Gutting interviews a strident atheist in the New York Times

Gary Gutting has partially redeemed himself after his recent execrable “discussion” at the New York Times’s “Opinionator” site with his Notre Dame colleague Alvin “Jeus Is a Basic Belief” Plantinga.  (More on that later; I’ve recently gotten several comments from irate readers defending Plantinga and claiming that I’m  totally unqualified to pass judgment on his silly statements because I haven’t read his books [WRONG] and am not a professional philosopher, either.)

Gutting’s sequel, however, is a nice interview with Louise Antony, described as ” a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the editor of the essay collection Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life.”  In the video interview below, Antony describes herself as an erstwhile Catholic who began to abandon her faith when she didn’t get good answers to her questions from her Catholic teachers. Plato’s Euthyphro dealt her Catholicsm the death blow. (Philosopher without Gods is only $11.40 at Amazon in paperback.)

In the interview “Arguments against God,” Antony pulls no punches, claiming that she’s an atheist because she “claims to know that God doesn’t exist.” That’s a strong statement, but by “know” she doesn’t mean she has “absolute” knowledge, but rather sees sufficient evidence to conclude that God doesn’t exist—in the same sense that she concludes there are no ghosts.

When I started the interview, Antony was so cogent that I thought, “Wow!  A new Horseman.” (I guess the correct word is “Horseperson”.) But things began to get a bit fuzzy and convoluted toward the end of the interview, so my enthusiasm was tempered a bit. Nevertheless, Antony is an articulate spokesperson for nonbelief and deserves a wider audience. I hope to see her at future secular and atheist conferences.

Here are a few of her statements from the interview:

  • L.A. “Knowledge in the real world does not entail either certainty or infallibility. When I claim to know that there is no God, I mean that the question is settled to my satisfaction. I don’t have any doubts. I don’t say that I’m agnostic, because I disagree with those who say it’s not possible to know whether or not God exists. I think it’s possible to know. And I think the balance of evidence and argument has a definite tilt.
  • G.G.[Gutting]: What sort of evidence do you have in mind?
  • L.A.: I find the “argument from evil” overwhelming — that is, I think the probability that the world we experience was designed by an omnipotent and benevolent being is a zillion times lower than that it is the product of mindless natural laws acting on mindless matter. (There are minds in the universe, but they’re all finite and material.)”

Indeed; I have never seen a satisfactory religious response to the problem of evil. When theologians (including Plantinga) tie themselves into knots over this problem, which so palpably argues against an omnipotent and beneficent God, they show clearly their a priori commitment to defending their faith—regardless of the facts against it. And that, in turn, shows that apologetics is not a search for truth, but an attempt to justify by all possible means what you want to believe in the first place. Theodicy should be an embarrassment to theology.

  • “I’m puzzled why you [Gutting] are puzzled how rational people could disagree about the existence of God. Why not ask about disagreements among theists? Jews and Muslims disagree with Christians about the divinity of Jesus; Protestants disagree with Catholics about the virginity of Mary; Protestants disagree with Protestants about predestination, infant baptism and the inerrancy of the Bible. Hindus think there are many gods while Unitarians think there is at most one. Don’t all these disagreements demand explanation too? Must a Christian Scientist say that Episcopalians are just not thinking clearly? Are you going to ask a Catholic if she thinks there are no good reasons for believing in the angel Moroni?”

Gutting, nonplussed, gives the only response he can: everyone still believes in at least “a supreme being who made and rules the world.” But that, of course, isn’t true, either. Antony takes him down:

  • “Well I’m challenging the idea that there’s one fundamental view here. Even if I could be convinced that supernatural beings exist, there’d be a whole separate issue about how many such beings there are and what those beings are like. Many theists think they’re home free with something like the argument from design: that there is empirical evidence of a purposeful design in nature. But it’s one thing to argue that the universe must be the product of some kind of intelligent agent; it’s quite something else to argue that this designer was all-knowing and omnipotent. Why is that a better hypothesis than that the designer was pretty smart but made a few mistakes? Maybe (I’m just cribbing from Hume here) there was a committee of intelligent creators, who didn’t quite agree on everything. Maybe the creator was a student god, and only got a B- on this project.”

Toward the end of the interview things go a bit downhill as Gutting and Antony discuss why anyone should care about the theism of others. To me, the answer is obvious: theism gives rise to moral and social policy that is not only inimical, but would not exist in the absence of God-belief. (Widespread opposition to abortion and gay rights, as well as the oppression of women, are part of these policies, although of course some of this would still exist in the absence of faith.)

But instead of noting that, Antony argues that theism doesn’t really matter except insofar as it’s essential to defend policy statements and their underlying morality. This leads her into this exchange, which I find unsatisfying:

  • G.G.: But doesn’t a belief in God often lead people to advocate social policies? For some people, their beliefs about God lead them to oppose gay marriage or abortion. Others’ beliefs lead them to oppose conservative economic policies. On your view, then, aren’t they required to provide a rational defense of their religious belief in the public sphere? If so, doesn’t it follow that their religious belief shouldn’t be viewed as just a personal opinion that’s nobody else’s business?

