Review of John Dickson’s ‘A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible’

In A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, John Dickson seeks to provide ‘a sense of the whole biblical narrative and of the theology that emerges from it’ in a manner accessible to non-believers. An ambitious task for such a slim volume, Dickson nevertheless succeeds admirably in providing a solid, clear overview of the core themes of the bible. Shaping each chapter around a key biblical figure or event (Creation, Abraham, Moses, David, etc), he provides a tightly structured and very readable survey of how the entire bible ‘hangs together’ according to a Christian interpretive framework.

Notwithstanding the virtues of this book, there are several occasions when Dickson makes claims which I feel distracted from the book’s key message, and potentially reduce the author’s credibility with a skeptical audience. Of particular concern was Dickson’s apparent inconsistency in appealing to the authority of the ‘scholarly mainstream’ regarding the bible. Though he mentions this notion a number of times with reference to the life of Jesus, elsewhere he asserts the traditional authorship of all four gospels and also all thirteen epistles of Paul, views which I doubt can reasonably be defended as consistent with the ‘historical mainstream’. Furthermore, elsewhere he argues that the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, unlike any other ancient ‘national histories’, describe their kings in a very negative light, speaking as if said books had all been commissioned by Israel’s kings and written at the time of the events they narrate – as opposed to centuries later, as most scholars believe.

Dickson also makes a number of problematic claims concerning other religions. For instance, he states that salvation through grace is a concept unique to Christianity, neglecting to mention the immensely important role that Kripa (divine grace) plays in Bhakti Hinduism, or the emphasis of grace within Islam, with one of the names of God being Ar-Rahman, meaning ‘the gracious’. Elsewhere Dickson states that besides Jesus ‘no other figure from ancient history’ has sufficient evidence to corroborate a miraculous healing ministry, a claim which left me wondering how Dickson could possibly have investigated every claimed miracle-worker from ancient history to judge the quality of the evidence. Dickson also describes it as ‘unthinkable’ and ‘miraculous’ that Christianity could ‘conquer an empire with little more than words and acts of kindness’, seemingly ignoring the fact that the same could be said for Buddhism in China and Islam in Indonesia.

Various other offhanded remarks and sloppy arguments are likely to frustrate skeptical readers. When discussing creation, for example, Dickson makes the ambiguous statement that ‘the modern evolutionary story is probably not even good science’, before proceeding to admit ‘I don’t know enough about this subject to pontificate about such things’ (so why mention it at all?). Later he makes the bold assertion that ‘an evolutionary worldview…will lead to relativism, because there are no absolute values’, totally disregarding the centuries of philosophical work on secular ethics. Particularly unfortunate and unnecessary is his comparison of Nietzsche’s views on Christianity with those of Adolf Hitler, and his dismissive retort that atheists concerned about biblical atrocities should stop ‘simply mining the text for stories to complain about’.

Despite its shortcomings, Dickson’s book is short, highly readable, and informative. Non-Christian readers who can overlook the occasional dubious claims and poorly-executed excurses into apologetics will profit greatly from this concise elucidation of how Christians understand the bible.

 

The Wisdom of Christianity and the Foolishness of Atheism: What Atheists Consistently get Wrong

Introduction

I recently attended a public discussion called “How do You Know”, in which atheist Peter Boghossian engaged in dialogue with Christian Richard Shumack concerning various matters of religion and epistemology. This piece is written in part as a response to that event, though I will also draw upon and refer to the numerous other interactions I have observed between Atheists and Christians, and commonalities I have observed therein. It is necessary to clarify right at the outset that the title of this piece is shamelessly adapted from Richard Shumack’s book The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity, and that in speaking of ‘Atheism’ and ‘Christianity’ in this way I do not intend to make sweeping generalisations about such diverse bodies of thought. So please do not read ‘atheists’ to mean “all atheists”. Rather, I am talking about general tendencies that I personally have observed, whereby many atheists often to make certain types of arguments and rebuttals which I believe are unsound and poorly researched. Needless to say, many Christians do this as well, however what I want to focus on in this piece are instances, far more common than I think many atheists would like to admit, when the arguments or rebuttals made by atheists are of far lower quality than the Christian arguments they are directed against.

Atheists and Scientism

“The worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t” – Lawrence Krauss

“My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, “What are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?”” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

“Almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead… philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics” – Stephen Hawking

There is a very prominent strand of atheist thought which, with varying degrees of accuracy, can be described as ‘scientistic’, advancing the view that scientific processes are the only reliable or justifiable methods for arriving at knowledge of the world. Peter Boghossian made remarks to this effect numerous times, repeatedly arguing that scientific methods are the way to truth, and that looking at objective evidence is the only truly reliable way to form beliefs.

I have some sympathy with this line of argument. Those who have been around for a while will know that I have advocated arguments along similar lines before. However, I have lately backed away from at least some of the more extreme, less cautious forms of such ‘scientism’, since I don’t believe it to be philosophically defensible. Schumack said during the event “New Atheists believe in scientism but philosophers don’t”, and in essence I agree with this statement. There are numerous deep philosophical problems with the idea that scientific methods are the only valid ones, or that we can determine what is true by ‘looking at the evidence’ in the relatively straightforward way that Boghossian seems to imply, or that we can dispense with philosophical analysis in addressing these sorts of questions. Below I will give just a few illustrative examples of such problems, which atheists typically do not address and seem generally unconcerned with:

