Must we fight about fighting?

Today is the LAST day to vote in the Atheism Awards.  I’m one of five nominees for Best Atheist Blog.  More details here.

After reading my post about being visible as an atheist (and what comes next), Brian Green from The Moral Minefield was dismayed.  He wrote (in two comments, which I’ve condensed):

“My goal is for everyone to be atheists.”

I thought your goal was to find the truth. Statements like this make me wonder if I should question your sincerity. Because it sounds like you are finished; already done…

Of course one can still act while short of 100% certainty. And I do think you are sincere. But I have to say, I am Catholic and even I don’t say that I think everyone should become Catholic. That all should be atheists is a very oddly totalizing statement, indicating certainty without doubt, to me. And denying even multiple paths to the truth (whatever that may be). I think we have learned by now that diversity is a strength, not a liability…

I suppose my real concern is a theory-practice one again, as usual. As you gain practical commitment to atheist causes, the bond strengthens. Theory follows practice. Habit deepens. When you become president of the American Atheists, your freedom of thought will become highly constricted just due to practical concerns, even if on an unconscious level. The stronger your overt physical commitment, the more tightly are you mentally chained to that commitment.

This is a problem that’s come up before, especially in reference to the ‘My Burden of Proof‘ tab above, which serves as an about page and will hopefully be updated by the end of the week. A previous iteration of the page ended with the line “I’m in this argument to win, and I don’t want to shirk any challenge.” I ended up revising after I found out a number of Christian readers were turned off by that line (one reader raked me over the coals for it).

I suspect this is mostly a cultural/personality issue.  Especially after four years in a philosophical debating group, I just don’t think of “I plan to convert you” (whether to Catholicism, Atheism, Marxism, or a math major) as an inappropriately aggressive statement.  It’s how we say hello, and how we say we care.  If we didn’t like you, we’d just try to contain you, instead of correcting your error.  But if you think the stakes are high, and you’re pretty sure you’re not wrong, trying to persuade others is just common courtesy.

And as to how sure you need to be, I’d refer everyone back to my faith and probability post.  Most decisions don’t require a “bet your life” level of certainty.  And when you’re making a choice, the way you commit to your most probable choice should look exactly like the way you would commit if you were rock-solid certain.  Whether you’re just over the tipping point or as certain as you are of the Pythagorean theorem, you’re still fully committed until new evidence emerges.  The only difference is how strong the new evidence has to be.

Tactically, though I guess I could stand to soften my tone for a general audience.  Just as I wouldn’t (sadly) expect to use Roberts Rules of Order in everyday life or rely on some traditional slang (though I think I’ve managed to get you all in the loop on ‘metaphysical backsliding‘).  But perhaps I can’t use the pugilistic metaphors that come so naturally without frightening people off.

Are there any suggestions about how to frame this differently, so people stick around for the arguments?  Or is it the very idea that philosophies and ethical systems should aggressively confront each other and attempt to triumph over each other that people find inappropriate?

I seek out conversation and hard questions on this blog, but I don’t see dialogue as an end in itself.  Every conversation is always directed towards conversion.  Searching for truth is good, but if you’re not coming up with any truths to share, or identifying any falsehoods to purge, you may want to reevaluate your methodology.


I’ll address the other problem Brian raised, about compromising your reasoning by making an ideology part of your identity in tomorrow’s post.

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  • Sparring can be fun. As a Catholic, I’ve had a lot of arguments about faith with non-believers — and I’ve noticed that the more far apart we are on an issue, the better we get along…the less feelings are hurt…the less afraid we are to hit all the points…I don’t know why! Maybe it’s because you don’t really expect to win, so you don’t care if you lose. You just put it all out there.

  • But I have to say, I am Catholic and even I don’t say that I think everyone should become Catholic. That all should be atheists is a very oddly totalizing statement, indicating certainty without doubt, to me.

    To my mind, you’d have to begin with a very odd set of premises to believe that X is true, yet not desire that everyone believe X. That’s essentially saying you desire that some people be deceived or ignorant of the truth, and I don’t see what’s laudable about that.

    How can we persuade each other of what is true, if not by debating it? Even if I enter into a debate with the intent of converting everyone to my viewpoint, I may well be exposed to a contrary argument that’s stronger than I had expected, and I may end up being the one who changes my mind. There’s nothing wrong with trying to persuade others if you’re willing to be persuaded in turn. The only thing that’s an act of bad faith, in my mind, is debating under the premise that no evidence you could see would ever change your mind.

    • “To my mind, you’d have to begin with a very odd set of premises to believe that X is true, yet not desire that everyone believe X.”

      To desire that everyone believe X is not the same as endeavouring to convince everyone to believe X. I can certainly see how someone could move quickly from one to the other, but there are other values in play than truth when it comes to converting others–respect, say, or assessing whether such attempts will produce material or psychological harm, or whether it will irrepairably damage relationships.

      Now, I’m not even sure I agree with the first part–that if one believes in X, one should want others to believe in X. For instance, I might think that personal rights are a convenient and necessary political fiction (indeed, I do think this); however, I may not want other people to believe this, because I think the fiction works best if people are sold on it (I’m not sure I do think this, but it’s tempting and it would not be a contradiction to think so). There are many other possibilities, of course, but some people hold higher goods than truth.

    • “There’s nothing wrong with trying to persuade others if you’re willing to be persuaded in turn. The only thing that’s an act of bad faith, in my mind, is debating under the premise that no evidence you could see would ever change your mind.”

      I should add that I do entirely agree with this, in theory, at least. It seems hard to practice, though.

    • Hi Adam,

      Let me assure you and the other evangelical atheists here that I am not a relativist. My problem with the “we should all be X” propositions is in implementation (practical reality) not theory. My statement was ambiguous so it’s my fault you interpreted other than I intended, I was unclear. I assume you are against coercion in belief as well, but I don’t know for sure. Sam Harris certainly thinks coercion is permissible under certain circumstances, but then again, he’s a Calvinist atheist.

      What I think is really interesting is how allied atheists are to “the truth” when there is nothing about atheism per se that should care about it. Theists obviously have a stake in the truth, but why atheists? That requires positing a metaphysical value worth pursuing, and atheists are perfectly allowed to do that, but do you have any objective reason to do so? Why not let everyone be deluded, what’s there to be evangelical about? (Other than how it affects you or fits with your opinions.)

      • Theists obviously have a stake in the truth, but why atheists?

        I leave that as an exercise for the reader.

