Whether or not a supernatural force we generally refer to as God exists remains one of the most important philosophical questions to humans. And while social sciences (anthropology, sociology, cognitive science of religion, etc.) have revealed much about the “why” behind religious beliefs, and despite methodological naturalism in science not requiring the extraneous factors associated with the god hypothesis, many remain spellbound by the meaning belief in God provides.
However, careful scrutiny of god beliefs is important. Belief in a supernatural intentional agency is a huge assumption (rather, a series of assumptions). It isn’t a scientific hypothesis, but due to the implications of the premises and claims, it should be treated as if it were a scientific hypothesis, and thus subjected to rigorous inquiry and systematic testing. We shouldn’t just assume such a belief is true, cherry-pick confirming evidence, insulate it from disconfirming evidence, shift the burden of proof onto critics, and then buttress the belief with cognitive and logical errors such as anomaly hunting, subjective validation, circular reasoning, and appeals to ignorance.
Enter Justin Schieber, noted skeptic of religious claims. I recently had a chance to discuss philosophy, atheism, and gods with the former co-host of “Reasonable Doubts,” the popular skeptic radio show and podcast. I appreciate the nuance and well-calculated perspective he takes regarding these matters. Schieber brings a charitable yet firm resolve to the table many could learn from.
Sincere: Have you always been skeptical of religious claims centered on god beliefs? What led to your current atheistic position?
Justin: I was not always skeptical of religious claims. I, like most others early in life, had inherited the beliefs of my parents. They were Christians and so was I. I was raised in the church but it wasn’t until around the age of 12 that I began to take my faith seriously. A few years after this shift in me, the doubts crept in. The more fantastic stories of the biblical text were becoming increasingly difficult to genuinely imagine happening in the real world and to real people like you and me. The struggle was real. I tried to fight these doubts as any person of faith would but I lost. This then led me down a long path from apatheism to obnoxious, firebrand atheism then finally to my current approach which I hope is more measured, careful, and fair-minded. My current view is that I want God as classically conceived to exist. She probably doesn’t though and I think that’s unfortunate – the world would be a radically different and better place.
SK: As a philosophile, I’m someone who greatly appreciates the intellectual ingenuity and rigor that goes into philosophy in general. Why do you think philosophy is important?
JS: In my view, part of the importance of philosophy comes from the fact that it doesn’t shy away from examining those assumptions which undergird much of what people are liable to take as a given. From common notions of causality to the nature of moral obligation, philosophy challenges us to plunge deep into our conceptual landscape – the surface on which most only casually stroll. It can also have profound practical implications. Studying, contemplating, and interacting with ideas in ethics can be not only a source of personal improvement and intellectual fulfillment but it can also help bring about real and positive social change. Further, the study of philosophy has turned me into a more careful thinker than I would have otherwise been. The set of cognitive and communicative skills such a hobby tends to foster are applicable in nearly every aspect of human life.
SK: I’ve had plenty discussions and disagreements with individuals who hold science in high regard yet depreciate philosophy as if science were a wholly separate enterprise. You have some, like John Searle, who view them as not being distinct due to philosophical presupposition and implications that go into every scientific inquiry. What are your views on this?
JS: Yes, I’ve noticed that in my own discussions with the more scientifically inclined. I tend to agree with Searle here in that I don’t think we can – or should seek to – draw a hard line between ‘science’ and ‘philosophy’. Those two bushes of inquiry cannot be untangled. Even the most obviously ‘scientific’ investigation rests on a bed of philosophical assumptions that cannot themselves be demonstrated by any sort of scientific method we have. Further, any responsible philosopher will bring into his research the best and most current science when relevant. Regrettably, it seems that in pointing this out to anti-philosophy folks, I’m rarely met with much more than an eye-roll. The truth is, for all the amazing technological successes science has bestowed upon us, it hasn’t yet built a machine allowing it to pull itself up by its own bootstraps severing it from its philosophical foundation. This need not be thought of as a bad thing.
SK: I’m a big fan of the work you do with Real Atheology. Please explain how this project got started, what Real Atheology entails, and why you think exploring the philosophy of religion is important for atheists.
JS: First of all, thank you for the compliment and for the excellent content you produce here at Notes from an Apostate. The idea for Real Atheology came out of the few years I spent co-hosting the Reasonable Doubts Podcast. For a number of primarily practical reasons, that show had to come to an end. However, my interest in the philosophy of religion was really just beginning. I knew I was going to keep researching, discussing, and participating in public debates on the topic so I figured I might as well put out some content as well.
Unfortunately, many atheists I know–or come across on the Internet–think the philosophy of religion is stupid, meaningless, or a waste of time. And yet, these same persons continue doing philosophy of religion – they just do it very poorly.
I’ve decided then to make Real Atheology as a tool for atheists (and theists too!) as an extremely easy way to explore the contemporary philosophy of religion in some detail but through the magic of YouTube videos. The goal here is decidedly not to deconvert anybody or to laugh at creationists – it’s merely to elevate the atheistic discussion past the constant barrage of ‘God of the Gaps!’ accusations and references to anthropomorphic spaghetti dinners in place of real argument. There is a ton of really interesting work going on in the philosophy of religion and I hope I can present a small part of it in a way that’ll help others with their own thinking on these topics.
Justin Schieber enjoys promoting a friendly, yet firm, skepticism toward religious claims. He regularly lectures on the philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God and participates in many public debates throughout the United States and Canada. Follow him @Justinsweh.