Richard Dawkins: Cynic or Blind Man?

I sometimes imagine a Q & A session in which I get to ask Richard Dawkins why Philosophy Departments do not dedicate any time and resources to debates over the existence of Santa Claus.

In response to critics, like fellow atheist Michael Ruse, that he knows nothing of philosophy or theology, Dawkins blithely responds that one does not need to have studied Leprechaunology to confidently assert that Leprechauns don’t exist.

We are told over and over again that belief in God is akin to belief in the tooth fairy.

This assertion is so patently false it is hard to know exactly what to do with it.  (I suspect that may be part of its appeal, in fact.)  Which great atheist has, like Bertrand Russell, been momentarily troubled by the ontological argument with respect to Leprechauns or even, only slightly more seriously, Zeus?  Which great thinker has put forth proofs for the existence of the Easter Bunny?

It seems to me that continuing to peddle such arguments admits of two explanations.  Either Dawkins et al actually find them credible, in which case they are making a monumentally embarrassing mistake, or they know that they are not credible and continue to peddle them anyways because they seem to get the job done.

That is to say, one way or the other, the New Atheism is here precisely imitating what it takes religion to be doing.  That is, the New Atheism is either being hopelessly misinformed and is useful only as a comfort to the weak-minded, or it is cynically preying upon the weak-minded by offering bad arguments for things people want to believe anyway for reasons that have nothing to do with reason.

Which do you think is the case?  Is Dawkins simply blind to how bad his argument is, or is he cynically employing it knowing that it is bad?  Or is there some credible third option I’ve overlooked?


Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan. He is a father of four (so far) and husband of one.

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  • Mark VA

    The case of Dawkins, and others like him, brings to my mind the quotation from Hamlet:

    “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”

    I think he is sincere, emotional, and aggressive in pushing his beliefs. I also think that this emotionalism (sprinkled with sarcasm) detracts from a more analytic discussion of the existence of God. In my view, he is not a “contemplative atheist”, with whom one can have amiable discussions of substance. Dawkins’ shtick is to make his interlocutors feel uncomfortable putting their beliefs “on the table”, so to speak.

    I have come to the conclusion that one of the weak points of the “missionary atheists” like him, is the adamant refusal to consider the uses to which atheism was put in the twentieth century. They bank on this historical ignorance, and quickly shout down those who know, or have experienced it.

    This history shows that, among many other things, those who dared to proclaim their belief in God openly, ran the risk of being denied admittance to higher education. Often, even smaller “offenses”, such as being seen in a church, ran the same risk. The argument frequently was: “Why should the state waste its educational resources on those who are demonstrably unable to evolve to higher levels of thinking”.

  • Mark

    Can’t it be a little bit of both? Self-deception, bad faith.

    I’m sure he wants to believe in atheism, so he combined with his contemptuous personality type, he tricks himself into believing the arguments.

    He is peddling these things cynically, but to himself. He’s likewise blind, to his own cynicism.

    Or so it seems to me.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

      Fair enough. And quite plausible.

  • http://nihilismplusdotcom.wordpress.com Nihilism+

    _We are told over and over again that belief in God is akin to belief in the tooth fairy_

    They are identical in that they are both supported by the same amount and type of evidence.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

      It is worth noting that this is simply a bald assertion, supported by no argumentation or evidence whatsoever.
      But let’s let that slide for now and ask, “If this is actually the case, why are so many great thinkers concerned with the existence of God and none with the existence of the tooth fairy?”
      I mean, I could argue about the nature of different kinds of evidence etc., but I know where that goes. But what really baffles me is how the person who asserts this kind of thing accounts for the fact that philosophy departments consider the question of God’s existence a real question. If it actually is as simple as you suggest, why all the fuss?

      • http://nihilismplusdotcom.wordpress.com Nihilism+

        Can you provide any evidence for a God or Gods that could not be used to prove the Tooth Fairy?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

          Absolutely.

          And I will in a second, though you are sure to disagree. But I must point out that you have avoided the basic issue raised in my original post and in my first response to you. If belief in God and in the tooth fairy actually are structurally the same, why do so many intelligent people believe in one and not the other? That, it seems to me, is a huge unanswered question for those who insist on employing such parallels in their rhetoric.

          As to the evidence, I present two.

