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.