Why be an Atheist – in 400 Words

Introduction

I was recently asked to write a 400 word piece on some arguments one might give to a religious believer to cause them to doubt their beliefs. I’m generally not in the business of trying to dissuade theists from believing in God (though I may try to dissuade them from holding particular beliefs about God), however I am in the business of writing and critiquing  arguments, and so I thought I would give it a go. Here’s what I came up with. Note that the very strict wordcount meant that I could not explain the arguments in nearly enough depth to be properly persuasive, nor could I consider common rejoinders and how I would respond. I do not do any of these arguments justice or engage with them in all their complexity and nuance. Nonetheless, I think very short writing can have value at times, so for what its worth, here it is.

The 400 Words

There are many compelling reasons to believe that an all-powerful, all-good God does not exist:

  1. There is too much suffering. If God exists, he permits plague, war, genocide, natural disasters, mental illness, and much more, all of which he has the power to prevent. Some believers say God must have reasons for allowing such things, even if we don’t know what they are. There is, however, no reason to believe that such reasons exist, and every reason to expect that a world created by an all-powerful and all-loving God would not need to include holocausts and black deaths. Every time another such event takes place, we must believe that God has yet another unknown and inexplicable reason for permitting it. The more such unknown reasons we must accept, the more evidence we gain that such a God does not in fact exist.
  2. Religions are too parochial. Many religions believe that God chose reveal his teachings at a specific time to a specific group of people, thereby leaving large swaths of humanity largely or completely ignorant of him. This is not what we would expect from an all-loving, all-powerful God who wished to draw all humanity to him, but it is what we would expect if each religion is an outgrowth of a particular human culture.
  3. There is too much religious confusion. Believers of many different faiths report similar experiences of God speaking to them, guiding them, and comforting them. If God existed and wanted humans to follow his true path, we would not expect to see so many people experiencing God in such different and conflicting ways. We would expect God would make himself clearer to mankind, rather than providing so many conflicting religious experiences and manifestations. Such a degree of religious confusion is far more understandable if religious feelings and experiences are instead solely the product of human psychology and society.
  4. God is a poor explanation for anything. God cannot explain why the universe exists, but merely pushes back the question, for we can then ask why God himself exists. Likewise, God’s existence cannot explain human consciousness, for any talk of immaterial souls or spirits merely applies a new label without actually saying anything about how or why consciousness arises. The ability of God to provide answers to such questions, therefore, is illusory, leaving us without any strong reason to believe in such a God.
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Why I Left Mormonism and Became an Atheist, and What it Would take for me to Return to Religion

Synopsis

In this piece I discuss my five main reasons for leaving Mormonism: historical anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, the existence of many competing prophets and holy books, changes made to temple ordinances, the inaccuracy of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham, and the unreliability of subjective spiritual experiences as evidence. For each reason I include a reflection as to the general lesson I learned from this which I now apply in my examination of other religions. I conclude with some remarks about the important of seeking truth through reason and consideration of alternative views.

Introduction

I was born into a Mormon family. Both my parents were Mormons, and for the first twenty years of my life we went to church (more or less) every Sunday. I regularly read the Book of Mormon and other scriptures, attended additional church activities, volunteered at church events, and on several occasions gave talks at different congregations. When I was nineteen years old I went overseas for nine months (shorter than the usual two years owing to health reasons), to share the teachings of my church full time in what Mormons call ‘serving a mission’.

Several months after returning home, I was preparing a church lesson that I was to present when in the course of my research I stumbled across some historical information about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon which was concerning to me and with which I had previously been unfamiliar. I cannot recall exactly what this first material was, but it marked the beginning of a period (from 19th December 2009 to 28th February 2010) of intense study, reflection, and prayer. After a great deal of reading and an immense quantity of soul-searching, I eventually came to the conclusion that I was most likely mistaken in my beliefs, and that Mormonism was probably not the true religion.

I told my parents of my decision on the morning of Sunday 28th February 2010, and as of that day I stopped going to church, and have never returned since. In the intervening five years, I have learnt much more about philosophy, history, and science, and grown a great deal as a person. Nevertheless, my outlook and views are still shaped to a significant degree by my time spent as a Mormon, and my experiences in leaving Mormonism.

In this piece, therefore, I explain my reasons why I changed my beliefs, and the lessons I believe that I learned from these reasons which affect how I evaluate religious and other claims to this day.

Book of Mormon Anachronisms

Key point: the Book of Mormon contains numerous references to animals, technologies, and languages which did not exist in pre-Columbian America.

Out of Place Animals and Artefacts

I was raised to believe, as do most Mormons, that the Book of Mormon is an ancient record of various peoples who lived on the American continent which Joseph Smith translated into English by the power of God. It was not always clear to me how the events it narrates intersected with secular history, but nonetheless I believed that the two would be reconcilable if we had sufficient information. When I began to read more concerning the historicity of the Book of Mormon, however, I discovered that many specific practices, animals, and objects that it refers to simply did not exist in Pre-Columbian America.

Among those things mentioned explicitly in the Book of Mormon for which (as far as I am aware) no evidence has been found in ancient American cultures, and which mainstream scholars and scientific institutions do not believe existed or were found in the ancient Americas, include:

  • Knowledge of Hebrew or other Semitic languages (Mosiah 1:2, Mormon 9:33)
  • Jewish religious sacrifices, priests, temples, etc, (Mosiah 6:3, Mosiah 2:3, 2 Ne. 5:15)
  • Jewish synagogues (Alma 16:13, Alma 32:1)
  • Record keeping on plates (Mosiah 8:5,9)
  • Horses or the wheel (3 Ne. 3:22, 3 Ne. 4:4, Alma 18:9-12, 1 Ne. 18:25, Enos 1:21, Alma 20:6, Ether 9:19)
  • Domesticated cattle (Enos 1:21, Mosiah 13:18, 3 Ne. 3:22, 3 Ne. 6:1, Ether 9:18)
  • Donkeys (Mosiah 12:5)
  • Steel (Jarom 1:8, 2 Ne. 5:15, Ether 7:9)
  • Advanced metallurgy, including smelting (Mosiah 21:27, Helamen 6:11, Ether 7:9, Ether 10:23, 2 Ne. 5:14)
  • Silk (1 Ne. 13:7, Alma 1:29, Alma 4:6, Ether 9:17, Ether 10:24)
  • A land northward covered with bones, rusted metal weapons, bronze and copper breastplates, many ruined buildings, and more written records (Mosiah 8:8-10)
  • A tradition or mythology of being cast out of an ancient land and travelling across the sea (Mosiah 10:12)
  • Metal coinage (Alma 11:5-19)

Apologetic Responses

Learning about all these discrepancies was greatly disturbing to me. Like many Mormons, I was ignorant about the history and archaeology of the ancient Americas, and was not aware that the sorts of artefacts that the Book of Mormon predicated should exist simply had never been found. I went to the Mormon apologetics websites to see what responses existed, thinking there was presumably some explanation for such apparent discrepancies. The responses that I found seemed to fall into three main categories:

  • Appeals to some obscure finding of a possible horse fossil or piece of steel, etc, which were advanced by various Mormon apologist scholars but did not seem to be accepted by any other academics.
  • Claims that the Lehites, Jarodites, and Mulekites (the three separate groups of people the Book of Mormon mentions having travelled to the Americas from the Old World) were only some of the peoples present in the ancient Americas, and thus we fail to find remains of their language, buildings, or material culture because there constituted only a fairly small proportion of the overall population.
  • By far the most common response, however, is that when Joseph Smith used words like ‘horse’, ‘steel’, and ‘silk’, he was not referring to horses, steel, and silk as we would understand them, but rather was using these words as translations for words which originally referred to something that looked somewhat like, or functioned somewhat like, horses, steel, silk, etc. Thus, the translation is not literal, but analogical. Horse does not refer to Equus ferus caballus, but instead to llamas or deer or some other animal, and is only rendered as horse for ease of narration and understanding.

My Reaction to the Responses

I thought about these responses, read some rebuttals to them written by others, and eventually came to the following conclusions:

  • Obscure findings not accepted by mainstream scholars and scientists might be legitimate, but it is unlikely. The fact that mainstream scholarship does not support the historicity of the Book of Mormon in the way that it does for much of the Bible (at least post-Exodus) counts as evidence against it being a historical record, even if it is not totally decisive evidence.
  • Other peoples may have existed in the Americas at the time or after the time of the Book of Mormon (though this is not a belief that seems to be widespread in ‘Mormon culture’, where generally it seems to be believed that Native Americas are descended from Lehites and Mulekites), however the cities spoken of in the Book of Mormon are large enough and the cultures advanced enough that we should expect to see at least some surviving remains and records.
  • The explanation about ‘alternate translations’ was the one I found least compelling. First of all, this is something virtually no Mormons I knew believed or spoke about – certainly I was always brought up to believe that in the Book of Mormon, horse meant horse, steel meant steel, etc. Secondly, many of the items referred to simply have no known plausible alternate referent: there are no pre-Columbian domesticated animals that were anything like horses or cattle or sheep. Bison (one proposed candidate for ‘cattle’), were never domesticated, and deer (a proposed candidate for ‘horses’) are not ridden or used to pull chariots. Another suggestion is that ‘horses’ refers to ‘llamas’, but horses and llamas are really nothing like each other, and llamas are not used to pull chariots. Likewise, there was no smelted metal that was used at the time in ancient America which could plausibly be described as ‘steel’. Thirdly, the notion that ‘horses’ and ‘cattle’ are loose translations of some other form of animal seems inconsistent with the fact that some names in the Book of Mormon are left untranslated, including the unknown metal ziff (Mosiah 11:8), and the animals ‘cureloms and cumoms’ (Ether 9:19). It seems implausible that Joseph Smith would choose to, or be instructed to, use misleading translations like ‘horse’ and ‘steel’ whilst at the same time leaving some names untranslated. If ‘steel’ is actually some other metal or material, why not leave that untranslated? Of why not just call ziff ‘steel’? This inconsistently seems to have no explanation if Joseph was indeed receiving divine revelation during his translation.

Problems with Dating the Birth of Christ

There is one further problem with the historical accuracy with the Book of Mormon which, as far as I know, I may be the first to have noticed (I’m sure other people have come across this too, but I can’t recall having read of it anywhere else). The problem concerns that dating of the birth of Christ. 1 Nephi 1:4 states clearly that the record begins at the beginning of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, which has been dated to 597 BC. In 3 Nephi 1 versus 1,4, and 26, it is made clear that the signs associated with the birth of Christ occurred exactly 601 years after Lehi left Jerusalem. So, if Lehi left Jerusalem in 597 BC and Christ was born 601 years afterwards, that places Christ’s birth in the year AD 5 (remembering there was no year 0). This date is simply far too late; even the traditional dating places Christ’s birth at 1 BC, and most modern scholars accept a date of 4 BC or earlier, given that Herod died in this year and so was not alive in 1 BC.

Thus, according to the Book of Mormon, Jesus was born about nine years after he actually was. I do not think it is plausible to argue that the dates given are approximate, as says quite clearly ‘the ninety and second year of the reign of the judges’. This also tallies with Mosiah 29:46, which tells us that the first year of the reign of the judges (when Mosiah died) occurred 509 years after Lehi left Jerusalem, and 509 plus ninety-two equals 601. Joseph Smith was generally quite good with keeping dates in the Book of Mormon internally consistent, but in the one instance where we have the ability to cross-reference them with known historical events we find a discrepancy. A nine year discrepancy in dates is hardly sufficient by itself to totally discredit the Book of Mormon, but to me it was interesting (as I discovered it myself as far as I know) counterevidence to the belief that the book was divinely inspired, especially given that Joseph Smith declared the Book of Mormon to be “the most correct of any Book on earth”.