          1. By God, I and the whole classical Western philosophical tradition along with me, means something that exists differently than other things. All the things we can experience directly are contingent, but it is logically incoherent that reality consists only in contingent things. Therefore there must be some thing that exists somehow else, in a way that can ground all the contingent things. That “thing” is what we mean by God. Now, I don’t expect you will accept my argument, but it is disingenuous to suggest that anyone would use such an argument to prove the Tooth Fairy.

          2. I, and many many people in history, have experienced a relationship with God. We have learned to recognize God’s action in our lives, our relationships and in history itself. We are not, by any other standard, mentally disrupted. Billions of otherwise sane people have this experience. Is it possible that they are all deluded? Yes. Is it likely. I think not, but we can differ on that. The point, for our discussion, is: this could never be used to prove the Tooth Fairy. Those of us who “experienced” the Tooth Fairy have found far better explanations for that experience than the story we were told as children. Some of those who have experienced God think they have found a better explanation for that experience, but most have not. And the difference between these two groups does not seem at all linked by any other measure to maturity, intelligence, mental illness or anything else. Many very healthy, stable, intelligent adult people believe they experience God. You may think they are wrong. But no one can suggest that many very healthy, stable and intelligent adult people believe they experience the Tooth Fairy.

          • http://nihilismplusdotcom.wordpress.com Nihilism+

            I think you will find that your whole premise /argument is based on a few logical fallacies.

            Ones argument is not bolstered by appealing to the amount of people who hold the belief or the amount of time that belief has been held. Your claim

            Advances in neurology and psychology perfectly explain human tendency to “religion” or something that mirrors it such as other political ideologies etc.

            Throughout history surprisingly that which we attributed to the “supernatural” has been explained by recourse to purely naturalistic processes.

            The time to “believe” something is when their is compelling evidence to support it.

            The rhetoric comparing your “god” to the “tooth fairy” may seem abhorrent. Taking away societal understandings of the phenomenon they are both as I have said supported by the same type and amount of evidence.

            Perhaps I can reword the question.

            Can you show me the difference between your God and something that does not exist?

            Before that however, can you first provide your best evidence that you claim supports a “god” or “gods” now please?

            Regards

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

            I have given you my best evidence already. You ignored my comments about contingency and misread my comments about experience. Viz., I did not argue that something is true because many people believe in it, which is indeed a logical fallacy. I argued that many sane and healthy people experience it, and that I see no evidence for thinking them all deluded, which is not a logical fallacy. It is, of course, possible that they are all deluded, as I acknowledged. I expected we would differ on our evaluation of whether that is very likely.

            I didn’t expect you to accept my argument from contingency, but I also didn’t expect you to completely ignore the fact that I had written it. That was a shocker. I consider the argument from contingency my best evidence that God exists. It does not apply to “gods,” which are another thing entirely, as the argument itself makes plain, the “gods” being contingent things.

            You have also continued to ignore the basic problem I highlight in the original post. I’ve played along for a bit here, but I think it is only fair for you to address my first question to you if this is to continue.

          • http://nihilismplusdotcom.wordpress.com Nihilism+

            “I have given you my best evidence already.”

            If that is the case I am rather disappointed. It seems a rather pathetic evidence thus far.

            “You ignored my comments about contingency and misread my comments about experience”.

            I have merely pointed out such arguments are incredibly poor and not demonstrative of anything.

            “I did not argue that something is true because many people believe in it, which is indeed a logical fallacy. I argued that many sane and healthy people experience it, and that I see no evidence for thinking them all deluded, which is not a logical fallacy”.

            This is not a logical fallacy but a non sequitur.

            “It is, of course, possible that they are all deluded, as I acknowledged. I expected we would differ on our evaluation of whether that is very likely.”

            This is irrelevant. The state of their health, the amount of people any other detail is not demonstrative of anything.

            Lets go back to your first rather unfortunately worded question.

            “But what really baffles me is how the person who asserts this kind of thing accounts for the fact that philosophy departments consider the question of God’s existence a real question. If it actually is as simple as you suggest, why all the fuss?”

            So am I to think your “evidence” is that philosophers throughout time have questioned the idea of the possibility of “god”? And that because it is still a question (among plethora other existential questions) are still being thought about that this “fuss” somehow points to their actually being a “god”?

            Have I got that right?

            If so I would like to use it in argument for a multitude of other things to show you quite how shallow and redundant such thinking is.

            I would also like to sell you a car. 😉

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

            “So am I to think your “evidence” is that philosophers throughout time have questioned the idea of the possibility of “god”? And that because it is still a question (among plethora other existential questions) are still being thought about that this “fuss” somehow points to their actually being a “god”?

