Stirring the Pot

It has been quiet here at SO lately. A little TOO quiet—as they used to say in the old Western movies. Maybe we are not saying anything very controversial. Or maybe people are just too busy with real work to do. Anyway, I thought I would stir the pot with some claims that I would like to see debated. I do not necessarily endorse either of these claims, but I would like to see them argued out. Luther had 95 theses. I will make do with two:

1) Further argument on theism vs. atheism issues is pointless because accumulating evidence indicates that religiosity is a deeply-rooted personality trait that is, in turn, neurologically based. Put simply, the brains of religious and non-religious people just work differently. Reasons, even if logically sound, serve the psychological purpose of post hoc rationalizations of beliefs that are physiologically determined. We should therefore stop wasting our time debating these issues and get on with something more useful, like figuring out how to get decent cable TV service.

2) Even if we think that rationality is still relevant to the discussion, we have to face the fact, as John Hick eloquently and cogently argued in An Interpretation of Religion, that reality is religiously ambiguous. That is, there are no reasons either for or against a religious interpretation of the world that are strong enough to convict theists or atheists of irrationality. Thousands of years of inconclusive argument should convince us that neither theists nor atheists are simply being obstinately unreasonable. No theistic or atheological argument is so strong as to simply checkmate the opposition. It is possible to reasonably refuse the conclusion of any such argument. Let us therefore embrace a pluralism that recognizes that naturalism is a rational option and that the various religious traditions are equally reasonable ways of responding to a putative transcendent reality.

The Theistic Arguments: A Brief Critique
Evolution vs. The Argument from Providence
Critical Thinking is Bigotry
Interview with Prof. Axgrind
About Keith Parsons
  • Mich H

    If 1 were true, there would be no conversions from deeply held religiosity to deeply held atheism. Since there are many of such, 1 is disproven.

    It’s too close to bedtime to tackle 2, so I will leave that to others.

    • Greg G.

      Seth Andrews, The Thinking Atheist, comes to mind. I was a creationist for almost two years but I got better.

    • Keith Parsons

      Mich H

      Not sure that 1 can be so easily dismissed. People are complex, and being clear on the meaning of “deeply held religiosity”–or non-religiosity–is crucial. Consider C.S. Lewis. He was a professed atheist before his conversion. Yet he confessed at one point that throughout his life he had strained to hear “the horns of fairyland.” This indicates a strong temperamental propensity towards the supernatural. Explicit beliefs often sit lightly on deeper, often tacit, doxastic propensities. When these deeper propensities are made explicit, cognitive dissonance follows. Converts often report a deep sense of fulfillment or authenticity when they convert. Perhaps this is because they have thereby made their explicit beliefs consonant with their deep, visceral convictions.

      I know this works the other way. I experienced a great sense of relief–as though a great weight had been lifted–when I finally admitted to myself that I was an atheist. I was no longer required to constantly prop up a conscious profession of what, deep down, I was convinced was bunk.

      Even if there are case of genuine conversion from beliefs that are genuinely “deeply held,” we need statistics, not anecdotes. It may be that such conversions are so rare as to be insignificant. For many, belief or unbelief may be a matter of strong disposition, but not strict determinism. People strongly disposed towards having a short temper can, with much effort (I speak from experience), learn self-control. Likewise, perhaps individuals strongly disposed to belief or nonbelief can be converted, at least temporarily.

      Belief and unbelief are strongly connected with deep features of one’s personality, features that may be too deep to be much affected by rational argument.

      • Mich H

        I also felt deep fulfilment when I admitted that I could no longer believe in any form of god. I also felt deep fulfilment when I was a Christian. I felt that way the first time I fell in love (and the second, and the third, etc), when I was reunited with my dog after several months out of the country, when my divorce was finalized, when I married again. I don’t consider that sensation of deep fulfilment to be evidence of anything other than the state of my emotions at that given time. Certainly I don’t see it as evidence that the things I believed at the time of that emotion were true, or that they somehow were meant to go with my personality.

        Temperament isn’t fixed. Emotions are ephemeral. Beliefs change. I have also struggled with major depression and anxiety, so I’m very aware of how malleable the mind really is.

