Category Archives: Atheism

Short Article (4) – Atheism & The Moral Argument

I’m just thinking out loud here………

I believe morality is objective. Further, it seems to me that theism provides a much better framework for grounding objective moral values and duties than naturalism. Some apologists use this as a springboard for formulating moral arguments for the existence of God, such as that espoused by William Lane Craig:

(1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
(2) Objective moral values and duties do exist.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

Defenders of atheism typically attack premise 1, and attempt to provide a framework for how objective moral values and duties obtain in a godless universe. Few of these attempts are impressive. But why aren’t atheists more inclined to dispute premise 2? Is it really such a terrible bullet to bite? If I were an atheist I think I would do just that.

Let’s suppose that premise 1 is right, that God does not exist, and that therefore objective moral values and duties do not exist. What follows from that? Does it follow that we cannot justifiably condemn murder? Does it follow that rapists should be let out of prison? Does it mean we cannot reasonably critique racism or homophobia? Does it mean that it’s OK to torture babies for fun? Apologists who use some version of the moral argument often suggest that this is exactly what follows if we deny that objective moral values and duties exist. But why need that be the case at all? Of course, it is indeed correct to say that if objective morals do not exist then we cannot morally critique such things, but it is incorrect to say that we cannot therefore oppose them on other grounds? Take, for example, a murderer. Even if it is the case that he has not done anything morally bad, we still justifiably oppose his behaviour and take action against him accordingly. After all, he represents a danger to the rest of us and punishing him helps deter others from engaging in actions which threaten our safety and well-being, two things which we desire in order to live happy lives. When a lion escapes from a zoo and kills people, it isn’t engaging in immoral behaviour, but we are quite right to kill or capture it because it represents such a danger to our lives.

What of racism and homophobia? Are these to be tolerated because they aren’t morally wrong? Again, I fail to see why. Human beings desire to live and thrive and enjoy their lives. Most of us recognise that our own fate in this regard is bound up with the life of a wider social group. It is in our own interests to work towards a society that is open and tolerant of differences, in which we can all live together peacefully as far as possible. Moreover, normally functioning human beings tend to have some degree of natural compassion and empathy for others (whether due to evolution or social engineering). We therefore hate to see someone beaten up because they are black, or harassed because they are gay. But what about societies in which such things are tolerated or even admired? Can we effectively critique them if there are no objective moral values and duties? I think we can. Firstly, even if objective moral values and duties exist (and of course I think they do) it isn’t obvious that this makes our critique of such cultures any more effective, since our morals – even if correct – will obviously be rejected by the societies we seek to critique. Secondly, it seems to me that we can appeal to people on other – non-moral – grounds. We can try to persuade them that own lives will be better if they ditched some bigoted social policy. We might also appeal to a sense of humanity within them and try to make them see that a black person or a gay person is fully human human, with similar loves and desires for living, and that there is scant rational basis for discrimination or harassment. Of course our best efforts might fall on deaf ears, which leaves us no alternative but to shun those who engage in behaviour we find undesirable, which offends our sense of humanity, and which we do not wish to tolerate in the sort of world in which we wish to live. Even when our words do not fall on deaf ears, it might still take a long time and a lot of work to change mindsets and cultural norms. But I don’t see how appealing to objective moral rules is any more effective.

Responding to the moral argument by disputing premise 2 is a strategy that I think deserves to be explored further. The atheist might still insist in defending some account of objective morality in a naturalist or materialist universe, but if previous accounts are anything to go by we are rightly sceptical as to their chances of success. Is it not therefore time to try a different approach?

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Atheism, Morality

Message to Young Apologists, or Letter to my Younger Self

I remember the excitement of first getting into apologetics. I was in my late teens and had just given a rather ropey performance in a debate about the existence of God with an atheist friend who had studied some philosophy during his first year at university. I thought I’d better read up on the matter, so off I trotted to the local Christian bookstore, where after browsing a few shelves of apologetics books I came across a small plainly bound black book called “The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe” by some guy called William Lane Craig. I bought it and devoured it, reading it over and over and committing the main lines of the argument to memory. This was the first time I had ever read a philosophical defence of the existence of God, and I was hooked.

I began to find other books – taking a keen interest in teleological and cosmological arguments in particular. Soon, I was studying philosophy of religion academically through my degree programme and began writing papers and essays (often for fun, not just for assignments) on many of the arguments for the existence of God. I also took to debating in internet chat rooms with (as I then saw) idiot atheists who were too stupid to see that God’s existence was obvious, and too thick-headed to grasp my wonderfully crafted (plagiarized) theistic arguments.

In short, I had become an arrogant young apologist. True enough (as the Bible points out), knowledge puffs up. I was often disrespectful, condescending, patronising, and, frankly, an insufferable arrogant ass. Sadly my case is not an isolated one. I have a far more modest assessment of theistic arguments these days, and finally came to admit that my faith didn’t – and never did – rest on any of them. But I still see my younger self out there on the internet, arrogantly bludgeoning atheists with apologetic arguments – calling all those who don’t see or admit the obvious truth of God’s existence either thick or dishonest.

Here’s my message to my younger self:

Keep in mind that few arguments for any philosophically significant conclusion is so obvious that those who don’t accept it are either stupid or wicked. There are usually thorny philosophical problems lurking in the background of any neat little argument. Take the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) that had me enamoured for years. It’s beautiful in its simplicity – three short premises and BOOM! we have proved the existence of God. Regrettably the simplicity is merely prima facie simplicity. There are many issues and assumptions lying behind the KCA. For instance, it relies on the A-Theory of time being correct – that temporal becoming is a feature of reality. If the B-Theory is correct then the KCA cannot succeed. Many of those who triumphantly proclaim the KCA as a clear proof aren’t even aware of these different views of time. Personally I prefer the A-Theory, but it’s probably a minority view in both philosophy and physics. This fact alone should be caution against using the KCA as a clear proof of God. It simply isn’t.

The same goes for any other theistic argument. They are always more contentious than young apologists typically realise. This doesn’t mean, of course, that theistic arguments are of no value. There are several which I think do lend some degree of evidence to theism: I particularly like the Leibnizian contingency argument, the fine tuning argument, and cumulative case arguments from the nature of humankind as conscious, rational, free agents with moral obligations. But none of these is obviously conclusive, and it’s important to see that when anyone examines an argument their current worldview forms part of the lens through which they see it.

Which brings me to my second point: remember that the vast majority of Christians do not come to faith as a result of apologetic arguments. Sure, we know of several high profile cases of thinkers who changed their mind for evidential reasons – CS Lewis, Antony Flew, Lee Strobel, or Alister McGrath – but most of us who give a positive appraisal of apologetic arguments are already Christians or theists. So, to you young apologists pushing your apologetic wares all over hyperspace, take note that most of you didn’t come to believe because of the arguments you now offer to your atheist interlocutors. Like me you probably discovered these arguments as a theist. Most of us – theist and atheist alike – are not the wholly rational creatures we like to portray ourselves as. Many proclaim to be objectively following the evidence wherever it leads, but very few are really doing anything of the sort. Many are, as William James pointed out, simply reorganising their prejudices. We are, for better or worse, heavily influenced by social, cultural, and psychological factors which greatly shape who we are, how we think, what background beliefs we hold, and what strikes us as plausible or implausible. This is why highly intelligent people can look at the same body of evidence and come to radically different conclusions.

Which brings me to my third point: keep in mind that no matter how smart you think you are there is someone smarter who disagrees with you. As a theist it should be humbling to recall the names of atheists or sceptics such as philosophers JL Mackie, Michael Martin, JL Schellenberg, Graham Oppy, WV Quine, Paul Draper, William Rowe, Kai Nielson; or scientists like Stephen Hawking, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, Alan Guth, John Nash, Peter Higgs……. When you’re tempted to consider an atheist too stupid to grasp your neat apologetic argument please recall any of these names; the philosophers listed have a sounder grasp of the philosophical issues at stake than you do, and likewise the scientists have a sounder grasp of the scientific issues. None of these can plausibly be written off as ill-informed or wicked.