            Have I got that right?”

            Nope. In fact you’re not even close.

            I gave no evidence for God’s existence until you asked for some. (Which you then ignored, in one case, and misrepresented, in the other.) In the post itself, I merely pointed out how silly it is to compare belief in God with belief in the tooth fairy when no intelligent and sane adult believes in the tooth fairy, and many believe in God, and many more consider it a very serious and difficult question.

            My argument in this post has never been about God’s existence. Indeed, even when I provided the evidence you asked for, I was very careful to note that, while I did not expect you to agree with it, that it was not, in either case, the kind of evidence one could invoke in support of belief in the tooth fairy.

            My argument has been simply that the assertion that belief in God is intellectually equivalent to belief in Santa Claus is false, and so obviously false as to beg the question of the honesty of the person making it.

            I’m honestly not sure how you could have missed that.

          • http://nihilismplusdotcom.wordpress.com Nihilism+

            Ok my apologies. That is why I wanted to clarify I was correct in my analysis. Please repost the evidence for God for me as I think I missed it.

            I have stated that it is objectively the same amount and type of evidence that supports “God” as that of other things that you believe do not exist.

            It is perhaps silly to use the “santa” or “fairy” analogy. I can see if you are of the opinion that which you believe is actually “real” it is annoying.

            I would like to posit that some of the annoyance is due to an internal realization that they are on the same intellectual level when it all boils down to it.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

            Thanks Nihilism.

            “I would like to posit that some of the annoyance is due to an internal realization that they are on the same intellectual level when it all boils down to it.”

            The thing about a statement like this is that it lacks any evidence at all. It is pure assertion. In order to make this even plausible (let alone to demonstrate its truth) you’d need to show that the structure of belief in God and in Santa are the same. To do that you’d need to show that something like the argument from contingency used for God applies just as well to Santa. And you’d have to do that for all serious arguments for God. The fact that university philosophy departments treat these arguments as serious inquiry, whether one is a believer or not, means, at the very least, that you have a pretty serious task. It is the unwillingness to engage in that task that annoys me about Richard Dawkins et al., not the fact that he disagrees with me and makes fun of me.

          • http://nihilismplusdotcom.wordpress.com Nihilism+

            Sorry missed that messages second half! My bad! I am reading the evidences now.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

            Great!
            Just remember, I already know you don’t believe them. The point under discussion is not whether they convince you, but whether they would apply to the tooth fairy in the same way as they apply to God.

          • http://nihilismplusdotcom.wordpress.com Nihilism+

            Cool. Again my apologies for speaking out of turn. I would like to explore this further soon. Having a busy spell

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

            I’ve been busy too. Looking forward to your next.

            [Kindly make your next comment at the bottom of the comments instead of replying to this one so our exchange is not such a pain to read. It seems the rest of the conversation has died away so we can just keep adding to the bottom. Make sense?]

          • http://nihilismplusdotcom.wordpress.com Nihilism+

            Sorry! Read this after last one! It really is interminable isn’t it.

            I will reply in whichever you choose :)

          • http://nihilismplusdotcom.wordpress.com Nihilism+

            Apologies again for using multi message boxes. I will reply in whatever you use next for the duration.

            I am not arguing that they are equally convincing either, only that they are supported by the same weak types of evidence and thus do not justify “belief”.

            I want to have as accurate a model of reality as possible. As of yet such “evidence” only seems sufficient to bolster the belief of those already convinced of the conclusion.

            Why do you think they are insufficient to convince me? Why are they convincing to you?

          • http://nihilismplusdotcom.wordpress.com Nihilism+

            The presumption that their are such categories as “contingent” and “uncontingent” seems unsupported and such your evidence is already on shaky ground.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

            Interesting.

            To me, it seems obvious that things we experience in everyday life and in the history of the universe are contingent in the sense that the may have existed and they may not have. Can you explain how you see that as a kind of false category?

            (By the way, I’m going just with contingent for now on the grounds that if that idea is coherent, its opposite takes on meaning. Just as if heat is a real category, cold, as its lack, becomes intelligible.)

          • http://nihilismplusdotcom.wordpress.com Nihilism+

            Sorry only short reply. We have evidence that things do exist. Not so much that they do not. Their is still only one category.

          • http://nihilismplusdotcom.wordpress.com Nihilism+

            I think we have evidence that they do exist and no evidence that they have ever not. Thus their is only one “category”. It seems like the imposition of a second (or perhaps more that have yet to be suggested) category is used to bolster arguments that are unjustified with the evidence available.

