Too Simple Skepticism

Too Simple Skepticism June 25, 2012

This was the sign I carried to Reason Rally back in March

Over at Bitchspot, a blogger named Cephus has been fisking my About Me section (which I’ll get around to updating soon) to try to spot the roots of my errors.  I’m not really interested in counter-fisking, but right near the end, Cephus cogently summarized an argument I’ve seen elsewhere, that I’d quite like to address.  I’m the double-indent, Cephus follows.

So welcome to the conversation. Play nice, but play to win. And don’t be afraid to show your hand. If you’re doing someone a service by pointing out their errors, be grateful when someone catches you out in one.

The problem is, the skeptic, if acting in a consistent skeptical manner, has very few errors to be caught. Skepticism is a methodology, not a belief system. It examines claims rationally, it looks for objective evidence, it seeks to remove emotional biases and if all of it’s standards are not met, the claim is rejected, at least temporarily, until the evidence becomes more clear.

I think Cephus, like a lot of people, isn’t making an appropriate tradeoff between false positives and false negatives.  The extreme skeptic does fall into error if she withholds belief from something that is true.  Think of a too-insecure lover, who refuses to believe the professions of the beloved.  Or get a little less romantic, and think of a climate change skeptic, who thinks the evidence isn’t strong enough to necessitate changing our way of life.  Or the evangelicals with a really strange pitch that I met at Reason Rally.

Now, in each case, Cephus might claim that the person is using skepticism wrongly, and I wouldn’t disagree.  But if these people and others are excluded from the ranks of skeptics, we’re getting pretty close to defining a skeptic as someone whose beliefs are correct.  Well, sign me up!

But at that point, it’s a little anti-climatic to only define skeptics in terms of their method.  I want to know the beliefs that passed the test.  After all, that’s part of how we judge the use of any method or test: does it return the right answers for the test cases we’re really sure of?  (Cue a debate on which propositions we can use as test cases).

Defining yourself solely as a skeptic is as bizarre as defining yourself solely as an atheist.  Everyone has a system of ethics, a philosophy, a metaphysics.  When I was an atheist, it wasn’t skepticism or atheism that I really needed to defend.  I was defending stoicism and deontological ethics for a while, then I lost and ended up defending virtue ethics.  I was defending radical forgiveness.  I was attacking the way we ask people in certain careers to be scapegoats in the old sense, people who dirty their hands so we can stay pure.

I could be wrong about those, prefer to be pretty upfront about what my best guess is and then caveat by talking about the confidence intervals I’d throw around it.  I’m not actually in a state of equipoise when I don’t have rigorous, logical proof.  I did one interview (that I’m having trouble tracking down online) with a Christian interlocutor and this is my best recollection of one exchange:

Q: Wasn’t it very arrogant to call yourself an atheist?  I mean you didn’t have proof that God didn’t exist.  You were really agnostic.

A: I believe there’s not microbial life on Mars, and I’ve spent a lot less time investigating that than I have reading about religion.  I may not have proof, but I have a best guess based on evidence, and if I said something else, I’d be lying.

I don’t think skeptics-identifying-only-as-skeptics are lying, but I think they’re not putting all their cards on the table, which makes it a lot harder to be corrected if you’re wrong or convert your opponent if you’re right.

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  • PJ

    “Religion is an entirely emotional, non-intellectual pursuit. It has nothing to do with being smart, in fact, people have to compartmentalize their beliefs away from the rest of their intellectual lives because the two do not mix. Where they may be entirely rational, logical and critical people in other aspects of their lives, with religion they simply cannot be and remain religious.”

    Well, this comes as a surprise to a person like me, who read his way into Christianity, and was quite disappointed to give up my Dionysian exploits. In fact, converting was in many ways a negative emotional experience. It distressed family and friends and required a degree of self-discipline that was totally alien to my nature.

    Furthermore, I don’t know many brainy Christians who “compartmentalize their beliefs away from the rest of their intellectual lives because the two do not mix.” The opposite is typically the case: Christianity pervades their thinking in all aspects of life — ‘intellectual’ or otherwise. This is, at least, my situation. Christ is the Light which illumines every thought, every emotion, every decision, every intuition. Certainly, this seems also the way with intellects greater than my own. Need I list again the great Catholic artists, scientists, and philosophers whose work is permeated, motivated, and colored by their wonderful faith?

    • Joelle Townsend

      Bingo, PJ. Well said.

    • Ted Seeber

      PJ, who are you replying to? I only see two copies of the word “compartmentalize” in 71 comments, and they’re both in yours.

      • PJ

        I was replying to that nettlesome fellow Leah linked to: Cephus, at the tastefully named “Bitchspot.”

    • Thoughts: Faith is a jetpack and mountaineering tools is human reason and the mountain is truth. Faith informs everything, and it is the first thing, but it by no means ruins the fun of the second thing. If anything, scoping out a route makes mountaineering quite a lot more satisfying, less Sisyphean.

  • Yakobus


    If I may offer a recommendation for reading and research.

    For what I believe to be a very thorough work on Natural Law Theory, morality, tolerance, sexuality and the differences between the sexes, philosophy, Christian Philosophy, government and political issues in regards to faith all from a Christian and more specifically Catholic perspective; I recommend University of Texas in Austin Government and Philosophy Professor J. Budziszewski. He’s a former nihilist/atheist and has many articles, books and lectures available online in for purchase. His work and personal guidance (which he’s very willing to provide, very humble man) greatly helped me settle much in my struggles with faith and morality and still does. I hope you can check out his work and perhaps even contact him.

    Some Books:
    On the Meaning of Sex
    Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law
    The Revenge of Conscience
    A Line Through the Heart

    Links to articles and audio:

  • Barbara

    Hi Leah,
    Thank you for going public with your journey. I know many are going to attack you for no other reason than they think you are wrong or misguided. I have seen so much vitriol towards Catholicism as a cradle Catholic, and it gets tiring being attacked. No other faith in the US is slammed more than the Catholicism. I wish you all the best and will pray for you and that your conversion will lead others to do the same. God bless you.

  • keddaw

    Leah, we don’t always need a true answer to know that someone else’s is false.

    Barbara, try walking a mile in a Muslim’s shoes before crying about how badly the Catholics have it in the US. Try going to one of the many states where their (illegal) constitution bars anyone from public office who doesn’t profess a faith in a supreme being, try having an illegal prayer banner removed from a public school.

    • PJ


      I agree (up to a point) about Muslims facing persecution, but as for the prayer banner: Balderdash! Anglo-American common law and jurisprudence are both implicitly and explicitly rooted in Christian morality, and the faith was until quite recently understood as fundamental to the public square. We do not now, nor have we ever, lived under a sectarian government, but up to the late modern era there was a consensus that religion has an important role in the life of the polis. For instance, how many generations of Americans would be aghast to see the total disappearance of most obscenity laws?

      • Martha G

        Another topic I can’t wait for Leah to tackle! Will her thoughts change about prayer in schools now that she has found a particular religion to be True and Righteous?

        • leahlibresco


          • Ted Seeber

            What are Leah’s thoughts about prayer in schools? Should a single atheist *student* have the right to control another *student’s* speech?

          • Hibernia86

            Ted, no they shouldn’t, but the other student, no matter how popular their views, should not get special privileges (say, by posting a special prayer banner) just because they happen to be in the religious majority.

          • Ted Seeber

            What’s preventing the atheist from posting an atheist prayer banner?

          • The US Constitution, so I’m told (we have an established church here, which is much better for furthering the cause of atheism, so perhaps you’d like one of those?)

          • Hibernia86

            Ted, the school wasn’t going to let every religious group put up a banner especially not Atheists because A) they didn’t like Atheists and B) there just wasn’t room. If it was a system where people got to put up banners as they requested them, then that might be fine. But it was a system where the majority religion got special privileges, then that is against the constitution.

          • Ted Seeber

            There’s plenty of room on the walls, that’s a spurious argument. But not liking atheists is an argument to put the banner up, not tear somebody else’s banner down.

        • School prayer, in the hands of Protestants or the gospel of secularism. No thank you. Let the kids get their paganism straight up, thank you very much.

      • Hibernia86

        PJ, I’m sorry, but what you just said is unconstitutional and, in my opinion, against basic American values that we have decided on as a nation. It is not the government’s job to tell us what to pray in school. If you give a specific faith a special spot in public school, then you are breaking the US constitution and deserve to be stopped. If you don’t like it, then vote for an amendment to change the constitution. But I really hope you fail, because religious freedom is one of the backbones of America and it would be a shame to see the government decide which prayer gets priority in a tax supported school.

        • Faramir

          “religious freedom is one of the backbones of America”

          Thank you for saying this, Hibernia; too many people, including many of those who control our politics and media, seem to have forgotten this rather basic fact.

        • Adrian Ratnapala

          Hibernia86 says: PJ, I’m sorry, but what you just said is unconstitutional and,

          The United States Constitution Says: Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;

          I am fairly sure PJ is protected here. But what was I hiding in those …
          .. respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…

          Back to Hibernia86: [PJ’s protected free speech is] in my opinion, against basic American values that we have decided on as a nation.

          Well Hibernia has the right to state his opinion, and I doubt he will bring the Inquisition down upon PJ. However the First Ammendment, especially as it regards religion, is all about not waving pre-decided national values about as political thumping-sticks.

          National values do exist, and are a good thing; and the US constitution does ban public schools from organising prayers, maybe even from tolerating prayer banners. But remember that schools are public places, where all kinds of clubs and knitting societies do their stuff, and sometimes they put up signs about stuff.

          But why bother trying to make people take it down? To jump up and down stamping on something so trivial is to be like some Medieval heresy hunter delighted to find the least transgression from those who he thinks are the enemies of the system.

          • Hibernia86

            Why bother trying to make people take it down? Two reasons:

            A. because they had the benefit of putting it up when no Atheist student would be allowed to put up anything expressing their view on theology. It suggests that their view has government support while mine does not.

            B. The same people who say “why should we care?” are the same ones who would be furious if Muslims got special privileges to put up banners that the Christian students didn’t.

          • Ted Seeber

            Who is preventing A? I’ve never known anybody to ever do so. I’ve known lots of atheists to require taking down prayer banners, but I’ve never seen any Catholic ever say, tear down a poster on Charles Darwin (in fact, most Catholics are Darwinists these days, in his facts if not in his philosophy).

          • Hibernia86

            First, evolution is not the same as Atheism and actually there are plenty of Fundamentalists in the South who would ban the teaching of evolution if they could.

        • MJP

          The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and by extension (through the Fourteenth Amendment), this applies to state governments as well. It is not immediately clear what it means to make a law “respecting an establishment of religion.” Probably the only obvious, uncontroversial thing you can say about it is that it prohibits the establishment of an official national religion (e.g. the Church of England). But until fairly recently in our nation’s history, it would have been inconceivable to most Americans (and to the Supreme Court) to believe that this prohibits any sort of religious displays or expression in state-supported institution. There is really a world of difference between allowing voluntary public prayer on public property during school hours and establishing a state religion.

          No doubt many people now (including you, presumably) read the First Amendment to demand absolute separation of church and state. The Supreme Court has sometimes tended in that direction, although in recent years it has sort of swerved back and forth without much coherence. But if you think that this is a “basic American value that we have decided on as a nation,” you are mistaken.

          • Hibernia86

            Voluntary public prayer on public property is fine. In fact is protected by the constitution. What is NOT fine is saying that certain groups get to have this public prayer and others don’t. That is what the school was doing when it put up a Christain banner when it denied any other religions or nonbelievers the same right.

          • Ted Seeber

            “when it denied any other religions or nonbelievers the same right.”

            Did the other religions or non-believers bother to ask for the right?

          • MJP

            I guess my objection is to the idea that because of the First Amendment, religion is specially disfavored or off-limits in public life (much of which takes place through state-funded institutions). No one seriously thinks that it is unconstitutional for the state to incidentally fund or become entangled with ideas that they disagree with. If a speaker at a high school graduation talks about the important of selflessness, this is likely to alienate or offend the Objectivists in the audience. If the state capitol erects a memorial to Vietnam veterans, this will probably offend anti-militarist Communists who think the soldiers are war criminals. Most people accept that society will publicly express its dominant values through some state-sponsored means, and that this is OK.

            On the other hand, if it were a prayer at the graduation or a nativity scene on the state capitol grounds, I assume you would argue that this is prohibited by the First Amendment. But I think this is reading the term “establishment” much too broadly. There is certainly a line where state support and entanglement become establishment of religion, but these examples are far short of it. And the harm caused by the exclusion of all religious observance in some of the most important areas of public life outweighs the benefit of sparing some discomfort to those who disagree with the dominant values in the society.

          • Hibernia86

            Ted, yes they did.

            MJP, you’ll have a hard time convincing me that there is harm to not having religious observance, but let’s focus on the constitution. The constitution does not say “you shall not establish a political philosophy” but it does say that the government is not allowed to establish a religion. This is because religion was one of the major things fought over in the centuries before America’s foundation and they did not wish to repeat that in America. So that is why we are strict about making sure it is fair for people of all religion or no religion.

        • Oregon Catholic

          There is one glaring inconsistency common to all atheists when they try to tell us that religion has no place in the public sphere and it is a violation of their right to be free of any religious promotion or tolerance by the gov.(as opposed to establishment of a state religion which IS unconstitutional). It is that they forget where the founders of our country said their constitutional rights come from in the first place:

          Preamble to the Declaration of Independence
          When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
          2.1 We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

          Be careful what you ask for in demanding that God be exorcised from government. You may get your wish and then your (now alienable) rights will belong to the gov. to bestow or take as it pleases. You have no appreciation for how much the God you deny is your protector.