  • Jay

    What I think really drives comments like Brian Green’s is that our society is so, so sensitive about religion, even more so than other supposedly taboo subjects like money or politics. So when you start talking about how you want “everyone to be an atheist,” it doesn’t come across as “there are right and wrong things to believe about the nature of the universe, and I want people to believe the right things” — it comes across, at least to many people, as a personal attack, because so much of their personality, their self-esteem, their purpose, etc., is built upon these fictional beliefs. To paraphrase what Daniel Dennett, there’s no polite way to suggest to someone that they’ve wasted their entire life on a fairy tale.

    But really, when we say we want everyone to be an atheist, we’re basically just answering yes to two questions: 1. Is the existence of deities, spirits, souls, the afterlife, etc. sufficiently unlikely as to not be worth our time? 2. Are people’s lives better when their beliefs about the universe are correct? Stated as such, isn’t this proposition pretty obvious? I mean, assuming atheism is true, why would you want people going around believing untrue things? Or if Catholicism is true, why the hell wouldn’t you want everyone to be a Catholic?

    The absurdity of saying “these religious beliefs are correct, but not everyone should hold them” becomes more obvious in a non-religious context. It’s like saying “well sure, homeopathy is just nonsensical pseudoscience and it will never actually heal anyone — but I’m not so arrogant as to think that everyone should be an ahomeopath.” Why not? So you can bask in the warm aura of social modesty? If you have reason to think your beliefs on a particular factual question are correct, and if this is an issue where being right matters, then you’d have to be pretty callous not to want everyone to agree with you.

    Of course, there’s still a question of persuasiveness, tact, politeness, etc. No matter how sure you are that religious people are wrong and that their lives are worse because of it, you can’t just run up to people on the street wearing crosses and start shouting at them. Genuine respect, empathy, understanding, and patience surely go a long way toward being an effective advocate, but holding those values doesn’t mean you care any less about people agreeing with you.

    • Hi Jay, see my response to Adam above re the relativism question. Sorry that I was unclear.

      Continuing on, nobody who comments on this blog is overly sensitive about religion. Chalking up my disagreement to “ow, you’re hurting my FEELINGS!” is intellectually dishonest – its a dismissal tactic, explaining away, not a form of pursuit of the truth.

      “1. Is the existence of deities, spirits, souls, the afterlife, etc. sufficiently unlikely as to not be worth our time? 2. Are people’s lives better when their beliefs about the universe are correct? Stated as such, isn’t this proposition pretty obvious? I mean, assuming atheism is true, why would you want people going around believing untrue things?”

      Why should anyone care about metaphysical truth? Physical truth is an obvious concern because we need food, shelter, etc., but metaphysics? Your second premise is not at all obvious on the metaphysical level. Nietzsche for one allowed that the “truth might be poison, then whoever could take the most of it would be strongest” (Beyond Good and Evil, paraphrase). And that’s exactly one of the things that some atheists puff themselves up about, being so tough that they can face reality, while us theists can’t.

      Why not believe untrue theoretical things if they give you better practical outcomes? Washing your hands is a practically good activity (in moderation), whether it is done out of fear of fairies or of germs (they are about equivalent in most people’s minds) is irrelevant for whether the practice works or not. In fact, if fairies better promote the behavior and thus contain disease, then they are the practically “better” belief, no? (And yes, I am aware that germ theory does have numerous practical advantages over fairy theory in other areas, I’m just limiting this to the effects of belief on hand-washing.)

      Anyway, you are right that everyone should be more polite. One of the things that “new atheism” does wrong is assume that their theoretical truth is so strong that it covers up their lack of practical truth. Saying “I’m right and you’re wrong, you idiot!” (and I’m not saying you are doing this, you are polite) indicates a poor character, which then throws their theoretical assertions into question. If truth yields good, then are we seeing it? that is the question (for both sides).

      • Jay

        “Why should anyone care about metaphysical truth? Physical truth is an obvious concern because we need food, shelter, etc., but metaphysics?”

        Whether or not deities exist in the universe is a physical fact. Whether or not these deities do anything in our lives, and whether there are more or less effective ways of getting them to do what we want is a physical fact. Whether or not the universe as we observe it was created by the purposeful actions of a powerful mind or minds is a physical fact. Whether or not consciousness continues once the network of connections between our neurons permanently deteriorates is a physical fact. Whether certain things happen to you in this post-death consciousness based on what moral imperatives you followed in life is a physical fact. Almost all claims that religious makes about the world, and certainly the most important ones, are empirical assertions that people have a strong interest in knowing the right answer to, one way or another.

        The question about whether you can ever derive benefits from knowingly believing falsehoods is a larger issue, but I have two main responses. First, reality is all that there is to work with, and we’re almost certainly going to do better finding our way through the territory if we have a more accurate map. I would no more expect people to live flourishing lives by lying to themselves about the nature of man and the universe than I would expect engineers to build sturdy bridges by lying to themselves about the laws of physics. When you’re dealing with reality, actually facing reality is as practical as it gets.

        Second, once you start admitting to yourself that you don’t really “believe,” but that you only “believe in belief” (that is, that you believe because it’s good to believe, not because it’s true), I don’t know how you can possibly avoid turning your whole mind inside out. Even if you do have the capability of tricking yourself into believing false things that are supposedly beneficial, I don’t think this process is as easily contained as you seem to be imagining, and I would predict lots of unforeseen consequences.

        • “Whether or not deities exist in the universe is a physical fact. Whether or not these deities do anything… is a physical fact”

          Both these statements are correct. The problem is that no theist who knows anything will assent to the first. God does not exist “in” the universe, God transcends it, nor is God a being that exists God is existence itself. All the rest of your assertions are not physical but metaphysical. Designer of Universe? no way to test. Afterlife? no way to test. Afterlife judgment? no way to test. Unless I am not understanding you.

          I like your next two paragraphs even though I disagree with them in part. Yes, a more accurate map will do you better. Yes, knowing the laws of physics will help build bridges. But the terrific thing is, people were building bridges millennia before the laws of physics were known! Sometimes they fell down, but that also happens today.

          Now the experience of building a bridge is rare, few people get to do it. But everyone gets to interact with other people, and we’ve been doing it since forever. The more a practice is done the better it gets, hopefully. And these practices get codified into moral systems. Some succeed and some fail. For most of history no moral truth (if there was any to be found) was known and yet there were still better and worse systems. Today is no different. I would only add that in the absence of certainty, the track-record of success (that is, survival and growth of the moral group) will tell who has the best practices and therefore the best approximation of reality.

          Last paragraph: you are right, just because it works does not make it theoretically convincing, and I don’t think people do that. Practice gives indicators, not explanations that satisfy our desire for a “why?” answered. But even in the absence of a good explanation you’d still be foolish to build your bridge another way.

