Interfaith Dialogue with Atheists

Real dialogue is necessary, not over the important secondary matter of whether God exists, but over the primary question of what constitutes the basis for human knowing.

Two ads in the most recent edition of Scientific American caught my eye. On page 24 is an ad called “Leaving Truth.” It promotes a book designed to “call the theist’s bluff at this deepest accessible epistemic level.” See more at www.poppersinversion.org.

The second ad, larger, is entitled “In Reason We Trust” and comes from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It features a picture of Steven Pinker and a quote, “The biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality that the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul. . . .The undeniable fact that we are all made of the same neural flesh makes it impossible to deny our common capacity to suffer.”

Even within the ads it is clear that those who placed them apparently do not understand either the basis for theism or a theistic understanding of morality. They appear to be directed against popular, ad hoc theology that still has currency in parts of the religious world but scarcely represent the mainstream of theological and philosophical thinking about God and ethics.

The first ad states, “Reality cannot show us, more clearly than it already has, that the miracles upon which our theists base their initial beliefs in their Supernatural Beings never really happened.” I think its fair to say that it has been at least 2000 years since serious western philosophers thought that belief God was contingent upon miraculous events. Atheists might want to check out “A Philosophical Theology for Our Time” by Charles Hartshorne for one way of addressing these concerns. Or his “Philosophers Speak of God” for a historical view.

A conceptual confusion appears to exist between original reasons for believing in gods or God and long standing philosophical rationals for theistic belief. And even if it is a conceptual confusion to which religious people often fall prey, it is surely instantly recognizable by rational scientists. It would be fairer to say that Christians recognize miracles as such because they believe in God, not that they believe in God because of miracles.

With regard to morality I simply note that at least from the time of Aristotle serious Western philosophers (and certainly Confucius and his followers) have not believed that either ethical behavior or ethical systems were contingent upon belief in an immortal soul. Rather it is precisely our sense of commonality with our fellow humans – family first, then clan, then society – that gives rise to our ethics. If biology extends this sense of commonality to other creatures it will simply be reiterating the teaching of the Upanasads and the Buddha from a different perspective. Or for that matter St. Francis.

What biology may add (E.O. Wilson has already written about this) is another way of  understanding moral obligations and motivating us to ethical behavior in new dimensions. But this is in no way problematic for religious ethics, any more than the ever extending reach of the physical sciences is in no way problem to theism.

Seeing this allows us to get to the crux of the issue between atheists, agnostics, and theists, which is epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. Scientists generally (but not necessarily) recognize knowledge as something that derives from observation of the physical world, measurement, and strict mathematical forms of reason.

Theists from across many religious traditions regard this definition of knowledge as too limiting. There are both things to be known, and human ways of knowing, that go beyond what can be observed, measured, and reasoned upon. Faith, in short, is a way of knowing.

A good example of this, to stay within the realm in which physics merges into metaphysics, is theories of a “multi-verse.”  Such theories help address, within a naturalistic set of assumptions, certain problems related to what is commonly called the anthropic principle. But they present no testable hypothesis, or even a hypothesis that can be imagined to be tested. They simply posit that as theories they are more consistent with the human experience that everything is explicable in a naturalist framework than a framework that admits the existence of God.

A theist would argue that evoking a creator God who intends the ultimate emergence of being made in God’s image of rationality and choice is just as consonant with human experience and is equally effective in resolving the question of why intelligent life has come to fruition in the universe we inhabit.

Given a complete lack of observable, repeatable, data upon which to reason neither the multi-verse not the theist hypothesis meets the standards of contemporary science.

Yet it is interesting that one appears regularly in journals and magazines devoted to science and the other does not. Which suggests that these journals, no less that Christianity Today for example, are based on what is essentially a faith commitment.

This is one reason I continue to read Scientific American religiously. I’m extraordinarily interested in truths about the natural world that only science can reveal. I’m also interested in all manner of human faith and how it expresses itself. SA gives insight into both.

It is also the reason that real dialogue is necessary, but not over the important secondary matter of whether God exists, but over the primary question of what constitutes the experiential basis for human knowing of reality.

"These people were not fools, they did not choose their words idly, and they were ..."

Endowed by Their Creator?
"Before you start painting America as the country that always has and always will hate ..."

What is a White Supremacist?
"Sulie doesn't strike me as "super-neo-liberal". Just thin-skinned, whiny, and dull-witted - like our president."

Atheism and the New Conditions of ..."
"Maybe some goatee'd alternate universe version of Trump that's super-neo-liberal and whines about "abusive social ..."

Atheism and the New Conditions of ..."

Browse Our Archives



What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Brian Westley

    They appear to be directed against popular, ad hoc theology that still has currency in parts of the religious world but scarcely represent the mainstream of theological and philosophical thinking about God and ethics.

    But that’s where the vast majority of believers are, as you note with “popular”. I’d say most members of any particular religion did not decide to join that religion because of the writings of “theological and philosophical thinking”, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to try and convince people by refuting arguments they’ve never heard of.

    Given a complete lack of observable, repeatable, data upon which to reason neither the multi-verse not the theist hypothesis meets the standards of contemporary science.

    Yet it is interesting that one appears regularly in journals and magazines devoted to science and the other does not.

    “Magic man done it” isn’t science. A hypothesized multi-universe, even if there is no way to test it at present, at least fits the paradigm (and might be testable in the future).

