[Turing] Atheist Answer #12

This post is part of the Ideological Turing Test Challenge. Go to the tab above for an overview and remind yourself of the voting and commenting guidelines here.

What’s your best reason for being an atheist?

Well, when it comes to not believing in god(s) generally, it’s not primarily the lack of evidence, it’s the lack of additional explanatory power. If religion were true and compelling, it should be a better guide to living than atheism, and it shouldn’t just be better for me, it should be strictly preferable for everyone. A religion could demonstrate its truth by explaining something empirical better than competing models (just like the Copernican model explained retrograde orbits better than the status quo), but I don’t know any claims of that type a religion has been able to stake out and hold. Generally, the good bits of philosophy I’m offered work all right without their religious justification, so I can incorporate them without being sold on the bigger picture.
In addition to the faiths that make Camping-esque falsifiable claims, I find some religions implausible because their soteriology seems incoherent or indefensible. I can’t muster any desire to care about a God who only cares about a small seemingly arbitrary group of people (whether it’s the god of the Jews or of the Calvinists). The non-universalist Christian sects have never given me answers that seem reasonable. Once you accept the idea that sin warps people’s characters, it seems hard to argue that it’s possible for most people to redeem themselves, so either everyone’s off to Hell or no one is.

What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to believe in God? If you believed in some kind of god, what kind of evidence would be necessary to convince you to join a particular religion?

See above, at least insofar as the increased predictive value = evidence for the soundness of a model. I’ll admit I probably set a higher than possible to clear standard when it comes to personal experiences of the divine, including any that could happen to me. (If you read Radley Balko’s blog, or anything put out by The Innocence Project, it’s hard to put too much stock in eyewitness accounts).

I wouldn’t push skepticism all the way to assuming superintelligent and super powerful aliens so as not to concede a God that had performed miracles in a religious setting. It just seems implausible I would be converted by showy miracles, even if a god existed. Most people aren’t and I have no reason to expect I’ll get special treatment. I’d expect to be persuaded by more scholarly-type apologetics, but that’s where I run into another problem…

That’s not an accessible line of argument for most people, so a god who’s giving people a fair shot to convert (and not just husbanding a tiny group of Elect) must have something else out there that’s more universally accessible and persuasive. I have no idea what that’s supposed to be.

When you have ethical and moral disputes with other people, what do you appeal to? What metric do you use to examine your moral intuitions/cultural sensibilities/etc?

I think people have strong, mostly right moral intuitions. We spend a lot of time arguing edge cases, but most moral choices aren’t that hard to judge. Most of the work I do in argument is trying to suss out what the choice entails, so we don’t cause harm through neglect or negligent ignorance or insensitivity toward the needs of others.

I find it easiest to approach these questions through the lens of building up the habits of good character. Thus, if I see a friend or coworker alone and a little forlorn, it’s true I’m not harming them by just going on with my day and it’s plausible that someone else will stop and support them. But I want to be the kind of person who is a bulwark for others and who is so attuned that I can just act and be kind without so much analysis, so I should try to be of service now, so I don’t model laziness and aloofness for myself or others.

Why is religion so persistent? We have had political revolutions, artistic revolutions, an industrial revolution, and also religious reformations of several kinds, but religion endures. Does this not suggest its basic truth?

Plenty of bad ideas, including much worse ideas than religion (like, oh, sexism) have staying power. There are plenty of reasons for this (evolutionary detritus, structures of power, inertia, etc) but I won’t dwell on them, since I mostly just reject the premise of the question. Religion has gone through a lot of revolutions; the supposed one true Church instituted by Christ has crazed and fractures into hundreds of sects. And even within sects, worship and theology have changed substantially (remember when laypeople didn’t study scripture? Or when marriage wasn’t so much a noble calling as the least bad option for people who couldn’t live up to celibacy?).

Claiming religion broadly as a unique constant through human civilization is like pointing out that language or story-telling has persisted. It’s interesting that a broad pattern has continued in various permutations, but that’s very different than claiming some specific instance of the genre gets to stake a claim to the quality of persistence.

Voting opens Friday afternoon

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17467675780212523820 Brandon Jaloway

    "That’s not an accessible line of argument for most people, so a god who’s giving people a fair shot to convert (and not just husbanding a tiny group of Elect) must have something else out there that’s more universally accessible and persuasive."Well, as a Catholic, I believe that the God does have many other, more universally accessible, and more persuasive ways to reveal himself. First of all, he built it into our hearts to seek him. That is why every culture, in every age, has always striven toward the spiritual, the transcendent. If I am not mistaken (and forgive me if I presume too much) that is why your own heart longs for something more transcendent in marriage and in your relationship with your boyfriend. We sense, deep within our hearts, every one of us, that there is more driving us than just animal instincts, than just inert matter.And this sense of "mostly right moral intuitions", where does that come from? Do our hearts not long for right and shun wrong? Are these not spiritual realities that are built deep into who we are?Do we not, all of us, on some level, strive for that which is, one, true, beautiful, good? Are these not transcendent realities?Are not justice, honesty, and order spiritual realities?And love? Is love something we can reduce to biology? Every facet, type, level, expression of human love reduced to an almost mechanical pursuit of the propagation of our own DNA? That just seems like such a horrible reduction (not to mention, at least in my mind, a logical impossibility).