          And checking out the validity of the indications should also be in order. If they are demonstrably theoretically false then keep looking, figure out why the practice works. But don’t just start doing whatever, throwing out the moral practice. That is the option that makes the least sense (yet is the most tempting, because we all want to go our own way), like throwing out the history of bridge-building because we don’t know the laws of physics . Moral practices can be thrown out but we need reasons for that too.

          The end got tangential, sorry.

  • Patrick

    Part of seeking truth is rejecting falsehood. If you can’t even do that, you’ll never get anywhere.

    I understand why someone who believes something you’ve dismissed as a falsehood would object to that dismissal. And I understand why they might try to use Green’s line as emotional suasion. I just don’t think it holds up once you really think about it.

    • What’s my line?

      And why seek truth?

      • Patrick

        Here you go:

        “I thought your goal was to find the truth. Statements like this make me wonder if I should question your sincerity. Because it sounds like you are finished; already done…”

        • Alright, that explains me, now you.

          • Patrick

            One disingenuous question down, now time for the other?

            Because I want to.

          • Thanks for answering.

  • deiseach

    I’m not offended by what you said; you’re honest in your intentions and at least you can debate with common courtesy, without feeling the need to either flaunt how really smart you are so that’s why you’re an atheist because you’re so much smarter than the dumb sky-fairy idiots or call the non-atheists dumb sky-fairy idiots 🙂

    Personally, I’m not on here to say “Oh, but you must become a Catholic!” Part of that is that Catholics are so blinkin’ terrible at evangelisation so we prefer to keep our mouths shut and part of it is that I know I’m such a bad Catholic, it seems Pharaisical of me to tell others what they should believe. Also, faith is a gift of God and so you can only argue someone so far – the last step is up to them and the Almighty.

    What am I on here for? Intelligent, interesting conversation, a bit of a row at times maybe (but never a quarrel) and an exchange of views – that much misused term, “communication”. To find out what the baby-eaters think – no, you already told us, atheists don’t eat babies (darn, another cherished myth debunked!) 🙂

  • Hey, I’m glad my grouchy outburst could serve as blog fodder. 🙂

    Yes, there could be a personality / cultural problem at work here. I understand now better where you are coming from. Also I think there may be a perspective issue. Your goal of having everyone believe the same thing is impossible, and could also be interpreted two ways: as a voluntary goal, by conversion, and as an involuntary one, by coercion. I know you meant conversion and not coercion, and yet still, there is no way to attain popular unanimity of belief without coercion, at least it has never happened before in a large-scale society. Even with coercion people still resist.

    Catholicism tried the whole unanimity of religion thing, as have many other religions (some still do), as has communism, etc., and it never works and almost always leads to something much worse than just allowing some diversity of belief. So I detected a totalizing statement and reacted against it (maybe overreacted).

    “is it the very idea that philosophies and ethical systems should aggressively confront each other and attempt to triumph over each other that people find inappropriate?”

    Systems should engage each other rigorously, not aggressively. Though of course it depends on how one defines the word “aggressive.” Does aggression simply imply wanting to win or does it also imply malice, or at least an inappropriate pride (that one is better than another)? Aggressivity is a questionable character trait.

    The next question is whether competition is the best way to find truth or whether cooperation is. That in itself is a difficult question (with metaphysical overtones), but I think cooperation could be the better way. But then again, we theists tend to be more extroverted and agreeable than average (darn, that citation is somewhere…) so it might just be psychology manifesting as metaphysics manifesting as ethics and politics.

    “I seek out conversation and hard questions on this blog, but I don’t see dialogue as an end in itself. Every conversation is always directed towards conversion. Searching for truth is good, but if you’re not coming up with any truths to share, or identifying any falsehoods to purge, you may want to reevaluate your methodology.”

    Yes, dialogue should not be an end in itself, there must be a goal to the dialogue. Conversion is a decent one. Have you discovered anything from being the salon-meister of this blog? Have your readers? (and I am not trying to be a jerk here, I am just posing a question). If not, then perhaps you are correct that the method is inappropriate to the end.

    As for myself, I do enjoy this space for dialogue. I think I have learned to be more polite (or maybe not, others can let me know!). I also enjoy being forced to think and I like having my worldview probed for weaknesses. As to whether I have genuinely discovered new things, I’m not so sure. Once again, theory/practice problem. While I may not have learned new theoretical truths, perhaps I have learned some practical ones, behavioral ones.

    Wait, I have learned some theoretical things! I have learned from a few biblical interpretation posts and from a post on the Trinity a while back. There are probably more too.

    It is good to stop every once in a while and establish bearings. Good idea, Leah. And thank you for the space you provide here for dialogue. So do you think the blog is on target? Are we, your commenters on target? You can tell us to shape up, you know! (“I want 1000 word reports from each of you by Monday!”)

  • Leah, you’re clearly a modernist. One of these days I’ll write a post about my love/hate relationship with postmodernism, and maybe then people (the half dozen who read my blog) will see how you could be less than concerned about converting people. (Hint: having a universalist soteriology helps!) One of the cruxes of my problem, though, is that I do not think that it is always the case that one should act as though one is certain, even if one is not. Sure, in coin tosses it works, but coin tosses are not the always best model for the social world. And now that I’ve said this, I can’t support it. Hmmm. Well, I’ll try and get back to you on it.

    Anyway, my goals here are not conversion, though they are a form of convincing: I want people to know that Christians are not all crazy, confrontational, irrational, and rude. I hope to be able to demonstrate that at least I try not to be the last three. The first is a lost cause. Also, I hope to learn about atheism, atheists, and the atheist blogosphere without having to go to the real crazies like P Z and the Friendly Atheist and the like.

    • Another reason you might not want to convert others is that you know it’s a lost cause. You may really care about the person, but if you know there’s no hope, it might be best for everyone that you back off entirely.

    • deiseach

      Are we up to post-post-post-modernism, or only post-post-modernism now? I lose track so easily.

      • Haha! I think at this point we’re holding our breaths and waiting for posterity to name us.

    • OK, I have other models!

      You are at a zoo and you accidentally drop a valuable item into an enclosure. Based on available evidence (perhaps there is a sign saying, “Exhibit is closed”), you are about 70% sure that there are no predatory animals in the enclosure. Do you therefore act as though you were 100% sure and enter the enclosure in order to retrieve the item? Or do you give it up as not worth the risk? (Let’s say that there are no employees available at the moment and that it’s a communist zoo, so you aren’t worried about trespassing.)

      You are in a long-term relationship. You are 70% sure that the person you are with would make a good spouse for you. Do you act as though you are certain and propose, or do you wait until there is more information available?

      You are lost in the forest. You are 70% sure you are headed in the rigth direction. If you are headed in the wrong direction, you will become totally lost and will need to spend the night in the woods. You have two children with you. Do you continue in the direction you have chosen as though you were certain, or do you backtrack a little in order to verify your direction? Does your answer change depending on whether anyone is dependent on you?

