May 5, 2009

Is Christian Terry Eagleton the New PZ Myers?

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, Personal Experiences, Worldview tagged , , , , , , at 10:23 am by Andrew

One response by religious people to the rise of the so-called “New Atheist” movement has been to wade into the trenches and ratchet up apologetic arguments in an effort to convince the wavering that religion is at least as well-supported as atheism. Evaluating those arguments is the bread and butter of this site.

But, as Stanley Fish reminds us in his review of Terry Eagleton’s new book, Reason, Faith and Revolution, the religious can take a different approach as well:

When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” [Terry] Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: “[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.

Oddly, this reminds me of PZ Myers’ off-the-cuff remark — played to ominous music in the schlock propaganda film, Expelled, of course — that he would like to see religion reduced to the role of knitting in American society:

If only PZ had said “ballet” instead of “knitting” — perhaps we would have been spared that awful movie. 🙂

Seriously, though: both PZ and Eagleton are essentially advocating for the same thing, even if neither of them realize it. When religion is thought of as a personal preference, those who hold it and those who don’t occupy roughly the same social and political space; nobody thinks that you need to appreciate knitting or enjoy the ballet to hold elective office in this country, for example. Thus, the more we see theists move to Eagleton’s position, the more we atheists are accepted in the social, political and cultural mainstream. And that’s primarily what even the most vocal “New Atheists” (like PZ Myers) want.

May 2, 2009

A Mormon on “Why I Like Atheists”

Posted in Atheism, Personal Experiences tagged , , , at 9:28 am by Andrew

Self-described “crazy Mormon liberal” Marshall has written a post explaining why he likes atheists.

In light of our ongoing discussion on this issue, I think the most interesting bit is this:

3. Atheists are moral

Truly moral decisions are not the result of the memorization of codes and laws. True morals require a person to explore issues deeply, examine the difference between right and wrong, and make reasoned decisions about which paths to pursue. Without a belief in God or religion, most atheists I know have taken the responsibility to think through important issues and situations on their own. The end result is that most atheists are highly moral people. The danger with religion is when its laws and creeds are accepted prematurely or applied inappropriately.

May 1, 2009

How to Give an Atheist Eulogy

Posted in Atheism, Personal Experiences tagged , , , at 11:50 am by Andrew

One of the interesting challenges about being an atheist in a culture that is suffused with Christian heritage is how to handle moments where common courtesy typically calls for a religious-y sentiment. On the one hand, you don’t want to be a hypocrite and mumble something that you don’t believe; on the other hand, those situations aren’t typically about you, and it’s awfully self-centered to start a religious debate at, say, someone else’s funeral.

Now, I don’t know anything about the religious beliefs of one of my favorite sportswriters, Joe Posnanski — I always sort of assume that American writers with undisclosed religious beliefs are generically Christian — but when I read his eulogy for a former co-worker, it struck me that this is exactly the model for how we atheists can pay our respects to those with whom we profoundly disagree.

April 27, 2009

“Evangelical” Atheism (or: Hey, Steve, You’re Not Helping!)

Posted in Atheism, Personal Experiences, Science, The Universe, Worldview tagged , , , , , , , , at 11:55 am by Andrew

Okay, this one is a real head-scratcher. A self-help guru (“Steve Pavlina,” not that I’ve ever heard of him) has posted his personal guide, “How to Graduate From Christianity.”

Ugh. Hey, Steve: you’re not helping! After the jump, I tackle Steve’s misguided notions of “graduating” from Christianity and defend my own vision of “evangelical” atheism.
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April 17, 2009

My Response to Jessica Thomas

Posted in Atheism, Personal Experiences, The Bible tagged , , , at 10:46 am by Andrew

Christian Science Fiction fan (and author?) Jessica Thomas, in the comments to a previous post, references a post she made elsewhere that responds to my basic question as to why God doesn’t prohibit slavery in the Bible, as well as makes some original points. I think it’s worth reproducing here and responding.
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March 18, 2009

Whose Miracle?