            “Heat” and “cold” are not seperate categories either. Their is only one here also. “Temperature”

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

            Hmm. Well, perhaps there is only heat. But there is, then, absolute zero, i.e. the possibility of no heat (i.e., movement) at all.
            But whether that analogy works perfectly or not, it still seems that you are equating contingency with existence. But that’s not what contingency means. It is hard to argue about whether or not contingency implies non-contingency if we’re not using the word contingent to mean, well, contingent.

            It is not that we need some kind of evidence that things are not existing. (I rather suspect that that is actually an incoherence. And I suspect we agree on that.) It is that it is perfectly clear that the existing things that we encounter everyday need not exist. That is a very different kind of claim than that there is a category of things that do not exist.

            If one wants to argue that all the things that do exist must exist, one is free to do so. At least that would be addressing the argument using the terms in the way the argument itself does. But that, it seems to me, is a very difficult argument to make for reasons I mention above.

          • http://nihilismplusdotcom.wordpress.com Nihilism+

            I am not equating contingency with existence. I find the idea of “contingency” in this context an incoherence as their is nothing to suggest such a state exists.

            I think the “incoherence” in their not being evidence that things are not existing illuminates my point. The categories suggested by the hypothesis of contingent/non contingent only seem to serve as justification for the God you wish to add unnecessarily to the equation. It all seems rather inelegant.

  • Agellius

    I say blind, to give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s not a lying sack of potatoes.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

    Brett, I think the answer is both/and rather than an either or. Also, there may be something more complex going on here. Let me illustrate this with an example from the other end of the spectrum, as it were. Some years ago, Richard Doerflinger from the USCCB was the keynote speaker at a pro-life gathering in the diocese where I was living. He gave what I imagine was some version of his stump speech, aimed at his audience. During the speech, listening critically, I felt he made a number of hyperbolic statements and over-simplifications some of which verged on stereotyping pro-choice opponents. During the Q&A I challenged him on one these. The tone of his answer was completely different: thoughtful, detailed and acknowledging that people can hold bad positions (in this case on embryonic stem cell research) from good motives. However, as soon as he was done speaking directly to me, he reverted to his former form with the rest of the questions.

    So it was clear to me that Mr. Doerflinger did not believe his weaker arguments. This is reinforced by the more moderate positions he has taken in public statements or op-ed pieces. But I cannot go to the other pole and say that he was cynically manipulating his audience. For whatever reason he chose, with this kind of audience (his “base” in political cant) to use these kinds of weaker, emotionally laden arguments.

    To be fair with Richard Dawkins, I might suggest that he has done the same thing. For whatever reason, he has decided to eschew the nuance required to discuss atheism, philosophy and theology on an intellectual level, and has instead gone for the rhetorical arguments that appeal (on an emotional level) to his base (or “neckbeards” as my son Francisco derisively puts it) and which also serve to put his opponents on the defensive.

    Christopher Hitchens used a similar technique. Any time there was a discussion that involved Orthodox Judaism (or even if he could move it in that direction), he would bring up the story of NY mohels giving herpes to new born males by licking the fresh circumcision wound. Nevermind that this was a rare occurrence and had little relevance for a discussion of the truths of Judaism: he did it as a rhetorical move to discomfit his opponent and let him control the discussion.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

      Excellent David. Thank you.

      I am reminded of Dawkins behaving rather civilly in his discussion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. It made it difficult to believe he actually thought the man an imbecile that believes in mermaids.

      Indeed, the idea that he does not believe his weaker arguments has great explanatory power. For instance, I suspect my current atheist interlocutor on this post would simply not be my interlocutor if the discussion were about the Tooth Fairy, even though he asserts that the two things are identical. If he actually believed that, he wouldn’t be engaging me here. Ergo, he does not actually believe that.

  • Andrew

    I think that there is a third possibility, which is similar to the first but not identical to it. It may be that these arguments either for and against the existence of God are not actually driven by reasoning nearly so much as by psychology.

    I have an atheist friend at work who is very open to peaceful discussion of the topic of God’s existence. She finds my description of God, as I see Him, as reasonable, even appealing at times. However, in the end she cannot bring herself to believe in such a thing because she just has no innate sense that there’s anything there. That spark of insight / faith that we religious types have when we first hear about God, that sense of, “Oh yes, that makes sense! I’ve always felt that it was that way!” — she doesn’t have the slightest glimmer of. I consider myself to have successfully evangelized to the extent that she now considers religion to be something a reasonable person can profess, but I probably would never be able to get her to convert, say, because the barrier in the end is not logical. It is psychological.