      You are 70% sure that a friend is in an abusive relationship. Do you stage an intervention, even though you think there is a 30% chance that this is a healthy relationship? (That is, are there different thresholds required for violating another person’s autonomy?)

      During a hostile invasion of your home country, you are confronted by someone who looks like an enemy. You are 70% sure that if you do not kill him, many more people will die. Assuming that you would be willing to kill him if you were 100% certain, would you be willing to kill him at 70%

      The problem with the coin-toss model is that it assumes that all responses are binary (heads/tails) with a clear right/wrong, that decisions cannot be postponed until new information is gained, that no one else’s autonomy or safety is on the line, and that all options have equal rewards/punishments (that is, that getting the answer wrong one way is no different from getting the answer wrong the other way). Life doesn’t always work like that.

  • @b

    >>already done…

    And yet the conversion/deconversion debate still isn’t symetrical.

    Atheists are generally Lefties so they like to try out new ideas. They’re ripe for conversion (by someone they trust) to teachings about a creator being. Including biblical teachings. Even non-religious teachings.

    Whereas those on the Right prefer to defend the ideas they’re already comfortable with. So deconverstion for a monotheist involves unravelling that -not only does their religion contain mistaken teachings about god, but that- the god that monotheists have in mind only exists in their imagination.

  • Iota

    A comment from the sidelines (from a foreign languages and communication geek):

    1) Some people are always going to find your statements inappropriate . What we communicate doesn’t depend solely on what we say, after all. It also depends on what the person reading thinks we meant, their preconceptions, attitude, etc. So you will probably always be “raked over the coals” by some people.

    2) Pretty much any kind of language will, at the same time, seem attractive to some other audience. If you tone down your style, some of them may think you are beating about the bush or even being hypocritical.

    A specifically Catholic variation: some Catholics prefer to emphasize God’s Mercy, some prefer to emphasize God’s Justice when they talk about Him. And they may disagree quite passionately even if they agree that God is both. Or they may end up segregating themselves into groups based on particular flavours of spirituality and not really having much of an conversation between spiritualities.

    3) Personally, I don’t find martial metaphors, or thinking about debate as a conflict, offensive. I do , however, find them sort of… disrespectful among complete strangers. (Bad) analogy: I have nothing against mock fights with friends but if someone came up to me and shoved a fist in my face I’ probably NOT think they are good company to be around (although I concede they may be good company after all, when you really get to know them, I probably wouldn’t stick around to check that).

    On the other hand I know I have that same effect on people because I’m very (auto) ironic and most of what I say has extra intensity merely for dramatic effect. I try to tone that down with strangers but, ultimately, I like my style enough not to want to change it for people who don’t get it at all.

    The problem with bloging (or frequenting internet forums) is, I think, it’s half-private and half-public. You either end up making concessions to your new audience all the time (and bore the ones who like your “persona”) or don’t make concessions, which results in people with completely different sensibilities not staying around to verify their first impression (and possibly being offended, for example).

    4) The difference may also lie in speaking in impersonal versus personal terms.
    Here’s an example from this post: the way I see it, while “philosophies” may “triumph” over one another in the abstract, in concrete personal terms you are dealing with individual people. And “triumphing” over a fellow human being sort of excludes “caring” about them.

    So I’d say: we tend to speak in ways that reflect the way we think, including the bits we’re not really happy about (#3), which means people who share certain assumptions will like our way of speaking (#2) and some won’t (sometimes also because they use very different communicative assumptions (#1). On top of that, we may use language with a completely different abstract-personal flavour than the audience (#4)

    Might be interesting to try to look at your own style as an author (you might even use statistics for that! :))

    Interesting extra: there are studies about language gender. Some of it is probably complete nonsense. But I do wonder whether it could be said that, e.g. atheist language is more “stereotypically masculine” and religious language more “stereotypically feminine”. (Reminds me of this book title: Why Men Hate Going to Church)

    • deiseach

      Depends on the religious community that the language comes out of, I’d say, Iota; Mark Shea had a post a while back about Evangelical versus Catholic language, where one could be seen as more ‘masculine’ and the other more ‘feminine’.

      So it’s not just a contrast of styles between the language of atheists and that of believers, it’s also within believers’ groups and I imagine within atheist groups as well.

  • Jerry

    Leah, I’m very interested in your statement, “But if you think the stakes are high, and you’re pretty sure you’re not wrong, trying to persuade others is just common courtesy.” As a former Bible College theology/philosophy instructor turned HR Manager without religious ties, I have been very reticent to enter into discussions with former students because the stakes, as I see it, are only high for them, not for me. What is at stake for you, as an atheist, to continue to exist in a world of theists? While for a theist, particularly an evangelical, whether Catholic or Protestant, the stakes are not only eternal, but also very real in terms of career, income, relationships. What do you see as your “dog in the fight”? What is at stake if you fail to “convert” the theist?

    • @b

      Good questions, let me jump in…

      >>What is at stake for you, as an atheist, to continue to exist in a world of theists?
      >>What is at stake if you fail to “convert” the theist?

      Leah’s no apatheist, mistaken beliefs (about the divine) have consequences. So beside the personal stake in understanding what’s really real, there’s a philanthropic stake in changing minds, public opinion, public policy whilst (1) non-religious atheistic views are a minority within a minority, and (2) the living are more highly valued than the eternal.

      • Jerry

        Seriously? Hardly an apologetic for a crusade. Because you want people to change their mind? If you can’t do better that why take the risk of seriously destabilizing someone’s life?

        • @b

          Yes, if personal (or societal) destabilization in fact outweighed the earthly consequences of accepting atheism, then I concede -even if factually correct- it’d be ethically questionable to be undermining the prevailing belief.

          We find the social sciences (and historians) undermining that prevailing belief in “destabilization”. Too.

  • Will

    A large factor is that we are continually getting the message that “proselytizing” is Bad and intolerant, and usually done by sinister “cults”.

    This usually seems to work out by labeling only what They do as “proselytizing”, while We never do such a reprehensible thing.

    What genuinely puzzles and frustrates me is that the identical BEHAVIOR is condoned as long as it is not in the box labeled “Religious”. People do not hesitate to try to convince me that my views on politics, literature, music, recreation and pastimes are wrong, and can do so without being denounced for “proselytizing”. We never hear “Oh, those Democrats came to town to PROSELYTIZE for Obama.”

  • Andrew

    First, I take your statement as pretty harmless and maybe an attempt at humor. I’m not sweating it, but here are some comments.