The more observant reader will detect a common theme here: show a bit of intellectual humility. Ultimate issues are tricky and contentious with plenty of room for honest, rational disagreement. Accepting this fact will make you engagements with the “other side” a little bit sweeter. After all, did you ever hear a former atheist say, “I came to faith thanks to a smarter-than-thou theist who patronised and berated me with genius apologetic arguments”? No, you don’t, so stop doing that.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Apologetics, Atheism, Theism

Are There Any Honest Atheists?

Jeffrey Jay Lowder strikes me as one of the most fair-minded atheist thinkers; he’s civil, deeply thoughtful, and charitable to his opponents. Further, he has no qualms about chastising his fellow atheists when their manner descends below that which is helpful in civil discourse, or when they make poor arguments. He has also in the past conceded that there are features of the world that lend some evidence to theism. I wish more atheists – and theists – adopted his attitude.

Lowder expressed irritation recently concerning how so many theists consider atheists to be liars, linking to an article by Sam Storms in which Storms rejects the concept of an “honest atheist.” Storms is not a lone voice either. This view of atheists is incredibly widespread. In his short, but substantial, book “Is the Atheist my Neighbour?,” Randal Rauser provides an excellent brief overview of thinkers past and present who adopt what Rauser labels “The Rebellion Thesis.” The thrust of the rebellion thesis is that no one really disbelieves in God; atheists are simply in moral rebellion against their creator – and, crucially, they know it. They hate God and desire a life of sin. Rauser cites an account of the Christian theologian RC Sproul who was invited to present a case for the existence of God to a university sceptics group. After presenting the case, Sproul told them: “Your problem is not that you do not know that God exists; your problem is that you despise the God whom you know exists. Your problem is not intellectual; it is moral—you hate God.” So, here was a group of sceptics reaching out to the “opposition,” and giving him a platform, their time, and attention – a very charitable act these partisan days – and Sproul shows his thanks by pretty much spitting in their faces. I call upon my fellow theists to – at the very least – acknowledge how frustrating it must be to have one’s honesty called into question. Sproul basically accuses an entire room full of strangers of being self-deluded liars. The brazen arrogance is astounding.

Imagine the following conversation:

John: “I’m a vegetarian now, I believe killing animals for food is wrong.”

George: “You say that, but you know eating meat is not wrong.”

John: “Pardon me? I’m telling you I believe eating meat is wrong!”

George: “Yeah, but you’re a human, and we’re one of millions of species who eat meat. We’re designed to eat it; there’s no way any human can REALLY think it’s wrong when it’s hard-wired into our being.”

John: “Well, I think it’s wrong!”

George: “You’re only saying that, deep down you know there’s nothing wrong with eating meat! I bet you even stuff your face with bacon sandwiches when no-one’s looking!”

John: “You’re insane! I really believe killing animals for food is wrong!”

George: (fingers in ears) I can’t hear you MEAT LOVER!”

A parody perhaps, but the view of atheists held by many theists isn’t a whole lot different. Where does it come from?

Many of those challenging the “honest atheist” concept cite certain Biblical texts in support of their position. Sam Storms – when he isn’t quoting John Calvin at length – relies on Romans chapter 1. Others draw also on the two near identical passages in Psalms which tell us “The fool has said in his heart ‘there is no God.'” [Ps 14:1 & 53:1]. Upon such texts these theologians build a theology which labels all unbelievers generally, and atheists in particular, as liars. In other words, not only are they considered as living a life estranged from God, but they know they are and are in wilful rejection of the God in which they claim not to believe. Saying that atheists – or other non-believers – are in some way estranged from God is one thing, but it’s a whole different ball-game to claim that they really know there is a God and have wilfully and with full understanding rejected Him. The latter is a much stronger claim, and I contend that the evidence – biblical evidence, testimonies from atheists and converts from atheism, and psychological evidence – simply doesn’t support it.

I haven’t the time to exegete properly the relevant biblical texts here, but I want to make just a few comments, and I refer the reader to Rauser’s book for more details. Firstly, it seems to be rather anachronistic to read modern intellectual atheism into either of these texts. In fact, as Rauser points out with respect to Psalm 14:1, even if modern atheism was indeed in view it still wouldn’t justify the thesis that atheists are dishonest, or that all atheists are fools. Just because the fool says in his heart “there is no God,” does not entail that everyone who says “there is no God” is a fool. That would be logically fallacious. In any event, I am in full agreement with Rauser, who argues that when we examine the wider cultural and literary context we discover the most likely targets of Psalm 14 are those who believe in God but live as if they do not. That’s religious hypocrites like you and I, not atheists.

Romans 1 is perhaps a more convincing basis for denying the “honest atheist” concept. But even here there are problems. Rauser points out that the passage is part of a larger discourse concerning the universality of the sinfulness of humankind, and thus shouldn’t be used to single out any particular group. In addition, the immediate context is that of Gentile pagans who supress their natural knowledge of God and embrace pagan religion. Rauser also cautions that by applying this text in the way proponents of the rebellion thesis do, we cause all manner of mischief for any Christian who goes through a period of doubting God. Is such a person really just sinfully rebelling? That seems highly implausible. As Christians we can have all manner of doubts – stemming from intellectual doubts caused by some atheistic argument, to existential doubts, perhaps caused by some period of suffering and the apparent absence of God. I find myself in agreement with Rauser’s comments that: “The Christian cannot deny the fact that God’s existence and nature are not always plain and clear. The fact is that there are countless people of religious faith who have not always found God’s existence and nature to be plain and clear.” Perhaps some theologians will simply bite the bullet and insist that this is indeed all just sinful rebellion, but that strikes me as uncharitable and implausible in excelsis. Whatever we make of Romans 1, there seems to be good enough reason to doubt that the intention is to teach that all atheists are really believers in God knowingly and sinfully rejecting their creator.

When the interpretation of a passage is dubious it seems prudent to bring to bear other considerations on the matter, and there are a few non-biblical indications that the rebellion thesis can’t be quite right. Firstly, there are atheists who seem completely genuine. They are good, decent, and very honest people (shocking, I know!), and they tell us that they genuinely don’t believe in God. They aren’t angry or particularly immoral. They are well-balanced and psychologically stable people. That in itself is very good reason to believe they are accurately reporting their epistemic situation. From a purely psychological perspective the rebellion thesis seems like quite a tall tale. Secondly, Christians rarely report their conversions as being an acceptance of what they already really knew, but rather most of us understand it as a “seeing the light” or finally coming to believe something we honestly didn’t believe previously. In fact, Storms would have to call me a liar when I report as a Christian that prior to my conversion I genuinely didn’t believe in Jesus or the God of Christianity. If the rebel thesis was right, then the vast majority of Christians would report their pre-Christian lives as being a state of rebellious rejection of truths they really knew. To the best of my knowledge this isn’t the case. If this is true of the vast majority of Christians, why is it so difficult for Storms et al to accept that atheists are currently in this same state?

Despite the lack of evidence and high implausibility of the rebellion thesis, perhaps it is true after all that every atheist really knows that God exists. Still, I can’t see how any good can come from making such a claim. It’s irritatingly patronising, smacks of arrogance, does nothing for theist-atheist dialogue, and reeks to high heaven of self-righteousness. I therefore propose that we adopt a principle of charity: that when we engage in any intellectual discussion, we do our interlocutors the courtesy such that when they tell us that they hold such and such a position, we simply accept it and proceed on the basis that what they tell us is indeed a truthful report of their epistemic situation.

Anything else is to spit in their face.

Stephen J Graham

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Randal Rauser’s book “Is the Atheist My Neighbor?: Rethinking Christian Attitudes toward Atheism” (Cascade Books, 2015) is available on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Atheist-Neighbor-Rethinking-Christian-Attitudes/dp/1498217168 or through the Kindle shop.
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Conversion – Deconversion – Reconversion: The Stories

John’s story
@CounterApologis

I was a believing evangelical Christian until I was around 29 years old. I was a trustee in my church and an active volunteer (sound guy) for 8 years before I deconverted and became an atheist.