Lesson 1: Historicity matters

The lesson that I take away from this examination of the historicity of the Book of Mormon is that it is exceptionally important to examine religious events that claim to be historical, and determine whether their claims are consistent with what is known from history and archaeology. Any inconsistencies that are uncovered do not by themselves necessarily disprove the religious claim, since history and archaeology can be wrong. Inconsistencies of this sort do, I think, count as evidence against the claims, and the greater are the discrepancies, the less plausible it becomes that the religious events in question actually took place.

Before accepting a new religion, therefore, I would need to conduct a careful investigation of whatever historical claims it makes, and determine the extent to which they are validated by, or at the very least consistent with, what we otherwise know about history. This is one reason why, for instance, I have become very interested in the historicity of the New Testament, and am concerned by some of its potential inconsistencies and problems (particularly the birth narratives). I am now very wary of religions that make false claims about history.

Competing Prophets and Holy Books

Key point: there are numerous prophets and holy men who have produced their own works of scripture comparable in various ways to the Book of Mormon, and there is no clear basis for accepting the claims of one over the other.

Other Claimed Prophets and their Scriptures

One of the most common reasons for accepting the Book of Mormon as divinely inspired that I heard as a Mormon was that there is no possibility that an uneducated young man like Joseph Smith could have written the Book of Mormon by himself, given its considerable length, narrative complexity, internal consistency, inclusion of many specific cultural and technical details, and application of various literary conventions. I myself found this argument quite compelling for quite some time. During the course of my research, however, I discovered that there have been a great many alleged ‘prophets’ who, like Joseph Smith, have written lengthy and intricate works which they claim to have been revelations or divinely-inspired translations of ancient records.

A brief selection of some of these, many of them being breakaways from the main body of the Mormon church, includes: James Strang who wrote The Book of the Law of the Lord, Goker Harim who wrote The Sealed Portion of the Brother of Jared, Christopher Marc Nemelka who wrote The Sealed Portion: The Final Testament of Jesus Christ, Art Bulla who wrote The Revelations of Jesus Christ, and Joseph Morris who wrote The Spirit Prevails. Particularly intriguing is the case of Pearl Lenore Curran, an alleged spirit medium around the turn of the 20th century who produced a voluminous amount of literature (including many poems) allegedly all authored by the spirit she was in contact with.

View of the Hebrews

I also found out about a very interesting work called View of the Hebrews, which was published seven years before the Book of Mormon by New England clergyman Ethan Smith. It shares with the Book of Mormon a number of key themes, including that native Americans are descended from Israel, and the inclusion of many references to Old Testament prophets. There is no evidence of which I am aware that Joseph Smith knew of this book or copied it in any direct way, and there are many differences of details between the Book of Mormon and View of the Hebrews.

I do believe, however, that the existence of this work does show that many of the core ideas and major themes of the Book of Mormon were already circulating in the intellectual and social spheres in which Smith was raised. This does not prove that the Book of Mormon is not divinely inspired, but it seems to me more consistent with the hypothesis that Joseph Smith wrote the book out of his own (very vivid) imagination drawing upon ideas that were current at the time, than with the hypothesis that the content of the book was revealed de novo from a divine source.

Could Joseph Smith have written the Book of Mormon?

Another claim with which I was familiar was that the time taken to translate the Book of Mormon was far too short for it to have been done without divine inspiration. During the course of my research I began to have doubts about this claim, and at one point I sat down to do the math. The bulk of the Book of Mormon was dictated by Joseph Smith during a single period of 90 days, some sources saying that only about 65 of these days having been used for translation work. The Book of Mormon is 275,000 words long (which includes quite a lot of material copied verbatim from Isaiah which should probably be excluded from this count). If we assume Smith worked 65 days, he must have produced an average of 4,200 words per day, which for an eight hour day is roughly 530 words per hour, or about nine words per minute. Putting it that way, the output seemed much less miraculous to me. Still quite impressive to be sure (Smith was known to be a keen story teller and have a very active imagination), but hardly superhuman.

It must also be remembered that Smith originally started writing over a year before, when he produced the 116 pages that were subsequently lost. Thus Smith had quite a lot of time to think about, and perhaps even make notes, concerning his story – it’s certainly not the case that he started from scratch at the beginning of those 90 days. Also, Joseph Smith had a further eight months to make corrections and adjustments before the book was first published in 1830. Even then, the first edition is not the polished work we read now: it was not broken up into versus, and the chapter divisions were much longer and different to those now used. There were also a large number of spelling and grammatical errors which were progressively corrected by the church in subsequent editions. Considering all these factors, I came to conclude that although the production of the work by Joseph Smith was quite impressive, it was not a superhuman feat, and can certainly be explained without appeals to divine revelation.

Lesson 2: Comparative religion matters

The primary lesson I have taken away from this analysis of different prophetic works is the importance of not considering the merits of only a single perspective, but to instead compare the relative merits of different religious teachings. Joseph Smith’s claims and writings looked far more impressive to me when they were all I knew about, and much less impressive after I compared them alongside the alleged prophecies and holy books produced by many other religious leaders. It is so easy for one viewpoint to look amazingly compelling when it is the only one we have seriously examined.

This observation has contributed to my current deep concern with religious disagreement, and desire to find some clear, objective criteria on which the truth or falsity of given religious claims can be adjudicated. The mere fact that a religious book and body of thought seems incredibly impressive and compelling to us is insufficient, when there are so many in other traditions who think that their revelations, their beliefs, and their holy books are likewise so uniquely compelling. We need to try to look at things from comparatively form multiple perspectives, and not merely from within the narrow framework of the one tradition we are comfortable and familiar with.

Changes to Temple Ordinances

Key point: certain Mormon temple ordinances have undergone significant changes since they were originally restored by Joseph Smith, contrary to the church’s own teachings that God’s ordinances cannot be altered.

A Note to Mormon Readers

In this section I do not discuss or reveal any details or aspects of the current endowment ceremony which endowed members have covenanted to keep sacred. I limit myself to general remarks, and go into details only in the case of certain elements of the ceremony that have now been removed. If even this makes you uncomfortable, skip this section.

Changes to the Endowment

All Mormons go to religious services at a chapel each Sunday, but those who are of age and deemed worthy are also encouraged to attend another set of worship services in a building called the temple. There, Mormons perform special ceremonies and ordinances, the most important of which is called the ‘endowment’. Most members experience the endowment ceremony as a combination of pre-recorded videos and live actions performed by those present. With a few small exceptions, the entirety of the ceremony, which lasts over an hour, is scripted, and thus is performed word-for-word identically on every occasion. This is relevant because this script has been changed in some important ways since the endowment was introduced. Aspects of the endowment which have been significantly altered include the following:

  • Penalties: the endowment used to contain penalties associated with revealing any of the sacred elements of the ceremony. These were removed in a 1990 revision of the ceremony.
  • Ministers as agents of Satan: the ceremony contained several scenes in which a protestant minister was portrayed as an agent of Satan. This was removed in the 1990 revision.
  • Wives obedience to husbands: women used to be required to promise to ‘observe and keep the law of your husbands, and abide by his counsel in righteousness’. In 1990 this was changed to ‘obey the Law of the Lord, and to hearken unto the counsel of her husband, as her husband hearkens unto the counsel of the Father’.
  • Oath of vengeance: beginning in the days of Brigham Young and lasting until around 1930, the endowment ceremony included an oath of vengeance for the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. It read ‘you and each of you do covenant and promise that you will pray and never cease to pray to Almighty God to avenge the blood of the prophets upon this nation, and that you will teach the same to your children and to your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation’.
  • There have also been substantial changes to another ordinance called the initiatory. For more information on this see http://www.i4m.com/think/temples/temple_ordinance.htm

There is no question about these changes; they are not lies made up to discredit the church, as some Mormons tend to say of such things. More information can be found on the relevant wikipedia pages, and also on the FairMormon Mormon apologetics website.

Divine Ordinances Cannot be Changed

While Mormons and non-Mormons alike may be troubled by the content of these removed portions of the endowment, most troubling of all for me when I discovered this information was that it seemed to directly contradict the church’s teaching that God’s ordinances must be performed exactly in the specified manner and cannot be altered. This was one of the justifications of the need for a restored church in the first place, namely the argument that the original correct form of many ordinances like baptism had been lost and corrupted over time. As stated in the official church publication Teachings of the Presidents of the Church:

“Ordinances instituted in the heavens before the foundation of the world, in the priesthood, for the salvation of men, are not to be altered or changed.”

Likewise from the church magazine the Ensign:

“Through time and apostasy following Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, however, the divine authority of the priesthood and the sacred ordinances were changed or lost, and the associated covenants were broken. The Lord revealed His displeasure over this situation in these words:“For they have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant;”

And from church General Conference:

“We explained briefly the Apostasy and the Restoration: that there is vast evidence and history of an apostasy from the doctrine taught by Jesus and his Apostles, that the organization of the original Church became corrupted, and sacred ordinances were changed to suit the convenience of men, and that today good people all over the world are confused with contending religions with differing doctrine and methods of worship.”

Apologetic Responses

Mormon apologists have claimed that there is a difference between changing the ordinances themselves, and changing some outward details of their presentation. This is certainly contrary to what I was always taught, that God’s ordinances must be performed exactly. It also seems contrary to teachings such as this:

“No jot, iota, or tittle of the temple rites is otherwise than uplifting and sanctifying. In every detail the endowment ceremony contributes to covenants of morality of life, consecration of person to high ideals, devotion to truth, patriotism to nation, and allegiance to God.”

According to this passage, every small detail of ordinances is important. Changes as substantial as removing entire portions of the endowment would thus surely be counted as ‘important’ details which contribute to the spiritual value of the ordinance, and thus presumably ought not to be changed. The church does not like to discuss these matters, and discourages members from speaking too openly about temple ordinances, even beyond the specific aspects that members promise not to reveal. As such, relatively few members (especially younger members) are aware of these facts. When I became aware of such things, my confidence in the church, though not completely undermined, was considerably shaken.

Lesson 3: Openness is essential

The main lesson I gained from learning about the changes to temple ordinances was the importance of openness to critical examination and discussion. The LDS church is notoriously sensitive to criticism, and very secretive about matters such as changes to the temple ordinances. I am not talking here about keeping certain aspects of the ordinances sacred; I’m talking about hiding from members the changes that have been made to key salvific ordinances (this also applies to various aspects of church history, but that’s another matter).

I do not believe that truth needs protecting, and were I to adopt another religion I would look for one which is open about its past and present activities, and which does not attempt to keep certain facts from its members or discourage them from thinking critically about such things. Any sign of resistance to critical open enquiry of this sort is thus very suspicious and off-putting to me. No true religion should feel the need to ‘protect’ its members from facts that they think may be unpleasant or may lead them to doubt.

Inaccurate Translation of the Book of Abraham

Key point: Joseph Smith claimed to translate the Book of Abraham from ancient Egyptian papyri. Some of these papyri have been discovered, and the translations provided by modern Egyptologists bear no resemblance to those given by Smith.

Background to the Book of Abraham

The Book of Mormon was not the only ancient record Joseph Smith claimed to have translated. In 1835, Joseph Smith acquired several ancient Egyptian papyri taken from some mummies that had been brought to America from Egypt several years earlier. At the time, Egyptian hieroglyphics had still not been deciphered, and owing to his famed translation abilities Smith was asked to attempt a translation. Smith examined the papyri and declared that they contained the writings of the ancient patriarch Abraham. He translated the papyri over the course of a few months, and the resulting work, the Book of Abraham, was published several years later and eventually canonised by the church in 1880. It now forms a key component of the Pearl of Great Price, one of the four canonical texts of the church.