L.A.: No one needs to defend their religious beliefs to me — not unless they think that those beliefs areessential to the defense of the policy they are advocating. If the only argument for a policy is that Catholic doctrine says it’s bad, why should a policy that applies to everyone reflect that particular doctrine? “Religious freedom” means that no one’s religion gets to be the boss.

But usually, religious people who become politically active think that there are good moral reasons independent of religious doctrine, reasons that ought to persuade any person of conscience. I think — and many religious people agree with me — that the United States policy of drone attacks is morally wrong, because it’s wrong to kill innocent people for political ends. It’s the moral principle, not the existence of God, that they are appealing to.

G.G.: That makes it sounds like you don’t think it much matters whether we believe in God or not.

L.A.: Well, I do wonder about that. Why do theists care so much about belief in God? Disagreement over that question is really no more than a difference in philosophical opinion. Specifically, it’s just a disagreement about ontology — about what kinds of things exist. Why should a disagreement like that bear any moral significance? Why shouldn’t theists just look for allies among us atheists in the battles that matter — the ones concerned with justice, civil rights, peace, etc. — and forget about our differences with respect to such arcane matters as the origins of the universe?

The statement that ontology doesn’t lead to difference in morality seems naive. If you adhere to different scriptures and see different Gods who mandates different things, and think that God’s will helps define morality, then of course differences in ontology will bear moral significance.

So I don’t agree that “religious people who become politically active think that there are good moral reasons independent of religious doctrine.” Granted, they may, when pressed, not think that those moral reasons come from God, but they would, at bottom, justify their morality as what their religion teaches.

In other words, Antony fails to connect religiously-based morality with the social policy that derives from that morality, and so doesn’t appear to see the harm that derives from religion. In that sense she’s not really a New Atheist.

But she is smart and articulate, and I’m going to read her book.

You can see a three-part Vimeo interview with Antony here.

76 Comments

  1. Diana MacPherson
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    I too thought this was a good interview and Louise Anthony didn’t let Gutting get away with much.

    I hope the day is coming soon where people feel ashamed to say they hold moral views because their god told them to, just as no one would want to admit that their dog told them what to do via a ouija board (I’m referencing you former Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon MacKenzie King).

  2. francis
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    //

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      //

  3. NAY
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Dude, methinks you misread L.A.’s statement. Haven’t watched the video, but if the transcript is accurate, she is NOT saying that “ontology doesn’t lead to difference in morality”-she just doesn’t go to your favorite issues with theistic morality (oppression of women, anti-gay, anti-abortion). When she says that theists must defend their beliefs only when those beliefs are ESSENTIAL to the policy they are advocating, that it’s the only reason for their position on that issue, she’s saying “show me the evidence” because their belief in the unknowable isn’t enough. Since we’re all about evidence here, that’s a good thing. For myself, I’m glad to see support for atheism coming from a (slightly) different angle and will look up her book. Thanks for bringing it up.

    • Posted February 27, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      Concur.

      /@

    • gluonspring
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      Agreed. That’s how I read it too. It felt to me like an attempt to turn the question around on believers, to not to accept their terms of the argument that it matters vitally what your ontology is. I doubt she really is so naive to imagine that one’s ontology doesn’t affect one’s morality. I think she is trying to take the wind out of believers sails by focusing on the idea that public policy can’t be based on one’s private ontology (e.g. Catholic vs Protestant, which religious people can relate to) and in the public policy realm one has to give other reasons. I think she is correct that religious people *think* there are other good reasons for their morals, how can they not since they think they are the best possible morals from God?, and so she is appealing to that belief to say, “Leave religion to one side and make that case”.

      Of course, we all know that religious people can be both clever and deceitful about their reasons for advocating a moral stance, and that is part of the practical difficulty of her suggestion. Nevertheless, she didn’t strike me as accommodating or naive so much as trying to do something more jujitsu-like with her argument.

      But this is the only thing of hers I’ve read so I could be wrong. I was fairly impressed with the article, though.

    • eric
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      Yup. Specifically, she’s saying “show me your argument for your social policy – and if your argument doesn’t rely on your religion, I’ll judge it on its merits, not the fact that you may also have religious reasons for promoting said policy.”

      This is actually pretty consistent with the purpose prong of the lemon test. You can have a religious reason for a social policy. You just can’t have only a religious reason; there’s got to be a secular reason too.

    • Posted February 28, 2014 at 1:14 am | Permalink

      I read the article and I am under same impression, LA is not exactly as portrayed by Jerry.

      Her position is actually more defensible, because she wants to show that religionists should not force others (not just atheists but including other faith) on public policies. And the fact that most religionists are doing exactly that.

      GG is trying to pin her down on relativism of opinion among theists and atheists, and I think he failed.

