Loincloths vs Cassocks

Once upon a time one of my friends, JH, got it into his head that he wanted to DM a campaign for our D&D group. I was our usual DM, but I was extra busy and we were at a good place to put my campaign on hold for a few weeks, so figured we’d let him have a shot.

The main bad guys in his game were some sort of cult of evil monks. We never really found out what they were all about because of events I’ll explain shortly.

The important thing you need to know is this: Our adventuring party got attacked several times by enemies JH described as “monks dressed in loincloths.” So, we pretty much had something like this in our minds:

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What we didn’t know is that JH didn’t actually know what a “loincloth” is.  This is what he had in mind, and was calling “a loincloth”:

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Obviously, we were on a collision course for a train wreck at some point.  And it happened the worst way possible.

We encountered a pair of the monks on a road, and as we were getting ready for another fight, JH attempted to reveal them as not really evil monks, but allies who were in disguise, and (probably) had plot information for us.

So what he said was “The monks suddenly rip off their loincloths … revealing a fully dressed wizard and warrior underneath.

I’ll leave you to form your own mental image of a fully dressed wizard and warrior underneath two monks’ loincloths.  We cracked up. We cracked up completely.  And JH had no idea WHY.  And we couldn’t stop laughing. We were, literally, ROTFLing.  JH was pretty sensitive to embarrassment, especially since it was his first time DMing, and everyone was laughing uncontrollably, and couldn’t stop or even tell him why.

There was no going back. That was the end of his first campaign.  As far as I know, he didn’t even try to DM for at least a decade after that. In retrospect, I feel somewhat bad about it, but I’m cracking up again remembering it, so I guess I don’t feel too bad.

Hope you enjoyed a random D&D memory!

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Is Belief in God a Delusion?

A persistent atheistic trope is calling belief in God delusional or a delusion.  The most obvious popular example is Richard Dawkins’ pro-atheism book The God Delusion, a book that, while popularly successful, is notorious for its shallowness and lack of rigorous argumentation (interested readers may wish to look at Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion for a highly detailed account of the many deficiencies under which Dawkins’ book suffers).

Is belief in God a delusion? The most widely used and accepted definition of a delusion comes from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA):

Delusion. A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith).

Well, things don’t look very promising for the atheist trope, do they?

To begin with only the most obvious point, delusions are standardly defined in such a way as to exclude articles of religious faith, something for which belief in God obviously qualifies.

Now, an atheist of course could claim that the DSM’s defining delusion in such a way as to exclude commonly held articles of religious faith is an error, a kind of special pleading exemption for religious beliefs, which are not being treated the same as other beliefs. On this basis, the atheist might insist on adopting a different definition of delusion. But this very demand for changing the standard definition appears to be a kind of special pleading on the part of the atheist.   Why shouldn’t religious beliefs be treated in a manner different that other sorts of beliefs? The theist merely needs to note that religious beliefs are not like other beliefs, because they are about a particular part of reality that is sui generis, viz. the divine or transcendent dimension of being.  The atheist could respond that there simply is no such dimension of being, but would immediately fall right back into special pleading and/or begging the question against the theist—unless of course the atheist can bring forth proof that there is no divine or transcendent dimension of being, a proof we still await.

But of course the theist need not rest her case on the specific exemption for articles of religious belief in the DSM’s definition of delusion. Let it go. Let us look at the other factors which make a delusion a delusion.  We see right way that there are three.  To count as a delusion a belief must be

  1. based on incorrect inference about external reality
  2. firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes
  3. firmly sustained despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary

Let’s start with criterion 2.  It appears that the authors of the DSM are aware of something which many atheists manage to somehow overlook, namely, the consensus gentium.  What is the consensus gentium? It is merely a technical name for the common consensus of humanity.  And the common consensus of humanity speaks overwhelmingly in favor of theism.

Here too, it is open to the atheist to object that the consensus gentium is not infallible and to treat it as such is to commit an ad populum fallacy (an appeal to popularity).  But the consensus gentium does not, in itself, constitute an ad populum fallacy—it is, in itself, not a proof of a given proposition, but it does constitute evidence.  To dispute the consensus gentium requires one to hold that the majority of human beings are deceived or delusional in their beliefs (as atheists do hold).  But this view seems to be strong evidence for the proposition “human belief formation is highly unreliable,” since it reliably produces false or delusional beliefs.  But the belief that human belief formation is highly unreliable serves as an all-purpose defeater for any belief whatever, including itself and the belief that “belief in God is delusional.” In other words, to dispute the consensus gentium without specially pleading that human belief formation is reliable everywhere except with respect to the divine, seems to be a self-defeating move.