          • Hibernia86

            First of all, the Declaration of Independence is not the law of the land. The constitution is. Second, rights do not become alienable just because they are based on something besides a deity. And you are right that I have no appreciation for how much God is my protector just the same as I have no appreciation for how Zeus is my protector or Allah, or Vishnu or Dagda (the god of my ancestors) or any of the other thousands of gods and goddesses.

  • Kyle

    I like your analysis Leah, it does seem that he is putting a much larger penalty on false positives than on false negatives. That might be because of the extreme confidence in his ability to analyze things rationally, while that ability should also be something to be skeptical about.

    I am also reminded of a quote of Chesterton’s from Orthodoxy:

    In actual modern Europe a freethinker does not mean a man who thinks for himself. It means a man who, having thought for himself, has come to one particular class of conclusions, the material origin of phenomena, the impossibility of miracles, the improbability of personal immortality and so on.

    The claim that skepticism is a methodology and not a belief system may have one day held weight, but it seems that the way to recognize a “non-skeptic” now is to find someone who believes in things that the “skeptic” does not.

    • Kristen inDallas

      Well said, plus just look at the word parts. Ism = a belief or adherance to a particular system.
      You can take a skeptiCAL approach to a particular problem, that would be a methodology. SkepticISM as a worldview is a belief. It requires a belief in the correctness of doubt… a belief in the failure of knowledge. I personally find those beliefs pretty unbelievable. But then, that’d be my world view.

  • Phillip

    It’s a question of committing a Type I vs. Type II error. What significance level do we need to reach before accepting and acting on some belief in God? 50%? 10%? 1%? .0000000001%? The lower we set it the greater risk we may run of rejecting a true hypothesis, with whatever risks that may or may not entail. Being a radical skeptic and committing oneself to no beliefs at all would ensure no risk of accepting a false hypothesis (which is always a possibility given the fallibility of both our senses and our reasoning), but that would hardly be rational.

  • Sylvius the Mad

    Beliefs cannot pass the test. Beliefs themselves are fundamentally irrational.

    Based on your recent appearance on CNN, I have two objections to the brief account you offered of your recent conversion.

    First, you said you turned to religion because it offered better answers to moral questions than you could. That’s not sufficient. That they were better answers does not mean they were good enough to cause you to abandon the rational default position of uncertainty. That you can’t explain to your satisfaction how morality works or where it comes from is not suffucient grounds for you to believe any account of that morality that comes along.

    Were I in your position, I expect I would have remained uncertain about the origins of morality, even in the face of Catholic explanations. Because Catholic explanations lack the extraordinarty evidence required to support their extraordinary claims.

    Second, you are a moral realist. You think moral rules are things that exist independently. You think morality is not created by people, but is instead discovered by people. This is also a baseless position. Your morali realism created the situation whereing you found the need to turn to religioj to explain your own position on morality, but your own position on morality was foundationless.

    Again, I doubt you ever had reason to abandon the rational default position of uncertainty on the question of moral truth, and yet you did. I suggest your standard of evidence is too lax. However, if you insist on having a plausible account of (generally) universal morality to explain why we all (mostly) seem to hold the same moral values, how about the anthropic principle? Effectively an argument from evolutionary biology, a shared morality improves our survivability. Since we, as humans, are extremely good at killing each other, we would need some sort of means to avoid doing so as we developed, else we would face extinction.

    I’ll set this up as a series of material conditionals.

    M = Humans share a common morality.
    S = Humans survive to develop the ability to ask questions about morality.

    I posit:
    If Not M, then Not S. Lacking a common morality, humans would kill each out at a muigh higher rate, and seriously impede the development of enlightened culture.

    Therefore, by modus tollens:
    If S, then M. Since we do have the enlightened culture that allows us to ask important moral questions, we must therefore have a shared morality.

    Is that a good account of morality? Not particularly (I formulated it in about 40 seconds), but it’s much simpler than the supposition that there’s a magical fairy living in the sky. I find it more compelling (though I lack the need for it, as I am not a moral realist), and by Occam’s Razor its certainly the more scientific hypothesis.

    My skepticism arises from rationalism. Beliefs are not rational.

    • leahlibresco

      What does it look like to live a life while uncertain that some things are right and some are wrong? I suspect it looks rather like trying to live while uncertain of the existence of physical objects (I have no proof I’m not a Boltzman Brain, after all). But I don’t think either of these worldviews is coherent.

      • keddaw

        I don’t think ‘wrong’ means what you think it means…

        • Care to elaborate?

          • keddaw

            ‘Wrong’ can mean factually incorrect or it can mean morally bad, these two are not the same and it is poor form for Leah to conflate the two.

            Living, as everyone does, in a world where we* are uncertain some things are morally right and some things are morally wrong is not something to be confused about. Even those with the bogus idea that morality can be objective are still uncertain of long term outcomes (or the legitimacy of their moral compass) so are rarely sure if something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ except in the most obvious of circumstances.

            * Moral error theorists such as myself excepted.

          • deiseach

            So, keddaw, if I came round to your house and stole all your furniture, I would just be anticipating future morality where property is common and I am not, in fact, ‘stealing’. Or I would be regressing to ancient morality where there was no concept of private ownership and the stronger or smarter person could take what he wanted.

            After all, morality is not objective, so who are you to call the cops on me for my free exercise of conscience? Just because this year’s law says there is such a crime as robbery does not make it so!

          • I had a professor who insisted that there are some places where stealing might be considered good. When it comes to such men, we can only pray they see the error of their ways before ripping off the Mob.

          • keddaw

            legal =/= moral
            Adultery is, in most people’s eyes, immoral yet it is not illegal. If you’re of a religious persuasion then taking the Lord’s name in vain, or blasphemy, is immoral but it most certainly is not illegal. In fact, only two of the super-magnificent, moral, gold standard, straight-from-God, 10 Commandments are actually illegal, yet people somehow get it into their head that following them will lead to people living a moral life.

            If you attempt to steal my furniture then you can be sure I’ll forcefully attempt to stop you, if you’re successful then, because stealing is illegal, I can call the cops who, thankfully (are supposed to) uphold the law and not morality.

            The Ubiquitous: “I had a professor who insisted that there are some places where stealing might be considered good.”
            I am no professor, but I can give you many examples of where this could be the case. Not least of which would be if you were an accountant for a dictator who was using his nation’s wealth to purchase arms to exterminate some faction of his people then stealing from him to at least slow down the destruction would be a ‘good’ thing to do. If you are unable to imagine situations where (virtually?) any so-called immoral act might be the right thing to do then you’re just not trying hard enough.

      • Gus Snarp

        What on earth gives you the idea that morality being human constructed means that we’re all uncertain whether certain things are right or wrong? The fact that morality is constructed and exists within a societal context does not mean we’re uncertain that right and wrong exist or what things are right and wrong, at least in a general sense. In a more specific sense, there’d be no argument about gay marriage if we all shared exactly the same views about what is right and what is wrong. So simply put, most individuals on simple issues aren’t uncertain about what’s right and wrong, but that doesn’t imply an external morality. At the same time, on more complex issues, lots of people disagree with what is right and wrong and struggle to make a moral decision themselves. All of which, to me, is evidence against an external, objective morality.

        • cowalker

          It is suggestive, I think, that all Christians–and for that matter all Muslims–claim to have an objective morality revealed to them by God that is far superior to our relativism. And yet the moral arguments among Christians and Muslims are just the same as the moral arguments of non-believers in the same culture. Objective morality–it doesn’t help because it still has to be interpreted. In the Catholic church alone, interpretation has resulted in changes ranging from degree of seriousness attached (masturbation), complete flip-flop (usury, death sentences for heretics), to clever work-arounds (NFP with a higher success rate than the pill, soaring annulments). The morality that doesn’t change (don’t steal, kill, rape or commit fraud) is the pragmatic morality required for a community to survive. Claiming to preserve an objective morality requires serious sleight-of-hand abilities.

          • Beadgirl

            The Church has always held that it was morally wrong; the fact that different societies and time periods give it different degrees of wrongness does not mean that the Church itself has changed its position on masturbation.

            Still a sin. What has changed is that our understanding of economics as deepened and as a result we are working with a more sophisticated definition of usury. There are modern theologians and apologists who write on this very topic.

            “death sentences for heretics”
            This — the punishment meted to heretics — was never a moral issue in the sense you mean. The fact that something is morally wrong does not dictate what the punishment, if any, must be.

            “NFP with a higher success rate than the pill”
            It’s not a “work-around,” its a natural feature of a woman’s biology. The fact that our knowledge of biology has increased so that we understand what is going on and can work with it either to help with or avoid conception is nice, but we are still complying with natural law.

            “soaring annulments”
            Absolutely this is a problem. But, do not confuse the Church with its people. The Church’s position on marriage is the same; the rise in annulments is the result of the fact that the people in the Church are not perfect, and they are either making mistakes or they are in real error.

          • cowalker

            To Beadgirl:
            Yes, that is how the changes are explained. Nothing changed in revealed objective morality but our interpretation changed. Which makes doctrine and the Bible more like a Rorschach blot than objective morality. And the struggle to interpret sure sounds to me exactly like non-believers arguing over pragmatic morality.

          • KL

            @Cowalker — Or the Church is applying objective standards and norms to contextual human individuals and communities, which, as historically conditioned entities, will need continual reevaluation and rethinking. That doesn’t seem like sleight of hand or even Rorschach blots (the whole point of Rorschach blots is that there isn’t an objectively “correct” interpretation), but a realistic acknowledgement of the human condition. Trying to impose static, specific norms upon every culture and individual in every time is neither helpful nor, in most cases, genuinely morally consistent.

          • Beadgirl

            Cowalker, how is it any different from science? Our understanding of the laws of physics, for example, has changed radically over the last 2000 years. Yet that does not make those laws any less objective or true.

          • cowalker

            Beadgirl, you ask how the concept of our changing interpretations of an objective morality differs from the concept of our changing interpretations of the natural world. They don’t differ, if you believe that there is an objective morality out there to be discovered. The solar system didn’t change when we learned that it was heliocentric rather than earth-centric. The problem is that human morality is based on values which differ from time to time, and culture to culture. In addition, it is always a question of balancing individual needs versus community needs, present needs versus future needs, human needs versus non-human creatures’ needs. The tribe can’t survive if there is too much imbalance between these competing needs. But the balance is constantly shifting–there is no perfect, eternal balance. The morals that turn up in most cultures are the morals that enable the tribe to survive–no unbridled assault, no unbridled theft, no unbridled fraud. But clearly there is some tolerance for behavior that might be labeled as assault (war on outsiders), theft (tax collection) and fraud (misleading advertising).

            When the majority wanted a modern economy, the labeling of lending money for interest as a sin had to stop. As lifetimes are extended, family size shrinks and expectations of marriage partners change, marriage has to be re-created as something other than an unbreakable, lifelong contract.

      • cowalker

        You ask a good question. I think probably everyone is an agnostic. It’s just that we’re all at different points along a continuum of agnosticism. Dawkins says he’s a six on a religiosity scale ranging from one to seven, with seven representing certainty that there is no God. Neither can I claim certainty, because I am unable to prove or disprove the existence of a God. Yet of course by my daily actions of not praying toward Mecca, not attending Mass, not going to temple on the Sabbath, not making sacrifices to Oggun, not praying to Jesus, etc., I’m living like an atheist. We have to make decisions even when there is a lack of evidence, so we go with what seems most probable, or most appealing, and then rationalize it. I suspect that temperament ends up being the deciding factor.

        I neutrally observe that I live in a world where sentient beings have to eat each other alive to survive. This makes me doubt the existence of a beneficent Creator, but I also experience the emotion of disgust toward a possible Creator who would design such a world. I daresay this emotion is what pushes me toward the more atheistic end of the continuum. I understand that I prefer an impersonal cosmos where human values evolved in a hard school to one created by a creature who built in suffering from the beginning of time. Others experience some other emotion from observing the same world I do, and they are driven to create or adopt a belief system that meets their emotional needs.

        This emotional component means that argument alone will never result in conversion. That doesn’t take the fun our of arguing, of course!

        • Oregon Catholic

          Thanks for one of the more honest rationales for being an atheist/agnostic I’ve read, especially the acknowledgment of the role of your emotions.

          Not to try and change your mind, but I see the existence of suffering not as something God built in from the beginning but as a consequence of the freedom God gave us to reject him. By starting from a different assumption I make use of the same ‘evidence’ around me, available to you as well, to come to a very different conclusion. Beginning assumptions are very important. I wonder where yours came from – do you even know?

          Knowing an outcome is not the same as creating it and our gift of free will has the power to change the world for good or ill. In ways we can’t begin to understand clearly in this life because we are blinded by sin, I believe the good that comes from our free will choices, individually and collectively, far outweighs the suffering created. It will all be clear after death when we step outside the constraints of time and space and see the whole story beginning to end.

          • cowalker

            Well, of course I also believe that emotion plays exactly the same role in getting the believer from can’t-disprove-can’t-prove to full on belief. When we want an answer and can’t get facts, we will be influenced by our emotions.

            Applying Occam’s razor, human suffering can easily be explained as an evolved version of animal suffering, intensified by our memory, consciousness and our powerful ability to imagine scenarios. Ditto for experiencing joy, fear and affection.

            How do you explain the food chain? I am so unconvinced that T Rex dined on melons until Adam and Eve sinned.

            Last week I watched a video at that showed a dog welcoming home his soldier owner from a long deployment. It would be quite foolish to deny that this dog was displaying emotion. Canines lived in packs, suffered as prey and preyed on other sentient animals long before humans were around. Why? And why say that animal suffering requires no special consideration, but human suffering is all special and can be attributed to sinful choices?