  1. Evidence: what is evidence? What is it about certain events or experiences that make them evidence for something else? Unsurprisingly, this is a hotly disputed philosophical question which science seems to lack the tools to address by itself. Particularly relevant philosophical problems include the theory dependence of observation (in brief, that it is not possible to interpret any empirical evidence absent some pre-existing theoretical framework), and the underdetermination of theory by observation (namely that there are always a large range of potential explanations equally consistent with any observations). These and other similar questions in epistemology or philosophy of science are essential to grapple with if one is to defend a robust ‘evidence-based’ epistemological methodology, however atheists very seldom address these issues at all.
  2. Explanation: we know that science explains things, but what exactly is an ‘explanation‘? What properties distinguish good explanations from bad ones? There is little agreement about them among philosophers, and no clear way of answering the question within the bounds of what is generally thought of as ‘science’. We may also ask what is it about theistic or supernatural explanations which makes them so inferior to those provided by science in all circumstances? Boghossian said at one point that even if Jesus appeared to him in front of a large crowd of witnesses he would still not be convinced (I have made similar statements), because he could not rule out alternate explanations such as aliens. The question is, on what basis should we conclude (as he implied, and others have explicitly stated) that an alien intervention constitutes a better explanation, or is more likely, than a supernatural one? Unless we assume a priori that supernatural explanations are inherently implausible, it seems difficult to justify this assertion, at least not without a great deal more analysis and clarification of relevant concepts than atheists typically provide.
  3. Probability: Boghossian mentioned a number of times ‘the likelihood that one will have true beliefs” (which is language very similar to that which I have been known to use). There are, however, several different interpretations of probability which entail different interpretations of the meaning of probabilistic statements such as those being made by Boghossian, and little agreement about which of them is ‘correct’ or when different conceptions may be most applicable. Again, it is difficult to see how such disputes can be resolved within science itself, without recourse to philosophical analysis.
  4. Semantics: a fairly common critique of philosophy is that it concerns itself predominantly with endless and largely pointless debates about the meaning of words. Neil deGrasse Tyson expresses this view in part in his quote above, and Boghossian hinted at some similar notions at various times in his presentation. The problem with such critiques is that we absolutely cannot get around debating about the meaning of words. Consider this statement: ‘philosophy is not very useful for learning about the world; science is much better suited for finding truth’. Is this statement (or others similar to it) a statement that is the product of scientific, or of philosophical reasoning? To me it seems very much the latter and not the former, in which case the  strong anti-philosophical views expressed by certain atheists are self-undermining – they are making philosophical claims in the act of denouncing philosophy. If we do need to do philosophy in order to consider a question like ‘is scientific reasoning a paramount method for finding truth?’, first and foremost we need to consider what is meant by the word ‘science‘. Likewise when analysing concepts like ‘evidence‘, ‘reason‘, and ‘explanation’, we have no recourse but to discuss the meanings of these words and the concepts they attempt to describe. Maybe we could say ‘don’t use such confusing words then, just say more precisely what you mean’. But what is it they we mean exactly? What words could we use in place of ‘explanation’ or ‘reason’ to be more precise? To answer that question we need to know what is meant by these words, which is precisely the question we were hoping to avoid. Hopefully the point I am getting at is clear: atheists absolutely need to do philosophy, and that necessarily involves debating about the meaning of words. Complaining about this is foolish and results not in replacing philosophy with its much better cousin science, but instead in replacing some philosophy with other, bad forms of philosophy.

Atheists and Jesus

“I have no idea about whether Jesus was a real historical figure” – Peter Boghissian

“It is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all… although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history” – Richard Dawkins

In the past I have been quite vocal in criticising Christians about their lack of engagement with what I consider to be essential aspects, questions, and issues pertinent to the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Here I want to shift the direction of such criticism, and emphasise some points that I have made before (and indeed strengthen them to a degree), with regard to the lack of engagement on these points by most atheists. In particular, it seems from my experience that if Christians are perhaps generally not as informed about historicity questions as I think they should be, atheists are in general at least ten times worse. Only a very small number of atheists appear to have any knowledge or interest in such matters at all, and even many who do seem to use what knowledge they have as a drunk uses a lamp post – for support rather than illumination (I didn’t invent this lovely turn of phrase, like basically all my ideas it was shamelessly stolen).

Here I want to focus on addressing some of the common falsehoods, misconceptions, and irrelevancies that I hear from many atheists, a number of which were raised by Boghossian or by various audience members during question time.

Outright False Claims

  1. Jesus probably never existed: though I feel somewhat uncomfortable with the language of some Christian apologists responding to this who have used phrases like “historically certain” (I don’t think anything is certain, in ancient history least of all), nevertheless I am in agreement with the thrust of this response, namely that to reject the existence of the historical person of Jesus is to reject the overwhelming majority of scholarly work on the matter, secular and sacred alike. We do not have totally unequivocal evidence beyond all conceivable doubt of any sort that Jesus existed, but to deny the historicity of Jesus is to reject the consensus of relevant experts to a similar degree as do climate change deniers and other proponents of pseudoscientific theories. I don’t think Jesus mythicism is quite as bad as Young Earth Creationism, but the difference in terms of the solidity of scholarly consensus is mostly a matter of degree rather than of kind. Expressing scorn at one for being ignorant of relevant scholarly whilst simultaneously embracing the other is, in my mind, deeply problematic.
  2. The bible is all fairytales and is not a historical document: this statement goes too far even for the Old Testament, and most certainly for the New Testament. Certainly many scholars have raised questions about the historicity of particular details of the New Testament accounts, for example the miracles and the birth narratives, but to say that the NT has no historical content or value is once again to completely reject the consensus of relevant scholars. Atheists who do this arbitrarily treat the NT documents differently to essentially all other ancient documents, which are likewise written by biased (in the sense of not being totally disinterested in their subject matter or the reactions of readers) persons who held views that today we would likely regard as dubious. Unless an atheist likewise wishes to mostly or entirely reject essentially all ancient documents, it is unjustifiable for them to refuse to consider the historical evidence of the NT on the basis of such considerations.
  3. The bible has been translated and re-translated several times: Boghossian didn’t claim this, but it is something that I occasionally hear atheists say. The claim is false – current English translations are compiled by large teams of scholars working from documents written in the original ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. Such translations and the documents from which they are derived are not beyond criticism on certain points, but nevertheless one cannot say that the bible has suffered from multiple rounds of translation. (Note: this was true of the very earliest English bibles, which I believe were translated from the Latin Vulgate, in turn translated from the Greek, but this is no longer the case with modern translations).
  4. The story of Jesus bears many similarities to other mythical Gods: it is true that the story of Jesus bears some similarities to claims about other deities. In particular, ideas of a virgin birth and of a ‘dying and rising god’ are found in other mythologies of the ancient world. But the many lists of alleged similarities one finds posted in various online forums are for the most part inaccurate: some of the similarities are invented, others exaggerated, and in all cases differences are ignored (readers can research the details at their own leisure, I won’t get into them here). Furthermore, even if such similarities pertained, I cannot recall ever having heard an atheist present a clear explanation as to what could be inferred from this fact. At least to me, the notion that corrupted divine revelations pertinent to Jesus could have become entrenched in the mythology of various ancient peoples would explain such similarities quite as well as the notion that they were the product of careful copying by the authors of the New Testament.