Just on the face of it, it is obvious that theism is the majority belief of human beings, and always has been, just as atheism is tiny minority belief, even if one grown loud and strident in our modern, highly secularized society.  Theism very obviously fails to meet criterion 2 of the DSM’s definition of a delusion, so it isn’t one.  So far, we’ve seen that belief in God is not a delusion twice over. But there’s more.

Things are worse yet for the atheist who wants to use the “delusion” trope.  Criterion 1 specifies that the belief must be the result of some kind of faulty reasoning, an “incorrect inference about external reality.”  And criterion 3 specifies that a delusion is a belief held “despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary.”

In other words, it would need to be shown that theism is (1) irrational and (2) obviously false.

And of course atheism has not met either of these challenges.  It has not even come close. In fact, atheists by and large admit that not only have they not proven either of these things, that they cannot do so, more, that it is impossible to do so.

It is no accident that the vast majority of today’s atheists are “lack of belief” atheists.  They follow philosopher Antony Flew’s 1972 redefinition of “atheism” to mean “lack of belief in God” as opposed to the standard and traditional definition “belief that God does not exist” (which is still held by ~80% of people, according to the Oxford Handbook of Atheism).

The “lack of belief” atheist does not claim that he knows or even believes that God does not exist, but only that he remains unconvinced that God does exist.  Well, good for him. (Actually, it’s bad for him, but set that aside).  That someone happens to be unconvinced that a belief is true in no way indicates that the belief is false.  It isn’t even a statement about whatever the belief is about, but a statement about a psychological property of a belief-holder.  If A says, “I lack a belief that G,” a perfectly legitimate response is to make a psychological report of one’s own and note “And I have one. What of it?”

There are, to my knowledge, only three serious arguments which attempt to show that theism is false, that is, that God does not exist:

  1. The Argument from Evil, which holds that the existence of unnecessary evil in the world is incompatible with an all-good being, which a perfect being, God, must be.
  2. The Argument from the Unnecessariness of God, which holds that God is unnecessary as an explanation for anything, and therefore is merely a gratuitous hypothesis which, following Ockham’s Razor, we ought not to make.
  3. The Argument from Self-Contradiction, which holds that the concept of “God” is self-contradictory, and therefore, God cannot exist.

All three arguments are notoriously weak and easily refuted:

  1. The Argument from Evil can be highly persuasive as an appeal to emotion.  One points to some horror or tragedy, personal or historical, and demands “How could a good God let this happen?” The honest answer, and the rational one, is that we don’t know, and we aren’t in a position to know the thoughts of an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfect being. Most theists believe that, since God is good, He does not cause or will evil, but only permits or allows it for a sufficiently good reason, which we simply do not (yet, fully) understand.  Nor can the atheist rule out the possibility that whatever evil he regards as “too much” is not, in a way beyond human understanding, for the best when seen from God’s point of view.  The most an atheist could do, it seems, is what Ivan Karamazov does in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and willfully refuse to accept some evil or another (Ivan cannot accept the suffering of innocent children).  Yet, one of the basic elements of faith, as Christians use that term, is trust in God.  The Argument from Evil may well test one’s faith, but if it convinces, it does not do so as a rational argument. Christians trust that in the end, even though we do not understand how, in the words of St. Julian of Norwich “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”
  2. The Argument from the Unnecessariness of God fails for two reasons.  As in the Argument from Evil, we simply don’t know enough to be sure that God is not necessary; on the contrary, there is a very strong case that God is necessary as the only possible answer to “The question of Being” namely “Why is there anything at all, and not rather nothing?” But even if we could be sure, which we cannot, that we need not invoke God as an explanation, to infer the nonexistence of God from this is simply a non sequitur.  At most, this argument could aim to show that belief in God is an unreasonable postulate to make, in which case it collapses into the Evidentialist Argument (see below).
  3. And as for the Argument from Self-Contradiction (and also it’s cousin, the Argument that Religious Language is Meaningless), well, no one has ever succeeded in making anything close to a good argument for the notion.  There are of course ways one can define God such that the concept is self-contradictory (and it causes the theist no pain to admit that God so defined does not exist), but no one has ever shown even a good candidate for contradiction in the traditional conceptions of God. The “paradox of omnipotence” which sometimes impresses philosophical beginners is not a paradox at all, once one grasps the fairly basic point that “power to do anything possible” ≠ “power to do things that are impossible.”

With the failure of the only robust atheistical arguments on the table (and they are not very robust), in our time we have seen atheism retreat and retrench from ontology to epistemology, and the rise of the “lack of belief” atheist, which brings us to the Evidentialist Argument.