    • Robert Hunt

      Of course theists don’t believe that a “magic man” done it. God by definition doesn’t do magic. God does what we call nature. Caricatures don’t constitute an argument. And no, reflection on the relation of God to the observable natural world isn’t science. It is philosophy, or if you prefer metaphysics. Although rooted in the mathematical models the form the basis of contemporary cosmology the theory of the multi-verse is essentially a philosophical answer to a philosophical question. And in principle it isn’t testable, since such a test would require observations beyond the boundaries fixed by both relativity and communication theory. If scientists regard this as science I have no problem with it, but it blurs lines that might be better kept clear.

      • Brian Westley

        Of course theists don’t believe that a “magic man” done it. God by definition doesn’t do magic. God does what we call nature.

        So Jesus’ resurrection is natural, and not magic?

        Caricatures don’t constitute an argument.

        Redefining words don’t constitute an argument, either.

        Bring “gods” into anything opens the door to unlimited magical effects. “god” can explain anything, which means it explains nothing.

        • Robert Hunt

          The resurrection of Jesus was a natural event in the sense that the deepest laws of nature are those which explain the relationship between God and creation.

          “god can explain anything, which means it explains nothing.” Alas this same argument could be made substituting the term “evolution” for “god.” But in fact scientists recognize that there are conceivable facts (just no facts yet observed) that would force them to modify or overthrow evolutionary theory. In the same way theists recognize that attributing anything to “god/God” effectively renders the term vacuous.

          But there is an important logical difference. Evolutionary theory is contingent upon evidence, which is found in abundance. God is by definition necessary, and therefore not contingent on evidence. This doesn’t mean that God is responsible for any or every possible state of affairs. After all, both natural laws of evolution and the free will of creatures determine moment by moment all or most of what we observe. Only that using the methods of science God’s existence can neither be proved nor disproved. If one believes that scientific method is the only way of discovering what is true then there is no point in talking about God. If one believes that the scientific method is too limiting then philosophy and theology become interesting.

          • Brian Westley

            The resurrection of Jesus was a natural event in the sense that the deepest laws of nature are those which explain the relationship between God and creation.

            God is by definition necessary, and therefore not contingent on evidence.

            From my perspective, you’re just babbling nonsense at this point. You might want to take this into account.

          • Steve Willy

            Wow, Brian, you’re an atheist? You must be really smart. A real free thinker. Liberated by reason. Except, well…. Let’s put the faux-analytical hyperbole away for a while and look at reality: Kalaam Cosmological Argument, teleological argument, First Cause/Unmoved Mover, the impossibility of infinite causal regress, the necessity of at least one unconditioned reality, the Argument from Reason, Fine Tuning of Universal Constants, irreducible biological complexity, the argument from morality… While you sit there in your Hitchens-Dawkins parroting bubble and regurgitate pseudo-intellectual douchisms, your entire world view lies shattered at your feet. If you truly honor the gods of reason and critical thinking half as much as you claim, you would plant your face firmly into your hand, step away from the device, find a quiet place, and rethink your life.

          • Brian Westley

            Hey, you can copy & paste.

            Clap.

            Clap.

            Clap.

          • Steve Willy

            Thanks for this steaming nugget of regurgitated pseudo-intellectual neck bearded blather, you Hitchens-Dawkins parroting, faux-analytical proto-basement dwelling troll.

          • Brian Westley

            Thanks for showing how “nice” Real Christians are, Steve.

          • Steve Willy

            If it is your position that Christianity is a Bronze Age fairy tale and that Christians are deluded, then your complaint that I am not acting Christian enough is incoherent. If your world view is true, you have no reason to expect any predictable or consistent conduct from Christians. I thought your position was predicated upon reason and logic?

          • Brian Westley

            If it is your position that Christianity is a Bronze Age fairy tale and that Christians are deluded, then your complaint that I am not acting Christian enough is incoherent.

            Iron Age, actually.

            But I see you don’t get sarcasm in your area.

          • Steve Willy

            I get that your entire world view is incoherent.

          • Brian Westley

            Only to you.

          • Steve Willy

            Since, on atheism, there is no coherent foundation for accepting mind-independent reality, ‘only to me’ would be all I would have to care about if I accepted your world view.

          • Brian Westley

            Sorry, you can’t follow ‘since’ with your own made-up axiom.

          • Steve Willy

            What objectively verifiable, transcendent principle do I violate when I do? And where does that principle come from?

          • Brian Westley

            The word ‘since’ means ‘for the reason that’, but you’re only stating your assumption. I don’t grant your assumption.

          • Steve Willy

            So atheism is your subjective preference then. Stop peddling it as if it flows from reason or logic.

          • Brian Westley

            Stop peddling it as if it flows from reason or logic.

            When did I do that? You’re the one insisting I have to agree with your assumptions.

          • William J E Dempsey

            Often philosophers answer things in this way. First 1) they suggest that your worldview is incorrect. Then they also add as a secondary argument 2) even if, hypothetically, your worldview is correct, then many things you say are inconsistent with your own view.
            So we are answering you not one, but two ways.

          • Steve Willy

            At best, it would establish that I am a poor example of Christianity. It is in no way probative of whether Christianity writ large is true. Just like when scientific data is altered or falsified, it does not refute thr scientific method. So Brian’s comment is so irrelevant that it can only be construed as ad hominem attack. The fact that you would attempt to defend the comment as somehow being philosophically insightful betrays your profound intellectual dishonesty.

          • William J E Dempsey

            1) Note my comments on the baselessness of your philosophical defense; of First Cause specifically.
            2) Next? If your own behavior is inconsistent, hypocritical, then this makes you an unreliable informant. (Jesus would say, “hypocritical”).
            3) Extrapolating from these and other data points, might suggest that there are problems with Christianity in general. Particularly since your outdated concepts like “First Cause” and “Unmoved Mover” are now collapsing in Analytic Philosophy.