Irrelevancies and Distractions

  1. The NT accounts were written decades after the events they describe: most (though not all) Christian arguments for the historicity of the resurrection hinge on the claim that people like Peter and Paul claimed to have seem the risen Jesus (alone and in groups), and were later harshly persecuted for their beliefs. That personal acquaintances of Jesus (which Paul wasn’t but Peter and the other apostles were) made such claims is widely accepted by relevant scholars, and therefore is problematic for atheists to deny (see also above about Jesus never existing). If this crucial fact is accepted, then it is largely or entirely beside the point how long after the event the gospels were written, because the key historical detail they contain pertinent to the matter has already been admitted. If the atheist wishes to argue that the gospels were written so long after the event that even this central fact is unreliable, then they are going against the consensus of scholarship.
  2. There are contradictions and inaccuracies in the NT: along with (I think, though I haven’t seen survey data) the majority of scholars, I agree that there are events recorded in the NT which are very unlikely to be historical and which are both seemingly internally contradictory and at odds with extra-biblical evidence (the birth narratives being my favourite example, the genealogies being another). Some Christians won’t agree with me on those points, but that’s irrelevant here. The key point is, what I think about these passages, and indeed what other scholars think about them, is not essentially relevant to most of the arguments that Christians make concerning the evidence for the resurrection. It doesn’t matter that the birth accounts are problematic. The evidence, so the argument goes, rests on the eyewitness testimony provided by the apostles and others and recorded (perhaps not first handed but recorded nonetheless) in the New Testament.
  3. There are many other competing miracle claims: this is not completely irrelevant (and indeed I have written quite extensively on the issue of comparative miracle claims), however it is not sufficient for an atheist to merely cite the existence of competing miracle claims in other religions, as the existence of false miracles does not preclude the existence of genuine ones (though it may well alter relevant probabilities concerning our belief that the miracle is genuine). As with anything, the details of a claim, including the evidence available and the potential presence of competing non-miraculous explanations, need to be examined and compared to those of competing claims. I have been critical of Christians for making relatively little effort to do this, but in my experience atheists tend to be equally disinterested in such an endeavour, which is perhaps even more problematic given that atheists tend to spend more time talking (at least in general terms) about ‘other miracle claims’.

Conclusions

My purpose in writing this piece is not to point fingers or imply that atheists are stupid or ignorant (though undoubtedly some are). My purpose is rather to promote better, more carefully considered dialogue between Christians and Atheists, where all persons take the time to think carefully through their own arguments and those of their opponents. Atheists typically pride themselves on being rational and basing their beliefs on evidence, but very often I have found they are far less consistent in applying these ideals to questions of religion and philosophy than they should be – not that I am perfect myself, but I think we can all try harder. Making arguments which are grossly dismissive of the scholarly work on relevant matters, as unfortunately atheists often do, is not helpful in moving forward dialogue on these very important matters. It is also not consistent with an unyielding and impartial (or as near as we can make it) search for the truth, wherever such a search will lead us. This is the search I am on, and I warmly invite all others, Christian and Atheist alike, to join me.

The Question of Christianity: A Personal Manifesto

Synopsis

In this article I outline the general framework of my overarching approach to the question of whether I should become a Christian. Beginning with William James’ observations that the decision regarding whether to adopt Christianity is both momentous and forced, I acknowledge that Christianity is not merely an intellectual exercise nor necessarily something we decide upon purely by our own volition. Nonetheless I conclude that the question of whether Christianity is in fact true is still paramount, and proceed to examine how one might go about determining the answer to this question. In doing so, I discuss the need to consider arguments for relative plausibility rather than certainty, and outline my view about the importance of basing our beliefs on reasons and evidences that are reliably truth-tracking. I then apply this framework to four major types of arguments advanced in support of Christianity: philosophical arguments for God’s existence, arguments based on the bible, experiential evidences, and the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, in each case discussing how compelling I find the arguments, and why I ultimately find them to be insufficient. I then briefly consider three arguments which I believe mitigate against the truth of Christianity, namely the problem of evil, religious confusion, and evils done in the name of Christianity. I conclude with some reflections on the importance of the question and a plea for more sustained dialogue.

Background and Methodology

Momentous and Forced Options

Most fundamentally, the question I seek to answer is not ‘is Christianity true?’ More important to me is the even broader question ‘should I live as a Christian?’ The second question is related to the first, but the two are not synonymous. In particular, the question as to how one should live one’s life is much deeper and richer than merely a question concerning what is true. It depends not only on questions of facts about existence, but also on one’s values and on a certain element of personal choice as to what one wishes to commit oneself to. It also depends upon the set of plausible alternative life paths that are available, and their relative strengths and weaknesses.

To take a fairly trivial example just to illustrate the point, if Buddhism is true (read ‘the claims made by Buddhism about suffering, reincarnation, nirvana, etc’) and I don’t become a Buddhist, my journey toward enlightenment will be that much slower, but I will still have another chance in another life. This is not the case for Christianity or for Atheism, and as such, the cost of being wrong about Christianity is greater (at least by this analysis) than the cost of being wrong about Buddhism. This is similar to William James’ idea about how ‘momentous’ a decision is: choosing not to live as a Christian is a more momentous decision than choosing not to live as a Buddhist.

The decision to live my life as a Christian is thus what William James calls a “momentous” one: it has weighty consequences. It is also what he calls a ‘forced option’, meaning that I cannot decide to merely sit on the fence and wait until I have more evidence available. Like the decision to get on a train or to get married, there is no middle position available: either I live as a Christian or I do not. I may decide to postpone serious thinking about the question until later, but then I have already made the decision (at least for the moment) to not live as a Christian. I thus find myself forced to choose one path or the other. I can switch paths at any time, but at any given time I am always on one path or the other. (Note that I don’t wish to imply that living as an atheist and living as a Christian are totally distinct paths that always diverge, nonetheless they clearly diverge in enough ways for me to speak of them constituting different paths.)

The Key Questions

So how can I decide whether or not I should live as a Christian? For me there are three main subsidiary questions that I need to address in order to arrive at an answer:

  1. What is the probability that Christianity is true? By ‘Christianity being true’ I mean that ‘Jesus really was the son of God who died and was raised for our sins, etc’.
  2. Is living as a Christian a morally good life? This is where I raise concerns such as being able to trust that God is good given apparent biblical atrocities, etc.
  3. What are the costs of living as a Christian? Here I don’t mean things like ‘won’t get to sleep in on Sundays as often’, I mean more substantive things like giving up other goals and priorities.

Currently I am most interested in answering 1, as I think this is the most important and most difficult of the three. As such, the rest of this essay will be concerned with this question. I may address 2 and 3 in a future piece.

What Role for the Holy Spirit?