    What I have come to suspect is that the convincingness of these arguments depends ultimately on one’s psychological inclination with regard to God’s existence.

    Someone who has an innate sense that God’s existence SEEMS reasonable will inherently find the Tooth Fairy argument to be a weak one. I think this is exemplified in Brett’s post when he describes it as “so patently false it is hard to know exactly what to do with it.” It’s not just wrong, it’s patently and obviously wrong, because there is an innate sense that existence of God is reasonable and that it is a categorically different thing than the Tooth Fairy. Brett provides reasons why they are different, but I think that, at least for most of us, the reasons exist to bolster the innate sense of God that we already have. Our reasoning is not so much to form a conclusion as to support a conclusion that we have already intuited.

    Likewise, for those who feel innately that God just SEEMS like such an unlikely possibility, the Tooth Fairy argument is very strong. It is so innately obvious to them that God and the Tooth Fairy belong in the same category, it is impossible to see how anyone could think otherwise. And likewise, they will point to their reasoning (neither God nor the Tooth Fairy is based on empirical evidence, the existence of great thinkers who believe in God is just an argument from authority, etc.), but again the reasons merely support the conclusion already formed by their psychology.

    So it may unfortunately be that the Tooth Fairy argument is not even that “bad” (or at least, not worse than some arguments in favor of religious belief), but the psychology of religious people such as ourselves prevents us from seeing it as otherwise. I say “unfortunately” because, if this is so, then it suggests that there is a great gulf of understanding and mind-set between theists and atheists that logical reasoning cannot cross. It may be that there are limits to the power of argumentation and apologetics in the efforts towards evangelization.

    • http://turmarion.wordpress.com turmarion

      Mortimer Adler said something like this decades ago. He was raised Jewish, but became non-practicing in his youth. Later, as he progressed in his philosophical studies, he became an Aristotelian-Thomist philosopher, writing books on this and joining various Thomist associations. He even wrote How to Think About God, which outlined, at greater length and for a lay audience, the proof for God given by Brett above. Through it all, he continued to describe himself as a pagan, which he defined as someone who does not server or worship the God of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.

      When people would ask him why he could say that God can be argued, beyond a reasonable doubt, to exist, and yet remained a pagan, he answered that he lacked faith. That is, he believed God existed, but he had no motivation to develop a relationship with God or to serve him. His belief was in the intellect, not the in the heart; or as he put it, I think, it was a dead faith.

      Years later, when he was hospitalized and nearly died, he had an experience in which he found himself beginning to pray (this story is detailed in the book Philosophers Who Believe). He had an experience of faith and connection to God for the first time in his life, though he’d believed in the existence of God for a long time. He eventually joined the Episcopal Church, and late in his life became Catholic.

      It’s really mysterious. Two people can understand the same ideas, and sometimes even have what could be described as religious experiences; and yet one responds and the other doesn’t. I agree that temperament and the working of the mind are a big factor in this. That’s one of many reasons I tend towards universalism. It appears clear to me, both philosophically and from discussion with atheists I’ve known, that some people are just literally incapable of belief, through no fault of their own, no matter how much they’re evangelized. It seems as if it would be pointlessly cruel for God to make people who are unable to believe and then damn them for not believing. It’s an interesting concept.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

        This has an interesting connection with the two proofs I offered above. I acknowledge that the second proof is much less conclusive because it is more open to other possible explanations. Nevertheless, I am compelled by the second one because the first one so convicts me that the second seems more likely. For his part Adler seems to have been able to recognize his experience of God for what it was because he was philosophically convinced of God’s existence in the first place.

        • Andrew

          I find this fascinating. Although I am Catholic, I have never found the contingency argument to be as compelling as you do. I think the argument is correct, but primarily useful as a way to understand the nature of God AFTER I have already believed in Him, and not particularly persuasive to me as a reason for belief in the first place. I think this is further evidence that there is a significant psychological aspect to how we adopt these arguments.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

            I feel that way about the ontological argument.

      • Mark

        I have no idea, turmarion, how you can speak of people not being at fault for who they are. That’s the only thing anyone can be at fault for!! All responsibility even *means* is that the results of our own particular nature/character accrue to *us* because who else are they going to accrue to??