          • Steve Willy

            Now let’s get this straight, you tried to defend Brain’s poorly veiled ad hominem attack with your own specious pseudo-philosophical handwaving, then when I called you on it, you piled on even more vacuous faux-analytical hyperbole. Is it your goal to bury the fundamental error of your worldview under a pile of pseudo-philosophical sophistry? What is that supposed to accomplish, other than perhaps tricking a few people who didn’t go to cillegal as long as you did, or who studied more practical disciplines. If this is what you think the end goal of higher education should be, shame on you. If this is all you can do with your training, you have a moral obligation to remove yourself from the public discourse. Also, your vague reference to Analytic Philosophy, as if the whole of Analytic Philosophy bend s towards athesim, betrays aj existential ignorance of people like Plantina, Feser Craig and others. Perhaps you hoping that readers wouldn’t actually know what Analytic Philosophy is, and would be so impressed by your sophisticated sounding phrase that they would simply back away? Again, you should be ashamed of your conduct here . As I have said elsewhere, ultimate reality is nor some sort of award that goes to the one who can string together the largest number of esoteric non-sequiturs.

          • Robert Hunt

            The distinction between necessary and contingent seems to me self-evident. But of course if you believe that everything real is contingent then God disappears. In any case there is a real philosophical question, widely acknowledged by cosmologists, regarding whether reality as a whole is necessary or contingent. The question is real even if you don’t agree with the answer I’ve suggested.

          • Brian Westley

            I don’t see any reason to think your answer is any sort of real answer; it looks to me like outright special pleading and question begging.

          • Robert Hunt

            Maybe we need to step back. What is the relationship between whatever goes on in human brains and reality outside those brains? Is there a correspondence? How would we know? Underlying all of our use of words to discuss reality are assumptions about both how well the words represent what is happening in our brains, and how well what is happening in our brains corresponds to reality. At this point I’m not sure that serious scientists are ready to assert an unambiguous one to one correspondence between their verbal representations of the contents of their collective minds and reality itself. Nor am I confident that serious philosophers are ready to assert that they possess an unassailable epistemology.

            So there remains a good deal to talk about. I note, because I’m presently in his home city, that Godel showed, in ways that are pretty widely accepted, that no system of axioms and theorums (he worked on the Principia Mathematica) is complete. Because the one statement that it assumes to be true it cannot prove to be true: i.e. “This system is complete.” I’m pretty sure that serious scientists take his work seriously, and therefore do not assert that they can prove the completeness of their mathematical representations of reality.

            But to repeat, if you begin with different axioms you get different results. One can begin to demonstrate that certain axioms are simply inadequate to fully represent reality as we know it. What one cannot do is show that one’s own axioms are complete.

          • Brian Westley

            I agree that if you begin with different axioms you get different results. I don’t think that justifies building elaborate castles in the air. Your statement “God is by definition necessary, and therefore not contingent on evidence” looks to me like you’re trying to define your god into existence. That’s just wordplay.

            Going back to an earlier reply of yours to me:

            “god can explain anything, which means it explains nothing.” Alas this same argument could be made substituting the term “evolution” for “god.”

            No, “evolution” would not, for example, explain why two hydrogen and one oxygen make water. However, “god did it” answers that and anything else.

            Do you understand evolution, and that it really occurs?

          • Zeke

            “But in fact scientists recognize that there are conceivable facts (just no facts yet observed) that would force them to modify or overthrow evolutionary theory. In the same way theists recognize that attributing anything to “god/God” effectively renders the term vacuous.”
            Agreed, scientists recognize and embrace this methodology. Unfortunately this isn’t the case with theists: facts continue to refute the claims of their holy books, yet “maybe we’re wrong about this” never makes the list of alternative explanations to consider.

          • epredota

            It depends on *which* theists. Your argument, and the argument of many atheists, rests on the false premise that all theists are the same. We are not. You need to find out more about what you claim to be arguing against before you can effectively argue against it.

          • Zeke

            How so? Exactly what sort of theist do atheist arguments not apply to?

          • epredota

            You appear not to have not understood my comment. Please read it again, and try asking yourself *which* atheist arguments are relevant to *which* theist arguments.

          • Zeke

            “your argument …… rests on the false premise that all theists are the same”
            Atheists argue that there is insufficient evidence for gods. Theists believe in the existence of at least one god.
            Presumably you are a variety of theist to which this argument doesn’t apply? Could you explain that?

          • epredota

            No. This is a question of differing ontology, epistemology and methodology, not a question of evidence. Theists do not base their position on evidence at all, at least not the kind of evidence required by the scientific method. Theists are not facing objective reality (scientific evidence), but subjective reality (experiential evidence).

            Scientific epistemology and methodology are irrelevant to matters of faith, because matters of faith are *not science*.

          • Zeke

            Z: Presumably you are a variety of theist to which this argument doesn’t apply? Could you explain that?

            E: No. This is a question of differing ontology, epistemology …..

            You had me at “no”.

            E: Theists do not base their position on evidence at all….. Theists are not facing objective reality (scientificevidence), but subjective reality (experiential evidence).

            Exactly right. This is why the secular world recoils when theists assert their certain knowledge of a God-given objective morality, according to which we should govern our society.

          • epredota

            Z: “You had me at “no”.”

            My “No.” was to your first question, not your second.

            Z: “This is why the secular world recoils when theists assert their certain knowledge of a God-given objective morality, according to which we should govern our society.”

            And so do many, many theists who are able to distinguish between the objective and the subjective, for example, myself and all other Pagans, and also, I believe, Mr. Hunt.

          • Sven2547

            God is by definition necessary

            There’s some world-class circular logic right there.