            You can tell me to trust that there’s some mysterious explanation that I will understand outside of time and space, but frankly, I don’t think there’s any reason to believe the human mind could function under those conditions. So then you propose that God attaches the human mind to an element that exists outside of time and space–the soul. I find the simpler explanation more persuasive. Judging by what I observe, we are more like our fellow earth creatures than we are like some non-contingent Entity that either created or IS the cosmos, depending on your theology.

      • Hibernia86

        Leah, regardless of whether there is objective morality or not, you can still make a moral code that you follow. Just because a person might not be sure about absolute moral truth does not mean that they have to be agnostic about it in the mean time. Just set up a moral code that you think is best for now and you can change it when you discover more.

        • Cous

          Just set up a moral code that you think is best for now and you can change it when you discover more.

          I”m pretty sure…that’s what she did. Also, you keep dodging the question of how the empirical sciences are supposed to produce a moral system. The sciences tell us we’ve evolved moral intuitions; some of them are bound to be unreliable; fine. But then what? How do the sciences tell us how to proceed from there? Should we pick a reliability metric and sort our intuitions into “reliable” and “unreliable”? But calling some of them “reliable” requires previous moral reasoning, maybe even an assumption of objective morality. Should we ditch all intuitions? What’s our starting premise then? We can’t even start with “pain is bad” and become utilitarians. I suppose we could all become new natural lawyers. I’m speculating here, not being snarky, but you keep exhorting us to adopt what seems like a very incomplete framework (not even unsatisfactory, but unfinished).

          Also, Christianity doesn’t assume God, it’s testimony-based: oral tradition, eyewitnesses, primary documents (I hope you’re not planning to throw history under the bus as well). I’m not saying the historical evidence is water-tight or that everyone should be convinced by it, but it’s a total misnomer to say that we just assume God. We make historical observations and conclude that he stepped into our history – made covenants with particular people (OT), was seen and heard on earth by particular people at particular times (NT), etc.

          • Hibernia86

            I’m not trying to dodge the question. Here is the answer: Either A) objective morality does not exist, in which case there seems good evidence to explain via evolution why it is biologically advantageous to believe in objective morality even if it isn’t real or B) objective morality does exist and we can’t use science (under its current form) to study it but the existence of objective morality does not require God because having an all powerful figure does not mean that that figure is right.

            History comes in degrees of certainty. It is common for historians to say “the sources claim that the army had 200,000 men but it was more likely to have only been 50,000 strong”. Historians realize that the sources sometimes exaggerate. You can’t claim that your religion’s historical observations are true while others are false just because that is what you want to be true. We have absolutely NOTHING written about Jesus during his lifetime. But we have the writings of several witnesses who claim they saw the golden plates of Mormonism. Should we believe Mormonism then? I would argue no. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

          • Cous

            Thanks for your response. I’m still not sure how you could ever reach the conclusion that objective morality does not exist using the scientific methods you propose; for one, in your scientific studies, you’re not going to find a concept of “goodness” either, which is necessary to have any argument about morality. For B, I know we’ve had this discussion about authority before, but it sounds like you’re still understanding authority in a very different way. The Christian concept of God is not that he dictates morality simply because he’s all-powerful like Zeus (controls nature, can kill of people, etc.). It’s because he’s all-powerful in the sense that he is the cause of the universe, and therefore the nature of every thing in the universe takes its cue from his nature. He couldn’t change “objective morality” without destroying the universe and recreating it according to different principles. Now there are definitely practices that aren’t precepts of objective morality and that you just do because you believe God says so (kill a year-old lamb and sprinkle its blood on my doorposts? OK, if you say so) but those are fundamentally different from precepts about lying, stealing, rape, compassion for others, etc. which all derive from our nature, which is grounded in God’s nature as a transcendent, all-good, omniscient source-of-all-being being. Additional particular characteristics you get from revelations of himself that God has made in history.

            I agree with the principles in your second paragraph, the next step would be to dig into the actual primary sources and historical evidence. The Church certainly has plenty to sink your teeth into – documents from purported eyewitnesses who saw Jesus and witnessed his teachings and miracles, even if the documents themselves weren’t written in his lifetime, and even more documents from people in the community that formed around these eyewitnesses and the message they preached. I’m not denying that it’s messy, and history by itself isn’t necessarily going to get you to belief in God. But it’s historical analysis combined with all these other factors, most (if not all) of which have come up in conversation on this blog before – philosophical reasoning about the nature of truth and morality, observations about man and under what conditions he does best, his ability to reason and love, scientific reasoning about cause and effect and the logical structure of the universe – that paints the holistic picture of why one would be justified in believing in God, and not just any God, but the God preached by the Catholic Church. Again, not saying it’s an obvious conclusion by any means. I often struggle with it myself.

          • Hibernia86

            For A, no science can not disprove objective morality just as it can not disprove the existence of fairies, but it CAN provide enough explanation of the world so that belief in objective morality or fairies is no longer needed to explain it (the famous quote from Laplace when talking to Napoleon about God, is relevant “I have no more need of that hypothesis”). The idea is that evolution can explain why we help our families (kin selection) and why we help others knowing that in small tribes it is likely that they will help us in return one day (reciprocal altruism) which explains in turn why we are naturally inclined to believe in objective morality. Those that believed in objective morality were more successful evolutionarily. It didn’t matter if objective morality actually existed. It only mattered that we believed in it for it to work.

            Yes there are people who write the gospels in the names of Jesus’s followers (if the Gospels were really written by the person they are named after is another question) and there have been many people who have claimed miracles. But that it true for every religion. The fact that it is so easy for people to claim that they have had religious experiences which contradict the theology of other religions should lead us to be careful before believing those who say that their experience trumps everyone else’s.

          • Cous

            I could just as easily substitute “cause and effect,” “intelligibility of the universe,” or “the physical world as we perceive and measure it” in for “objective morality” – evolutionary psychology does not provide a metaphysical framework; by itself, it’s a non-starter. Even if you build up your metaphysics such that cause and effect are real, and prove that evolutionary psychology is qualified (there’s no lack of controversy there either, it strikes me as a highly speculative field) to give us the causal answer to the question “why do I have the intuition that it’s wrong to push the fat man but not hit the switch” but it still doesn’t answer the question “Is either of those actions wrong? If so, why?”
            So out of curiosity, as someone who appears to subscribe to this view, how do you make decisions on a day-to-day basis without making a mass of assumptions that, under your view, are either simply false or irrelevant? Are you a determinist as well?

        • Ted Seeber

          If a person is sure they’ve found the absolute moral truth and has 2000 years worth of trial and error empirical data to back it up, why wouldn’t they follow it?

    • deiseach

      “Beliefs are not rational.”

      By which you mean religious belief in particular, not belief in general, I wager? Else, you are saying that if someone says “I prefer broccoli to cauliflower”, you would immediately hook them up to a PET machine and feed them samples of both vegetables to see if there is a distinct, measurable and verifiable change in brain activity to back up this statement, while you are awaiting the result of the DNA test to identify the genes responsible for the bias in that person’s tastebuds to make them lean to a notional preference based on flavour. Then you will require that person to back up that statement regarding preference, with reference to the nutritional and dietary functions of both broccoli and cauliflower, their own metabolism, and any pre-existing conditions which might predispose them to express a preference for one cultivar of Brassica oleracea over the other (we must include an experiences of psychological conditioning resultant on childhood experiences and trauma, for example, being forced to consume cauliflower at a family meal, which would induce the respondent to develop an irrationally-based dislike for the vegetable in question).

      Otherwise, they are only saying an irrational statement and logical, sensible people should not believe them, correct?

      • Oregon Catholic

        LOL. But sadly, what you’ve written in jest is true for how some people really think about reality. I would guess some of them end up going mad too if they spend too much time trying to figure out if anything is really real.

    • Kyle

      “Beliefs are not rational.”

      Pardon me if I am somewhat skeptical of that claim… 🙂

    • @Sylvius –

      Why is uncertainty the “default” position? In empirical science, trust in the evidence of the senses, and trust in the ability of reason to interpret that evidence, is the default, isn’t it? In mathematics, trust in the work of mathematicians from ancient times to the present is the foundation for further research, and is not abandoned until proven wrong. In the law, there is a kind of default to uncertainty, but only uncertainty about the events in question; there is heavy reliance on the law as written and the interpretations of previous judges, all of which are taken as given, as grist for the argument. Nor, significantly, is ignorance of the law (to say nothing of uncertainty about the law) an excuse for criminal behavior.

      In other words, “uncertainty” is not a default position for most areas of life. Rather, trust in the work others have done before us is usually the starting point. Advancement comes more often by improving on their work rather than trying to reinvent the wheel – by standing on their shoulders rather than cutting off their legs.

      Skepticism is a very useful tool, as is a stance of uncertainty in approaching a question; but it is not the only tool available, and it is best used as a scalpel rather than as a broadsword.

    • Kristen inDallas

      Would it be irrational to believe that beliefs are irrational?

      For plenty of scientists it is perfectly reasonable and logical to abondon one system that does not adequately describe the object of our study for another system that also does not adequately describe it, but perhaps gives us a little bit more to work with. Just look at our attempts to describe the nature of the atom, or how we have to go back and forth between describing light as a particle then a wave, knowing it’s really neither but making use of those models in an effort to better understand what in fact it is. We discard models that are less useful and retain the ones that are more useful. We keep some models around as stepping stones only to prepare a mind for a more complex model. We sometimes retain competing models if both show some different aspects of usefulness, but other times a new model will completely usurp the old.

      A good scientist avoids saying any finding is completely certain, but is justified in expressing that something is 100.0000% certain. (with as many zeroes as are warranted). The more certain we are of a model, the more we can and should take it for granted in enabling us to pursue those things we are less certain of. We would have been very slow to learn anything at all about the surface of the moon if we couldn’t operate under the assumtion that gravity was going to hold a spaceships up the way we thought it ought to. Gravity hasn’t been around quite as long as Catholocism, but it’s pretty well worn in.

    • Ted Seeber

      In the Catholic system, that evidence is ordinary, not extraordinary.

      In return I’d be skeptical about your skepticism- and I’ll start off with the question- how do you know that evidence is objective?

    • Adrian Ratnapala

      @Sylvius: I find your hypthosesis about the origin of morality much less convincing than that of C.S. Lewis, and I am an atheist who beleives that human morality is the product of evolution.

      The thing about comming with ideas in 40 seconds is that we can’t be rational, we have to just fall back on our beliefs. But that’s not so bad because eventually we have to do that anyway. Do you believe that a phenomenon is likely to recur if it has occured many times before under the same conditions? Why do you believe it? Is it because the proposition has worked many times before? I only believe out of gut instinct, and because it’s a leap of faith I need to take if I want to think like a scientist.

  • “I think Cephus, like a lot of people, isn’t making an appropriate tradeoff between false positives and false negatives. The extreme skeptic does fall into error if she withholds belief from something that is true. Think of a too-insecure lover, who refuses to believe the professions of the beloved. Or get a little less romantic, and think of a climate change skeptic, who thinks the evidence isn’t strong enough to necessitate changing our way of life. ”

    Right. Because the benefit the lover gets from accepting that he is love, or the benefit we get from accepting that the climate is changing, far outweighs the alethic (is that a word?) risk of believing a proposition that isn’t true.

    Believing in God is a leap, but in my opinion it’s a leap comparable to the leap out of solipsism. What you get, metaphysically, ethically, etc., out of making the leap compensates for the riskiness of it. Although I’m not a Calvinist, after coming to that conclusion on my own, I found out that a bunch of philosophers had gotten there before me, so I’ve become rather a fan of Reformed Epistemology (

    Or maybe that’s not where you were going with this post, and I totally misconstrued you because I’ve been thinking so much about my epistemology! Of note, the Catholic Church, to my understanding, rejects this line of thinking and teaches that God is logically deducible, which I myself reject.

    • John

      As far as I know, the Catholic Church does not teach that God is deducible, but only that God can be known with certainty by the light of natural reason. Deduction is not the only kind of reason.

      • Ah. You are correct; deducible was the wrong word to use. To clarify, then, I don’t think that God can be known with certainty by the light of natural reason, but I DO think it is rational to believe in God.

        • Hibernia86

          If God can not be know with certainty by the light of natural reason, then it is NOT rational to believe in God. Because in order to believe in God, you would need to believe in this supernatural reason. But you have no proof for this supernatural reason. It is just something that you wish existed and so have chosen to believe in it.

          There are a lot of smart Communists who write a lot of detailed work just as there are a lot of smart Christians. But the problem is that they both make basic error that they just assume are true and then try to build castles on the sand. Communists assume that the workers will naturally revolt against capitalism and will adopt a system where everyone works as hard as they can and just takes only what they need out of the government pile. Christians believe there is an all powerful invisible being controlling things behind the scenes. Both Communists and Christians build great work on these false beliefs, but without a good foundation, both just lead to error.

          • “If God can not be know with certainty by the light of natural reason, then it is NOT rational to believe in God.”

            No. If it’s rational to believe that I’m not a Brain in a Vat, even though I can’t know that with certainty in the light of natural reason, it is not NECESSARILY irrational to believe in OTHER things I can’t know with certainty in the light of natural reason.

          • Hibernia86

            We have no proof for the brain in the vat theory. We have no proof for the God theory. So by Occam’s razor it is better off to believe what we see in front of us (the material world) until we have proof otherwise. If we believed in anything we didn’t have proof for, then we could literally believe in anything.

          • Ted Seeber

            Every field of philosophy has it’s basic definition assumptions (axioms) that must be taken on authority alone. That’s the main problem I find with the concept of Appeal to Authority being a fallacy- because to make appeal to authority a fallacy is in and of itself a circular definition into an infinite loop.