The Evidentialist Argument is not an argument that God does not exist, and does not attempt to prove that theism is false. It merely argues that belief in God is not sufficiently warranted by the evidence to count as a reasonable belief.

Before taking this up, we should note that even if the Evidentialist Argument turned out to be 100% successful, it would still fail to establish that belief in God is a delusion, since by definition, a delusion must be “firmly sustained despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary,” and as we have just seen, the atheist has no such “incontrovertible and obvious proof” of the falsity of theism.  He doesn’t even have a remotely plausible one.  Nowadays, the typical atheist doesn’t even try to make an argument.

As we have already seen, belief in God is NOT a delusion, since criteria 2 and 3 cannot be met by the atheist who claims it to be one.  But what about criterion 1? Is belief in God based on an “incorrect inference” about reality? Can the atheist at least meet one out of the three criteria that establish delusion?

No, he cannot. The best the atheist can do is appeal to his own personal incredulity.  He looks at the evidence (or doesn’t look, commonly) and says “I’m not convinced.” The theist looks at the evidence and is convinced.  What sort of epistemic error is the theist making? Why is her belief absurd or rationally unwarranted? These questions have simply never been answered in a way that is non-question-begging, that is, in a way that doesn’t assume from the beginning, tacitly or explicitly, that belief in God is absurd or rationally unwarranted.

The best case the atheist has, it seems to me, is a specularly weak one, but one which happens to sell fairly well in our age. I mean the Appeal to Scientism. Science is so highly regarded today as a way of acquiring knowledge, that unreflective persons can sometimes be induced to accept the claim that “scientific knowledge” is an absolute touchstone of all knowledge or knowledge as such, and so “only scientific knowledge is valid knowledge” which, joined with “there is no scientific evidence of God” would indeed yield the desired result, so

  1. Only scientific knowledge is valid knowledge.
  2. There is no scientific evidence of God
  3. ∴ It is unreasonable to believe in God.

This is the Argument to Scientism in a nutshell. It’s valid and premise 2 is true. The argument fails because premise 1 is obviously false. Science is not the only source of knowledge we have. Science itself makes use of extra-scientific knowledge, and does so necessarily and constantly: it is part of the scientific method to use both mathematics and empirical observation (i.e. experience)—and neither mathematics nor experience, which science seeks to explain, are cases of scientific knowledge, just as such. One is not “doing science” when one is having experience. Another instance of a proposition that is not a scientific one is Premise 1 of the Argument to Scientism itself. Scientism, as a doctrine, is notoriously self-refuting: if it is true, we must reject it as true, on the grounds of itself, because it isn’t itself scientific knowledge.  It fails its own truth test.

The Argument to Scientism also falls to a simple objection of common sense (another often valid source of knowledge, and indeed, the root of the consensus gentium spoken of above): we know that science studies nature (or nature plus human activities, if you count the social sciences as full sciences), and we also know that God, as traditionally understood, is transcendent of nature. God simply doesn’t fall under science’s domain, any more than goodness does, or for that matter, logic and math do.  Why on earth would a  very excellent method for studying nature discover something it neither looks for nor can see, given what its method and scope are? The short answer is: science simply has nothing to say about God; it studies nature. Period.  So appeals to science, including bogus appeals to principles that aren’t scientific but look vaguely “science-y”, as in the Argument to Scientism, fail because they cannot succeed without unreasonably making science omni-competent in every sphere of knowledge, which it obviously is not (Who should you vote for, according to the scientific method?), and reducing all other sources of knowledge to nullity, which would would destroy mathematics and logic and experience as valid kinds of knowledge, and so take science down with it.

To bring this to a close, even if we charitably overlook the DSM’s explicit distinction between delusion and articles of religious belief (one that is entirely reasonable, as I argued), belief in God is still not a delusion: the atheist who claims that it is a delusion cannot meet even one of the three criteria needed to establish a belief as delusional.

I conclude that the atheist trope of calling belief in God “a delusion” amounts to nothing more than name-calling. It doesn’t have the slightest amount of rational weight behind it.

Planet of the Apes and Prejudice

Not quite a Jane Austen title, I know, but this is something I have found very fascinating for years.

Human beings seem to have a natural “love of their own.” Call it prejudice, if you want, but the truth seems to be that it is both deeply human and at the same time, superficial.

But let’s get to the story!

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PLANET OF THE APES, Charlton Heston, Linda Harrison, Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, 1968, Tm & Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

During the filming of Planet of the Apes in 1967, Charlton Heston noted “an instinctive segregation on the set. Not only would the apes eat together, but the chimpanzees ate with the chimpanzees, the gorillas ate with the gorillas, the orangutans ate with the orangutans, and the humans would eat off by themselves. It was quite spooky.”