Joseph Smith’s Inaccurate Translations

The original papyri owned by Joseph Smith were long thought to have been lost, but in 1966 several fragments were discovered in some university archives. It is unclear exactly what proportion of the original documents these fragments represent, however they do include large portions of one of the figures (called facsimiles) that are included in the Book of Abraham alongside the text (see here). Numerous professional Egyptologists have since examined these recovered fragments, and they are uniform in their assessment that their content bears no relation whatever to Smith’s translation. Essentially, the papyri are first century Egyptian funerary texts, and contain no mention of Abraham or any of the other doctrinal or historical elements contained in the Book of Abraham.

Apologetic Responses

When first I discovered these facts I was shocked and dismayed. This seemed to be a very clear disconfirmation of Joseph Smith’s ability to translate through divine assistance. I immediately sought out responses of Mormon apologists to see what they had to say on the matter. In preparing the present article, I discovered that just last year the church published a piece on its website discussing the translation of the Book of Abraham. The answers provided in this piece fall into two basic categories, and are essentially the same as those I read on Mormon apologetic sites when conducting my original research:

  • Since we have only recovered a fraction of the original papyri, we do not know whether the portions we have are the same as those Joseph Smith translated from, or what degree of overlap there may or may not be.
  • Joseph Smith may not necessarily have engaged in a literal textual translation of the papyri. I will quote from the lds.org essay on the subject, which articles this perspective quite succinctly: “Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artefacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalysed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri”

My Reaction to the Responses

I never considered these responses to be very satisfactory. At the very least, we know that Joseph Smith did not translate facsimile 1 correctly, since we have recovered large portions of it, and if any inference can be made about the missing portions of the papyri, surely the most reasonable presumption would be that they would likely resemble in subject matter the portions that we do have, not that they would concern matters totally unrelated. As to the idea of a ‘non-literal translation’, once again this is not what I had always been taught. I was always told and read in church materials that the Book of Abraham, like the Book of Mormon, was a genuine translation of a real historical document.

There is no way we can know from historical investigation whether or not Joseph Smith received some sort of spiritual revelation catalysed by the papyri, however from my perspective the evidence fits far better with Joseph Smith having falsely believed in his divinely-inspired ability to translate, rather than God actually having inspired Joseph to write something that bore no relation to the document he thought he was translating, and then have highly misleading teachings about said document continuing to be taught throughout God’s true church. Like everything else, this alone is not completely definitive, but for me it was exceptionally compelling counterevidence against Joseph being a true prophet of God.

Lesson 4: Beliefs need to be testable

From my investigations of the Book of Abraham, and particularly upon discovering the ‘not a literal translation’ response, it became increasingly clear to me just how important it is that we have same method of testing or falsifying our beliefs. Not in some scientistic sense, but simply in the sense of being able to determine whether they are likely to be true or not. The ‘spiritual translation’ answer was so unsatisfactory to me precisely because there is no way to tell whether it is true or not, and can therefore be said of essentially any text from any religion. Thus, any religion which I joined now would to have at least some methods of testing out the truth of its claims, and not merely rely on completely untestable claims of spiritual revelation.

The Unreliability of Subjective Spiritual Evidence

Key point: Mormon doctrine places very heavy emphasis on personal spiritual witness as the prime method of learning the truth of the church, however the existence of many competing religion, as well as the findings of modern psychology, show that evidence of this sort is extremely unreliable.

Spiritual Witness in Mormonism

By far the single biggest reason why I accepted the truth of the Book of Mormon and the restored church is because of the validating ‘spiritual witness’ I believe I had received from God. Mormons believe this is by far the most important and most fundamental way one comes to a knowledge of the truth of the church, often appealing to a passage found in the Book of Mormon in Moroni 10:4, which reads:

“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”

Mormons and those investigating Mormonism are encouraged to read the Book of Mormon and pray sincerely to God to provide them with a spiritual witness of its truth. For many years, I believed that I had received such a witness, which I described as a powerful sensation of peace, comfort, and insight that I gained when reading and pondering the Book of Mormon. I believed that this was a witness from God telling me that the things I was reading and praying about were indeed true, that they were good, and that they were from God.

Cognitive Biases and Conflicting Experiences

During my period of reflection, however, I started to learn about human psychology. I found out about expectation bias (how our expectations enormously shape our perceptions), cognitive dissonance (how we use motivated reasoning to manage apparently conflicting beliefs), the availability heuristic (our tendency to misjudge the probability of events based on a few particularly vivid examples), post-purchase rationalization, pareidolia (seeing patters where none exist), and selection bias (distorting our view of something by the biased way in which examples are chosen). I learnt about a fascinating book called When Prophecy Fails, which documents how may end of the world cults continue to believe even after their predictions fail to come to. I learnt about the immense research documenting the fallibility of human memory, how every time we recall an event we reconstruct and potentially alter the memory, and how relatively easy it is to generate false memories.

Learning about these things, I began to see how they applied in so many ways to my own experience as a Mormon, and also to the way in which Mormons approach spiritual witnesses generally. When I prayed for spiritual confirmation, it was with a strong expectation that I would receive it, which greatly increased the chances that I would come to believe I had such an experience regardless of whether or not there was any true supernatural involvement. Pareidolia would help ensure that I interpreted a wide range of potential thoughts, feelings, and sensations as being consistent with a spiritual witness. The immense amount of time and energy I had put into the church throughout my life would lead to a significant amount of cognitive dissonance and post-purchase rationalisation effects if I were to fail to receive a witness, and thus I was much more likely to convince myself that I had received one. My memory of the spiritual experiences I had had, and those I had heard about from others, was likely altered over time and perhaps had changed significantly from the way events originally occurred.

I also became increasingly concerned about the variability of personal spiritual witnesses across different religions. I found examples of people from Islam, Catholicism, Buddhism, and Wicca, all who reported experiences and feelings which were broadly similar in form to those I had experienced, and those I had heard other Mormons witness about. I wondered how different people could receive genuine spiritual witnesses of conflicting spiritual truths. The more I thought about this, the more dissatisfied I became with simply believing that I was right and others were wrong. I could not find any rational basis for thinking my spiritual witness, or those of Mormons I knew, where more likely to be true than those experienced by people in other religions. This realisation, combined with my new knowledge of human psychology and our powers for self-deception, eventually led me to believe that the experiences and sensations I believe I had had were in fact the products of my own mind, and not the result of divine influence.

The Three and Eight Witnesses

It was a result of similar considerations that I came to believe that the testimonies of the three and the eight witnesses (groups of men who claimed to have seen the gold plates from which the book of Mormon was supposedly translated) were also not a reliable source of information. In the course of my research on the matter I came across this quote by Illinois governor Thomas Ford, who opined that the event of the witnessing of the plates may have proceeding something like this:

“The witnesses were ‘set to continual prayer and other spiritual exercises.’ Then at last ‘he (Joseph Smith) assembled them in a room, and produced a box, which he said contained the precious treasure. The lid was opened; the witnesses peeped into it, but making no discovery, for the box was empty, they said, “Brother Joseph, we do not see the plates.’ The prophet answered them, ‘O ye of little faith! how long will God bear with this wicked and perverse generation? Down on your knees, brethren,  every one of you, and pray God for the forgiveness of your sins ‘ The disciples dropped to their knees, and began to pray in the fervency of their spirit, supplicating God for more than two hours with fanatical earnestness; at the end of which time, looking again into the box, they were now persuaded that they saw the plates.”

I had no reason to believe that the details of this hypothetical account are correct, but it seemed to me that something like this was eminently plausible given what I now knew about human psychology. There were also some other problems with the witnesses which came to my attention, such that virtually all of them were either relatives or friends of Smith, and a number of whom had strong financial and social interests in the success of the church. Also, the witnesses did not give their own independent accounts of events, but merely signed a single document prepared for them, thus leaving us with no way to corroborate their separate accounts with each other, or see whether each of them experienced the same thing, rather than each having their own rather unique spiritual experience which they then misremembered and reconstructed upon later recall as being consistent with the written account. I also found out that a number of other prophets had their own groups of witnesses, including Solomon Spalding and Jesse Strang. I found out about the many sightings of the Virgin Mary, some of them very well documented and with a large number of witnesses (as a Mormon I did not believe in such apparitions). All in all, I was left far less impressed with the accounts of the witnesses than I had previously been.

Lack of Apologetic Responses

Searching for responses to these concerns from Mormon apologists, I could find almost nothing. It was almost as if Mormons had never even thought about such questions before, a notion which I found both bizzare and deeply discouraging. In the face of such evidence and in the absence of any real responses, I became extremely skeptical both of my own spiritual experiences, and of the reported and recollected experiences of others. I no longer considered them to be a reliable way of finding truth, or of determining the veracity of writings like the Book of Mormon.

Lesson 5: Subjective evidence is unreliable

My experience with Mormonism has taught me to be highly skeptical of any claims to divine or spiritual knowledge gained primarily on the basis of personal religious experience, sensations, or feelings. I do not believe that such things are a reliable way of finding truth, and as such any religion which I joined today, though it may have an important place for such experiences, would not elevate them to be the primary means of determining the truth of religious claims.

Bringing Things Together

Leaving Mormonism

By the end of my period of intensive study and reflection, I had come to the conclusion that Joseph Smith was probably not a divinely inspired prophet, and that the church he established was probably not God’s true church. I did not come to this conclusion on the basis of any single argument or piece of evidence, but as a result of multiple, largely separate considerations, the five major ones I have outlined here (there were many other lesser considerations as well, but I have omitted them to save space). No single discovery I made was enough to completely undermine my faith by itself, nor did any of them definitively and conclusively disprove the truth of Mormonism. Rather, it was a question of relative plausibility and explanatory power of different ways of interpreting the facts.

Becoming an Atheist

Having come to the conclusion that Mormonism was probably not a true religion, I found myself having little or no reason to continue believing in god. The main reasons why I had previously believed in God were as a result of my belief in the Book of Mormon, in the first vision of Joseph Smith, and also as a result of my own personal spiritual experiences. Having become convinced that all of these reasons for belief were mistaken or inadequate, I lacked any reason to continue believing in God. I thus began describing myself as an atheist or an agnostic, depending on the mood I was in – at present I prefer the term ‘weak atheist’.

Continued Searching

To this day I remain open to the possibility that my decision to leave Mormonism might have been incorrect, and that the Mormon church is in fact true, and that Joseph Smith is in fact a true prophet of God. For me to once again believe in this, however, I would need to find compelling answers to these five problems I have outlined here, as well as a number of other comparatively minor matters that I have not discussed here. To my continued disappointment, none of my Mormon friends or acquaintances were interested at the time, or have seemed interested since, to discuss these issues and concerns with me.

Since leaving Mormonism I have also continued to search for new reasons or arguments as to why I should believe in God, or adopt some religion other than Mormonism. As yet, I have not found reasons or arguments which I find sufficiently persuasive. Nonetheless, my ignorance and limitations remain immense, and so the search goes ever on. I am still only near the beginning of my journey

Lesson 6: We must compare worldviews holistically

Partly as a result of my experiences investigating various aspects of Mormonism, I have come to the view that it is essential to consider a body of evidence collectively, rather than merely examining each argument or fact in isolation. It is certainly important to look at details of each particular argument, but if this is all one does, it is very easy to get caught in the trap of ‘explaining away’ every possible counterargument or discrepancy within the framework of what we already believe. In this way, we never shift our beliefs, and we are not receptive to new evidence.

Instead, we need to make the effort to consciously take a step back and think ‘which perspective, which worldview is most consistent with the evidence as a whole? What is the most reasonable thing to believe that has the greatest chance of being true?’ This means making a genuine sincere effort to understand alternate viewpoints and interpretations, rather than just dismissing them point by point on each particular argument. We need to put on the goggles of those we disagree with, see through their eyes, and then switch back to our own goggles and consider which pair provided the better view of reality. This is not an easy thing to do, but I think that if we wish to maximise our changes of holding true beliefs, it is something we must regularly strive for.