Even though I’m straight and have been happily married for over a decade, homosexuality was the initial cause for my deconversion. I have two gay friends, a couple which were recently married now that it’s legal. Back when I was a believer, the fact that I could see that my friends were very clearly in love stood out to me as something that contradicted the bible. I had to either accept that their love was wrong or that the bible was wrong, and I could not call their love wrong. Worse than that, I accepted my friends accounts that this is simply how they were and that their relationship made them happy. They didn’t choose to have their attractions any more than I chose mine. This caused a problem because I also had to accept that they were going to hell according to my faith.

That lead to questioning how a loving god who created everything could morally create a place of eternal conscious torture, knowing that a majority of creation would be condemned to it. In that situation, the only moral option is to simply not create anything. Theodicies where the reprobate is seen as being necessary for the elect to get into heaven made god into more of a monster.

This lead to questioning why I believed in a god in the first place. I realized I’d never seriously asked myself that question before. I was born into a Catholic family that converted Baptist when I was 9. I was taught Jesus was the son of god the same time I was taught water was wet and that 2+2=4. God was axiomatic, not the conclusion of an investigation. I realized I had no reason to believe.
That was when I started to devour apologetics, trying to cobble my faith back together for the sake of my marriage and family. I found nothing convincing. Worse, as an engineer by training I found science being misrepresented in many cosmological arguments. I was disgusted by the aura of certainty that was used to present arguments I found to be based on flimsy metaphysical assumptions that often defy our best scientific understanding of reality. When I read attempts to reconcile apparent contradictions in the bible or things in the bible that were scientifically proven false, I found the interpretations to be tortured and/or ad hoc. If anything apologetics cemented my apostasy and my atheism.

Fortunately for me eventually my wife also deconverted. Almost exactly nine months after that our daughter was born. I’m currently happier than I’ve ever been in my life and I consider myself lucky to have escaped religion.

Jenny’s Story

I can’t say I was an aggressive atheist. Whilst I didn’t believe in God, I wasn’t particularly interested in examining the evidence of God’s existence. If He existed, well, He knew where to find me. But, I wasn’t going to hold my breath either. What got me wondering about God and the purpose of existence was the death of my friend Lizzie. Lizzie and I were inseparable from childhood. Then she got sick and died suddenly from meningitis. I sat at her funeral and somehow couldn’t get my head around the fact that someone so alive could just not be there anymore. And then I examined my atheism and saw that if it was true then all exists for no reason and comes to nothing. Life just seemed more significant than that. And so for the first time I wondered was there maybe a God. I came across many different arguments, but none finally convinced me. I guess what moved me to theism was opening my eyes to the world in a new way. I began to “see” or “perceive” a creator in the natural world around me. The atheist view just seemed so incredible. That everything just came from nothing by nothing and for nothing. I couldn’t accept that, and to be honest I didn’t want to either.

Daniel’s Story
@areligioncritic

I am no longer Christian in any straightforward sense of the word. How could I be? I had trouble connecting to people, let alone a personal God who wasn’t even in front of me. I am an “Aspie;” I am on the Autism Spectrum. Of course now, I know that there are other theologies that put less stress on a personal God, i.e. Paul Tillich’s ‘ground of being’ or the impersonal ordering of the cosmos that the Chinese call T’ien (Heaven). And I am drawn to these more than I am to a personal God.

However, at this point there are so many different conceptions of God that I don’t think I can have any epistemological certainty about God, be it God’s existence or qualities. This does not fully explain it though, as I believe that belief in God is not primarily what religion is about. To me religion is about a community that shares beliefs and rituals– that is community is primary and belief is secondary. However, I am generally leery of tight knit groups who think and do the same things, perhaps also partly due to Asperger’s.

Joseph’s Story
@almostorthodoxy

Conversion is a tricky thing. As most people who have attempted to write their conversion story know, to try and put it into words and explain why one converted (or in my case, reverted) inevitably falls short. With that being said, as one ought to do before any essay, I beg forgiveness.

I shall admit that this isn’t my first time writing my “reversion story.” I’ve written multiple before this, and – the funny thing is – they never end up being the same. That I know. What I also know from past experience is this: that writing of this article won’t be me simply reciting reasons that I am already aware of as to why I am a Catholic, but rather, it will be a way – as a sort of self-examination – for me to actually figure out said prompt for myself.

A couple of days ago, I was reading Augustine’s sermon on Psalm 41, and this passage stuck out for me:

“It was thus that while admiring the members of the tabernacle, he was lead unto the house of God – by following a certain delight, an inward mysterious and hidden pleasure, as if some instrument sounded sweetly from the house of God. While he was walking in the tabernacle, he heard this inward sound; he was led on by its sweetness, and following the guidance of the sound and withdrawing himself from all noises of flesh and blood, he made his way even to the house of God.”

For in many ways, this short little passage encapsulates the whole of my reversion. To say anymore would be to risk over-complication; but – so as to not short change the reader – I shall continue.
Balthasar, in the first volume of his magisterial Glory of the Lord trilogy, says that:

“It is not dry manuals (full as these may be of unquestionable truths) that plausibly express to the world the truth of Christ’s Gospel, but the existence of the saints, who have been grasped by Christ’s Holy Spirit. And Christ himself foresaw no other kind of apologetics.”

I concur.

What lead me back into the confessional and “unto the house of God” wasn’t the discovery of any new, novel arguments put forward by an “apologist”, but rather it was the “sweetness” of the saints. Anything else, in Balthasar terminology, would be to collapse revelation into “a set of ‘propositions’” to be “established as ‘reasonable’ by an extrinsic principle.” The universalizing tendency latent with the Enlightenment ‘reason’ must simply, pace Romans 14:11, bow its knee to the self-revealing glory of the Lord: the truest of universalisms. Much like a work of art, the glory of revelation needs no further justification outside of itself. Revelation’s gestalt is it’s own raison d’être, subsuming everything into itself. And, as for us, living as we do over two thousand after Christ, the glory of the Lord is precisely revealed through the Holy Spirit working through and within the lives of the saints.

As Balthasar said: “Christ himself foresaw no other kind of apologetics.”

And with that being said, I shall spare you of the particulars, with the exception of three words: Thérèse of Lisieux.

Kate’s Story

My atheism was dogmatic, but utterly unexamined. I remember arguing once with a Christian friend and I was furious at completely losing the argument, and my temper. My problem, as I came to see, maybe wasn’t that I disbelieved in God, but rather than I resented Him for bad life experiences! But who knows! But as I came to critical assess the case for God I found the evidence overwhelming. The main considerations for me were: that something like our universe should exist as a “brute fact” was simply unbelievable; that it should just pop into existence from nothing and for no reason was surely impossible; that life should then just develop by chance from non-living matter calls for extreme credulity. Moreover, when I considered the complexity of life and the fine-tuned conditions of the cosmos that allowed it to develop, atheism struck me as untenable. And that was before I discovered the problems atheism has accounting for morality, consciousness, free will, and personhood. In short: theism makes sense of the world in which I live – atheism just doesn’t, and so I couldn’t remain an atheist.

Nathan’s Story
@FaS_Skeptic

From the time I was a young child until I was out of high school, I went to church nearly every week. I was never made to go to church once I was old enough to reasonably make that decision, but I enjoyed almost everything about it. I liked the sermons, I liked the singing, and I really liked the people. My church was a small Brethren church in a tiny farm town, so everybody knew each other and it was a pretty tight knit community. It was a fairly moderate church, no speaking in tongues or fire and brimstone. I was heavily involved with our youth group as a teen, and even attended ‘Acquire The Fire’ a few times.