James Franciscus noticed the same thing filming Beneath the Planet of the Apes in 1969. “During lunch I looked up and realized, ‘My God, here is the universe,’ because at one table were all the orangutans eating, at another table were the apes, and at another table were the humans. The orangutan characters would not eat or mix with the ape characters, and the humans wouldn’t sit down and eat with any one of them.

“I remember saying, ‘Look around — do you realize what’s happening here? This is a little isolated microcosm of probably what’s bugging the whole world. Call it prejudice or whatever you want to call it. Whatever’s different is to be shunned or it’s frightening or so forth.’ Nobody was intermingling, even though they were all humans underneath the masks. The masks were enough to bring out our own little genetic natures of fear and prejudice. It was startling.”

(From Joe Russo and Larry Landsman, Planet of the Apes Revisited, 2001.)

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What is so interesting about this (to me) is that the actors self-segregated based entirely on their costumes, their outward appearance.  It made no difference if the actor was black, white, or asian; what seemed to be the sole determining factor (for the duration of filming) was whether he or she was chimpanzee, orangutan, gorilla, or human.

On the one hand, this seems like bad news: it suggests that a certain level of prejudice against people who “aren’t like us” in an obvious visual way will always be a part of human nature.  I’m certain it is the sort of thing that can be overcome with practice, but it seems to be our default state.

On the other hand, it strikes me as good news: it seems to show that in most cases racial prejudice is an incredibly superficial thing, that it is literally all surface, and that the greater part of this kind of behavior is not rooted in any deep antipathy or hatred of other races.

I suspect this common tendency is part of human nature, and we should certainly be aware of it—but that also means not making more of it than it is.  It should caution us about labelling every kind of tendency towards self-segregation as “racism”—assuming that word carries connotations of racial hatred or prejudice.

Philosopher_Twilight’s Take on God

[This is a response to Philosopher_Twilight’s (aka @TwiSparkPhil) “My take on god” on TwitLonger.  I’ve included his entire text, which you can read without my commentary here.]

You use the honorable word “philosopher” in your name. A philosopher is above all a seeker after truth. A philosopher inquires, asks questions, and if we follow Socrates, has an ineradicable belief that there is some truth of the matter, however much we prove inadequate to finding it.

So I hope you don’t take this as an attack. I am going to go through your “take on god” and offer some replies, responses, and criticisms however. Hopefully, we will both learn something in the process.

Let’s go.

My take on god.

Let us consider for a moment that god – or Allah, Yahwe, or any of the other thousand gods – exist. What kind of god is he? Why should we worship him or her? What kind of god would judge his creation on whether that creation believed in the existence of its creator and not based on how that creation lives its life among other creations?

I notice that a lot of your post consists of questions. That could be good, if the questions are serious.  If there are only rhetorical questions, leading questions designed to skew one’s perception of God, that is not good.

You should be aware that classical theism understands God to be a perfect and all-good being. What follows from this, among other things, is that God cannot, by definition, be or do evil, nor injustice, nor exhibit vices such as vanity, etc.

You are mistaken that God first and foremost requires one to believe in His existence. As the Epistle of James notes,

James 2:19: You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.

Demons believe in God. They know He exists with certainty.  And yet they rebel against Him. “Belief” is not what is at issue in theism.  It is wrong to understand “faith” as “belief” in this sense.

Of course God certainly does judge a person on how he lives his life.  That is why God prescribes we live in a certain way, e.g. love your neighbor as yourself.

According to classical Christian theism, it is, however, not possible for a human being to live in such a way that is entirely good. We are flawed beings, thanks to sin, which an affliction of our own making.  We need God’s help—His freely given help, His grace—to be good, and in both senses of “being morally good” and “being in the way that is truly good for us.”

Some might say he gave us free will so we can choose to either follow him or not. If we don’t follow him – or religion’s interpretation of him – we are punished for all eternity versus only a limited punishment of, say, a year or two in prison for our transgressions. Imagine if we did that for every little crime: “Oh you cheated on your wife? off to prison you go for all eternity.” or “You ate shell fish when you weren’t suppose to? eternity in prison.”

Again, you have a very narrow and incorrect understanding of the issue. Sin is not the breaking of an arbitrary rule; it is an objective action that puts one in a state of being in disunion with God (Who, remember just IS goodness and happiness).  Hell is the state of being separated from goodness and happiness.  No one, ultimately, finds himself in Hell against his will.  Hell is not a punishment inflicted by God, but the consequence of rejecting God. To reject God is to reject goodness and happiness, because God just is those things. Hell is therefore necessarily a bad state and an unhappy one. God does not “inflict” Hell in His creatures: the choose it, because this is the only way they can be free of obedience to God. You are a very poor student of human nature if you think it is impossible to willfully choose freedom in the form of having one’s own way over happiness.