Christians generally believe that becoming a Christian is not primarily/not only/not at all (depending on their theological dispositions) something one chooses for oneself. They generally believe that it is something that happens through the grace and intervention of God and the Holy Spirit. I do not wish to dispute this, only to highlight that this point seems to me to be not particularly relevant to my enquiry here. Should I just wait until the moment when God decides to make himself known to me in a way that I will accept, ‘road to Damascus’ style? Whatever the exact role God may or may not play in the process, I still need to decide how to live, and I need to go about answering this question in the best way I can. I can’t control what (if anything) God decides to do for me, and so I find it useful just to speak as if converting to Christianity were something entirely up to my own volition, even if, theologically-speaking, many Christians would not agree with this. Thus, I’m using this language as a shorthand so that I can avoid making this qualification every time.

The Need to Consider Plausibility

How can I decide how likely it is that Christianity is true? In considering this question, it is important to understand what I mean when I talk of probability or plausibility. The fact of the matter is not probabilistic – either Christianity is true or it isn’t. But since I don’t know what the fact of the matter is, the question becomes one of how confident I can be given the evidence that is available. That is, how strongly does the evidence support the contention that Christianity is true over alternate possibilities? I think it absurd to say that it is impossible that Christianity is true, and likewise absurd to say that it is impossible that it is false. Maybe one quarter of both my atheist and Christian readers alike will now find themselves disagreeing, but so be it – I feel quite confident in claiming that neither extreme can be justified. Having ruled out certainty in either direction, I am left in the uncomfortable middle position of having to weigh up relative plausibility. This is no easy task, and so we are led back to our initial question – how can it be done?

Evidence and Truth-Tracking

It is my view that there is only one useful way (meaning ‘a way that actually helps us to achieve our object’) to go about answering this question, and that is by utilising what I (very broadly) call “reason and evidence“. Although there are always more subtleties and complexities than can be gone into at any one time, for now I’ll define “reason and evidence” as being those things that help us, with some better than chance degree of reliability, to ‘track the truth’ of propositions in some relevant subject domain. This notion of truth-tracking is subtle, but extremely important. Informally (I can present a more formal analysis another time for those desiring of more rigour), something is truth-tracking if the presence or existence of that thing tends to go along with, or be indicative of, the truth of certain propositions in a particular domain.

Consider the simple example of tossing a coin. My looking at the coin and seeing which side it landed on (in general) reliably tracks the truth as to what side it actually landed on. If I close my eyes and make a random guess, this does not reliably track the truth of what side it actually landed on. If I was incredibly tired and removed my glasses, my looking at the coin would probably less reliably track the truth as to what side it actually landed on, but would probably still be better than random guessing. Thus truth-tracking is an inherently probabilistic notion, always a matter of degree.

To take a more relevant example, suppose I find an argument for God’s existence which, upon consideration, I find to be quite compelling. Rather than merely assuming that because the argument seems compelling to me, that therefore the conclusion is likely to be true, I ought to ask myself ‘how reliably truth-tracking is the process of people like me analysing such arguments about God’s existence?’ The answer is, in general, that this process is not very reliably truth-tracking at all, as so many intelligent and honest people come to such different conclusions despite going through essentially the same process. I am therefore very wary of any argument which relies on me (or any other lone person) coming to a conclusion on the basis of their own analysis when there exists substantial disagreement on that question among epistemic peers (a consideration which, it should be noted, makes me at least somewhat less confident about nearly everything I say in this piece).

It is often difficult to determine how reliably truth-tracking any given type of argument or mode of reasoning is. However, difficulty in making such a determination does not entail that the concept has no value. It seems that we can say with reasonable confidence that beliefs based on widespread scientific consensus are quite reliably truth-tracking, those based on consensus of historians are somewhat less reliable but still fairly good, arguments that appeal to careful philosophical investigations are quite unreliable but probably still better than naïve unreflective opinion, while convictions based on subjective personal experience are often very unreliable at tracking truth. I wish to emphasise that this does not constitute an adoption of some form of scientism. Subjective personal experience can often be a reliable truth tracker (e.g. how hot is it today?), but I don’t think it very reliably truth-tracking for questions of the sort ‘how likely is Christianity to be true?’. For our purposes here, therefore, I believe it is accurate to say that scientific sorts of evidence are much more reliably truth-tracking than personal experiential evidence.

Needless to say, if I knew what the truth was, I would just believe that, and then I wouldn’t need to worry about all this nonsense about plausibilities and truth tracking. But since I don’t know of any place where true beliefs rain from the sky or grow on trees ready for the picking (that is, there is no easy way to just get straight to true beliefs without mediating processes), I must resort to the next best thing – finding methods that track truth and apply them as best as I can. This won’t guarantee that I hold true beliefs in the end, but given that I don’t know what the truth actually is, this method gives me better chances than any other.

Starting Points: Atheism and Agnosticism

Having established some basis for how I will conduct my analysis, I will now say a few words concerning my starting point. Of course, this is really only a hypothetical starting point, for in practise we all start from wherever we happen to be at the moment, bringing all our personal experience, knowledge, biases, and quirks with us. Nonetheless, I think it can be helpful to consider such a hypothetical starting point as a way of framing one’s thinking. Understood in this manner, therefore, I start from a position that I call atheistic agnosticism. Let me explain each of these terms.

I start from a position of atheism, because I believe that absent a reason to believe something, the proper default position is not to believe it. Crucially, this is not the same as saying that one disbelieves it. Consider “there are an even number of hairs on my head at this moment”. I do not believe this proposition, for I have no reason to. That does not, however, mean that I affirm its converse, “that there are an even number of hairs”, which would be equally unjustified. In this sense I am agnostic: I do not know. I begin the enquiry about Christianity, therefore, as an atheist in the sense that I do not affirm the proposition ‘God exists’, and an agnostic in that I do not have any particular reason to prefer atheism over theism.

I believe that in order to shift from this position of agnosticism and move my confidence in one direction or the other, it is necessary to have, as I say, ‘reasons and evidence’. Remember that by this I just mean things that help me to reliably track the truth of whatever proposition I’m examining. Thus, saying ‘I need a reason to change my beliefs’ is, for me, tantamount to saying: ‘I will only alter my best guess about what is true away from the initial agnostic position because of some factor which I have reason to believe will reliably improve my best guess about what is true’. So I’m not looking for reason or evidence that feels compelling to me, or that helps me to convince others, or that (by some other standard) grants sufficient epistemic ‘warrant’ or ‘justification’ to my belief. I am looking for things that will help me track the truth, so that I can increase the chances that my belief will be accurate, given that I start out from a situation of not knowing what the truth is.