      I totally agree to her idea that we can not be sure of what others think about anything (i.e. whether gods exist), and at the same time it is not totally relative.

      We may not knowing absolutely about something but we can have clear position.

      I love her words on the fact that she is not agnostic: “Because the question has been settled to my satisfaction.”

      I think this is even stronger than Dawkins 6 out of 7 version. And it is true, I felt no issues on many things, that the universe is 14By old, and that Android is better than iPhone… (clearly some issues are stronger than others.. :D )

      Then her position about others’ mind is kind of okay too. About which gods, about not-real-issues, about “profound” feeling, about justificatory reasoning, about the differences among different people. Here I might add the human differences are real dan natural, some people have all the chances, some have fews, so the differences do not always reflect on stupidity or any kind of evilry.

      And lastly about whether people need to justify what they personally believe (no need unless it is pertinent in the public policy that they advocate, which should not be partial).

      She is cogent until the end.

    • Posted February 28, 2014 at 2:16 am | Permalink

      I vaguely remember reading something about this ex-catholic lady Louise M. Antony, and sure enough I have the book she edited: Philosophers without Gods, Oxford Uni Press 2007.

      In Part One: Journeys, Section Four:For the Love of Reason, Louise Antony wrote about her upbringing as a devout catholic and into the tumultous flower-generation era as student of philosophy, that she lost her faith (among other things, I am sure .. :D ) and becoming devout atheist.

      It was strongly written, and very engaging. Comparable to Karen Armstrong’s bio … :D

      She is clearly a deep thinking atheist, and found her way out of the clutches of churches the hard way.
      I remember reading it because of the feeling after reading it, I was an ex-catholic too.

      Plus the understanding of what it is to be a person of faith, and sympathy to those who – for many reasons – can not be an atheist.
      Different kind of atheist from Prof. Coyne – but definitely a full-blooded one …

      cheers,

  4. Jeff D
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Philosophers Without Gods is indeed an excellent book; I don’t regret paying full price for the hardcover several years ago.

    IIRC, the book contains Dan Dennett’s short essay “Thank Goodness,” and many other excellent essays. Among those, I think that Simon Blackburn’s “Religion and Respect” is in the top two or three. I usually say that Blackburn coined the useful term “respect creep,” analogous to “mission creep,” as people of faith first ask non-theists for live-and-let-live tolerance, but then ratchet that up to demands for “respect,” then reverence, . . . .

  5. Posted February 27, 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    “Maybe the creator was a student god, and only got a B- on this project.”

    Wicked!

    /@

    • Kevin
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      Of all the gin joint universes, we had to get a barbarian, infanticidal, genocidal, homicidal nutter-god-apprentice.

    • M'thew
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      There’s actually a hypothesis that the Yahweh of the Old Testament was not even a student, but a boy. See:

      http://www.georgeleonard.com/articles/is-yahweh-a-boy.htm

    • Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

      In Australia, we used the phrase “Must’ve been the work-experience kid!”

      • Posted February 28, 2014 at 12:00 am | Permalink

        Also: “use” – present tense. I humbly pray to Prof CC for an edit button.

        >^_^<

    • Posted February 28, 2014 at 12:39 am | Permalink

      Did He got remedial exam? :D

  6. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Re Plantinga

    It’s not just the problem of evil, but also the problem of evil !*done by religious people*! that creates a problem. One might have more confidence in a “sensus divinitas” if the “sensus humanitas” of so many religious folk didn’t seem so deficient.

    Re morality independence of religious doctrine.

    Some religious people think that some of their moral beliefs are independent of doctrine, especially the Catholic church with its appeal to “natural law” (for !*some*! of its teachings) and “natural virtue” in distinction to “supernatural virtue”. Unfortunately (for them), their concept of natural law is heavily bound up an Aristotelian view of nature which is now discredited on which basis much of their anti-gay rhetoric is based. Atheist Darrel Ray’s lectures on sexuality show how wrong-headed much of this is.
    Thus an appeal to morality independent of doctrine can still be stubbornly rigid.

    (Sikhism is an interesting example of a purely philosophical religion which is panentheistic and makes no claims to miracles or supernaturalism of any kind. IMO much more palatable, but still pre-scientific and excessively mystical)

    • Kevin Alexander
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      I always think of ‘natural law’ as a kind of intellectual spackle. It’s this gooey substance that you can use to fill the cracks in your reasoning or the holes in your logic. You can if you’re skilled enough even shape entire ‘facts’ to fit the need.

      • Diane G.
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

        “…intellectual spackle.”

        Great metaphor!