How the hell do we think that would be fair? Seriously, religion needs to stop pretending to speak for god based on a book – or books – written a long time ago by people who didn’t understand their role in the universe or had any understanding of science, logic, and reason. I’d also like to add that those books were probably written as a way to cope with life back then; meaning they were fiction used as an outlet for frustrations. We do that today.

You are simply begging the question here.  If holy books are fiction, then they are fiction. But if they are truly holy books, then they are not fiction, but divine revelation.  And if they are divine revelation, it doesn’t matter if they were written “back then,” since the source of what is substantial in them is God—an all-knowing, all-truthful being.  You cannot actually have better evidence than this.

Yes, I am aware that alleged holy books do not “self-authenticate.” But as with all things, it does not follow from the fact that some are not authentic that none are.

How many of us cope with our day-to-day lives by writing or watching T.V. or reading a book. We do that to escape reality for a few hours or minutes or however long it takes. I get the feeling someone had the bright idea to start using those books as a way to control people through fear but that’s just the logical and reasonable conclusion this agnostic asshole came to. For all I know I’ll be sent to hell simply because I’m an albino.

The ancients were not stupid. They understood fiction and poetry very well. And they did not think the Holy Scriptures to be fictional or made-up stories.

Many religious people would consider me brainwashed by the likes of Richard Dawkins or Neil Degrasse Tyson, or Carl Sagan, or any number of other big name atheists. The truth is that I personally, was never a believer anyway. Religion just never stuck with me. Now, one could say that I just wasn’t exposed enough to it and it wasn’t shoved down my throat forcefully as I was growing up. That might be the case though I’m not sure if that’s true.

I have no idea about your intellectual history. Religion didn’t “stick” with me at first. My very weak faith was completely destroyed by Nietzsche at age 14.  It took me the better part of 25 years to regain it. Or rather, to acquire an authentic faith, since I still regard what I was taught as a child as an absurd and incoherent version of Christianity.  I suppose my Methodist preacher did his best, but he was not a philosopher or theologian—and I was a child.

Personally I thought my way from Nietzsche and Heidegger back to Plato and Aristotle, and then forward to early Christianity, and eventually came to see Orthodox Christianity as the legitimate continuation and culmination of Greek philosophy.  I have very little doubt Socrates would have been a Christian, save for the fact he happened to live 400 years before Christ.

I’d like to say because it was due to my intelligence that I never got into religion but that would make me sound arrogant and I don’t want to come off that way. Ultimately, I do not know why I am the way I am and why religion just never stuck to me. I guess some people are born more susceptible than others.

This is probably true, but consider that the word “susceptible” is usually a blame word. We are “susceptible” to propaganda, to disease, and to other evil influences.  It might be the case that some people are more receptive to God and the divine (to pick a different word), and some of us have greater problems with it.  There are some people who, by accident of birth or early childhood, have difficult relating to others emotionally, and this fact causes them great suffering.  I don’t think we would call people of healthy emotional make up “susceptible” to things like love and friendship, but “receptive” to them. To be “susceptible” to a good thing is not a bad way to be.

I am only noting that “being less susceptible” could be a weakness rather than strength.

Now to get to the real reason I wanted to write this. Were I to die right this second as I was writing this, and stood before god, I’d like to think he would judge me based on how I’ve lived my life up to the point of my death. Yes, I’ve made mistakes in my life; who hasn’t? But they are not that earth-shattering. I’ve stolen candy once or twice in my life, lied to someone, other mistakes I can’t think of right now but never anything serious. I’ve never raped or killed anyone, I’ve never physically abused anyone or anything else that we would consider evil and morally wrong. If he can’t do that – judge me based on how I’ve lived my life rather than my lack of belief in his existence – than he does not deserve my respect. Such a god seems like a tyrant demanding respect from his people and when he doesn’t get his way, throws a tantrum and punishes them for no reason.

It only seems like it on this construal. You are speaking as if sin and damnation were a decision that God makes to punish people. This is a heavily anthropomorphic version of things (and I note you always say ‘god’, which as I’ve tried to explain, is an error), usually used to explain the idea of Hell to children and very simple persons.  It does convey the basic and crucial point: it is all-important to one’s eternal happiness to be right with God, but it is also misleading. Remember, God, by His very nature, just is justice, and so logically, necessarily, cannot be unjust.  The key phrase in your paragraph is “seems like.” But not only does Christianity not teach that God is an arbitrary tyrant demanding respect who, when he doesn’t get it, punishes them “for no reason” (even though that doesn’t even make sense: wouldn’t he be punishing them for not giving him the demanded tribute of respect?).  In fact, Christianity at least teaches that God could not be so.  I am less sure that this description doesn’t fit the Islamic understanding of God, which is one reason (among many others) I reject it.