Four Types of Arguments for Christianity

Having laid out this rather extensive groundwork, I will now fairly briefly consider four broad classes of reasons that I have heard offered in support of increasing one’s credence in the truth of Christianity. I find some of these arguments more compelling than others, in the sense that some of them cause me to raise the plausibility I assign to the truth of Christianity more than others, but ultimately none of them cause me to increase my credence by enough to push me above some fuzzy but nonetheless real threshold beyond which I would be willing to affirm the truth of Christianity. For each type of argument, I will briefly explain why I find it lacking.

Philosophical Arguments for the existence of God

This includes the cosmological argument, ontological argument, teleological argument, etc. Philosophers are not the experts on God’s existence, but they are expert on the question of evaluating the strength of philosophical arguments. As such, I regard the collective opinion of professional philosophers to be more reliably truth-tracking than my own personal attempts to evaluable these arguments. Since philosophers are a state of fairly considerable peer disagreement concerning the strength of philosophical arguments for God’s existence, some being persuaded by them, while others are not, I find it hard to accept that the strength of the argument s is sufficiently strong either way for me to reliably make a large update to my opinion in either direction.

On balance, I do think that arguments such as the cosmological argument and the fine-tuning argument constitute some reason for increasing my credence in the proposition that God exists, however because of the immense disagreement surrounding them (and also the many unknowns to which such arguments necessarily appeal, such as knowledge about the nature of time, causation, and possible alternate laws of physics), the amount by which my credence is increased is not large.

Arguments based on the Bible

This category includes arguments based on the power, majesty, coherence, transforming influence, beauty (etc) of the bible. Such arguments are, I think, even weaker than philosophical arguments, in the sense that the fact that one may find a particular holy text to be very powerful, transforming, coherent, etc, is clearly not a very reliable tracker of whether that text is actually true. All one need do is examine what Mormons say of the Book of Mormon, Muslims of the Koran, Buddhists of the Pali Canon, Hindus of the Upanishads, Sikhs of the Guru Granth Sahib, and many other such examples, to see that this method of arriving at beliefs about religious texts is exceptionally unreliable. Most people who read a religious text and find it to be compelling nonetheless are not followers of the correct religion (whichever religion that turns out to be).

Even worse, there are no real criteria on which to judge these sorts of properties. Philosophical arguments are often difficult to judge objectively, but at least there are some clear and agreed upon standards for doing so. In the case of comparing holy texts I would say there are none at all, and that all judgements made concerning the beauty, coherence, and power of such texts are fundamentally little more than subjective reactions which are not truth-tracking in the slightest. Muslims say the Koran is without comparison among any book written by man. Christians say it isn’t. Who is to judge? I know of no criteria on which this can be decided (note that I’m not talking about criteria for historicity. I’m talking about beauty, coherence, power, etc). In the end, I simply find no good reason (again, read ‘truth tracking reason’) to shift my belief in response to considerations such as these.

Subjective and Experiential Reasons

Subjective, experiential, personal reasons for believing in Christianity are not reliable trackers of truth, for essentially the same reasons noted above. Namely, such reasons are clearly not truth-tracking given the immense amount of religious disagreement. Millions of people from dozens of religions around the world and throughout history have reported all sorts of spiritual, supernatural, personal, mystical, divine experiences which have been immensely formative and persuasive for them, and on which they believe their own particular religious beliefs can be justified. Given that such experiences are so diverse and contradictory, however, it is clear that this is not a reliably truth-tracking process for forming beliefs about any particular properties of the divine. Some people think that these are all different manifestations of the same underlying God or spirit, but Christians (generally) do not believe this. Christians believe that they have correct beliefs about God and other religious have incorrect or less correct beliefs. If we are to determine the truth of this claim, we must seek out evidence beyond from subjective religious experiences, for these equally well support essentially all other religious claims. I think subjective religious or spiritual experiences can have value in helping one to stay committed and motivated in one’s chosen faith, but not in providing evidence (in the sense I understand it) that the path one has chosen is the correct one.

Historical Evidence for the Resurrection

The historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is, in my view, by far the strongest piece of evidence in favour of the truth of Christianity. Nevertheless, after a great deal of thought and consideration, while I do find that it constitutes a reason for thinking Christianity more probable, I do not think it provides sufficient evidence to overcome the countervailing factors I discuss below. I outline my thinking on this point in detail in my HBS model of the resurrection appearances. In very brief terms, I believe that human psychology and sociology is more than capable of explaining what took place with Jesus’ followers after his death, and that no reference to supernatural interventions is warranted or necessary to explain the way events unfolded.

Three Arguments Against Christianity

I will now, again very briefly, outline some considerations that lead me to think that Christianity is relatively less likely to be true. These reasons are not definitive, but I do think they hold some value as being somewhat reliable in helping me to arrive at true beliefs.

The problem of evil/suffering

I believe that the existence of the immense quantity of apparently pointless suffering in the world is less likely in a universe governed by an all-powerful and all-good God as posited by Christianity. It is true that such a God may have reasons or constraints unknown to us that explain the continued existence of such evils, however I do not believe I have any reason to believe that such reasons or constraints exist. Merely stating this as a possibility does not change the fact that, given what we do know, the amount of suffering that exists in the world and lack of any evident reason for much of it is more consistent with a universe that is not governed by a Christian God than in a universe that is. As such, I believe this constitutes a reason to lower my credence in the truth of Christianity by some non-trivial (though not enormous) amount.

The Problem of Religious Confusion

This problem mirrors concerns raised above about religious disagreement and diversity. It seems to me that the Christian proposition that God wants all mankind to enter into a relationship with him is less consistent with the immense plurality of religions and of apparently genuine religious piety and experience, than the proposition that religion is an invention of man (or also the proposition that God is indifferent to which religion we follow). Again, there may exist reasons why God allows so much apparent religious confusion and competing revelations, etc, however as noted above, the mere possibility of their existence does not alter the fact that we do not know of any such reasons, and yet we do know that religious confusion exists, and seems to conflict with a Christian God’s desire to relate to all of mankind. As such, I consider the problem of religious confusion/divine hiddenness to be a reason to lower my credence in the truth of Christianity. Again, not by an enormous amount, but by an amount that is not insignificant.

Evils done in the name of Christianity

This includes such things as Old Testament atrocities allegedly commanded by God, misogynistic teachings of parts of the Bible and many churches historically, events such as the crusades and inquisitions, Christian homophobic teachings and doctrines, and other such things. None of these are definitive, and indeed I probably regard them as weaker than the previous two concerns, however I do feel that they mitigate somewhat against the plausibility of Christianity, so I include them here.