          • Steve Willy

            Wow, you’re an atheist? You must be really smart. A real free thinker. Liberated by reason. Except, well…. Let’s put the faux-analytical hyperbole away for a while and look at reality: Kalaam Cosmological Argument, teleological argument, First Cause/Unmoved Mover, the impossibility of infinite causal regress, the necessity of at least one unconditioned reality, the Argument from Reason, Fine Tuning of Universal Constants, irreducible biological complexity, the argument from morality… While you sit there in your Hitchens-Dawkins parroting bubble and regurgitate pseudo-intellectual douchisms, your entire world view lies shattered at your feet. If you truly honor the gods of reason and critical thinking half as much as you claim, you would plant your face firmly into your hand, step away from the device, find a quiet place, and rethink your life.

          • Sven2547

            Wow, you’re an atheist? You must be really smart. A real free thinker. Liberated by reason.

            Who said anything like that? Not me.

            Let’s put the faux-analytical hyperbole away for a while and look at reality

            Yes, lets.

            Kalaam Cosmological Argument, teleological argument, First Cause/Unmoved Mover, the impossibility of infinite causal regress, the necessity of at least one unconditioned reality, the Argument from Reason, Fine Tuning of Universal Constants, irreducible biological complexity, the argument from morality

            Wait, I thought you wanted to move away from faux-analysis…

            While you sit there in your Hitchens-Dawkins parroting bubble and regurgitate pseudo-intellectual douchisms, your entire world view lies shattered at your feet.

            …and hyperbole.

            There is not one argument in your rambling blather that hasn’t already been addressed, refuted, and rejected by either science or philosophy. Further, there is not one thing in your copy-pasted diatribe that addresses the point I made in my original comment.

            In other words, you have a condescending stock response for everyone you think is an atheist, and you think this is an acceptable substitute for reasoned argumentation or addressing other people’s points.

            Ladies and gentlemen, the state of modern Christian apologetics.

          • Steve Willy

            Notwithstanding this steaming nugget of faux-analytical, pseudo-intellectual neck bearded blather, I think you tacitly know that my comment kicks atheism in the balls and leaves it curled up on the ground in a fetal position gasping for the air that it knows it doesn’t deserve but that it selfishly sucks down anyway to satisfy its solipsistic hedonism.

          • Robert Hunt

            I think you would need to flesh out these arguments if you want them to have a greater impact on your readers.

          • William J E Dempsey

            Patheos: most efforts like your own would be rejected as “purely semantic” word games, by serious philosophy.
            For example: “The resurrection of Jesus was a natural event in the sense that the deepest laws of nature are those which explain the relationship between God and creation.” Here you try to twist around the meaning of “natural” until it includes a supernatural God. That’s not right.
            You’ve just re-defined “nature” your own perverse way, to try to “win” your argument. With no justification of your special definition.
            Then “God by definition is necessary.” Really? I suppose you are invoking the “uncaused cause.” But today that argument is rejected as simply incoherent. Begging the question. If we ask “what is the origin of the universe,” and then assert that it must be something that was itself not caused? That simply begs the question of what caused the universe. And then too, it leaves us with an incoherency. What does is mean to say the universe was founded by something without a cause or origin? Analytic Philosophy would say “cannot be located in logical space.”
            All this delivered with your own serene cocksure certainty, moreover…. is just offensive.
            G

          • Robert Hunt

            You make some important clarifications. I note: 1. Faith is not a way of knowing the “natural” world in the sense you seem to mean it. It neither adds to nor corrects the results of science. I would tentatively suggest that faith is the means of knowing how the human person relates to reality as a whole. It involves not merely a known model of both humans and reality, but the choices one makes as to how to orient one’s self in relation to that model. Steven Weinberg, in his “Dreams of a Final Theory” has a chapter on why one chooses to live committed to developing a theory that can never be complete. I would call him a man of faith, albeit an atheist. 2. If one wishes to assert that God cannot be located in a logical space (as defined by analytic philosophy) that is probably non-different from asserting that God is God. The question is twofold. Is the logical space the only space? And is it adequate for human self-understanding?

            I’m not certain why you perceive my statements as “cocksure certainty.” I regard all philosophical statements as radically uncertain – as I note below with regard to Godel. In fact we reason as best we can then and live and die with the results. All that is certain is that we live, we die, and that there will be results. In any case I’m loath to assign emotional values that seems alien to a philosophical discussion. Yet I realize these are emotional issues. You might find the book “Wittgenstein’s Poker” interesting in this regard.

          • epredota

            Indeed, Robert. Many atheists who try to argue from a scientific basis seem unaware of Popper’s full set of definitions: there is science, pseudo-science, and non-science. Religion, and theism as a subset of it are, by definition, non-science. That some theists seek to appear scientific in using their theology to account for natural phenomena makes what they are attempting pseudo-science, and their approach mistaken. That some atheists seek to argue against theism as if it were in all its manifestations attempting to be science, or were by nature pseudo-science, makes them equally mistaken.

      • Zeke

        Faith, in short, is a way of knowing.

        No, faith is a way of pretending to know. It is the polar opposite of scientific reasoning, and presumes to provide knowledge about reality that has somehow eluded all the natural sciences. Miracles and the suspension of natural laws are at the very core of Christianity, no matter how hard you squint your eyes at it.

    • Herro

      >”Magic man done it” isn’t science. A hypothesized multi-universe, even if there is no way to test it at present, at least fits the paradigm (and might be testable in the future).

      Yes, and I’m pretty sure that the proponents of a multiverse have an appropriate level of humility when it comes to their idea, while theists on the whole seem to be pretty certain that their “magic man” exists.