If you were to die in the near future, the question would be about the objective state of your soul in relation to God. According to the Christian tradition, which we of course hold to be a revelation from God, your soul is not in the right state with respect to God. You would need to repent (μετάνοια), which means “turn around,” in the sense Plato uses this term in the Cave Image.

Orthodox Christianity far more commonly uses the metaphor of sin as a sickness in need of healing than of a crime in need of punishment.  What is key to understand is that both ARE metaphors.  If you are sick, you may freely refuse offered healing.  It is against the nature of God to be a tyrant (as you say).  God will not force you to health or happiness against your will, not even for your own objective good. You must accept God’s grace of your own free choice.

But hey, these are just thoughts of a disturbed mind living on a rock flying through space with other disturbed minds who do not realize they are disturbed and think they know everything because a book says it’s true. You could say we believe everything written in a science book, which would make us hypocrites. You’d be wrong of course, since that book provides evidence and logic. But no, by all means, continue to think you have all the answers and never grow thus not taking Socrates’s challenge seriously: “The unexamined life is not worth living” which means question everything and realize as much as you think you know, you don’t know shit.

And yet, Socrates does claim to know a few things, such “justice is better than injustice”, “It is good to know the truth” and “The God cannot lie.” As he says in the Apology, in answer to the charge of atheism,

“But that is far from being so. For I believe, men of Athens, as none of my accusers do. And I turn it over to you and the God to judge me in whatever way it is going to be best both for me and for you.”

The fact that we know very little of all there is to know doesn’t mean we don’t know anything. Socratic humility spurs one to philosophical inquiry. Complete skepticism is the opposite: it only paralyzes, in the belief that no matter how hard we try, we can never know—something the skeptic can never know, and of course, something the skeptic will never learn better than, if he does not inquire.

Pascal, a very profound Christian philosopher, put it very well:

We know too much to be skeptics, and too little to be dogmatists.

I can’t think of a statement more Socratic or more Christian.

Reblog: William Lane Craig on the Definition of Atheism

Here is an exchange between a querent and Christian philosopher William Lane Craig about the definition of atheism.  Original found here.  Of special interest is Antony Flew’s admission that he is using the word “atheism” is a highly idiosyncratic manner.  Flew’s usage has become more widespread, but it is still decidedly a minority usage, although some dictionaries have begun to include it. Here is the exchange:

Definition of atheism

[Questioner:]

In my discussions with atheists, they are using the term that they “lack belief in God”. They claim that this is different from not believing in God or from saying that God does not exist. I’m not sure how to respond to this. It seems to me that its a silly word-play and is logically the same as saying that you do not believe in God.
What would be a good response to this?
Thank you for your time,

[Dr. Craig:]

Steven,

Your atheist friends are right that there is an important logical difference between believing that there is no God and not believing that there is a God. Compare my saying , “I believe that there is no gold on Mars” with my saying “I do not believe that there is gold on Mars.” If I have no opinion on the matter, then I do not believe that there is gold on Mars, and I do not believe that there is no gold on Mars. There’s a difference between saying, “I do not believe (p)” and “I believe (not-p).” Logically where you place the negation makes a world of difference.

But where your atheist friends err is in claiming that atheism involves only not believing that there is a God rather than believing that there is no God.

There’s a history behind this. Certain atheists in the mid-twentieth century were promoting the so-called “presumption of atheism.” At face value, this would appear to be the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist. Atheism is a sort of default position, and the theist bears a special burden of proof with regard to his belief that God exists.

So understood, such an alleged presumption is clearly mistaken. For the assertion that “There is no God” is just as much a claim to knowledge as is the assertion that “There is a God.” Therefore, the former assertion requires justification just as the latter does. It is the agnostic who makes no knowledge claim at all with respect to God’s existence. He confesses that he doesn’t know whether there is a God or whether there is no God.

But when you look more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism used the term “atheist,” you discover that they were defining the word in a non-standard way, synonymous with “non-theist.” So understood the term would encompass agnostics and traditional atheists, along with those who think the question meaningless (verificationists). As Antony Flew confesses,

the word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way. Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence . . . of God . . . But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in . . . words as ‘amoral’ . . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist. (A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro [Oxford: Blackwell, 1997], s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew)

Such a re-definition of the word “atheist” trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition, atheism ceases to be a view. It is merely a psychological state which is shared by people who hold various views or no view at all. On this re-definition, even babies, who hold no opinion at all on the matter, count as atheists! In fact, our cat Muff counts as an atheist on this definition, since she has (to my knowledge) no belief in God.