Some Concluding Thoughts on Reason and Belief

Many Christians I know are very committed to their faith, believing very strongly in Jesus and his power in their lives. Nevertheless, I have found that many such persons are unable to answer many of my questions, objections, and criticisms. When I raise such matter, they tend to change the subject, fail to get back to me after saying they will, respond in ways that seem to portray an almost complete lack of understanding of my perspective, or sometimes even flat out say to me that they do not know how to respond. At the same time, such persons, seemingly without fail (although I guess I cannot know for sure) remain unwavering in their beliefs. Nothing I say seems to have much of any impact at all. Even in the very act of being unable to provide any cogent or relevant response to something I have said, they nevertheless maintain the same level of confident certainty that their beliefs are correct. I speak mostly of my Christian friends here (and some of them are among my very dearest friends), though I suspect similar remarks would apply to many of my Mormon friends as well, had I ever had any substantive conversations with them about such matters.

My reaction to this attitude is one of considerable incredulity. It’s not that I want to prove to these people that they are wrong or to get them to change their minds. Rather, it’s a matter of wanting to understand their reasons, and becoming frustrated and disappointed when they seem unable to articulate them. As far as I can see, weighing up and interpreting evidence and arguments is the way we try to distinguish truth from falsity. If we hold on tenaciously to a belief even in the face of objections to central aspects of that belief to which we have little or no idea how to respond, then we are in effect abdicating our role as searchers after truth. If we are right, we hope to be so by sheer luck, not because we have done all we can to cleave true from false beliefs and maximise our chances of holding to the true and rejecting the false.

I refuse to believe that God created us with an intellect only to have us forego its use, and instead wallow in confident certainty in the very face of our own admission (tacit or explicit) that we do not have the tools we need to discern whether our most dearly held beliefs are in fact likely to be true. This is a rejection of the paramount importance of truth, an abdication of our intellectual integrity, and, having given up truth as our guiding light, constitutes a surrender to the vicissitudes of chance and passion to control our destinies. Such a life is not the life I want to live, and I call upon everyone everywhere reject this form of passive slavery to falsity and unreason, and instead fight with all our might, with all our strength, and with all our souls, to find out what is true, and to live by those truths that we find, always with a confidence proportionate to the reasons we have for belief.

This does not mean that we will have all the answers – that would be absurd – but it does mean that we should always have sufficient answers to justify our current level of confidence in how we can know what we claim to know. If we cannot give such answers but nonetheless hold fast to our beliefs, then we are lying to ourselves, and (if he exists) we are lying to God too, for we are pretending to know things that we do not in fact know, or at least do not know with the level of confidence we claim. I am guilty of doing this; I think we all are at times. But that doesn’t make it right or good.

I urge all people everywhere to think more carefully, to learn more, to listen to alternate views, and generally to put more effort into finding and holding onto truth, and not merely the appearance or the feeling of truth. I have no interest in this counterfeit version – only the genuine article will satisfy. I hope that Christians, Mormons, Atheists, and everyone else will recognise their fundamental underlying unity as seekers of truth, and join together on this grand and noble quest to understand this vast and confusing world in which we all live.

Why Am I still not a Christian?: A Letter to my Christian Friends

Introduction

This post is both highly personal, and also quite generally applicable. It is personal in that my remarks derive from my experiences in talking and engaging with Christians over the past several years, many of whom I consider to be close personal friends whom I respect a great deal. It is general in the sense that I believe the key ideas apply much more broadly to a wide diversity of interactions and engagement between Atheists and Christians (as well as those of other religions). In keeping with the personal nature of this post, I shall henceforth use the second person (‘you’) in reference specifically to my Christian friends, though it can also be interpreted more broadly to apply to any Christian, and indeed (with certain appropriate modifications of content), also to any religious person.

The Question and Possible Answers

My key purpose for this post is for you to seriously consider the question: why aren’t I a Christian? Even after nearly five years of fairly intensive thinking, reading, discussing, and debating about these ideas, why have I nonetheless not been converted to Christianity? I can see four classes of possible answers to this question, and I shall examine each of them in turn:

  1. Because Christianity is in fact false, and hence the arguments and evidence in favour of it are lacking. Not surprisingly, this is the answer which I like to believe is most likely. Perhaps more importantly, it is the only reason for which I would want to hold my current beliefs about Christianity. That is, if this is in fact not the case, then I want to change my views. Needless to say, you do not believe that this option is the correct one, so let now consider the others.
  2. Because there exist arguments and evidences with which I am insufficiently familiar, or which I have not heard explained in a sufficiently convincing way, or misconceptions or misunderstandings that result in mental barriers or objections to my belief.
  3. Because, consciously or otherwise, I do not and have not engaged in this pursuit with sufficient sincerity and objectivity. My analysis of the evidence and arguments is excessively and overwhelmingly clouded by my own prejudices, desires, presuppositions, or otherwise, such that I am not properly receptive to the true strength of the evidences and reasons offered.
  4. Because conversion to Christianity is not ultimately determined by our own beliefs or arguments we have heard, but comes as a result of an act of God’s grace. There are two main subsidiary possibilities I can see here: a) God has reached out his grace to me in this way, but I have rejected and refused to accept it, b) God has not done so, as for his own reasons I am not one he has chosen to save (or at least not yet). If you believe in the doctrine of Irresistible Grace, then you will of course not believe that (4a) is a possibility.

You may of course be inclined to say that my lack of conversion results from a combination of the above factors, but personally I think most of the possibilities listed above make the others either impossible or redundant. So, for example, (2) and (3) could both be true, but in that case (3) seems largely beside the point if I am not engaging truly openly or honestly. Likewise, you may believe that reason alone is not sufficient, even if it is necessary for a strong conversion, in which case the question would become which of (2) and (4) you consider to be the main ‘limiting factor’, so to speak, in preventing my conversion to Christianity.

Four Possibilities in Depth

Here is where things get especially difficult, because it seems to me that whichever of (2), (3), or (4) you believe is the case, there are fairly negative implications.

Suppose you believe (2) is the main reason for my lack of conversion. If this is the case, then I must ask in total earnestness and sincerity why you do not make a greater effort to share these reasons or arguments or evidences with me? You may have done so to some extent, but if I still haven’t heard the most important reasons or the most persuasive articulation, or if I still hold objections or reservations based upon misunderstandings or misconceptions, why do you not point me to them and help me address them? I try to be very clear and upfront about my objections and reservations, and have written extensively about my views concerning such matters as arguments for God’s existence, the role of subjective religious experience, disagreement between Christians about important doctrines, my various key objections, the moral argument for God’s existence, the importance of reason in forming our beliefs, and I think most importantly, the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. I honestly feel that I have raised numerous cogent arguments, doubts, and objections in these various pieces, and it is on this basis that I tend to believe that situation (1) in fact prevails. Though this applies more to some people than others, on the whole I feel that you have not engaged very extensively or carefully with most of my writings or objections, and if you believe that (2) is in fact the main reason for my lack of conversion, I really would appreciate it if you would do so, because (2) is not a situation I would like to be in. The negative implication here, as I see it, is that if you believe (2), then you believe that there are cogent, persuasive reasons of which I am unfamiliar, and responses to my objections which I have not heard, but which you have not told me, or not explained in a way that I can properly grasp.

Now let us turn our attention to possibility (3). If this is the main reason for my lack of conversion, the negative implication for me is fairly clear, since in this case I will not be properly receptive to any arguments or responses to my objections that anyone may raise. If you believe (3) is the case, I would truly appreciate it if you would be so open as to tell me so, and suggest ways I might be able to remedy this defect in my thinking. Perhaps there may be specific clear instances you can point to where my sincerity and objectivity has been clearly and substantially clouded (obviously none of us are ever going to be perfect in this respect, but its a matter of degree). Either way, I would greatly appreciate your assistance in extricating myself from (3), which truly would be a terrible situation for me to be in.

Even worse, arguably, than (3) is situation (4a), in which I have rejected God’s grace that he has offered to me (feel free to phrase this in a slightly different way if you disagree with my use of language here, its the underlying idea that I want to focus on). If (4a) is the main reason for my lack of conversion, then basically it seems that all is lost, at least for me. I’m fundamentally a bad person and just are unreceptive to the truth and light offered by God through his grace. There’s little or no question of changing my mind in the basis of reason or evidence, because its not a question of reason or evidence, just of being unreceptive to grace. If you believe that (4a) is the case, then you perhaps think that deep down I’m fundamentally not really a very good person. Maybe you have some way around this, I don’t know, but at least as I see it a good person doesn’t just reject a good God in this way. I know that you probably believe that no humans are ‘fundamentally good’, but if you believe that some people choose to accept God’s grace while others don’t, presumably that makes a meaningful difference in terms of what sort of person they are.

Lastly, let us consider possibility (4b). Maybe it is the case that I have the intellectual knowledge I would need to become a Christian, but nonetheless I have not yet received the outpouring of God’s grace, or spiritual witness from God, or whatever language one cares to use to describe this. This possibility is the one I find hardest to understand. If you believe that (4b) is the core reason I am not a Christian, then presumably you also believe that a major reason why you are a Christian is because you have been the recipient of such an act of grace, or spiritual witness, or whatever wording you prefer to use to describe the experience. If you do believe this, I guess I just find it very hard to understand why God would withhold such things from me. Doesn’t he want all of his children to enter into a relationship with him? Why would he extend his grace (etc) to you and not to me? I guess being God he can do whatever he wants, but still it kind of sucks for me (and those like me). Nor does it do any good to say that I still have misconceptions or mental barriers that prevent me being a recipient to God’s grace, because then we no longer think that (4b) is the main reason for my lack of conversion, but rather have reverted to options (2) or (3). The negative implication of (4b) is that there is effectively nothing either of us can do to change the situation. That said, however, I would still appreciate you telling me if you genuinely believe (4b) is the case. I would find it helpful to know.

Closing

So we have reached the end of the possibilities for why I have not converted to Christianity. As I have said, I don’t think any of them are especially positive, or free from negative implications. Nonetheless this matter does not go away merely because you or I fail to think about it or talk about it. You believe, I presume, that my eternal salvation is at stake in this question, and I believe that it may be at stake (because I might be wrong in believing (1)), so the stakes are high, and there is no time to waste. So what do you think? What is to be done? This question isn’t just for me; I think Christians everywhere should ask this of their non-believer friends, and seriously consider their answer. It is a matter none of us can afford to ignore, easy as that can often be to do.

Justifying Morality Without God: The Difference between Humans and Chickens

Synopsis

In this piece I discuss some comments made in this recent blog piece concerning the alleged inability of any atheistic worldview to provide a ‘rational basis’ for valuing moral life over chicken life. I argue that this piece fallaciously argues that because humans and chickens are comprised of the same fundamental substances, that therefore they must share the same moral value, explaining how this is an instance of the fallacy of composition. I then address the claim that atheism cannot provide a rational basis for human value, arguing that neither atheism nor theism can provide the sort of bootstrapping ‘value from reason alone’ that this piece seems to seek, and indeed that reason is simply not capable of doing so.

Animal Rights?

I wish to begin this piece by just very briefly remaking on this strange assertion found at the beginning of the article in question:

The other day I ate a chicken sandwich. The chicken was killed, dismembered and cooked and placed on a bread roll that I had for lunch. Yet there was no outcry, no police enquiry, and no news reports. Millions of people eat chicken every day and it is completely morally acceptable.

While I don’t doubt that there was no public outcry or policy enquiry, I am curious on what basis the author asserts that millions of people eating chicken every day is ‘completely morally acceptable’? I know a lot of philosophers and intelligent people generally who would not agree that eating chicken in this way is always ‘completely morally acceptable’. I myself do not eat chicken, in large part precisely because I do not find it ‘completely morally acceptable’. I will not defend this view here, I merely wish to raise the point to forestall others from doing so (and so distract the discussion from more central issues), and also to highlight that discussions of these sort involving morality and rationality are fraught with danger, given how much moral disagreement exists about even comparatively simple matters as eating chicken. What to one person is a totally innocuous act of no moral consequence to another is tantamount to murder (not that I think eating chicken is as bad as murder, but some people do). Enough on such things however. I will now move on to the meatier (haha) aspects of the article.