        Unfortunately I have no statistics to offer. Only my own experience and observations.

  • Greg G.

    On 2) If god is omnipotent, then he could do any number of miracles to prevent all suffering. Therefore suffering is unnecessary. Since there is suffering, the omnipotent god has made that choice which is tantamount to sadism. Why would we worship a sadistic god?

    If god is less than sufficiently powerful to prevent suffering, why does the effect of prayer disappear when confirmation bias is controlled for? If god can’t prevent suffering or answer prayers, why pray?

    Why would an existent being have to be conceived as being fundamentally undetectable by empirical testing?

    Why call him god?

  • Chris Hallquist

    On (2), it’s been a long time since I’ve tried reading any Hick, but your claims here seem far from clear. In particular:

    “Thousands of years of inconclusive argument should convince us that neither theists nor atheists are simply being obstinately unreasonable.”

    But the current situation is that a strong majority of philosophers are atheists, to a degree that’s very unusual on contentious philosophical issues. They’re not only much more atheistic than the general public, but also significantly more atheistic than fields that haven’t made it their business to examine arguments for and against the existence of God. This can be easy to forget if you focus only on the philosophers who actively publish on philosophy of religion, but it’s worth remembering that many mainstream atheist philosophers do not take philosophy of religion seriously, and consider the existence of God a settled issue.

    Furthermore, when you look at their arguments, it seems plausible that theistic philosophers are just being obstinately unreasonable. This is especially true of responses to the problem of evil. When Swinburne suggests that maybe the Holocaust was a good thing because it gave the Jews an opportunity to show courage, or when Plantinga’s followers try to wave away objections by claiming there’s a consensus that Plantinga largely solved the problem of evil (when really no such consensus exists), are we really supposed to take for granted that these are reasonable responses?

    • Keith Parsons


      It is true that the majority of professional philosophers at the present time are nonbelievers. However, just being a professional philosopher does not mean that one has examined the arguments with any care. A specialist in the philosophy of science, for instance, might just dismiss theistic arguments (some of those I knew at Pitt did). Further, theists do remain a significant minority among professional philosophers. Further, in the past, the situation was reversed. Spinoza and Hume were not–certainly not in any conventional sense–religious, but Bacon, Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, and a host of lesser lights were believers.

      Are Swinburne and Plantinga just being obstinate about the problem of evil? Well, they do say some fatuous things on occasion, as you note with Swinburne. If you follow Swinburne’s “logic” you could say that unleashing the zombie apocalypse would be a good thing since the survivors could demonstrate loads of courage and other virtues. I do not think that Plantinga “solves” the problem of evil at all, but he may have give theists tools to rationally resist atheological arguments from evil. For instance he says that, since we cannot know the “counterfactuals of freedom,” we cannot know for sure that God could have created a world with creatures with “significant freedom” where such beings would freely choose less evil than they choose in this world. Now, of course, you have to buy into a whole metaphysical scheme to accept all this stuff about “counterfactuals of freedom,” etc., but all Plantinga has to show is that it is not irrational for theists to accept such a scheme, and he can just defy you show that it is.

      When pressed, Plantinga gives a more personal answer. He is appalled by the sheer magnitude of evil, but, he says, that when he reflects on the sufferings of Christ, the atonement, the love of God, etc. he is convinced of the goodness of God and that, sub specie aeternitatis, all will be well. Now, you or I will roll our eyes or gag when we hear such a confession, but such reactions are not arguments. In the movie “The Hiding Place” the Corrie Ten Boom character–in a concentration camp–affirms that however deep the evil is, God’s love is deeper still. Corny? Implausible? Maybe, but, not having been in such circumstances myself, I would not pronounce it irrational.

      • Chris Hallquist

        It would be odd, in any field, to appeal to what people believed over 200 years ago to make a point about where the state of the evidence lies today. But in philosophy of religion, there’s the additional problem that the heyday of philosophical theism was a time when it wasn’t safe to be anything but an orthodox believer. Spinoza dared not publish the Ethics during his lifetime; the same goes for Hume’s Dialogues. What nobody seems to appreciate in these discussions is that the history of philosophy of religion is the history of orthodox persecution of any and all deviations from orthodoxy. As soon as it became safe (circa 1800) to question that orthodoxy, philosophers did so in great numbers.