          • Hibernia86

            Ted, I agree that every field of philosphy has it’s basic definition assumptions. But the point is that religion has a great many and science has only a few. The more axioms you have, the more likely you are to be wrong because the more assumptions you have to make.

          • I don’t think religion necessarily has a great many axioms. The only axiom I’m taking as basic is God. I appreciate your point about the simplicity of not believing in God, but if I DO believe in God a lot of OTHER things become more simple, like the origin of morality.

            Religion is my interpretive framework for God, and I find it more utilitarian than axiomatic, if that makes sense.

            ([i]experimenting[/i] to see if I can get italics to work in this forum, since I’m tired of SHOUTING)

          • leahlibresco

            Use the angled brackets over the period and comma to do html tags in this comment system.

          • Hibernia86

            Rosemary, Catholicism has a lot of axioms. It assumes that all of the Popes are the representatives of Christ on Earth and that their teachings match God’s. If you zoom out, Christianity assumes that the Bible is the word of God and that God is loving, all powerful, and all knowing. Zooming out again, monotheism assumes that there is only one God. Zooming out once more, theism assumes that God had the ability to create the world. You don’t need God to have objective morality, so don’t accept it just for that. Objective morality could exist as laws of the universe the same way physical laws can.

          • Hibernia,

            I’m not Catholic; I’m Quaker. 🙂

            I assume theism for the reasons I elucidated and I find this acceptable rationally, although not certainly knowable. All the rest of my theology, from monotheism on, is a very elaborate extended metaphor that I find extraordinarily useful, like the birthday cake of existence, or like ethical theories in philosophy. Yay for liberal denominations where this is OK!

            For instance, I choose to approach the Bible as if it were inspired by God, but I make no truth claims as to whether it is or not (how could I, or anyone, know?). The only truth claim I make is that approaching the Bible like that is useful for me.

            One could reasonably think it weird that I find such very elaborate extended metaphors useful for ordering my life, but it’s not irrational of me, because the sort of truth-claims I make about Christianity—that I find it extraordinarily useful, completely fulfilling, a source of joy and insight—are all philosophically basic beliefs akin to “I find grilled cheese delicious.”

            Granted, the fact that I find Christianity so incredibly useful, fulfilling, worthwhile, joyous, etc., biases me to think that it’s true in reality, but I don’t make that claim philosophically. I think that there’s probably intelligent extraterrestrial life, too. The idea “Christianity is probably true” and “there is probably intelligent extraterrestrial life” occupy very similar mental space for me. Except I don’t get much existential mileage out of the thought of ETI. 🙂

          • Hibernia86

            I think that a belief that extraterrestrials likely exist is scientific due to the fact that we have evidence that life exists on this planet and we have reason to believe that there may be billions of similar planets out there, so statistically it seems likely that extraterrestrial life would exist. We don’t have that same evidence for God.

            Treating the bible as a metaphor would be okay if most people understood that, but a great number of people believe that it is literal so we should be careful to disprove that to them.

      • Oh, and I guess by “rational” I mean “coherent.”

        • cowalker

          Ah, the limits of comment trees. I wanted to reply to your (Rosemary Z’s) comment that contained this:

          Granted, the fact that I find Christianity so incredibly useful, fulfilling, worthwhile, joyous, etc., biases me to think that it’s true in reality, but I don’t make that claim philosophically.

          It would be extremely interesting if believers and atheists focused on demonstrating the usefulness of their vision instead of trying to prove that it’s “true.” Kristin in Dallas commenting on this thread made excellent points about the use of models by scientists, noting that different models highlight different aspects of a system, so that more than one model may be useful, or a new model might replace a less useful one. If we could step back and engage in demonstrating the usefulness of our different perspectives, we might gain in understanding.

          • Yes! I absolutely agree with you.

          • Atheists place more value on the plain truth than a useful lie… I mean, a useful metaphor.

            The idea that one can make a conscious choice to believe in something that one knows not to be true is one that I personally find quite disturbing.

            Metaphors cease to be useful when they confuse many people about what is literally true. They are even less useful when the metaphor tries to impose itself on laws and civil liberties. Furthermore, if religion is just a metaphor, how can it claim any authority? What makes the Bible more than just a novel? I can think of plenty of novels that I’d rather use as metaphors for my life than the Bible…

    • > Believing in God is a leap, but in my opinion it’s a leap comparable to the leap out of solipsism
      I don’t agree with that. As Chris Hallquist writes: “belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threated by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions. That kind of response is very hard to reject without special pleading on behalf of Christianity” (from

      • Good on you for recognizing reformed epistemology. 🙂 When I leap into theism, I leap into a generic theist god suitable for almost any religion, not the Christian God. I do leap into a loving god; I make that leap because my mystical experiences are of a profound transcendent love.

      • Oh, I should say that I leap into qualities of God that help other things make more sense, like morality, existence, etc. Possibly free will; haven’t decided on that one yet.

  • Kenneth

    1. This blogger looks exactly like Joseph Gordon Levitt (see picture above).

    2. Its very surprising she could find a boyfriend or girlfriend, considering she looks exactly like Joseph Gordon Levitt.

    • leahlibresco

      Aww, thanks! Joseph Gordon Levitt’s smile always makes me go a little weak at the knees.

      • deiseach

        Cute as a button, that Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Kenneth, your opinion is your own (though you might want a bit of the old scientific rigour to back up that statement in order to convince Sylvius the Mad that you are not being irrational) but I tell you, if it wouldn’t be cradle-snatching on my part with that youngfella…

        … and you really don’t need me to finish that statement 🙂

      • Louis Brown

        This comment is directed toward your recent conversion. After reading thru several of the blogs I find that people posting seem tend to be verbal acrobats doing somersaults with philosophical rationalizations about things not conerning whether god is real or not. It is not that difficult. Either you believe a god exist or you don’t. Either you make a case for your belief in god or you make a case for your non belief. You base your conversion on feelings concerning morality. What does morality have to do with whether god is real or not?
        Atheism is defined as non belief in gods or deities. So by saying you are no longer atheist you are saying that you believe in gods and deities. If that is true my question is; What (fact based) reason do you have for your belief in gods and deities? This is the question that determines whether you are a Atheist or not. If you believe a god exist you are a believer. If you do not believe a god exist then you are a Atheist. If you believe a god exist without (fact based) reason you are a Irrationalist/Delusionist.
        You chose to be a Catholic. Does the history of Catholicism support a belief in the dogma of Catholicism? I think not. Does the history of religion support a belief in Catholicim or any other religion? I think not. The history of religion supports the idea that religion is man made and is simply sun worship anthropomorphised.
        I am a Atheist because I have fact based reason to believe no god exist. I only consider people who have fact based reasons for believing no god exist to be Atheist. If you were a Atheist by my definition you cannot convert without presenting a fact based reason for your belief a god exist. Were you ever a Atheist?

        • Ted Seeber

          I’m not Leah and I don’t play her on TV. However your statement: ” Does the history of Catholicism support a belief in the dogma of Catholicism? I think not. ”

          Shows only that you have a real ignorance of either the history of Catholicism or it’s dogma, because for a religion, the actions of Catholics are remarkably consistent with the dogma. You’re never going to get a 1:1 correlation (even atheists sin against their skepticism, for atheism is a positive statement that Gods do not exist where a true skeptic would never go further than agnosticism) but as religions go, it has internal cohesion to it’s own dogmas.

          I can’t say the same for fundamentalist Protestantism and I certainly can’t say the same for Biblical Atheism (where the lack of a belief in God is entirely from perceived inaccuracies in a scripture purported to belong to God, who supposedly doesn’t exist).

          ” Does the history of religion support a belief in Catholicim or any other religion? I think not. The history of religion supports the idea that religion is man made and is simply sun worship anthropomorphised.”

          Only if you’re a Biblical Atheist who doesn’t understand the theology, allegory, and symbolism of the Eighth Day, and thus accepts the theology of an 19th century woman who had been thrown from a horse and hit her head on a rock as proof.

        • So what is your ‘fact based’ reason for your disbelief in gods and deities?

    • Hibernia86

      Kenneth, deiseach would like me to remind you that it is sleazy to attack someone for their physical features. If you don’t have anything logical to say about their argument, then don’t say anything at all.

  • Hi Leah,

    Thank you for this post and the one that preceded them. Being something of a “weird quasi-Platonist virtue ethicist” myself, I’ve really enjoyed reading this. I have posted my reactions to your conversion on my own blog:

    I wouldn’t expect that you’d reply, given the deluge you must be receiving, but I do hope that you might give it a read as you think more things through.

    I’m eagerly looking forward to the future posts where you explain your conversion in more detail (especially the “why Catholicism?” part, since that surely isn’t implied by the “morality loves me” position). Regarding this post in particular, I should also say I’m enjoying the reactions from the atheists who are stunned and flabbergasted that an intelligent person who once agreed with them could now disagree (all the while claiming that their opponents are the dogmatic and intolerant ones), and I think everything you say in this post is absolutely spot on.

  • Hi Leah, I’m an ex-Christian atheist who found your blog through Jen McCreight’s site. It’s been interesting to read about the perspective of someone going the other direction.

    I’m an agnostic atheist and a scientist. You say that’s not enough, but if I were to fill in the blank on your sign, it would simply say “compassionate human being.” I know how I would like to be treated, and I strive to treat others in the same way. Ultimately, that’s my guiding moral principle. I guess in the end I differ from you in that I feel like my morality comes from within, not without.

    Actually, that philosophy is part of what keeps me away from organized religion. Because I believe that every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and because I don’t want others to foist their beliefs on me, I find pretty much all organized religion distasteful. There are too many stories laced through the Bible, and other religious texts, in which an entire group of people is demonized, or God demands justice on an entire culture or society, with little or no regard for the individuals therein. Religion’s purpose is to help humans make sense of the world, and part of making the world make sense is to group people into categories– but doing so strips people of their individual dignity.

    This pattern continues in modern day, when religious folk argue against gay rights from a broad “natural law” perspective but give little thought to the effect it has on individual people and families, to the pain it causes when families are treated as second-class or denied basic human rights like hospital visitation and child custody. Or people who argue against abortion from a broad philosophy of life, but give little thought to the individual mothers who it might affect, to the pain of rape victims or the conflict a potential mother feels when she learns her child will be born with a fatal illness.

    Again and again, religion fails when it treats people as a monolithic group, rather than a collection of individuals, of people with their own circumstances and stories and emotions and trials. You’d think a religion based around the teachings of Jesus would be better at this, but it’s not, partly (in my opinion) because the modern day church places the writings of Paul at equal to or greater importance than the teachings of Jesus. There’s a site called “Atheists for Jesus” that actually appeals to me a lot, but in the end, I remain stubbornly individualistic and work my way down my own path.

    I hope in your own journey, you hold to your individualistic streak and don’t place too much weight on the beliefs and decrees of human beings who claim to be speaking for God (and yes, I think here specifically of Catholic bishops). If you don’t read his blog already, you might enjoy Andrew Sullivan’s blog (especially on Sundays)—he’s a gay, practicing Catholic who is married to his longtime partner.

    • leahlibresco

      Hey, Andrew, thanks for your comment. My problem with saying ‘compassionate human being’ is that it’s not specific enough. Our philosophy and metaphysics is what describes how to treat people compassionately. Evangelicals who shunt their kids off to ex-gay camps would claim (honestly, in some cases) to be practicing compassion. They’d claim it’s no difference than the compassion I’d claim to be showing if I held an intervention for an alcoholic friend.

      So then the fight we’re actually having is not pro/con-compassion. We’re arguing over what kind of actions are harmful (which means we’re arguing about what humans ought to do) and how much use it is for other people to intervene. That means we’re having a philosophical fight, and ‘compassionate’ isn’t enough to bring to defend.

      • Ray

        If “compassionate human being” isn’t specific enough, I don’t see how “virtue ethicist” is. After all, many of your fellow “virtue ethicists” have been nearly as anti-gay rights as the Evangelical’s you’re criticizing here. And of course, historically, virtue ethicists, have supported book-banning, heretic-burning, slavery etc. If you want to actually communicate how your ethics makes you act, you’re better off, just taking a crass political label, a la PZ Myers’ “Godless Liberal.” Or is that not metaphysical enough for you?

        • leahlibresco

          This is why I linked, in the post, to several specific positions on ‘what virtue is’ that I have taken.

          • Ray

            Yes, but you didn’t define “virtue” on your sign, and without that you have no reason to criticize Andrew for putting “compassionate human being” on his hypothetical sign while leaving the details of what he means by compassion to be expounded elsewhere. Even in the post you first responded to, he made it clear that his idea of compassion implied, among other things, a strong positive stand on gay rights and at least a marginally pro-choice stand on abortion.

      • True enough. I’m not a philosopher by a long shot, so I don’t know what two-word term to use to sum up “People should be allowed to live their lives however they want, so long as they aren’t hurting others” with corollaries of “Every single human being has dignity and should be treated with respect” and “No human being has divine answers.” But as you pointed out in the “Evangelics Pitching Skepticism” blog post that you linked to, not being a philosopher doesn’t disqualify me from having an opinion.

        But for me, this isn’t about philosophy, it’s about real world consequences, in everything from health care to social programs to science education and research. I have to admit, I don’t know the inner details of virtue ethics from a hole in the ground, but I’m a writer and a storyteller. I care much less about sweeping generalities (which are almost always likely to be wrong, or wrong enough to be useless), and much more about individuals. Maybe you can label that for me, because I honestly don’t know what the label is.

        • keddaw

          “People should be allowed to live their lives however they want, so long as they aren’t hurting others” with corollaries of “Every single human being has dignity and should be treated with respect” and “No human being has divine answers.”