Once I started college, I didn’t attend church as often, but I never really had my faith challenged too seriously during my undergrad studies. While working on my MBA, I had a job with a lot of downtime and decided that I wanted to read more often. At the time, my view on evolution was best described as an old earth creationist who believed in some “microevolution”. A few conversations I had with a friend made me realize that I was pretty ignorant about evolution, which sparked my curiosity. I read books specifically on human evolution at first because that’s what conflicted with my faith, but then began to read material that dealt more with the details and the process of evolution. This is when doubts about my faith started to creep in. I never had a problem accepting that Noah’s Ark or some of the other Bible stories were probably a myth or fable to teach a lesson, but if the whole creation story is a myth, why should I believe in any of it?

I hung on by a thread for a while as I read books in other areas of science which continued to chisel away at my belief in the God of the Bible. Up until this point, I was primarily reading material dealing with science and not really getting into the arguments for or against God. Eventually though, I started listening to debates and reading arguments for atheism. I found myself agreeing with the arguments for atheism and against theism most of the time, and I eventually realized that I was only holding on to any belief in God for emotional reasons even though I really no longer believed. Atheism was always a dirty word to me, and it took another year after I stopped believing to actually identify as an atheist.

I hate the stereotype that as an atheist, I must have had a bad experience in church, or that I am being rebellious. I have nothing but good memories from my time in church. I still admire the community aspect of it, how when someone is sick or in trouble, people are there to help without question. There are no bad experiences at church that I have to share, and anyone who knows me would laugh at the suggestion that I’m rebellious. I just simply no longer believe that God is needed as an explanation for our existence.

Johnny’s Story
@MuchJonathan

http://fairmindednotions.com/

I was raised in a Christian household. I was taught to believe by blind faith and thought that’s what everyone did. We just picked which beliefs to hold to, I thought, and lived by them. So that’s how I lived up until just a few years ago. I had never much questioned my beliefs, except maybe here and there when instances of evil popped up, until a friend that I met online challenged me by asking some tough questions. He was going through his own personal deconversion and was seeking answers – answers that I didn’t have. I did what every anti-intellectual would do. I ran to the Christian apologetic sites on Google and responded to him with the first things I saw. The confirmation bias in me held onto anything that would conform to my predispositions. And this, rather ironically now that I reflect on it, is how my intellectual journey began.

I started buying all of the popular apologetics books by William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Alister McGrath, Ed Feser, John Lennox, etc. I especially became familiar with some of the work of Gary Habermas, Michael Licona, Larry Hurtado, Craig Evans, and Craig Blomberg. I even attended a semester of Bible college, and this is where I started losing confidence in the Christian worldview.

I spent about two years in Christian apologetics. I attended the Bible college not even a year ago today. My journey to doubt began around this time. As a side interest, I would study biology (which I am now majoring in at Winthrop University). I couldn’t help but be troubled by the horrendous evils founded throughout the history of life on Earth. Life began looking a lot more like the products of the tinkering of nature rather than the carefully crafted works of the Divine hands of a Maximally Intelligible and all-loving being. To give one example that I’ve been troubled with lately, and an issue I’ll be researching later in my academic career: In our DNA, we have regions that code for proteins that are responsible for suppressing tumors. It just so happens that the chemical structure of these regions of DNA make them highly susceptible to being silenced by a process called DNA methylation (you don’t have to know what this is to get my point here). Of course, if the genes are silenced, they can’t do their job of suppressing tumors. What sort of intelligible creator, out of the very depths of his all-loving heart and omniscient mind, makes His children in such a way as to be perfectly vulnerable to cancer? Not only are we perfectly made for cancer, we are also perfectly made for about 6,000+ other SINGLE-gene diseases that are founded in about 24% of our ~25,000 genes. Now, this is just a few instances of evil that seemed very much gratuitous. The evolutionary picture of life painted by the vast amounts of data from the life sciences portrays nothing but a picture of these horrendous evils and indifference. Now, I didn’t expect that God would create some hedonic Utopia, but I did figure he would reduce suffering as much as possible and only allow evils that were necessary to either prevent worse evils or bring about greater goods. I find it awfully hard to believe that every instance of horrendous, seemingly gratuitous evil is necessary for the obtaining of such conditions. The issue is that an all-loving Creator would not allow such gratuitous evil and since I’ve concluded that many of these seemingly gratuitous evils are very most likely actually gratuitous, the conclusion that follows is that an all-loving Creator very probably doesn’t exist.

That being said, the evidential problem of evil was not the biggest stumbling block for me. I was still trying to hold on to my Christian worldview. I was definitely emotionally attached. “What about all of the good arguments for God’s existence?” I kept asking myself. The more I studied them, the less compelling they became. The meta-ethical argument presented by William Lane Craig, for example, began to look like an awful argument as I become familiar with reasons why many reject the argument. I actually became unconvinced of every argument I once thought was virtually indisputable – the cosmological arguments, the design arguments, etc. . . I even became convinced that verifying a miracle via historical methodology is out of our epistemic capacities.

I was in a position where I was beginning to see good reason to affirm the nonexistence of God and I was left in the dark for compelling arguments for the existence of God. I was left with nothing but the hopes of hearing the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, this is what one ought to expect when they are in tears crying out to God for spiritual confirmation. I’ve checked myself over. I’ve admitted that I may be wicked in His eyes -essentially undeserving if that so be the case. I’ve admitted that maybe I’m entirely wrong in my assessment of the fundamental nature of reality and maybe there will be a day I stand before the Divine, despite my current unbelief. If He is there and created me to know Him, there I was then, and here I am still. I’m still waiting for that inner confirmation or some intellectual spark that I’ve missed. I’ve cried out. I’ve repented. I’ve prayed. I’ve acknowledged that I may be unrighteous when compared to a perfect being, and I’ve asked to be accepted and transformed. I’ve sought God in every venue of life. God was nowhere to be found. So, as of now, I am intellectually inclined to disbelieve.

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Conversion – Deconversion – Reconversion: An Introduction

Conversion and Deconversion stories have fascinated me for a long time. All stories are unique, and yet there are often common themes that occur. The main reason for my interest in such stories lies in the fact that it is rare to find people changing their position entirely on some matter of ultimate importance. Many of the people I knew 20 years ago still hold the same views and opinions today as they did back then. Not only do people rarely change their minds on big issues, movement on smaller issues is often lacking also. As we grow older perhaps we become more set in our ways. It’s little surprise then that the vast majority of people appear to make their minds up about religion in their teens and don’t change their mind as they get older. This is a fact well known by religious evangelists, hence the massive stress on youth work in many churches and religious organisations, often to the detriment or neglect of the middle-aged and elderly. It is a well-known Jesuit maxim (though the saying, or something like it, originates with Aristotle): “Give me a child until he is 7, and I’ll give you the man.” As true as this might generally be, there are a few brave souls who go into reverse as they get older. They reject their earlier belief/unbelief, changing their minds about an issue of ultimate importance. Their stories are worth hearing. What is it that causes people to make such a radical U-turn?

There are, of course, a few famous examples. For instance, we might think of my fellow native of Belfast C.S. Lewis. Lewis believed the evidence for the existence of God too strong to ignore, but admitted to being a most reluctant convert. We might also think of more recent examples. Probably two of the most well-known are those of the former atheist journalist Lee Strobel, and the atheist-philosopher turned deist/theist Antony Flew. Lee Strobel worked as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune and after the conversion of his wife he decided to look into the truth claims of Christianity. After several years of sifting through the evidence Strobel himself converted to Christian and is now one of the most influential popular-level apologists in the world. He recounts his journey from atheism to theism in a number of books, chiefly: The Case for a Creator, The Case for Christ, and The Case for Faith.