The Fallacy of Composition

“Now my question: in the atheist universe, why is cooking a human different to cooking a chicken? There appears no fundamental difference. A chicken is matter and energy and a human is matter and energy. Both are the same, neither has any intrinsic value. Hence it seems inconsistent and unjustified within an atheist system for there to be an outcry at the murder and cooking of human DNA.”

Let me attempt to paraphrase the argument I think is being made here in the following syllogism:

  1. A chicken and a human are both fundamentally comprised of matter and energy
  2. If two things are comprised of the same fundamental substance then they have the same moral value
  3. Therefore, chickens and humans have equivalent moral value

Premise 2 seems fairly obviously suspect. There is little reason to suppose that the fundamental substance out of which something is made is what determines its moral value. As Carl Sagan said of beauty, but which could equally well apply to moral value, “The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together“. In particular, an atheist defending the greater moral value of humans compared to chickens could appeal to the greater human capacity for consciousness and self-awareness, their ability to experience higher forms of pain and pleasure, their greater potential for intellectual and social engagement with the world, and any number of other morally significant differences between humans and chickens. To put it another way, there is a vague collection of properties, the more of which are possessed by some entity, the more moral value it has. A rock has essentially none of these properties, a chicken has more, and a human has more still. The appeal to the face of being comprised of identical fundamental substances is of no clear relevance at all.

Indeed, this argument seems to be an instance of the fallacy of composition, in which it is falsely asserted that the whole must share the properties of its parts. For example, a puddle of water has a temperature and the property of being wet, but no individual water molecules of which the puddle is wholly comprised have such properties. Conversly, while the protons and electrons comprising the puddle are electrically charged, the puddle itself is electrically neutral. To give another example, in some random group of ten people, each person has a hair colour, but the group as a whole does not have a hair colour. Examples can be given ad nauseam. In this case, it is argued that because (in atheistic universe) humans are made up of nothing more than matter and energy, and because matter and energy of themselves have no moral value, therefore humans have no moral value. This is fallacious because, as illustrated previously, a whole need not share its properties with its parts. This is the fallacy of composition in action.

A Rational Basis for Morality?

“If a child is simply matter and energy, as are rocks, stars, chickens, computers and trees, there appears to be no rational basis for valuing human ‘matter and energy’ over chicken ‘matter and energy’. There appears no fundamental difference between cooking a human and cooking a chicken.”

Here I want to focus on the use of the phrase “no rational basis valuing human ‘matter and energy’”. I must admit it is not entirely clear to me what is meant by this. What is meant by ‘rational’ in this context? Does it mean that someone who was only interested in holding true beliefs about the external world would not come to value human matter and energy? If so, then I agree completely. I do not believe there is any such thing as value ‘built in’ (the word ‘intrinsic’ is often used, though I often find that more obfuscatory than enlightening) to the world, such that mere recognition of a fact necessitates some kind of attribution of value to something. Nor do I think this is a product of an atheistic universe – I think it is just as much a fact about any possible theistic universe as an atheistic universe.

For consider a hypothetical person who is fully rational, in the sense of caring only about holding true beliefs about the way things really are. Suppose such a person follows the evidence and arguments, and comes to the belief that God exists, and furthermore that God has given mankind various commandments and laws. Does it follow from any purely ‘rational basis’ that this hypothetical person should therefore value God’s commandments, or believe that they have a moral obligation to follow them? I contend that it does not. They have merely discovered a fact about what God commands, which by itself provides no ‘rational basis’ for valuing God’s commands. This idea is not mine; it is simply an application of Moore’s famous Open Question Argument.

An atheist most certainly can rationally defend human dignity and value. We, as individuals and as a society, care about the suffering, the joy, and the flourishing of self-aware, conscious, intelligent creatures such as humans (and possibly other species too, maybe even chickens, but let’s leave that aside for now). What’s that you say? What if our interlocutor claims not to care one wit about such things – what can we say then to convince them? The answer, of course, is nothing. Just as the theist has nothing to say to the person who claims to believe in God and his commandments, but feels no compunction or desire to follow them. ‘Rationality’ cannot bootstrap itself from nothing – it has to start somewhere. Just as the theist cannot give any deeper non-question begging reason deriving from rationality alone for why God ought to be obeyed or why his commands constitute moral laws, likewise the atheist can give no deeper non-question begging reason from rationality alone for why human life has value: the situations are symmetric.

The trouble here is not the dearth of reasons, but the desire to both reasons and rationality further then they can go. Rationality can get you from one belief to another without falling into falsity, but it cannot tell you what beliefs to start with, or in this case what things to ultimately care about. It is our mistake to expect that it would ever be capable of such a feat.

Are there Moral Facts or Duties without God?

Synopsis

In this piece I consider the two related concepts of ‘moral facts’ and ‘moral obligations’, contrasting them within theistic and naturalistic worldviews. I first consider what is meant by ‘moral facts’, and argue that, subject to a certain clarification regarding the meaning of ‘mind-independence’, objective moral facts can exist within a naturalistic framework, as facts concerning states of affairs relating to idealised human desires. I then consider the concept of ‘moral obligations’, and argue that such obligations may be consistent with naturalism depending upon how the notion of ‘moral duty’ is interpreted. I also argue, however, that the concept is essentially unnecessary in a naturalistic worldview, as it does little beyond what is done by the concept of ‘moral facts’. I conclude with some analysis of how theists and naturalists may respond to the moral skeptic, arguing that neither can provide moral motivation to the skeptic on the basis of reason alone.

Moral Facts

The first question to be considered is whether or not ‘moral facts’ exist. For a moral fact to ‘exist’, what I mean is that the proposition in question is true. Thus, the question I am asking is whether any propositions about moral states of affairs are true, a view called moral realism, as opposed to error theory, the position that all moral propositions are false. (There are also so-called non-cognitivist positions which hold that moral statements are not propositions at all. I will not address such views in this piece.)

To facilitate clarity, let me propose a working definition of objective moral facts:

(1.0) An objective moral fact is an evaluative proposition concerning the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of some action or outcome, which is true irrespective of the mental state (opinion, belief, etc) of any person.

In my personal view, I think it unlikely that objective moral truths as defined in (1.0) exist, as I believe that the rightness or wrongness of any action is always ultimately determined by the mental states of human beings (and potentially other sentient creatures too, but I’ll leave that out of the discussion for now). According to the view that I lean towards, moral facts are propositions concerning the maximal fulfilment of idealised preferences, considered from a social point of view (see my earlier piece describing Railton’s Reductive Naturalism for more detail).

In keeping with this view, I would propose a new definition of moral facts:

(1.1) An objective moral fact is an evaluative proposition concerning the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of some action or outcome, the truth of which is not dependent upon the mental state of the agent making the moral judgement in question.

The difference between (1.0) and (1.1) is that, while (1.0) requires that the truth values of all moral propositions be independent of the mental states of any person (i.e. they are facts about nature itself independent of humans, or perhaps something beyond nature), (1.1) only requires that the truth values be independent of the mental state of the person evaluating the claim. Thus, if one person or group thought that genocide or female genital mutilation or ignoring the poor were not morally wrong, by this view they would be mistaken. They would be mistaken because they hold a false belief concerning the truth value of a certain moral proposition, which proposition derives its truth value from particular states of the world concerning which states of affairs would be conducive of the maximal fulfilment of idealised desires, from a social point of view. Moral facts are thus facts about the world with objective truth values independent of the mental states of those evaluating the truth of the claims.

Also note that according to my preferred view, it is even possible for everyone to be mistaken about moral facts. This is because the truth value of moral propositions does not depend (primarily, though it may have some relevance in some cases) upon people’s opinions concerning the truth value of the proposition. Rather, moral propositions derive their truth value from states of affairs concerning idealised preferences of agents considered from a social point of view. It is perfectly possible for entire societies to hold systematically mistaken views regarding such idealised preferences – indeed, I think I can cite some plausible historical examples, though I won’t do so here because I’m fairly sure that doing so would distract the discussion. The main point to note is that, although according to my preferred position, moral facts are subjective in the sense that their truth value is dependent upon the mental states of humans, and not merely upon natural states of affairs outside of humans (as are, for instance, many scientific claims), they are also objective in the sense that their truth value is not determined by the attitudes or preferences of the person making the judgement, or even the collective judgements of a society, since it is possible for an entire society to hold mistaken views concerning what would best satisfy idealised preferences from a social point of view.

Moral Obligations

Having considered objective moral facts, what can we make of the idea of moral duties? It seems that the mere existence of moral facts, absent certain further assumptions, need not necessarily imply any moral duties – after all, there are any number of other propositions which are objectively true, but nonetheless do not entail any duties.

Let me (tentatively) define moral obligations as follows:

(2.0) A moral obligation is a duty to act in a certain way that arises as a consequence of one or more objective moral facts.

While I think this definition goes some way towards capturing our primitive notion of ‘moral obligation’, I am left rather unsatisfied. I still find it very hard to understand what is meant by this notion of a ‘duty to act’ -what does it mean to say that we have a duty to do something? Sometimes duties are acquired on the basis of someone accepting a formal or informal position of some authority and responsibility, and explicitly or implicitly promising to act in a certain way in fulfilment of this role. It seems, however, that this does not really capture the inherent proscriptivity entailed by our concept of ‘moral duties’. That is, we would generally want to say that there is no action that one needs to take in order to acquire moral duties, nor is there any way of eschewing them, as would be possible for other duties by, for example, stepping down from the role in question.

The idea of ‘moral duties’ seems to be that, in some sense, we “must” act in a particular way, regardless of whether or not we want to, or whether or not we agree, or even whether or not we even know about the duty (though some may perhaps dispute this last point, at least my naive notion of ‘moral duty’ would say that even, for instance, feral children would have moral duties, even though they would presumably have no notion of the concept of morality). But what does it mean to say that we “must” act in a certain way? Obviously this doesn’t mean that we are literally unable to act differently, because quite clearly it is possible to act immorally.

One possible answer, traditionally advocated by some theistic philosophers, is to ground the notion of ‘moral obligation’ in the commandments of God. That is, moral obligations are injunctions to act in a particular way which are made by God, and are (ultimately) enforced by God through some sort of final judgement. The notion of ‘moral obligation’ is thus analogous to that of a legal obligation – both derive from some external authoritative source, both are binding regardless of our particular attitudes or opinions, and both are ‘enforceable’ in the sense of there being consequences for disobedience.

This would lead to a definition something like the following:

(2.1) A moral obligation is an enforceable injunction to act in a certain way, deriving from some legitimate authority ‘external’ to human preferences or opinion.

I think there are various problems with approaches such as this to ground moral obligations on God’s commandments. For example, I think it is at least plausible that one may acknowledge an injunction to come from God, but still question whether or not obeying is the right thing to do. It seems to me that God could at least potentially be evil, and that therefore moral duties are not constituted solely in the injunctions of God, but have reference to things outside of God as well. I’m not saying these and other issues are necessarily insoluble, nor do I wish to get distracted into an extensive debate about them here. I just wanted to flag them as being tangentially relevant before moving on.

Let us suppose, however, that we can develop a consistent and plausible theory of theistic moral duties which circumvents some of the difficulties mentioned above. Can the same be done from within a naturalistic worldview? I think doing so is at least conceptually possible – it seems for example that a principle like karma would go some way towards meeting the criteria set out by (2.1), and at least some understandings of karma see it as essentially a completely natural phenomenon. However, I personally do not believe in karma, or any such natural process like it. As such, I would lean towards the view that, if there is no God, then moral obligations as defined in (2.1) do not exist.