        • Kevin Alexander
          Posted February 27, 2014 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

          Natural law is also a more sophisticated version of ‘surely’
          It must be true so I don’t have to explain it.
          Someone gave me a copy of a book on ethics by Margaret Sommerville. It was kind of interesting but puzzling–then I got to where she tried the natural law. I tossed the book. You don’t have to eat a whole egg to know it’s rotten.
          For the best take on her, go to Eric Macdonald’s ‘Choice in Dying’

  7. Posted February 27, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    I have yet to see it but I really do agree that there is no evidence for a god to that point of certainty. To my mind that is the default position in a post-Darwin world, NOT to belive in supernatural agencies.

    Another thing – I understand god-botherers say that their gods exist ‘out of time’. This makes no sense. We do not understand time anyway so that is just mumbo-jumbo. In as far as we do, surely we need time to have experiences, to experience whatever it is we experience. How can any being exist, feel or ‘think’ etc without a temporal dimension???

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      I always like to ask them how they have evidence for this “out of time” place and what this “out of time” place looks like. Of course they just make a bunch of stuff up which is all rejectable because there is no evidence to support it.

      • Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

        Space and time aren’t *containers* (or at least not without further argument), so to be “outside them” is hard to understand. Timeless = unchanging = cannot interact with anything, so their god cannot even *sustain* (the latest buzz to avoid the temporality of “create”).

      • Posted February 27, 2014 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

        Lee Smolin’s book “Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe” provides a nice explanation of that. Mathematics qualifies as something outside of time and space. 2+2=4 is true everywhere and everywhen in our universe.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 27, 2014 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, but these people saying this are no Lee Smolin & if this “god” of their’s is out of time would he not be causally disconnected from our universe as well and therefore have no interaction with it and therefore we wouldn’t know this guy existed?

        • Posted February 27, 2014 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

          …except, of course, for when two plus doesn’t equal four — and these situations abound.

          I could, for example, set up two pairs of speakers right next to each other. And I could turn them all on, each playing what would individually sound to you as the exact same note at the exact same volume, and you’d hear, depending on what I did, anything from nothing at all to something four times as loud a single speaker — and a sound level meter placed in front of each of them would measure the exact same.

          As a made-up but even more dramatic example, consider if our world worked like a video game — a very real possibility if theistic claims were true. In many games, you get “bonus” points for doing the exact same thing, but in a quasi-random fashion. Very literally, you might pick one apple off a tree and put it in your empty bag, pick a second and put it in your bag, and walk home with ten apples in your bag. Remember, it happens in video games, which means it could also happen in a sophisticated enough computer simulation, or in Alice’s Red King’s dream.

          And for a last real-world real-world example, try doubling the velocity of a relativistic object.

          That two plus two should equal four is an empirical conclusion, one that’s profoundly useful and that you can have overwhelming confidence in. But it’s not an universal truth, not even in our own Universe.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted February 28, 2014 at 4:29 am | Permalink

            Each of your examples uses a concept of addition for which the symbol “+” is not an adequate representation. It’s not surprising that 2 + 2 = 4 does not apply to them. But let me ask you: in the video game, when you have ten apples, is it still true that you have (1+1) apples? Or should we rather say that the number of apples in your possession changed when you put the second apple in the bag?

            • Posted February 28, 2014 at 10:41 am | Permalink

              But that’s the clincher, isn’t it?

              Imagine every time you picked two apples off a tree, you always walked away with three apples. And that every time you picked up two pebbles from the ground, you had three pebbles in your hand. Imagine that this was the way that you had always observed the world to work, and the way that everybody you’d ever know had always known the world to work.

              Would you not therefore conclude that that’s the only possible logical meaning of addition?

              Or, to look at it another way: the plus sign is a symbol for a particular function, what we call addition. But you could just as easily construct all sorts of other mathematics that used a different function in its place. The reason we find our familiar addition function so amazingly useful is because it models the way our everyday world works. But, if the everyday world was instead dominated by Relativistic geometry rather than Euclidean, I rather suspect that our addition function would be non-intuitive and only of interest as an academic exercise, and that we’d instead use some other basic functions.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted February 28, 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

                I like this part, “the plus sign is a symbol for a particular function, what we call addition. But you could just as easily construct all sorts of other mathematics that used a different function in its place. The reason we find our familiar addition functions” because I’m working on standardizing process names at work & I argue that a common vocabulary means it is easier to understand, measure, improve and predict our processes across functions. :)

        • Posted February 28, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

          Except that’s wrong: it does not hold, for example, in arithmetic modulo 3. The point is there one has to specify that which systenm, and then one realises mathematical truths are formal, not factual. (Hence of fictional objects; or at least ones of a different category, and so to put a god in that category would run into the same problems with not being able to interact, etc.) Bunge’s postulate about energy snips this one …

  8. Kevin
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Well spoken comments by Louise Anthony. I agree that most people seem to want a god, but this has never been my case. I have never felt compelled for such a need, just like spirituality. Likewise, I still do not know what anyone means by god? What is it, really? A lump of coal, suggests Weinberg. That’s as good a guess as any.

  9. Posted February 27, 2014 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Minor correction: her name is Antony, not Anthony.