    Leah, you’re fair and respectable. And I’m in no danger of being converted by you. If your statement was to be taken seriously, though, it may indicate a distinction between atheist and believer debaters. Atheists, surely, may believe in set of moral standards. And several of these reflect the basis of western religion and the natural law. Most atheists would agree with at least half of the ten commandments, right? Murder, lying, and theft are the easy ones – adultery, envy, honoring parents maybe not a slam dunk, but I think most atheists are good on these too.

    But the big one, which is not explicit in the list of ten, is Pride. Envy, the sexual sins, selfishness, all depravity is the result of our pride. I think that the occasion of this sin has increased greatly in recent decades. Cable TV and blog debates seem to have led us terribly toward the brink of this temptation. Believers and non-believers, alike, fall into this sin, but I don’t see much of a call for humility by atheists. Christians, while equal offenders, have a clear call to resist; and such resistance is necessary as pride is the root of all other sin.

    Your declaration of a huge conversion goal is pretty innocuous. But it could fall close to be pride/humility line. Most of the atheist debaters that I’ve seen trample across that line and throw in ridicule and insult of their opponents’ beliefs for good measure. An atheist debater friend even invokes his description of his own great courage as a tactic. Certainly, he gets cheers from those who agree, but, trust me, no members of the opposition have been won over. Paradoxically, I suppose, believers should hope that these tactics continue to be utilized.

    So, fighting about the fight, is not necessary if civility and humility in debate prevail. But, smugness and self-indulgence seem to rule for now.

  • I think I have to agree with Brian Green. I don’t think our goal should be to convert everyone to atheism. Even though atheism is the most probable worldview, what we should actually be doing is trying to get everyone to use some sort of consistent cognitive methodology (rationality, bayesianism, etc.). If your goal is only to get everyone to be an atheist, does it matter how they come to their atheism? If not, then you will still have all of the same problems with atheism that you have with the reasons why people become theists. Just being an atheist is no defense against irrationality, dogmatism, group-think, or any other errors in human thinking that lead to all of the perils of religion. Believing in psi, alternative medicine, anti-vaccination, ghosts, werewolves, reincarnation, or any other off the wall claim is not exclusive to theists.

    We should get everyone to start using the same tools, not get everyone to have the same house.

    • I like your statement, JQ (and not just because you said you agree with me). I think it is realistic, very practical. Thinking is never a bad thing, if everyone were better at it the world might just be a better place. But I agree with the pessimism in your comment too, and perhaps extend it even further. No matter how good all we humans are at thinking we will never be able to think our way out of the human condition. We have a load of built-in biases and other problems that will keep on causing trouble. And in the end, I think people are always going to have a diversity of beliefs, even if they have the same thinking tools, just because the metaphysical axioms behind those tools will still be non-standard.

      We should be aiming, as a pluralistic society, for a decent consensus on practical issues, like law, not on theoretical ones like religion/atheism (not that they can be fully disconnected). What we can agree on, I think, is that we would like to get along (a practical desire), even if we can’t agree on why (theory).

      And for those of us who still like to argue theory, well here we are.

  • Ron

    The thing about debating others with conversion intentions — particularly regarding matters of belief and world view — is that people with strong views and beliefs tend to expect the other person to put their personal beliefs out there on the balance of the argument, while, at the same time, they’re not putting all their chips on the table.
    Then again, I don’t think that any of us are fully aware of what all our chips are when it comes to something as complex as world views and faith and/or reason-based beliefs.
    And while people tend to hang their hats on a specific justifier — be it reason or faith or experience or science or majority opinion — our beliefs and world views carry a lot more baggage and are derived from a greater diversity of sources than most care to admit (or are even consciously aware of).
    Personal belief systems and prevailing mental paradigms usually take years to form and grow, and though we might promote our beliefs and views as purely rational or strictly objective, the whole process is a lot more complicated and organic than intentional conscious construction.
    With all that said, I think it would be a healthy thing for people to spend more time honestly exploring and considering the myriad reasons, factors, and influences behind their own views and beliefs before they go trying to convert someone or deconstruct someone else’s belief system.
    I think we might find that we all have some very similar reasons for believing very different things.

  • That particular sentence didn’t have the effect on me that it had on Brian. But I’ll admit that similar thoughts about your sincerity came to me at various times when I was reading this blog in the past two weeks or so. Since there is no rational basis for entertaining them they are best pushed aside in faith, but yes, I had to do so too. I believe talking about zeal or probability levels in this context misses the point. It’s more about how you think about the people you are debating with and how they think you think about them.

    So here’s my attempt at verbalizing the real question:

    Sometimes people’s opinions can be changed by informing them of the critical facts and arguments they had been missing. But mostly that is not the case. Most important disagreements must be due to at least one side being irrational. So at some level I think you are irrational about the Gretchen question and I expect you to think the same about me. That’s OK, though it is normally not polite to draw direct attention to it the way I’m doing now.

    Where it gets interesting is how we deal with it. There are surely more approaches, but I’ll mention two that seem relevant in this context:

    The pedagogical way
    This is done by guiding the opponent into the thoughts we want them to think. The paradigmatic case is, of course, teaching children. Depending on the context it can be done in different ways. Sometimes the teacher can simply state the thoughts the student is supposed to think. Sometimes the teacher will ask guiding questions. And sometimes the teacher will answer the students’ questions, so that their root mistakes will surface through the arguments they wrongly think plausible. This doesn’t necessarily rule out that students may find holes in the thoughts they are lead through and maybe end up convincing the teacher. But it does presume a hierarchy of the teacher driving the students thoughts and not the other way around. This can be made equal by taking turns. Or the inequality might be justified. For example, if I agree someone has superior knowledge on some question I might want to learn from them and, to that end, be treated as a student on that question. But I get aggrieved if someone treats me as a student where I think of myself as an equal or even a teacher. Also, among humans I think irrationality (including mine) normally involves pride. In this case a pedagogical relation with fixed roles is very unlikely to fix it. The party irrational and prideful on the question will naturally not see themselves in the role of the student. And if they get the teacher’s role the hierarchy aggrieves the problem.

    The solidaric way
    This is based on the assumption that all participants are irrational on some issues but fundamentally willing to be rational when they find out what those issues are. It also assumes the knowledge gap, if any, to be small enough to be effectively bridged without prior teaching. In this case the participants can help each other by fighting, because their biases will be different so the group can find the argumentative holes the individuals can’t. On every particular issue everyone will think themselves in the right and their opponents irrational, but there is an underlying assumption of comparable epistemic virtue. Also, both sides get to influence each other’s thought processes, because that is the whole point.