Antony Flew was one of the most distinguished philosophers of religion and one of the foremost voices for philosophical atheism for the vast majority of his academic career. Then, towards the end of his life, there were rumours that he was moving towards theism. These rumours were affirmed when he published his book “There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.” In this book Flew lays out a number of pieces of evidence which convinced him that some sort of creator exists. Whilst not embracing Christian Theism Flew indicated that he regarded NT Wright’s case for the resurrection as the best there is in print, and hinted that he was moving in this direction in his thinking. Some skeptics were, well, skeptical. Many saw this not as a genuine conversion but simply an old man hedging his bets in his dotage as death beckoned. Others believed that his book had not properly reflected Flew’s own thoughts, but rather those of Roy Abraham Varghese, a theist philosopher who did most of the actual writing of the book. Flew denied that this was the case, but many still believe his mental state at the time was such that he was exploited. Seemingly conversion & deconversion stories can raise strong feelings!

On the other side one of the best known deconversions that I’m aware of is that of Jonathan Edwards, the British Olympic gold medallist triple-jumper. Once upon a time Edwards even refused to compete on a Sunday due to his religious convictions. Today he is an atheist who claims not to miss his faith, and that he is happier without it. Edwards even speaks of looking back at his time as a Christian with an acute sense of embarrassment at how judgmental and even “scary” he considers himself to have been.

That such radical changes can occur in people really grabs my attention. Why did they change? Were there arguments that lead to the change? What other life experiences were they going through that pushed them to make such a radical turn-around?

And so I thought I’d collect a number of brief stories – of conversion, deconversion, and reconversion – to give a flavour of what’s going on in the minds of people who radically change their worldview. I don’t offer these stories up for critique or refutation. They are brief, and there’s far more that each person could say about their own life and how their decision panned out the way it did. We are creatures of narrative and often decisions we make one day have been years in the making, involving a complex of rational, psychological, social, and cultural factors. I’m grateful for the people who came forward to state an incredibly complex situation into a few hundred words.

I never edit or screen comments, but I’ve decided on this occasion not to accept critical comments on anyone’s particular story. They are intended only to give (all too) brief snapshots of the goings-on in the minds of people who “repent” of their former selves. Their purpose is to inform rather than provoke critique.

So as not to take away from the stories themselves, I intend to post them separately from this introduction: https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/10/21/conversion-deconversion-reconversion-the-stories/

Stephen J. Graham

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Two Kinds of Atheistic Argument

There are many good arguments against various arguments for the existence of God. Lamentably enough, for the atheist, good arguments against the existence of God are few and far between. Many recent arguments from evil or hiddenness, for example, are far from persuasive. In fact, some offerings – particularly at the popular level – are almost laughably weak. Sometimes arguments rely on rather spurious subjective value judgments, or even little more than pure guesswork, as tends to happen with arguments of the form: observation X is “expected” on naturalism, but “surprising” on theism; therefore observation X is evidence for naturalism over theism. Other arguments rest on highly dubious noseeum inferences; or worse, claims about what God would or wouldn’t do if He existed. Few of these evidential offerings amount to much, interesting though they are.

There is also a second family of atheistic arguments, not quite so popular but common enough. These arguments are not evidential in nature, but rather attack the coherence of the idea of God. I want in this article to discuss one of the more popular ones, an argument which runs along these lines:

1. God is a “timeless person.”
2. If a being is timeless, then it does not possess properties X, Y, & Z.
3. If a being does not possess properties X, Y & Z, then it is not personal.
4. Therefore, a being cannot be timeless and personal.
5. Therefore, God (a “timeless person”) does not exist.

In his book Believing Bullshit, atheist philosopher Stephen Law puts this point succinctly: “the idea of a nontemporal agent seems to make scarcely more sense than the idea of a nonspatial mountain.”

Upon examining arguments from this family we find just how difficult it is to construct viable versions. This is largely down to the fact that theologians enjoy considerable flexibility in constructing coherent accounts of God’s attributes. In this connection, consider three main positions concerning the eternal mode of God’s existence:

A. “Absolute divine timelessness”: in which God exists timelessly by necessity.

B. “Absolute divine temporality”: in which God exists in time from infinity past (and if our own time began a finite time ago, then God existed alone in some other time stream).

C. “Creation dependent temporality”: in which God exists timelessly in the absence of creation, but temporally with the existence of creation.

From this (far too brief) survey it is clear that the objection to the existence of God from the supposed incoherence of the concept of a timeless person does not apply to all conceptions of God’s eternity. Option B above is immune to this criticism. The atheist advancing this sort of objection would therefore have to rule out B as implausible (and thus reckon with arguments from philosophers such as Swinburne, Davis & Wolterstorff who defend some version of it). Of course, he could attempt to do just that (and my sympathies lie with him). B raises all sorts of problems. Firstly, it raises infinite regress issues. Secondly, there is a myriad of philosophical problems concerning how God’s time relates to ours (which is probably not infinite). Thirdly, there is an intriguing objection raised by Leibniz: why didn’t God create the world sooner? God does not appear to have any reason to create at one time rather than another. This objection is an interesting (and, I think, formidable) one. Unfortunately I have no time to expound it here, so must leave it to the reader as homework.

So, eliminating B, the timeless person objection emerges. Is it a good objection? I certainly don’t think so.

There are two ways for the theist to rebut the argument. Firstly, the theist could argue that some stated necessary conditions for personhood are not in fact necessary at all. Alternatively, he or she could accept the stated necessary conditions for personhood, but attempt to show how a being existing timelessly can meet them. The argument therefore hangs on the criteria set down for personhood. There are numerous candidates touted in the literature. It isn’t possible to survey the whole terrain here, but it seems to me that the best candidate for the position of necessary condition of personhood is self-consciousness. JR Lucus reckons if God possesses consciousness then He cannot also be timeless, since, says Lucas, time is inextricably linked with consciousness.

Lucas is correct that if God’s mind is a succession of contents of consciousness then we would indeed have a temporal series. However, what if God’s mental life is unchanging, containing no stream of consciousness? God’s consciousness could well be composed of tenselessly true beliefs, which He never gains nor loses. Such a state of consciousness would be changeless, and thus timeless (at least on relational views of time). Lucas needs to show more than consciousness – as we experience it – is a temporally elongated process. He needs to show that this is an essential property of consciousness. Take, for instance, the activity of knowing. If God is timeless, then, on a relational conception of time, His consciousness would be an unchanging knowledge of tenseless truths, lacking the property of being temporally extended. The works of philosophers such as Paul Helm, Nelson Pike and Brian Leftow has revealed that knowing is not necessarily an activity which need take time. If knowing does not necessarily take time, then knowing oneself – self-consciousness – need not take time, and thus there appears little reason to think a timeless being cannot be self-conscious.

Unpacified, Robert Coburn reckons a being cannot be personal unless it is capable of things such as: “remembering, anticipating, reflecting, deliberating, deciding, intending, and acting intentionally.”

Now, even if Coburn is correct that the capacity for such things is necessary for personhood, it would not follow that a timeless being cannot be a person unless we assume that timelessness is an essential property of a timeless being. On option C above God is contingently timeless. If timelessness is a contingent property of God, then He might well be capable of doing things such as “remembering, anticipating, reflecting, deliberating, deciding, intending, and acting intentionally,” even though it would be the case that if He should engage in such activities He would then be temporal, not timeless. By refraining from such activities he remains timeless, though capable of becoming temporal by so engaging in them.

I would go even further and argue that a being does not even have to be capable of these things in order to be considered, as God is supposed to be, a perfect person; and thus those who think timelessness is a necessary attribute of God can take some heart. Let’s look briefly at the things Coburn mentions.

Firstly, consider the act of remembering. Why should remembering be a criterion for personhood? True enough, humans who do not remember are in some way mentally deficient, but they are still persons. Is the idea then that God – a perfect person – would be somehow deficient if He cannot engage in remembering? Surely the act of remembering is not essential to divine cognitive perfection. The reason is rather simple – a timeless individual has no past to remember, and never forgets anything. If God, being omniscient, is a perfect knower, then there is no reason to think his perfect personhood would require memory. Something similar holds for the act of anticipating. A timeless individual has no future and thus nothing to anticipate. It seems that remembering and anticipating are only attributes a perfect person must have if he or she exists temporally.

