Doubts Aloud – Asking Why We Do This

Doubts Aloud – Asking Why We Do This February 23, 2018

Ed Atkinson is a friend from Wycombe Skeptics in the Pub who has also appeared on the Unbelievable radio programme on Premier Christian Radio in the UK. He has decided to start up a podcast, which I would like to support. Here are his reasons for doing so. This dovetails quite nicely with my post the other day: Why Do This? What Motivates Me? An Analysis….

Why Start a Podcast on Reason, Religion and Doubt?

With great excitement, I have started a new podcast called Doubts Aloud with two friends. It covers themes of Reason, Religion and Doubt from the perspective of (hopefully respectful) non-believers and addresses in particular Christianity due to our history and knowledge. It partly covers the territory left by Skepticule (now on hiatus) that Jonathan Pearce contributed to so well.

In the excitement, I was given a response by an earlier host of Skepticule, Paul Baird, who quite a while back ran out of enthusiasm for the whole idea of debating with believers. In fairness, Paul did two major debates on presuppositional apologetics with Sye Ten Bruggencate on the Christian Premier Radio Unbelievable show and podcast, which would tax anyone. It seemed to be the last straw for Paul.

Here’s what Paul said of our new venture: “I think this is one of the reasons why I left. There comes a time when you have to consider what it is that you’re arguing against and why.”

So what am I arguing for/against and why?

The ‘what’ question is the easy one, but why am I doing this? Based on what I know of the brain, I can’t answer that. I know that I, as a human, often do things for reasons quite different from those I tell myself and so report to others, even when I’m trying to be honest. I have to be the hero of my story, my motives must be pure and my reasons noble, especially here in a public blog. So while I’ll now give you my heroic reasons, it’s best if you don’t believe me.

I’ll make two claims to cover my noble reasons: “Beliefs Matter” and “We Can Change Beliefs”

Beliefs Matter

Here, I was originally inspired by hearing about the essay – “The Ethics of Belief” – written in 1877 by Cambridge mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford. Clifford was more robust than the New Atheists as he laid in. He claimed that having beliefs without basing them on evidence is immoral. He talked of a man (this was Victorian England) who is “purposely avoiding the reading of books and the company of men who call in question” his presuppositions, Clifford then judges “the life of that man is one long sin against mankind”.

I won’t set out all of Clifford’s case here, I’ll just be using some of his ideas. I recommend this article by the wonderful Arif Ahmed, writing in the Times Literary Supplement: “The sin of believing”.

Our beliefs matter because they help direct our actions. Clifford famously used the story of a passenger ship owner who believed his ship to be safe and sold tickets for a passage to New York. The ship sunk due to its faults, so here the ship owner’s beliefs led to disastrous consequences. This was only a story, but Clifford himself actually was the survivor of a shipwreck.

A real and relevant case for our Doubts Aloud podcast is beliefs about homosexuality. If lesbian or gay sex is indeed an immoral act harming the participants, damaging wider society and maybe even displeasing God Himself leading to their judgement in Hell, then the consequences of promoting sexual freedoms will be dire and harmful. But if it is the conservative Christian beliefs on homosexuality that are incorrect, then the well-intended Christian campaigning is in fact very harmful to both individuals and society.

Some beliefs clearly do matter. Are there beliefs that do not matter, which do not impact on others? In theory, yes, any beliefs that do not inform our choices as we interact in the world. For example, I could merely believe a painting beautiful and have no consequent action, but if I believed the painting so valuable that I chose to buy it using money I could otherwise spend on my family then the belief would matter.

It is hard to maintain that our core religious beliefs do not matter, when seen this way. They set what we prioritise, what we put our energies into and how we act in the world.

Clifford’s drive was to introduce the moral aspect, which so far I have skirted around. His rickety shipowner was worthy of our moral condemnation, but exactly why? For Clifford, and I agree, it was because he made the wrong choices in deriving his belief about the safety of the ship. The owner actively suppressed his worries and he chose not to engage an expert. Clifford condemns those doing the same with their religious beliefs, people who leave beliefs unaffected by considerations of evidence and actively avoid voices from outside their echo chamber.

But I don’t need to go to ethics, I just want to highlight that beliefs do matter. I will, however, consider morals in another way completely. It is often the case that people who are naturally good people, who are kind and consider the welfare of wider society, are also those drawn to religion or to stay in religion. Usually, they don’t know it, but if they left their religion they would still be that same kind person. However, their actions in the world would change as a result of their change in beliefs. For example, loving parents treat their children in apparently cruel ways when they feel that their children’s eternal destiny is at stake and this life is just a preliminary test. Hence more accurate beliefs even in good loving people will lead to actions which benefit their loved ones and wider society. If Doubts Aloud can help some good people on that journey, then we will have contributed.