          “Libertarian atheist” sounds about right. But if you’re in the US libertarian can be seen as an insult!

          • “People should be allowed to live their lives however they want, so long as they aren’t hurting others”
            Can someone with this philosophy explain to me whether or not the draw any lines in the sand in this regard? What i mean is, if i want to have 5 husbands shouldn’t i be allowed to do so? Should there be *any* moral law and if so, who gets to decide which morals are moral?

        • I’m answering for myself, not for Leah; I expect she would take a different approach.

          The problem I have with “People should be allowed to live their lives however they want, so long as they aren’t hurting others” is how to determine what is “hurting” another. This is where I have found virtue ethics to be very practical and realistic: it gives a solid notion of what a healthy and flourishing human life looks like, so that we can distinguish between something that is harmful and something that is helpful even if painful or difficult.

          Virtue ethics, as I understand it, tries very hard not to “impose” an arbitrary vision of human nature, but rather to discover it based on long experience and thought about what actually contributes to the basic goodness of being human.

          Without such a foundation, I don’t see how we can defend the dignity of every human person. I don’t see how we can distinguish “You did something I don’t like” from “You did something that profoundly harms me.”

        • KL

          But why are freedom of behavior and non-harm values to be embraced? (I’m not being flip here.) Why do human beings possess dignity — and more importantly, what does “dignity” mean? And on the other end of the spectrum, what qualifies as “harm” and why?

          • Because I try to treat others the way I’d like to be treated. I would like to be treated with dignity and respect, therefore that’s how I try to treat others. I would prefer other people not harm me, and to treat me with courtesy, and so that’s how I try to treat others. That thinking is totally independent of any concept of “God.”

            Of course, terms like “harm” and “respect” are, and always will be, somewhat subjective. But I don’t have a problem with that– it’s always subjective. If there’s something fundamental at the root of humanity, I would argue it’s not God, and it’s not objective morality, it’s questioning. It’s debate. It’s trying to figure things out– the struggle with thorny ethical issues, to figure out not just how the world works, but how we should treat each other, and how we should behave, both individually and as a society.

            Religions offer objective answers, a prepackaged moral code and philosophy that lets you define “objective” and move on with life. Unfortunately, I don’t really believe there is an “objective.” Every human being, and consequently every situation involving human beings, is different. To write a moral code that encompasses all potential situations is impossible, which is why religion simplifies things, and as a result often gets it wrong or gets led astray. When you stop thinking of people as individuals and start thinking of them as a uniform group, things almost always go wrong.

            Again, it comes back to how I want to be treated. I want to be seen and treated as an individual, and not have certain characteristics or judgments automatically made on me because I’m an atheist or because I’m an American or anything else. I want to be treated as an individual, and I strive to treat others the same way. Period. No God Necessary.

    • PJ


      You don’t seem to realize how deeply Christian you really are. The premiums you place on compassion and personal dignity, for instance, prove how extensively you’ve borrowed from the Christian moral imagination. Love, forgiveness, mercy, justice for the weak: These are not the products of paganism (oriental or occidental), but rather the fruits of Judaism and Christianity, with a strong emphasis on the latter.

      Christianity was scorned by the pagans because it finds strength in weakness, and justice in mercy. Even the Jews, with their sensitivity to the suffering and oppressed, were offended by the notion of the Humble and Suffering God, the God Who Empties Himself Out.

      Your moral compass still points due east: Toward Christ, the Dayspring from on high.

      “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, it profits me nothing.

      4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

      8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.

      11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

      13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

      • PJ: Oh, I think Jesus Christ and the majority of what he taught was pretty awesome stuff. If anything, becoming an atheist has allowed me to get some distance and appreciate his teachings on love and forgiveness and mercy even more. Plus, being raised Christian, and I recognize that this still has powerful sway on pretty much my entire thinking.

        I’m not a Christian for many reasons, most of which are based on science rather than philosophy. As a courtesy to Leah, I’m trying to keep my discussion within the philosophical scope of her blog post, but suffice it to say I am aware how similar my morality is to Christian morality– but nothing about my morality necessitates believing in the literal truth of any part of the Bible. Moreover, there is a huge, gaping disconnect between the teachings of Christ and the actions of the church– especially the hierarchy of the Catholic church. The reason I call myself atheist rather than agnostic is out of a desire to stay well-distanced from the religious right and anything to do with their entire ilk, which as I said, no longer has much to do with the teachings of Jesus.

        • “nothing about my morality necessitates believing in the literal truth of any part of the Bible”

          Neither does being a liberal Christian. 😛

          • Even liberal Christians believe in the resurrection of Jesus, or else you’re verging into Unitarian territory. 🙂

          • A significant minority of theologians don’t believe in a literal Resurrection; Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong spring to mind. I know there are others, but as I generally read different kinds of theology I can’t list many more! Can’t deny that they’re heterodox but also can’t deny that they exist.

        • PJ


          This popular fantasy of a ‘Mean Old Hierarchy’ (the germ of which is found in Reformation Era propaganda) tends to disappear the moment you actually get to know the folks who comprise it. Most bishops are simple men who work long hours for little personal gain. Yet they are princes next to your average priest, who are beasts of burden, willingly sacrificing their lives for the Kingdom. This is especially true outside the western, developed world.

          Anyway, I appreciate your honesty re: Jesus, His teachings, and their influence on your life. Interesting comments. God bless you.

        • Oregon Catholic

          I think Jesus was pretty awesome as well and since almost no one can say they have ever met anyone who lives up to Jesus’ own example and moral code, including the best of his followers, it ought to be a clue that he was more than human. He redefined love in a radical way that was and still is unprecedented. The weakness and sinfulness of Christians may arguably be a valid reason to reject organized religion but it is not a good reason to reject Jesus/God.

    • Ted Seeber

      “I’m an agnostic atheist and a scientist. You say that’s not enough, but if I were to fill in the blank on your sign, it would simply say “compassionate human being.” I know how I would like to be treated, and I strive to treat others in the same way. Ultimately, that’s my guiding moral principle. I guess in the end I differ from you in that I feel like my morality comes from within, not without.”

      A real quick question and sorry if it sounds snarky, but it is serious. You described your self as three items in this paragraph:
      1. Agnostic Atheist
      2. Scientist
      3. Compassionate Human Being (Morality from Within).

      Has it occurred to you, to paraphrase the children’s books and TV shows, that one of these things is not like the others? First of all, I’m going to assume you come by your atheism honestly as I come by my Catholicism- through empirical experience of the world. You certainly come by your science that way- after all, the core of the scientific method is to follow the external data wherever it leads even if it leads to something that is AGAINST the theory.

      So why is your morality subjective and relativist, instead of objective and empirical?

      • I think I answered this one pretty well. I strive to treat others the way I want to be treated. I don’t know if you’d call that subjective or objective, but that’s my moral standard– it’s not dependent on God, or external philosophy, but it is very much a standard. Atheism is not incompatible with empathy– if anything, I’d say it made mine stronger.

        • I think what you’re missing here is that even the most vile of Christians (I’m looking at you, Westboro Baptist) would claim they are being as compassionate as you, treating others as they ought be treated, how they want to be treated. I have two thought experiments for you to illuminate my point:

          First, consider that it is the dead of winter in the Arctic; all is darkness and all is cold. I am significantly removed from any electrical grid, and have no fuel for my exterior generator. I would very much like to read a book and I would very much like to keep warm as well. In this state of cold and darkness, desiring to keep warm and read, by some happenstance my house begins to burn with fire. Sitting in the living room, I am quite warm, and I am able to read my book by the firelight. An Inuit tribesman passes by.

          Should the Native come to my aid, pull me from a burning building, such that I do not perish in the flames? Or should he instead, upon speaking briefly to me (I speak fluent Inuit), go on his way, and let me burn because I have entirely what I wish – the warmth and light by which to read provided by the fire?

          It is my position that the tribesman should pull me from the flames even against my protestations. He should tell me that it is for my own good, even if I do not readily understand it. He is causing me great personal distress, and as I try to hold onto the doorframe, my hand is burned. I am harmed of my own actions, and it is only by the Inuit telling me clearly “You are in a burning building, get out now!” that I might be saved.

          Just so, the Westboro Baptists are making in their estimation declarative statements of truth regarding the moral character of America and attendant divine judgment. If Pastor Phelps and his inbred flock are right, and someone answers their call and chooses to live a life of chastity, then it is through Pastor Phelps’ behavior that they are saved when they acquiesce to the choice, even as the hate-mongering caused them great personal distress.

          The second thought experiment:

          Say a man is found dead in his bedroom. There is no evidence of a struggle, he has no discernible external injuries such as ligature marks around the neck suggesting strangulation, blunt force trauma to the head or a gun shot or stab wound. However, he is only twenty-eight years old, and he has no history of health issues, nor any family history that show him to be at risk for sudden death such as respiratory or circulatory issues. He may have died of a stroke or heart attack or a severe asthma attack, but we really do not know at first glance. So he is subjected to autopsy, being such a curious death.

          In her report, the county examiner determines that our poor fellow died of a bust aneurysm in the brain, which had gone undetected as the man never had cause for an MRI in his life, being the picture of good health throughout his life. She notes that even if the aneurysm had been detected, there is no medical treatment for it in the first place, and its rupture could not have been predicted. His death goes down as a natural cause, and that is that.

          What the examiner did not know was that there was another person who knew of the man’s aneurysm from an off-the-record MRI, and that person had laid their formidable intellectual skills to set about killing him. Knowing the whereabouts of his aneurysm, and understanding that neural function could be influenced by strong magnetic fields, our renegade radiologist set hands on a rare earth magnet and devised a contraption that would so heavily work on the iron present in the blood to put pressure on vessel walls, causing the aneurysm to rupture. Having tested his device on various animals, the mild-mannered sociopath came to the man’s home, held the device to his head, causing the aneurysm to burst, and that was that.

          Now, did the county examiner reach the correct conclusion of natural causes, or was the man murdered? Certainly given all the evidence available to the medical examiner, we would logically conclude that it was natural causes. Having the whole story as we do of the sociopathoc radiologist, we know, of course, that the medical examiner was wrong. What this simple thought experiment tells us that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.

          Put the two together and you are left with the unfortunate fact that though you do not see evidence of empathy and compassion in others’ actions, they very well could be compassionate, and “harm” as such is not a fit standard for judging the morality of a given behavior. If you wish to be left in the burning building, and I wish to be dragged out of it, am I to treat you as I want to be treated, or are you to treat me as you want to be treated?

          Now I am willing to acknowledge for the sake of discussion that either may be the right choice, but when you lay charges of assault upon me for dragging you from the house, and I say I was merely following your ethical code – treat others as you want to be treated – then we have a problem of standards. I was following your moral code to the letter. Unfortunately that meant respecting my own desire (to be saved) rather than yours (to be burned). Do you not see where this line of moral reasoning utterly breaks down?

          The virtue ethicist says that there is a real thing called virtue, abstracted thought it may be by social constructs, theory and legal interpretation, but our ultimate goal should be to in all situations conform as perfectly as possible to its framework, and these constructs, theories and legal interpretations – our understanding of virtue – we call ethics. If I am suicidal, and I wish to treat others as I want to be treated, I would become a murderer. I wish to be dead, so I make other people dead. (This is why G.K. Chesterton compared the suicide to genocide, for by the act of your own death, it is not the destruction of yourself you are inflicting upon society, but the elimination of society from yourself. All is dead when you are dead.) But is murder wrong? And why is murder wrong?

          I am to a certain extent okay with the idea of “relative” morality – that is, the thing we call virtue might be applied differently in different situations, meaning the individual moral is relative to its circumstance. (Leah had a great post on this back in April.) But the idea that virtue might be changed from person to person is completely untenable. It’s not even pragmatic in the sense that it works for you. That it works for you is a failure to acknowledge that you exist as more than yourself, for you function in a broader society, with longer goals and other persons, so for ethics to work, they must apply to all. Virtue must be universal, or behavior can never be judged – which is in itself a judgment of judging behavior.

          Unless you are a brain in a vat, in which case we do not exist, only you exist, and you don’t even exist in the way you perceive yourself to exist. You are right; “it’s not dependent on God, or external philosophy, but it is very much a standard.” The problem is like all standards, be it a simple flagpole or the Washington monument, it rests on a foundation, rooted into the firmament in some way. And the foundation is rotten. We call that foundation solipsism.

        • Ted Seeber

          I would call it entirely subjective- since you’re striving to treat others as YOU want to be treated as opposed to how THEY want to be treated.

    • Hi Andrew,
      RE: There’s a site called “Atheists for Jesus” that actually appeals to me a lot,
      Thanks for the kind words!
      RE: but in the end, I remain stubbornly individualistic and work my way down my own path.
      As you should! I only hope that in some small way my site provided information that was helpful in your journey.
      Ken Schei
      Founder: Atheists for Jesus

  • Tom Leykis

    Honey, you have no idea what you are talking about. None whatsoever. It’s painfully clear that you really don’t know that much about hard sciences otherwise you wouldn’t take such an indefensible position. All religions do the crazy dance. Catholicism, Mormonism & Scientology merely do it to the extreme and are comical in their stupidity and foolishness. Thankfully, we have true hard scientists like Prof. Richard Dawkins who actually do know what they are talking about, are capable of intelligently articulating it and aren’t emotional train wrecks. Take note.

    • PJ


      So, I suppose you don’t think Francis Collins, a serious evangelical Christian, is a “true hard scientist,” huh? I mean, he was only head of the National Human Genome Research Institute and the National Institutes of Health, not to mention a prominent geneticist in his own right.