What then of reflecting and deliberating? Such activities are only essential for beings who are not omniscient. God, by contrast, is omniscient – an infallible knower – cognitively most excellent. He does not need to reflect on a matter or deliberate with a view to finding the best answer or the truth – he already knows these things innately. Whether God is temporal or timeless He has no need of reflection and deliberation by virtue of omniscience, and there is no reason to think an omniscient being cannot be a person (arguably, omniscience entails it).

Lastly, intending, or acting intentionally, does not seem to be a necessary condition for personhood even with respect to humans, since there are moments in our own lives when we do not act intentionally, and thus wouldn’t be persons if we applied this criterion. Moreover, if we modify the criterion to say that a being must have the capacity for intentional activities, then a timeless God could possess such a capacity even if it were the case that should God exercise it He would then be temporal.

In any event, are intentionality and volition necessarily future-orientated? It strikes me as rather easy to think of counter-examples. For instance, a man trapped under water wills to hold his breath for as long as possible. A man gazing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel intends his present experience of aesthetic delight. A tourist on a beach on the Costa del Sol desires his feelings of rest and relaxation which he is currently enjoying.

If, then, there is nothing about intentionality and will that makes them inherently future orientated in the lives of human beings, why cannot we say of God that He wills and intends what He does timelessly? God, for example, wills and desires His own goodness – an activity that does not require time. Existing in the absence of creation God may will and intend to refrain from creating. In such a possible world God would exist atemporally with an eternal intention to refrain from creating.

Therefore, even if we concede that intentionality is a necessary criterion for personhood, there is no reason to think it is necessarily the case that if God is timeless then He does not exemplify intentionality. Ultimately where I think Coburn and others go wrong is in taking common properties of human persons – who exist temporally – and making them essential properties of personhood simpliciter.

From our survey of supposed necessary criteria for personhood it appears that the objections to the coherence of the concept of a “timeless person” are unsuccessful. It is either the case that the criteria offered are not in fact necessary for personhood, or else even if they are there is no reason to think a timeless being cannot fulfil them.

If an atheist could construct a good argument from this second family of arguments, the theist may well be in all kinds of trouble. However, as I hope I have helped to show, constructing such an argument is an incredibly difficult thing to do.

Stephen J Graham

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The Unbelievers come to Belfast

And so mssrs Dawkins and Krauss have come and gone from Belfast with their film “The Unbelievers.” I’d heard a lot about this movie before I saw it, admittedly mostly negative. Interestingly the vast majority of this negative publicity came from atheists. In fact, when I tweeted that I had bought tickets for the event in Belfast – which included a Q & A session with Dawkins & Krauss afterwards – the only people who cautioned me against it were atheists.

So, what did I think of it? To be honest the film wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I had feared, though I guess it was only as good as any ego trip can be. There were several scenes that were quite funny. When Krauss went to debate a Muslim and found that he had some time to kill before the debate started he remarked that: “I think I’ll go and sit down for a while and read my Bible” – showing the camera a copy of Hitchen’s book “God is Not Great.” There were several other comic moments, including the scene where an atheist crowd confronts an all male Islamic protest and begins to chant “Where are all the women!?”

Of course, there were other moments which were intended for comedic effect which made me cringe and, frankly, made those in the movie look a tad ridiculous. Comedian Eddie Izzard addressing the Reason Rally in 2012 provided one such moment. Why doesn’t Izzard believe in God? Well, he attempts to demonstrate by calling on God to come and show himself at the reason rally, “Now would be a good time!” But of course, no response. What does that demonstrate? Nothing other than the fact that Izzard isn’t worth paying attention to on the God question. We had some other tired old clichés too: Ricky Gervais telling us that atheism is only believing in one less God than Christians do. Or consider a rather ugly scene in which a (admittedly uncouth) Christian street preacher was surrounded by a group of atheists, who were yelling at him, and few raised their middle finger at him as he attempted to preach. In the audience many people laughed at this – and it was probably intended to cause that reaction – but what message does that send out about atheists? Surely that’s counter-productive to the “atheists are eminently more reasonable than you” message of the movie?

There were a few other cringe-worthy moments. For example, Dawkins – with puppy dog eyes – telling us that he wants people to fall in love with science just as much as he’s in love with it. Or his rather crass dismissal of certain aspects of Christian theology in a phone interview, betraying a mind with little more than a Sunday school understanding of the doctrines in question. But, since he does it in such a blunt and offensive way it’s funny, right? Perhaps we should also include the fact that every single time a religious person or group were included it was either in the context of a rowdy protest – Muslims yelling that infidels will go to Hell, for instance – or a non-expert being shown up as a fool, as in the case of the Australian archbishop who in his debate with Dawkins remarked that we evolved from Neanderthals. There was no attempt to show engagement with any of the better representatives of theism generally, and there’s little excuse since Krauss and Dawkins have both had better opponents than this movie shows.

But, of course, this kind of bias is very deliberate. The movie is not intended to engage people in the substantive issues. It’s far too light and sound-bitey for that. The movie is more of a rally call to atheists to come out of the closet. The message is “religion is ridiculous, you have nothing to fear; and there are thousands just like us, if only we all spoke out like this.”

There were positives in the movie too. Krauss has a wonderful, almost boyish, enthusiasm for the mysteries of the universe. It’s seriously infectious. When he speaks about the wonders of the universe he’s like a child telling his friend about some new toy. This came out in the Q&A session after the screening also. And in fact the Q&A session really challenged my assumptions about both Krauss and Dawkins. I was expecting – particularly from Dawkins – to hear a certain sneering, condescending, angry tone as he addressed the audience. That didn’t happen. Dawkins was warm and reasonable and very pleasant, and I even found myself liking him. There was one incredibly poignant moment during this session when Dawkins and Krauss spoke of their memories of the late Christopher Hitchens, with Krauss praising how friendly Hitchens was even with people he completely disagreed with on every topic – including, according to Krauss, people that Krauss would have a hard time sharing a room with.

One last bone of contention that irritated me throughout the movie and the Q&A was the constant equating of atheism with reasonableness. In fact on one occasion we were offered the contrast between God and evolution as if those aren’t compatible, and totally oblivious to the fact that there are several theistic arguments from evolution to the existence of God. Anyhow, the big assumption seemed to be that “we atheists are reasonable, if you want to be reasonable too you’ll have to be an atheist.” This whole emphasis on atheism is, frankly, unhelpful even to Dawkins’ & Krauss’ own cause. They’d be far better advocating the case for secularism, and would gain a much wider audience and acceptance. For instance, there are many points that I agreed on: religion should not have a privileged position; young earth creationism should not be taught in schools; pupils in schools should not have to sing hymns or join in prayers; it’s obscene that we have an established church in the United Kingdom (I’d add that it’s incredibly bad for the Christian church); it’s horrendous that bishops get to sit in the House of Lords by dint of their religious affiliation. And yet, Dawkins and Krauss and their movement would alienate those who share such views because they’re not atheists.

Lastly, and to finish on a positive note, it was great to be at an event like this in Belfast – the religious protest capital of Europe – and not to have a bunch of religious fundamentalists protesting the event (a phenomenon that does more harm to Christianity than atheism does). A number of fundamentalist preachers had claimed to have bought tickets and would come to “take Dawkins on,” but nothing like this materialized. In my session every person who commented or asked a question seemed to be an atheist, and I understand the same went for the second session. The audience members seemed thoughtful; there was no arrogance, anger, or petty Northern Irish mentality on display (as I feared there might be). I was left to wonder, though, whether they would remain so thoughtful and civil in the face of religious disagreement. My own engagement with atheists tells me that there are many, many thoughtful and civil people out there, but atheism, clearly, has it’s own fair share of loons.

Is atheism to be equated with reasonableness? On that I’m an unbeliever.