This also has a wider and long-term aspect. For example, our beliefs in Europe about witches have changed since the 17th century. Those responsible for moving forward society’s views on witchcraft have caused great benefit to all of us.

So beliefs do matter and so changing beliefs matters.

We Can Change Beliefs

The claim here is that our small and heroic podcasting efforts will change beliefs. But wait …… it is a podcast by atheists, do we even have beliefs? I use the word ‘belief’ as Clifford himself does. Here is his famous principle that his essay proposed and defended:

“It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

So beliefs for Clifford are what we reckon to be a good or true representation of reality, and they can and should be based on evidence. I take ‘beliefs’ that way.

First I’d better say what the beliefs are that we are promoting. That is the ‘what’ aspect of Phil Baird’s question. Like Clifford, the Doubts Aloud podcasters (Frances Janusz, Andrew Whyte and I) are arguing for basing beliefs on evidence and reason. That is the bedrock. If it turns out that evidence and reason end up pointing to a God, then I’ll believe in God. But actually, we have all spent a lot of time and effort deriving our beliefs about reality using evidence and reason, in two of our cases this has resulted in a complete reversal of worldview, deconverting from Christianity. The beliefs we are promoting are of course those around naturalism, though we probably differ in a lot of the details. It helps to have something positive as your stance even if held tentatively, something that you can be proved wrong about and change. But what we are being ‘evangelistic’ about is the importance of subjecting beliefs to scrutiny, to reason and to evidence. To have Doubts Aloud. And of course, we are not ourselves immune from doubting our current beliefs.

Podcasts and shows like The Atheist Experience and Reasonable Doubts do have a track record of changing people’s beliefs. Books like The God Delusion do as well. But one show, podcast or book is not going to cover everyone’s taste or personality or history. So having more materials in the marketplace of ideas is to be welcomed.

Many people do not consider their beliefs and are frightened of putting them under scrutiny, or they consider such scrutiny as sinful and disrespectful of God. For them, faith is a virtue. Such people are unlikely to engage with us. But people who do have doubts and choose to investigate them need resources. I had to join a theological library in an Oxford College. Today, things are much easier and podcasts are a perfect resource for some. When you are reading a book or watching a screen people can see the book cover or look over your shoulder at what you are up to. But a podcast is intimate and private, which is what some people will need in their journeys especially if their close family members are strong believers.

For our podcast, we want to be clear in our views and focus on evidence and reason, but we also want to do all we can to be positive and respectful of people, especially well-intentioned people who we think are mistaken. We think there is a space in the marketplace for that approach as it will appeal to certain tastes. It is also true to ourselves. Andrew and I married as Christians and our long-suffering wives are still believers. We love and respect them and they are worthy of it.

You will have detected an aspect of ‘outreach’ in my reasoning, like the preachers trying to come over into our world and ‘reach’ us by being ‘all things to all men’. Speaking for myself, not necessarily Frances and Andrew as well, I do think like that. I want to do all I can not to annoy believers who are having doubts, I want to help them. I am a missionary for reason and evidence!

If you are already a non-believer and loved shows like Reasonable Doubts, then please do give us a try. We hope that you’ll find it a relaxed and fresh take on counter-apologetics and a more scholarly approach to the Bible. We will talk together and have guests, including Christians.

Please will you indulge me as I give my final heroic take on our new venture… We have hopes that our efforts will go down well in the USA, where the negative impact of mistaken religious beliefs is especially obvious and widespread. Unlike radio stations, podcasts do cross national boundaries easily and Americans often do like British accents. Many are also sick of the US culture wars and will welcome a measured respectful tone from outsiders who are not trying to score cheap tribal points for their side. The podcast of the UK Unbelievable show I mentioned earlier, which typically pitches Christians and non-Christians in respectful debate, goes down exceptionally well in the USA. It represents the majority of the audience, I believe, and people report how there’s nothing equivalent in US media.

The massive loss of religious belief in the US over the last couple of decades has happened for a reason, a large part of which has been the availability of information on the internet and from the ‘New Atheists’. Podcasts are a component and we want to pitch into this heroic sweep of history with our niche offering.

But as I said, don’t believe me, I probably just want to indulge in self-promotion.

Ed Atkinson Feb 2018

Find the Doubts Aloud podcast in iTunes or your podcast app.

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