Conclusions

The brief analyses of the various arguments I have provided above will no doubt be unsatisfying to many readers. They are intended more as summaries of my thinking and as starting points for further discussion, rather than as comprehensive or definitive accounts. All in all, after considering the arguments, I am left in a position of thinking that the reasons advanced for increasing my credence in the truth of Christianity are outweighed by the reasons to reduce my credence, and so are insufficient for me to be willing to affirm the truth of Christianity. (Note, however, that I am less confident about my ‘reasons against’ than I am that the provided ‘reasons for’ are insufficient).

Returning to my original question, I find that the probability that Christianity is true given the truth-tracking reasons I have available is too low for me to feel like becoming a Christian is the best decision for my life. This is where I currently stand, acknowledging a great deal of uncertainty and ignorance on my part. I am constantly searching for additional reasons, new considerations, and previously unconsidered evidences that may lead me to change my mind. Indeed, I think I have good reason to expect to find at least some such reasons and evidences, as I have changed my mind about such things several times in the past. My opinion is therefore provisional and subject to change as I learn and think more. That said, I will not change my beliefs without reasons of the sort I have described. I want to believe truth things and live my life accordingly, and truth-tracking reasons (or something very much like them, even if I choose to abandon that particular mode of description) are the best way I know of achieving this, given the state of ignorance in which I begin.

I would hope others would join me in this quest for truth, and that we can aid each other in pursuing our end with firm resolve, not wavering, without fear for what false beliefs we may need to give up, or new true ones we may need to adopt. This journey is not easy. We must not get complacent because of the comfort of a waystation we find along the way. As long as ignorance remains – and for us humans it always does – the journey must go on. We must not be satisfied with anything less than beliefs that are as true as we can reasonably make them. For questions as important as those we consider here, nothing less will do.

Should I Worship an Evil God?

Synopsis

In this piece I argue that it is possible for God to exist but be unworthy of our worship (or at least of my worship). I discuss what traits I believe a God would not to exhibit in order for me to desire to worship him, and then defend my views against the charge that I am being arrogant in placing my own views of goodness above those of God. I conclude with some reflections on why this issue is important.

Could God be Unworthy of Worship?

Suppose that I came to believe in the existence of an all-powerful God who created us, and who reveals himself to mankind by various means, such as scripture or experiences of the divine. My question is, should I worship such a God? By ‘worship’, I mean (something like) devoting my life to that being, showing them admiration, reverence, paying thanks, granting praise, etc.

My answer to this question is ‘it depends’. Specifically, it depends on whether said being is a good God. By this I do not mean ‘does this being declare themselves to be good?’ (for sinners also do the same), but rather ‘do they satisfy what I believe are the standards of goodness?’ My standard of goodness for God would be something like ‘exhibiting a deep love and concern for all sentient beings, and doing everything within its power to promote the ultimate welfare of such beings’. According to some Christians I have spoken with or read, particularly those coming from a reformed tradition, God does not exhibit such qualities. They say things to the effect that mankind has rebelled against God and rejected him, and as such God no longer has any obligations to them. God is righteously angered (some may substitute a different word here which expresses a very similar meaning) towards mankind because of this rebellion. As such, God chooses to enter into a renewed relationship with some people (‘saving’ them), but not with others. That is his prerogative and perfectly just, as no one is deserving of such treatment at all, so there is no basis on which anyone can complain or claim unjust treatment for not receiving it.

If God is like this, then I do not judge God to be good by my criteria. I couldn’t care in the slightest whether or not God has a moral (or really any sort of) obligation towards mankind, nor could I care less if mankind rejected God seventy times, or even seventy times seven. To do good is, I believe, to strive to promote the ultimate wellbeing of others, regardless of whether or not they have treated you nicely or fairly or justly. If God is not doing this, if he is doing any less than his utmost to promote the wellbeing of mankind, if he is picking and choosing whom to save (or whatever word one cares to use) on the basis of some arbitrary whim and then justifying this on the basis that he has no ‘obligation’ to anyone because they all rejected him, then I call that God nasty, petty, callous, and uncaring. I will not devote my life to such a God, shout hosanna to them, or express unqualified rapturous gratitude to them. I will use what is left of my life to do what I can to help others, and then after I die I will face the eternal conscious torment that at least some Christians believe such a God has justly prepared for me. I’d rather suffer in hell than undeservedly worship the creator of such a horrific place in the obsequious hope of avoiding being sent there.

Am I Being Arrogant?

Is it not exceptionally arrogant (a word I henceforth use to mean ‘too stubborn and overconfident in one’s beliefs’) to declare that God must adhere to my standards of goodness and morality, especially given that I have assented to the proposition that such a being is our creator and is immensely powerful and knowledgeable? I don’t think so. Why should it be the case that because God is our all-powerful all-knowing creator, that therefore he must be good and worthy of worship? What justification is there for such a belief? To me it seems totally without basis, and indeed stands in direct contradiction with our overwhelming evidence that power and intelligence do not in any way imply goodness or virtue. God could be all knowing and all powerful, but just not care very much (or at all) about the welfare of his creation. If that is what God is like, then why should I devote my life to him? Why should I worship him? I’m totally serious about this – I can’t understand how anyone would want to worship such a being, even if they believed very strongly that he existed. Maybe I’m missing something, maybe I’m looking at this all the wrong way, but currently I feel no desire whatever to worship a being of this sort, nor can I see any reason as to why I should have such a desire – again, even if I strongly believed he existed.

Many Christians speak of how they came to a firm conviction that God exists by sensing his actions in their life, or by reading the bible, or by considering various other arguments and evidences, or by some combination of these methods. Whatever its genesis, making such an emphatic and strong claim is, in my view, profoundly arrogant. If someone thinks that God has revealed himself to them in some personal or experiential way, they believe not only that God has chosen to reveal himself to them when so many others do not receive such divine favour, but also that they have been able to correctly understand and interpret God’s intended message while so many others are deceived or mislead by their spiritual experiences. Similarly, if someone believes that they have come to a correct understanding of God through careful study and analysis of the arguments, then they believe that they have managed to see the evidence clearly and correctly where so many other learned and intelligent people have failed (including both non-theists and adherents of other religions).