      Please, let’s drop the silly idea that Christians can’t be as intellectual and academic as atheists. Some of the most brilliant minds in science — both historical and contemporaneous — are ardent believers:

      • Tom Leykis

        Like 99.9% of all fundy’s, people like you never let facts get in the way of a good argument. Lol. There is more substantive proof that UFO’s exist than the manmade inventions you call “god”, “jesus”, etc. The Greek and Roman gods are just as valid and true as your “god” and “jesus” and have just as much proof to justify their existence. Let me help you:
        1. The earth is approximately 4.5 Billion years old.
        2. Evolution is a scientific fact.
        3. The whole “parting of the red sea”, “rising from the dead”, “noah’s ark”, “talking snake”, “adam & eve”, etc etc etc…..all myths.
        4. There is no legitimate academically accepted, peer reviewed proof that “jesus” ever existed. You’d think the most important “person” in christianity would have legitimate proof of life.
        5. Dawkins isn’t engaging in a culture war against religion, but one against stupidity. Keep your religious ignorance out of public school, public policy, law & jurisprudence, foreing policy and everyone else’s life. We don’t care what you believe in provided you stay the Fvck out of our lives with your foolish beliefs and attempts to legislate/ram them down our throats. Dr. George Tiller went to church but a fundy cut from same cloth as the rest of the religious mouth breathers here shot him in the head.

    • Phillip

      Speaking of Dawkins and Collins

      Whenever someone brings up Dawkins as the epitome of rational thought its a bad sign that the conversation isn’t going to progress very far.

      • I’m pretty sure the point of Tom’s post was just to see how much sexism he could squeeze into one paragraph.

        • Hibernia86

          Nowhere did he mention gender, so I think your accusation is unfair. Don’t attack people’s character without proof. That is just a sleazy thing to do.

          • “Honey” is a clearly condescending mode of address toward a woman. Later, he accuses Leah of being an “emotional train wreck” which, while not exclusively attached to femininity, is most often used to describe a weakness attributed primarily to women.

            Leah may choose to take offence or not; but there is a solid basis for flagging the comment as sexist.

          • leahlibresco

            I don’t flag any comment as anything; everything gets posted. That way I can’t get called on the carpet to defend the comments I let through.

          • Hibernia86

            Robert, I read the comment more closely and I changed my views. I do agree that he was using the emotion insult without proof which would seem to indicate gender stereotypes and thus sexism. I don’t, however, believe that the word “honey” was necessarily sexist, however. It was condescending, but that doesn’t necessarily mean (if he hadn’t have tipped his hat with the ’emotion’ comment) that it was BECAUSE of her gender. If I say “Look, man, you’ve screwed it up. Just throw in the towel”, that is gender based and condescending, but it doesn’t prove that I was being condescending BECAUSE of the man’s gender.

          • deiseach

            Whereas a comment about “Your argument is refuted because… you are ugly” is not at all sleazy, is it, Hibernia86? Besides, I thought that particular canard hadn’t really worked since Socrates 🙂

          • Hibernia86

            deiseach, that comment is sleazy, but that was a different comment and a different person. If you would like me to call out them as well, I’ll do that right now.

        • Hibernia86

          Then again, throwing in that jab about emotion at the end without providing any proof does seem to suggest that he was using gender stereotypes, so sorry Andrew for criticizing you without reading the post close enough.

      • Tom Leykis

        None too sharp, are you? I love how Fundys never let logic, facts, science and data get in the way of a good straw man argument. Lol I repeat:

        There is more substantive proof that UFO’s exist than the manmade inventions you call “god”, “jesus”, etc. The Greek and Roman gods are just as valid and true as your “god” and “jesus” and have just as much proof to justify their existence. Let me help you:
        1. The earth is approximately 4.5 Billion years old.
        2. Evolution is a scientific fact.
        3. The whole “parting of the red sea”, “rising from the dead”, “noah’s ark”, “talking snake”, “adam & eve”, etc etc etc…..all myths.
        4. There is no legitimate academically accepted, peer reviewed proof that “jesus” ever existed. You’d think the most important “person” in christianity would have legitimate proof of life.
        5. Dawkins isn’t engaging in a culture war against religion, but one against stupidity. Keep your religious ignorance out of public school, public policy, law & jurisprudence, foreing policy and everyone else’s life. We don’t care what you believe in provided you stay the Fvck out of our lives with your foolish beliefs and attempts to legislate/ram them down our throats. Dr. George Tiller went to church but a fundy cut from same cloth as the rest of the religious mouth breathers here shot him in the head.
        6. Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, et al. (400 F. Supp. 2d 707, Docket no. 4cv2688) Read it and realize how indefensible the positions of religious people are.

    • Kyle

      The moniker “Tom Leykis” itself is sexist…just look him up on wikipedia. He’s a radio host… “The show’s best-known feature is “Leykis 101”, in which he purports to teach men “how to get laid” while spending the least amount of time, money, and effort.”

      • Hibernia86

        Again, I’ve changed my views to accept that the emotion comment is sexist, but what does the radio show have to do to with it? As long as the men are honest with the women and the women agree to sex, there is nothing wrong with “getting laid” with the least time, money, or effort. If they both want to be sexually active, then that is their choice.

        • Faramir

          This isn’t the place to start a debate on sexual morality, but I would argue that viewing women solely as means of “getting laid”, i.e. viewing women solely as objects of sexual gratification, is looking at them not as fellow persons equal in dignity to yourself, but instead reduces them to the level of objects. Essentially, the danger is that someone with this attitude sees no essential difference between an actual woman and an incredibly lifelike sex robot or a holodeck program – they are merely means of satifying sexual desires, not human persons with inherent dignity and worth.

          • Hibernia86

            Faramir, too late. You’ve already started one haha 🙂

            I agree that would be wrong, but I don’t think we should assume that is how men think of women. Even if was just a casual agreement, that doesn’t mean they are being disrespected. When we pay waiters to bring us food, are we dehumanizing them and objectifying them? Or are we simply making an agreement that benefits both parties? (it should be obvious I favor #2)

            Besides, people who have sex with each other often have at least some conversation ahead of time so they might develop at least somewhat of a friendship.

          • Faramir

            Wouldn’t you agree there’s a big difference between bringing someone food and allowing them access to the most intimate parts of your body (and I would add, your soul)? But so as not to start a debate 😉 , I’ll leave it at that.

          • Oregon Catholic

            Hibernia if you had ever listened to Tom Leykis you would have no question in your mind that he was not only a sexist but a misogynist as well and damn proud of it. The screen name was a dead give away that the comment was intended to be unflattering to Leah simply because she is a woman.

          • This actually makes a good case study for the objectivity and/or universality of morality.

            By Hibernia86’s logic, prostitution is perfectly fine and perhaps should be legalized in places where it is currently illegal. Please correct me if I’m extrapolating too far.

            So, since I (and I expect many others) find this a problematic, even repellant, conclusion, the question is, why?

            My answer would be that there is something inherently wrong with reducing a person to an object, in this case a sex object, for the pleasure of another. I think the analogy with the waiter breaks down because the waiter’s person is not being reduced to an object. This is the first time I’ve thought this particular analogy through, so I’m struggling to articulate exactly the difference. Part of it is that the “service” the prostitute provides is exactly her (or his) body, in the simulation of an intimate relationship; the prostitute is providing a “person” as the good being exchanged. The waiter, on the other hand, is providing something other than his/her body, his/her person, as the good being exchanged. The waiter is an intermediary for exchanging other goods; the prostitute is him-/herself the good being exchanged. It is this reduction of a person to a good for exchange that harms the dignity of the persons involved.

            As I said, this is a first-glance argument. I’m open to critique on it. However, I do think that the question of whether a person has some inherent, inalienable dignity which suffers actual harm from objectification or degradation points to an objective morality. Without an objective morality, I don’t see how one can speak of dignity, or degradation, or even objectification. So, the very idea of human dignity, and of a certain equality of dignity among persons, points toward an objective basis for that dignity.

            And that equality of dignity, it seems to me, is the foundation for the Golden Rule in its various articulations. Acceptance that others are in some way of equal status with me, in some way objectively the same as me, underlies the motivation to treat them as I would be treated.

          • Hibernia86

            Oregon Catholic, I wouldn’t be surprised if you are right. But my point was that it doesn’t have to be that way. You can be sexually active and still respect women.

            Faramir wants the last word so I’ll direct my comments to Robert. Yes, Robert, I believe if there is no coercion then sex work for money should be legal. Robert, let me give you another example. Dancers are paid to dance. They are paid to use their body to provide pleasure for others. I’m sure that most people would not find that intrinsically degrading. So it isn’t the use of the body that people really have a problem with. It is the use of sex. I think all I can say is that you should let people make their own decisions about what they want to do sexually. For example, there are many couples who participate in BDSM bondage relationships, some just in the bedroom, some 24/7, sometimes with the man as dominant, sometimes with the woman as dominant, sometimes switching. That might seem degrading at first glance, but the motto of the group is to be “safe, sane, and consensual” and they have safe words to protect the submissive. (it is sometimes said that the submissive is really in control because they decide what activities are allowed and which aren’t). So if we can accept that even these sex practices can be respectful, why is trading sex for money so unthinkable? Everything I said is true even if objective morality exists.

          • Oregon Catholic

            Hibernia, most people would question your safe, sane, and consensual claim for BDSM. Psychology, as amoral and liberal as it has become, still classifies sadomasochism as a disorder and that in itself calls into question whether it can be truly consensual or completely sane (I’m not talking legal definition here).

          • Hibernia86

            Oregon Catholic, 50 years ago many people thought it was disordered for a white person to marry a black person.

            You are wrong about psychology. Psychology says that if the sadomasochism does not get in the way of regular life and is consensual then it is NOT a disorder.

    • John D

      Tom, I’m having a most difficult time trying to decide if your comments are meant to be satirical or not… care to clarify?

  • John

    Pure skepticism results in a set of “correct” conclusions that contains only nil as its membership. Therefore, all skeptics with conclusions are hypocrites.

    Newman, Grammar of Assent, Ch 8:

    “As to Logic, its chain of conclusions hangs loose at both ends; both the point from which the proof should start, and the points at which it should arrive, are beyond its reach; it comes short both of first principles and of concrete issues. Even its most elaborate exhibitions fail to represent adequately the sum-total of considerations by which an individual mind is determined in its judgment of things; even its most careful combinations made to bear on a conclusion want that steadiness of aim which is necessary for hitting it. As I said when I began, thought is too keen and manifold, its sources are too remote and hidden, its path too personal, delicate, and circuitous, its subject-matter too various and intricate, to admit of the trammels of any language, of whatever subtlety and of whatever compass…”

  • You kind of wonder about Cephus’ skepticism as well. For instance, on the ideological Turing test we get:

    The one thing I’m certain of after a couple years of blogging about religion is that a lot of our arguments are unproductive because we don’t understand what the other side is saying. I set up an Ideological Turing Test, where atheists and Christians tried to imitate each other well enough to pass for each other, and we found a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings on both sides.

    I’m sure you found a lot more of them on the Christian side because the majority of atheists started out being religious. We understand religion. We were there. In fact, we probably understand religion better than most theists, it was our degree of understanding, as opposed to blind faith, that led most of us to abandon religion in the first place. I think you’d find more about religion by asking ex-Christians than you ever would by asking current Christians.

    So this highly accomplished skeptic hears you’ve conducted a test, and rather than, say, clicking on the link to the test and reading the results, the “skeptic” simply tells us what he thinks the results likely were.

    • Ted Seeber

      About all I’ve ever learned from ex-Christian Atheists is that some parents stop Catechism classes at age 10. Their “Faith” if they ever had any, was the faith of children and so they assume that adults can’t have faith.

      • I’m trying to figure out a way you could be any more condescending with that remark, but… nope, it’s just not coming to me.

        • Good try, though.

        • Ted Seeber

          When I come off as condescending, it’s usually due to my autism observing a fact that is not politically correct, but is usually true.

      • Hibernia86

        Ted, not true. I had catechism classes every year, including adult catechism classes, until I went off to college. I didn’t agree with it in high school and I don’t agree with it now.

        • Ted Seeber

          Until you went off to college? And thus, your faith remained that of a child, not a real adult. Catechism isn’t enough, and that’s why most Cradle Catholics fall away from the faith in college. The few that return, have a faith based on reason, not emotion.

  • Ray

    Re setting the false positive/false negative thing. I don’t see how allowing miracles can lead to anything but epistemological chaos. Once you allow a man walking on water and returning from the dead, and further conclude that ancient second and third hand accounts are sufficient evidence to identify the man, what’s to prevent really big miracles — mucking with planetary orbits, keeping stars burning without consuming fuel, reversing global warming, spelling the name of the almighty out in supernovae etc. (And Virtue ethics won’t justify favoring the Christian miracles, either, since, not only was it invented by a pagan, but it’s also pretty similar to Hindu ethics — just replace “Telos” with “Dharma” in the terminology.)

    If you can make room for the miracles of Jesus, what principled reason do you have for concluding that miracles are rare enough and small enough that a methodologically naturalistic approach to science is even possible?

    • Kristen inDallas

      This is a big question… have you read CK Lewis’ book, Miracles?
      He takes a pretty thorough look at how believing in the possibility of miricles is no less rational than not believing in them. Later chapters delve into the specifics, but the first Ch. is pretty solid philosophy.