      • Steve Willy

        Thanks for this steaming nugget of regurgitated pseudo-intellectual neck bearded blather, you Hitchens-Dawkins parroting, faux-analytical proto-basement dweller.

        • ortcutt

          I’m glad you decided to further the discussion in a fruitful and constructive manner. I keep hearing about these “rude atheists”, but nothing really compares to the venom that is directed at atheists (by conservative and liberal believers alike)

          • Steve Willy

            Why don’t you try again when you are able to articulate a non-question begging basis for your continued existence.
            If you are so confident in you neck bearded presuppositions, why are you even bothering to comment at all? No atheistic position can be taken seriously until two threshold questions can coherently be answered. 1. Why is the atheist even engaging in the debate. On atheism, there is no objective basis for even ascertaining truth; there is no immaterial aspect to consciousness and all mental states are material. Therefore, everyone who ever lived and ever will live could be wrong about a thing. By what standard would that ever be ascertained on atheism? Also if atheism is true, there is no objective meaning to existence and no objective standard by which the ‘rational’ world view of atheism is more desirable, morally or otherwise, to the ‘irrational’ beliefs of religion. Ridding the world of the scourge of religion, so that humanity can ‘progress’ or outgrow it, is not a legitimate response to this because on atheism, there is no reason to expect humanity to progress or grow. We are a historical accident that should fully expect to be destroyed by the next asteriod, pandemic, or fascist atheist with a nuke. In short, if atheism is correct, there is no benefit, either on an individual or societal level, to knowing this or to spreading such ‘knowledge.’ 2. Related to this, why is the atheist debater even alive to participate. If there is no heaven, no hell, no afterlife at all, only an incredibly window of blind pitiless indifference, then the agony of struggling to exist, seeing loved ones die, and then dying yourself can never be outweighed by any benefit to existing. As rude as it way sound (and I AM NOT advocating suicide) the atheist should have a coherent explanation for why they chose to continue existing. Failure to adequately address these threshold questions should result in summary rejection of the neckbeard’s position.

          • ortcutt

            You’ve made a great many claims, but somehow didn’t feel the need to justify any of them. There is an extensive literature on naturalistic epistemology and moral naturalism. If you want to find out about it, it’s out there, but I always get the feeling that people who make the sort of claims you’re making don’t actually want to learn. You just want to make yourself feel better about the claims that you’ve taken on faith. I think that’s why this so often results in the recitation of a series of unsupported claims and the puerile name-calling that you’ve engaged in.

          • Nick Winters

            I’ll bite, pointless though it may be. In regards to #1:

            “On atheism, there is no objective basis for even ascertaining truth; there is no immaterial aspect to consciousness and all mental states are material. Therefore, everyone who ever lived and ever will live could be wrong about a thing.”

            As an agnostic atheist, I would agree that the concept of absolutely knowing “truth” is similar to limits in calculus: you can approach it, but you can never truly reach it. And of course everyone who ever lived could easily be wrong about a thing.

            “Also if atheism is true, there is no objective meaning to existence”

            I agree. We create our own meaning for existence and overlay it on the existing world.

            “and no objective standard by which the ‘rational’ world view of atheism is more desirable, morally or otherwise, to the ‘irrational’ beliefs of religion.”

            You’re first mistake is that atheism is not a worldview. Rationalism is, however, so I’ll ignore that in favor of saying that you could test the outcomes of these modes of thinking to see which produces superior results. Of course, then we have to define what “superior” means, and there’s lots of room for rational disagreement there.

            “on atheism, there is no reason to expect humanity to progress or grow. We are a historical accident that should fully expect to be destroyed by the next asteriod, pandemic, or fascist atheist with a nuke. In short, if atheism is correct, there is no benefit, either on an individual or societal level, to knowing this or to spreading such ‘knowledge.’”

            Yep, progression is not a historical imperative, and we could certainly destroy ourselves. Anthropogenic Climate Change is an excellent example of how. Of course, the benefit to spreading knowledge IS to prevent that from happening. Also so that we can improve our standard of living and have longer, happier lives. And because knowing is fun! It’s rather silly to think just because progression is not *inevitable* it’s therefore pointless.

            “Related to this, why is the atheist debater even alive to participate. If there is no heaven, no hell, no afterlife at all, only an incredibly window of blind pitiless indifference, then the agony of struggling to exist, seeing loved ones die, and then dying yourself can never be outweighed by any benefit to existing.”

            1.) Biological imperatives: we are programmed with a survival instinct as a species, and I would need a specific reason to try to circumvent that.
            2.) Wow, your life must be incredibly painful! I’m sorry to hear that your loved ones have died, and you’ve suffered greatly in “struggling to exist”, and I’m glad that religion has given you an outlet for this suffering, but my life is pretty great. I’m not struggling to exist, I’m working in a job I love, having good relationships, having fun with life, and trying to make other peoples lives a little bit better too as a legacy. In short, the answer to your second proposition is: Life is fun, living is fun, and therefore I wish to continue with it. If everything in my life fell apart, I would probably fall back on the 1st point, but more likely I would simply find other sources of joy. There’s quite a lot of them out there; you should go searching for some.

    • graveyardmind

      Wow. Dr. Westley, your presentation of theism (not to mention science) is a challenging, bold, and nuanced analysis of what you
      clearly understand to be a complex philosophical topic contemplated by
      hundreds of the world’s most brilliant minds for thousands of years.
      Since I one day aspire to a similar deep intellectual investigation, may
      I ask you where you did your doctoral work and on which theologian(s)?

      • Brian Westley

        First, tell me how wonderful the emperor’s new clothes are.