Stephen J Graham

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Theism, Atheism & Confirmation Bias

Thomas Nagel once commented: “I want atheism to be true. . . It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Some theists (most notably James S Spiegel), in a bout of apologetic zeal, have attempted to gain some mileage out of such comments: “See! Atheism is wishful thinking! Nagel doesn’t believe in God because he doesn’t want there to be a God!” This may well be true, but allow me to balance Nagel’s comments with some of my own. I am a theist and I want theism to be true. It isn’t just that I believe in God and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is a God. I want there to be a God; I want the universe to be like that.

So I guess we’re even.

Moreover, I don’t think I’m alone in such sentiments. I’ve lost count of the number of theists in general – and apologists in particular – who claim that if atheism is true then it’s bad news for humanity. Typically the claim is that if atheism is true then our lives have no meaning or value or purpose, and that there is no objective morality. I’m not convinced that there would be no meaning to our lives if atheism is true, but I’m sympathetic to the claim that morality appears difficult to ground objectively in an atheistic universe. In any event, whatever we make of such claims the point is that it suggests that most theists do not want atheism to be true.

Thus I suspect that there’s a fair bit more wishful thinking going on than protagonists on either side care to admit. And that’s OK: we’re merely human. We aren’t the impassable, emotionally cool, wholly rational agents we may often paint ourselves as. We’re a complex of rational, emotional, psychological, historical and cultural factors that make us what we are, and, crucially, that greatly influences – maybe even determines – much of what we believe.

Seemingly our capacity for self-deception is great indeed. The heart is deceitful, as the prophet says, in an observation that was way before its time. None of us should kid ourselves that wishful thinking or what is commonly referred to as “confirmation bias” has no jurisdiction or influence in our own minds. I regularly come across apologists whose only familiarity with atheistic thought is what they read in apologetic works – where, of course, it’s being critiqued and rejected. Alternatively it’s not uncommon to find popular atheists mocking a great mind such as Alvin Plantinga despite never having read a single significant work written by him. Or take the phenomenon of atheist versus theist debates, who you reckon won often depends on who you agreed with before the debate ever took place. For instance, it’s my view that William Lane Craig pretty much comprehensively defeated both Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris when he debated them, and yet there are many atheists whose contrary opinion is just as adamant.

The phenomenon of wishful thinking – believing what we wish to be true, or gravitating towards what we hope is true – isn’t a new one but it is only relevantly recently that the scientific investigation of the phenomenon took off, influenced largely by the work of the social psychologist Ziva Kunda. Kunda argued that our prior emotional dispositions influence how our minds process information. We are more likely to be critical of bad news than good news. When we read an argument for something we already hold we seem to do so much less critically than when we read a piece of work which runs contrary to some cherished belief of ours. In the latter instance our sceptical dial is often cranked to the max. When it comes to information or evidence which agrees with our worldview or coheres well with our current noetic system we are much more likely to accept it.

There are numerous studies which affirm the phenomenon of confirmation bias. In one study it was discovered that people scoring low on IQ tests tended to give more credence to articles criticising the useful and validity of such tests than those who scored higher. We like to think we’re smarter than perhaps we are; when the evidence contradicts us so much the worse for the evidence!

Another study looked at the correlation between climate change denial and political persuasion – why those who are right-leaning free-market advocates are less likely to believe in manmade climate change than leftists. John Cook, of the University of Queensland, concludes: “For supporters of an unregulated free market, regulating polluting industries to reduce global warming is so unpalatable that they are far more likely to reject [the idea] that climate change is happening.”

There are numerous theories as to why we are so prone to wishful thinking and confirmation bias. For those who have studied long and hard and come to a conclusion about some matter it can be disconcerting when we are presented with some piece of strong evidence which we have heretofore overlooked. It’s not easy to let go of years of work, to acknowledge that one was wrong all this time. How often, for instance, do academics change their minds about significant matters? We like to think we are right. It makes us feel good about ourselves. Contrary evidence can be disconcerting, confusing, and worrying; it may make us feel very bad.

One thing I find fascinating about so-called “deconversion stories” is the amount of pain and upheaval losing one’s faith can bring. In many cases it’s a loss of an entire social life and support network. Many take years to finally accept that they no longer believe, living in self-denial before making the break. Of course the same can be found in conversion stories. Mortimer Adler, who converted very late in life, speaks of years of rejecting religious commitment primarily because it didn’t suit his life and would require a radical change in how he lived.

One of the features of the question as to whether or not God exists is that it’s more than an academic question. If, say, the Christian God exists that fact would be something of a terribly inconvenient truth for many people. It would mean a change of life for many that they would not be willing to make. Of course it can be equally convenient for a theist to hang onto belief regardless of what evidence comes against it. For many people their belief in God is a comforting one. Believing that when they die they will go to heaven gives them strength to face their demise. Their entire social life may revolve around church. So, if faced with conclusive evidence against their beliefs understandably they won’t easily let go of them.

Some scholars have argued that wishful thinking and confirmation bias might even have been of biological or evolutionary advantage in some cases, at least when it comes to matters which aren’t of immediate survival concern (wishful thinking that we aren’t being chased by a tiger when in fact we are wouldn’t have lent itself to human thriving!). Believing certain things that make us feel good, or rejecting beliefs that threaten to make us feel bad, anxious or depressed, certainly has a stress reducing effect. Ryan McKay and Daniel Dennett argue for the evolutionary advantages of wishful thinking and confirmation bias along these lines.

Whatever the science of the matter the fact appears clear: we are very prone to such biases. The Scottish philosopher David Hume once remarked that reason often becomes a slave to our passions. Perhaps when our heart doesn’t want to accept X our head will try extra hard to resist X, even if that means ignoring the evidence for it almost entirely. In his influential essay “The Will to Believe,” William James said “If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.” The point is that our will is not neutral when it comes to belief formation.

But of course how we feel about X doesn’t determine the truth of the matter. So what are we to do? What steps can be taken to lessen the influence of biases in the formation of our beliefs? Perhaps simply being aware of how prone we are to biases can help weaken their influence over us. Alternatively we can make a conscious decision to read a certain number of books or articles which run contrary to our cherished beliefs. If you’re an atheist and your only knowledge of Christian philosophy comes through articles on Internet Infidels, then make it your purpose to read some Christian philosophy directly. Read Plantinga’s influential essay “Reason and Religious Belief,” for instance. Are you a young earth creationist? Then perhaps read Richard Dawkins’ book “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Don’t just stick to Ken Ham’s summary dismissals. Write articles and essays and submit them to sceptical friends for criticism. Another Christian might give you glowing praise for your article on the evidence for the resurrection but a sceptic will force you to face arguments, evidence and issues that your Christian friend probably won’t. Or perhaps play Devil’s Advocate against yourself or those who agree with you.

Above all conduct yourself with a dash of grace and a dollop of humility. The person you critique may indeed be the victim of cognitive biases or wishful thinking, but it might easily be the case that somewhere in your own mind you too are a victim.

Stephen J. Graham.

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Football, Atheism & The Problem of Evil

What do football commentators and atheists have in common?

Watching the World Cup I’ve noticed that commentators and pundits suffer from the same confusions that many atheists suffer from. Let me explain.

It’s half time in the match and the pundits are in the studio drooling, ready to share their wealth of footie wisdom with viewers. And in loads of games so far I’ve noticed that one particular irritating habit that seems to afflict even the most experienced and sensible pundit (say, the ones with an IQ above 80) is the tendency to add up all the chances a particular team had during that half – say 5 chances – and declare that the score could therefore be 5-0 by now. Arrrrgh!! No! no! no! no! no! Don’t they teach you anything about causation in Commentary College?!

“If Holland had taken all their chances they would have been 3-0 up by now.”