      • Ray

        Yes. I was unimpressed, though. For example, his canonical example of a miracle, in the introduction, was Jesus predicting the future actions of Peter. Then, in the next chapter he’s claiming that it’s the naturalist that has a problem with free will — and he doesn’t even attempt to address Compatibilist notions of free will, which date back at least as far as. My general complaint is that Lewis speaks far too loosely to establish that the things he thinks naturalism rules out are actually ruled out by naturalism (free will and consciousness) — for the record, I don’t think they are — and he never comes close to explaining why the vast majority of things clearly ruled out by naturalism (e.g. the naive interpretation of stage magic and TV psychics, Flood Geology) turn out to be fictions on further inspection. This is especially important since Biblical miracles look a lot more similar to stage magic and TV psychics, than they do to conceptual issues like consciousness, so even if naturalism is only an approximation, you’d still expect the correct theory to make Biblical miracles unlikely.

        • Ted Seeber

          Free will is in and of itself a miracle, since by all we know of quantum mechanics, cause and effect, it should not exist (your brain is, after all, just a biochemical machine- a very complex one but a machine none the less, every choice you make is dictated by chemistry in the material atheist model). So you’ve already taken a step towards believing in miracles by your belief in free will.

          • Ray

            This is exactly the sort of unsupported bald assertion that drives me crazy about Lewis. What exactly is wrong with Compatibilism, as expounded by e.g. Dennett? (and don’t just say he’s an unsophisticated cad, which is the argument I usually get.) Compatibilism, a majority view among philosophers I might add, is the explicit view that being a biochemical machine does not preclude having free will, so your argument is a non-sequitor.

          • Ted Seeber

            What is wrong with Compatibilism is that it fails to take cause and effect in brain chemistry into account. Dennett obviously never even bothered to study neurobiology, most philosophers do not.

            Even if they had, however, the idea that “being a biochemical machine does not preclude having free will” is against pure materialism, which states that ONLY the material world which we can measure exists. THAT is against free will.

          • Ray

            I’ve heard Dennett accused of many things. Not knowing neuroscience is not one of them though. Have you read any Dennett at all?

            As for the rest, it’s just more repetition of the same unsupported assertion you started with — that “free will” cannot be identified with some feature of the measurable, physical world.

          • Ted Seeber

            His field is evolutionary biology and cognitive science, NOT neurochemistry. Which is why he is a philosopher and NOT a hard material scientist. You do know the difference, I assume?

    • Ted Seeber

      Oddly enough, it is an atheist (Arthur C. Clarke) that gave me the rational answer to that one: Any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic.

      God made the universe (axiomatic, I don’t expect the atheists to accept this axiom, but it is part of my assumption for the rest of this statement) so therefore we MUST assume He has better technology and different purposes than us (after all, the universe contains Evil, therefore no self-respecting good atheist would ever bother to create the universe to begin with) that we don’t know about. Lodestone was once considered miraculous (it attracted metal with no visible action) and while we now have a model that can explain it, I can’t rightly say that having the model of how magnets work actually removes the miracle.

      • Ray

        I disagree with Clarke’s third law, at least if it is meant to imply that it is reasonable to expect sufficiently advanced technology to exist (and it’s vacuous otherwise.) But you’re missing the point. Science relies on methodological naturalism (i.e. the assumption that whatever we’re trying to explain can be explained without resorting to miracles.) When, in your philosophy, is this a safe assumption? (Is it a safe assumption in the case of Romulus/ Quirinius? Apollonius of Tyana? If so, why not in the case of Jesus as well?)

        • Ted Seeber

          Just because you explain something does not mean it ceases to be a miracle. It is never a safe assumption to eliminate the miraculous, because a miracle is subjective, not objective, and can’t be touched by science.

          • Ray

            So then you think it’s plausible that the story of Romulus, recorded by the historians Livy and Plutarch, preserves a genuine historical memory of a man who was born without a human father and who ascended to heaven rather than dying?

          • Ted Seeber

            “So then you think it’s plausible that the story of Romulus, recorded by the historians Livy and Plutarch, preserves a genuine historical memory of a man who was born without a human father and who ascended to heaven rather than dying?”

            Yes. Because I also believe Jesus Christ was a man born without a father and who ascended into heaven rather than dying.

            There is no need whatsoever to take the side of the skeptic.

        • Ted Seeber

          I also disagree with your assertion that methodlogical naturalism relies on the elimination of miracles. One need not eliminate the miracle to explain, using cause and effect, an entirely natural cause for the event.

          • Ray

            Fine. What’s your natural explanation for the existence of the empty tomb story? Mine is that it was made up 40 to 100 years after the fact by people who didn’t even know where Jesus was buried, probably for political reasons.

          • Ted Seeber

            “What’s your natural explanation for the existence of the empty tomb story? Mine is that it was made up 40 to 100 years after the fact by people who didn’t even know where Jesus was buried, probably for political reasons.”

            Mine is that in some cases, given sufficient technology and a significant power source, the human body and soul can be translated into a new body that is based on energy rather than matter.

            My version is both consistent with the Empty Tomb Story *and* the 500 witnesses interviewed by St. Luke as he was researching the Book of Acts. Yours is NOT compatible with the evidence as given, and requires belief that the witnesses were all lying.

  • I don’t know whether I am shocked or merely surprised at the irony of the name “Cephus.” (In case anyone is wondering why… “Cephas” is the name of Peter (as in Chair of Peter in Rome) in Aramaic)

  • Cous

    an unrelated question that only occurred to me upon seeing your interview: do you pronounce your name LEE-uh or LAY-uh?

    • leahlibresco

      Lee-uh. Not like Star Wars.

      • Cous

        ‘pologies, I’ve been mentally pronouncing it the SW way all this time. My truth-map of the world is now incrementally more correct!

        • Ted Seeber

          I thought Lay-uh was spelled Leia.

          • leahlibresco

            The pronunciation is socially constructed.

  • Andy

    Personally, I think Leah is stunningly beautiful. I have noticed that grace always brings a certain radiance with it.

    Welcome home, girl. Wouldn’t surprise me if you become the next doctor of the Church.

    • Alan

      So a week ago you didn’t think she was stunningly beautiful? Are you looking at her picture from before or after her conversion? What a stupid thing to say.

      • Folks can have grace before they’re conscious of their conversion. (Necessarily: In fact, it is grace which leads us to our conversion.)

    • Word.

  • Hibernia86

    While I greatly respect Leah, I think one part of this post does stand out in explaining how her (I think false) beliefs came about. She is correct that skeptism is a method and atheism is an expression that there is no evidence for God, but that there needs to be much more than that in order to get a coherient picture of the world. However, I noticed that the first thing she suggests that a person study beyond skepticism is morality. I would think that the next step would be to study the physical world. To me it seems that, because the physical world is so much more complex than morality (which can basically be wittled down to “people have value”), it would seem like the physical world should be believed over our moral intuitions. So we should let the physical world tell us about morality, not morality tell us about the physical world. That is one part that I think Leah is mistaken on (because she has said her belief in God is not based on any physical evidence but rather on how she feels morality would have to work).

    • John

      So then, what does the physical world tell us about morality? How would it judge the following act?

      A person becomes capable of ending all live as we know it, without causing any pain. This person acts on that capability, and all life is painlessly eliminated.

      How does the physical world judge that act? Yay for entropy??

      • John

        *life as we know it

      • Hibernia86

        The physical world could tell us how morality evolved and we could chose to follow that if we wished. Or we could seek to discover some objective morality. But making up a God that has no evidence in the physical world in order to fit with some moral theory involving objective morality we haven’t proven is not an smart way to go.

        • John

          You didn’t answer my question. Is that hypothetical act right or wrong, according to the physical world? You said that the physical world proscribes morality, so I’m asking you to show me how it does so in this case.

          • John

            *prescribes, oops

          • Hibernia86

            No, that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that there is a good chance our feelings of morality evolved and that that is why we act the way we do. In that case there would be no objective morality and that we would act the way we decide is best as a culture. I would hope it would be toward not destroying ourselves.

            Or, alternately, objective morality could be real and would be non-physical. But my point is that it can’t add on extra theories that affect the physical world without proof. You can’t say that “well, I’d like objective morality to exist, so I think that would work best with a God, therefore I’ll believe that a God is changing the physical world even though there is no proof of that physically.” I’m saying that you are far more likely to be wrong about your moral theory than you are to be wrong about the physical world.

        • PJ

          “The physical world could tell us how morality evolved and we could chose to follow that if we wished.”

          No, it can’t. It can tell us what behaviors evolved and why, but that is totally irrelevant to the question of morality. Why we do or do not steal does not explain why stealing is wrong (or right).

          Even the discernment of which behaviors are properly subject to moral judgment (as opposed to, say, aesthetic judgment) presupposes that a knowledge of the Good is innate to our nature.

          • Hibernia86

            PJ, evolution can explain why believing in objective morality is evolutionarily advantagous. It might not be able to tell us which acts are good, but it can tell us why we believe certain acts are good. It can tell us why we view morality the way we do.

        • Ted Seeber

          What makes you think the physical world isn’t evidence of God, directly? Or rather, the laws of physics that govern it?

          • Hibernia86

            Because saying “The physical world exists, therefore God must have made it” is like saying “this river exists, therefore humans must have made it”. That doesn’t logically follow. The river formed naturally. Why couldn’t the universe exist naturally too? (Besides, I’ve seen humans many times. I’ve never seen God and I have no hard evidence that anyone else has either.)

          • Ted Seeber

            And in the case of the straight rivers found throughout America and Europe, you’d be right. “This river is and is straight, so somebody must have straightened it”. Many times within recorded history.

            So while it doesn’t logically follow to you, that is a problem with YOUR LOGIC, not with the idea to begin with.

    • leahlibresco

      I love studying the physical world, but I don’t know how much it can inform our actions, and, ivory tower jokes aside, we’ll have to make weighty, interpersonal decisions long before physical matter alone will have taught us how to treat others. It’s not that I believe moral intuitions over the physical world, it’s that I think they’re non-overlapping magisteria. I use data from the physical world to tell me what moral dilemma I’m facing, but the direction I move in is not informed by the physical.

      • So that said, Leah, do you believe that God created the physical world? Because in most religion (certainly Christianity and Catholicism) that’s part of the whole idea– God as creator, even for those that believe in evolution and a universe billions of years old. Religious folk who accept that will still usually suggest that God started it all off. In other words, you claim the physical world (i.e. the “scientific realm”) does not affect the moral (i.e. “God”), but do you think it goes the other way?

        • leahlibresco

          I can certainly buy the Thomist idea that God is engaged in a continual act of creation – sustaining the world in existence from moment to moment.

          • Hibernia86

            It is true that something is allowing existence to exist, but that thing need not be a conscious being. It could just be a physical law or physical or mathmatical truth about reality.

          • leahlibresco

            Yeah, that’s conditional for me on other data, not compelling in and of itself.

          • I think if God is involved in the physical world in any way, it is necessarily valid that he/she/it may one day be detectable in some manner by physical observation. I don’t like the idea of walling anything off from the field of scientific inquiry– it’s too much of a “God of the Gaps” phenomena, the idea that because science hasn’t yet explained something, that it never will. That’s what’s given us such gems as “Evolution doesn’t really happen” and, long ago, “The Sun goes around the Earth.” It’s an exciting time in all scientific fields, and if they start offering answers– either on the workings of the human mind or the origin and nature of the universe– that had been previously ascribed to God, would you change your mind in light of the new data? I suspect you would, which is good, but there are many people of various religions who would not. That’s why religion and science come in conflict so much. And to me, it at least seems possible that this will continue to happen, which is why I’m not willing to ascribe anything to a mysterious unknowable God, even if it hasn’t been explained yet.

          • Oregon Catholic

            Doesn’t law require a law giver? Believing that the universe and it’s laws came about by accident is a lot more incredible belief than an intelligent creator IMO. Just observing the world around us in our own limited time and place it is obvious that complex constructions are much more likely to be created by intelligence than come about by accident.

          • @Andrew –

            Leaving aside the Incarnation for the moment, the God of Judaism and Christianity (and I think Islam, though I’m not as well versed on their theology,) transcends the physical world. He is beyond space and time and any other dimension. He is, by definition, not susceptible to physical examination because he is not physical.

            Therefore, no physical science can attain direct evidence of God. Nor can physical science disprove the existence of God. God is not the subject of physical science; rather, the physical world is.

            However, there are sciences that are not physical sciences – at least in the classical sense of “science” meaning a discipline of pursuing knowledge. So, for example, logic is not a physical science. Nor, really, is mathematics. And neither is ethics or morality: should and ought are not physical categories. This does not mean they are not real, or even that they have absolutely no relation to physical stuff; it simply means that there are some aspects of reality – even of the reality that we readily perceive – that are not reducible to physical measurement. It is either a misunderstanding of the limits of physical science or a hubritic folly to demand that God (at least as understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition) to be “detectable by physical observation.”

            But then again, as I said at first, this is leaving aside the Incarnation, in which God became intimately involved with the physical universe. Oddly enough, this cross-contamination of physical and spiritual was what most scandalized the ancients.

          • The limits of science are not where you, or frankly, the Bible’s authors (who, whatever they were, were not scientists) arbitrarily draw them.

        • Ted Seeber

          I think you’re using the word “created” in a different way than a believer would. Created is an allegory.

          • My point, as I detailed in the post directly above yours, is not so much on the word “created”, but on whether God interacts with the physical world at all. And by the way, a significant portion (I’d wager a significant majority) of Christians do not believe that “created” is an allegory.

          • Ted Seeber

            Depends on if they read encyclicals, but usually Truth in a philosophical sense isn’t dependent upon democracy. That’s true in both science and religion and every other philosophy I’ve ever heard about.

            Let me ask you this- how much interacting do you do with your mitochondria? Is interaction with the component cellular structure of your skin even the right analogy?

          • I’m attempting to figure out what you’re driving at with the mitochondria analogy. Just because you can construct a potentially valid analogy (and I don’t see how it’s even potentially valid) doesn’t mean that all comparisons between those analogies are true.

