other religions. I am a Christian, and you can’t reduce that complex of beliefs and practices to these rationalistic categories.

  • Tim

    Dopderbeck,

    “No, that is just not correct, at least if you are talking about public atheists such as Dawkins.”

    And how do you figure that defining atheists by Dawkins example is in any way appropriate? Dawkins is a scientist and appears to very much ascribes to scientism and a heavily empiricist epistemology. If you define all atheists this way, you are doing them a disservice. I thought it was implicit in the language and points I was making in my posts that I believe atheists are a diverse group of people that have different reasons for not believing in God.

    It is in this respect that I drew the parallel between disbelief in fairies and disbelief in God. My point was one of not believing something you feel you don’t have evidence for, without the need to somehow prove that what you don’t believe in doesn’t exist.

    How else do you feel I should have conveyed this point?

    As far as your personal reasons for not believing in fairies due to your Christian beliefs, that’s all fine and good. Perhaps if you weren’t Christian fairies might seem like a much more reasonable category of beings for you to believe in. I personally can’t connect with that way of thinking, and I suspect that many other theists and atheists won’t as well, but I don’t want to second-guess the reasons you yourself find compelling for disbelieving in fairies or whatever other judgments you might make. I’ll take you at your word.

  • Tim

    …in the above “My point was one of not believing something you feel you don’t have evidence for…” I am using “evidence” in an very broad sense to include any form of evidence, material, spiritual, intuitive, subjective, objective, what have you. Any kind of evidence at all. Just want to make that clear.

  • dopderbeck

    Tim – ok — you’re entitled to not believe in fairies and so on for whatever reasons you want. All I’m saying is that the way you first explained it was positivistic. But now you’ve clarified.

    Re: Dawkins — I suppose I think using him as an example is appropriate because he is the most prominent and vocal of the New Atheists and has written tons on this. And what he says is entirely consistent with Hitchens and Sam Harris and so on.

    I think we’ve beat this thread to death so I’m going to bow out — see you in part 2!

  • Johann

    “You are, yet again, confusing categories.”

    You are, yet again, defining your categories improperly. This discussion could actually get somewhere if you made even a token effort to understand my position. ;) As it is, you demand that I recognize the full breadth and nuances of your worldview while dismissing mine as just a collection of unrelated one-liners.

    As entertaining as it is to see you claim that you know what atheism is all about better than actual atheists do, I also think it’s time to wrap this up.

    Tim et al. – thank you for a reminder that believers who genuinely do understand and empathize with atheists are out there. It’s refreshing. :)

  • http://medievalmind.blogspot.com/ BethB

    Anyone interested in further resources on this issue should check out this free video of the “MY WAYS ARE NOT YOUR WAYS: THE CHARACTER OF THE GOD OF THE HEBREW BIBLE” conference held at Notre Dame in 2009: http://philreligion.nd.edu/conferences/video/my_ways/

    You can also listen to the conference on MP3 here: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=4428

    Admittedly, the conference takes a more philosophical approach to the problem, and brings together world-class atheists, Jews, Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant thinkers. While it is wonderful to be able to freely access the conference on video and audio, I prefer text for matters which require careful thought. Fortunately, the conference papers have been published, “Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham” http://www.amazon.com/Divine-Evil-Moral-Character-Abraham/dp/0199576734 . Unfortunately, it costs nearly $85 on Amazon! : O

    As Common Sense Atheism explains, “Each session goes like this: the main speaker presents an argument attacking or defending the morality of the the Old Testament God in about 40 minutes. Another philosopher presents an opposite view for 15 minutes. The first speaker gives a 10-minute reply, and then there is a Q&A period.”

    So it’s a different approach from the ones theologians take, but IMO one worth pursuing.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X