        • Steve Willy

          Courter’s reply doesn’t work if you are arguing, as you have, that religion must be false because it’s teachings are incoherent or internally inconsistent. The position you have taken demands that you actually know something about the theological claims you are criticizing. Kind of like when Dawkins said God has to be incredibly complicated (and therefore, in his view, non-existent) in order to create such a complicated universe. This betrayed such an existential ignorance of the volumes that haver been written about Divine Simplicity, that no thinking theist could take him seriously after that.
          So in this case, you do need to know something about fashion to say the emperor has no clothes. Otherwise, you can’t rule out the possibility that he is wearing something you’re just too ignorant to recognize as clothing.

          • Brian Westley

            Courter’s reply doesn’t work if you are arguing, as you have, that religion must be false because it’s teachings are incoherent or internally inconsistent.

            I wasn’t, but since you’re only here to vomit out insults, it really doesn’t matter.

    • Steve Willy

      If you are so confident in your neck bearded presuppositions, why are you even bothering to comment at all? No atheistic position can be taken seriously until two threshold questions can coherently be answered. 1. Why is the atheist even engaging in the debate. On atheism, there is no objective basis for even ascertaining truth; there is no immaterial aspect to consciousness and all mental states are material. Therefore, everyone who ever lived and ever will live could be wrong about a thing. By what standard would that ever be ascertained on atheism? Also if atheism is true, there is no objective meaning to existence and no objective standard by which the ‘rational’ world view of atheism is more desirable, morally or otherwise, to the ‘irrational’ beliefs of religion. Ridding the world of the scourge of religion, so that humanity can ‘progress’ or outgrow it, is not a legitimate response to this because on atheism, there is no reason to expect humanity to progress or grow. We are a historical accident that should fully expect to be destroyed by the next asteriod, pandemic, or fascist atheist with a nuke. In short, if atheism is correct, there is no benefit, either on an individual or societal level, to knowing this or to spreading such ‘knowledge.’ 2. Related to this, why is the atheist debater even alive to participate. If there is no heaven, no hell, no afterlife at all, only an incredibly window of blind pitiless indifference, then the agony of struggling to exist, seeing loved ones die, and then dying yourself can never be outweighed by any benefit to existing. As rude as it way sound (and I AM NOT advocating suicide) the atheist should have a coherent explanation for why they chose to continue existing. Failure to adequately address these threshold questions should result in summary rejection of the neckbeard’s position.

      • ortcutt

        “On atheism, there is no objective basis for even ascertaining truth;
        there is no immaterial aspect to consciousness and all mental states are
        material.”

        You need to actually provide an argument why (People are material -> No epistemic status for beliefs/claims). So far, it’s just a bare non sequitur. The frequency which with this claim is made without support by non-naturalists doesn’t count as justification.

        • Steve Willy

          Guess again, neck beard boy. It’s your burden to establish how some rocks and water can get struck by lighting and ultimately, through the mystical force of Deep Time, turn into something that can draw accurate conclusions about ultimate reality.
          Your entire argument presuposes the existence of a mind-independent reality, which you have no right to assume in the absence of monothesim.
          This is the kick to the balls that atheism can never regain it’s breath from.

          • ortcutt

            It would be very unlikely indeed that organisms would evolve such that their representations of the world were grossly at odds with the world. Of course, our senses and our inferences aren’t entirely accurate. That’s why we needed to invent instruments and correct our reasoning by identifying biases and using statistical methods. The argument doesn’t assume a mind-independent reality. An externalist about justification can simply say that if there is one, then our claims are justified. If there isn’t, then they aren’t. I’m really unclear what kick to the balls you’re referring to.

            I really don’t understand why people think naturalistic philosophers have never thought about these issues. It’s quite weird, and I still don’t understand why you feel the need to lower the level of the discussion.

          • Steve Willy

            Because your entire world view is incoherent and yet you come into comboxes and jam it down everyone’s throat. But otherwise, thanks for your steaming pile of regurgitated, pseudo-intellectual douchisms, you Hitchens-Dawkins parroting, science worshipping, neck bearded poser.

          • Robert Hunt

            While I appreciate any effort to engage in dialogue, I think you could raise the tone a bit. Philosophies don’t kick each other in the balls.

          • Steve Willy

            But philosophers can and, in certain rare instances like this, should.

          • William J E Dempsey

            Unless say, the mind is a material thing; like an electronic impulse in a computer. Then we have a non dualistic materialism. One that can explain the mind as well as more obvious matter.

          • Steve Willy

            Not really because then we would BE our chemically and electrically-grounded mind states and there would be no overarching “I” to interpret them and say “I am depressed,” “I am in love,” “I am drunk,” etc. We would have no way to contrast the various chemical or electrical patterns and draw distinctions between them, because we would be nothing more than them, under the view you proposed.

          • William J E Dempsey

            So there can’t be a forest, because of the trees?
            So we can’t teach a computer to say “I the computer, say this”? That would be a very simple phrase to program in. Or indeed, it would be simple enough to program in a central “self.”

          • Steve Willy

            There would no inner qualia. It would be a zombie. And I think you know this, which is what makes your faux-analytical obfuscations so shameful. I’d like to think we are more than that but the crap you keep pulling out makes me wonder. Time for you to stfu with your faux-analytical, pseudo-philosophical sophistry. Ultimate reality isn’t some award that goes to the one who can string together the largest number of esoteric concepts

  • DC Rambler

    You are speaking after a careful pursuit of information about both faith and science and this article is what you have learned up to this point. If you were to write on the same subject a year from now I would think that it would be a different article. Just like a flowing river, as new information and discoveries come our way we rethink our deeply held thoughts and truths and if they no longer stand up to close scrutiny and sound reason we turn the page. We should never feel comfortable and satisfied as if we have all there is to know. Peace

  • Psycho Gecko

    I would have pointed out that belief in miracles as evidence of god is something we speak out against because it’s such a common thing we have to face when talking to most theists, but it sounds like you’re not actually interested in that. Judging from these comments, you appear to be attempting to redefine science and the natural world to allow you to claim that supernatural events are scientific. In this respect, you appear no more intellectually honest than a Young Earth Creationist.