    Excellent philosopher. Has written several good papers on the (non)-relationship between morality and religion. Also did very well in her debate with William Lane Craig, which you can find pretty easily online.

    • Posted February 27, 2014 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      Fixed, thanks!

    • Posted February 28, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      Yes, Louise Antony is a brilliant philosopher and IS already widely known in various circles–for, among other things, her groundbreaking work in feminist theory, ethics, and epistemology. I was thrilled to see her in the NYT.

  10. eric
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    So I don’t agree that “religious people who become politically active think that there are good moral reasons independent of religious doctrine.”

    That’s pretty much an impossible statement to defend, given that there are politically active religious people from the same sect on different sides of many issues. There are RCC’s who oppose contraception, and RCC’s who favor it. They can’t both be deriving their social policy from their religion. Some of them have got to be getting their ‘good moral reasons’ from a source other than their religion.

    Also, there are many political issues that simply have very little to do with religious doctrine – so little that it’s really hard to see how religion has anything to do with the political activist’s position. Should the personal income tax rate for the largest earners be increased from 36% to 38.5%? Surely, Jerry, you don’t think every religious political activist decides their position on that question based on their religion, do you?

    I think we have to be careful here not to ‘otherise’ religious folk. Just like anyone else, the sorts of policies they fight for and support are going to derive from a variety of sources and motivations. Yup, some of it’s going to be their religion. Stuff like “should the school buy more water fountains” or “should the Social Security age be raised to 68″ – not so much.

    • gbjames
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      They can’t both be deriving their social policy from their religion. Some of them have got to be getting their ‘good moral reasons’ from a source other than their religion.

      Ironically this is both true and untrue.

      All religious people engage in a section process during which they pick and choose which bits of their source documents are important and which parts aren’t. As a consequence it is not only understandable, but predictable, that some Catholics are convinced that Jesus wants us to do X while others insist that Jesus is quite clearly demanding we do Y.

      The issue is that they all, when in religious-justification mode, use precisely the same bogus process of buttressing their own personal biases with divine authority.

      And this does, in fact, often devolve to decisions about raising Social Security age, and such. Go talk to the Michelle Bachmann and Louie Gomert types. Or go check out Paul Broun. They use Jesus to justify all of their political positions.

  11. Jeff Lewis
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    I never found the problem of evil a particularly strong argument for atheism. It goes agains the common Sunday School conception of an omnipotent and benevolent god, but neither of those is really a requirement for theism. Very powerful and sometimes good as long as he likes you are also possibilities, and also much more in line with what’s presented in the Old Testament.

    • Jeff Lewis
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      I should have included this in the original comment, but to add to what I already wrote, just read the book of Job. As much as Job complains about how he’s been mistreated by God, when God finally makes his appearance, he basically just says, ‘I’m powerful, you’re not. What’re you going to do about it?’ He never presents any moral justification for what he’s done. I even read in the New Oxford Annotated Bible that “The divine speeches are notable for their silence over Job’s complaint of injustice, as if God means to say that administering justice is not part of his cosmic plan.” The problem of evil is only a problem for a certain conception of God.

      • John Taylor
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

        I had a similar run in with the parking ticket people over in the city of Gatineau.

    • Kevin Alexander
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      I agree. If, as the RCs say that suffering is a gift from god then why call it evil?
      If your religion is based on sadism then how can your god not be a sadist?

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

      Well, the problem of evil isn’t an argument for atheism per se, but it sure argues against the conception of god that most religious people hold. Rick Perry asked Texans to pray for an end to the drought in their state. You might argue that this was merely a cynical political move on Perry’s part, but I am sure that the millions of people who did indeed pray as he asked really thought that their prayers would result in supernatural intervention.
      If you could somehow convince people that god exists but that he never pays attention to prayers and never lifts a finger to help believers in distress, I suspect that lots of them would abandon religion.
      “Very powerful and sometimes good as long as he likes you” makes a positive claim that believers would, in general, suffer less and prosper more than non-believers, but this is not supported by any objective measure.

      • Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        Crom laughs in the face of the problem of evil!

        Theodicy seems to be less of a problem for polytheism than for (mono)theism.

        /@

        • Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:30 am | Permalink

          Only until one posits a god who wants good things to happen to people; then you’re right back at square one, wondering why your good god is sitting on its ass with its thumb up its butt.

          And, of course, you also point out that virtually all alleged monotheists are actually polytheists. Satan is every bit as much of a god as Hades or Set, and the members of the Heavenly Host are as divine as any Olympian.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:42 am | Permalink

            Well, quite. But which of the Greek gods, for example, really wanted good things to happen to *all* people?

            /@

            • Posted February 27, 2014 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

              Again, it doesn’t matter. If you have a god who cares about you, you still should expect evidence supporting that claim. Those who properly propitiate your parochial gods should prosper in proportion to those who don’t…and, yet, the gods demonstrably have no favorites. Once again, either your gods are powerless to help you (even if it’s because they’re spending all their efforts defending you from malevolent gods) or they just don’t give a fuck.