In essence, I lean towards the view that the notion of ‘moral obligations’ is essentially unnecessary in a naturalistic universe, and is really only the cause of conceptual confusion. I believe, as I argued above, that objective moral facts as defined by (1.1) are perfectly capable of existing in a naturalistic universe, and that there is simply no place for or need of ‘moral duties’ that go beyond moral facts. So, for example, I do not believe that it is necessary to interpret a statement like ‘you should behave in this way’ as a statement about the existence of moral obligations or duties. Rather, I think it is perfectly consistent and sufficient to interpret this as an assertion of the proposition ‘behaving in this way would promote the maximal fulfilment of idealised preferences from a social point of view’, as well as an injunction to act in accordance with this fact (this notion of moral assertions constituting injunctions relates to another model in meta-ethics that I find persuasive, R. M. Hare’s Universal Prescriptivism, however I do not wish to get too distracted discussing that in detail).

Furthermore, I do not believe that the mere truth of particular moral facts provides any rational obligation to act in accordance with them. That is, those who ignore morality are not necessarily irrational, they are just immoral. Do I believe that the truth of moral facts provides any moral obligation to act in accordance with them? It depends upon what is meant. If by ‘moral obligation’ one means something like (2.1), then no, I do not think moral facts entail moral obligations (since the moral facts are not injunctions from an external authority in the sense required for moral duties). On the other hand, I think a lot of people talk about ‘moral obligations’ more loosely as essentially referring to the same thing as ‘moral facts’, and in this looser sense I do tend to think that moral duties exist, because (as I argue above) I tend to believe that moral facts exist.

Responding to the Moral Skeptic

So where does all this leave us? Certain theists tend to phrase this discussion in terms of having a response to the ‘moral skeptic’, who when confronted with a moral claim, asks question like ‘why should I?’ or ‘what privileges your view over mine?’ I believe that, working within the framework of Railtonian Reductionism that I have outlined here and elsewhere, the naturalist can provide answers that are at least as satisfactory as those the theist can give (I personally think they are much better, but that’s a stronger claim I won’t attempt to defend in full in this piece).

The theist could answer (something like) ‘you should because God commands it, and he is our creator and so has legitimate authority over such things’. It seems to me, however, that the moral skeptic could acknowledge that God exists and mandates particular commandments, but still either dispute that they are morally obliged to follow these commands, or even just fail to care about divine moral obligations, and not feel motivated to live up to them. It seems to me such a person has not committed any mistake of rationality here – they just don’t care what God has to say on the matter, and so far as I can tell this violates no precepts of sound reasoning. It may, of course, make them an immoral person, but there seems little else the theist could say to motivate or convince them.

The naturalist could answer (something like) ‘you should because doing so would better promote the fulfilment of idealised desires from a social point of view’ (this is often described less verbosely using language like ‘promoting human flourishing’ or ‘maximising wellbeing’). Of course, the moral skeptic could acknowledge this to be the case, but still dispute that they have any moral obligation to promote human flourishing, or simply fail to care and see no reason to act in accordance with any moral facts or duties that may exist. As before, such a person may be immoral, but as far as I can see they have not committed an error of rationality, and as such there seems little else that could be said to motivate or convince them.

Thus, at the end of the day, I think that neither the theist nor the naturalist can convince the moral skeptic to follow the precepts of morality using reason alone, which perhaps they may antecedently have wished to do. I think, however, that this inability should not come as a great surprise, as to suppose that rationality and moral motivation are inextricably linked in this way would be to believe that the most rational people are also the most moral, a view which seems highly dubious at best, nor indeed does it even seem consistent with our naive notions about morality. As such, I think that what Adam Smith described as ‘moral sentiments’ are very important – not to ground the existence of moral truths as such, but rather to provide a basis for our caring about them and acting in accordance with them. I think this is necessary regardless of whether one believes in God or not.

What is Atheism? What is Agnosticism? And who has the Burden of Proof?

Synopsis

In this piece I wish to consider the question: “does atheism need to be justified?” That is, does an atheist need to provide arguments and reasons to support their atheism, or is it sufficient for them to merely say that the evidence and arguments provided in favour of theism are insufficient? I first consider at length the meaning of the term ‘atheism’, distinguishing it from more specific appellations such as ‘strong atheism’, ‘weak atheism’, and ‘agnosticism’. In doing so I present a tripartite typology of nontheistic views about God, based on differing attitudes taken to the proposition “God exists” and its negation “God does not exist”. I also defend my characterisation of the definitions of atheism and agnosticism based on historical and conceptual considerations. Finally, I apply my definitions of atheism and agnosticism to answer the question originally posed about justification and burden of proof, arguing that, in fact, agnosticism bears a greater burden of proof than does atheism simpliciter, which being (in my usage) a mere lack of belief, does not bear any burden of proof.

Defining Atheism

The first and most obvious thing to do is establish a working definition as to what is meant by the term ‘atheism’, and its close relative ‘agnosticism’. This represents a problem, because atheism is used in different ways by different people. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:

“The task is made more difficult because each of these words are what Wittgenstein called ‘family resemblance’ words. That is, we cannot expect to find a set of necessary and sufficient conditions  for their use. Their use is appropriate if a fair number of the conditions are satisfied. Moreover even particular members of the families are often imprecise, and sometimes almost completely obscure”

Much ink has been spilled attempting to categorise and define the differences and similarities between atheism and agnosticism. As a result of such efforts there is now a positive cornucopia of differing terms and labels, including agnostic atheism, agnostic theism, weak agnosticism, strong agnosticism, explicit atheism, implicit atheism, weak atheism, strong atheism, apatheism, naturalistic pantheism, antitheism, ignosticism, and many more.

In this article I cannot possibly attempt to satisfactorily address each of these terms. Instead, I shall present my own preferred typology, drawing a distinction between three broad classes of positions: strong atheism, weak atheism, and agnosticism. For clarity, henceforth when I use the term ‘God’, it should be understood that I am referring to something akin to the traditional God of monotheism.

Belief and Reasons

Before proceeding, I think it may be helpful to say a few preliminary words about the nature of belief. I consider belief to be a particular sort of cognitive attitude that one holds toward a proposition. To any proposition, it is my view that there are essentially two possible cognitive attitudes which are relevant to our concerns here: that of accepting the truth of the proposition, and that of refusing to accept the truth of the proposition. These, of course, can come in degrees of enthusiasm or confidence in accepting or refusing to accept, but I consider the two to represent extremes along a single spectrum.

Note that under this typology, refusing to accept a proposition is not equivalent to assenting to its negation. This may strike some as counterintuitive, but I do not think there is anything especially new or unusual here. For example, suppose someone were to ask me “would you accede to the statement ‘it will rain on this day one year from now’?”, I would respond “no I would not”. But that does not mean that I would affirm the negation of the statement, namely “it will not rain on this day one year from now”.

My Tripartite Typology

Consider the following two propositions:

  • “God exists”
  • “God does not exist”

In my view, it is possible to hold separate cognitive attitudes concerning each of these propositions, though not all combinations of attitudes will be logically consistent. I foresee the following possibilities:

  • Accept the proposition “God exists” and refuse to accept “God does not exist”: a person who hold this view would typically be called a theist
  • Accept the proposition “God does not exist” and refuse to accept “God exists”: this constellation of views is typically described as strong atheism
  • Accept both propositions: belief that it “God exists” and also that “God does not exist”. Aside from some unusual equivocation in the definition of ‘God’ between these two propositions, it seems difficult for this view to be coherent
  • Refuse to accept either proposition: this person refuses to assent to the truth of the proposition “God exists”, but also similarly refuses to assent to the truth of the proposition “God does not exist”. In my view, both the weak atheist and the agnostic fit into this category

Given this understanding, let me now outline my preferred tripartite topology:

  1. Strong Atheism: explicit endorsement of the truth of the proposition “God does not exist”
  2. Weak Atheism: rejection of acceding to the truth of the proposition “God exists”, but without explicit endorsement of the truth of its negation (namely “God does not exist”)
  3. Agnosticism: rejection of acceding to the truth of the proposition “God exists” and also the proposition “God does not exist”, motivated by a belief that such claims concern matters which are simply unknown, and perhaps unknowable

Strong Atheism, Weak Atheism, and Agnosticism

There seems to be a certain class of people (in my experience typically theists, but some atheists as well) who seem adverse to the entire concept of ‘weak atheism’. Such people seem to believe that ‘weak atheism’ is not a real position, that it is either another name for agnosticism, or another name for strong atheism, and that there is no meaningful ‘middle ground’ between the two. I believe that this view is mistaken, and that if we tried to do away with the concept of ‘weak atheism’, there would be sufficient demand for a ‘third position’ distinct from agnosticism and strong atheism such that a new label would emerge to take its place.

That being said, given that I have categorised both weak atheism and agnosticism in 4) above, what is my basis for distinguishing them in my tripartite typology? I think that the meaning of ‘weak atheism’ and ‘agnosticism’ is very similar and overlaps a great deal, which is precisely why there is so much conflict and confusion concerning their meanings. Nevertheless, I also believe that there are meaningful (if subtle) distinctions between these two positions. I would put these differences into two categories, which I will discuss in turn.

First, while united in their rejection of belief in the proposition “God exists”, weak atheists and agnostics differ slightly in exactly what cognitive attitude they hold with respect to the proposition “God does not exist”. Agnostics refuse to grant assent to this proposition either – they view both beliefs as essentially equally unsupportable. Weak atheists, on the other hand, while refusing to explicitly endorse the proposition “God does not exist” (if they did, they would be strong atheists), typically are reticent to be so explicit in their refusal to assent to the proposition “God does not exist”, in general because while they lean towards the truth of this proposition, they are not quite confident enough to categorically endorse it without qualification or caveat (strong atheists, by contrast, are typically much more confident about this belief).

Second, agnosticism is, at least in my view, and contrary to how it is often perceived, a more substantive position than weak atheism. Agnosticism, as originally outlined by Thomas Huxley and generally explicated by its proponents since, incorporates not only a rejection of assent to either proposition about God’s existence, but also includes certain epistemological views about the limits of what can be known, and what sort of attitudes are appropriate in the face of such limits and uncertainties. Agnosticism is, in this sense, a profoundly skeptical position, in the traditional sense meaning ‘belief that firm knowledge either way is difficult or impossible’. Weak atheism, in my view, lacks any of these connotations, and as such it is a less substantive position, having less to say.

To summarise, therefore, we might say that agnostics and weak atheists are united in their refusal to accept the proposition “God exists” (which distinguishes them from theists), and are also united in their refusal to explicitly and clearly endorse the proposition “God does not exist” (which distinguishes them from strong atheists). They differ, however, in the credence or probability they tend to assign to the proposition “God does not exist”, as weak atheists generally lean towards accepting this proposition, while agnostics refuse it with a fervour equal to that with which they refuse to assent to its negation. These two positions also differ in that agnosticism entails certain highly skeptical beliefs about the limits of human knowledge concerning matters of the divine, while weak atheism makes no claims either way about such epistemological issues.

My definition of ‘Atheism’

On the basis of the above analysis, my personal preferred usage of the term ‘atheism’ simpliciter, is to refer to the lack of a belief in God, irrespective of what beliefs may be held about the plausibility of the claim “God does not exist”, or broader philosophical questions about knowability. Therefore, so say that someone is an atheist, in my preferred usage of the term, is merely to assert that they refuse to assent to the proposition “God exists”, without saying anything else whatever about them or their views.

I acknowledge, of course, that this is not the only way the term ‘atheism’ is used. Many people, including many atheists, use it to refer to people who explicitly endorse the proposition “God does not exist”. I think this is a valid usage of the term, however it is not my preferred usage because I believe it can contribute to conceptual confusion. I also acknowledge that agnostics will probably not agree with my preferred usage of ‘atheism’, as it means that essentially all agnostics are atheists. I would say, however, that whenever possible it is best to clarify with the more specific terms ‘strong atheism’, ‘weak atheism’, and ‘agnostic’, all of which (in my conception) fall under the broad umbrella of ‘atheism’, as making these distinctions can alleviate much of the confusion that otherwise tends to beset these sorts of discussions. I think this is also a helpful classification, since many non-believers (myself included) are often happy to refer to themselves either as agnostics or as atheists. My preferred usage thus allows for a single generic term to refer to all such people (‘atheists’), along with more specific terms to differentiate with some greater precision what precisely they believe.