        Salvation isn’t some magical *extrinsic* reward superadded. It’s intrinsic, it is nothing other than the happiness that comes from being a virtuous character. I don’t care what agency denying causes you posit for why someone might, for example, despair. The fact remains they ARE despairing, and such a state of mind is itself Hell regardless of who else you might try to blame in forming their character. They’re still the ones responsible for their character, because only they ultimately experience the consequences of BEING such a character.

        Any notion of responsibility/culpability other than this is incoherent and sentimentalist.

        • http://turmarion.wordpress.com turmarion

          All responsibility even *means* is that the results of our own particular nature/character accrue to *us* because who else are they going to accrue to??

          This sounds like soft determinism–you can’t help who or what you are, or have true agency, but you still deserve reward or punishment. if that’s what you’re saying, well, I’ve never thought soft determinism was logically coherent.

          If agency is is not, in some way, integral to salvation, then in effect you have the classic Calvinist God, who damns and saves arbitrarily, with no regard to whether the damned and saved deserve it or not. Such a god, in my mind, is a monster. True, in one sense no one deserves salvation; but we have not traditionally taught that salvation is arbitrary, either. There is a synergy between the human, who must respond to grace, and God, who bestows it.

          If there are things over which one has no control, no agency–then it would seem unjust for God to damn one over such things. If you look at is as a state–despair is not “my fault”, but it results in a Hellish state of mind–then it still seems morally questionable of God to create a person whose nature and nurture results in such a state.

          Summary: If you are saying that Hell–either as condemnation from God or the natural outcome of a person’s constitution–is just even if there is no agency involved, then I say that’s equivalent to the Calvinist predestination, and I vehemently disagree. If you’re saying that there is always agency, no matter what, then that’s an assertion that cannot be proved or disproved, but I’m inclined to disagree with you (though I can’t prove I’m right).

        • Mark

          I’m saying agency is nothing other than the fact that the consequences of being a certain type of person…accrue to the person, because we all have to live with ourselves. If a person has a miserable constitution, we can truly speak of them *deserving* to be miserable because the very concept of justice or deservingness is nothing other than something like principle of identity: a miserable sort of person will be miserable! This is “justice” because it is *logic*: the principle of non-contradiction. I don’t care what sorts of causes you attribute their misery (which is to say, their inner disintegration) to…the fact remains that such a person will be substantially unhappy, because unhappiness is nothing other than the state of such inner unreconciliation, of not being able to live (happily) with oneself. And this unhappiness is by definition just, because it proves the consistency of the universe: miserable things are miserable, the principle of non-contradiction is not violated. This is moral responsibility. It’s the fact that a miserable soul’s misery is only, in the end, attributable to its own nature (either temporary or permanent) as a miserable soul. That’s the thing you don’t seem to be getting: subjects are not objects! Because of conscious, because of subjective *experience*…the consequences of being unhappy accrue only to the unhappy one. I don’t care who broke a child, as I might with who broke a vase. You can shake your fist at heaven all you want, the fact remains: it is the broken person, no one else, who has to live every moment AS a broken person. A subject is unlike an object inasmuch as the nature of subjectivity is such that we alone are responsible for our inner states (exactly because, by definition, only we live with the consequences, which are nothing other than the fact of having to experience those inner states!)

          The ultimate reward and the ultimate punishment are in the end the same: living with yourself. I don’t care if you were abused or your parents were bad…if you wind up unable to live (happily) with yourself, then by definition YOU are the one who will, exactly, be unable to live with yourself. God isn’t going to swoop in deus ex machina at the moment of death and suddenly make you internally coherent if such a thing is discontinuous with who and what you are, who and what you became. No one will stop you from being you, the identity principle will not be violated. And if “being you” is a miserable thing to be…I don’t know what else you expect or what good trying to externalize the agency of this fact does.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

            This is a great description of reality without grace.

            But I think grace transcends this. It doesn’t overrule it or contradict it. But it transcends it. God doesn’t swoop in to change you against your freedom, but engages your freedom in love. It might hurt though.

  • Mark

    Obviously, a lot of this rests on notions of “God” being supposed as some anthropomorphized Being among other beings (that many theists don’t seem to realize that our anthropomorphic language is by analogy only doesn’t help).

    When of course we’re talking about an abstract (though certainly personal) metaphysical category beyond Being, beyond the Being/Non-Being distinction, beyond the Possible/Impossible distinction, indeed one probably should say beyond even the God/Not-God distinction (God is not a straightforward self-identity).