    So the two ways I listed lead to three roles: student, teacher, equal. By first impressions this makes the solution obvious: the solidaric way is better. But this is only true if we actually assume the underlying assumptions. If we think the knowledge gap is more like the on in the xkcd train/racecar comic or that the other side is epistemically much more depraved than we are (think holocaust deniers) then we probably aren’t interested in debating them as equals. And that is of course the way the New Atheists look at us backwards believers.

    Unfortunately they have a third option besides talking on a level they think beneath them and being ignored: They can pretend to be interested in talking as equals or even students and then underhandedly work it as a relationship where they are the teacher. I’ll call this fourth role the subversive. When an Internet atheist friendlily comes along with a question for Christians one can usually bet this is what’s going on. Of course there are plenty of Christian missionaries doing the same to atheists, but I’m naturally more wary of people trying it on me than of people trying it on different people. Subversives might even be theoretically open to new arguments, but in practice that’s irrelevant. They see their victims as epistemic inferiors, and moreover, think it OK to hide this fact from them. That is just too much of a wall of contempt for the victims to get through even if they do have convincing arguments.

    Your big selling point is being the zealous atheist on the Internet willing to take other roles. On most questions you take the solidaric equal role. In the learn-how-we-tick/ideological Turing dimension you even present as a student. That’s great and it’s a large part of what keeps me addicted to this here blog. I’d like to have more equal fights with atheist but in my experience real life atheists don’t want to fight at all and Internet atheists don’t want to fight as equals.

    Now the suspicion that occasionally rears its ugly head is that you might not be such an unusual exception but just a particularly clever subversive. Or, more specifically, that you might have started out sincerely but then lost respect for us and simultaneously learned it was a good way to keep us listening, thus turning into a subsversive. Or, in other words, that you are already done. So let’s look at your recent faith series of posts through the eyes of someone already prone to get paranoid about this suspicion:

    First you give us a question from John Loftus. This is a bit like a conservative seeking out friendly dialogue with liberals and then giving them questions sourced from Rush Limbaugh. But so far it’s still OK, if our hypothetical conservative really wanted an awnser to the question the source shouldn’t matter. But when you combine that with a note that we “play nice with others nearly all the time” (your emphasis) so you would like to despatch us to John Loftus’ combox (have you seen how “nice” Christian “others” are “played” with in that place?) I start to wonder if something was wrong with your breakfast.

    Then, after the answers are mostly in, and despite the question asking for a definition of faith on which “atheists have faith just like Christian theists do” you tell us you wanted something “that differentiates atheists and theists”. Ah, thinks paranoid me, the silly students didn’t reach the intended answer (“it’s impossible”) so now we get a nudge. And then you add “Most atheists don’t cleave to particular philosophers the way Christians might be shaped by a certain theologian.” Right, that must be it, we all cleave to particular theologians doing our thinking for us. Probably to guns too.

    The next day you lead in with those orthogonal “Faith” and “Reason” street signs. For comparison, imagine someone had asked you to explain the liberal concept of justice and then the next reply lead in with similar signs saying “liberty” and “equality”. In some contexts that could be a legitimate rhetorical exaggeration of a serious point, but it doesn’t exactly sound like an attempt to weight the subtleties. And then you curry that with a reference to “belief in belief”, the favorite kitchen table psychology of bigoted atheists. You may remember that that is where I got sarcastic/mirroring rather than engaging it like a serious point.

    Soon after you have a post with the mostly straw-many example of a “Christian who thinks it is impossible to behave morally without faith in God” and thus “cannot possibly deconvert”, the poor little thing. Is this really a good example of the people you had to offer escape routes to in your college debating group? Or might it have been more common for them to argue about the impossibility of consistently justifying morals without faith in God? And if so,b.t.w., where is my escape route?

    A few days later your example of the purpose of coming out is convincing us Catholics to abandon a position you must know we don’t hold in the first place. And then, a few lines later, you tell us you want everyone to be an atheist.

    This is, of course, not a very charitable interpretation of your posts. Still, if I read them without remembering your other stuff I would parse you as already having decided faith is stupid and trying to feed us that knowledge in the subversive mode. And being only moderately successful in hiding the contempt. So if I had first found this place two weeks ago, by now the blog would be demoted to my prio4 folder (“read only if bored and too lazy to read good stuff, otherwise mark read”), where it would keep the company of some other atheist blogs I’m technically subscribed to.

    Which brings me back to my introductory point: I do remember your other stuff, I do know occasional miscommunications are unavoidable and I do know stochastic fluctuations will be sufficient to make them peak in some time periods. So I do know there is no rational reason to believe that suspicion. And thus the virtue of faith demands I suppress it. And other than responding to this post with a far too long sermon nobody will read, that is exactly what I’m doing. But in response to the question: No, it’s not just about trying to convert people, it’s about (seemingly) doing so without recognizing them as equals. So my suggestion for better framing is to honestly show up as an equal and in particular to avoid the kind of stuff I just complained about.

    • This articulates something I had been feeling lately, but couldn’t identify. I would like to see a full response if possible, Leah. The other day I was wondering how much longer I’d be following this blog, if this is the direction it’s headed. Then again, I’ve been in a uniquely agitated and foul mood these days, having nothing to do with religion or the Internet.

      • Arg, this sounds passive-aggressive, or maybe just aggressive. I’m sorry. This has been a bad few days–I’ve been getting in fights with my union over whether they acknowledge their members’ right to dissent–and have become more confrontational than I usually am or like to be. Gilbert is saying something that I think is true–in both the “this is what it looks like you’re doing” and “I hope I’m right to think that this is just a mistake”–and I’m not backing down from that. But you don’t need to give a full response if you don’t want to, and I am not blackmailing my readership or anything like that.

    • Alex

      Do you think that such a paranoid reading is a reasonable interpretation of what Leah is saying (assuming that you only just started to read this blog recently)? I don’t think it is.

      • After thinking about it for a little while I’m not comfortable with either an unqualified yes or an unqualified no. So I’ll give an answer of the “it’s more complex than that” type, which, I know, may seem like a cop-out.

        The reason why it is more complex is that my teacher/equal/subversive-distinction names edge points of a continuum and most debaters will have more mixed attitudes than any of these idealized types. And those attitudes can vary with time and subject.

        So imagine these three points as the edges of an equilateral triangle. Then we could also name the sides: The equal and teacher edges are connected by the honest side, the teacher and subversive edges by the condescending side and the equal and subversive edges by the polite side.

        On that simplex the posts I complained about above are clearly closer to the condescending side than to the equal edge. I think someone who had started reading this blog two weeks ago would be justified in assuming the same about Leah’s average position. Despite the loaded name I gave that side, that isn’t intrinsically bad though. I’m very much on the condescending side when it comes to people denying evolution or the existence (as opposed to the divinity) of Jesus. It’s only the subversive point that is evil and the teacher point is as far away from it as the equal point is. As I said, it would be enough for me to put the blog into the low priority folder, and I think that would be reasonable, but that wouldn’t be a moral judgment, just a decision that on this theme I’m not interested in reading near that side of the triangle. With only the last two weeks as evidence, that is as far as a reasonable interpretation could go.