Defending ‘Weak Atheism’

As I noted above, there is a certain class of people who believe that ‘atheism’ can correctly only refer to those who explicitly endorse the claim “God does not exist”. They may argue that any alternative conceptions of atheism are invalid ‘redefinitions’ and not what atheism ‘really means’. Let me say first and foremost that I do not believe there is any fact of the matter concerning what the ‘real meaning’ or ‘true definition’ of a word is. All we can talk about, in my view, are the following: 1) the origins of a term and how it was originally used, 2) how it is commonly used today, and 3) how we think it ought to be used so as to promote conceptual clarity and ease of communication.

I have already outlined my argument as to why I believe conceptual clarity is best achieved by my preferred usage of the term ‘atheist’, as this allows for a clear generic term as well as more specific labels of more subtle positions. As to common usage, I refer readers first to essentially any online discussion about the meaning of atheism, where the usage of atheism in both ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ senses will be readily apparent, and secondly to the excellent wikipedia page on the subject, which links to a number of quotes from various authorities exhibiting both forms of usage.

Regarding the historical usage of the term, the word ‘atheist’ was originally used as essentially an insult – it did not have any particularly clear meaning other than being a term of derision. Karen Armstrong writes that:

“During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word ‘atheist’ was still reserved exclusively for polemic … The term ‘atheist’ was an insult. Nobody would have dreamed of calling himself an atheist.”

One of the very first such self-professed atheists, a French philosopher by the name of Baron d’Holbach, famously stated “all children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God”. This is, to me, a very clear endorsement of a form of weak atheism, as clearly children, having no idea of God, cannot form the belief that he does not exist. I believe that this clearly demonstrates that my ‘weak’ understanding of atheism is an old view that traces back to the very first modern professed atheists. It is not a ‘redefinition’.

It is interesting to note that, while the first publicly declared, self-professed atheists in the modern period appeared during the 18th century, agnosticism is a much more recent concept. Although there are antecedents to the idea (as there always are to any idea), the term itself was coined by English biologist Thomas Huxley in 1869. He said:

“Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle … Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

This, I believe, supports my contention that agnosticism is actually a more ‘substantive’ position than atheism understood in the ‘weaker’ sense that d’Holbach uses, which refers merely to a lack of belief in God.

Default Positions

A brief note on the idea of a ‘default position’. To be blunt, I have very little interest in this notion. If ‘default position’ is taken to mean something like ‘the position held in the absence of knowing anything about the question’, then I agree with d’Holbach: young children are not ‘agnostic’ by Huxley’s understanding; they are atheists (simpliciter) by my understanding of the term. That said, some theists believe that all children are born with some knowledge or understanding of God’s existence and goodness, and so if God does exist, it may be the case that theism is actually the ‘default’ position in this sense. Personally, I care very little about what is the ‘default position’, since literlaly no one comes to discussions of religion from any sort of ‘default position’. What I am interested in is the question of who bears a burden of proof and for what sort of claims, and I do not think that the notion of ‘default position’ is necessary in order to answer this question.

Burdens of Proof

Having outlined at some length my preferred understanding of the term ‘atheism’, I will now briefly return to the original question I posed, which was whether or not atheism needs to be justified or supported as a position. Some argue that atheism is just as much an affirmative position as theism, and that therefore both bear essentially equal burdens of proof. The ‘default position’, on this view, and the only one to avoid any burden of proof, is agnosticism, which makes no claims either way.

In accordance with my typology given above, I disagree with this analysis. In my view, ‘strong atheism’ does bear an equal burden of proof to ‘theism’, as both make ontological claims of essentially equal strength with respect to God. Perhaps surprisingly, agnosticism too also bears some (though arguably less) burden of proof – not with respect to disbelief in the existence of God, but with respect to the positive claims agnostics tend to make concerning the inability of human reason or evidence to arrive at justified beliefs on the matter either way. Even weak atheism, I think, can bear a burden of proof, although only insomuch as weak atheists ‘lean towards’ accepting the claim “God does not exist” do they bear a burden of proof for demonstrating the basis of the greater credence given to this position (the burden is, of course, greater as their stated degree of confidence, or ‘leaning’, is increased).

As I have defined it, however, ‘atheism’ simpliciter, the generic term referring to mere refusal to accede to the proposition that “God exists”, does not bear any burden of proof, for it makes no positive claims about anything. In fact, often I do not think it greatly matters if a person calls themselves an atheist or an agnostic – if all they are asserting is that they lack belief in the existence of God, and are saying nothing about God’s non-existence, or relative likelihood thereof, or about the unknowability of the answer to this question, then they are not making any substantive claim, and so bear no burden of proof.

Conclusion

Given my analysis, I do not believe that an atheist, in the sense that I have defined the term, need give any positive justification for their mere refusal to assent to the proposition “God exists”. They need only provide responses to whatever reasons or evidences are advanced in favour of this proposition (as this is necessary in order to justify rejecting the claim), but they need not provide any arguments of their own in favour of the proposition “God does not exist”, as being an atheist (in my usage of the word) does not entail holding any particular belief concerning this proposition. Of course, many atheists do advance particular beliefs concerning the non-existence of God, either concerning its impossibility, or improbability, or even its unknowability. In my view, whenever atheists step beyond the very narrow bounds of merely denying belief in God, and make further claims concerning his non-existence, then they also bear a burden of proof for such claims.

A Meaning to Life without God?

Synopsis

In this piece I consider the question of whether life can have meaning in an atheistic universe (i.e. if God did not exist). I first consider a common theistic notion, according to which the meaning of life consists in the purpose or reason for which life exists. I argue that under this definition, life probably cannot have any true meaning without God, as there would be no reason for which life exists. I then proceed to contrast this theistic notion of meaning with some possible alternative naturalistic conceptions of the meaning of life. I argue that, although life probably does not have any intrinsic, mind-independent meaning in a naturalistic universe, nevertheless we can construct a cogent (albeit vague) inter-subjective understanding of the meaning of life. I therefore outline a notion of the meaning of life along these such, according to which an action or lifestyle is meaningful to the degree that those affected by the action or lifestyle hold it in a certain sort of ‘positive regard’, where this notion of ‘positive regard’ is a vague and loose conglomeration of many inter-related concepts and notions, but loosely corresponds to a form of quasi-nostalgic approval and believe that the action or life has been enriching in some way. I then consider some potential objections to this view, including that inter-subjective meaning of this sort is not ‘real meaning’ but is merely ‘made up’, and also the idea that any such atheistic conception of meaning is necessarily undermined by the eventual end of humanity and heat death of the universe. I close the essay with some reflective thoughts on nihilism and the challenge it can pose for us all at different times.

Theistic Conceptions of Meaning

There is no agreement among philosophers as to what is meant when we ask the question “what is the meaning of life?”. That said, let us consider the following working definition which I believe many (though of course not all) theists would be broadly happy to endorse:

(1.0) The meaning of (human) life is the reason or purpose for which humanity exists or was created.

Theists, as I understand it, would generally say that humans were created for the purpose of serving, glorifying, relating to, and obeying god, and as such these things are the (ultimate) meaning or purposes of life.

Under an atheistic worldview, of course, humanity was not created, but came into existence without the influence of any external agent (this is usually described as ‘by chance’ or ‘by accident’, though I think that words like ‘chance’ and ‘accident’ are somewhat vague in this context, so I will stick with ‘without the intervention of any external agent’). The question we then ask is: can there be any purpose or reason for which humanity exists, in the absence of any creator God (or other similar agent)?

To answer this question, we need to determine what is meant by the ‘reason for which humanity exists’. Suppose we interpret this phrase as follows:

(1.1) X constitutes a reason for which humanity exists iff X is some motivation or justification, in the absence of which humanity would not exist.

So, for example, if we take X to be “God’s desire for humans to enter into relationship with him” (theists who object to attributing desires to God can read this in the same analogical way in which they presumably read such attributions in their respective holy books), then we may say that absent this desire, God would not have created humanity, and therefore we would not exist. Thus, God’s desire is in a direct sense a necessary and intentional prerequisite for our existence, and therefore underpins the meaning of our lives.

Understood in this way, our question “does life have any meaning if there is no God?” becomes the following:

(1.2) If there is no God, does there exist some motivation or justification, in the absence of which humanity would not exist?

It seems to me that the answer to this question is fairly clearly ‘no’. Certainly there will be various physical causes in the absence of which humanity would not exist, however mere causes, in this analysis, are insufficient to imbue purpose. What is needed is some motivation or justification, and in the absence of any external agent influencing the process, there seems no possible way this could exist (absent sufficiently powerful aliens, but for our purposes here I will simply call that a variation of God).

I therefore conclude that, if we conceive of the meaning of life as the reason for which humanity exists, and if we interpret the reason for which humanity exists as the motivation or justification absent which humanity would not exist, then life has no meaning.

Naturalistic Conceptions of Meaning

As a naturalist, however, I do not accept (1.0) as being the only possible conception of what is meant by ‘the meaning of life’. In particular, I deny the premise that the meaning of life need bear any relation at all to the reason for which humanity was created or came into being. I believe that, at least potentially, meaning could be determined by the present nature and properties of human beings and they way they relate to one another, without any explicit reference to the reasons for which we came into being. Perhaps when we look for such meaning none will be found, but my point is that I don’t think we can rule it out definitionally by simply asserting that meaning necessarily related to purposes of creation. Some theists may reject this as being ‘not real meaning’, in which case I have nothing to say other than we differ on our understandings and usage of the word ‘meaning’.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says the following:
“Within the analytic philosophical community, the disinterest in the question of life’s meaning, and in some cases outright logical suspicion, is likely partly a result of the question’s inherent lack of clarity and partly a result of the suspicion that it is a request for which no answer exists because it is built on suspect assumptions about what would have to be the case in order for life to have a meaning. Indeed, it is not immediately clear what is being requested in asking the question of life’s meaning, nor is it clear that life could have such a meaning, given latent assumptions often accompanying the asking of the question.”

I tend to agree with this analysis. I believe that when people speak of ‘the meaning of life’, they have in their minds a fairly amorphous and often confused set of overlapping and intermingling ideas, connotations, and conceptions, which can often differ considerably from person to person. This, when different people consider the question of the meaning of life, they are in effect pondering different questions, as each person conceives of what the question is asking, and what a potential answer could look like, differently.

As such, I lean towards endorsing the Amalgam Thesis, according to which ‘the meaning of life’ is really a constellation of related questions, including ‘what is the purpose of life’, ‘what makes life valuable’, ‘what makes life worth living’, and ‘what does a good life look like’. As such, it is unlikely that the question will admit a single clear answer. This viewpoint informs my later analysis, and I think justifies a certain degree of imprecision and vagueness in answering what is, after all, a very imprecise and vague question.

Objectivist Naturalism

One proposed naturalistic basis for the meaning of life could be outlined as follows, which can broadly be described as ‘objectivism’, can be outlined as follows:

(2.0) The meaning of life is some natural property of the world external to humanity which exists independently of whatever human beings may believe

I know of no way to determine whether this statement is true or false. I do not know how it would be possible to look at the world and determine the existence of some meaning-giving natural property, but nor do I know of any argument by which we could rule out such a thing categorically (some may argue along the lines that mere facts about nature cannot imply any facts about meaning, however absent any justification for this assertion I consider it to be question-begging).