    These people have no problem believing in Justice or Goodness or understanding how these things work as realities (not *things*, not items or objects, but realities). They understand how such concepts are useful, are meaningful (and thus real) as “fields,” as it were, for explaining human behavior and experience.

    And then they go off the rails thinking “God” means some magic wizard in the sky like they’re clever 9 year olds who have realized there is no Santa Claus…

    • Tanco

      Mark [January 7, 2016 11:17 pm]: “And then they go off the rails thinking “God” means some magic wizard in the sky like they’re clever 9 year olds who have realized there is no Santa Claus…

      I fully agree with you Mark that anthropomorphic-biased language greatly hinders the thought-development of theism and a-theism (always emphasize the α-privative). In the latter quoted case, it’s important to understand that the “entry level” of discussion about a/theism must necessarily be a play-acted, childish God such as you have mentioned.

      This is not necessarily detrimental. Story time: fifteen or so years ago I got “invited” to go to Medjugorje. I agree with the local prelate and the Vatican that Medjugorje is not “authentic” in the manner of Lourdes or Compostela. I didn’t buy the visionary shtick then, and don’t now. The area is geographically beautiful though, and from this backdrop I received some insight and contemplation. So, why are people still shelling out big money to go to a supposed pilgrimage site that has been rejected by the Holy See?

      Lourdes is a tourist trap, with a gazillion tchotchke shops crammed at the base of the hill of the holy site. Medjugorje tours, on the other hand, are usually conducted in small groups with a guide or two (often priests or religious). At Medjugorje, a pilgrim can touch relics without scruples. The ecstatic state is not shared with hundreds, but within a small group.

      A denigration of a “Santa Claus God” as a starting point for serious dialogue neglects to understand that a sensory experience of God as immanent-to-a-person is extremely powerful for many. Not all live in an intellectualization of the a/theistic.

  • http://communitarian-perspective.blogspot.com M.Z.

    It is an interesting question. This arrogance isn’t confined to religion. It isn’t confined to philosophy. At root I think we are dealing with an arrogance begotten by an illusory cheap accessibility of knowledge. In many areas we have the equivalence of someone memorizing baseball cards and calling himself an expert.

    For today’s Internet prodigies, a group for which I am a member, knowledge is not in the nuance of a subject, but in a 2 or 3 page summary article. I am sure your interlocutor thought he was introducing to you a novel argument. Forget your advanced philosophy training. His 5 minutes of consideration were obviously going to overwhelm you.

  • Thales

    Brett,

    Nice post, and great question. I really don’t know the answer, but I agree with the thoughts of others in the comments.

    Tangentially related to your post, I wanted to share one thought that came to mind. For me, I have often found great support in my own personal faith life, in the fact that there are many, many people who are smarter/more intelligent/wiser than me and who believe in God. In other words, my own faith has been confirmed to me by the fact that the most intelligent and thoughtful people who I know of tell me that there is God, that Jesus is His Son, and that Jesus established the Catholic Church. If the smartest and wisest people I know think the Church is True, then that gives me greater confidence in my faith.

    (I don’t find Dawkins to be particularly intelligent and/or wise, in part for the reason you mention in your post. The fact that obviously brilliant intellects like Thomas Aquinas believed in God should give someone like Dawkins or Nihilism pause — no pause is a sign of a non-thoughtful, or non-educated, or intellectually dishonest mind, in my opinion.)

  • http://www.paxetbonum.de Ralf OFS

    Brett, this ist not a problem of theology or personal experience or relationship – you won’t convince any atheist with this.

    It is rather a problem of epistemology. What can we know? What can we hold for certain to be true?

    Most atheists I have spoken with only “believe” in the truth of statements that can be falsified, not only theoretically (though this is a minimal requirement), but also practically.

    Religious claims cannot be falsified as such – they are thus invalid statements in their view.

    But, the same atheists had to acclaim that statements can be true even though we are not able to falsify them.

    If I say, for instance: “my great grandfather’s great grandfather was blond, left handed and had lost a leg in an accident” – this statement can be true or not be true, either or. It cannot be falsified but still be true.

    The point is: this statement’s “truth” is at the same time highly irrelevant.