    So in your mind, miracles don’t happen. You would just try to redefine the (easily debunked) “Miracle at Fatima” or the holy bodies of saints (preserved and covered in wax) as natural events.

    And if not, where do the miracles end and your “natural” events begin? Are talking snakes and donkeys too supernatural for you to redefine as natural? What about unicorns? If a man dying and coming back to life is a natural event to you, what about walking on water or parting a sea? If some obviously supernatural events count as natural to you, then where do you draw the line?

    • Robert Hunt

      I’m trying to point out that the word “supernatural” is misleading. It suggests a distinction between “nature” and something above or greater than nature that sometimes (rather unpredictably) overthrows natural laws. As noted in the comments above, the scope for this claim is narrowing constantly as we discover the complex causalities that create the observable world. A “God of the gaps” increasingly has no gaps in which to exist. So I am no young earth creationist. I don’t see a gap there for God. Nor do I see any point in defending the historicality of events such as the parting of the Red Sea. Leaving aside the problems of literary interpretation what evidence could be offered to support it that wouldn’t have a dozen other more commonplace interpretations.

      The events you mention, and the resurrection, are certainly not scientific in the normal sense of the word. And I would never claim that they are. This doesn’t mean that they are not natural. It simply denies the distinction implicit in the terms “nature” and “supernature.” And, as I noted, suggests that while science generates true statements about nature, it does not generate all true statements about nature. Other methods of knowing are necessary to grasp the fullness of what is natural.

      So let me review. Reality is a seamless whole. Science comprehends part but not all of that whole. Philosophy and Theology are necessary complements of science to comprehend the whole. If someone prefers based on experience or reason to think that science fully comprehends reality then there really isn’t a point in further conversation.

      • William J E Dempsey

        Likely many things thought “supernatural” are 1) natural events, misunderstood. Others however, are likely2) phantasms. Or natural events radically misrepresented by religion.
        Therefore to issue an apparent blanket endorsement of Christianity, or even a widespread endorsement, likely embraces – even deifies – far too much falsehood.

  • ahermit

    One might posit the possibility of something like a multi-verse but I don’t imagine there are too many people out there who claim to know that such a thing exists , much less that they have intimate knowledge of its characteristics. Yet theists often claim such knowledge of God. It seems to me this is the big difference between a rational, naturalistic epistemology and faith The former knows when to admit it is speculating, the latter mistakes speculation for knowledge.

    • Robert Hunt

      The articles I’ve read on the multiverse claim to know a great deal about any alternative universe upon which the theorists turn their tools for mathematical analysis of its fundamental characteristics.

      • ahermit

        But they still, if they are doing it right, recognize that their conclusions are tentative; the mathematical analsis is always in terms of “If X, then Y”. See that first little two letter word there?

        That’s the one missing from the theist’s lexicon.

        And no one ever told me I was damned if I don’t believe in the multiverse….or tried to legislate morality for other people in the name of the multiverse

      • Nick Winters

        Don’t mistake anything written in Scientific American for scientific writing. These articles are written by science journalists who routinely misunderstand the actual implications of the science they misrepresent.

  • ortcutt

    “Even within the ads it is clear that those who placed them apparently do
    not understand either the basis for theism or a theistic understanding
    of morality.”

    What is either ‘the basis for theism” or “the theistic understanding of morality”? I think you’ll find that atheists are very interested in purported “bases for theism”. It’s just that those on offer are found severely wanting. Furthermore, a theistic understanding of morality doesn’t get off the ground if there is no basis for theism.

    Modern ethical inquiry seems to be getting along just fine completely ignoring what theologians have to say on ethical matters. There is a lot of interesting work being done by meta-ethicists today, but none of relates to anything that theologians are talking about. Furthermore, I don’t know of any church (even UUs) who spend their Sunday mornings having discussions of moral epistemology or cognitivism vs. non-cognitivism. It’s not so much that modern ethical inquiry denies religion as much as it just ignores it and doesn’t seem any worse for doing so.

    • Robert Hunt

      I would never suggest that you cannot engage in ethical reasoning absent a belief in God. I would suggest that for the work of modern ethical inquiry to be operationalized it will need to move from an isolated academia to a real world full of religious people. Of course ethicists can sneer at their naive beliefs and retrograde moral codes. But that isn’t likely to make the world a better place. Real world ethics needs to be in dialogue with social realities, and these include alternative epistemological assumptions. Otherwise it will sink into increasing irrelevance.

      • ortcutt

        Ethicists tend not the be the sneering type, and they certainly ought to understand that there are people who believe there are non-empirical ways of justifying knowledge, e.g. intuition, etc…. However, believing that there are non-empirical ways of justifying knowledge doesn’t necessarily make it so. Moral epistemology is one of the fundamental issues at question in meta-ethics.

      • William J E Dempsey

        But is catering to popular misunderstanding really good, in the longer run? Probably more is lost at this point, than gained.
        Then too, today the public is better educated. And used to atheism and science. And so it would increasingly allow a simply rational presentation.
        Catering to past beliefs very much, may be behind the times. And reactionary.

  • Daniel

    No, dialogue is not necessary. You go ahead and ponder the “experiential basis for human knowing of reality.” The rest of us will explore space, invent new technologies that will enhance and expand our lives, cure diseases, and make society better. Please stay out of the way.