Either way, or in the case of a mixture of the two methods, a Christian who claims strong confidence in their beliefs is, I think, making an exceptionally arrogant claim. (Note: I am not saying that Christians are arrogant. I am saying rather that Christians who claim such high confidence are exhibiting arrogance in making this particular claim. I have argued this point in more detail here.) This doesn’t make the claim false, but I think it is grossly inconsistent for a Christian to state that they have seen past all the potential confusions of human psychology, false spirits, bad arguments, and all the rest, and have been able to accurately grasp some of the most profound and deepest truths of human existence, whilst simultaneously criticising as arrogant my claim, which I regard to be the relevantly innocuous, that I have no reason to worship a God who does not care deeply and supremely about the welfare of all sentient beings and do all within his power to help them.

Many Christians speak of how the positive influence of God in their lives is a factor that strengthens their faith. And yet, when I express my negative reactions to certain Christian beliefs about God’s nature, I am accused of being irrational and allowing emotions to cloud my judgement. Not only does this seem to me to be grossly inconsistent, but it also misunderstands the nature of my claim. I am not claiming that the truth of God’s nature or existence is in any way affected by my moral reaction to it (which I think is totally different from ’emotion’, but let’s leave that for the moment). Rather, I am claiming that my moral reaction to God’s nature is relevant to my decision about whether to devote my life to worship of said God. Given that often Christians will speak of how their reading about or contemplation of God leads them to see how amazingly good and worthy of worship he is, I hardly see it as consistent to then criticise me for expressing my reservations about devoting myself to God on the basis that when I read about or contemplate certain teachings about his nature, I am led to see how morally inadequate and unworthy of worship he is (at least according to these particular understandings of God).

Conclusion

I am not claiming here that God is unworthy of worship, or that the Christian God is an evil God. I am not even saying that the God as understood by the particular reformed perspective to which I react so negatively is necessarily ‘evil’. What I am saying is that if certain beliefs about the nature of God are correct, then I see no reason to worship or unreservedly praise such a being. This is important, because it means that if I were to adopt Christianity or another other religion, I would need to be persuaded not only of the existence of whatever divine being the religion believes in, but also of the desirability and rightness of worshipping such a being. I need to be persuaded both that God exists, and that God is good. Either alone is insufficient.

Weighing up the Arguments For and Against Christianity

Synopsis

In this piece I outline an approach to weighing up the degree of evidence in favour of Christianity with the degree of evidence against it. I discuss this approach in analogical terms as similar considering how much load (arguments against) can be borne by the legs of a table (arguments for), in order to support justified belief in a proposition (the table, or in this case belief in Christianity). Having outlined this framework, I then proceed to list the fourteen key pieces of evidence which I think are relevant, and whether I think they provide evidence for or against Christianity. I conclude by offering some personal reflections on my subjective sense as to how these different evidences balance out against each other.

Specifying the Question

Suppose that we agree to the following set of propositions:

  1. A creator God exists
  2. This God is omnipotent and omniscient
  3. This God desires to communicate his divine will to all mankind and aid everyone in entering into a willing relationship with him

Subject to minor rewording of 3 to rectify various possible quibbles, when I use the word ‘God’ henceforth in this piece, I mean a God that satisfies 1-3.

These three propositions, as I take it, represent approximately the limits of what the many philosophical arguments for the existence of God can establish (e.g. the cosmological argument, the moral argument, the teleological argument, the ontological argument, the transcendental argument, etc). What I aim to do here is presuppose the success of such arguments in establishing 1-3, and then consider the question as to which of the world’s revealed religions are genuine instances of divine communication with humanity which preserve (to a reasonable level of accuracy) divine teachings and intentions. In particular, I wish to consider (multi-part) proposition:

4. The life of Jesus of Nazareth (and the events surrounding it) was the supreme method by which God has revealed himself to humanity, and the teachings of Christianity accurately indicate God’s will for mankind.

Although not its strict logical negation, for our purposes here I wish to consider its counterpart as:

4′. Christianity is not uniquely divinely inspired (either not at all, or at least no more than many other religions), but instead developed over historical time as a result of the shifting and often   conflicting ideas, motivations, and opinions of many different individuals (i.e. like Christians would believe other religions developed).

Henceforth, when I talk about ‘Christianity being true’ (or similar), I am referring to the truth of 4. Rather than speaking of Christianity being false, I shall instead refer to the truth of 4′. I acknowledge that 4 and 4′ are not strictly speaking negations of one another, but for our purposes here I think they serve as the most useful propositions to juxtapose.

An Analogy: Supporting Legs and Heavy Bricks

The following analogy may help readers to understand the approach I take here. Being an analogy, it is of course imperfect, but hopefully it will nonetheless still be of use.

Consider a circular table. The table is supported by many legs, each bearing some portion of its weight. The table is old and somewhat lopsided, so each leg does not necessarily support the same amount of weight as every other. On top of the table are a number of bricks, each of varying mass. The larger the combined mass of the bricks, the more likely it is that the legs will be unable to support total weight, and table the will come crashing to the floor. Conversely, the larger the combined weight the legs are able to bear, the higher will be the total mass of bricks the table will be able to support.

In this analogy, the table represents our (potential) justified belief in the truth of Christianity. Each brick represents a piece of evidence/argument/observation/fact/etc (henceforth simply ‘evidence’) which makes it more difficult to retain justified belief in Christianity; that is, the bricks are evidences against the truth of Christianity. Each leg represents a piece of evidence which supports our justified belief in Christianity. No single leg alone need bear all the weight of ‘justifying’ Christianity, but the combined weight they bear must be at least equal to the total weight of the bricks. (I don’t think it much matters if the tabletop itself is thought of as having weight or not.) The number of bricks is not important, because a single very heavy brick could be enough to bring down the table. Likewise the number of legs is not important, for a single sufficiently sturdy leg could be enough to support a very large weight.

Our first task is to examine what are the key legs supporting the table, and what are the key bricks pushing down on it. The next step is then to estimate the total weight of the bricks, and compare it to the total weight bearing capacity of the legs. The purpose in approaching the problem this way is that everyone seems to have their own intuitive sense of whether the table stands or falls, but without some way of more carefully identifying which legs support how much weight, it is very difficult (perhaps impossible) to adjudicate disagreements about the table as a whole. My aim here is to try to break the question down into smaller parts, and see whether those parts represent bricks or legs. I will not, in this piece, attempt the second step of weighing up the weight supported to the total weight of bricks.

The Technical Version: Taking Partial Derivatives

The following is a more formal account of the approach outlined in the analogy above. If you find it confusing, skip this section.

Consider a differentiable function f(e), which maps a vector of evidences e onto a real number in the interval (0,1), which number represents our degree of justification or support for 4 given 1-3. The partial derivative of f with respect to each ei represents the bearing that evidence i has on our degree of justified belief in 4. If the partial derivative is zero, the evidence is irrelevant and can be ignored. If the partial derivative is positive, the piece of evidence provides support for 4, while if it is negative it provides evidence against it.