              Of course, if you want to simply propose that the gods hate us all…well, that may be a defensible proposition. But I see nobody who takes that position seriously; if they did, there would be campaigns to protect ourselves from their powers, with an ultimate eye towards propelling them out of our sphere of influence.

              I suppose, in a certain sense, that is exactly what science is doing, though….

              Cheers,

              b&

      • Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

        The problem of evil comes down to a matter of moral responsibility.

        The claim is that there are very powerful and very knowledgeable agents with humanity’s (or, at least, some subset thereof) best interests at heart.

        If that’s true, then, as Epicurus observed centuries before the fabrication of Christianity, one would expect to see evidence of these gods intervening to stop, or at the very least, lessen, misfortune that befalls humans.

        If the gods really do dislike evil but are incapable, for whatever reason, of actually doing anything about it, then they are powerless and of no consequence whatsoever.

        If the gods could do something but, again, for whatever reason, choose not to, then they are as malevolent as somebody who witnesses a person in dire need and does nothing — not even call for help.

        We know for a fact that all it takes to prevent or ameliorate many instances of profound evil is a young child with a cellphone. And every time Jesus observes something terrible happening or about to happen and he doesn’t call 9-1-1 he demonstrates that he’s either powerless or heartless. That’s especially the case when his official agents rape children in his name and his own church intervenes to shield the rapists from prosecution. That’s still true even if he plans on infinitely torturing them after they die; justice delayed is justice denied, after all, and Hell is cruel and unusual punishment by any standard for any crime.

        So, the next time you want hard, incontrovertible evidence that Jesus is impotent, evil, nonexistent, or some combination thereof, just turn on the evening news and watch them read the police blotter. Almost very single story they report would have had an happy ending had Jesus called 9-1-1 before (or, at least, during) the fact, rather than wait for some mere human to make the call after.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Harbo
          Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

          Also if a “believer” does a good thing, hoping for a reward in heaven.
          And I do the same good thing, because its the right thing to do.
          Who is morally superior? The one doing it for reward, or the one conducting a random act of kindness?

          • Posted February 28, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink

            Regardless of moral superiority, the one who does it for intrinsic reasons is more likely to be reliable than the one who does it for extrinsic reasons.

            b&

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      You beat me to it. I don’t really see how the ‘benevolent’ tag got started in the first place. Without it there’d still be hell as a motivator, plus there’d surely be some trumped up story about getting to evade same only if you agree to worship the sadistic mofo in the sky. No more Mr. Nice Guy–who needs him?

      • Posted February 27, 2014 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

        Oh, but haven’t you heard? Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. And the nice priest says that Jesus isn’t just omniimpotent, and omniignorant, but omnimalevolent as well (whatever that means).

        The really impressive thing is how anybody managed to pull off the PR trick of portraying YHWH and Jesus, a war god and a death god respectively, as love gods. Pretty mind-boggling when you come to think of it.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Kevin Alexander
          Posted February 27, 2014 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

          The really impressive thing is how anybody managed to pull off the PR trick of portraying YHWH and Jesus, a war god and a death god respectively, as love gods. Pretty mind-boggling when you come to think of it.

          From the same Mad Men who brought you ‘Islam is the Religion of Peace’ and ‘There is no coercion in religion’

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

          I’m witcha. And that’s what’s scary as hell. Scarier, actually.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted February 28, 2014 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

        “I don’t really see how the ‘benevolent’ tag got started in the first place.”
        I have an idea. Pinker in TBAOON notes that
        “Most people think they are more likely than the average person to attain a good first job, to have gifted children, and to live to a ripe old age. They also think that they are less likely than the average person to be the victim of an accident, crime, disease, depression, unwanted pregnancy, or earthquake.
        “Why should people be so deluded? [...] The most plausible explanation is that positive illusions are a bargaining tactic, a credible bluff…”
        The existence of positive illusions is consistent with most people having a feeling or belief that they are personally favoured by a benevolent deity, or belong to a chosen and favoured species, race, sex, nation or family. Pinker’s argument takes off from the observation that people are wrong (on average) about the degree of benevolence they actually receive from the universe. But as Dawkins reminds us at the beginning of ROOE, every living individual is actually descended from an unbroken line of individuals that did in fact survive into adulthood and reproduce, so that the conditions in which natural selection occurred on those individuals included being luckier than average. It is not necessary (nor would it be effective) to arrange special lotteries to evolve better-than-average luck (Teena Brown in Larry Niven): the benevolence is real, and its heritability is high, but only in retrospect (or as Obi-wan would say, “…from a certain point of view.”)
        (This is rather like the situation of geographically widespread species that are only well-adapted to a small proportion of their range, thrive there, and export genes specialised for exploiting some localised resource to the populations where the resource doesn’t exist, which may consequently be maladapted and marginal, acting as population sinks…)

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted February 28, 2014 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

          I don’t suppose it’s an original idea, but can’t recall having seen it discussed anywhere – and not sure what terms to google.
          [I suspect this model predicts greater magnitude of positive illusions in males than females, because of the more skewed distribution of reproductive output, although everybody has ancestors of both sexes.]