            But for the sake of argument, I’ll answer. I can, using scientific methods, both observe my mitochondria and study the effect they have on me. I may not be consciously aware of them, but they are certainly important to me, and in that context, I’d say I interact with them a fair amount. I am utterly dependent on my mitochondria.

            Theoretically, if a mitochondria in my system gained self-awareness and was able to develop scientific tools and instrumentation (the problem with analogies is that they eventually get absurd), it could, through purely physical observation, figure out that it was part of a much larger system, including a nervous system, that included a Central Nervous System and a brain that acted in a conscious manner. So in this situation, could my mitochondria become aware of me through physical means? Of course.

            And bringing the analogy full circle, I see no particular reason we might not one day learn about “the consciousness of God” through physical means.

          • Ted Seeber

            Exactly the reason science was invented- to learn about the mind of God through natural means.

            My analogy was based on another analogy from Catholic Theology- that God is omnipresent. That means that *all* matter, *all* physical laws, are a part of God. You, I, everybody we meet, the entire observable universe, is a part of God.

            Created seems almost wrong in that context. A better translation might be grown.

      • Hibernia86

        But Leah, even if objective morality is real and that non-overlapping magisteria is the correct way to look at it, it seems much easier to study the complex natural world that gives us a lot of data rather than morality which would be ghost like. I’ve already explained on other posts why I don’t think objective morality would need a conscious being controlling it, but even if it did, the lack of evidence for such a being in the physical world would seem to indicate that we are more likely to be wrong about our moral theory than we are to be wrong about the physical world.

        • Ted Seeber

          Ah, in other words, the easy road is always the best road? What an interesting moral judgement. I suggest you research it and write a paper on it.

          • Hibernia86

            No, my point is that the more complete data is more likely to be accurate than the less complete data. If there is no evidence for God in the material world (which many of you believers seem to admit) then you can’t just make one up to fit your favorite moral theory.

          • I would admit that there is nothing in the physical world that we can point to, saying, “There! That is God!” in the sense that we can point to an up-quark or a supernova or a dinosaur bone.

            However, that is not the only kind of evidence that exists. Most Christian theology looks at the world as the effect of God’s action, and from the effect they learn something about the cause. The effect is a kind of evidence, but in the way of a clue rather than in the way of the thing itself. The entire physical universe is, in that way, evidence of God; just not conclusive evidence of the kind you seem to be seeking.

            This is because God (in the Judeo-Christian tradition) is not in the physical world, as if he were one thing among many; he transcends it, as the source of every thing’s existence.

          • Hibernia86

            But Robert, the events within the universe conform to physical laws. Even if you look at statistics, that doesn’t lead to any result that you wouldn’t expect under the physical laws. Yes, something is allowing existence to exist but that something doesn’t need to be conscious.

          • Ted Seeber

            Hard to have evidence of something that affects everything equally. The material world is a part of God, and the laws of physics themselves could not exist without Him. Are you equally skeptical about the background radiation of the universe, which is also omnipresent?

    • But atheism and Catholicism pretty much believe the same thing about the physical world. So how do you figure out which is true from just examining that? I guess you could find some clear physical evidence of a miracle and disprove materialism but I don’t know how you disprove Catholicism by physical observation.

      • Hibernia86

        Randy, saying “I don’t know how you disprove Catholicism by physical observation” is like saying “I don’t know how you disprove ghosts or fairies by physical observation”. You just don’t accept a belief in something until you have evidence for it.

        • John

          Something to be careful of: Generally these conversations assume that the only objective world at our disposal is the one that is equally accessible to all observers. But there is another possibility, which is that we each have truly objective access to a private world that is only accessible to us. If this is true– if we can *objectively* observe ourselves in the mandatory privacy of ourselves– then we can “do science” about ourselves and it is valid, empirical science. However, it is not subject to peer review. Nevertheless, if this realm exists, and if we ignore doing science in it…. then “you are a poor scientist, Dr. Venkman!”

          • Hibernia86

            I guess this goes back to the occam’s razor strategy. It takes much fewer assumptions to assume that the world around us is the same for everyone than it takes to assume that it is different for everyone. We should generally believe whatever theory fits the evidence and requires the least number of assumptions, i.e. that the physical world is real for everyone and that it operates by natural laws.

          • It takes no additional assumptions to recognize that, although the world is the same for all, each of us perceives it from a slightly different, i.e., subjective, point of view.

            This is why natural laws take a good deal of teasing out: our perceptions of the world are limited, and sometimes several people witnessing the same event perceive it very differently.

            The simplest approach is to accept that my experience of the world is necessarily incomplete. There will always be more in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy – or, for that matter, in our science, or in our theology.

          • Hibernia86

            But Robert, the goal of science is to get rid of that subjectivity as much as possible.

          • Ted Seeber

            I find Occam’s razor to belong to the fallacy of Appeal to Authority. It’s too simple.

        • “You just don’t accept a belief in something until you have evidence for it.”

          I think once a belief hits a certain threshold of usefulness, it’s OK, as long as there’s nothing to disprove it. Is it possible we could agree to differ? I think we’re both rational and maybe just have different thresholds of usefulness.

          • Hibernia86

            We can agree not to debate. My goal is to increase the number of nonbelievers, not to force every single person to leave the faith. I know there is little chance of changing the minds of any of the commenters here, but there is always large numbers of noncommenters reading that might be convinced and even if not, I’m having fun doing this and sharpening my arguments.

    • Faramir

      I think there is truth in your statement that morality basically boils down to “people have value” (cf. the Golden Rule). But I don’t see how the physical world is any more complex: don’t the laws of physics essentially boil down to “matter-energy is conserved”? All the rest of physics is basically the working out of that principle in specific cases; its exactly the same with morality.

      • Hibernia86

        The material world also has space and time and subatomic particles. I think evolution explains why it is evolutionarily advantageous to believe in objective morality even if it doesn’t exist. And even if objective morality does exists, it doesn’t require a God since it would have to be as real as a physical law, not just something some ruler (like God) says. So none of that requires denying the science of the world free of the supernatural.

        • So, if “matter-energy is conserved” is a woeful oversimplification of the complexity of the physical laws, so “people have value” is a woeful oversimplification of the complexity of the moral law. Besides, I’m not sure a competition for which is most complex is the best way to decide where to focus.

          it [objective morality] would have to be as real as a physical law, not just something some ruler (like God) says.

          Yet this is exactly what natural law theory holds. The moral law, ultimately, is a descriptive law (like the laws of physics), not an arbitrary law. God is “lawgiver” in the sense that his being defines what is good, and the nature of the things in creation define what is good for those creatures. The natural law approach holds moral precepts as examples or articulations of the deep nature of things, not as the source of morality – just as it would be absurd to say E=mc2 dictates the relationship between matter and energy, by the will of Einstein the lawgiver.

          • Hibernia86

            Robert, okay, but even if objective morality is real and you admit that it would be intrinsic to the universe, then it wouldn’t require a God to exist. It would be as real as the physical laws of the universe. You don’t need to have a God to create those things because then you’d just have to question where God came from. And if you say God always existed, then why can’t you say the same about a reality without God?

            My point with the complexity comment is that it is possible to explain through evolution why we are inclined to believe in objective morality. So it seems to me that in that sense, we are more sure of the reality of the material world than we are of objective morality. And even if objective morality exists, it doesn’t necessarily require God. That was my point.

          • Oregon Catholic

            But Hibernia, where did those laws that you say govern everything come from? They couldn’t just have always existed without a cause. Everything had to have a cause: space, time, matter, energy. If you say they just accidentally sorted themselves out from a chaos of matter and energy, well what created the matter and energy? The most basic of physical law is that something can’t come from nothing. The further and further you take it back to the beginning of everything, the more incredible it becomes that there is no intelligent creator as the first and uncaused cause.

  • D’Agata

    Leah, I’m fascinated by your conversion story, which I picked up on CNN. I’m a born-lapsed-rediscovered Catholic (radical conversion experience at 28). Check out as well as ANY of the works by Luigi Giussani. Sorry to add more to your reading list but it’ll be worth it! Contact me to talk. I’m also in DC, where I teach for a living and write fiction.

  • The “false positive/false negative” thing is really interesting, because for me it marks the difference between science and everyday reasoning, and likely the difference between being skeptical and not being skeptical (which doesn’t mean being gullible). Science is set up to avoid producing false positives as much as they possibly can; if there is any real doubt, science as science tends to say nothing rather than say something wrong. Everyday reasoning is far less concerned about this, because if it takes no stance then it can’t guide action at all, and the whole reason for forming beliefs and opinions is to directly guide actions. So, for science, skepticism works really well, but it doesn’t work so well for everyday reasoning.

    In a post aimed at Larry Moran, I defined the difference between a sketpical and non-skeptical view as being this: Skeptics hold that you should doubt unless you have really good reason to believe; non-skeptics hold that you should believe unless you have really good reason to doubt. I think it obvious why the former works best for science — it usually has the time to wait to get things right — and the latter works best for everyday reasoning. Neither, I would say, are irrational; it’s all about setting priorities.

    • Quarkgluonsoup

      Your claims about how science works aren’t correct. Look no further than the defects in medical science which lead to dubious evidence (such as the overuse of cholesterol medication in heathly people, among many different examples) leading to actions that are outright destructive. You idealize science, which is far less orderly than you imagine

  • Leah, I’ve been following the story of your conversion. I am a convert to the Catholic faith from the opposite direction (I was an Evangelical Protestant). Furthermore, since my degree is in mathematics with a minor in computer science, I have an appreciation for the rational way (NB: not rationalist way) that you approach these issues.

    I have a question for you (not being a regular reader of your blog). Have you ever done any reading in Thomistic philosophy? St. Thomas gives a very rational explanation of virtue ethics based on the Ethics of Aristotle and his natural theology and metaphysics are very cogently developed as well. If you have not, may I recommend Dr. Edward Feser’s book Aquinas which gives an excellent introduction to his thought and expounds especially well on the famous Five Ways (which are often misunderstood by modern and postmodern philosophers) and the philosophical principles behind them. I think it might make good food for thought as you continue along this road.

    God bless!

  • UnderINK

    A lover who refuses to ‘believe the profession of the beloved’ is not a sceptic, he’s acting on faith. Scepticism is weighing the evidence and believing only based on what’s physically evident. If a person professes love and takes actions that speak to that, a sceptic will believe them. REFUSING TO BELIEVE is as bad as REFUSING TO NOT BELIEVE and is not scepticism. ‘Refusal’ to weigh the evidence is not scepticism.

    I can see why you were not a prominent Atheist blogger (what bullshit, CNN) before this began. Your examples are extremely flawed and unconvincing.

    • Hibernia86

      Is this CNN clip online somewhere, because I’d like to see it. It’s kind of cool to have debated in the comments with a person like Leah who has been on national TV.

      You are correct to disagree with Leah, but perhaps you should stick to the argument instead of attacking her personally.

    • PJ


      What physical evidence is there for believing that belief should be determined solely on the basis of physical evidence? Empiricism cannot be empirically proven. Anyway, there are things that we know to be real and true that have no physical existence: mathematical formulas and laws of logic, for instance, to say nothing of morality and aesthetics.

      • Hibernia86

        PJ, if you have a belief such as the belief in God, that suggests interaction in the physical world, you should be able to show that the physical world is being affected by God. There is no proof that the world is any different than it would be without a God, so that is why we call that belief into question.

        • Quarkgluonsoup

          There is no basis for your claim whatsoever.

          • Oregon Catholic

            Correct. If God exists beyond space and time, which we are confined to, why should you be able to deduce anything about the physical nature of God? Or what if God is physically present even within space and time but is too ‘big’ to be ‘visible’ to any of our measurements? If the universe is equivalent to a speck of pollen in the nose of God are you going to be able to “gnoses” God.

        • Ted Seeber

          The physical laws exist. In a truly random universe, they shouldn’t.

  • sentinel1513

    “It is assumed that the sceptic has no bias; whereas he has a very obvious bias in favour of scepticism.”

    “Latter-day scepticism is fond of calling itself progressive; but scepticism is really reactionary. Scepticism goes back; it attempts to unsettle what has already been settled. Instead of trying to break up new fields with its plough, it simply tries to break up the plough.”

    “No sceptical philosopher can ask any questions that may not equally be asked by a tired child on a hot afternoon.”

    “It is ludicrous to suppose that the more sceptical we are the more we see good in everything. It is clear that the more we are certain what good is, the more we shall see good in everything.”

    – G. K. Chesterton Skeptic

  • John

    I think y’all are missing what I meant. The personal subject “I” is an object available to precisely one: myself. Due to this objectivity, I may “do science” about the object that is precisely myself. Because of the privacy, there can be no peer review. If I discover a transcendence about myself, through observation and science, nobody can object on the basis that my methods were unscientific. They can only be pained that the “object” is unavailable to them for study.

  • Skepticism urges us to object to the historicity of that character you have in mind.

    Historians continue losing confidence in testamony as reliable evidence that our timeline contains divine miracles. So the skeptic says Genesis is unbelievable and its main character incredible.

    We needn’t rationalise our belief in the Big Bang. Cosmologists haven’t established a “formless void”, divine miracle, nor eternal creator.

  • “I don’t think skeptics-identifying-only-as-skeptics are lying, but I think they’re not putting all their cards on the table, which makes it a lot harder to be corrected if you’re wrong or convert your opponent if you’re right.”

    Hear, hear.

  • Fortuna Veritas

    You’ve just bought the whole cart with transubstantiation, the belief that a piece of bread becomes the physical flesh of Jesus Christ and wine becomes his literal blood.

    And you expect us to still believe you when you call yourself a skeptic?