That said, I tend to think that this proposition is false, as I think it unlikely that such natural properties exist. I acknowledge that I do not have especially strong justifications for this belief, other than my fairly insubstantial sense that it is hard to imagine what such natural properties would look like, or how we could find out about them (though of course proponents of this view argue that we already do know what they look like and have considerable knowledge of them). Theists will probably not agree that strong justifications for this belief are lacking, however I maintain that the burden of proof falls on those making that claim that ‘meaning-giving natural properties of the world do not exist’ to justify how they can know this, and I believe that is quite difficult to do.

Inter-Subjective Naturalism

Having rejected this form of objective, naturalistic meaning of life, what is left? My views on the subject are quite uncertain and in flux, and I do not have a fully articulated or clearly worked out theory. However, I do have some thoughts on the matter, which I will outline below.

I tend to think that ‘meaning’ cannot exist absent some agent making an evaluation, and as such I do not think there are any facts about what outcomes or activities are meaningful ‘in themselves’. That said, I do think that there are ways of living which are relatively more meaningful than other ways of living. I think that this ‘meaningfulness’ consists not in any meaning imbued by an external agent (e.g. God), nor do I think it consists in certain outcomes or actions having meaning or purpose ‘in themselves’. Rather, I think that actions and lifestyles can attain meaning as a result of the impact they have on ourselves, and also other people. Importantly, these other people may be those living in the distant future, and so need not be people we will ever know personally or interact with directly. Thus, we have our first rough definition:

(2.1) An action or lifestyles is meaningful to the degree that those affected by the action or lifestyle hold it in a certain sort of ‘positive regard’

Exactly what sort of ‘positive regard’ this is I cannot say, precisely because this notion of the ‘meaning of life’ is so vague and difficult to pin down. That said, I can paint a broad picture of the sorts of actions that I am talking about, which includes helping others, striving for and achieving excellence in various fields, making scientific discoveries, producing great works of art, exploration, building and sustaining deep positive relationships with others, and many other such things. To me, meaningful activities are not merely those which produce pleasure or spark our interest in the moment, but those which we tend to hold in a certain sort of quasi-nostalgic positive regard when reminiscing about later on. This means, of course, that we may not be able to determine how meaningful something is at the time it occurs. Indeed, perhaps we will never know, as we have no way of nothing what impact our actions will have on others, now or in the future.

I do not think this idea should seem especially strange or unfamiliar. Most people, I think, can recall occasions when, after spending some time doing something, one looks back on this and thinks to oneself ‘that was just a total waste of time’. This need not, I wish to emphasise, necessarily have anything to do with said activity being ‘productive’ as we typically understand the word to mean. For example, if I spend a few hours playing marginally entertaining online games as a way of procrastinating for something else I should be doing, I might feel bad about this not only because I didn’t get done whatever I was supposed to, but also because this simply wasn’t a ‘meaningful’ use of my time: it neither enriched me as a person, nor did it enrich anybody else. It did not add to my flourishing as a human being, or help anyone else. It did nothing to contribute to the development of me as a person, or humanity as a group. As such, I am not likely to remember it with particularly fond or positive feelings. On the other hand, if (for example) I invited some friends around and we had a great afternoon playing exactly the same online games, I might look back on this as a very meaningful and enriching activity, as a result of the bonds of friendships strengthened and relationships built. Thus, I do not think that it is the inherent nature of the activity itself which determines whether it is meaningful or not; rather I believe it is the context in which we engage in the activity, and the attitudes which we and others have towards it afterwards, which will depend in part on the long-term effect the activity had on our flourishing as human beings (even if we may not consciously think of it in such terms)

I might also say, to avoid potential objections, that these attitudes with which the meaningfulness of an action or life is judged, should be properly informed and reflective attitudes. For example, perhaps I think that spending months learning a new musical instrument was a complete waste of time and not at all meaningful. But perhaps I am just in a bad mood when making this judgement, or perhaps I don’t actually realise the subtle positive effects this has had on me, which I would consider meaningful if I knew about them. Or to give another example, a person suffering from an episode of depression may not think that anything they have ever done is meaningful, even though when they are functioning more normally they would not hold this view at all. Thus, I adjust slightly my rough definition:

(2.2) An action or mode of living is meaningful to the degree those affected by the action or mode of living would hold it in a certain sort of ‘positive regard’ if they were considering the matter with access to all relevant information and in an appropriately uncompromised mental state.

Broadly speaking, therefore, I would say that my conception of meaning in life is ‘inter-subjective’, meaning that on the one hand it is determined by the subjective reactions of human beings (rather than some external mind-independent fact about the universe, or by some external agent), but on the other hand it is not purely subjective to each individual. Thus, even if a pure hedonist (for example) claimed that their lifestyle was meaningful to them, (and it is not clear to me that this would necessarily be true, because perhaps they merely crave more of the same sorts of pleasures, rather than being enriched and holding in positive regard the actual experiences they have had in the past), but even if this were the case, I would still say that their lifestyle was probably not particularly meaningful, because (presumably) few if any other people would similarly hold their life in comparable positive regard, as this sort of life is (in general) fundamentally selfish, and does not enrich other people or humanity as a whole.

Objectivity, Reason, and Meaning

One major line of theist attack on such an inter-subjective conception of the meaning is that it is not ‘real meaning’ – it is merely something that we have ‘made up’. In response to this, I would say two things. Firstly, this conception of the meaning of life is not subjectivist in the sense that it depends only upon the beliefs of the person in question. That is, I have not said that each person determines their own meaning in life, or decides for themselves based on their own totally arbitrary personal criteria whether or not their lives are meaningful. Rather, I have said that I think that the meaningfulness of a life is determined by facts about the sort of regard we and others hold that life in, when reflecting on it from an appropriately informed and sound mental state.

Meaning is thus subjective in that it is dependent upon the reactive attitudes of human beings (which is not something I think should come as a surprise given that meaning is generally understood to be an emotive and cognitive phenomenon), but that does not mean that it is totally arbitrary or just ‘made up’. The way we react to things and the attitudes we hold towards them are determined by very fundamental components of who we are as people. We can, of course, alter such attitudes through introspection and practise, but I do not think it is the case that they can (generally) be frivolously changed at whim. As such, I fail to see the force in the objection that such meaning is ‘just subjective’ or ‘made up’.

On a related note, many people seem to have an intuition that the meaning of life must, in some way, be derivable from reason alone if it is to count as ‘real meaning’. In other words, meaning cannot ‘merely’ be based on our reaction to things – there must be some factual, propositional content to it beyond that. I, however, question why this need be the case. Why is meaning derived from the nature of the world by reason to be preferred over one that is based on people’s inter-subjective sense of what is meaningful and important? Is it because we feel that we need this to be the case in order to convince others to agree with us about what is meaningful? This seems like poor justification, as even on many questions that are clearly matters of objective fact, there is still immense disagreement and inability to convince. Is it because we feel that the ultimate source of meaning needs to come from some transcendent force or power or agent in order to be ‘real’? But why should this be the case? If certain actions and mods of living enrich our lives in such a way that we hold them in a certain sort of positive regard (i.e. they are meaningful to us and others), then why is that source of meaning somehow less ‘real’ simply because it does not derive from a transcendent source?

Indeed, many theists already believe that reason alone is insufficient to lead one to submit one’s life to God – there also is some scope for a choice, or the work of the spirit, or ‘something’ else. However we describe this ‘something else’, theists are typically already comfortable with the idea that decisions about what ultimately matters, or what ultimately to commit oneself to, are not based purely on reasoning about facts, but that other considerations and motivations can be relevant too. Of course, the nature of these ‘other considerations and motivations’ is not identical in the cases of believing in God and deciding what we think the meaning of life is, but my point is only to highlight that there seems to be a similarity in ‘going beyond pure reason’ in both cases. As such, if the theist is willing to accept non-rational (or what I tend to think of ‘pre-rational’) motivations in one case, then what bases do they have for ruling such motivations as inferior or lacking in another case? If one can justifiably choose to follow God partly on the basis of reasoning, but also partly on the basis of one’s inner convictions and sense of what is right and good and true, then why cannot one similarly justifiably pursue what one believes to be meaningful for a similar collation of reasons?

The Temporal Question

Another line of criticism levelled against naturalistic conceptions of meaning argues that they fail to adequately address what I will call ‘the temporal question’, the fact that we will all die and, ultimately, the Earth and everything else that we know and care about will eventually cease to exist (e.g. through the heat death of the universe).

William Lane Craig outlines this view in the following quote:

“The universe is doomed to die anyway. In the end it makes no difference whether the universe ever existed or not. Therefore, it is without ultimate significance. The same is true of the human race. Mankind is a doomed race in a dying universe. Because the human race will eventually cease to exist, it makes no ultimate difference whether it ever did exist. Mankind is thus no more significant than a swarm of mosquitos or a barnyard of pigs, for their end is all the same. The same blind cosmic process that coughed them up in the first place will eventually swallow them all again.”

In response to these criticisms, I would ask what basis there is for the belief that the final end state of the universe is of unique (or even primary) importance in determining the value or meaning of our lives? I see no reason why the fact that something will eventually cease to be implies that it cannot have any meaning or value for the time while it does exist.

The Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy article on this subject includes a quote which aptly expresses my views on this matter:

“Critics of these strong and weak futility claims counter by calling into question what can be called the-arbitrary-privileging-of-the-future. They ask, “Why should the end state of affairs be given such veto power over the worth and meaning of the here and now?”… why give the future priority over the present and the past? If life is meaningful now, how can the fact that it will cease to exist make it less meaningful now? And, if life is not meaningful now, how could its un-ending continuation confer meaningfulness to it? Critics of such futility claims argue that the most plausible way to appraise the meaningfulness and worth of life here and now, is by adopting the here and now perspective, not the distant, detached perspective of some indifferent future of a universe in ruins.”

I cannot deny, however, that the fact of ‘ultimate cosmic ruin’ does resonate strongly with many people as being a strong argument against the notion that life has any ultimate meaning. Perhaps that is what some people believe ‘the meaning of life’ is – being able to make some ultimate difference to the final end state of the universe. If this is the definition we adopt, then I agree that in an atheistic universe life has no ultimate meaning. However, I see no reason to accept this very particular conception of what it is for life to have meaning.

In particular, I would ask people how, exactly, the eventual heat death of the universe in any way takes away from the meaningfulness of great acts of courage or kindness, deep and meaningful relationships one forges with friends and family, the awe inspiring beauty of nature and some of mankind’s greatest accomplishments in art and science. I think these things (and many others) are meaningful precisely because they have great emotional and cognitive significance to us here and now, and in many cases will continue to hold great meaning for generations to come. We may wish that such things could last forever – perhaps if they did, they would be even more meaningful. But why should we suppose that their eventual extinction undermines their meaning completely? Why does the temporality of our existence, our finite extension along the dimension of time, somehow undo or negate the positive attitudes and reactions that hold towards such things for that duration of time for which we do exist?

The Ugly Head of Nihilism

In my experience, it is often very difficult to remember, through times of pain and other trials, what we think the meaning or purpose of our lives to be. I think this is a problem for people of all philosophies and worldviews; Kierkegaard, for example, talked at length about the absurdity of the world, and though he believed that God acted as an ultimate source of meaning and a source of comfort against such absurdity, nonetheless he acknowledged and explored the ongoing difficulties in living in this mad world of ours.

Though I am often tempted by nihilism, and often it can seem to me that life as no meaning or purpose (or at least that my life has no meaning or purpose), ultimately I do not think that the justifications given for nihilism are particularly compelling. I believe that life does have meaning, even when it often seems like it does not. I believe that we can make sense of the meaning of life in an atheistic universe. This is not to say, of course, that God could not serve as a crucial serve of meaning if he does in fact exist – indeed, to many he clearly serves as a source of meaning regardless of whether he exists or not. It is, however, to say that we do not need God for our lives to have meaning. For this we need only ourselves, and perhaps also a few good friends.