Whilst the average footie fan might be nodding in agreement, this claim should strike the more philosophical footie fan as patently fallacious. Let’s say Holland missed easy goal scoring opportunities at 5 minutes, then after 7 minutes and then again at 45 minutes, right before the end of the first half. Is it the case that Holland really should be 3-0 up by now? I don’t see how we can make that claim at all. If Holland had scored in the 5th minute the game will have turned out very different. The set of events leading up to Holland’s chance after 7 minutes is dependent on earlier events – which included the miss after 5 minutes. Had Holland scored in the 5th minute then the stream of events leading to the chance in the 7th minute would not have occurred. In fact, maybe scoring so early would have caused a change of tactics in the opposition such that it’s very possible that had Holland scored in the 5th minute they may have actually conceded several goals shortly after. We have no way whatsoever of knowing given the complicated matrix of events. Every writer of science fiction understands this point: you change something in the past then you change – often radically – how events pan out after that point.

What has this got to do with atheism? Well, it’s related to an approach some atheists take to the problem of evil. If only God had removed all the Ebola viruses or all the flu viruses, or all the hurricanes. He’s all good and all-powerful, right? Then couldn’t he quite easily remove some evils at least and therefore make the world a better place?

This sort of all too frequent comment makes the same mistake as the football pundits. It assumes that you can make some change and that everything else will just continue on as it would have without the changes. If Holland had scored in the 5th minute they still would have had the same opportunities in the 7th and the 45th – If God removed the Ebola virus everything else would be just as good and we have the added bonus of no Ebola virus. But of course, we have no way to know this at all. If we have two different worlds – W1 and W2 – and God removes the Ebola virus from W1 in 2002, then W1 is now a radically different world from W2. The changes that now occur in W1 makes it impossible to say whether this world is better than W2, and only a simplistic football commentator approach to causation and the interconnection of events could lead us to claim that it is. Just as its possible that Holland scoring in the 5th minute could have lead to their defeat, so it’s possible that by removing the Ebola virus from W1 actually leads to a worse world.

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Football, Atheism, and the Meaning of Life

As I enjoy a break from my writing projects to watch the World Cup I’ve taken to spending my evenings after my son goes to bed lying on the sofa watching 22 grown men running around after a piece of inflated leather. My wife thinks it’s really rather pointless, lacking any important goal. What does it matter? Who really cares who wins? Will it make any difference to the world whether Brazil or Argentina or Holland wins?

Good questions, and worth tackling. What is the meaning of football? What’s the point of it? People get paid millions play, but isn’t it all so pointless? “Yay my team won!” So? “They got a trophy!” So? “They’re now the most successful team in the world!” So? Does it really amount to anything? Records are broken. Even legends will be eventually forgotten – witness the growing number of young people who haven’t got a clue who The Beatles are, who have substituted the Fab Four for One Direction.

And of course there seems to be something innate in us which makes us ask this very question of our own existence and take a shot at an answer. We’re born. We engage in years of intensive education. We try to get the best job we can, earning as much money as we can, and get a bit of enjoyment along the way. All the time we age, our bodies weaken, and before we know it it’s nearly all over and all that’s left is a young person inside an old body wondering what the hell happened. Before we know it our lives have taken a dive and we’re in a box. And is that it? Are we just worm food after that? What if atheism is true and there is no greater purpose to life? If atheism is true isn’t life just as meaningless and purposeless as watching 22 grown men chasing a ball?

What if atheism is true……..

We know that eventually our sun will burn up our planet. We know also that the universe itself will “die” as, in all probability, it expands and becomes more dilute, cold, desolate and pitch black. All the genius of humanity will be forgotten. Every witty invention will have gone to the wall. Everyone cured of illness by the finely honed skills of a doctor will have succumbed to death, and their doctors along with them. Every piece of art destroyed. Every building turned to dust and scattered. Every river dried up. Every mountain flattened. Every star burned out. The Milky Way galaxy will have spiralled out of existence. The sombrero galaxy will be ripped apart and broken. The Big Dipper will have dipped. Taurus hunted down and destroyed. The Gemini twins torn asunder never to be reunited. The universe will end in blind pitiless indifference to everything humanity ever was or did or saw. And there is no one to save us.

Of course, this rather foul picture is true on atheism only. This will almost certainly be the end of all things if there is no God to intervene. I’m no fan of atheist and therefore I don’t believe this will be how it all ends. But what if atheism is true? Is life therefore meaningless, purposeless and valueless? Can we do nothing but despair? So much of existentialist literature can be summarized as the despondent cry “God does not exist! What on earth are we to do now?!”

Some theists even attempt to make arguments from the meaning of life to the existence of God, which typically take the form:

1. If God does not exist then life does not have any meaning.
2. Life does have meaning.
3. Therefore God exists.

As a theist whose belief in the existence of God is amongst the strongest beliefs I hold I have to confess I don’t find arguments concerning the meaning of life to be of much value. The first half of this argument doesn’t appeal to me. True enough if God does not exist then there is no “transcendent” meaning, no eternal purpose to life. If, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism states, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” then in the absence of God our lives no longer have this purpose. But what is supposed to follow from this? Does it follow that nothing has any meaning or purpose or value? William Lane Craig reckons that because – on atheism – man ends in nothing then he is nothing. But is that correct?

It strikes this theist as flat out false to say that if atheism is true then nothing has any meaning, purpose or value. I can imagine someday waking up after an argument with the World’s Most Intelligent Atheist” who has managed to help me see the error of my theistic ways. I pay the penalty of the encounter and I’m forced to admit that there is no God after all. Now, would it follow that in this new universe I inhabit that nothing has any meaning or value or purpose? I really don’t see how. On my first day on team atheist I wake up and go to see my son in his bedroom. He’s no longer fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, but he’s still my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. I read him the next thrilling chapter in Harry Potter and the enjoyment we both get from that time together remains just as strong. I don’t see why such moments require an external source to give them meaning or value or purpose.

It seems to me that much of what we experience in the world is experienced by us as intrinsically good; meaning good for its own sake and not for some end. I might go for a stroll along a sunny seaside. I walk on particles of sand scattered randomly by a universe that didn’t have the pleasures of my feet in mind when it threw the beach into existence. The sun warming my skin isn’t there for my benefit. The wind blowing through my hair doesn’t care if I find it annoying or pleasant. And yet as I stroll along the experience may well be an incredibly pleasurable one. Moreover, this isn’t an experience for some end. It’s not that there’s some transcendent meaning behind it. It’s simply pleasurable. It’s enjoyable. I like it.

In the same way if atheism is true and there is no greater purpose to our life, nothing that stretches into eternity, no divinely given mission or goal, there still remains this phenomenon which we might call the joy of mere being. This is the enjoyment we derive simply from being alive, from living in and enjoying our little corner of the universe. From watching a sun-set, or hiking up a hill. It’s the sheer intrinsic pleasure of sitting with my son in a tent in the back garden and listening to the rain outside while we eat chocolates and sweets in abundance. We have an entire universe at which to marvel, and no prohibition on the extent to which we may explore it.

Moreover most of us are blessed with family and friendships. I’d hazard a guess that for the vast majority of human beings on the planet the greatest moments in life are shared with other people. And again, these experiences needn’t have any transcendent meaning. We simply enjoy them for their own sake. I don’t see why such experiences would be meaningless or somehow devoid of meaning or value in an atheistic universe. Most of these experiences are completely self-contained – they don’t require anything external to them to make meaningful or valuable.

And whilst it’s true on atheism that some day it will all end and be forgotten, it is still very real to each of us. As Marcus Aurelius reminds us we live only in the present; the past has gone, the future is not yet with us. All we ever really possess is the present moment and thus it doesn’t matter whether we live for eternity or merely 70 years. Even if one day I will be extinct and forgotten by a universe that doesn’t care, my life now is worthwhile – to me and to many others. Life is worth living for its own sake.

Which brings me back to the World Cup. It might be nothing more than a bit of rather pointless play. But like life itself it’s enjoyable, it’s engaging, and even inspiring. So even if it might all really be for nothing in the end it was worth it at the time, and if you’re reading this you can be glad that the final whistle has not yet sounded.

Stephen J. Graham

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For a meaningless task try to spot the football references/terms in the article 🙂

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