One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist, which is the question we’re really interested in.

So why, you might wonder, would atheists be anxious to so trivialize their position? Here I agree with you that a deceptive game is being played by many atheists. If atheism is taken to be a view, namely the view that there is no God, then atheists must shoulder their share of the burden of proof to support this view. But many atheists admit freely that they cannot sustain such a burden of proof. So they try to shirk their epistemic responsibility by re-defining atheism so that it is no longer a view but just a psychological condition which as such makes no assertions. They are really closet agnostics who want to claim the mantle of atheism without shouldering its responsibilities.

This is disingenuous and still leaves us asking, “So is there a God or not?”

by William Lane Craig

[Emphasis is Eve’s]

Reblog: Trent Horn’s “Is Atheism a Belief or a Lack of Belief?”

Original post is found at Strange Notions.  Trent Horn’s book is Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity.  His blog is The Counsel of Trent.

Is Atheism a Belief or a Lack of Belief?

by Trent Horn

AtheismChart
When asked to prove atheism is true, many atheists say that they don’t have to prove anything. They say atheism is not “belief there is no God” but merely “no belief in a God.” Atheism is defined in this context as a “lack of belief” in God, and if Catholics can’t prove God exists, then a person is justified in being an atheist. But the problem with defining atheism as simply “the lack of belief in God” is that there are already another group of people who fall under that definition: agnostics.

The “I Don’t Know’s”

Agnosticism (from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis) is the position that a person cannot know if God exists. A strong agnostic is someone like skeptic Michael Shermer, who claims that no one is able to know if God exists. He writes, “I once saw a bumper sticker that read “Militant agnostic: I don’t know and you don’t either.” This is my position on God’s existence: I don’t know and you don’t either.”1

A weak agnostic merely claims that while he doesn’t know if God exists, it is possible that someone else may know. Agnosticism and weak atheism are very similar in that both groups claim to be “without belief in God.”2

Pope Benedict XVI spoke sympathetically of such people in a 2011 address

“In addition to the two phenomena of religion and anti-religion, a further basic orientation is found in the growing world of agnosticism: people to whom the gift of faith has not been given, but who are nevertheless on the lookout for truth, searching for God. Such people do not simply assert: ‘There is no God.’ They suffer from his absence and yet are inwardly making their way towards him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness. They are ‘pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace.’”

A Difference Without a Distinction

Because agnosticism seems more open-minded than atheism, many atheists are more apt to describe themselves like agnostics, who likewise have “no belief in a God,” even though they call themselves “atheist.” They say that an atheist is just a person who lacks a belief in God but is open to being proven wrong. But saying you lack a belief in God no more answers the question, “Does God exist?” than saying you lack a belief in aliens answers the question, “Do aliens exist?”

This is just agnosticism under a different name.

For example, can we say agnosticism is true? We can’t, because agnostics make no claims about the world; they just describe how they feel about a fact in the world (the existence of God). Likewise, if atheists want us to believe that atheism is true, then they must make a claim about the world and show that what they lack a belief in—God—does not exist.

Belief on Trial

An illustration might help explain the burden of proof both sides share. In a murder trial the prosecution must show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the murder. But if the prosecution isn’t able to make its case, then the defendant is found “not guilty.” Notice the defendant isn’t found “innocent.”

For all we know, he could have committed the crime, but we just can’t prove it. Certain kinds of evidence, like an air-tight alibi, can show the defendant is innocent. But it is the responsibility of the defense to present that evidence.

Likewise, even if the theist isn’t able to make his case that God exists that doesn’t show God does not exist and therefore that atheism is true. As atheists Austin Dacey and Lewis Vaughn write:

“What if these arguments purporting to establish that God exists are failures? That is, what if they offer no justification for theistic belief? Must we then conclude that God does not exist? No. Lack of supporting reasons or evidence for a proposition does not show that the proposition is false.”3

If he wants to demonstrate that atheism is true, an atheist would have to provide additional evidence that there is no God just as a defense attorney would have to provide further evidence to show his client is innocent as opposed to being just “not guilty.” He can’t simply say the arguments for the existence of God are failures and then rest his case.

(This blog post is an excerpt from my newly released book, Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity.)

Nocturnal Daylight Atheism

I ran across a blog post by Daylight Atheism titled “The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists.”  It is mostly devoid of interest, repeating a warmed-over scientism, but I noticed a wild non sequitur in the opening paragraph that deserves comment.

