[Turing] Atheist Answer #12

[Turing] Atheist Answer #12 July 7, 2011

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

What’s your best reason for being an atheist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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