        Assuming her close to the subversive edge would have to be based on additional prior knowledge of her being close to the polite side. And the evidence of the whole archive does indeed place her fairly close to the polite side. But then the conclusion would still be irrational, because that additional evidence actually places her fairly close not only to the polite side but specifically to the equal edge.

        So technically speaking, the answer to your question would be no. But leaving that answer unqualified would be seriously misleading, because with only two weeks knowledge it actually would be reasonable to interpret what Leah is saying with considerably less sympathy and interest than it seems reasonable in the light of long-term Leahology.

        • Alex

          Thanks, your mega-comments are always well thought and illuminating.

          • Alex

            *well thought out.

  • Daniel

    I had to read the post twice since it seemed confusing (or confused), this is what I get:

    “Statements like this make me wonder if I should question your sincerity…I suppose my real concern is a theory-practice one again, as usual.” Brian on leah.

    “I’m not in it to learn something or anything to try to understand your point of view or your beliefs, I’m in it to prove I’m right and you’re wrong.” Kristen on what leah thinks about religion/atheism.

    There are other comments like in the spirit of the above in the passage linked and the passage quoted but I won’t repeat them.

    Leah, read the above. Kristen is saying that you’re not interested in searching the truth (and by reading your previous burden of proof it is easy to understand why), Brian is saying that you might insincere about your openness towards theism and worries that you’re taking on bad habits. only Kristen briefly mentions your desire to win arguments but as a byproduct of your dogmatism.

    How do you engage this? Well, you say that defects in their personality/culture
    makes them too thin-skinned to handle your aggressive debating prowess and, of course, cite the four years you took debating politics (philosophy?) as evidence.

    what kind of answer is that? Am I misunderstanding things? or is the above an accurate assessment of what is going on?

    • deiseach

      Well, I have to disagree with all the above. Leah did not set out a trail of breadcrumbs to lure us into her gingerbread blog and then lock us in a cage until we were ready to be cooked in the atheist oven. If any of us feel like we’re being entrapped, we can easily hit the back button and get out of this place.

      She’s sincere about her aims and naturally she instances what particular methods she wishes to use and her background as to where her expertise or knowledge comes from. I don’t get the impression that she’s lurking in wait for the perfect opportunity for a ‘gotcha!’ moment to hit us theists over the head with the unanswerable argument (if you want to see what that looks like in action, I suggest you try James White’s blog – he’s a Reformed Baptist with an apologetics ministry and very fond of hitting opponents over the head with ‘here’s why I’m right and you’re wrong and not just wrong but stupid to boot’).

      Now, maybe she really is hoping to convert us all to atheism – or maybe she just wants to clear some ground and set out why a coherent approach to philosophy and examining one’s beliefs (all beliefs, not just religious ones) is a good thing in life – as well as various geeky goodnesses.

      And if anything on here is offensive or disagreeable or just not to our taste, I’m free, you’re free, we’re all free to stop reading and head somewhere preferable.

      • Daniel

        Don’t misunderstand. I am saying that she seems not to understand what people are really saying about her (that she’s not open to change her views, that she’s dogmatic, insincere, etc.) and mischaracterizes their words as stemming from weakness and timidity or an inability to handle her debating skills, etc.

        And if you disagree with my assessment above; you’re just envious of how sexy I am. 😉

        • deiseach

          Leah has got a favourite hymn from Mass. I honestly don’t see how you could be any more open to changing your views than that (especially as I’m a baptised Catholic who is traditional in theory and lapsed – or more likely, collapsed – in practice and Leah has probably been at Mass more recently than I have).

          And you may be sexy, but I’m better-read 😉

          • Ray

            “I honestly don’t see how you could be any more open to changing your views than that”

            by converting, of course.

          • deiseach

            Converting would mean her views have changed; being open to changing her views is her going to Mass and Eucharistic Adoration, engaging in debate, reading the theology, and asking for opinions, definition and feedback.

            That’s a lot more open-minded, in my view, than egging on your followers to acquire a consecrated host for you to desecrate just as a “So there!” move in a row that didn’t involve you in the first place.

          • Ray

            I entirely agree that Leah is open minded towards Theism in general and Catholicism specifically (probably more than is reasonable in fact.)

            However, actually converting would be more open minded, and I think that’s what’s driving some of the ire expressed upthread. Indeed, in some cases, this would be a reasonable expectation. If, as many of the Theists here seem to think, there were solid and convincing reasons for Theism (e.g. first cause arguments,) any open-minded atheist would promptly become a Theist upon hearing these arguments. I obviously don’t buy that the arguments for Theism are this strong, but there are plenty of things for which the arguments really are this strong (Evolution, Big-Bang Cosmology, Anthropogenic Global Warming, Quantum Mechanics, The historical existence of Napoleon etc.)

            Personally, I think the arguments for Atheism are strong enough that they should convince people, but of course I am aware that there are plenty of extremely bright and otherwise reasonable people who remain religious. I chalk a lot of this up to institutional facts:

            1) Religion has loads of political influence, and had even more in the past.
            2) The general public in most of the world is mostly religious — and even more of these people were raised by religious people.
            3)You can get A LOT of academics and respectable institutions to say that Religion is, if not exactly right, an entirely reasonable position — and they won’t say this as if it was just a personal opinion. (This is what the Gnu Atheists are griping about when they talk about “acommodationism.”)

            Of course, institutional facts are important for forming sensible opinions, so, given the above, I don’t in general think (much) less of religious people simply for being religious. Thinking that there are published arguments capable of convincing an open-minded and reasonable outsider, on the other hand, seems to me beyond the pale. How many Nobel-prize winners, top philosophers, historians, and even Biblical scholars do you have to fail to convince before you are willing to admit that the arguments just aren’t that conclusive? I also, don’t think you can make the same argument against those who think the arguments for atheism are this strong: Most top academics in both science and the humanities really are atheists, despite being drawn from a much more religious population, and there are obvious political motives for individuals and institutions to downplay the strength of their atheistic views when making official statements.

  • Iota

    Sorry to jump in between the two of you, but this really caught my eye:

    “I chalk a lot of this up to institutional facts:”

    How come “”bright and otherwise reasonable” people allow themselves to be directed by institutional pressure?