Here is how Daylight Atheism starts off:

In several years of debating atheism and theism, I have made an observation. Ask any believer what would convince him he was mistaken and persuade him to leave his religion and become an atheist, and if you get a response, it will almost invariably be, “Nothing – I have faith in my god.” Although such people may well exist, I personally have yet to meet a theist who would acknowledge even the possibility that his belief was in error. Many theists, by their own admission, structure their beliefs so that no evidence could possibly disprove them. In short, they are closed-minded, and have been taught to be closed-minded.

The argument is

  1. Theists will not specify conditions under which they will give up their belief in God.
  2. Therefore, theists are closed-minded.

Consider the following parallel arguments

  1. P will not specify conditions under which he will give up his belief that he exists.
  2. Therefore, P is closed-minded.
  1. P will not specify conditions under which he will give up his belief that he is conscious.
  2. Therefore, P is closed-minded.
  1. P will not specify conditions under which he will give up his belief in minds.
  2. Therefore, P is closed-minded (!).
  1. P will not specify conditions under which he will give up his belief in reality.
  2. Therefore, P is closed-minded.
  1. P will not specify conditions under which he will give up his belief in truth.
  2. Therefore P is closed-minded.
  1. P will not specify conditions under which he will give up his belief that there are beliefs.
  2. Therefore, P is closed-minded.

What Daylight Atheism seems to have overlooked is that there are many beliefs which are rationally incorrigible even if they are not rationally demonstrable.

It is useful to begin from Descartes’ famous principle Cogito Sum: “I think; I am.” The principle that I exist and am aware so long as I am aware of myself as thinking and therefore existing (a condition of the ability to think) is both rationally incorrigible and completely indemonstrable.

I cannot give an irrefutable demonstration that will rationally compel another person to conclude with anything like certainty that I am a conscious being, with thoughts and subjective awareness.  The move is always open to him to regard me simply as a body, mechanically making sounds, which have the outward appearance of claims that I am conscious. For all he knows and I can prove, I could be an automaton, utterly devoid of any subjective conscious awareness. (This is what we in philosophy call “a zombie”, or sometimes “a philosophical zombie”—to distinguish this concept from the walking dead type of zombie).

At the same time, I know, beyond any possibility of doubt, that I am conscious. I know in advance that no possible argument he could bring to bear could convince me otherwise—since my being conscious is not only directly evident to me as a basic reality, it is also the precondition for my entertaining and being convinced by any arguments whatsoever.

In short, with respect to the existence of MY consciousness, someone else and I are not in epistemically parallel situations.  Any attempt to maintain that we are, and that in order to be rationally warranted in believing that I am conscious, I must have evidence that would convince a third party that I am conscious is a fallacy of false equivalence.

And this is precisely the case with the theist and the atheist.  While it is the case that I was initially led to my belief in God at first as a purely intellectual matter, on the basis of metaphysical arguments, since then I have had experiences of God sufficient to make the matter of God’s existence rationally incorrigible for me.  When God makes His presence known to you, He sometimes does so in such a way as to leave you without any doubt. The nonexistence of God is, to use William James’ term, not a “live option” for me, no more than is the nonexistence of reality in general or my own present nonexistence.

I am aware that atheists have (presumably) not had such experiences and that my experiences do not constitute strong evidence for anyone else, since to anyone else they are merely testimony (which is, pace many atheists, actually evidence)—but to me, they are not merely testimony.

Daylight atheism is making use of a suppressed premise, namely, that “the only reason that one would refuse to specify conditions under which he would give up a belief is closed-mindedness”, that is, a willful refusal to give up a particular belief.  This suppressed premise is false.  Another perfectly good reason not to specify conditions under which one would give up a belief besides “closed-minded, willful blind faith” is “a belief’s being rationally incorrigible for me due to my privileged epistemic position with regard to this belief.”

Theists are not acting irrationally in not being willing to give up belief in God when they have direct evidence of God which is “first personal.” We know we are right; whether this sureness annoys atheists is completely beside the point. The only way an atheist could reasonably object to this is to call into question the reliability of all “subjective” experience as belief-warranting, which of course he cannot do, since all “objective” knowledge is founded upon subjectivity, that is, thought and experience.  At most he could try to argue that “only those experiences which are common to all should be considered belief-warranting”, but this is also a non-starter: it crashes and burns right away on cogito sum.

Whether or not I can produce a demonstration sufficient to convince an atheist that God exists, the atheist has no rational case that my belief in God is unwarranted.  It is entirely reasonable that my or anyone else’s belief be warranted by their experience of God.