Posted in Atheism, Personal Experiences tagged , at 10:04 am by Andrew

Over at Evangelical Realism (a great site), Deacon Duncan poses a great question to theists that seems a propos of the recent elf-discussions here:

[A] guy is suddenly decapitated and lies dead on the ground, and an hour later his head magically re-attaches itself to his neck, all his wounds are healed, his spilled blood is replenished, and he walks away unharmed. This time, however, a whole crowd of people shows up to pray for him. Some Catholics are there praying to various saints. The Buddhist monk is there praying to Buddha. Muslims show up and pray to Allah. Mormons show up and pray to a polytheistic Jesus. Pentecostals show up and pray to the Holy Spirit. Asians show up praying to their ancestors. There’s even a few neo-pagans praying to various members of the old pantheons.

Now, the guy gets up and walks away, and each of the pray-ers want to claim their God or god or saint or spirit is responsible. Which of them has a reasonable basis for claiming that it was their deity/entity, and no one else’s, that worked the miracle?

So far, no theists have replied. So, to my Christian readers: what do you think? Do you have a reasonable basis for claiming that it was God, Jesus, the saints or the Holy Spirit (depending on your denomination of Christianity) that worked the miracle?  More importantly:  how would you disprove the identical claims of followers of other faiths?

February 10, 2009

Subjective Personal Experiences

Posted in Atheism, Personal Experiences tagged , , , , , at 1:51 pm by Andrew

1. Subjective Personal Experiences Do Not Justify An Objective Belief in God.

This post summarizes the first set of answers to potential objections to my Summary Case for Atheism, in which some Christians have contended that personal revelatory experiences provide sufficient direct evidence for belief in God. My ongoing, in-depth treatment of this issue is hyperlinked to the right and can be found here.

As a threshold matter, when one person claims to have had a direct, revelatory experience of God, that claim is direct evidence only for that person. From my perspective, it is hearsay. I can’t evaluate your experience; all I can do is evaluate the fact that you’ve claimed to have such an experience.

Now, I have no doubt that religious believers who claim to have experienced God in some subjective or visionary way are, on the whole, generally sincere about those claims. But those claims are, of course, not restricted to Christians. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus – people of every religion claim such subjective experiences, and they can’t all be true.

One particularly compelling counterexample comes from Mormons, who believe that seekers should pray about the Book of Mormon to see if they receive a “burning in the bosom” – a subjective verification – that it is true. Here’s how an evangelical Christian apologist evaluates that argument:

What we must understand is that Latter-day Saints (LDS) believe these things for the same reason that people everywhere believe the things they do: they want to believe them. … This should come as no surprise to evangelicals who have read the Apostle Paul’s revelation of the roots of human idolatry in the first chapter of Romans. Fallen humans have affections and inclinations that they then prop up with beliefs, convincing themselves that their systems are true.

Another evangelical is a bit more direct:

Remember also that Paul never asked any potential converts to pray about his message. What he taught was found in the Scriptures and they could verify it and join the group of wise people, if they would repent and submissively place their faith in Jesus Christ to follow him. See Acts 17:11,12 cf. Acts 20:21; etc. … Yes, the devil can duplicate peace. That is what he does in transcendental meditation (TM) and also in Catholicism after one receives the Eucharist. The devil uses these and other experiences to deceive.

Thus, Christians themselves concede that personal, subjective experiences – particularly of the kind promoted by Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the like – are insufficient to warrant a belief in God! When someone claims to have been visited by God, it is more reasonable to believe that that person is sincerely mistaken, engaged in wish-fulfillment, and so on.

In the most extreme cases, we think people who hear divine voices are suffering from paranoid delusions. Consider the sad case of Andrea Yates, who (apparently) sincerely believed that she heard the voice of God commanding her to drown her five children. On face, her case isn’t any different from what Abraham claimed to have heard directly from God in Genesis 22:1-10. Why, then, does virtually every Christian have no difficulty concluding that Ms. Yates was insane?

I submit that whatever our “worldview” — in day to day life, we are called upon to evaluate claims like this from a variety of religious, spiritual, and other sources. Uniformly, we reject these sorts of experiences, standing alone, as being sufficient justification for the truths of the beliefs asserted in those experiences. For these – and for the other reasons discussed on the in-depth “Subjective Experiences” page, I conclude that this first set of arguments is insufficient to warrant belief in God.