    • Robert Hunt

      Alas, even if I personally was willing to “stay out of the way” the reality is that theism, and religion more broadly, will insistently play a role in the formation of human society. Given the present robust, and worldwide presence of religious reasoning that affects every aspect of how scientists do their work doesn’t it make sense to engage that reality instead of simply dismissing it? Should science triumph in some imagined utopia of observation based rationalism then perhaps we’ll all be better off. In the meantime dialogue is probably better, and it can only take place by at least acknowledging the epistemological differences that exist between atheists and theists.

      • Steve Willy

        “Should science triumph in some imagined utopia of observation based rationalism”
        Pretty sure that was called the Soviet Union.

        • Sven2547

          The Soviet Union put politics before science over and over again.

    • Steve Willy

      Why would you expect, a priori, that any of those things are even attainable by mutated apes who ultimately owe their existence to lighting striking some rocks and water, and who have no hope of anything they ever do even potentially leaving a legacy beyond the eventual heat death of the universe?

      • William J E Dempsey

        Never heard of “progress” have you? Like criticizing science on a computer built by it?

        • Steve Willy

          Your comment is not responsive. I did not criticize “Science” (bowing head in quiet reverence). Perhaps you wish I did, because that is the battle you came here to fight. But I am asking you to consider the metaphysical predicates that allow “Science” to even think it exists. Again, why do you assume, a priori, that “Progress” (again bowing head in silent reverence) is even possible for a group of runaway chemical reactions? Can the intentionality needed to chose “Science” overy “superstition” even exist on a purely material worldview?

  • David J

    “Scientists generally (but not necessarily) recognize knowledge as something that derives from observation of the physical world, measurement, and strict mathematical forms of reason.

    Theists from across many religious traditions regard this definition of knowledge as too limiting. There are both things to be known, and human ways of knowing, that go beyond what can be observed, measured, and reasoned upon. Faith, in short, is a way of knowing.”

    This is the tired old argument that many snake-oil salesmen and con artists, (and many religious leaders, television evangelists, etc.) use to obtain money and power or both over other human beings. It is also largely a pseudo profession engaged in mostly by men who demand power over women, (see Roman Catholicism).

    Who is this Robert Hunt? Why are we being subjected to his speical pleadings for all the religious folks on this planet that come in the form of the tired old argument that there are “other ways of knowing”? As a layman, I can supply perhaps 50 or 100 examples of times in the past and even today, where those religious “other ways of knowing” were proved false by science and logical reasoning.

    It is, and always has been a bogus argument, and accounts for much of the history of Western humankind. From the naming of kings and Popes to the snake-dancers of Appalacia today, it’s all completely anti-intellectual bunk.

  • William J E Dempsey

    Some theologians are always claiming commonality or superiority to the theism Atheists critique

    But even the more “advanced” theologies turn out to be just as bad as the fundamentalist ones – or worse.

    For example? It was commonly thought that the heart of Liberal theology – Spirituality – offers a higher and better alternative to the Prosperity gospel that Fundies follow. But I’ve noted physically fatal problems even in spirituality itself (James 2.14-26).

    This Patheos article moreover, is apparently getting more specific criticisms, regarding its own specific theology/metaphysics.

    Some theologians are always claiming sympathy for science, atheism. Or they are claiming that there is some way they can co-opt science and atheism. By this or that sophistry. Finally though I feel there is only one theology that really matches science; and that specific theology simply calls for an “end” to traditional Christianity. Not endless continued defenses.

    For 2,000 years theologians have been playing semantic word-twisting games to try to reconcile irreconcilable views. But today, people are tired of that. Today more and more feel that the time for cheesy, sophistical co-option efforts is historically, over. Today, in the era in which a Dawkins can gain much public acceptance, it is time for far more direct criticisms of traditional Christianity. Not cheesy co-options.
    For example: “faith is a way of knowing. Faith seemingly here presented on the same level as science. Really? What if you have faith in Zeus? No problems there? Even Jesus himself finally told us that we should not “believe” in him or have faith in him; unless he shows material “works.”
    Yes, much of theology no longer believes in “miracles” so much (though even here the author plays word games). Most of them emphasize “spirit.” But the bible itself suggests that even too much spirituality is literally, physically fatal (James 2.14-16).
    The time for these endless, cheesy co-options, is over. The vain and continual presumption by “advanced’ theologians that they have answered all objections to they themselves, even to advanced science, is a pretty vain presumption, and nothing more.

  • David J

    Is this discussion still open for new posts? Why does a mathematician of world renown push his half-thought-out ideas like it’s some new form of rational, or irrational numbers? I read today four of this guy’s columns published here over the last few months. He seems to not know much about history, rational thought, or the concepts of imagination versus reality. He seems to have a claim to publish here simply because he once thought rationally enough to advance his intellectual career on a completely and severely confined level all about numbers, not gods, not ethics, not human history of thinking. Somehow he wants his credentials displayed as a badge of honor, when no really philosofphically deep thinking appears in his columns. Why are his intellectually lazy meanderings published here?

  • Y. A. Warren

    Very well balanced. Thank you.

    “it is precisely our sense of commonality with our fellow humans – family first, then clan, then society – that gives rise to our ethics.”

    And here is the challenge: How do we define the boundaries of each subset?

  • epredota

    I am so glad to see these questions of epistemology being addressed! As a post-phenomenological empiricist, a Pagan, and a qualitative researcher, I am constantly frustrated by the attempted scientisation of *everything*, which seems to be the only response the majority of the secular world are capable of in the face of fundamentalist, totalising religious claims. It is a form of black and white thinking, of which, as people claiming to be heirs of the scientific method, they should be ashamed of.