The taking of partial derivatives is important, because in practise we do not know the functional form of f, but we may be able to determine the sign of each partial derivative, and hence the relevance of each piece of evidence considered individually. We may then attempt to heuristically estimate the plausible magnitudes of these partial derivatives, and hence arrive at a judgement concerning the overall strength of the arguments for compared to the arguments against, even in the absence of exact knowledge of the form of f.

In the following section, when I speak of a piece of evidence e1 being ‘more consistent’ with state of affairs A than state ~A, I mean something like ‘P(A|e1) > P(~A|e1)’, where P is understood to be the marginal distribution over all other evidences ei (that is, we are considering the partial effect of e1 alone on our belief).

The Evidences

The reader will note that there are eight ‘against’ arguments and only six ‘for’. No doubt that this reflects, in part, my own personal bias and limited perspective. It is important to note, however, that as I stated previously, the number of arguments is irrelevant, not least of all because whether a given ‘argument’ is split up into sub-parts or combined into a single whole is arbitrary. The important question is the relative combined ‘weight’ of the ‘bricks’ (arguments against) compared to the combined ‘weight-bearing capacity’ of the ‘legs’ (arguments for). I make no claims to answer that question in this piece – here I attempt only to outline the key arguments, and indicate which ‘direction’ I believe they point in, that is in favour of 4 or in favour of 4′.

Against (‘Bricks’)

For (‘Legs’)

SufferingGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the amount and degree of suffering in the world is more consistent with 4′ than 4, given that 4 entails that God is all good and loving.
Resurrection AppearancesGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the reports of Jesus appearing to many groups of people following his death is evidence in favour of 4.
Conversion of PaulGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the sudden and unexpected conversion of Paul is evidence in favour of 4.
The Empty TombGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the early accounts of Jesus’ tomb being found empty by women is evidence in favour of 4 over 4′.
Cognitive Biases and Social InfluencesGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the sorts of cognitive biases, memory failings, and social influences that I document in my HBS model are evidence against 4 and in favour of 4′, since by such processes beliefs in miracles and divine revelation can (at least to some degree) develop in the absence of any actual divine intervention.
Immoral CommandmentsGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the numerous immoral commandments in the bible (very harsh penalties in Law of Moses, genocidal orders, treatment of women, condoning slavery, etc) are evidence in favour of 4′ over 4, given we would expect God to reveal a fair, just moral law, but would not necessarily expect this given 4′.
Cultural BoundednessGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the fact that Judaism and later Christianity were for most of history only accessible and known to a small fraction of the world’s population is evidence against 4.
Size and Staying PowerGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the fact that Christianity is the world’s largest religion, with a significant presence across large parts of the world today, and having survived many centuries of change and disruption, is evidence in favour of 4 over 4′.
Doctrinal ConfusionsGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the significant disagreement between Christians, both historically and at present, about many important questions concerning the nature of God and of his word is more consistent with 4′ than with 4.
Subjective Religious ExperienceGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the very powerful feelings of peace, guidance, love, etc that many Christians feel with respect to God are evidence in favour of 4 over 4′.
Conflicting Religious ExperienceGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the very powerful feelings of peace, guidance, love, etc that many non-Christians feel with respect to beliefs they hold are evidence against 4.
Biblical ConfirmationsGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the archaeological and historical support for the accuracy of many aspects of the new and old testaments is evidence for 4 over 4′.
Biblical DisconfirmationsGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the conflict of certain events of the bible with archaeological and historical evidence (such as the nativity accounts and the exodus) are evidence in favour of 4′ over 4. Note: I would also include creation, the flood, the tower of babel, and numerous other events here as well, but only if they are interpreted as literal historical events. I do not think that 4 entails such beliefs, but some Christians do.
Changing DoctrinesGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the significant doctrinal changes introduced by Jesus and Paul over traditional Jewish teachings (e.g. superseding much of the Law of Moses, new ideas about hell, the atonement, altered interpretation of Messianic prophecies, etc) are more consistent with 4′ than with 4, given that 4 includes notions of God being unchangeable and consistent.

 

Irrelevant Considerations

Here I will simply list, without explanation, a number of considerations which are often raised as being potentially relevant to the question of the truth of Christianity, but which I do not believe offer particularly strong support either for 4 over 4′, or for 4′ over 4.

  • Christians doing good at present or historically
  • Christians doing evil at present or historically
  • Similarities of Christian beliefs to other religious mythology
  • The doctrine of the trinity
  • Personifications of God in the bible (e.g. speaking as if God had a physical body)
  • The religious beliefs (or absence thereof) of Hitler, Stalin, or Darwin
  • The existence or findings of science (aside from certain findings of psychology and archaeology, as outlined above)
  • The coherence or compellingness of Christian doctrinal teachings

Some Personal Reflections

I will conclude with a few brief thoughts about where I personally stand currently on weighing up the evidences. Very loosely, I tend to think that the biblical confirmations and disconfirmations roughly ‘cancel out’ (i.e. the weight added by the brick of disconfirmations is roughly the same as that supported by the confirmations). I think likewise that subjective experience is roughly cancelled out by conflicting experiences, and that cultural boundedness is roughly cancelled out by size and staying power, though in these cases I might lean towards saying that the bricks are somewhat heavier than the corresponding legs support. I think that the cognitive biases brick noticeably outweighs the resurrection appearances, empty tomb, and conversion of Paul all combined. I tend to think that suffering, immoral commandments, and doctrinal changes are problematic bricks without any sufficiently compensating load-bearing legs, though I am not especially confident about this. I also suspect that (given my bias) this list is more likely to omit some important ‘legs’ than it is likely to omit some important ‘bricks’.

Overall, I am left with a conviction that even given 1-3, Christianity is noticeably, but not overwhelmingly, more likely to be false than true. Maybe I’d put my subjective degree of belief (again, conditional on 1-3) at around 0.2, which large margins of error. Though strictly speaking outside the scope of this piece, I would accord a similar, though perhaps slightly higher, degree of belief in 1-3 themselves, for which reason I call myself an atheist. The truth of the matter is, of course, not in any way affected by my degree of belief. Nevertheless, I want to hold true beliefs and avoid falsehoods, and this article represents a summary of my recent manner of thinking about how to best achieve this goal. I hope it will be of use to others and simulate further discussion and profitable exploration of these important ideas.

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.

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.