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted March 1, 2014 at 8:59 am | Permalink

          A shallow look on GS suggests that the dominant view (reflected by Pinker’s discussion, and strongly influenced by Trivers) looks for advantages to individuals of holding positive illusions, rather than considering the bias of preceding generations (and implicit tragedy for succeeding generations) that I suggest above. I’ll have a closer look at Johnson & Fowler 2011
          (doi:10.1038/nature10384) and see what else is about.

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 9, 2014 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

            Meant to reply earlier, John. Thanks for going to the trouble to spell this idea out in such detail, and providing the references. A most intriguing line of thought.

            Have to admit that my remark was as totally off-the-cuff as it sounds, and that I was actually thinking of a cabal of religion devisers (wow, that passed spellcheck) plotting how best to craft their imaginary stories in order to exert the most control over those they sought to exploit. And thus thinking that the iron hand might have been totally sufficient. Perhaps the carrot of benevolence, rewards, etc., had to arise, though, to stem rebellion.At any rate–I was entirely in the realm of culture.

            I generally enjoy good evolutionary hypotheses about ultimate reasons, so appreciate this take on the issue. I’ve always been the contrary one who replies, “because it’s adaptive” whenever anyone wonders aloud why religion arose and has persisted so successfully, so this is grist for the mill. (My own thinking had been along the lines of the adaptiveness of having powerful leaders with unquestioning followers in a social animal often at war with other tribes.) Unfortunately the advantage of positive illusions is quite supportive of religion as well.

  12. Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    It’s so refreshing to see, right up front in a piece in the Times, somebody equating theism with any other superstition and rejecting the notion that all believers ultimately worship the same god.

    Yeah, she gets a bit fuzzy later on, but I will so cheerfully forgive her for that after reading her opening bits.

    In short, Professor Antony “gets it,” and I hope she helps a great many other people “get it,” too.

    Cheers,

    b&

  13. Greg Peterson
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    I think this is a very good book, and this is what I wrote about it in a review on Amazon several years ago when I read it:

    For those theists who have recoiled from some of the more bravado criticism of their beliefs in the writings of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, comes a gentler critique. There is real wisdom in this volume, and real empathy, too. Several of the essayists go to great lengths to let the reader know that they understand religion’s appeal, that they do not find belief to be ignorant, much less crazy, and that a shared humanity can propel common cause in many areas among persons with or without faith. The New Atheists have focused largely on such topics as science and history, having leap-frogged some legitimate metaphysical questions related to meaning, values, morality, flourishing, etc. Don’t misunderstand–I love Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris. This atheist finds their fiery polemic highly entertaining and motivating. But I enjoy this more upbeat and humane writing as well. And there is a Daniel Dennett essay in the volume for those who miss more spirited writing.

  14. Bob Carlson
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Philosopher without Gods is only $11.40 at Amazon in paperback.

    And $9.99 for the Kindle version, which I grabbed. I have read the intro and hope the rest of the book will be as interesting. Unfortunately, 20 Amazon reviews is rather few for a book that has been available since 2007. By comparison, WEIT, which Amazon says came out in 2010, has gotten 276 reviews.

    • Greg Peterson
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      You are so right, Ben. I just don’t think this book was sexy in the way that some of the others was, but in its smart, compassionate, low-key way, what it had to say was the equal of any New Atheist book published and DESERVES a wider readership. I sure stumped for the thing. For one thing, if I had a believing friend or relative who asked for a good New Atheist book to read, I would think of this as a much better option that many of the more polemical ones. And don’t get me wrong–I am an elitist, no-hold-barred polemical bastard, but I know that approach does not always win the day.

  15. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    So I don’t agree that “religious people who become politically active think that there are good moral reasons independent of religious doctrine.” Granted, they may, when pressed, not think that those moral reasons come from God, but they would, at bottom, justify their morality as what their religion teaches.

    Agreed. Moreover, in example after example (gay marriage being the most recent), it becomes obvious that the secular reasons offered are not very good, and were obviously fabricated post hoc to support the religious doctrine.

  16. uncleebeneezer
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed the interview but one part that bothered me was the point that everyone has different reasons for believing/not so it’s insulting to ascribe generalized motivations. I understand these kinds of sentiments as warnings about general stereotypes but the only way to study these things is to look at the commonly shared elements of believers and contrast them with commonly shared elements of non-belief etc. I mean the reasons are varied but most people I know believe or don’t based on one (or a combination) of a handful of reasons. The same old arguments/reasoning over and over and yet when someone responds to or addresses them they are dismissed out of hand for generalizing.