  • http://freethinker.typepad.com Nathan Smith

    Leah writes: "When it comes to not believing in god(s) generally, it’s not primarily the lack of evidence, it’s the lack of additional explanatory power.""Additional"… to what? That's the problem with this argument. Of course, "atheism" per se is not a theory, so I would assume that Leah has some more positive theory in mind. I'll make a guess what that theory is and call it Natural Sciences Plus Common Sense. She doesn't think the Christian religion has any explanatory power beyond what Natural Science Plus Common Sense has to offer. But, just for starters, how can natural science explain our experience of free will? How can the phenomena of right and wrong be accounted for in microphysical terms? What are ideas, if everything is only atoms? The reductionism of the natural sciences leaves us with too impoverished an ontology to explain all sorts of things that common sense tells us exist.More explanatory power is not really what Christianity has to offer, at least, not at first. But it is able to ratify a lot of things from common sense that the reductionism of the natural sciences cannot. Of course, "common sense" is a hodgepodge of wisdom and prejudice and hearsay, and in need of enlightenment through reason, and, well, through Christianity. Leah writes of "building up the habits of good character." I would suggest that she think more about what this means, and then try to give a really thorough, adequate account of all the entities (e.g., honesty, love, justice) which the exercise forces her to name without drawing on an ontology richer than that which the natural sciences have to offer.If she cannot, it would certainly not follow that Christianity is true. But it would follow that she lacked an adequate answer to the "additional… to what?" question and therefore that when she claimed that theism lacked "additional explanatory power" she– I mean no disrespect; I am merely characterizing the situation as precisely as I can– did not know what she was talking about. It would be interesting to see what she would do next.

  • http://freethinker.typepad.com Nathan Smith

    One more thing. I was struck by this comment:"I’d expect to be persuaded by more scholarly-type apologetics, but that’s where I run into another problem… That’s not an accessible line of argument for most people, so a god who’s giving people a fair shot to convert (and not just husbanding a tiny group of Elect) must have something else out there that’s more universally accessible and persuasive. I have no idea what that’s supposed to be."This is a profound comment on the question, *cur deus homo*, why did God become man? God’s problem in a nutshell. You're an omnipotent, omniscient, loving Being Who loves Your wayward creatures despite all their sins, Who wants to bring them to perfection and bless them with eternal life. How do You get the message through to them? Miracles? But miracles *per se* have no logical connection with those of Your attributes they most need to know about, e.g., faithfulness, wisdom, love. Arguments? But those must be channeled through the highly imperfect instrument of human language, and no matter how good they are, many will fail to understand them. At the risk of irreverence, I see the Old Testament partly as a comedy of errors, a story of perpetual misunderstandings, as God's attempts to make Himself known to his chosen people– and through them to the whole world– sometimes work but often go astray, to the point where the very Mosaic law by which He had sought to raise Israel above the cruelty and debauchery and superstition of paganism was turned into an excuse for pride and bigotry by the chief priests and scribes and Pharisees of 1st-century Judea.And so, at last, God became man. That was the "universally accessible and persuasive" device by which He brought the message of love and forgiveness to all nations. Of course He did not take away people's free will; some still refuse to repent and accept the divine gift. I can understand Leah being troubled by that. But surely it's clear, at least, that the Incarnation has not reached only a narrow clique of intellectuals, as the best "scholarly-type apologetics" might be expected to do. He reaches out to us not only intellectually, but physically, through the sacraments. Isn't it striking how the sacrament of marriage, say, or the festival of Christmas, still holds power over the hearts of post-Christian modern people? Isn't it striking how Masses and relics and stained glass windows could bring to tears even those mostly illiterate violent of the Middle Ages, the knights? It's no shame that Leah has "no idea what that [way of reaching everyone] is supposed to be." It took the wisdom of God Himself to discern how to bring salvation to fallen mankind. Even the angels (I think it is said) looked with amazement upon it.

  • http://freethinker.typepad.com Nathan Smith

    By the way, on the same theme, consider the contrasting answers of Mary (a) when she hears the annunciation from the angel Gabriel, and (b) when she is greeted by her cousin Elizabeth. To the angel Gabriel she says merely "Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word." (Luke 1:38) A worthy answer, but merely meek and submissive, not exultant. It seems to me that the glory of what was to happen was not really brought home to her until her cousin Elizabeth greeted her with the words, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy." (Luke 1:42-44)Only then does Mary offer that beautiful hymn, the Magnificat, which is, perhaps, of all words ever spoken by human tongue, second only to the teachings of Jesus Himself in its beauty and the unfathomable depths of its wisdom. It was only then that she *really* understood. It is not easy even for the best of us fleshly mortals to commune with angels and immortal spirits. We need to hear it from our own kind."No net less wide than a man's whole heart, nor less fine of mesh than love, will hold the sacred Fish." (C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms)

  • Scott Maddox, CPA

    Your very first sentence, “Well, when it comes to not believing in god(s) generally, it’s not primarily the lack of evidence, it’s the lack of additional explanatory power. “, is a logical fallacy.

    The fact is, when it comes to not believing in god(s), the lack of evidence IS the primary reason.


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