        As for Plantinga on the problem of evil, the problem is not so much Plantinga’s claim that people sometimes making bad choices as the fact that that doesn’t help at all with the problem of evil in the form most people care about. It’s one thing to let the Nazis decide to try to commit genocide; it’s another thing to allow them to be so successful at it. Plantinga’s argument doesn’t help at all with the second problem, but this doesn’t stop a great many people who should know better waving Plantinga round like a talisman to ward off any form of the PoE that isn’t couched in sophisticated probabilistic terms.

        • Keith Parsons


          Thanks for your responses. Glad to see some action on this site again!

          I think C.S. Lewis actually had a good point with his remark about “the parochialism of the present.” True, we would not try to advance an argument in chemistry today by appealing to John Dalton. However, a distinctive thing about philosophy as opposed to chemistry is that old arguments sometimes have contemporary relevance.

          Be that as it may, the point I raised was not the truth of theism, but its rationality. My point was that Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley, and Locke were nobody’s fools (yeah, Berkeley was a bit strange with that tar-water stuff). Were they rational believers in their day? If they were, and if there are no longer any rational believers, then the situation with respect to the evidence or arguments must have changed significantly since then. What has changed?

          Well, there was Darwin, of course. Dawkins says that only after Darwin could you be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.Also you have modern cosmology and (perhaps most significantly) the evidence from neuroscience. I am not claiming that the evidence atheists can adduce is no stronger now than 300 years ago. Also, again, I am not saying that I regard any of the arguments of natural theology as the least bit persuasive. I am just noting that to convict someone of irrationality, you have to shoulder a pretty heavy burden of proof.

          My view of rationality is that it has to do with epistemic rights and duties. To say that theist is within his epistemic rights in believing in God is a pretty weak claim and to say that he is in violation of his epistemic duties is a very strong one. As I see it, to make the claim that theists are irrational, you have the burden of pointing to specific epistemic duties that they have failed to meet, and this is not an easy job.

    • PDH

      I agree. I think that what I’m going to call ‘sensible priors’ and strong evidential arguments of the sort defended by Lowder here, pretty much do settle the debate in favour of atheism; and strong emotional and psychological commitments to theism, as well as various cognitive biases, more or less fully account for the continued disagreement.

      Take the following hypothesis: Treeism. Treeism is the belief that the universe grew like a seed on a magic, celestial tree, which has always existed. Now, as far as I can see, this isn’t significantly less plausible than theism, yet nearly everyone is tacitly an atreeist. A case could even be made that Treeism has a higher prior probability than Theism and it is certainly the case that it is more consistent with evidence like suffering, religious confusion, evolution etc. than Theism is (e.g. there is no reason to think that a Tree would care about how much suffering there is, one way or the other). It’s true that there are no arguments in favour of Treeism but give Treeologians with psychological, emotional, and if (1) is to believed, neurological commitments to Treeism, the same length of time to develop them and I guarantee that they will have something that is at least as impressive as Anselm’s Ontological Argument to show for it at the end.

      We haven’t spent the last few thousand years arguing with Treeologians about Treeism because we didn’t evolve to explain things in terms of trees, we evolved to explain things in terms of human-like agents. That’s it. That’s the reason we’re having these arguments. Theism should be like Treeism. It should be something that never even occurred to us in the first place. Just one of the presumably trillions and trillions and possible explanations that isn’t even worth considering because it’s just so improbable. If you were as motivated to defend Treeism as some people are to defend Theism, you would find a way of doing it. If you had all of their resources, and if the bulk of the population was neurologically, as well as culturally, predisposed to agree with you, I daresay you’d find it relatively easy to make your position look no less reasonable than Mormonism.

      Yet I maintain that someone who wasn’t afflicted to the same degree would be able to see through it without any serious difficulty.

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