    • Ray

      In many cases, being directed by institutional pressure is a good idea. Isn’t that what school is all about? Humanity has amassed a lot of knowledge over the past few thousand years, more than any individual could possibly figure out, or even entirely verify on their own. Of course, it helps to know which institutions are trustworthy, but as I said before, plenty of otherwise trustworthy institutions will take the accommodationist position. That’s why I don’t fault people for falling for it, because rejecting that position requires you to not only recognize trustworthy institutions, but their blind spots as well, and that’s really hard.

  • Iota


    [Full disclose first: I’m religious]
    I’m genuinely interested, partly because I’ve never bought into any completely social explanations of anything. Some of the stuff below is just me thinking aloud (and trying to wrap my mind around the possible implications of your model), not a suggestion that you actually think that.

    Christianity, and in the case I know most abut, Catholicism at the highest level is pretty demanding, as a world-view. It seems (to me) trying to meet these demands requires that one be very personally invested.

    I can’t really wrap my mind around the proposition that people would be willing and/or able to sacrifice very much on the altar of social authority without personal investment (especially the individualistic Westerners that we are).

    Admittedly, die-hard religious conviction isn’t an everyday phenomenon. But there are people who are willing to literally die for their religious convictions. Or, at least, suffer a lot. How do you explain that in your model?

    The easiest way I see would be to say no one who’s bright and “otherwise reasonable” would be capable of becoming that involved (so, to put it rudely, only silly people can be martyrs). But that would imply being religious and (otherwise) reasonable means, by definition, you aren’t really very religious. Or, if you look very religious on the outside and show signs of being otherwise reasonable, you are a hypocrite.

    The hypocrite option seems, however (to my mind) to preclude genuine respect for the “otherwise reasonable” religious… So it still looks, to me, like a social pressure oriented model of religiosity implies being really religious and really otherwise reasonable are at serious odds…?

    • Ray

      In case you’re looking here, My reply is down thread (reply button fail.)

  • deiseach

    “If, as many of the Theists here seem to think, there were solid and convincing reasons for Theism (e.g. first cause arguments,) any open-minded atheist would promptly become a Theist upon hearing these arguments.”

    Not necessarily (sorry, I know that kind of thing drives people nuts). Reason can take you so far, but then revelation is needed. Reason could bring Leah to the point of deism (there is a First Cause which started the events in motion but does not further influence them) but no further (the Creator does not intervene so supernatural elements such as miracles are untrue or misunderstood). This need not lead her on to theism (there is at least one God who is a personal being who is involved with His/Her/Its creation).

    To quote St. Thomas Aquinas in his very first question in the “Summa Theologica” (changes to format by me):

    “Objection 1. It seems that, besides philosophical science, we have no need of any further knowledge. For man should not seek to know what is above reason: “Seek not the things that are too high for thee” (Sirach 3:22). But whatever is not above reason is fully treated of in philosophical science. Therefore any other knowledge besides philosophical science is superfluous.

    Reply to Objection 1. Although those things which are beyond man’s knowledge may not be sought for by man through his reason, nevertheless, once they are revealed by God, they must be accepted by faith. Hence the sacred text continues, “For many things are shown to thee above the understanding of man” (Sirach 3:25). And in this, the sacred science consists.

    Objection 2. Further, knowledge can be concerned only with being, for nothing can be known, save what is true; and all that is, is true. But everything that is, is treated of in philosophical science–even God Himself; so that there is a part of philosophy called theology, or the divine science, as Aristotle has proved (Metaph. vi). Therefore, besides philosophical science, there is no need of any further knowledge.

    Reply to Objection 2. Sciences are differentiated according to the various means through which knowledge is obtained. For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself. Hence there is no reason why those things which may be learned from philosophical science, so far as they can be known by natural reason, may not also be taught us by another science so far as they fall within revelation. Hence theology included in sacred doctrine differs in kind from that theology which is part of philosophy.”

    • Ray

      Well, there’s two problems with this.

      1) Top academics tend towards atheism, not deism.
      2) What’s the point of arguments for deism, if the real goal is a particular sectarian form of theism that can only be reached by way of divine revelation. Is divine revelation any less capable of convincing an atheist than a deist? Both views explicitly deny miracles of the sort required for anything recognizable as Christianity.

  • Ray


    I’m glad you’re interested. You ask some very interesting questions yourself. There are a few places where I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to get at, but I’ll do my best to respond in the spirit of what I think you’re trying to ask.

    “I’ve never bought into any completely social explanations of anything.”

    This seems odd. What’s your explanation for the near universal atheism of the National Academy of Science then? Or, for that matter, the popularity of Islam in certain parts of the world.

    “I can’t really wrap my mind around the proposition that people would be willing and/or able to sacrifice very much on the altar of social authority without personal investment (especially the individualistic Westerners that we are).”

    Well, I’m not sure what exactly your claiming is sacrificed, or what personal investment is supposed to mean in this context (To be clear, I certainly don’t mean to imply that religious people are accepting beliefs they don’t personally think are true. ) That said, I’ll try to give some examples that run counter to what I think you might be getting at:

    1) Air travel — the whole process begins with being herded into an enclosed place by armed strangers in uniforms, being scanned by machines which you haven’t examined to check if they’re dangerous, then you spend several hours 35000 feet up in the air in a machine that you can’t escape driven by a complete stranger, and most likely neither you nor the pilot knows how the plane works in any detail. People trust this whole process based on what, they have a few friends who have done it without getting killed? The news media only rarely reports that one of these things crashes? Government officials issue statements claiming it’s “the safest way to travel?”

    2)College — A four year degree costs $100000 and takes thousands of hours of your time. You don’t know in advance how to verify that anything the professors will tell you is true. You probably are only vaguely aware of what sort of things your professors are going to tell you in the first place. Yet you commit to the process. Why? Because your parents told you it was a good idea? because your friends who have good jobs got them after graduating from college?

    “only silly people can be martyrs”

    This seems to conflate two ideas of rationality. One idea is that rationality is about being good at forming true beliefs, regardless of how you act on them, the other assumes you will act with certain motivations (usually either a desire for personal economic gain or evolutionary fitness. Strangely, people using rationality in the latter sense rarely include empathy, despite the fact that it is a nearly universal human motivation, but I digress.) It’s only on the latter view that sacrifice is hard to explain, or even relevant. In my previous post, I’m not talking about people acting against their own interests on account of social pressure. I’m talking about the fact that if your own reasoning leads you in a certain direction, but a lot of people you trust seem to be reaching the opposite conclusion, it is reasonable to re-examine your own reasoning to see if there is a mistake, and if you don’t feel entirely qualified to do this, it is even sometimes reasonable to reject the result of your own reasoning process, because the consensus is so overwhelming that the mistake is most likely yours. Now I think the ways that religious institutional facts influence people are far more complex than the simple picture I’m laying out here, but the principle is the same.