    And no we come close to the real problem: who determines whether a claim is relevant for myself? There were non-believing philosophers who say the enormous relevance of the question of God and fought it through intellectually, and coming to different conclusions, and still there are. But if an atheist doesn’t see the relevance of this question for him or her personally – don’t discuss

  • Mark VA

    A follow up thought occurred to me:

    I would like to see a panel discussion someday between atheists on one side, and on the other those who went thru a near death experience (NDE), together with the scientists studying such phenomena (such as those at IANDS):

    http://iands.org/nde-stories/audiovideo-accts.html

    I think too many discussions of this type take place at the more rarefied altitudes of philosophy (no slight to the philosophers among us intended). Perhaps a more empirical approach, with this type of flesh and blood data (and I find this data utterly fascinating), would “cycle” such discussions to more observable levels.

  • Thales

    I see Nihilism’s comment “The presumption that their are such categories as “contingent” and “uncontingent” seems unsupported and such your evidence is already on shaky ground.”, and I chuckle. I think it’s like someone saying ‘the presumption that there is such categories as “existing being” seems unsupported and such your evidence is already on shaky ground.” The only appropriate response is to poke him in the eye and ask him if he recognizes that my finger exists.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

    Nihilism wrote above:

    “Apologies again for using multi message boxes. I will reply in whatever you use next for the duration.

    I am not arguing that they are equally convincing either, only that they are supported by the same weak types of evidence and thus do not justify “belief”.

    I want to have as accurate a model of reality as possible. As of yet such “evidence” only seems sufficient to bolster the belief of those already convinced of the conclusion.

    Why do you think they are insufficient to convince me? Why are they convincing to you?”

    and

    “Sorry only short reply. We have evidence that things do exist. Not so much that they do not. Their is still only one category.”

    I post them here so that we may engage them without the tiny columns above.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

    I can simply make no sense of the claim that the existence of God is supported by “the same weak types of evidence” as belief in things like the tooth fairy. I mean, I don’t even know any arguments for belief in the tooth fairy! This strikes me as nothing more than a rhetorical trick. I really can’t parse it as anything else. I’m not trying to be a jerk, I just can’t see how people can say stuff like this and mean it.

    As to whether the evidence I present justifies belief, that strikes me as a much more serious question. My whole concern is that this very good question is not actually addressed when people compare these arguments to (non-existent) arguments for tooth fairies for rhetorical purposes.

    I don’t think it is true that such arguments convince only those who already hold the beliefs in question. I think it is pretty clear historically that there are lots of examples of people changing their minds about God’s existence (in both directions!) based on arguments. That said, it is also true that for most people on both sides arguments for their current position seem to look a lot more appealing.

    As far as I can tell, that’s human nature. It takes a lot to overturn a whole worldview.

    I am actually pretty leery about guessing why they don’t convince another person. I can only take them at their word and do my best to make sure we are actually understanding each other. My big problem with the tooth fairy business is that it is actually an impediment to such understanding and so we are left to assume that the reason a person disagrees with us is because they are some combination of stupid and dishonest. I’d rather not. Let’s at least work to ensure that we at least understand what the person on the other side actually thinks. That’s a major goal for me in this post.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

    As to categories, I think you have misunderstood what I meant by contingency. I am not talking about things that exist and things that don’t. I am simply talking of things that do exist but need not have. It seems to me that the opposite of this is a very strict determinism that is rooted in ideology rather than based on any evidence. To me all the evidence points to the truth that all the things we encounter might well not have existed. To argue otherwise would have to include not only a strict determinism, but also a demonstration that we’re all deceived all the time. That strikes me as a tall order.

  • Agellius

    I hope I don’t disrupt progress if I jump in. I wonder if Nihilism+ is thinking of “evidence” strictly in the scientific sense. In that sense, I can see his point that the “evidence” for God is of the same type as that for the tooth fairy, i.e. non-scientific.

    But the argument from contingency does not purport to be “evidence” in that sense. It’s an argument. It’s the difference, in a murder trial, between a hair or a blood spot on the one hand, and the lawyers arguing about what the hair and the blood spot mean, on the other. Do they point to the guilt of the defendant? Or do we have some reason to believe they don’t? This is argument.

    The “evidence” in the argument from contingency — corresponding with the hair and the blood — is the fact that everything in our experience is in fact contingent. This means that there is nothing we can point to and say, “There is no way that could have ever not existed.” I could have not existed, this blog could have not existed, the United States could have not existed. The whole earth could have not existed.

    From this evidence, we proceed to argue that everything must have its cause or source in something non-contingent — something that could not have not-existed. The argument is not evidence, but the drawing of conclusions from the evidence, using logic.

    As Brett has pointed out, there is nothing like this type of argument, based on this type of evidence, in favor of the existence of the tooth fairy.