    • Posted February 27, 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      That’s the whole point of science: we’ve figured out, the hard way, that the only reliable basis for assigning belief is on a rational analysis of empirical observation. The less solid your evidence and / or the weaker your explanation of it, the weaker your belief should be. It’s okay to believe all sorts of crazy shit, as long as you don’t place a great deal of confidence in it. But if it’s something important enough to base significant decisions on, you’d be wise to base those decisions on the most unforgiving analysis of the hardest data you can possibly get your hands on.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • uncleebeneezer
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

        Agreed. But here’s what I’m talking about specifically.

        I realize that some atheists do say things like “theists are just engaged in wishful thinking — they can’t accept that death is the end.” Theists are insulted by such conjectures (which is all they are) and I don’t blame them. It’s presumptuous to tell someone else why she believes what she believes — if you want to know, start by asking her.

        It is disrespectful, moreover, to insist that someone else’s belief has some hidden psychological cause, rather than a justifying reason, behind it. As a “lapsed Catholic,” I’ve gotten a fair amount of this sort of thing myself: I’ve been told — sometimes by people who’ve just met me or who have never met me at all but found out my email address — that I “only” gave up my faith because (a) the nuns were too strict, (b) I wanted to have sex or (c) I was too lazy to get up on Sundays to go to church.

        I agree that it is wrong to presumes a particular person’s motivations, but I have no problem with someone saying that “believers usually believe because of one or more of the following:__(reasons routinely given by believers in surveys etc.__)”

        Comparing the varied justifications that believers vs. non-believers cite can tell us some interesting things about their thought processes (provided the lists have some notable contrast.) Maybe I misread what she was saying but to my ears it sounded like the kind of conversation-ender that I often see on political blogs when one person says “well you don’t know my personal policy preferences. I’m not opposed to tax increases” in an effort to derail the conversation and purposely miss the point that “believers are X” isn’t meant to be factual claim aimed at a specific believer. Perhaps I misread what she was saying. I agree with her that it is good to ask individuals what they believe and why, but that doesn’t mean that data can’t be collected (or is already) that can help us understand belief or non/belief from a wider viewpoint by looking at the groups.

        Ok, the high alcohol IPA is kicking in now so I’ll just leave it at that ;)

        PS most of the interview was great and especially in the first quote that Jerry included, she knocked it out of the freaking park.

  17. kelskye
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    My problem with the problem of evil is that people have been researching the nature of god(s) for thousands of years, including during periods where academia was theological. Yet despite the thousands of years of musing about god(s), the best we get is that there is a contradiction between god(s) being both good and the world having suffering. Talk about a weak hypothesis! The phrase “not even wrong” comes to mind – God is simply too incoherent a prospect to meaningfully address the existence of.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 27, 2014 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      My problem with the problem of evil, or maybe I should say, my queasiness with the problem of evil (I accept it as an argument, it just always gives me pause) is that you first have to accept a deity exists & then that said deity is a schmuck.

      • kelskye
        Posted February 27, 2014 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think it’s necessarily problematic to postulate a hypothetical entity to see how it fits with the evidence. It’s what scientists do, after all. The problem is that god is such a vague hypothesis that not a lot follows from it. Even if theologians can solve (or dissolve) the problem of evil, all you have is logical consistency. That may be enough for believers, but it makes for a fairly useless concept.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 27, 2014 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

          Yes, that’s why I accept the argument from evil; I just don’t particularly like it.

  18. squidmaster
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    I read Dr. Antony’s essay (link on her academic page), “For the Love of Reason” and found it both illuminating and moving. I, too, was raised RC and followed much the same path to atheism. I don’t recall much trauma during the transition from believer to non-believer. But during a discussion with classmates in a quantum chemistry class my senior year in college, I realized that I’d come to the conclusion that all religion was a myth. Like her, I find that one of the most annoying problems with being an atheist is the negative reaction from believers. I like her emphasis on calling herself a humanist, as this more accurately defines the conceptual framework within which I live my life. I certainly am an atheist, but I don’t define my life by lack of belief, but rather by fascination with science, delight in nature and pleasure in my interaction with my conspecifics.

  19. Thanny
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    From that little bit, I find myself disappointed that this is the first I’ve heard of her.

    Regarding horseman vs horseperson, I think the latter does aesthetic violence to any phrase using the term. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to use such terms with an early English view of the word “man”, which meant any human. I’d honestly rather explain that I’m using “man” in the original generic sense than construct phrases like “policeman or policewoman” when I’m talking about a police officer of unknown sex.

    • Posted February 28, 2014 at 12:15 am | Permalink

      Or as someone on British TV once (in)famously said, “a lady policeman”.

      But “horsewoman” is well established. For a genderless term that’s not rebarbative, go for “equestrian”?

      /@

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 28, 2014 at 6:44 am | Permalink

        Maybe the “horsewoman” was a lady centaur!

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted February 28, 2014 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

        Equestrian. I was just about to suggest that…


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